Sunday, 27 October 2019

Kayhan Kalhor - WOMEX 19 Artist Award Recipient

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2019 delegate guide.

For Kayhan Kalhor, the kamancheh is his voice. When he plays, he creates whole languages in which to communicate with people from all over the world, from centuries past and far into the future.

Born in Tehran to Kurdish parents, it was quickly clear that Kalhor had a special talent for music. Although he started by playing the violin, it didn’t take long for him to become entranced by the kamancheh, switching his studies to the ancient Persian spike-fiddle by the time he was 10. Just three years later he was working with the National Orchestra of Radio and Television of Iran, and his career as a professional musician took flight.

Since his prodigious childhood, Kalhor has rightly been regarded as a true master of Persian classical music, but that mastery doesn’t come only from his immersion in the tradition. Without innovation, the tradition cannot exist, and Kalhor has been at the forefront of innovation in his field for decades. For him, there was no other option. “This happens in every generation and in my generation, I’m one of the people who tried to do that,” he says. “It comes very naturally. You don’t decide to do it, it just happens because you don’t want to sound like your teacher. At some point you have to translate your tradition to how it’s supposed to sound in your own generation’s voice.” The way he develops the tradition and makes it his own comes in part from the wide range of styles he exposes it to. Throughout his career, he has worked with the best musicians from across Iran and studied the folk musics of Kurdistan and Khorasan, allowing all of these voices to permeate his own sound; eventually, it all grew together into playing techniques and methods of improvisation that were entirely unique to himself.

This spirit of innovation extends far beyond the borders of his own culture. A globally-focussed way of working took seed when he studied Western classical music in Italy and Canada. There he gained useful knowledge of different ways of approaching music, while taking pains not to corrupt his own style. “I was so careful not to learn anything that damages the traditional way of thinking or playing. I was so conscious of that during those years, just to get good things that I need and not absorb things that might change my direction.” This way of picking only those elements that would enrich his style and identifying those that would weaken it became an important method when performing with other, distinct cultures.

On the international scene, Kalhor is most well-known for his world-spanning collaborations. From Shujaat Khan, Yo-Yo Ma, Erdal Erzincan and Toumani Diabaté to the Kronos Quartet, Brooklyn Rider and the Rembrandt Frerichs Trio, Kalhor’s musical partnerships are many and varied, and the results are invariably world-class. When he plays with these musicians, he stays true to the sanctity of his musical culture but deconstructs it in a way that creates new, entirely sympathetic fusions with those of his collaborators. Together they create an intense, improvisatory music that is not from one culture or the other – it is always both and always neither. “I can say it’s a new language, and I want to get deeper in that language, to create a vocabulary. It’s give and take…I’m after creating a language where you can know this is old music, but at the same time, there are new words that are comprehendible, not so new that they are beyond recognition. One foot in the old traditions and one foot in the future.” His collaborations are so successful because they are more than just an album or a concert, they are full, holistic relationships where music is just one part: “I stayed with these musicians for years and years. I’m living with these people. I’ve been with Shajaad Khan for 24 years, Yo-Yo Ma for 21 years, Erdal Erzancan for 13 years. I look at these collaborations as a process, something that breathes and lives. That is why I was so meticulous in choosing musicians, someone I could live with, someone I could understand, be a friend of their family, have a non-musical trip with. These were all factors, and that’s why I had to choose someone who was exactly like me, in their own country, musically and non-musically.

With so much thought, philosophy and concentrated effort that goes into preparing his work – whether solo or in collaboration – when Kalhor plays, the music flows as easily and gracefully as a swooping bird, a completely natural phenomenon. For him, all the work simply allows the music to manifest itself. “It’s difficult to explain it,” he ponders. “I think we’re all devices of goodness and beauty in this world. The beauty comes through us and we’re responsible to project it, that’s all. The beauty comes from another world. We have to work, we have to rehearse, we were given the talent and the gift, but that doesn’t mean we are the creator of it.

With his music possessing a power unto itself, Kalhor has neither the intention nor the choice to stop that ethereal flow. “[I’ll] keep on playing, until I die! Because I cannot leave music and music cannot leave me. When I’m not able to be active as a concert musician as I am now, I’ll teach more and I’ll write. There’s a young generation here that needs attention and direction, and I’m doing a lot of that whenever I can, and I will do more. But I’m staying with music. I cannot leave music, music is for life.” Together, he and his music will ensure that the renaissance of Persian classical music will not slow down any time soon.

It is for his mastery and virtuosity of the kamancheh, for his ceaseless innovation and collaboration to create exciting new musical languages, and for bringing the Persian classical music tradition to the ears of people all over the world, that we are delighted to award the WOMEX 19 Artist Award to Kayhan Kalhor.

Photo: Kayhan Kalhor (left) performs at the WOMEX 19 Awards alongside Erdal Erzincan, by Eric van Nieuwland.

Julie's Bicycle - WOMEX 19 Professional Excellence Award Recipient

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2019 delegate guide.

The world is burning, the ice is melting and the oceans are choking, and it’s our fault. Those that argue otherwise are not only working against humanity but against the world at large.

But all is not yet lost. We still have the opportunity to kick back against these changes to our world, and our efforts work best when we move as one community. Julie’s Bicycle is an organisation that are rallying the creative and arts sectors in shouting with one powerful voice against the environmental crises we currently face. Like most good ideas, Julie’s Bicycle came about through a meeting with friends. A beautiful utopian vision was dreamed up, ‘where festivals were powered by solar, venues were off-grid and covered in flowers, museums were community energy providers, artists were united as beacons for change.’ That was in 2006. Since then, Julie’s Bicycle (named after the location of that first meeting) have worked tirelessly towards that vision, in London (where they’re based), in the UK, and in the world. Venues may not be covered in flowers just yet, but under their diligent watch and intense work, the arts world is slowly becoming more and more sustainable.

From their very first project – a calculator for arts professionals to work out and understand their carbon impact, which has since become a go-to tool in the creative arts industry – Julie’s Bicycle have approached their task in three main ways: working with businesses individually to improve their environmental impact management; researching and developing resources for the use of all; and introducing, promoting and performing outreach for new ideas and sustainable business models. The holistic nature is not only important to making a real impact, but is one of the strongest ways that people and businesses can make a difference, says Julie’s Bicycle CEO and founder, Alison Tickell: “One thing I’ve learnt is that there isn’t a single way of doing it. We actually need to work on many dimensions all the time. But if we simplify it down, the first thing is to recognise that we can act, and then work out what we can do personally and professionally. They can be small things or big things, but they can accumulate to be quite a powerful collection of actions that are about real change. It leads to a different understanding of agency in this space. It’s this wonderful experience of giving yourself an opportunity to act, and it becomes a really exciting, deepening endeavour.

To move and work within the music industry is often to feel disempowered when it comes to the concerns of higher powers of national governments. There is usually a disconnect between the creative community on one side and policy-makers on the other – we often speak very different languages. Julie’s Bicycle is a translator. Not only do they act to bring together many facets of the industry with one voice, they also help those in power to understand our wants, needs and demands in ways that may not be otherwise understood, or taken seriously.

The great thing is that Julie’s Bicycle aren’t just working alone. Their message has been spreading and their successes have been building and gaining influence across many fields. “Over the last six months it’s been fantastic feeling that things are changing, and I think we have been a bit of that change,” Tickell says. “We were very lucky to pick up on this one quite early on. The way we work is so collaborative, we work with everyone. We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to gather this community.” They have played an enormous part in turning small ripples into tides of change, and this was made starkly evident in July of this year, when they, together with Extinction Rebellion and Culture Declares Emergency, launched Music Declares Emergency. This declaration reached every facet of the music industry – artists, labels, publishers, venues, festivals promoters, managers and agents – with more than 1500 signatories calling on international governments to ‘act now to reverse biodiversity loss and reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by no later than 2030,’ as well as pledging to support, share and work towards a sustainable music industry. The work of Julie’s Bicycle is key to this goal.

For Julie’s Bicycle, outcomes are more subtle than large-scale ‘achievements.’ Instead, they are slowly, surely (and with an increasing pace) changing the way that the music industry thinks, feels and acts in regards to ecological emergency. There’s a lot there to be proud of, and it’s clear that their legacy is only just beginning. “What I am pleased about is that people are much more ready than they would have been because we have been developing the ‘how’ for such a long time,” says Tickell. “The amount of people and organisations who are ready for this moment of change and want to do more has been really gratifying. We’ve been inundated with ideas and interest, requests for help. The fact that we have been working on this for some time has given people the confidence to step into this space much more easily, and that’s been terrific.

The work that we have at hand is to literally save the world. But we can do it. There is a lot to do, and we all have our own roles to play – especially in our own position as music professionals – and Julie’s Bicycle are here to help us. They have plenty of room to expand, too. As we all look ahead to what we can do now, and what solutions may be coming, we need to future-proof our business model as well as the world, and Julie’s Bicycle will be there with us, doing whatever it takes, at all times, to help us succeed, together.

For their forward-thinking strategies to speed up the attainment of environmental sustainability in every facet of our industry and professional lives, for their rallying of artists and arts professionals from all over the world to speak and act in one powerful group, and for their status as a figurehead in the global arts movement in the face of climate change and ecological disasters, we are delighted to present Julie’s Bicycle as the WOMEX Professional Award recipient for 2019.

Photo: Chiara Baliali of Julie's Bicycle (left) receives the WOMEX 19 Professional Excellence Award presented by Sam Lee, by Yannis Psathas.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Boomtown 2019: Five Ones to Watch

Boomtown is a festival that I’ve had my eye on for quite a few years. Its reputation is immense, and so, by all accounts, is its personality. The whole thing is a giant performance art piece with a narrative that slowly reveals and trundles along year after year, with so many plots and subplots playing out in what has grown to be a city of music. Like any city, there are loads of districts in Boomtown (up to 14 this year), each with their own character, architecture and culture = and each with their own set of stages. There’s over 25 main stage and 80 smaller ‘street venues,’ all with their own programmes – that means there’s a LOT of music, of all sorts of styles.

And excitement – I get to go this year for the very first time! This year, it’s held over 7-11 August. The line-up looks amazing – as it does every year – and, yes, it’s absolutely humongous. So in my excitement, I thought I’d give you a run-down of just five artists that I cannot wait to catch there…now I’ve just got to hope that none of them clash!

Ozomatli feat. Chali 2na
Ozomatli are basically a globetrotting party. I’ve seen them live a handful of times now and every time they have absolutely blown me away – they’re still some of my favourite live shows to date. Their mix of hip-hop, rock, tropical pop and all sorts of Latin music from son to cumbia to samba to norteño and more is just so infectious, their shows turn into a joyful riot, it’s absolutely amazing. Even better: they’ve now reunited with Chali 2na of Jurassic 5 and an original Ozo band member – he’s got one of the most recognisable voices in hip-hop and his thoughtful lyrics and supreme flow put him, for me, right up there with the greatest rappers. I can’t wait to see them perform together.

Prophets of Rage
Okay, I’ve never actually heard any recordings of this group, but their pedigree is unreal. They’re a supergroup featuring members from Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill. Do I really have to say more? Yes yes, I know supergroups usually come out as less than the sum of their parts, but I’m willing to risk it. Come on: Chuck D and B-Real battling it out between funk-metal solos from Tom Morello – inject it directly into my veins.

BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) are a group from Soweto that combine all the music of their neighbourhood, from traditional dance styles, church music and beerhouse songs to hip-hop, soul and rock. The group have been getting so much hype over the past 12 months, and I’ve got friends who are absolutely mad about them, saying they’re the greatest live group around right now. I saw them myself at WOMAD last year, and the crowd went nuts; thing is, their forever-looping riffs and heavy beats didn’t strike me at all, and I left, bored, after about 10 or 15 minutes. But the hype train has continued, so I fully admit I’m the one in the wrong – I’m looking forward to seeing them again in August to give them (and me) another chance.

Nubya Garcia
The UK jazz scene has been booming in the last decade, and saxophonist Nubya Garcia has been one of its leading lights. Her music brings in modal and spiritual jazz in the Coltrane way together with the contemporary styles being fermented in places such as Trinity Laban and Berklee as well as hip-hop, soul and electronica. I’ve never seen her show before, and festivals are all about new experiences – I reckon Nubya Garcia is one I can bank on to be a winner.

Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip
Would it really be a festival season without Mik Artistik? The loony Leedsman* has been a staple on the festival circuit for many years and he’s the perfect act for when you’re quite drunk, quite muddy and just a little disorientated. He’s absolutely bananas, he’s hilarious but he’s also touchingly earnest when he wants to be, all while making music behind his trusty little Yamaha keyboard. The man is a legend, and if you’ve never heard or seen him before, you owe it to yourself to go and experience this true institution of British festivals.

…and then there’s so many others. Gogol Bordello, General Levy, San Sebastian, Bassekou Kouyate, Napalm Death, DJ Yoda, Asian Dub Foundation, The Streets, Skream and the man behind it all AAA Badboy…there is so much great music happening everywhere that it seems pretty much impossible not to see some amazing and unexpected artists wherever the current takes you. And really, what I’m most looking forward to is that atmosphere, and diving into the huge, deep and bonkers world that is created at Boomtown every year. Basically, I can’t wait! So if you’re heading over, I’ll hopefully see you there, and either way I’m sure you’ll hear about my exploits on here sooner or later.

*Okay, I just looked it up and the actually demonym for someone from Leeds is a Leodensian, which is awesome but also completely impenetrable, so I’m leaving it as Leedsman, and all of you Yorkishers are just going to have to deal with it.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Cultural appropriation row ignites the IMAs

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

A collective of Inuit womxn musicians are boycotting the Indigenous Music Awards (IMAs) in a protest against cultural appropriation. The IMAs, which are run as part of the Manito Ahbee festival in Winnipeg, Canada, aim to honour the best in music from First Nations, Inuit and Métis musicians in Canada. Awards are presented in 19 categories covering a range of musical styles from pop to electronic to gospel and more traditional styles of hand-drum and pow wow music, alongside awards focused on music videos, producers and radio programmes.

However, controversy arose when Cikwes, a Nehiyaw Cree performer, was nominated in the category of Best Folk Album for her album ISKO. On the album, Cikwes uses a technique of throat-singing that imitates an Inuit style. The Arnaqquasaaq Collective, which includes Inuit artists Tanya Tagaq, PIQSIQ and Kelly Fraser, argue that such an imitation of a tradition with deeply-held and sacred meanings for Inuits is cultural appropriation, and reached out privately to both Cikwes and the IMAs requesting a withdrawal of the nomination. When withdrawal was refused, members of the Arnaqquasaaq Collective publicly announced a boycott, withdrawing their own nominations from the awards and refusing to submit to any further awards until Inuit people and artists are properly represented on the IMAs’ board of governors and a policy on cultural appropriation is adopted.

As a response to the boycott, Manito Ahbee released a statement, saying ‘We don’t presume to agree or disagree on this matter at this time, as it requires great reflection, ceremony and discussions on how we move forward in a good way, to ensure that we as Indigenous people uphold our teachings, and do not provide a platform for negativity and separation. We have been taught that our gifts from the Creator should be honoured and that we do not ‘own’ what is gifted to us, but that it is our responsibility to share those gifts.’ The festival’s director, Lisa Meeches has also been quoted as saying she did not believe that cultural appropriation between Indigenous people was possible.

Tagaq responded to the statement with a lengthy Twitter thread, saying ‘Do you know that Inuit have our own ceremonies and religion? Or did you assume that the creator origin could be applied to anyone kind of brown? Acknowledging these differences in culture isn’t an act of division, it’s a sign of respect. If we respect each other’s cultures and EDUCATE each other, the rest of the country may follow suit. Artists choosing to omit their own artwork and presence at an awards show in peaceful protest to show displeasure at bureaucratic procedure is NOT negative or inflammatory.

Later on, she followed up: ‘Regardless of any outcome to this nuanced conflict, I am resting assured that we have conducted ourselves with dignity and patience. Our voices HAVE been heard by the right people.

Photo: Tanya Tagaq, by Rebecca Wood

Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali - Barbican Centre, London

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali
Barbican Centre, London
30th March 2019

When the great qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died in 1997, it fell upon his nephews to continue his legacy. Since then, Rizwan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan have secured their status among the most highly respected qawwali musicians on the international scene. That reputation was on show at their recent concert in London. The event was sold out far in advance and the musicians’ reception was incredible. The crowd was raucous, cheering each song as it was announced with wild enthusiasm.

The massed voices of the ten-man qawwali party is one of the world’s most powerful musical spectacles, and it was again tonight. Soaring and roaring above the chorus were the solos of Rizwan and Muazzam themselves, who amazed with feats of breath, tongue and vocal control. There’s no getting away from the fact that this was undoubtedly a concert instead of a traditional mehfil-e-sama. Because the party were on stage, they were very much separated from the audience, leading to a slightly sterile atmosphere at times. No-one in the crowd was transported to spiritual ecstasy or got up to present offerings to the party. It reflected musically, too, with aspects of the arrangements and performance obviously Bollywoodified to some degree.

Nevertheless, the group’s experience allows them to give the audience just what they want, and the crowd duly responded. The concert’s two-and-a-half hours passed in what felt like 30 minutes. It wasn’t the most solemn or devotional occasion, but it was certainly a great night of wonderful music.

Photo: Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, by Stuart Bruce

Pulo NDJ - Desert to Douala

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

Pulo NDJ
Desert to Douala
Wonderwheel Recordings (36 mins)

Pulo NDJ is a project that broadcasts from the musical midpoint between N’Djamena, Chad, and New York, USA. DJs Nickodemus and djbuosis met with musicians in the Chadian capital and recorded many hours of music with their portable studio before remixing it all together with house and electronica, with the full blessings of the musicians.

Desert to Douala perfectly reflects the nature of the project’s two cities; there are all sorts of music thrown into Pulo NDJ’s pot. There are traditional instruments like the garaya (calabash lute) and balafon (xylophone), but also retro keyboards and electric guitars, and then the programmed drums, deep basses and massive synths from the producers. It’s especially exciting when the Chadian sounds merge seamlessly with the electronics, such as on ‘Mbaoundaye’, where the buzz of the balafon blends with the synth bass, traditional drums are sampled into dance beats and ululating singers caress the lot of it.

The music of Chad is rarely heard outside of the country itself, so it’s great that this project is giving it wider attention. With the amount of recordings that were surely made, it’s strange that the album is so short. Hopefully it’s just the beginning of Pulo NDJ’s journey.

Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band - Pedal Steal + Four Corners

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band
Pedal Steal + Four Corners
Paradise of Bachelors (3 CDs, 145 mins)

Now here’s a fascinating one. Terry Allen is an artist of many forms: a conceptual artist, painter, writer, playwright and (most prolifically) a country musician. This release is a collection of five performance pieces recorded between 1985 and 1993. The works are each based around spoken word performed over musical beds and frequently interspersed with songs. Allen’s stories revolve around the lives of people at the fringes of society, usually within his native Texas; laced together with the music, they create extremely riveting and evocative set-pieces.

The first piece is ‘Pedal Steal’. Originally written as a soundtrack to a dance performance, it tells the tragic tale of ne'er-do-well pedal steel player Billy the Boy. The narrative is punctuated and accompanied by a mixture of country music, Navajo songs, Tex-Mex conjuntos and jazz as well as abstract soundscapes and found sounds.

The ‘four corners’ of the album’s title are four radio plays, each following a different set of outlaws, peasants and down-and-outs. They are as charming, wistful and bittersweet as ‘Pedal Steel’ with the exception of one. ‘Torso Hell’ is as evocative as the rest, but completely unpleasant, a dark, disturbing and ultra-violent critique on war narratives in Hollywood. Good art maybe but that doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable – a shame compared to the rest of the set.

Rob - Rob

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

Mr Bongo (37 mins)

The opening track of this album starts with a chant of ‘Funky, funky, funky Rob! Funky, funky, funky Rob, yeah!’ and I’ll tell you what – they’re not wrong.

This album was the 1977 debut by the monosyllabically mononymic Rob, freshly back in his hometown of Accra, Ghana, after honing his skills in Benin as part of the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. Originally enjoying only a small number of pressings, Rob passed into record collectors’ legend; it was reissued once by Analogue Africa in 2011 in limited numbers, and now Mr Bongo is finally giving it a full-scale international release.

With Rob on organs, synths and vocals and backed by the wah-wah guitars, interlocking percussion and blasting horns of the Mag-2 band (and as those opening lyrics tell you), funk is the main ingredient here. A lot of the music is very much in the James Brown mould, but highlife plays an important role too, and the traditional rhythms of the drums root the sound unmistakably within West Africa.

There’s a range of moods across the album, and although it feels as if the musicians are more comfortable playing for the disco than the lounge, each track is as cool as the next.

Friday, 5 April 2019

The Voice of a Generation: Girma Bèyènè

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

The phone line to Addis Ababa is bad – it’s muffled, noisy, and sounds of the hustle and bustle of Ethiopian city life often get in the way of what you’re actually trying to hear. But through the garbled frenetic sonorities of the intercontinental phone call rises the calm voice of Girma Bèyènè. He is softly spoken, his voice rounded with age and baring the scars of his life – his English still retains a smooth American accent. In theory, he is retired back in his beloved Ethiopia, but really, he’s busier than he has been in many years.

Girma’s talents – as a singer, a pianist, a composer and an arranger – were foundational in what became known as Swinging Addis, the golden age of Ethiopian music from the 60s and 70s. He was obsessed with American music, more than any composer on the scene in those days – crooner jazz, soft rock, soul and lounge music could all be found in his record collection and in his songs, mingling with unique Ethiopian pentatonic melodies. At the heart of all of his work was his girlfriend, Ségèné. “My subject is always my girlfriend,” he says. “I was inspired and all the songs belong to her. And I’m proud of that. They’re all love songs. All the way, everything is about her.”

Together with his group, Walias Band, Girma took part in the first all-Ethiopian tour of the US, in 1981. The tour was successful, with the band performing mostly to Ethiopians who had fled the Soviet-style Derg regime, but after the tour was over, the band had a tough decision. Return home to political and artistic repression, or stay in the US and build a new life? The band split in half, and Girma stayed behind.

He continued to make music for a while, but the inconceivable happened. Ségèné, his eternal muse, died, and Girma was inconsolable. All his music was for her, and without her, it was meaningless. He could not perform. He sank into a deep depression and eventually left music entirely. By the mid-80s, Girma was making his way in the world as a gas station attendant in Washington, DC, in self-imposed obscurity.

In the 2000s, a groundswell was brewing. Golden age Ethiopian music was finding new ears – not in the Horn of Africa, but in Europe and America. It was all down to French producer Francis Falceto and his immaculately-curated record series, Éthiopiques, which showcased the sounds of Swinging Addis and the style the became known as Ethio-jazz.

For Westerners that had never encountered Ethiopian music before, it was intoxicating. This was jazz, funk and soul, but like none you’d ever heard before. It was filled with mysterious dissonances and alien textures. The music seemed almost from another dimension – a time and place that no longer existed. The revelation that these musicians were not only still around, but still playing, was massive. Suddenly artists such as Mulatu Astatke, Mahmoud Ahmed and Gétatchèw Mèkurya became international stars – the founding fathers of Ethio-jazz. For Falceto, though, there was a name forgotten from those conversations: “I consider the path of Girma Bèyènè and his influence as fundamental. He was there at the development of modern Ethiopian music. Girma has always been a very important character, but he doesn’t have the noisy charisma to self-promote himself very strongly.”

The Éthiopiques albums were heard around the world and the music took on a life of its own. No longer was it the reserve of dusty records made decades ago; it had become the hip new sound. Ethiopian music was heard in Hollywood film soundtracks and hip-hop samples, and groups dedicated to playing, adapting and updating the music began to crop up on both sides of the Atlantic. One of those bands was an instrumental quintet from Paris called Akalé Wubé.

News of the growing popularity of golden age Ethiopian music slowly reached Girma’s ears. The spark started to return. He took his retirement and moved back to Addis with little fanfare, but he began planning his return to the stage. “You know I stopped music for a long time, it’s true. I was almost buried. But then someone woke me up! I would say he’s one-of-a-kind, a real maestro, he picked me up for real.” He contacted Francis Falceto.

“He bothered me again and again, ‘Francis, why don’t you make a band, set up a band for me like you did with Mahmoud?’” Falceto had his doubts, “it’s difficult to imagine the revival of an artist who has been far from the stage for 25-30 years…I’d never even seen him live!” But it just so happened that he’d recently heard of a French band who were looking for a singer. Akalé Wubé jumped at the chance to work with such a legend.

Things were tentative at first, but as it went along, it was clear that Girma was beginning to find his feet again. For Akalé Wubé’s bassist Oliver Degabriele, it was thrilling: “He was literally starting to play again, his fingers were getting looser on the keys, he was getting used to the microphone again. The first time we played a show, he walked out to 200 people screaming, and he was like a deer in headlights. But suddenly he came to life. Girma is a very introverted, shy guy, barely looks you in the eye, but on stage he becomes someone else. He’s Mick Jagger! I’ve seen him unable to walk backstage, but he’s running around the stage by the end of the show. It’s incredible how he changed.”

The need for a recording was obvious. Akalé Wubé’s music keeps an Ethiopian groove at the centre, but they bring some hardcore influences, from funk to punk to Afrobeat. With Girma, they worked on a series of arrangements of his favourite and most famous compositions, all funked up to 11. Girma’s warm, sometimes croaky voice gives an interesting juxtaposition to the distorted guitars and roaring saxes, but he didn’t want anything dumbed down. “Girma has never been a conservative person,” says Falceto. “He’s a rebel, even if he doesn’t look like a rebel! He is a super modernist. He listens to a lot of music from Ethiopia, America and everywhere, still. So it was natural.” The resulting album worked so well, it was enshrined in the canon: it became the 30th title in the Éthiopiques series, released in 2017 as Mistakes on Purpose. They’ve not looked back since, playing shows around the world. “He keeps telling us ‘I am reborn, I am born again!’” says Degabriele, “it is so nice to hear. That’s the whole point in this, giving him new life.”

In 2019, Girma Bèyènè is an old man sitting outside a church in Addis Ababa, struggling with a poor international phone line. But he’s a star again. He’s hopeful, excited and he’s getting even better. He plays his first date in the UK in June, and he chuckles with glee just talking about it. “It’s true, it’s true! I’m looking forward to coming to your place, I’ve never been in the UK. It sounds bragging, but we will do it even better, I love it! And when I hang up the phone I’m gonna keep on singing, all day!”

Photo: Girma Bèyènè with Akalé Wubé, by Cyril Fussien.

Essential 10: Ethiopian Albums

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

Mahmoud Ahmed
Éthiopiques, Vol. 7: Erè Mèla (Buda Musique, 1999)
Erè Mèla Mèla, the 1975 classic by singer Mahmoud Ahmed, is a masterwork of psychedelic soul with shades of James Brown and a bagload of groove. It was the first album of Ethiopian music that producer Francis Falceto ever heard, kick-starting the epic journey that would lead to the creation of Éthiopiques.

Mulatu Astatke
Mulatu of Ethiopia (Strut Records, 2017)
This Strut release is a remaster of the 1972 album that solidified the vibraphonist and electric piano player’s unique sound. Recorded in New York with a band of American and Puerto Rican musicians, this was the first time that Mulatu’s music fully solidified into the distinctive blend of post-bop jazz, Afro-Latin percussion and Ethiopian melodic modes that became known as Ethiojazz.

Aster Aweke
Aster (Triple Earth, 1989)
Aster Aweke was the first big Ethiopian star of the world music era. Her self-titled international debut may suffer a bit from overly cheesy production, but the compositions are solid Afropop and the sheer power of her voice is undeniable. There’s also a handful of simple voice-and-krar (lyre) pieces that are just delightful.

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou
Éthiopiques, Vol. 21: Ethiopia Song (Buda Musique, 2006)
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is a musician like no other and her music is entirely unparalleled. Once an aspiring and promising concert pianist, God’s will intervened and she became a nun. Music never left her, though, and she instead created her own style. Her compositions for solo piano draw on Orthodox hymns and the melodies of the krar and begana lyres, but their lilting and uplifting textures bring to mind the watercolour tones of Debussy or Chopin.

Shewandagne Hailu
Sitotash (Nahom Records, 2013)
The sounds drifting out of the cafés, bars and taxis in Ethiopia are not those of Ethiojazz or traditional songs of the azmari bards – instead, what you’ll hear is out-and-out pop. Shewandagne Hailu is one of the biggest pop stars of recent years; his music is a mix of reggae and R&B with typical boy-band fare, but it all has an unmistakably Ethiopian feel.

Gétatchèw Mèkurya, The Ex & Guests
Moa Anbessa (Terp Records, 2006)
Gétatchèw Mèkurya developed his tenor sax playing by directly imitating the sound of the masenqo (one-stringed fiddle), and the resulting technique sounds strangely similar to the free jazz of Albert Ayler. When he plays in conjunction with pioneering Dutch post-punks The Ex, that sound becomes positively head-banging.

Mikael Seifu
Zelalem (RVNG Intl., 2016)
Mikael Seifu is a leading light in Ethiopiyawi Electronic, a bubbling underground scene in Addis Ababa (with exclaves in Washington, DC). The style takes electronic music and views it through an Ethiopian lens, creating something that is relevant to the internationally-connected urban youth. The result is downtempo house and trance with a dark and brooding atmosphere, often anchored in samples from masenqo, krar or Ethiojazz classics.

Various artists
Ethiopie: Musiques Vocales et Instrumentales (Ocora, 1994)
Ethiopia is home to over 80 ethnic groups, each with their own distinct musical culture – there’s much more to its folk music than azmaris. This double album of field recordings from the 1960s represents all sorts of traditional music from the length and breadth of the country, from interlocking flute ensembles and thumb pianos to multi-part polyphonic singing and the sounds of a raucous tejbet (honey-wine parlour).

Various artists
Éthiopiques, Vol. 1: Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music 1969-1975 (Buda Musique, 1997)
The Éthiopiques series made the world sit up and pay attention to the retro sounds of Ethiopia in its musical golden age – this first volume is the perfect introduction to that scene. This compilation focuses on some of the most exceptional singers of the period such as Mahmoud Ahmed, Gétatchèw Kassa, Sèyfu Yohannès, and everything is imbibed with the smoky atmosphere of Addis Ababa’s coolest nightclubs.

Etenesh Wassie & Mathieu Sourisseau
Yene Alem (Buda Musique, 2018)
Etenesh Wassie is a full-fledged azmari, and her beautiful and haunting traditional songs take on extra dimensions with the contributions of acoustic bass guitarist Mathieu Sourisseau and cellist Julie Läderach. The style moves between classical chamber music, free jazz and abstract soundsculpture, leading to an intense, challenging yet exciting album.

Jamming in N’Djamena: Pulo NDJ

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

Considering world music’s long-time love affair with African music, there are still areas of the continent that have had little to no coverage on the international scene. One of those places is Chad. A new project, Pulo NDJ, aims to bring the country’s music to the world through the lens of the New York club scene.

When djbuosis, founder of the cultural exchange platform HAPE Collective, visited Chad to meet some musicians and record some demos, he noticed the people’s passion for music but an almost complete lack of any recorded music industry or infrastructure. So in May 2018, he invited New York-based DJ and producer Nickodemus to come to the capital, N’Djamena, teach a few DJing workshops for kids and record a bunch of musicians.

As the musicians turned up for the recording sessions, word got around. “It just kept growing and growing, I was amazed! I didn’t expect so many people to turn up with ideas, wanting to be involved,” says Nickodemus. It wasn’t an option to let this music go unrecorded, and the improvised studio space became a hive of activity. “This was a huge opportunity for them to finally get some music out there into the world. So we went into overdrive with the coffee and we stayed awake late into the night, every night, to help record and make new songs.”

Some people brought programmed beats, some brought traditional songs. There were synthesisers and electric guitars bumping against traditional lutes and xylophones. With so many exciting musical ideas being thrown around, they started to solidify into full pieces, and soon there was an outline for an album that no-one had set out to record.

Pulo NDJ reflect the sounds of N’Djamena – a cosmopolitan city whose musicians come from all over the region. The main group are all key figures in the city’s live music scene: Idriss, a N’Djamena native; Samy and Wahlid, both from Cameroon; Stingo from Togo; and then there were others from every corners of the country.

Then it was up to Nickodemus to put his own stamp on it. “It really is a beautiful, collaborative project,” he says. “After we did all the writing and recording, all I did was take it home and get nerdy with it, adding the delays and the compressions and all the panning. They were super open to it. They were so happy not only to have their songs recorded, but also to have them flipped and sampled. Everything was open to interpretation and they were very open to getting it in the club.” The results became the album Desert to Douala, just released on Wonderwheel Recordings.

And now, the project is turning into a band. With the help of djbuosis, they’ve already planned a tour of West Africa, and they’ve got their eyes on playing even further abroad. From making a record to forming a band, the adventure of Pulo NDJ has been one of surprises, but that’s to be expected when you’re representing a country as yet unknown on the international stage. Now Chad is making its voice heard.

Photo: Pulo NDJ, by Clotilde Bertet.

As I walked out: Ninebarrow's Dorset

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

After four albums in six years, English folk duo Ninebarrow’s latest release is something a little bit different: it’s a book. Not a songbook or even a book about music in general, either. Ninebarrow’s Dorset is a collection of ten scenic walks around the pair’s native lands of the Isle of Purbeck and the surrounding areas.

It may seem like a bit of a departure, but for Ninebarrow – Jon Whitley and Jay LeBouchardiere – it came naturally…and was a long time coming. “The link between the Dorset landscape and our music is one that’s been there right from the start of Ninebarrow,” says Whitley, “And to be honest, we were walking together long before we started making music together!”

Ninebarrow’s Dorset isn’t just a set of stories and evocative descriptions. Each of the ten walks is fully mapped-out and each is indelibly linked to a song from the duo’s back catalogue. As you stroll over the hills and along the coastlines, not only is there a ready-made soundtrack for your walk, but you can learn the meaning of the songs and their connections to the land upon which you stand.

The duo’s own connection to the land is evident right in their name, which they borrow from the beautiful Nine Barrow Down near Swanage. They certainly wouldn’t have chosen anywhere else to write about. “I think Dorset has a magic that is gentler than some of the other beautiful places on a walker’s radar,” says LeBouchardiere, “It might lack the sheer grandeur of the Lake District’s mountains or the rugged drama of the Cornish coast, but you never have to climb too far to get glorious views over the hills and the surrounding water.”

Tonga Boys - Vindodo

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

Tonga Boys
1000HZ (42 mins)

The first thing you’ll notice about this album is its packaging – no jewel case here! Instead, the CD comes in a sealed plastic pouch not unlike a tobacco packet, with some gnarly graphic design that would look perfectly at home in the cassette stalls in Mzuzu, Malawi.

Tonga Boys are indeed a group from Malawi, and Vindodo was made in collaboration with a trio of Polish producers. Their sound is quite akin to Congotronics: there’s a proper DIY atmosphere, all slightly distorted drums, percussion and looping, call-and-response vocals. The production is subtle – a synth drum here and there, the occasional drone, some echo. It’s tasteful and usually effective, but I feel like the album wouldn’t suffer incredibly without it.

The DIY-iness goes deep; these are obviously home recordings. That roughness can be aesthetically appropriate, but there’s a risk of it just sounding bad. Luckily, Vindodo manages to stay on the right side of that line…mostly. The ear gets used to it, and I warmed to the album the more I listened.

Everything about this album is rough and ready, but if you’re prepared and in the mood for a repetitive and darkly hypnotic listen, this is an interesting one to try.

Various Artists - Les Bushinengé: Nèg Mawon de Guyane

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

Various Artists
Les Bushinengé: Nèg Mawon de Guyane
Buda Musique (73 mins)

The Bushinengé people from French Guiana and Suriname are descended from escaped slaves who fled to the Amazon and intermarried with the local Amerindian population. As a result, their culture mixes influences from all over Africa and the Amazon basin.

For the Bushinengé, music and dance are two halves of the same thing, and you’ll never find one without the other. It’s all meant to bring people closer together and as a result, it has a real community feel. It also means that every element of the music is geared towards getting you off your bum. It’s almost exclusively based around percussion and song, which is sung with a really distinctive vocal style that uses wide, heavy vibrato. A West African influence is particularly noticeable, especially with patterns played on beer bottles that sound so reminiscent of those in Ghanaian music.

This album is the latest addition to the wonderful Musique du Monde album series. It was recorded across French Guiana, capturing all sorts of performance styles and contexts, from live shows to living rooms and everything in between. It’s a great musical overview from a region we rarely hear, and from a people we hear even less.

The Public Opinion Afro Orchestra - Naming & Blaming

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

The Public Opinion Afro Orchestra
Naming & Blaming
Hope Street Recordings (39 mins)

This is the second album from the Melbourne-based Public Opinion Afro Orchestra and it is unabashedly Afrobeat. The group take many cues from the 70s style, from the instrumentation to the groove to the long-form structure of the pieces. Of course it's political too, full of pointed criticisms of Western foreign policy and imperialism as well as Australia’s colonial past and neo-colonial present.

The thing with Afrobeat is that it hasn't yet stepped out of Fela Kuti's shadow; it may never be possible. For modern bands, comparisons are unavoidable, and who can compare to Fela? That’s why the stand-out points of this album are when the group break from tradition. Whether it’s the dubby trombone solo on ‘No Passport’ or the straight-up jazz sax of the title track, it’s these little bits of difference that really stand out. Most of all, it’s the contributions of the rapper MC One Sixth that make the sound fresh – the rhythms and riffs of Afrobeat are perfect vehicles for rap, and One Six’s lyricism fits well with the themes of the style.

With Naming & Blaming, the POAO capture that classic Afrobeat sound, while mixing things up just enough to not be just another Fela clone project.

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa - Poetic Trance

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa
Poetic Trance
Blue Line Productions (51 mins)

Aziz Sahmaoui, Moroccan co-founder of the legendary Orchestre National de Barbès, is back for a third album with his group University of Gnawa; together they explore the historic connections between the Gnawa of Morocco and the Mandé world to the south using music as their magnifying glass.

Aside from Sahmaoui himself providing lead vocals, ngoni and mandola, the core of the band are three Senegalese musicians, Alune Wade on bass, Hervé Samb on guitar and Cheikh Diallo on kora and keys. All three also sing, and so the Senegalese – and especially Wolof – sound is incredibly pervasive throughout. The Senegalese and North African elements are tumbled together with rock and reggae, making the end result rather poppy, actually.

Despite what the band name would suggest, though, there’s less Gnawa on the album than you’d expect. It’s a shame, because the strongest tracks on the album are the ones where it is brought to the fore, such as in ‘Soudani ya Yémma’ and ‘Sotanbi.’ It’s on these tracks that the album’s stated brief of ‘exposing universal truths’ of the connections between North and West Africa seems closest to being realised. Elsewhere, it just feels neither here nor there.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Arrested, Disappeared, Murdered? The Plight of Uyghur Musicians

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 146, April 2019.

There is a crisis in East Turkestan, also known as Xinjiang, an autonomous region of northwest China. For many years, Uyghur people of the region have spoken of the persecution taking place at the hands of the Chinese government; it is a persecution that has increased dramatically in the last 18 months. Culturally and ethnically Turkic, majority Muslim and with their own language (using the Arabic script), Uyghur life is culturally aligned with Central Asia and markedly different to the Chinese mainstream.

Under the guise of combatting Islamic extremism, the Uyghur way of life has come under systemic oppression and repression enforced by heavy surveillance and restrictions on movement, expression and association. Over one million people – mostly Uyghurs, but also Kazakhs, Mongols and other minority ethnic groups – are thought to have been imprisoned in euphemistically-named ‘re-education camps.’ These moves have been seen by the international community as a stepping-up of the long-brewing cultural purge of the Uyghur from the Han-majority Chinese government.

As is often the case in these sorts of situations, it is culture bearers that have incurred a particular wrath, with many prominent writers, academics, musicians, comedians, actors, poets and sportspeople confirmed as detained; some simply disappeared. Popular figures in Uyghur music such as pop stars Ablajan Awut Ayup and Zahirshah Ablimit and the folk and classical dutar (long-necked lute) player Abdurehim Heyit have all been detained within the past 18 months. As of writing, reports are just coming out that Heyit has been beaten to death in custody, although this is refuted by the Chinese government.

One of the most prominent arrests has been that of Sanubar Tursun. The classical singer is well-known for her contributions to the Aga Khan Music Initiative and her collaborations with Chinese musician Wu Man as part of the Master Musicians from the Silk Road ensemble. She has performed concerts around the world and was scheduled to complete a tour of France in February this year. She has not been heard from since November. Sources close to Tursun have stated that she was arrested and imprisoned for five years, but Chinese officials have refused to confirm the singer’s charge or even her whereabouts. An open letter, with over 120 signatories, reads ‘The case of Sanubar Tursun reminds us how powerful, but also exposed, fragile and vulnerable the voice of an artist is. This is unfortunately one example amongst many in the tragedy that is unfolding in the Uyghur region, and that now disrupts the French and international art scene, as well as the life of its audience who were looking forward to meet Sanubar Tursun in February.

The plight of the Uyghur people and the attempted eradication of their culture by the Chinese authorities is cause for international concern; the stories of internationally-recognised figures such as Tursun help to spread the word far and wide. The world music community surely has their role to play.

Photo: Sanubar Tursun and ensemble

Ayub Ogada (1956-2019): Luo roots musician who brought the nyatiti to the world

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 146, April 2019.

A giant of Kenyan music has passed away. Ayub Ogada died on February 1 at his home in Kisumu, after an illness. He was a master of the nyatiti, an eight-stringed lyre of the Luo people, on which he accompanied his beautiful voice. Ogada, under his birth name Job Seda, had a massive impact on the Kenyan music scene through the bands he founded, Black Savage and the African Heritage Band, whose influences are still felt in the country today. International audiences will probably be most familiar with his 1993 album En Mana Kuoyo, released on Real World Records, containing a quiet, intimate version of his most well-known song, the haunting lullaby ‘Kothbiro’. He was first noticed by Real World busking on the London Underground, but went on to perform around the world and collaborate with artists such as Peter Gabriel, Geoffrey Oryema, Afro Celt Sound System, Susheela Raman and even Gary Barlow; most recently, his work was sampled by Kanye West. In his tribute to Ogada, Gabriel said: “In the early days of WOMAD and Real World Records, many people weren’t interested to listen to music from other cultures and whenever I was trying to convince them, I would play Ayub singing ‘Kothbiro’ and invariably win them round.

Photo: Ayub Ogada, by Andrew Catlin.

Chris Prosser - Mistune: Violin and Tanpura

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 146, April 2019.

Chris Prosser
Mistune: Violin and Tanpura
Rongotai Records (73 mins)

In Mistune, Chris Prosser continues to explore his fascination with alternate tunings on the violin, this time paired with a five-string Indian tambura drone, played by Susan Thomson. The 15 semi-improvised pieces featured on the album all utilise a different tuning, which allows Prosser to ruminate on the sonorities and dissonances offered by each.

With the focus on sound and atmosphere, it is hard to describe a style that the music inhabits. Some of the ornaments and embellishments are similar to those in Karnatic music, and Prosser’s playing technique is obviously heavily informed by Western classical, but, unlikely as it sounds, it most often put me in mind of Scandinavian fiddle playing. There is a spacious, contemplative and sometimes sad ambience here that often permeates the Nordic styles. In fact, the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, with its many sympathetic strings, would have suited this project perfectly.

It’s an interesting album to listen to. It can take a bit of time to acclimatise to the artist’s vision, but it is compelling, even if the experiments don’t perfectly resound. Mistune feels like a real labour of love, intended primarily for Prosser's own ears. But maybe they can tingle yours too.