Manchester: the reciprocity of kindness

Manchester: the reciprocity of kindness

In the aftermath of the Manchester bomb atrocity there were so many stories of the kindness offered by strangers to those who were victims, or were caught up in, the attack – the guy who drove through the night, giving lifts home to those stranded; the woman who guided children to the safety of a local hotel; and all those who offered food and shelter for the night. Then there were the gatherings – in Manchester and Liverpool – which were, as one young woman expressed it on Channel 4 News, ‘more about love and not hatred.’

In this respect there was nothing unusual about Manchester. The kindness of strangers, in Tennessee Williams’ memorable phrase, is a quality we see repeatedly after such terrible events. And though the gatherings and vigils that follow might seem, especially for those with a sceptical or cynical turn of mind, predictable, they do perform a valuable service. Not only do they bring us together when we feel at our most frightened and vulnerable, they also remind us, as George Monbiot insists in his column today, that ‘human cooperation and reciprocity are so normal we scarcely seem to notice them.’ It can be easy after this kind of atrocity – one in which children and young people enjoying their first taste of freedom and independence were sought out to be deliberately blown apart – to conclude that there is no humanity, that we are an intrinsically fallen species. Continue reading “Manchester: the reciprocity of kindness”

Paul Simon: a joyous celebration the night after a dream was shattered and driven to its knees

Paul Simon: a joyous celebration the night after a dream was shattered and driven to its knees

Last night, before the news came of Leonard Cohen’s departure from this life, I was privileged to see an outstanding show by another great poet of song, Paul Simon.

On our way into Manchester I said to my travelling companions, ‘He must, surely, do An American Tune.’ He hadn’t the previous night in London, but I prayed that in Manchester he would sing what is truly a song for these times.

And he did! Continue reading “Paul Simon: a joyous celebration the night after a dream was shattered and driven to its knees”

Markus Stockhausen and Florian Weber at RNCM: exhilarating, intuitive music

Markus Stockhausen and Florian Weber at RNCM: exhilarating, intuitive music

Among the galaxy of boundary-probing musicians recorded by Manfred Eicher’s ECM label, the name of Markus Stockhausen has a particular resonance. He’s the son of composer and pioneer of the avant-garde Karlheinz Stockhausen, regarded as one of the great visionaries of 20th-century music, with whom Markus collaborated on several compositions.

The flugelhorn player has got a new album out on ECM, Alba, on which he appears with pianist Florian Weber, and he was at the RNCM in Manchester last night to promote it, at the same time leading sessions teaching students the rudiments of what he calls ‘intuitive music’.  During the concert – in which the duo – a.k.a. Inside Out – played several compositions from the new CD, we were treated to two exhilarating examples of intuitive music, performed with a band of the brilliant students with whom he had been working. Continue reading “Markus Stockhausen and Florian Weber at RNCM: exhilarating, intuitive music”

Springsteen in Manchester: holy communion

Springsteen in Manchester: holy communion

What felt like urban gridlock apocalypse meant that it took us nearly four hours to drive the 35 miles to Manchester and caused us to miss the first hour of the opening night of the UK leg of Bruce Springsteen’s River tour at the Etihad Stadium.

So while the Boss was powering ahead with the E Street Band on tracks such as ‘Two Hearts’, ‘Hungry Heart’ and ‘Crush on You’ from the classic 1980 album (and inviting a man dressed as Father Christmas onto the stage to join him in an impromptu rendition of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town‘), we were locked down in the worst traffic chaos I have ever experienced – the result, apparently, of four simultaneous accidents that shut down Manchester’s entire tram network. Continue reading “Springsteen in Manchester: holy communion”

Arild Anderson Trio at the Band on the Wall: fiery, intense, soulful

Arild Anderson Trio at the Band on the Wall: fiery, intense, soulful

Arild Andersen’s name has run like a thread through almost the entire history of ECM records, all the way back to the double-bass player’s collaboration with Jan Garbarek on Afric Pepperbird back in 1971. His most recent project has been the trio formed a decade ago with Paolo Vinaccia on drums and Tommy Smith on saxophone. I saw them play a spell-bindingly energetic set at Manchester’s Band on the Wall. Continue reading “Arild Anderson Trio at the Band on the Wall: fiery, intense, soulful”

Rocking gently: Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal in concert at RNCM

Rocking gently: Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal in concert at RNCM

Last weekend, at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, we were treated to a stunning display of instrumental virtuosity by Ballake Sissoko, kora master from Mali, and Vincent Segal, French conservatory-trained cellist. Since 2009 the pair have recorded three albums together, delicate and lovely conversations between instruments from two classical music traditions. Continue reading “Rocking gently: Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal in concert at RNCM”

Arvo Pärt in Manchester: music that fulfils a deep human need

Arvo Pärt in Manchester: music that fulfils a deep human need

During the interval at last night’s magnificent Arvo Pärt concert at the Bridgewater Hall I sneaked a look at the latest news on my phone. At the Brussels eurozone summit, Greece was being forced to accept financial colonialism in terms as humiliating as those imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919.

Back in the concert hall, the programme of Pärt’s sublime music continued with his impassioned work for orchestra and solo soprano, Como cierva Sedienta. With its declamatory choruses, it seemed to speak to the ugly mood in Brussels: Continue reading “Arvo Pärt in Manchester: music that fulfils a deep human need”

Richter/Pärt at the Whitworth, Manchester: no broken hallelujah

Richter/Pärt at the Whitworth, Manchester: no broken hallelujah

Just as the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass asks, ‘What do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning?’ so the question might arise, ‘What is the use of art without meaning?’

Richter Pärt
Richter/Pärt at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery

Should a person enter the room at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery in which the work of Gerhard Richter is currently on display, and should that person have read no advance publicity about the Richter/Pärt show of which it is a part, they would find themselves confronted by four large abstract paintings in which thick layers of paint have been squeegeed across the surface – scorched black on white, smears of bloody red, and patches of disintegrating green. They might then ask, ‘What does this mean?’ Continue reading “Richter/Pärt at the Whitworth, Manchester: no broken hallelujah”

An encounter with Chagall in an old synagogue

An encounter with Chagall in an old synagogue

Marc Chagall, St Petersburg, 1910

Marc Chagall in St Petersburg, 1910

It was what some cynics might call a day of typical Mancunian gloom.  The mizzle was dreary and the light dismal as I stepped off the bus on Cheetham Hill Road and crossed over to the building that was my destination – a former synagogue that now serves as Manchester Jewish Museum.

With a history dating back two centuries, Manchester’s Jewish community is the second largest in Britain, one that grew rapidly during the first half of the 19th century as the city’s industrial growth attracted German-Jewish immigrants – shopkeepers and export merchants – as well as Sephardi traders from the shores of the Mediterranean. By 1851 there was a sizeable Jewish community, some of whom had begun to find homes in the semi-rural suburb of  Cheetham Hill to the north of the city.  In the next quarter century, three synagogues were established in Cheetham Hill, the last of them being the building I was making my way towards.

Manchester Jewish Museum

Manchester Jewish Museum, formerly the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue

In 1874, Jewish traders from Gibraltar, Aleppo and Corfu established the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue where a Sephardi, Ladino-speaking congregation would gather until the building became redundant as the Jewish population moved away from the Cheetham area. For a while, this must have been an intellectually vibrant community – just along the street stands another remarkable building – the former Cheetham branch of the Manchester Free Library,  built at almost the same time as the synagogue, in 1876.

In Monday’s mizzle and gloom the area looked less than vibrant. It has that typical inner-city look of clearance and absence: an empty street grid suggesting the disappearance of swathes of terraced housing and of a community, now replaced by one-storey small industrial and retail units.  There is evidence of the area being embraced by more recent migrants – on the next block Chappati Corner and Lahore Kebabish were doing good lunchtime business.

Jewish Museum 4

Inside the Manchester Jewish Museum

The old synagogue – a grade II listed building – re-opened as Manchester Jewish Museum in 1984 and tells the story of the Jewish community that settled here. Stepping into the main sanctuary, I spent some time studying its features, with the help of informative display panels and an enthusiastic guide who provided detailed answers to my questions.

Jewish Museum 1

The Torah scroll intended for Eichmann’s exhibition ‘Relics of a Defunct Culture’.

Stepping up to the bimah, the table from which the Torah is read, I found a Torah scroll displayed, one originally from Kutna Hora in Bohemia that formed part of a collection of Jewish religious items gathered by Adolf Eichmann in Prague in the 1940s and intended for an exhibition called ‘Relics of a Defunct Culture’. In 1964 Eichmann’s collection of 1,564 scrolls were brought to Westminster Synagogue in London. Most of the scrolls have since been distributed to Jewish communities across the world. This scroll is possul, blemished (not, I was told, because of its association with Eichmann, but because some of the words were now difficult to read, probably as a result of damp), so it cannot be used in a synagogue any more.

Jewish Museum 3

The Ark

With the Torah scroll before me, I looked across the hall towards the Ark – the most important part of the synagogue that contains the Torah scrolls. The original Ark was a gold box which held The Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses. Jewish communities across the world remember the original Ark with a replica in their synagogue. Instead of The Ten Commandments, a copy of the Torah is placed in the Ark and is covered with a pariochet (a curtain) just like the original.

Jewish Museum 3 Torah

Torah scrolls in the Ark

The Ark is on the eastern wall of the synagogue, since Jews face Jerusalem when they pray. Above the Ark is a stained-glass window with a design that incorporates a Menorah, the seven-branched lamp, symbol of Judaism since ancient times.

Jewish Museum 2

The synagogue’s stained-glass window with Menorah design

In an alcove I found a small display marking the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in November 1938 when the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against Jews in Germany and Austria. In only a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed.

Jewish Museum Kristallnacht 2

Jewish Museum Kristallnacht 1

Exhibits in the Kristallnacht display

The exhibits focussed on the limited numbers of Jews – mainly children – who were allowed to settle in this country in the months following Kristallnacht.  There was a steamship ticket with which one individual had made the journey from Hook of Holland to Harwich, photos of children arriving in Manchester as part of the Kindertransport.  The children were placed in British foster homes and hostels, often the only members of their families to survived the Holocaust.  There was an example of a leaflet urging public support for the Kindertransport, and a booklet produced to help refugees adjust to British society.

Tearing myself away from these exhibits I made my way to a small back room where the reason for my visit was displayed – an exhibition of paintings by Jewish emigre artists who fled poverty and persecution in Russia to settle and work in Paris in the early 20th century. Entitled Chagall, Soutine and the School of Paris,  the exhibition features work by Chagall and Chaim Soutine, and other early modernist pioneers who were part of the ‘School of Paris’, a group of Jewish artists who, because of their common background, tended to meet frequently and whose artistic output was shaped by their Jewish heritage.

The exhibition features around twenty works of art by 17 Jewish artists, all selected from the collection of Ben Uri Gallery at the London Jewish Museum of Art. These artists were either born within Russia, or in countries then within the Russian Pale of Settlement. In flight from the poverty, persecution and restrictions of their native lands, they converged on Paris, the ‘City of Light’ in search of personal and artistic freedom, mostly in the first two decades of the 20th century. The majority (among them Chagall, Dobrinksy, Henri Epstein, Lipchitz and Soutine) lived and worked together in the collection of studios known as La Ruche (‘the Beehive’) near the old Vaugirard slaughterhouses of Montparnasse. Many, probably including Ben Uri’s founder Lazar Berson, also studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and exhibited at the progressive Salon d’Automne; together they had a profound influence on twentieth-century figurative art.

Many of these artists settled in France, and some applied for French citizenship.  Then came the Second World War and the Nazi occupation which forced them into exile or hiding. Several were deported and died in the concentration camps.

Soutine, La Soubrette (Waiting Maid) 1928-33

Chaim Soutine, ‘La Soubrette’ (‘Waiting Maid’) 1928-33

One of the headline paintings here is Chaim Soutine’s, ‘La Soubrette’,  acquired by the Ben Uri Gallery at London Jewish Museum of Art in 2012 – the first time the painting has been exhibited outside London.

Soutine was born in 1893 in a shtetl near Minsk, now in Lithuania, the tenth child of a poor Jewish family. He began drawing at a young age with encouragement from his family, but encountered opposition in his community for his defiance of the Talmudic interdictions concerning images. After he drew a portrait of the local rabbi he was so badly beaten by the rabbi’s son that he received substantial damages. He arrived in Paris in 1913, where he lived in extreme poverty at ‘La Ruche’ and studied at theEcole des Beaux-Arts.

Jackie Wullschlager, in the Financial Times, described Chaïm Soutine (along with Marc Chagall) as one of ‘the two greatest Jewish painters’ of the twentieth century.  In the mid-1920s, Soutine made an important series of paintings of beef carcasses executed in an expressionistic style, influenced by Rembrandt and the Old Masters, painted direct from decaying animal carcasses hung in his studio, which were later to influence Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. His powerful character studies, which include pastry cooks, choirboys, boot boys, bell-boys and maids, dressed in the uniforms of their trade, strongly evoke the individual personalities of their sitters.

At the onset of the Second World War, Soutine – as a foreign national – was placed under house arrest.  He died in 1943 and was buried in Montparnasse cemetery.  Although Soutine has long been internationally recognised as one of the most influential painters of his generation, his work is poorly represented in UK public collections: the Tate holds three Soutine landscapes, but this is the only Soutine portrait in a UK public collection.

Focusing on a single subject in an unadorned background, the painting depicts an anonymous, working-class figure in the uniform of her profession. Soutine’s gesturally expressive manner and tactile brushwork betray his direct engagement with his subject, so that he underlines the maid’s individuality rather than reducing it, capturing an expression somewhere between weariness and resignation.

Chagall, Praying Jew, c1920

Marc Chagall, ‘Praying Jew’, c 1920

Chagall’s first oil version of the Praying Jew was executed in 1914, modelled on one of the old beggars with tragic faces, who wandered into his mother’s shop in Vitebsk. This figure, wrapped in Chagall’s father’s prayer shawl, was the most overtly religious of the series and was one of the artist’s own favourites. Its combination of a Jewish subject, largely realistically painted but set against an abstract background, brought the picture immediate acclaim when it was first exhibited in Moscow in 1915. This version is from a series of 100 lithographs executed some time around 1920.

Chagall illustration Fables Jean de La Fontaine

Marc Chagall, The Horse and the Donkey, etching on paper, 1927

In 1927, Chagall began working on a project for the art dealer Ambroise Vollard – a series of etchings illustrating The Fables of La Fontaine, a classic text of 17th century France. The commission attracted controversy, with nationalist  critics objecting to the ‘Russian’ (an, no doubt unstated, Jewish) painter interpreting a beloved French text.  This compelled Vollard to defend his decision in an article: ‘Why Chagall? My answer is, simply because his aesthetic seems to me in a certain sense akin to La Fontaine’s, at once sound and delicate, realistic and fantastic’.  Buoyed by Vollard’s unwavering support, Chagall undertook the commission.

Sonia Delauney, Greeting Card for Galerie Bing, Paris, 1964

Sonia Delauney, Invitation Card for Galerie Bing, Paris, 1964

A nearby exhibit may date from 1964, but there is a Chagall connection.  In Paris before the First World Wasr, Chagall’s great friends were the painters Robert Delauney and his wife Sonia Delaunay. Sonia  was born Sarah Stern in 1885 in Gradizhsk, Russia (now in Ukraine). She grew up in St. Petersburg exposed to music and art, and learned several foreign languages. In 1905, she travelled to Paris, studying and discovering the work of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard, and Edouard Vuillard, as well as Matisse and Derain.  In 1908 she married the German collector and art dealer, Wilhelm Uhde. Through Uhde, Sonia encountered many painters, including Robert Delaunay who she married in 1910, after divorcing Uhde by mutual agreement.

Together Sonia and Robert Delaunay pursued the use of abstract colour in painting and textile design.  They were ardent promoters of abstract art in succeeding decades, and in 1964, after becoming the first living female artist to have a retrospective at the Louvre, the Galerie Bing mounted a solo show of Sonia’s  work – for which she produced the striking abstract design for the poster and invitation card, included in this exhibition.

Isaac Dobrinsky, ‘Head of a Girl’, c 1952

Isaac Dobrinsky’s father was a religiously observant Jew who made sure that his son was brought up in a traditional way: he studied in a heder (Jewish elementary school) and in a yeshiva (Jewish high school). Attracted to art, Dobrinsky moved to Kiev to study sculpture.  In 1912, he won a prize for his sculpture which allowed him to move to Paris where he lived until his death in 1973.

Dobrinsky spent the Second World War in hiding in southern France, returning to the capital in 1945. In 1950, he was invited by the founders of a home in Limousin which cared for children orphaned by the Nazis to paint portraits of the children. In the course of two years, Dobrinsky worked on about forty portraits of young boys and girls.

In Head of a Girl, Isaac Dobrinsky has portrayed a young girl, tight-lipped and with a blank stare. In contrast to her dark expression and bare surroundings, he uses a light, luminous palette and lively brush-strokes to capture her individuality.

Leon Bakst, La Peri, 1911

Leon Bakst, ‘La Peri’, 1911

Léon Bakst was born in 1866 in Grodno (Hrodna, now in Belarus) and studied at the St. Petersburg Academy and then in Paris before beginning his career as a magazine illustrator. After travelling through Europe, he returned to St Petersburg, and in 1906 became a teacher of drawing at a private art school where, among other students, he taught Chagall.

Rebelling against the dull and literal stage realism of the previous century, Bakst turned his painting skills to theatre design and in 1909 Bakst began a collaboration with Diaghilev, which resulted in the founding of the revolutionary Ballets Russes, of which Bakst became artistic director. His stage designs quickly brought him international fame. Most notable are his costume designs for The Firebird and Sheherazade (both 1910) and L’Apres-midi d’un Faune (1912). In 1910 Bakst was exiled from St Petersburg (as a Jew without a residence permit) and settled in Paris, where he died in 1924.

La Péri was commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes in 1911 for a ballet composed by Paul Dukas. Bakst’s drawing evokes a sense of rhythmic movement enhanced by the exoticism of his decorative costume.

Henri Epstein, Forest of Rambouillet, c1931

Henri Epstein, ‘Forest of Rambouillet’, c 1931

Henri Epstein was born in 1891 in Lódz, Poland. His father died when he was three and he was raised by his mother who encouraged his interest in painting. He studied drawing in Lódz, then the School of Fine Arts in Munich. Epstein visited Paris in 1912 before serving in the Polish army, then returned to Paris and settled at La Ruche from 1913-38.

Although Epstein’s early art work was influenced by fauvism, he later adopted an expressionist technique. His work, lavishly and vividly painted, depicts landscapes, peasants working in the fields, fishermen at work, interiors, portraits, and nudes. Epstein lived for a time near the forest of Rambouillet, west of Paris and in this painting employs a predominantly green palette, free brushstrokes and generously applied paint to create a textured and vivid surface typical of his later expressive style.

Epstein bought a farm near Epernon, which became his refuge during the Occupation, until on 23 February 1944 he was arrested by Gestapo agents. Despite appeals by his wife and his friends, Epstein was sent to Drancy camp on 21 February 1944. He was deported on 7 March in convoy number 69 and killed in Auschwitz.

Chana Kowalska, Shtetl, 1934

Chana Kowalska, ‘Shtetl’, 1934

Kowalska was born in Wlockawek, Poland and was the daughter of a rabbi. She started drawing at the age of 16 and became a school teacher at the age of 18.  In 1922, she moved to Berlin and later to Paris. She worked as a journalist and wrote articles about painting for Jewish newspapers. In the Second World War, during the German Occupation of France, she worked for the French Resistance. Arrested by the Gestapo, she was first imprisoned with her husband, then deported and shot by the Nazis in 1941.

In Shtetl Kowalska depicts the traditional Jewish small town with its tightly-knit community common throughout Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.  Neighbours gather round the water pump at the town’s centre while a  horse-drawn cart winding up a street lined with traditional, single-storey houses records a way of life that was soon to disappear. Already in Kowalska’s vision, pavements, telegraph poles and street lights signify the arrival of modernity, while the dome in the distance suggests continuing tradition. Many of Kowalska’s paintings recall her homeland and their folk-like quality, bright colours and unnatural perspective suggest the influence of Chagall.

See also

Rokia Traore’s rock roots in Manchester

Rokia Traore’s rock roots in Manchester

Rokia Traore

The first time I saw Rokia Traore live was in 2004.  I’d travelled to Oldham to see her perform in the tiny back room of a pub. The night before, in Edinburgh, she had been presented with the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award (Africa section). It was a memorable evening: the intimate setting, an acoustic set with Rokia’s exquisite, breathy vocals  accompanied only by a guy on water calabash and a young woman who joined her on vocals and in some wild dancing.

Monday night’s gig at the Royal Northern College of Music couldn’t have been more different: a large hall, packed with an enthusiastic audience clearly familiar with the five albums that Rokia now has to her name. And the sound: apart from one delicate number during the encores, this was a hard-rocking show.  Currently touring Britain to support her new album Beautiful Africa, Traore has assembled a band that blasts out a driving hard rock  sound, albeit that her songs and elements of the music draw deeply from Malian tradition.

Beautiful Africa is a rock album, celebrated as such by Traore herself. Of late, she has been wedded to the sound of an old Gretsch guitar, a sound unfurled on her gorgeous 2008 album Tchamantché.  On that and the latest CD, Malian n’gouni, classical harp, and kora are blended with the Gretsch, as well as acoustic guitars, layered in staggered rhythms with snares, drum kit, and percussion. On disc, the instrumentation is sparse, contrasting the Gretsch with subtle percussion effects or the n’goni, the tiny, sharp-edged West African lute that has always been a key element of her sound.

In this live performance in Manchester, though, much of that subtlety was lost in a barrage of sixties-style rock guitar riffs. With her Gretsch loud in the mix, Rokia would  repeat a simple guitar figure endlessly through most songs.  Meanwhile, Stefano Pilia rolled out soaring guitar solos reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour – and even threw in a few passages of wah-wah to reinforce the classic rock feel.  That this is the sound Rokia has been pursuing was confirmed in an interview she gave to Pitchfork magazine:

Of course the folk guitar is the one I play very often, but I wanted a more electric sound. Not electric like the hard rock happening today. I wanted something more 1970s, 60s, 50s, and, of course, because of rock, my choice came very quickly to the Gretsch guitar. I tried it on one song and I was really satisfied, and finally all the rest of the album was composed around the sound of the Gretsch.

I do not deny the quality of the musicianship demonstrated at the Manchester show: every member of the band was on top form, from the  female bass guitarist (whose name I did not catch) to drummer Seb Rochford, the brilliant ngoni player Mamah Diabaté, and backing singers Fatim Kouyaté and Bintou Soumbounou. But I have to say that hearing the varied moods of songs from Beautiful Africa and the previous album Tchamantché uniformly steam-hammered by riffy repetitions of heavy electric guitar –  well, I felt something had been lost.  If there had only been some variation, a little space opened up in the aural landscape.

Pitchfork magazine described Traoré’s 2009 record, Tchamantché, as ‘a guitar album of a particularly understated bent…hauntingly spare yet ridiculously well-defined, the timbre and tone of every string presented in perfect resolution’. Here, though, the intricate, delicate instrumentation of songs like ‘Zen’ from Tchamantché and ‘Melancolie’ from the latest album were submerged beneath the attack of the killer guitar riffs.  Though the title might suggest otherwise, ‘Melancolie’ is not a gloomy song, quite the opposite in fact.  But its inspirational sentiments, dedicated to all that brings joy and happiness seemed quite lost in its new arrangement that made me think a little of Bob Dylan machine-gunning his lyrics into oblivion on the live Hard Rain album:

Melancholy dance with me
To the beautiful cadence of my joyful dreams

Melancholy sing with me
The words of happiness
That inspire life in me

Faithful companion
Of my solitude

Melancholy, I don’t want your pain
Whirling in the fissures of my heart
Your tears that tarnish the colours of my soul
I long for laughter that explodes in sparks
Dreams that twirl and poems recite
And I’ll be gentler than the most beautiful of all joys

Melancholy, dance with me
To the beautiful cadence of my dreamed of joys

Melancholy, sing with me
The words of happiness
That inspire life in me

The set consisted entirely of songs from the last two albums – songs such as ‘Sikey’, ‘Ka Moun Ke’, ‘Tuit Tuit’, ‘Kouma’ and the title track from Beautiful Africa on which Traore addresses the unrest in her Malian homeland with impassioned words sung as wah-wah guitar and ngoni collide.

Although based in Bamako, Traoré has, for her son’s safety, temporarily relocated to Paris due to the current conflict in Mali.  It’s impossible for a musician from Mali to make a record today without referencing the terrible chaos and violence that has blighted the once-peaceful country since the beginning of 2012:

Malians, let’s conquer the pride that’s rife within us,
It only leads to pain.
Disrespecting our fellow being only leads to disharmony
These battles in which everyone thinks only of themselves
Bring nothing but destruction
Conflict is no solution, pride is hardly virtuous
Lord, give us wisdom, give us foresight.

Battered, wounded Africa,
Why do you keep the role of the beautiful naive deceived
Yet, my faith does not know failure
More intense than ever,
My faith does not know failure
I love you beautiful Africa
Afrique je t’aime
I love you beautiful Africa
You are beautiful Africa
Hei hei héhé hei hé
Conflict is no solution, pride is hardly virtuous
Lord, give us wisdom, give us foresight.

Performing title track from Beautiful Africa, live in Brighton, 6.11.13

The evening had begun with Rokia playing the exquisite guitar figure from ‘Dounia’, the opening track on Tchamantché. When she begins to sing you realise that where most female Malian vocalists tend to sing rather stridently, Rokia’s voice is intimate and almost understated.  She’s the daughter of a Malian diplomat who was posted to the US, Europe, and the Middle East, and studied sociology in Brussels before embarking on her musical career. She sings mainly in her native languages, French and Bambara.

Rokia’s music draws upon Mali’s traditions, but increasingly on American rock as well – music she has listened to throughout her life. In the Pitchfork interview, she explained:

I can’t do Malian traditional music because I don’t have that training. There are some specific schools for that, and I didn’t have the chance to learn how to do pure Malian traditional music – by traditional I mean not just classical, but music that is danced to and listened to in Mali today. I think this position that I have is suitable for me, because the interesting thing for me is to put together all my influences and all my experiences I got through my travelling with my father. My influences are jazz, blues, European classical music; they are rock music and pop music. So many kinds of music.

Her love of jazz – and especially of Billie Holiday – was referenced during the encores when she sang ‘Gloomy Sunday’.  Just before she recorded Tchamantché, Rokia was involved in a project called Billie & Me, with other vocalists, including Dianne Reeves: ‘I love jazz music and blues, and I used to listen to her,’ she told Pitchfork. Her own version of The Man I Love’ ended up on Tchamantché.

Towards the end of the show Rokia remarked, rather grumpily, that we were ‘a quiet audience’. We probably were – it’s not easy to let your hair down when seated in the RNCM’s concert hall.  But then Rokia and the band did a phenomenal job, getting everyone on their feet, clapping and stamping to a Malian-style praise song in which she name-checked and introduced the band members by name – as well as reciting in Bambara what sounded like their artistic cv’s. The number, which last for close on 20 minutes, just kept building momentum and energy, and brought the show to a tumultuous conclusion.

The encores included the aforementioned ‘Gloomy Sunday’ sung acappella, the only song led by Rokia on acoustic guitar, before a final, rousing number with scorching dance moves by Rokia, Fatim Kouyaté and Bintou Soumbounou.

Performing ‘Ka Moun Ke’ from Beautiful Africa, live in Edinburgh, 811.13

Performing ‘Sikey’ from Beautiful Africa, live in Brighton, 6.11.13

My determination is strong
My aim is clear to me.
Without artifice or malice,
Without ever hankering for the other summits
That tower over my own limits.
Accompanied by this unknown destiny,
Borne along by my convictions,
I advance with sure step towards the answers
Scrupulously hidden away
Behind the enigmas of life.

Hé sikey (let’s talk openly!)
Your senseless hate will change nothing.

Closing moments of the show, Edinburgh, 8.11.13

Rokia Traoré: Roots live in 2011

In November and December 2011, Rokia performed a limited series of thirteen acoustic concerts, ‘a magnificent journey where voice and strings made tribute to the Mandingo tradition, a tribute to her own roots’.  This full-length concert video shows a different Rokia Traoré to the one I witnessed the other night in Manchester.  She’s joined by Mamah Diabaté (ngoni), Mamadyba Camara (kora), Habib Sangare (Bolon), Virginia Dembele (chorus), Fatim Kouyate (vocals) and Bintou Soumbounou (chorus).

Rokia Traoré: live at The Festival Les Suds, Arles, August 2013

A full-length performance from the Beautiful Africa tour last summer, with some of the same band members.

See also

Bartok, Beethoven and Pärt

Martha Argerich

Last night we dipped our toes into the Manchester International Music Festival, attending a concert at the Bridgewater Hall featuring a very varied programme – Bartok, Beethoven and Arvo Part.  I was there primarily for the Bartok (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste) and Part (Lamentate), but most of the audience were there for pianist Martha Argerich, who played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, receiving several several rapturous standing ovations. Continue reading “Bartok, Beethoven and Pärt”

John Piper: the shape and tilt of rocks

John Piper: the shape and tilt of rocks

Our main purpose in popping over to Manchester last week was to see the John Piper exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery.  Piper is an artist whose work I admire, but I have to admit that this exhibition – The Mountains of Wales – left me a little  underwhelmed.  Or maybe that should be overwhelmed? The Whitworth has brought together a large selection of paintings and drawings, all from a private collection, depicting mountains and rocks.  The trouble is that, taken together, the note sung by these works is a dark monotone: predominantly greys, browns and blacks with occasional splashes of colour.  As David Fraser Jenkins says in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, ‘Not one of the drawings looks as if it has been made on a sunny day.’ Continue reading “John Piper: the shape and tilt of rocks”