Tuesday, 11 December 2018

C.W. Stoneking: Musings from the Deep South to Kanye West

First published in fRoots issue 423, Winter 2018

C.W. Stoneking is an artist for whom ‘unexpected’ is probably the default setting. How else to describe such a fine purveyor of American roots music who also happens to be a towering, youthful-faced white Australian man? He surprises first-time listeners, throws curveballs at long-time fans, and everything he does contains at least some background level of bafflement for all involved.

There are multitudes in Stoneking’s music. It’s probably easiest to describe him as a ‘blues artist,’ but the term disguises what makes his music special. There’s so much in there. A 1920s pre-war blues sound is key, but there’s almost equal helpings of New Orleans jazz, jug band music, hokum, country and calypso, and he’s lately brought in elements of jump jive, early rock’n’roll and gospel. His gift is that he brings them all together without anything sounding out of place. He finds the strands that connect all of these different styles and gently braids them together. It’s what he values more than anything: “It’s getting everything to unify really. The music, the flow of it, keeping it moving, with no dead spots. Then I guess having the lyrics and the meaning that flows in that too, you know? Getting it all to knit together in a way that, if you didn’t speak English maybe, you’d still be able to feel the melody, or the sounds of the words. If you did, then the meaning would also flow. That’s sort of what I’m trying to do, I guess.” When so many on the blues scene are trying to sound ‘authentic’ – whatever that is – it’s that unity of sound that allows Stoneking to actually achieve it, and with apparent ease, too. Back in the day, no-one was ‘just’ a blues musician, or a jazz or country musician, and so neither is he.

Stoneking’s work can never really be second-guessed; you never know what you’re going to get. After charming his audiences with acoustic parlour guitars, National resonators, tenor banjos and a band laden with brass on his first two albums, he dropped all of that to go electric with his latest, 2014’s Gon’ Boogaloo, which was all about his Fender Jazzmaster and doo-wop backing vocals. While acoustic is still in his plans (his most recent tour was a solo affair: just him and a gorgeous 1937 Epiphone Deluxe), it seems like he’s ditched the banjo for good; he’s been known to go on the occasional but vicious anti-banjo tirade. When I try to ask him about it, he suffices with “I have to be careful with what I say. People get angry about that sort of stuff.” Maybe he’s been advised by his lawyers. Maybe it’s just part of his own epic, enigmatic legend.

Storytelling is one of his most potent powers. That man knows how to spin a yarn. He started his musical life in high school, but asked if he was a blues artist back then, he says: “I wouldn’t have said I was an artist of anything, except for maybe a bullshit artist!” It would seem that never really changed. He has the air of an old vaudeville master, a carnival caller or maybe a market huckster. By 2008, the UK was in the middle of a mini blues boom sparked by the successes of Seasick Steve, and a good story was all-important. Each artist had to have their own romantic blues myth for cachet, and Stoneking had the tallest tales in his backstory, rejecting the down-home believability of the aforementioned Steve for way-out parody. His thing was that he had worked for a time as an assistant to a witch doctor in New Orleans, before getting drunk and finding himself on a ship bound for the Congo, only to get shipwrecked and land on a beach in Gabon…it was a saga that got more madcap and rambling with each retelling. I’m sure I recall hearing some sort of narrative detour to a dildo farm at one point. These are stories to be taken with a bucket of salt.

Naturally, his songs are similarly irreverent and fantastical. His albums are full of tales of talking animals, hoodoo gone wrong and a myriad of characters in unfortunate situations in locations from jail to the jungle to heaven itself. It’s probably easy to tell that a common thread in Stoneking’s music is his humour. If we’re talking about the authenticity thing, it’s one thing that makes him stand out from the crowd. It’s surprising how often musicians today forget how funny a lot of the old-time music really was, blues or otherwise. Almost all of his work is drenched in that humour, whether it be sly innuendo, ridiculous sitcom or his particular knack for extended conversations between fictional friends – the man holds a whole pantheon of personalities under his stylish fedora and slicked-back hair. Simply put, he’s just not so bloody earnest all the time, which is a breath of fresh air to be honest. It also makes the times when he is earnest particularly touching – an example is his straight-ahead ‘Charlie Bostock’s Blues,’ a heartbreaking ode to one of Stoneking’s former bandmates and his tragic end.

How does Stoneking make that world so relevant to his own life? How does Australia impact on his sound? It’s not something he’s really pondered too heavily, but his answer is a musing that takes him off on a ramble about the nature of aesthetics. “When I first was driving around in the south of America, it was the first time I realised the Australian lens that I was maybe hearing stuff through. You know when you’re daydreaming, you hear music and you sort of feel like there’s a landscape emanating from the person’s voice or the sound of the music? Hearing Charlie Patton or Son House sing back in the old days, I realised that the landscape of that internal world wasn’t really the world that those dudes were actually in. It wasn’t cut-down jungle and floodplains and green, which is what it made me think of. It was more like where I grew up: desert, an Australian sort of arid. Which I’d never thought about, and I was like ‘huh, it might be different.’” Maybe his music doesn’t sound Australian, but those experiences as an Australian in Deep South America have informed the sound: that never-quite-real landscape he heard in the voices of blues masters certainly does emanate from his own.

And his voice is probably the most recognisable thing about Stoneking. It certainly helps with that authenticity too. It’s a voice that has been mistaken many times for an aged African-American porch-dweller of the 1920s, perhaps with some shortage of teeth. Except he’s not putting it on. Not really. The accent isn’t quite his own (although he owes that proficiency to his American parentage), but when he speaks, it is in that same soft, slow drawl that caresses his music. With another musician, it could all come across as somewhat tacky and distasteful, but not with Stoneking. He is so deeply immersed in the world that his music conjures that it’s hard to imagine him any other way, somewhat like a Lord Buckley of the blues.

That unique voice of his also has a habit of cropping up in strange places. Really, who else would be better to provide the voice of a gentlemanly vegetable fellow, as Stoneking did alongside Elijah Wood in the charming cartoon short, Tome of the Unknown, in 2013? He could most recently be heard on notorious blueshead Jack White’s album Boarding House Reach earlier this year. Such things are unexpected even for Stoneking himself: his blues skills were not needed here; his contribution is a somewhat opaque spoken-word poem, written by White. “It was all kind of mysterious. I had to wear black and be at this plain-looking building on a certain floor at a certain time. They’d taken all the light bulbs out and put all black lights in. He had this sheet of paper with these words written on it, and I just read it. I didn’t really understand the content of it, it’s just…me talking something I don’t fully understand, or even partially understand. But he was into it, so that was his thing. He sent me the record just before it came out and I was like ‘Oh my god…’ Millions of people are going to hear this and it’s going to be a track that everyone goes ‘what the hell is this? Hit the skip button!’ Who cares, though?

After such an odd experience, would he ever want to collaborate with other artists in his own work? His answer is immediate, and unsurprisingly surprising: “Kanye West. Yeah, I’d like to make a record with him. He’s about the only one.” That was an answer that hung in the air a bit. Does he care to elaborate on that? “I just like how he puts stuff together, his rhythmic piecing of sounds. I would like my flavour but using his ideas a bit, you know?” He definitely sounds sincere, but there is that bucket of salt from earlier…

Who really knows what is next in store for C.W. Stoneking? He does, maybe, although I wouldn’t bank on it. There was a six-year gap between his second and third albums. It’s already been four years since then, and he says the ideas for the next one are just about starting to emerge from the ether. Band or solo? Electric or acoustic? Old-time blues or some other star in that constellation…or Stoneking x Kanye? No idea. All that can really be certain is that it won’t be what you’re expecting.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

The Scorpions & Saif Abu Bakr - Jazz, Jazz, Jazz

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 144, January/February 2019.

The Scorpions & Saif Abu Bakr
Jazz, Jazz, Jazz
Habibi Funk (44 mins)

Jazz. Jazz? Jazz! Jazz. Well, except, not really. Barely any jazz at all, actually. Funk and soul definitely, and more besides, but jazz…not so much.

This record by Sudanese band the Scorpions with singer Saif Abu Bakr was originally recorded in 1980 in Kuwait. It’s since passed into a degree of legend among record collectors, with copies going for up to $1000 on eBay. Now Habibi Funk has reissued it for those of us without such expansive purses.

The album starts with a couple of instrumentals, but it really gets going when Abu Bakr joins in. His voice is full of personality and gives a good contrast to the tightness of the band’s groove. But yes, for all the title’s talk of jazz, stylistically there’s much more funk than swing, and it even drifts into Motown territory on occasion. There’s not that much to mark the music as Sudanese, either. Apart from the vocals and a sometimes pentatonic feel, the record could have been made across the Atlantic. In fact, the track ‘Bride of Africa’ wouldn’t have sounded out-of-place in 70s Kinshasa; it’s a lovely take on rumba Lingala.

In the end, this album probably isn’t worth $1000. But it’s a goodn nonetheless.

John Falsetto & Mohamed Sarrar - Sounds of Refuge

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 144, January/February 2019.

John Falsetto & Mohamed Sarrar
Sounds of Refuge
Good Chance (33 mins)

John Falsetto and Mohamed Sarrar met as fellow actors in the award-winning play The Jungle. The play tells the stories and journeys of the residents of the Calais refugee camp, and Sounds of Refuge is no different. The album evolved from informal dressing room jams, but it soon took on a life of its own that took it all the way to Abbey Road Studios.

Falsetto and Sarrar are both refugees themselves, from Zimbabwe and Sudan respectively, and Sarrar lived for a time in the Calais Jungle: there is no doubt that these songs come from the heart. Falsetto’s mbira lays the foundation of the album, building layers of bright and clear tones for his and Sarrar’s vocals to lie upon. The sound is rounded off by Sarrar’s djembe and darbuka drums, piano from Duncan Webb and occasional spoken word from Syrian actor Ammar Haj Ahmed.

The result is strongest when the Zimbabwean and Arabic styles come together, especially with Sarrar’s singing, but that doesn’t happen often enough. Instead, most of the album tends towards a very gentle, middle-of-the-road feel, with little to surprise or stand out. The project represented here is definitely interesting and worthy of attention, but the music is lacking in adventure.

Eric Bibb - Global Griot

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 144, January/February 2019.

Eric Bibb
Global Griot
DixieFrog (2CD, 90 mins)

Eric Bibb knows what he’s doing by now. He’s released about 40 albums, give or take, and netted a bunch of awards in the process. Bibb uses his music to examine his own place in the world, and Global Griot sees him continue on that journey. The album is described as Bibb’s ‘most collaborative project yet,’ which rings true: it’s filled with guests from across North America, the Caribbean, West Africa and Europe, and it was recorded in seven different countries. There is a particular focus on the African, and it is the sound of Solo Cissokho’s kora that stands out across the album, the nylon strings rippling across the lilting blues in a completely natural way.

With his signature style of chilled-out, cheerful and slightly cheesy blues, this is essentially Eric Bibb doing what he does best, and it yields some lovely moments, such as the tracks ‘New Friends’ and ‘Mole in the Ground,’ featuring gospel singer Linda Tillery and reggae legend Ken Boothe, respectively.

The album may not be as ground-breaking as it promises, and the collaborations don’t result in anything particularly new, but as a world-facing blues album, it still hits the mark.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Various Artists - Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins & Synths of Sudan

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 143, December 2018.

Various Artists
Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins & Synths of Sudan
Ostinato Records (2CD, 96 mins)

They dipped their toe into vintage Sudanese music with an album by Abu Obaida Hassan a few months ago; now Ostinato Records are taking a deep dive into that fertile ocean with this double album. This time they’re exploring the music of Khartoum, the capital city at the confluence of the Niles. The rivers are key to Sudan’s unique musical heritage, bringing in influences from North, Central and East Africa to give it a special swing.

The tracks on this compilation span from the 1970s to the 90s, and it’s interesting to hear the changes in style as time goes on. As the title suggests, there is a bunch of violins and a bunch of synths. The trend moves from one to the other over time, the pure disco of the massed violins and wah-guitars slowly making way for full-on synthscapes that really get the heart racing.

All the tracks here have been digitised from cassettes, so the audio quality is understandably varied, which can either be endearing or sonically troubling, depending on your ear. But as with most compilations of this sort, the sheer musical quality is excellent throughout – a wobbly track or two is a fair trade for a wonderful musical journey.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Kronos Quartet - WOMEX 18 Artist Award Winners

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2018 delegate guide.

To become a pioneer in one musical stream requires immense dedication, determination and, of course, prodigious skill and creativity. To become such a leader in more than one stream must truly signal that there is some intense genius at work – genius that the Kronos Quartet possess in abundance.

They have gone through some line-up changes over the years, but Kronos Quartet as we now know them comprise David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello). You may recognise that set-up as a string quartet, a mainstay in the Western classical tradition for over 250 years, but Kronos are anything but stuck in the past. Throughout their history, they have always been new; impressive for a group that have been going for more than 40 years.

Founded in 1973 under the intoxicating influence of Crumb’s terrifying avant-garde piece ‘Black Angels,’ Kronos have never quite been your usual quartet. They were a breath of fresh air in the often all-too stuffy world of classical music. Working with composers of cutting-edge contemporary sound art as well as revisiting the old masters, they were the very vision of counterculture where previously there was only orthodoxy. Their artistry was second-to-none and the music was of utmost importance in everything they did. They didn’t do anything that wasn’t complementary to the music, even if that meant rethinking what a string quartet looked like: if the music suited leather jackets better than evening dresses, then so be it.

All very groundbreaking, yes, but what do they have to do with WOMEX? Well, as it turns out, everything. They treat all music with the same passionate fervour and deep respect that other string ensembles would usually reserve for classical music. And that really is all music. It doesn’t matter if they’re sitting down to play Hildegard von Bingen or Harry Partch, Geeshie Wiley or Alim Qasimov, Konono No. 1 or DJ Spooky; Kronos’ music spans a thousand years and six continents. The interpretation of worldwide music is not a new thing in Western art music, but the way Kronos approach their musical adventures is revolutionary. They do not treat Western art music as immutable or unmovable. The usual balance is flipped: instead of fitting musics of other cultures into their own frame of reference, they mould their way of playing around the music itself.

This open-eared philosophy has been fundamental to the existence of Kronos, right from the beginning. Harrington tells of this lightbulb moment: “When I was 14 years of age, I had one of those moments that every one of us gets once in a while, if we are lucky, and it was while I was looking at the family globe. I realised there were a whole lot of cities other than Vienna where music composers lived. There were a whole lot of other countries with a lot of other religions and languages, and at that moment I realised I need to find out more about the kind of sounds that are present in other countries. I started to explore, and I haven't stopped ever since. I feel like I am just getting started because the world of music is so immense and anyone that thinks they know much about it is mistaken.

One of the most important factors about the Kronos Quartet is that they are many more than four. Their extended family numbers in the hundreds. Collaboration has opened up soundscapes that would otherwise be inaccessible for a humble string quartet. The list of their collaborators is mind-boggling and features some (if not most) of world music’s greatest stars. It’s no longer a surprise to see them grace the stage with guest musicians playing balafon, dan bau, tabla, bandoneón, oud, pipa or rubab, or singing in any number of languages – in fact, one of their most recent successes was last year’s album Ladilikan, made together with the Malian Trio Da Kali, hit showcasers at WOMEX 16. The key to these collaborations is that they encourage everyone involved to reach new heights; together, they are more than the sum of their parts. Each collaboration brings new dimensions to each participant’s sound, and also adds new strings to the Kronos bow, as it were. Harrington says: “I believe with every collaboration we have ever had, I have learnt so much about life, music, and my instrument. I am not competing with anybody. All I want to do is the best work we can do with those partnerships that make us better musicians, and better people. I feel this is what our collaborators do for us.

Collaboration for Kronos goes beyond performing with other musicians. It also extends to the lifeblood of our art: new music. It’s no exaggeration to say that they’re ultimately responsible for the creation of a whole new string quartet repertoire. Over 900 pieces have been composed especially for them, and one of their latest (and most ambitious) projects aims to take this even further. Over five years, Kronos have used their ‘50 For The Future’ project to commission 50 composers from around the world (25 male and 25 female) to each create a totally new piece of music for string quartet. All of the resulting pieces are then made freely available as recordings and scores for anyone to access via their website, opening up a wide range of potentially canon-upsetting music to flourish on the scene and encourage the next bright young string things.

The sheer scope and impact of this quartet’s work is impossible to condense into just a few pages of text. It would take listening to their 60+ albums, and even that would barely scratch the surface. So it is for their tireless efforts in the pursuit of the new; for bringing international music of all styles new audiences, new works and new outlooks; and for their stature as the most important string quartet of their generation, it is with delight that we award the WOMEX 18 Artist Award to the Kronos Quartet.

Photo: Kronos Quartet perform at WOMEX 18, by Yannis Psathas.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Dur-Dur Band - Dur-Dur of Somalia: Volume 1 & Volume 2

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 142, November 2018.

Dur-Dur Band
Dur-Dur of Somalia: Volume 1 & Volume 2
Analog Africa (2CD, 108 mins)

They were the biggest band in 1980s Somalia, huge across the whole Horn of Africa, and they’re not completely unknown outside the continent, either. Dur-Dur Band’s album Volume 5 was reissued by Awesome Tapes From Africa in 2013 to much acclaim, and now Analog Africa have taken the reins to release their remaining albums. This collection includes the band’s first two albums from 1986 and 1987, as well as a couple of previously unreleased tracks.

And wow. It’s a hot one, alright. As expected from Analog Africa’s output, this album is filled with funk, and Dur-Dur go hard: the track ‘Doon Baa Maraysoo’ is an intense seven-and-a-half minutes of driving groove, and it’s not alone in that. It all has its deepest roots in Somali traditional music, particularly the powerful sounds of the saar possession rituals. There’s also a surprisingly heavy dose of roots reggae in there too, complete with amazing bass guitar by Abdulahi Ujeeri Ajami. Add saxophones, synthesisers, electric guitars and the legendary voice of Sahra Dawo into the mix, and you won’t wonder why this band was so big.

Somali music is shaping up to be a world music phenomenon; Dur-Dur Band is a great place to start.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Root Salad: The Como Mamas

First published in fRoots issue 422, Autumn 2018

Como, Mississippi is a small place. It’s a rural town that sits on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, home to just over 1,000 people. Its size may be diminutive, but Como is world-renowned for its history of blues; it’s the hometown of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Otha Turner, among others. In today’s Mississippi, though, the town is known for one thing: gospel. The Como Mamas are telling the world all about it.

The Como Mamas are three wonderful gospel singers: Ester Mae Wilbourn, Della Daniels and Angelia Taylor. They’re a family group – Della and Angelia are sisters, Ester Mae is a cousin – and they’ve been singing together for fun and faith since childhood. Their start as a performing group, however, came rather by chance about ten years ago, when Della was looking for a record label to listen to her nephew’s hip-hop group. There was no interest in the hip-hop, but when Daptone Records learnt of Como’s gospel tradition, they headed down from New York and were blown away at what they heard – especially that trio from the Mount Moriah Church.

Those voices! They each have their own special sound. Della’s voice is sweet and girlish; Angelia’s is low, rich and occasionally roaring; Ester’s is somewhere in the middle. Each voice complements the others perfectly, and as they all weave together – sometimes melody, sometimes harmony, sometimes dancing over and between the two – they create something that is truly soul-nourishing.

As well as releasing two records – 2013’s Get An Understanding and 2017’s Move Upstairs – Daptone also gave the Como Mamas their name. Della says it took a while to adjust to: “At first we didn’t like it, we was like ‘that sound like they kinda making fun of us.’ But when the people of Como heard that our group was named after their town – and it’s such a small town – they started getting so excited, they kept asking us will we go here, will we go there, and it seemed like the more they was able to get us to participate, the more they became interested in us, you know?” Music is in the Mamas’ blood as much as it is in the blood of Como. Angelia recalls tales of her elders, “I listened to them tell the stories of when they were younger, they went to town and they went to church all the time and sang gospel, and that was just the big highlight of their week. That’s all what Como was big on back in the day, because they had nothing else to do! No other recreation but gospel or blues, that’s all they had for fun and enjoyment!

While so many gospel stars make music closer to neo-soul or even pop, the Mamas stick to that older style. Theirs is the sound of old spirituals simmered in the birthplace of the blues, and there is no question that this is music of the soul. They’re the real deal. When the Mamas sing and dance and preach, they radiate power. Their sounds are hypnotic. In their live shows, their call-and-response sections can last five minutes or longer, endlessly repeating and subtly varying short phrases that swirl around the room. There are connections there with esoteric musical traditions from around the world: strangely, it doesn’t feel a million miles away from a Moroccan Gnawa ritual.

Gospel is just relentlessly joyous. It’s almost impossible to hear the Como Mamas sing without having a big stupid grin on your face by the end of the song. It’s telling that Angelia’s advice for the world is “don’t let nobody steal your joy.” She lives that message too – in May, she was shot through the chest in a drive-by shooting, but it was only two months later that her shining smile was lighting up all it touched as she shouted the good word at the group’s very first UK gig.

As their name implies, the Mamas have plenty of life experience to pour into their music. They picked cotton in the fields together as children, when Mississippi was still full of ‘whites only’ signs; now they’re matriarchs, with their own broods expanding to include great-grandchildren. They’ve seen it all. But for them, they couldn’t have chosen a better time to gain international recognition. “Because I am a Christian and because my life is in the Lord’s hands, I know that he knows when the best time was for me to do what we do,” says Della, “Because if I was younger, I would have a job and I wouldn’t be able to travel, there probably wouldn’t be no Como Mamas. The time is better for me now, because if I don’t want to do something, I don’t have to do that, I can just go on tour!

It would be doing them a disservice not to mention the Mamas’ deepest passion – God’s word. They’re gospel singers after all. It’s the subject of every song, and every conversation with them is liberally sprinkled with Bible quotes and teachings. Spreading the word is their life’s work and deepest pleasure, and when they’re on stage, that energy is so palpable, whatever your faith. The Como Mamas may not make music at the cutting edge, but they uphold a real roots tradition that survives and thrives in the churches of Como, Mississippi. And they do it gloriously.

Photo: The Como Mamas, by Aaron Greenhood. Left-to-right: Ester Mae Wilbourn, Della Daniels, Angelia Taylor.

Friday, 13 July 2018

The Greatest Albums You've Never Heard: Bernard Kabanda - Olugendo

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 140, August/September 2018 as my small contribution to the article 'The Greatest Albums You've Never Heard.'

Bernard Kabanda
WOMAD Select (1999, 55 mins)

Olugendo is simply beautiful, although it’s not simple at all. Bernard Kabanda was a master of kadongo kamu music from Uganda. That literally means ‘just a small guitar’ – and that was all he needed.

Holding his acoustic guitar in a uniquely horizontal position, he somehow managed to play a bassline, chords, melody and tap a rhythm with his elbow all at the same time, the parts interweaving with mind-bending polyrhythms that makes it difficult to believe it all comes from one man. The real mastery is that it doesn’t sound complicated; it sounds like the easiest thing in the world. On top of it all are his cheery voice and delightful whistling. Kabanda’s songs are so sincere and often dark, but they’re filled with a cheeky humour that gets you smiling along, even if your Luganda is a little rusty.

Sadly, Kabanda died soon after this record was released in 1999. He was only 40 years old. We’re very lucky that he managed to get a slice of his wonderful music recorded before then. This is a truly and utterly joyous album, and it deserves to be much more widely heard.

Various Artists - Listen All Around: The Golden Age of Central and East African Music

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 140, August/September 2018.

Various Artists
Listen All Around: The Golden Age of Central and East African Music
Dust to Digital (2CD, 132 mins)

If it ain’t exquisite, it ain’t Dust to Digital. The record label is well-known for its high-quality compilations of remastered recordings, and Listen All Around is no exception.

This is a delightful collection of recordings made by archivist Hugh Tracey, exploring a range of popular music from modern day DR Congo, Kenya and Tanzania as it was in the 1950s.

Although Tracey didn’t exactly enjoy this type of music himself, his recordings are thankfully extensive. There’s tracks based on calypso, country, big band jazz, Cuban son, Ghanaian highlife, military bands and even French folk songs, all with more or less influence from traditional music of the various regions.

Each of the 47 tracks has an interesting story to tell, and there’s lots to arouse the curiosity, such as the massed kazoos of the Dar Es Salaam Jazz Band and ‘Chemirocha III,’ a song by Kipsigis girls in Kenya in honour of country legend Jimmie Rodgers. It’s useful, then, that the 84 pages of liner notes include detailed explanations of every track, as well as a fully-referenced essay about the music and culture of the time by the compiler, Professor Alex Perullo.

The wonderful variety of sounds and impressive depth of information make Listen All Around a great resource for world music fans and ethnomusicologists alike.

Abu Obaida Hassan & His Tambour - The Shaigiya Sound of Sudan

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 140, August/September 2018.

Abu Obaida Hassan & His Tambour
The Shaigiya Sound of Sudan
Ostinato Records (50 mins)

The Shaigiya people claim lineage from the Arabian Peninsula but grew as a culture in Nubia. The music of the Shaigiya thus has its roots in both places: the melodies use the five-note scales of the south alongside melismas and ornaments of the north, and the rhythms come from all over north-east Africa.

Ostinato Records, fresh from their Grammy-nominated Somali compilation Sweet as Broken Dates, journeyed to Sudan to dig out recordings from Shaigiya master musician Abu Obaida Hassan. He’d become a legend. His music had filled dancefloors in the 1970s but lately was assumed long-dead. Actually, he was just living quietly on the outskirts of Omdurman, and was so enthused by this project that he helped curate this collection personally.

It’s easy to hear how his music captured hearts and bodies in the clubs. With Hassan’s traditional Shaigiya tambour (lyre) – updated by his own hand with extra strings and electronics – backing his voice and only accompanied by drums and chorus, it’s amazing how funky it can be. Catchy, too: the stand-out track ‘La…La’ will have you la’ing along for days after.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Diving Into Somali Arts with Numbi

Because this website is nominally a blog, maybe it’s time for me to write a blog? Or give it a try at least, let’s see how it goes. I thought I’d give a bit of an update on a thread that’s been going through my life lately.

As you may know, I am currently studying an MMus Ethnomusicology. I’m doing it all in one year and I started back in September, so it feels like the home stretch at the moment, but I still have the biggest hurdle to clear first, writing my dissertation. My subject is something I’ve had an interest in for a few years but I’ve never really been able to delve into it like I wanted to, so this seemed like a good opportunity. I’m looking at Somali music, or, more specifically, what music means to Somali people in the UK. I’m learning so much (as you’d hope), and it’s really exciting to engage with so many people with interesting ideas to share.

One particular organisation that has been invaluable to me so far, and is really doing stunning work, is Numbi Arts. When you know that Numbi is the name of both a traditional Somali healing dance and also the last feature film made in Mogadishu before the devastating civil war, you can kind of see where they’re coming from. Numbi Arts is an organisation in Tower Hamlets (based out of the wonderful Rich Mix, actually), where there has historically been a significant Somali population and looks at art as a way for people to engage with their community and their identity, their history and their future.

I’ve been to two events run by Numbi so far. The first one was back in February, actually at Rich Mix. It was rather gloriously chaotic. As far as I can tell, it was the first event of the new ‘season’ for Numbi, and so the projects featured were perhaps works-in-progress leading up to the big festival in July (more about that in a little bit). But despite some rough edges, it was a load of fun. The theme for the day was Coming Here, Being Here, and that was reflected in an emphasis on kids and their connections with their families, with London and with their links to East Africa. The highlight for me was a lovely little film by Salma Bihi, interviewing her mother about her memories of Somalia, the journey to the UK and her life here. It was really well made, and provided insights for us in the audience and Bihi herself. It complemented the rest of the programme well, too, which included poetry from kids with a helping hand from Sai Murray and Mr Gee (yeah, the same Mr Gee from the Russell Brand radio shows), a short podcast and a collective creative writing exercise. After a
hearty meal (it’s always good to have a meal, right?), the event came to a close with some music led by Mohamed Maalow Nuur, who in his time was a member of at least two of the most iconic ‘golden era’ bands, Waaberi and Iftiin. With oud and bongos, and vocals provided by as many people as knew the words, the music served well to accompany a troupe of Somali dancers (you can see them on the left, there). I really don’t know much about dancing at all, and it was the first time I’d ever encountered Somali dance, but it looked good to me!

After having a really nice time at that first event, I got in touch with Kinsi Abdulleh. She runs Numbi and her passion is obvious and really inspiring. She’s an artist, first and foremost, and I think that comes across in her work. She’s not about the standard way of doing things, she likes to mix things up. Do them in a different way to get reactions that would otherwise remain hidden. Make it weird, a bit. Who else would think to work on community engagement in Tower Hamlets by arranging a yoga retreat in Gambia? We had a great conversation about all sorts of things, and I was delighted to be invited to an event co-hosted by Numbi and the British Library, called A Postcard from London, which happened just last weekend.

It was a much smaller event than in Rich Mix, with about 20 participants as opposed to the maybe couple of hundred in February. This was on purpose – it is a library, after all – but it really lent an intimate vibe to everything, and we all got to know each other a little bit, which was nice. The day started with a small tour of the library’s treasures. Unfortunately, the Library gave the task of tour guide to possibly the most boring man who worked there, and he somehow managed to make some really interesting stuff impossibly dull. But hey-ho. After that we got to what we were actually there for.

The first half of the workshop was curated by the Library’s Somali Collections Project Officer, Mahamad Ali, and it allowed us to take a small dive into the history of written Somali literature in English, Arabic and (after 1972) Somali. There was all sorts: poetry, novels, political pieces and academic writing, even some interesting, albeit rather distasteful, colonial works. What piqued my interest the most, though, wasn’t a book at all, but a long wooden board, covered in hand-inked Arabic (pictured right). One of the participants, a wonderful gentleman called Mr Ali Ahmed Hussein, who used to be the director of the National Museum of Somalia and was a font of knowledge throughout the day, explained to us that this was part of a Qur’an. It was a teaching tool: children were taught the Qur’an and how to write Arabic at the same time. They wrote out each Surah over and over until their penmanship was perfect and they had it memorised by heart. Each time they wrote it out, the board was washed, dried and used again.

Another element that was presented was a Somali philatelic collection…or, to you or me, a bunch of stamps. Surprisingly engaging, actually! They covered a big range of history and subjects, from architecture, art and dance, to denouncing apartheid and celebrating the Somali language and the Arab League. There were stamps from various iterations of independent Somalia, and of the colonial territories of Somaliland and Jubaland, and even a stamp representing Somali refugees. The details on these tiny stamps were impressive. This formed the seed of our workshop: we got a big bunch of photocopied stamps to chop up and remix into what we related to Somalia, and maybe even write them as if a postcard. I have never been one gifted in the visual arts, so mine was a rather feeble offering, but there was some wild creations. Most fun for me was getting to mill about, looking at everyone’s artistic efforts and having some really insightful chats.

After both of these events, I’m getting excited for the next one, it’s just around the corner! Numbi Arts host a festival each year, and each year has a different theme and focus city. Usually the city is in Somalia, but this year the focus is London, and the theme is Repair and Rebellion. This means the focus is very much on diaspora, and allowing people to negotiate and contest their experiences and opinions of being part of a diaspora through different artistic formats and cultural practices, including oral and written language, music, dance, film and theatrical performances as individuals and as groups. The festival will feature many different aspects and events including site-specific installations, an open archive, a mobile recording studio, documentation sites and intergenerational conversation.

The first event will be held at Rich Mix on 21 July to launch the festival, where Numbi will share all the interesting items in their own archival collection and encourage people to add to it themselves with workshops in smartphone storytelling and studio portraiture. After will be an evening of poetry (Somalia is well-known for being a country of poets) and music, again from Mohamed Maalow Nuur. Perhaps the most exciting for me is the big finale of this opening event: a conceptual music and spoken word tribute to Poly Styrene. She was best known as the frontwoman of the punk band X-Ray Spex, and also half-Somali. Her daughter, Celeste Bell, is also a musician and a film-maker; she’s currently making a film about her mother and will be helping to organise this tribute. Who knows, maybe we will get some Somali-flavoured punk going on? Perhaps I should bring my saxophone…

So, that’s it I guess. If you’re in London, you know where I will be on 21 July, you should come in and join the festivities! You can get your tickets here. See you then!

Friday, 15 June 2018

Spotlight: Analog Africa & Samy Ben Redjeb

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 139, July 2018.

An iconic record label needs a signature sound, a unifying element that makes all its releases stand out as its own. Analog Africa undoubtedly has that. Its records are unmistakable, whether they’re from Cameroon, Cape Verde or Colombia. They all have that distinctive blend of funk, soul and local traditions with a gloriously chaotic analogue charm – Analog Africa’s records always represent the epitome of African groove.

It’s all down to a man with impeccable taste and a ridiculous travel schedule. Samy Ben Redjeb crafts each album himself, from the sequencing and licencing to writing the sleeve notes. His gift for curation has its roots in his teenage years in Tunisia. “When I was working in bakeries and coffee shops, I made mixtapes. I drew the cover myself and I would earn maybe 10 cents a cassette. That taught me how to combine the songs so they flowed nicely together. I think that was the beginning.”

He went on to be a diving instructor, a hotel DJ, an airline steward…anything that allowed him to travel (and listen) widely. Time in Senegal opened his ears to the world of Sub-Saharan music, and he ended up hopping the continent at every opportunity, gathering experiences and records at every stop. It’s a habit he keeps to this day. While in Zimbabwe, he realised he could give this music the wider audience it deserved. After the first Analog Africa record, by wha-wha band The Green Arrows in 2006, there was no looking back.

Each album explores a scene or artist from anywhere across Africa and Afro-Latin America, but they’re all from the 60s to the 80s, building a snapshot of all things funky in that golden period. What is it about that particular sound that excites Redjeb? There’s a clue in the label’s name: “It’s the quality, the way it was recorded live, the analogue set-up. Often the bands didn’t have so much money; they just didn’t have the equipment. They were doing bricolage. If a valve went in an amp, they wouldn’t have the exact replacement, they would improvise. You don’t know how they made that sound, you can’t recreate it.”

He’s not a rabid crate-digger hunting for only the most obscure artefacts, though. “People think I’m all about the really rare stuff, which is not the criteria at all. Some of the songs I love most have been huge hits. For me, it just has to be interesting. It has to make me curious.” That philosophy extends to his regular Analog Africa DJ sets. The stuff he plays is obviously top-notch, but don’t just expect the back-catalogue: “Generally I play the stuff that I’m going to release. I don’t tend to play much of the music I already have on my label. Just because I heard it so much and I’m tired of it!”

It’s no wonder there’s always another album on the horizon and multiple projects happening at once. There are forthcoming releases from Ghana, Somalia and the Brazilian Amazon, and you just know Redjeb has a million other exciting things up his sleeve. With a sound as recognisable as Analog Africa’s, quality is most definitely assured.

Invisible System - Bamako Sessions

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 139, July 2018.

Invisible System
Bamako Sessions
Riverboat Records (52 mins)

Invisible System, aka producer and multi-instrumentalist Dan Harper, is best known for his heavy dub-rock takes on Ethiopian music, drafting in huge names such as Mahmoud Ahmed, Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara.

For this album, Harper used his usual technique: set up a studio, bring in a rotating cast of local musicians to jam, and dub the results. This time though, he’s back in Mali, where he made his first recordings back in 1999. His guests are solid as always – Songhai bluesman Sidi Touré is probably the best-known and provides some cool guitar parts – and kora, balafon and ngoni are all well represented. It’s all instrumental and all improvised.

Malian dubtronic fusions are not exactly new, and Bamako Sessions just isn’t as adventurous as some of Harper’s earlier work, especially 2009’s fantastic Punt. The tracks all sound basically similar and a little repetitive; there’s no psychedelic dub-outs, it’s all rather low-key. There’s nothing bad about it, but there’s nothing exciting either. Invisible System has proved capable of making intense and interesting fusions, so it’s disappointing to hear an average album in a style where other artists have flourished in the past.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Introducing The Turbans

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 138, June 2018.

The Turbans are many. Many members, many homelands, many instruments and many styles, all together as one. They are a band of stories: theirs started when two half-Iranian musicians, Oshan Mahoney and Darius Luke Thompson, met while cycling in Nepal. They started jamming and busking together as they travelled and found new musical friends as they made their way through the subcontinent, forming the foundations of The Turbans.

They accrete as they go. There are Turbans everywhere now: if the band’s seven-member nucleus goes to Thailand, or Mexico, or Australia, there are people who are ready to hop seamlessly into the line-up. No-one knows how many of them there are, but Oshan reckons there’s about 40 of the buggers. As band legend has it, “at any given time, there’s a member of the Turbans playing music somewhere in the world.”

They all have an interesting and unlikely story to tell. Maxim Shchedrovitzki was born in Belarus, raised in Israel and learnt the Turkish oud in India; Miroslav Morski is well-known as a pop singer in Bulgaria; bassist Freddie Stitz was in Razorlight. The list goes on. Unfortunately, their whole story is so epic that they’d need a feature film to explain fully. “We have our silly answer to ‘Where are you from,’” says Oshan, “we just say ‘Manywhere’. We throw it away really, because it’s a story, it takes time, and that’s a shame.

The music is just as international. Their sound is situated somewhere between Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Turkish folk melodies pop up in klezmer tunes and Bulgarian choirs sing to classical Arabic maqamat. It goes further too: there’s plenty of flavours hinting at everywhere from Albania to India. So how do they stop it from sounding like just a million different sounds? Says Maxim: “It is a million different sounds though!” Oh. “But oftentimes we find that this little part of an Indian raga is just like they play it in Morocco, it’s so similar. Then suddenly you have a composition which is Indo-Moroccan.” Oshan interjects, “so really, in the end it’s not that difficult, actually. Because it’s not actually different types of music, it’s just the same one that’s split into different time-zones.” Maxim jumps back in: "And what makes it sound like us is, I think, deep down we’re all rockers. We like to bang it!"

What’s surprising is that they’re not necessarily a party band. They can party (hard!) but their music has a subtlety that’s rare in other bands of similarly diverse influences. The crashing cymbals and oompahs will get you up and stomping about, but there is always intricacy there when you look for it and their quieter moments are extra special.

After years of performing across the globe, they’ve finally made a record. Their self-titled debut album has just been released, and of course there are many stories attached to its whenceabouts. They will regale you if you ask, but it’s really all there in the music. The Turbans are a band of stories. They come from manywhere but their music is definitely from here…wherever that happens to be today.

Photo: The Turbans live at the Islington Assembly Hall, by Ilka Schlockermann.

Etenesh Wassie & Mathieu Sourisseau - Yene Alem

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 138, June 2018.

Etenesh Wassie & Mathieu Sourisseau
Yene Alem
Buda Musique (43 mins)

The collaboration between Ethiopian singer Etenesh Wassie and French bass guitarist Mathieu Sourisseau has already yielded one album back in 2010 and now they’ve brought along cellist Julie Läderach (also French) to join them on their journey.

This is art music, and as such it benefits from concentrated listening. The interplay between voice, cello and bass creates an atmosphere that is stark yet intimate, and always intense. It’s serious stuff, but that’s not to say it’s inward-looking. The soundsculpture of Yene Alem is one that mixes classical and folk music of Europe with avant-garde rock and free jazz and always works in complete sympathy with the age-old qañat scales and melodies of Ethiopia’s azmari bards. The trio get funky when they need to, but they’re not afraid to unsettle your ears, either.

The size and make-up of the ensemble doesn’t really give too much scope for variation in texture - a range of electronic effects on Sourisseau’s acoustic bass notwithstanding – and by the end of the album you may want something a bit different. More contrasts would be welcome, I think, but that shouldn’t take away from the otherwise very nourishing music: this is food for the ears and the mind.

Gitkin - 5 Star Motel

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 138, June 2018.

5 Star Motel
Wonderwheel Recordings (42 mins)

It’s hard to find out anything about Gitkin. It appears that this is the almost-one-man-band’s debut record, and the press information doesn’t shed too much light besides its story: 5 Star Motel is a concept album of sorts, supposedly inspired by Gitkin’s mysterious US-travelling, bootleg-guitar-selling, possibly part-mythical uncle. If, like me, that brings you to expect an Americana fest full of lonely highways, you’re in for a surprise.

At the heart of it, 5 Star Motel is an instrumental album rooted in psychedelic surf rock, but its branches reach much further. The opening track starts with a guitar in the style of an Arabic qanun (zither) and, from there, influences abound from Greece, Turkey, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, Peru, Cuba, Jamaica and probably elsewhere. There’s lounge jazz, synth-pop and folk baroque in there, and, okay, there’s some Americana too.

When so many diverse flavours are crammed into one album, the results are usually incoherent and forced, but not here: Gitkin manages it with an uncommon subtlety. All those international melodies and rhythms fit into each other with ease, and all with a healthy drenching of reverb and echo straight out of the 1960s.

This is an unexpected delight – so listen without expectation!

UK Festival Guide 2018

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 138, June 2018. Copy deadline 16 April 2018.

May 4-7
Alchemy Festival

Southbank Centre, London

The Southbank Centre’s festival of South Asian arts and culture is booked around a central theme each year: this year, the focus is on home-grown talent. Art of all sorts is on display from prominent and up-and-coming British Asian creatives, with literature readings, comedy, classical and contemporary dance performances and workshops. Music comes from Talvin Singh performing his breakthrough album OK and India’s premier ska band the Ska Vengers. Shaanti, Birmingham’s ground-breaking Asian underground nightclub turned all-encompassing arts foundation, also hosts a day of free events charting the cutting edge of British Asian live and electronic music.

May 11-22
Norfolk and Norwich Festival
Various venues in Norfolk

Tracing its roots back to the 18th century, the Norfolk and Norwich Festival can count itself as one of the UK’s elder statesfestivals – but its line-up is as new and exciting as ever! There are 33 concerts of classical and contemporary music this year among all manner of performing arts. As well as orchestras, operas, cathedral choirs, new-generation jazz and gospel stars-in-waiting, the world music line-up is full of big hitters such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Talvin Singh as well as introspective Syrian qanun from Maya Youssef and a Karnatic twist on Bollywood bangers from Jyotsna Srikanth and the Bollywood Brass Band.

May 24-27
Orkney Folk Festival
Various venues, Orkney, Scotland

For four days, the islands of Orkney are filled with folk from Scotland and beyond for the Orkney Folk Festival. There are around 30 ticketed events in venues all over the islands, from artists such as Québecois Celtics Le Vent du Nord and ancient hypno-folk duo Kate Fletcher and Corwen Broch. But if you only go to the concerts, you’re doing it wrong! There’s a heavy emphasis on amateur music: with loads of sessions in the pubs for all to join – including the occasional member of folk royalty – as well as open stages, floor spots and sing-arounds, there’s plenty of opportunities for everyone to join the bill.

May 24-27
Knockengorroch World Ceilidh
Knockengorroch, Scotland

Held in a breathtaking valley in south-west Scotland, the Knockengorroch World Ceilidh has grown from a small folk gathering to an all-encompassing celebration of world music. The festival turns 20 this year, but its message has remained the same: party among the hills and bring music to the air, always as a way to pay respects to the natural wonder of our land. Expect highlights from globetrotting Jurassic 5 OG DJ Cut Chemist, Malian female supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique and the original line-up version of Transglobal Underground featuring Natacha Atlas.

June 1-2
Field Day
Brockwell Park, London

Field Day crosses the river for its first year in its new home of Brockwell Park in South London. The city’s local festival is well-known for its wide-ranging and high-quality mix of the hottest artists from the left of mainstream, and world music always gets a solid look in. This year sees Erykah Badu headlining with her only UK date this year, and artists from Princess Nokia to Nils Frahm billing alongside Oumou Sangaré and Hailu Mergia. A pioneering collaboration between Afrobeat legend Tony Allen and techno innovator Jeff Mills is not to be missed.

June 7-17
Festival of Voice
Various venues, Cardiff, Wales

After the Festival of Voice was held in 2016 to great success, they’ve decided to do it all over again in 2018! Organised by the famous Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, they’re acutely aware of their surroundings: the whole concept is a celebration of Wales’ history as a land of song and storytelling. The festival is consciously not restricted to any style, so there’s plenty of worldwide music, spoken word, talks and other mouth art. Highlights include punk goddess Patti Smith, Corsican polyphonists A Filetta and Songlines favourite Angélique Kidjo reinterpreting the Talking Heads’ classic album Remain in Light.

June 16-17
Africa Oyé
Sefton Park, Liverpool

A feast for the eyes, nose, taste buds and, of course, ears – and it’s free for everyone! Africa Oyé brings the best in African and Afro-diasporic music to Liverpool’s Sefton Park. It started as a local event in 1992, and although it’s now visited by more than 40,000 people from around the country (and world) every year, it still retains a unique community vibe. It doesn’t get more Scouse than Oyé! The 2018 line-up so far includes Gambian kora maestra Sona Jobarteh and Bissau-Guinean protest singer (and Joss Stone collaborator) Binhan as well as the ‘Bad Boys’ of reggae Inner Circle taking the traditional Sunday night Caribbean headline slot.

July 5-15
Liverpool Arab Arts Festival
Various venues, Liverpool

The Liverpool Arab Arts Festival brings a whole range of culture from all across the Arab world to the city. Presenting films, art exhibitions, theatre and literature as well as music and dance, the festival is held in venues around the city including a free-entry family day in the wonderful palm house in Sefton Park. The festival’s 2018 representatives of the musical arts stretch from Morocco’s Simo Lagnawi to TootArd of the Golan Heights, with Emel Mathlouthi (Tunisia) and recent Songlines cover stars 47SOUL (Palestine) along the way.

July 13-15
Tropical Pressure
Mount Pleasant Eco Park, Cornwall

How far do you reckon you can travel from Cornwall in a weekend? With the help of Tropical Pressure, you can head somewhere else every day – Latin America one day, Africa the next and the Caribbean on the Sunday to wrap things up. There’s 100% veggie culinary flavours go alongside the 100% danceable musical ones, and it’s all held in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Back in 2016, our reviewer called Tropical Pressure ‘a sure-fire way to put a smile on your face,’ and we’re not sure they’ve stopped smiling yet…

July 15
Folk By The Oak
Hatfield House, Hertfordshire

2018 will be the 11th year of Folk By The Oak, and it’s already an institution. It’s only a few miles out of the M25, but this ain’t London. Set in the grounds of Hatfield House, the festival is just a one-dayer (no camping required!) but they manage to pack in a whole bunch. Already confirmed for this year are the ‘Bard of Barking’ Mr Billy Bragg, the outstanding Celto-Senegalese harp-kora duo Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita and more. There’s not too many better places for a picnic!

July 18-21
Stornoway, Outer Hebrides

You’re out on the Isle of Lewis, in the grounds of the magnificent Lews Castle with views of Stornoway harbour below. What do you do? Have a festival of course! Luckily for us, that’s exactly what HebCelt thinks too, and they can be equally proud of their stunning location, loving community and top-quality music. As the name may suggest, the main focus is on Celtic folk, so there’s plenty of Scottish artists appearing as well as international connections from Yves Lambert and Vishtèn from Canada. Not that it’s all folk: headliners include Deacon Blue and the Fratellis.

July 19-22
Larmer Tree Festival
Larmer Tree Gardens, Wiltshire

It’s a triumphant return for the Larmer Tree Festival! After taking a year out last year, they are back with a bang and still within the wonderful peacock-strewn Larmer Tree Gardens – it’s surely a contender for the most beautiful festival site in the UK. Musical offerings include Malian rockers Songhoy Blues, English folk troubadour Chris Wood and gothic blues singer Amythyst Kiah, as well as many alt-folk and folk-alt discoveries and a special stage curated by tUnE-yArDs. The many comedy, spoken word and roving theatre performances are also a highlight.

July 20-22
Underneath the Stars Festival
Cinderhill Farm, Cawthorne near Barnsley

Underneath the Stars is a Kate Rusby album, isn’t it? Yes – and it’s also the festival organised by her own production company, held just down the road from her native Barnsley. 2018 means a new venue for the festival, although they’ve only moved to the other side of the village. Kate is at the top of the bill, of course, alongside Steve Earle, Lau and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Other interesting prospects are Estonian/Flemish quartet Estebel and nu-classical composer and violist John Metcalfe.

July 26-29
Charlton Park, Wiltshire

The grand matriarch of world music festivals continues to provide music, arts and dance of unparalleled quality and diversity. The line-up is far from complete yet, but it’s already bulging with exciting prospects, from world music legends Amadou and Mariam and Amparanoia to intriguing stars-in-waiting such as Palestinian/Syrian pianist Aeham Ahmed, Franco-Colombian math-rockers Pixvae and Malawian babatoni (giant one-stringed bass) player Gasper Nali. You can also learn your way around the world with artist workshops, cooking sessions and poetry for the adults and oodles of crafts, sciences demonstrations and the Sunday carnival for kids.

July 27-29
Lunar Festival
Umberslade Farm Park, Tanworth in Arden

Named after an 18th century brains trust/dinner club, you may guess there’s something a little different about the Lunar Festival. The festival is guided by seven main principles – listen, learn, move, create, taste, relax and laugh – you can do them all in abundance. To get your brain in gear there’s a load of talks and workshops to help you learn how to grow your own medicinal mushrooms, how to make baskets out of brambles and how to be a Shakespearean actor. Music includes UK jazztronauts the Heliocentrics and The Unthanks singing the songs of Molly Drake.

August 2-5
Cambridge Folk Festival
Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge

Folk has always been about more than just what is on our doorstep, and the Cambridge Folk Festival has known that since its beginnings in 1965. British folk is still very much on the menu (Eliza Carthy, Kate Rusby), but so are American folk traditions (John Prine, Rhiannon Giddens, Peggy Seeger) as well as combinations and confluences from around the world (Tuareg indie rockers Tamikrest, Scottish electro-punk folkies the Peatbog Faeries). Look out for special stages showcasing young musicians and guest curation from Giddens herself.

August 9-12
Nr Winchester, Hampshire

BoomTown is a world within our world. With an absolutely immense line-up that barely fits in on 25 main stages (with plenty other smaller ones to discover), it’s not an exaggeration to say that there’s something for everyone. Classic reggae? Jimmy Cliff is here. Irish folk? You want to see Lankum. Electro-acoustic sitar jazz? Check out Shama Rahman. Nu metal? Limp Bizkit got you covered. This year the tenth chapter of the BoomTown story will be written, an epic tale of discovery, alien contact and rogue AI – get swept up in the mythos and make your mark!

August 17-19
Glemham Hall, Woodbridge, Suffolk

When people talk about a festival, the atmosphere is often the thing that stands out – the FolkEast atmosphere is like English folk culture distilled. As well as well-known names in folkland (Show of Hands and Oysterband), there are young stars (Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar, Will Pound) and many stalwarts of the local Suffolk scene. Add to that ceilidhs, Morris teams, sessions, storytelling, real ale and stages in a natural amphitheatre and the local church, FolkEast is the place to reconnect with the roots of this land.

August 24-27
Shrewsbury Folk Festival
West Midlands Showground, Shropshire

Shrewsbury Folk Festival aims to explore the breadth of musical folk traditions. An exciting line-up includes Richard Thompson in his electric guise and Best Newcomer in the 2017 BBC Folk Awards Daoirí Farrell; there’s also specially-programmed dance bands to get your ceilidh on to, including Blowzabella celebrating their 40th year of drone-heavy folk. 2018 also provides the culmination of the ‘Room For All’ initiative that was launched last year, evident in an increasingly international line-up: highlights include pan-worldly collective Rafiki Jazz and a collaboration between two masters, Chinese dizi flute player Guo Yue and Japanese taiko drum extraordinaire Joji Hirota.

August 24-27
Towersey Festival
Thame Showground, Towersey, Oxfordshire

Starting life as a humble village folk gathering in 1965, Towersey Festival is still family-run to this day, but it’s now evolved into one of the biggest dates in the calendar. Folkies will rejoice in some top talent including The Rheingans Sisters and Martin Simpson, and excursions can be had with Soothsayers’ funky reggae party and The Brickwork Lizards’ Arabic-gypsy jazz-chamber hip-hop mix-ups. There’s many extramusical goings-on over the weekend too, with crafts, workshops and activities (don’t forget the roller disco!) for kids, teenagers and the otherwise young-at-heart. Remember to check out the Music Café, a new venue for 2018 that provides an informal space for jams with instruments or scones.

September 21-30
London African Music Festival
Various venues, London

There’s no fooling with this one – it’s a festival of African music in London. By the end of September, what better time to squeeze the last out of the summer rays than with some sunny music? The London African Music Festival brings some of the biggest names from across the continent (and closer to home) to venues across the capital. No line-up announcements as of yet, but last year saw sets from Sudanese retro-pop outfit Alsarah & the Nubatones, highlife pioneer Pat Thomas and star of Afro-Cuban jazz violin Omar Puente – expect similar quality for the 16th edition this year.

September 22-23, October 25-28, November 24-25
Darbar Festival
Various venues, London

Held across three weekends in three months and in three venerable arts institutions – the Southbank, the Barbican and Sadler’s Wells – this is a festival that just keeps on giving. The focus is on the wide range of classical music from around India; Darbar is a welcoming experience whether you’re a deep disciple of the styles or if you’ve never experienced Indian music before. Not all of the concerts have been announced yet, but there are some tantalising double-bills already on the cards. The highlight must surely be the concert by the ‘queen of Indian classical’ Parveen Sultana and one of the greatest living sitarists Shahid Parvez; fireworks should also be expected from the pan-Indian concert of sarodiya-to-the-stars Soumik Datta representing Hindustani tradition, and vocal duo the Malladi Brothers representing the Karnatic.

October 18-21
Manchester Folk Festival
Various venues, Manchester

After a storming first edition last year upon its move from Bury, the Manchester Folk Festival is already held in high regard and eagerly anticipated. The crowd-pullers are in good supply with Lindisfarne, Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita and Spiro all on the bill this year. But connected as the festival is with the English Folk Expo, the real draws are the lesser-known artists – worldwide members of the folk industry will be milling about all week looking for the perfect artist to make a star. Catch them here and you can say you knew them before they were famous!

October 19-21
Musicport Festival
Whitby, Yorkshire

It began as a one-off event in 2000, but it went so well, they decided to keep doing it for another 18 years! Musicport is an increasingly year-round affair (they’ve just concluded a new festival of Musicport on the Moors in May) but it all leads up to the festival in October. The earliest inklings of line-up include Malian bluesman Vieux Farka Touré, feel-good UK reggae singer Natty and Huddersfield folkies O’Hooley and Tidow. For the third time, some of the festival’s performing artists will go on a tour of the towns and villages of Yorkshire in the days after the festival proper, bringing the music to the community.

January 17-February 3 2019
Celtic Connections
Various venues, Glasgow

Always in hot contention for the earliest festival of the year, Celtic Connections is also one of the biggest and most well-renowned. The festival is made up of over 300 concerts every year, and while the spotlight may be on Celtic folk traditions, the line-up is anything but homogenous. There’s no word on artists for 2019 just yet (fair enough) but we know that it will be packed with the most exciting folk and roots musicians from every continent, and many ground-breaking and perhaps unexpected collaborations that are Celtic Connections’ forte.

Photos from top: Larmer Tree Festival 2016, by PhoebeReeksPhotography; BoomTown 2017; Knockengorroch World Ceilidh 2017, by Stevie Powers.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Songlines Gig Guide: On Tour April - May 2018

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 137, May 2018.

A Hawk and A Hacksaw
On the back of their seventh album, Forest Bathing, the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based duo start with Balkan music and explore its connections with Turkey, the Middle East and beyond. Much like their album’s title, A Hawk and a Hacksaw evoke the anti-urban, taking their audiences on a sonic walk through the fields and trees. Usual-accordionist (and former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer) Jeremy Barnes swaps the squeeze for the jangling of the Persian santur (hammered zither) while Heather Trost’s violin sweeps across telling all-acoustic instrumental stories.

Ímar is what happens when a folk session goes really right. The band is a truly cross-Celtic collective, its five members hailing from Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. They all have past pedigree, too: they have armfuls of awards between them, and the individual musicians are variously part of some of the most exciting young folk groups of the last decade – think Talisk, Mabon, Rura and more. Expect traditional Irish tunes with a Scottish twist, newly-composed Manx and Scots tunes, and any other mix designed to get you on your feet.

The Turbans
You can’t pin an identity on this gang. The Turbans are a stomping seven-piece that sound like Eastern Europe swinging the Middle East around by the arm in the middle of a raucous party. The members have their roots in Turkey, Bulgaria, Israel, Iran, Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Morocco and the UK, and their time is usually split between the streets of London and the beaches of Goa. You can bet they bring all that and more to their gigs, along with a big bunch of noise.

Toko Telo
Three highly respected musicians in their own rights join forces as a Malagasy supertrio combining Madagascar’s classic pop styles such as tsapiky and salegy with flecks of soul and jazz. The interweaving and overlapping guitars of veteran D’Gary and acclaimed jazzman Joël Rabesolo provide the context for the soaring, soulful voice of Monika Njava. The shows will no doubt also serve as a loving musical tribute to Malagasy accordion legend and original Toko Telo member Régis Gizavo, who passed away in July 2017.

Having started their year with a sell-out show at Celtic Connections, the veteran Swedish trio are travelling all the way down from Shetland to Shoreham-by-Sea, bringing their many-stringed take on the polska to delight as they go. Nyckelharpa, twelve-string guitar and five-string viola combine with a joyful ease, drawing on deep roots and occasional excursions into classical music, jazz and American folk. 27 years of performing together has earned Väsen virtuosic skill and almost telepathic bandsmanship, and their status as Sweden’s premier guardians and innovators of instrumental music is well-founded.

Photo: A Hawk and a Hacksaw, by Louis Schalk.

Ebo Taylor - Yen Ara

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 137, May 2018.

Ebo Taylor
Yen Ara
Mr Bongo (41 mins)

Ebo Taylor has been doing his stuff for more than 60 years now, so he knows how to make an album to get you on your feet. With Yen Ara, he continues to bring a unique blend of highlife and Afrobeat, adding handfuls of disco, jazz and reggae into the mix too.

Taylor’s hand-picked Saltpond City Band are as tight as anything. It’s all about that rhythm section: guitar, keys, bass and konkoma-style percussion and drums intertwine, weaving a musical weave for the punchy horns and Taylor’s aged vocals to dance across.

There’s a real ‘rare groove’ sound to this album – it feels like it might have been dug out from a long-forgotten record crate in Accra. Thanks go in part to the sympathetic production of world music adventurer and Robert Plant guitarist Justin Adams, whose hand is often subtle but not afraid to add some spice when appropriate.

Yen Ara lacks some of the innovation that Taylor has been known to provide – the tracks on offer could equally have come from any of his latest few albums. But they were great albums. So don’t expect anything ground-breaking, but if you like Ebo Taylor, you’ll love Yen Ara.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Spotlight: Awesome Tapes from Africa

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 136, April 2018.

Downloads and streaming are king. CDs are holding on and vinyl is still enjoying its resurgence. So who’s flying the flag for the humble cassette? That would be Awesome Tapes from Africa. ATFA is a many-headed beast – online digital archive of music, record label for obscure re-releases and exciting new material, unique DJ sets…but it all comes back to the eponymous awesome tapes. Keeping it all together behind the scenes is Brian Shimkovitz.

The adventure started during a 2002 study-abroad period in Ghana, where cassettes were the prime currency of music exchange. Shimkovitz amassed tapes of all sorts, from traditional to popular and the most left-field recordings he could find. Even back in the US, he continued to pick up interesting African cassettes wherever he could, eventually starting the ATFA blog in 2006 to showcase just some of this rare, wonderful music. As the blog’s tagline proclaims, ‘this is music you won't easily find anywhere else—except, perhaps in its region of origin.

The blog now contains hundreds of tapes from all over the continent, from rare, domestic-only releases by world music superstars to artists that you’d be hard-pressed to find, even if you knew what you were looking for. It wasn’t long until the idea formed to create a label to re-release some of these hidden gems. It blossomed, and since 2011, ATFA has released 15 full-length albums of reissues and original material, plus a bunch of EPs and remixes, featuring artists from Mali, Ghana, Somalia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Senegal and Eritrea.

The label doesn’t have a signature sound, but it certainly has a signature quality. Out of his collection of thousands, how does Shimkovitz pick the perfect albums to release? “It has a lot to do with just trying to find challenging music that other labels wouldn’t produce,” he says. “Mostly it’s to do with whether it seems like a crucial thing that isn’t otherwise available, or if it’s an important statement and a relevant or interesting way to look at a place.

Summing up the ATFA philosophy, Shimkovitz says it’s “not really trying to do the hippest or trendiest stuff, never doing compilations, just letting the artists’ work speak for itself.” And so, Shimkovitz himself plays no real creative role in the label’s releases: the reissues are presented in exactly the same way as the original (including tape-hiss and original artwork), and if they’re recording a new album, the artist makes it exactly how they want, and get half of all profits, too. This is the way that ATFA has helped to revive careers (such as Hailu Mergia, the Washington DC taxi driver whose latest record, Lala Belu, is an Ethiojazz tour de force) and launch new stars (Ata Kak’s proto-techno-highlife-rap was little known even in his native Ghana – now he tours the world).

For Shimkovitz, it’s all a case of so much music, so little time: “There’s so many sounds that I want to focus on, different movements, different folkloric traditions. I always have so many plans to deal with.” With a bunch of new tapes of traditional, electronic and even country music ready to be reissued this year, there’s plenty more Awesome Tapes From Africa still to come.

Hailu Mergia - Lala Belu

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 136, April 2018.

Hailu Mergia
Lala Belu
Awesome Tapes from Africa (39 mins)

After reissuing three of Hailu Mergia’s classic albums to great success, Awesome Tapes from Africa have got the veteran Ethiopian jazz musician and full-time cab driver into the studio and produced his first new album for 15 years. And it’s a stonker.

Lala Belu is a great Ethiojazz album, but it’s also a great jazz album, full stop. It’s all played by a trio, with Tony Buck on drums, Mike Majkowski on bass and Mergia on all manner of keyboards – accordion, piano, organ, synths, melodica, you name it – but various overdubs give the ensemble the sound of a hard-driving sextet.

There’s all sorts in here, from cool soul-jazz at the beginning, dub excursions and Herbie-like synth spirals in the middle, and with a lovely piano solo piece at the end. The highlight is ‘Anchihoye Lene’, which starts laying down a deadly groove before Mergia’s organ takes it all the way to downtown Addis Ababa.

Considering all that, the title track itself is a bit of a let-down. It’s a bit cheesy with its la-la-la-ing and solos that don’t have the same level of excitement as the other tracks. Never mind, though. The rest of the album is a blast – dig it!

Mpho Majiga - World Affairs

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 136, April 2018.

Mpho Majiga
World Affairs
Africantunz Records & Promotions (51 mins)

Mpho Majiga is a South African gospel singer with a disco vibe. This is his fifth album, and World Affairs, as its title suggests, deals with big issues – songs encourage listeners to ‘say no to terrorism’ and to help victims of Ebola.

The first impression of the album is MIDI-tastic – so many synthesised xylophones and programmed cowbell’n’claps. It gets less drastic the further through the album you get, but whether that is because it gets more tasteful or your ears just get used to it, I’m not really sure.

Across the seven unique tracks and a handful of remixes and reprises, Majiga’s music is pretty much standard Afrogospel-pop but with less proselytising. It’s very cheesy and the musicality is not always perfect, but I have to admit it is rather charming. A lot of the tracks are fun and feel-good (slip the reggae remix of ‘Dream of Peace’ into your Summer 2018 playlist for smiles) and the best is saved till last, with a house remix of the track ‘Help’.

If you like cheery, cheesy gospel and don’t mind a couple of questionable harmonies or MIDI instruments, maybe give this a shot.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Gili Yalo - Gili Yalo

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 135, March 2018.

Gili Yalo
Gili Yalo
Dead Sea Recordings (41 mins)

Gili Yalo’s love of singing was learnt through hardship. As a five-year-old, he escaped the Ethiopian famine on foot. Music made the journey more bearable. Eventually settling in Tel Aviv, Yalo surrounded himself with funk, soul and dub. On this debut album, all those sounds come together with a large helping of Ethiopian groove.

The cover art says it all: this is one cool album. The whole thing has a strut to its step. With Yalo singing in both Amharic and English, his band cook up a whole range of retro flavours, from golden-age Ethiopian horns and old-school synths to that classic R’n’B rhythm section sound.

It doesn’t turn into a heard-it-all-before fusion, either. At some points the Ethiojazz vibe is strong (the instrumental ‘Tadese’ would be at home on a Mulatu Astatke album); elsewhere it feels like straight-up Afrobeat. When all the elements coalesce, it becomes really special. Look no further than the track ‘Coffee’ – Yalo’s blues-bar-in-Addis vocals run the show, while krar lyre duels with Ali Farka Touré-style guitar over piping-hot soul funk, all to an eskista rhythm.

What a fantastic album. Play it loud and you’ll feel like the coolest person alive – after Gili Yalo, of course.