Monday, 26 November 2012

Mulatu Astatke + Criolo - Koko, London

First published on in November 2012.

Mulatu Astatke + Criolo
Koko, London
18th November 2012

Mulatu Astatke is widely known as the father and king of Ethiojazz and in recent years has started to become regarded as one of the pioneers of jazz itself, Africanising the hard-bop ensembles and sensitivities of the late 50s/early 60s America with traditional Ethiopian scales and rhythms.

At the converted theatre that is Camden’s Koko, Astatke played a relatively rare UK date joined by a London-based jazz band. Without a particular album to promote, the 69-year-old percussion player led the seven-piece ensemble through somewhat of a ‘best of’ concert, showcasing highlights of his long career, from his classic pieces used in the Éthiopiques record series, such as dark grooves of ‘Yèkatit’ and ‘Yèkèrmo Sèw’ (the latter a take on Horace Silver’s ‘Song for My Father’ and ‘Señor Blues’) to tracks from his latest ‘modern jazz’ albums with the Heliocentrics and the Either/Orchestra such as ‘Motherland’ and ‘Chik Chikka’.

Due to the nature of the ensemble, each track had many different influences as various members of the band took their turns to solo: James Arben of the Heliocentrics on saxophone, bass clarinet and flute moving effortlessly from bebop to free jazz and back; double bassist John Edward, seemingly of the Charles Mingus school of madcap bassery, not limiting his playing to the strings of his instrument; ‘Mr Alex’ on cello sounding like anything between an electric harpsichord and an entire, joyfully discordant horn section. Meanwhile, Astatke’s vibraphone, as well as the obvious comparison with Milt Jackson (both for his instrument and the flowing quality of his melodies) also evoked thoughts of Thelonious Monk in his playful use of dissonance and the heavy textures of more contemporary musicians such as Django Bates, all the while keeping the grounding firmly in Ethiopia.

Due to an odd bit of scheduling, the evening’s support act performed after Astatke and his band, creating effectively a double-header. Criolo, a rapper and singer from São Paolo, Brazil has been recently hailed as one of the brightest young stars on the scene, and, having collaborated with Astatke earlier this year as part of the Back2Black festival, seemed an exciting addition to the bill. Indeed, Criolo’s band fit the evening perfectly with their take on jazz funk whilst including bossa, tango, free jazz and reggae influences. Unfortunately, the same cannot really be said for Criolo himself nor his hypeman. Between the rapper’s rhythmically unimaginative raps and awkward stage presence and the frankly irritating hyper’s seemingly uncontrollable urge to shout obnoxiously over any of the musicians’ solos, one could be forgiven for thinking they were doing their best to ruin the ensemble’s work. The rapper’s set seemed to divide the audience, with those staying going wild, while others left in disappointment.

An evening of two halves then. One gets the feeling that in a different slot, venue or roster, Criolo may be viewed more favourably, but then, following a master doing as he does best is never easy.

Photo: Ethiopiques, by Howard Stanbury. Used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Seckou Keita - Miro

First published on in November 2012.

Seckou Keita
Astar Artes Recordings (48 mins)

Senegalese kora (harp-lute) player Seckou Keita here presents his fourth solo album, Miro, featuring many musicians who were involved with Keita’s Bantamba Syndicate project, which was presented as part of the BT River of Music festival in London earlier this year.

The album’s first track ‘Rewmi’ (a Wolof word meaning ‘country’) was a hit in Senegal before the February presidential election which saw the end of Abdoulaye Wade’s 12-year premiership. Whether the track (which calls for peace and beckons listeners to fight disease and hunger) had a hand in this result as the album’s press material seems to suggest is another matter, but the piece itself is a strong album opener – the interplay between Keita’s kora and Cuban bassist Michel ‘Pata’ Salazar is tight and an effective accompaniment to the vocal harmonies of Binta Suso and Mariama Kouyate.

Unfortunately, after this promising opener, the album seems to settle into something less exciting. Seckou aligns himself with the griots lineage of his mother (a Cissokho) rather than the royal heritage that the name Keita implies, and sees Miro as an attempt to “step back towards [his] tradition”. However, in practice, the album seems tempered towards European tastes and ideas of what makes ‘world music’ and as such seems to assume a fairly middle-of-the-road sound dissimilar to his previous albums of slightly more challenging, and thus more interesting, music.

Which is not to say that the album lacks its standout tracks, however. Aside from ‘Rewmi’, the highlights for this reviewer are incidentally the most stripped-back pieces on the album, both featuring Keita’s kora as the only instrumentation, helping to showcase the talent of guest singers. The track ‘Tara’, a traditional Mande piece, is given a new edge by the soul-inspired vocals of Ivorian singer Mohamed Diaby. Diaby also features on the track ‘Hino’, but defers lead duties to Spanish singer Inma La Carbonera. This Mande-flamenco cross-cultural collaboration is perhaps the album’s most effective track, La Carbonera’s voice aching beautifully in front of the kora; it’s also where Keita is at his most innovative, having had to adapt a new kora tuning to be able to play in the flamenco style.

Miro certainly has its moments, but a seeming lack of decisiveness between a fully-traditional sound and a Western-market friendly release leaves many disappointing tracks in between, meaning that the album perhaps lends itself more to the pick-and-choose ideology of digital downloading than a purchase of the whole album as a piece of art in its own right.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Dizraeli and the Small Gods - Jazz Café Camden, London

First published on in November 2012.

Dizraeli and the Small Gods
Jazz Café Camden, London
3rd November 2012

Through the chatter of the capacity audience of the Jazz Café breaks a quiet but harsh sound. As the crowd hush, a bagpiper wearing a balaclava and rabbit ears makes his way to the stage, heralding a short a cappella piece in five-part harmony from the rest of the band. If any of the crowd were under the impression this was going to be a straight-up hip-hop gig, this introduction should have been enough to silence such thoughts.

Dizraeli and the Small Gods play folk and hip-hop, occasionally separately, but most times in perfect harmony with each other as well as any other style that takes their fancy, from modern jazz to drum-and-bass to Turkish music. Usually a seven-piece, each member of the band is highly talented and creative within their role, with members coming from hip-hop, folk, classical and jazz backgrounds variously. Tonight, however, the band were eight: missing their violist Jules Arthur, the Small Gods featured both of their regular bassists Bellatrix (who also happens to be the UK female beatbox champion) and Nathan Feddo and introduced Philippe Barnes, the above-mentioned rabbit piper who also contributed versatile flute and keys.

Throughout their whopping hour and forty minute-long set, the Small Gods switched between dancey and chilled, joyous and sorrowful, playing with the emotions of the audience before building the mood up for the grand finale, a raucous and extended edition of the band’s single ‘Never Mind’, whose launch (as well as the group’s signing to Afro Celt Simon Emmerson’s ECC Records) the gig was based around.

Dizraeli himself said in a 2010 interview that “rap is a subgenre of poetry – poetry isn’t necessarily rap, but rap is necessarily poetry”, and at this gig he seemed determined to prove it, slipping seamlessly from full band pieces to often off-mic poems and then further blurring the division between the two forms by spinning yarns over the Small God’s accompaniment. Indeed, a highlight of the set was a solo spoken word version of ‘Maria’, a heart-breaking and beautiful modern-day folk story from the group’s debut album Engurland (City Shanties) which was joined spontaneously by almost the entire audience during the sung refrain – just one of many spine-tingling moments of the concert, along with ‘White Rum’, a tale of love between two cheating parties, and basically any time songbird Cate Ferris opened her mouth.

Joining the Small Gods for their piece ‘Sailor’ was Cambridge-based rapper Jam Baxter. Although Baxter’s verses are as witty and intelligent as Dizraeli’s, he seemed to lack the musicality that really makes the Small Gods frontman stand out from the crowd. Nevertheless, Baxter’s contribution went down well with the ever-appreciative crowd.

Dizraeli and the Small Gods are often referred to as one of Britain’s most ‘exciting’ young acts, and it’s certainly true, as well as ‘intelligent’, ‘funny’ and ‘musically-gifted’. Keep your eyes peeled for these guys, you won’t regret it.