Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

‘The harp and the kora appear to us like old instruments, designed for quieter sparser times’, instruments which ‘can seem out of place in this cacophonous world’, writes Andy Morgan in the sleeve-notes to Clychau Dibon, the album that took the folk-roots world by storm last year.  In the magnificent surroundings of the Concert Room in Liverpool’s St Georges Hall the gorgeous music created by these two musicians from superficially-different cultures enthralled a rapt audience as they braided together notes and songs from each of their traditions to reveal unexpected commonalities between the mountains and coasts of Wales and the shores of Senegal.

An Egyptian tomb painting of musicians with harps
An Egyptian tomb painting of musicians with harps

Around 5,000 years ago a hunter sat idly twanging the string of his bow and the idea of the harp was born. Egyptian tomb paintings show musicians playing various size and style harps. and remains of early harp-like instruments have been excavated at the site of the Sumerian city of Ur (the Golden Lyre of Ur) and in Babylonia. From Egypt, the harp migrated along trade routes across north Africa and, in the form of the West African kora – an instrument with 21 strings made from the tough gourd of the calabash – gave rise to a rich musical tradition perpetuated to this day by descendants of the griots of Gambia, Senegal, Guinea and Mali – the equivalents of the Welsh bards.

The harp occupies a central place in the rich cultures of both West Africa and Wales and both nations share a bardic tradition of oral history expressed through music, song and verse.The frame harp first appeared in medieval western Europe in the 8th to 10th centuries; in Wales there has an unbroken tradition of of harp playing for nine centuries. Like the West African griots, Welsh bards, accompanying themselves on the harp, sang, recited poems and narrated stories that have transmitted the legends of Wales down the generations. The Robert ap Huw manuscript from the late 16th century is the oldest written collection of harp music in the world.

A wooden carving of a Welsh harpist from around 1510
A wooden carving of a Welsh harpist from around 1510

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita had been brought together by Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan, in 2012 in a project designed to braid music of the kora with that of the Welsh harp – vibrant threads envisaged as a multicoloured tapestry.  To begin with, the plan was for a recording on which Catrin would partner Toumani Diabate, the world’s greatest exponent of the kora. But circumstances intervened and at short notice Seckou was drafted in for the project. (You can read more about the origins of the project in Andy Morgan‘s feature for fRoots magazine in June 2013). The album, Clychau Dibon, was released in 2013 and by the end of the year had won the album of the year award from fRoots magazine.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo: Josh-Pulman)
Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo: Josh-Pulman)

The duo’s concert in Liverpool on Wednesday evening  was, we agreed afterwards, one of the best we had ever attended.  Catrin and Seckou came out onto a stage on which two koras and two Welsh harps (one concert size, one smaller electro harp) stood waiting.  The lights dimmed, and the two musicians began to develop the blissful melodies heard on their album.  The way it works in each of the pieces they have developed together is that one partner takes the lead with a tune from their native tradition, while the other fills and improvises around the edges; then, almost imperceptibly, the other musician begins to develop a theme from their own culture.  By the end of the piece the melodies are so entwined that it’s almost impossible to distinguish where on ends and the other begins, or who is playing which theme.

‘Les Bras De Mer’ (live at Theatr Mwldan, March 2013):

Writing about ‘Les Bras De Mer’ in the CD sleeve notes, Andy Morgan explains how the pair braid Welsh and West African themes to create their music:

The island of Carabane at the mouth of the Casamance River and the wide Bae Aberteifi, or Cardigan Bay, are magical places for Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch. Those Bras de Mer (‘Arms of the Sea’) inspire the currents that flow through their fingers.

When they were working on the song Bras de Mer, Seckou remembered this old Welsh tune that he’d once played with another Welsh harpist by the name of Llio Rhydderch, but he couldn’t remember its name. Producer John Hollis found it on the Internet. It was called‘Conset Ifan Glen Teifi’, ‘The Concert of Ifan Glen Teifi’. Teifi is the name of the river that runs through Cardigan. It’s a lush and beautiful Welsh waterway and the tune fitted Seckou’s Manding melody ‘Niali Bagna’, named after an old Wolof king, like a hand fits an old glove. Seckou then added an old Manding melody called ‘Bolong’, meaning ‘The Arms of the Sea’. Finally Catrin overlaid ‘Clychau Aberdyfi’ or ‘The Bells of Aberdovey’. Everything found its place in the whole without coercion, like the pieces in a puzzle or the water of many rivers flowing into each other for their final journey to the sea. That’s how most of Clychau Dibon came together. Strange symmetries. Strange coincidences.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo Elizabeth Jaxon)
Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch (photo Elizabeth Jaxon)

Seckou Keita was born in southern Senegal, in Ziguinchor, a town on the banks of the great Casamance River. He’s a descendant of one of the great West African griot families: his mother was the daughter of a griot whose lineage stretched back centuries, while his father was a Keita, a descendent of the great Manding king Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali Empire in the 14th century. Catrin Finch, meanwhile, was born in Aberystwyth, of English and German parents, and grew up in a tiny village near Aberaeron, on the shores of Cardigan Bay.

By the time Catrin and Seckou joined forces, both were recognised as among the finest players of their chosen instrument. Andy Morgan again:

Harp and a kora, woman and a man, Celt and Manding, European and African, written scores and word of mouth; you might expect Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch to be separated by unbridgeable cultural chasms, but you’d be wrong. Go deep and you’ll find strange symmetries and fabulous coincidences that bind West Africa and Wales; bards and griots, djinns and faeries, the Casamance River and the Teifi, Sundiata Keita and the 10th century Welsh King Hywel Dda, the list goes on.

Both players draw upon their ancient traditions. One song from Clychau Dibon performed at the Concert Room was ‘Bamba’, a tune dedicated by Seckou to Amadou Bamba, the early 20th century mystic and Sufi religious leader from Senegal who led a pacifist struggle against French colonialism: a man who devoted his life to the welfare of others, whose deeds have been praised in numerous tales, poems – and songs by West African musicians such as Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal and Orchestra Baobab.

‘Bamba’ played at Cardiff WOMEX in 2013:

Another example of how Catrin and Seckou build bridges between Welsh melodies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the traditional music of Senegal, Gambia and Mali of roughly from the same period came with their performance of ‘Robert Ap Huw meets Nialing Sonko’.  This was a collaboration that began when Finch dug out a melody called ‘Caniad Gosteg’ from Robert Ap Huw’s 16th century manuscripts of transcripts for harp. Keita listened and responded with a tune he named after the Manding king Nialing Sonko (famous for collecting too much tax from his people, as Seckou explained at the concert) because the tune echoed the pure Casamance kora style of his youth and Sonko was a Casamance king. Finally, Seckou added to the mix an exercise that all aspiring kora players have to master, ‘Kelefa Koungben’.  More history there, too:  Kelefa was another Manding leader from the time when the kora itself was born.  What’s remarkable, on CD and in live performance, is how seamless was the fit between a courtly tune from medieval Wales and the elegant dignity of a kora melody from a bygone age.

One of the most thrilling moments in this enthralling concert was the duo’s performance of the most inventive piece on their CD, ‘Future Strings’. This began in the region of European classical music as Finch explored the theme from ‘Prelude from the Asturias’ by the Spanish composer Albéniz, but soon spiralled off into something almost avant-garde as Finch ran her nail down a bass string and performed a 47-string-long glissandi before knocking out rhythms on the frame of her harp as if it were a conga drum. These gymnastics were then echoed by Keita, performing all kinds of tricks on his strings beating the gourd of the kora. At one point in the piece, Finch was plucking both harps simultaneously.

Here’s an official video of Catrin and Seckou performing ‘Future Strings’ live:

Though most of the pieces performed by Finch and Keita at the concert were from the Clychau Dibon CD, they did introduce several new tunes, including two which – unlike those on the CD – included vocalisations. Introducing ‘Tryweryn’, Finch insisted that – as a Liverpool audience – we should not take it personally.  For this was a piece inspired by the construction, in 1965, of a reservoir (we’ve passed it many times, on the from Bala to Trawsfynydd) which flooded the Tryweryn valley to provide water for Liverpool. The residents of Capel Celyn, one of the last monoglot Welsh-speaking villages were forcibly removed from homes and land owned by families there for centuries.  It was the end of bitter nine-year long struggle to save the village after  a private bill sponsored by Liverpool City Council was passed by Parliament despite bitter opposition by 35 out of 36 Welsh MPs .

Protest in Liverpool attempting to stop the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley, 1965

Protest in Liverpool against the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley, 1965

Catrin spoke of how Tryweryn ushered in a period of bitter conflict in Wales during which the reservoir dam was bombed by Welsh nationalists. Bessie Braddock, a Labour MP for Liverpool at the time, dismissed the plight of Capel Celyn as something that would, ‘make some disturbance of the inhabitants inevitable…but that is progress.’ The remnants of that time can still be seen as you drive through Wales, she said, in fading Welsh Nationalist slogans.

Cofiwch Dryweryn' 'Remember Tryweryn' Welsh nationalist graffiti on roadside wall near Llanrhystud Ceredigion

‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ -‘Remember Tryweryn’ – Welsh nationalist slogan on a roadside wall near Llanrhystud, Ceredigion

Welsh anger over the drowning of Capel Celyn arose again in 2005 when Liverpool City Council issued an apology for its actions: ‘We realise the hurt of 40 years ago when the Tryweryn Valley was transformed into a reservoir. For our insensitivity we apologise and hope the historic and sound relationship between Liverpool and Wales can be completely restored.

Capel Celyn
Capel Celyn before the flood … and today

Capel Celyn reservoir

This new piece was superb, and represented a quite extraordinary performance by Catrin Finch who at one point simultaneously played both electro harp and the concert harp whilst vocalising memories of the lost homes and flooded valley while Keita added a wordless, soulful vocal.

Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita pla ‘Tryweryn’ at WOMAD 2014

For their encore the duo returned to perform another new number with vocalisations, preceded by a short tutorial about their two instruments.  It left you with the realisation that both are incredibly complex instruments – the concert harp, for instance, as well as having 47 strings, has seven pedals (compared to the two on a piano) which each modulate an octave’s strings in three different ways.

This was an enthralling concert in which Finch and Keita successfully created a blend of two different, yet similar, musical cultures to create a joyous experience. ‘Some people spend a lot of money on illegal substances in order to attain the kind of mood this music evokes’, commented fRoots magazine when reviewing the CD.  Couldn’t put it better!

Afterwards long lines queued for the CD.  I bought one, having enjoyed the album up to that point from a download.  But here was something that made  downloads irrelevant: the CD comes packaged inside a with beautiful hard cover, 32 page full colour booklet, with photos and a knowledgeable introduction by writer and journalist Andy Morgan.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita at the Luminato Festival in Toronto, June 2014

This is a full concert lasting one hour – but note that the performance does not begin until the 15 minute point:

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Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla: classicism, African rhythms and jazz improvisation

Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla: classicism, African rhythms and jazz improvisation


Our first evening in London was spent listening to Mozart.  The next two evenings were occupied with music of a very different kind, taking in concerts that were part of the 2013 London Jazz Festival.  On Saturday we went along to the Southbank Centre to hear Arild Andersen’s star-studded Quintet, and were blown away by the opening act who were previously unknown to me – a Dutch trio going simply under the name Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla.  This turned out to mean a brilliant jazz/chamber/world music combo featuring Ernst Reisjeger on cello, Harmen Fraanje on piano, and Mola Sylla on vocals and percussion.

Mola Sylla

They began quietly enough, pianist and cellist on stage trading lyrical lines as a chamber duet unfolded. Then – for a split-second – I thought some kind of protest was taking place as a man’s voice wailed at the back of the auditorium.  Turning to look, it was the third member of the trio, Mola Sylla, moving down through the auditorium singing in the declamatory style of the West African griot.  It was a spine-tingling moment that raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

What followed was a varied and tremendously exciting set which blended elements of European jazz and chamber music with African rhythms in a seamless mix. At times dynamic and dramatic, at others gentle or elegant, the trio combined voices and solos with both sensitivity and a wild, impassioned freedom. One minute Fraanje or Reijseger would pursue a lyrical passage that might have originated in the conservatoire, before striking out into angular, percussive improvisation.

Musicas do Mundo 2013 Festival in Sines

Reisjeger was a revelation, playing his cello in every way imaginable – bowing the strings in a conventional manner to produce fragile and haunting melodies, plucking the strings for jagged pizzicato passages, drumming on the body of his cello, and strumming chords while holding the instrument across his knee, like an oversized guitar. When bowed, Reijseger could make his cello evoke a Baroque melody. Plucked one way he caused it to sound like a jazz bass. Plucked another way, it echoed the tinkly notes of Sylla’s m’bira.

Sylla would respond with impassioned vocals, his voice at times strident and impassioned, at others tinged with melancholy. In robes of crimson and gold, he would stride around the stage twirling bird-callers and African rattles or, seated, pluck a delicate tune on the m’bira (traditional thumb piano) or xalam (the Wolof name for the two- or three-stringed instrument known as an ngoni in Mali).

Reisjeger Fraanje Sylla

Though from different backgrounds, Reijseger, Fraanje and Sylla have, I have learned since, been playing together for many years, both as a trio and in other projects, such as film scores for Werner Herzog’s recent films.  Sylla, from Senegal, met Reijseger after playing his first concerts in Amsterdam with his group Senemali in the late 1980’s. Since then Amsterdam has been Sylla’s home base. During the nest two decades they playing together frequently. Then, in 2007, Fraanje asked both Reijseger and Sylla to join him in a trio.

Back home with Google, I realised that I had been hearing Reijseger for some time: after starting out in the thriving Dutch Baroque and early music scene before branching out into avant-garde music and jazz, he is now best known for the boundary-crossing scores he has written for recent films by Werner Herzog, such as Requiem for a Dying Planet, The Wild Blue Yonder, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Earlier this year the trio released their first record, and I’ve been listening to it a lot during the past week. Deep Down features many of the pieces performed at the Southbank Centre concert, and highlights include Reijseger’s melancholic ‘Elena’ and ‘Amerigo’, the spell-binding concert opener.  My favourite track at the moment is ‘Shaped by the Tide’, which begins with an intricate interplay between Fraanje’s piano and Sylla’s xalam before the cello enters, longing and lyrical.  Seven of the tracks feature Sylla’s vocals – sometimes declaiming his own Senegalese lyrics, sometimes singing wordlessly.

I’ve listened to several very good albums that blend African and European musical traditions. One example is Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko’s exquisite collaboration with the French cellist Vincent Segal, Chamber Music, the work of two musicians from very different backgrounds who seem to understand each other almost intuitively as the kora trades rippling lines with the cello. Another Sissoko collaboration, Diario Mali consists of duets with the Italian classical pianist Ludovico Einaudi on which the piano and kora interweave to produce sheer loveliness.  Or there’s the
Kora Jazz Trio, three West African musicians (Guinean kora player Djeli Moussa Diawara, Senegalese pianist Abdoulaye Diabaté and percussionist Moussa Cissoko) who effortlessly mix traditional West African styles with American jazz standards.

Deep Down ploughs the same furrow with but with a more improvisational and unrestrained approach. As in the concert we saw, classical elements are juxtaposed with the characteristic wailing chant-like melodies of the West African storyteller while at any moment one of the musicians will veer off into angular or rhythmical improvisation, all held together by the exuberant strumming, plucking and battering of his cello by Ernst Rejseger.  One review summed up the album perfectly:

Deceptive in its blend of folkloric naiveté, structural sophistication and improvisational élan, Deep Down truly sounds like no other recording, as romantic classicism intersects with African culture and jazz-centric improvisation.

Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla: Amerigo live

Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla: Raykwela live

Encounters on Tour

Encounters on Tour is a short film by Myles O’Reilly that follows Trio Reijseger Fraanje Sylla on tour.

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Mali: the music cries out

Mali: the music cries out

Oumou Sangare

Oumou Sangare

I’ve had it mind on several occasions in the past 12 months to write something about my love for the music of Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries that for two decades had been held up as a model of democratic progress in sub-Saharan Africa until last January when an armed insurgency resulted in Islamist forces gaining control of vast swathes of the north of the country, including the ancient cultural centre of Timbuktu.  Earlier this week, before the French military intervention, Mali appeared to be on the brink of dissolution as Islamist forces pushed south towards the capital Bamako.

This morning, The Guardian has an article by Robin Denselow (Mali music ban by Islamists ‘crushing culture to impose rule’) that will have been read with interest – and dread – by anyone who has been energised and enthralled by the astonishing cavalcade of wonderful musicians who have emerged from this land. Denselow begins by observing:

Nowhere does music have a greater social and political importance than in the vast desert state of Mali. It is shocking, therefore, that it has been banned across much of the two-thirds of Mali currently controlled by Islamic rebel groups.

He goes on to summarize the global impact of Mali’s musicians:

Malian musicians have become household names in the west. The list is remarkable, from the late Ali Farka Touré to the soulful Salif Keita, from Toumani Diabaté, the world’s finest exponent of the kora, to the bravely experimental Rokia Traoré. Then there’s the rousing desert blues of Tinariwen, who have performed alongside the Rolling Stones.

There is the passionate social commentary of Oumou Sangaré, and the rousing, commercially successful African pop fusion of Amadou & Mariam.

These musicians, with varied, distinctive styles, have educated western audiences about Africa and their country’s ancient civilisation, and the way in which traditional families of musicians, the griots, had acted as advisers to the rulers and guardians of the country’s history, and kept alive an oral tradition for generation after generation.

And yet, Denselow writes, ‘the Islamic rebel groups are trying to wipe out this ancient culture’ – and in the process have forced Malian musicians to examine the role they should now play.  He quotes Manny Ansar, director of Mali’s celebrated Festival in the Desert, at a recent censorship conference in Oslo as stating that the Islamic militias are banning music in order ‘to impose their authority, so there’s nothing to threaten them’. ‘They are attacking the traditional chiefs and musicians. And they’re using concepts of Islam that are 14 centuries old.’  Young people have been stopped from listening to music and families have had their televisions smashed for watching music shows, but music was still being played underground, Ansar said.

Denselow reports that Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara has just finished a new song and video, Peace, which will be released in Bamako on Thursday. The aim was to promote peace and ‘show that … we want one Mali’.  Outside Mali, other musicians are involved in an international campaign to promote the culture of their battered country. Rokia Traoré, arguably the most adventurous female singer in Africa, is currently on tour in Australia. She explains: “I can just keep going and doing the best in my work, to try to make people think good things about Mali and see good things from Mali.”

So, here are some good things from Mali, beginning with a track from one of the first Malian albums I bought, Salif Keita’s Soro from 1987, and followed by a song from the golden era of the state-subsidised bands of the 1970s, ‘Mandjou’ by by Les Ambassadeurs, also featuring a young Salif Keita:

Last, one of my favourite pieces of music of any description: ‘Djorolen’ sung by Oumou Sangare.  Sangare is the voice of feminism in West Africa. In a region where polygamy is the norm, and women are often viewed as the property of their husbands, Sangare’s music has come to symbolize the struggle against gender imbalance. In addition to their social content, Sangare’s songs are full of the joy and spirit that the traditional rhythms of Mali have been communicating for generations. The lyrics translate in part:

The worried songbird,
Cries out in the forest,
The worried songbird,
Her thoughts go far away,
The worried songbird,
cries out in the forest,
The worried songbird,
Her thoughts go far away,
For those of us who have no father,
Her thoughts go out to them.

See also

Baaba Maal: Tales from the Sahel

I went over to the RNCM in Manchester last night to see the event billed as ‘An Evening with Baaba Maal – Tales from the Sahel’.  The music – an intimate performance by Baaba himself, with Jim Palmer on drums or additional guitar and Mamadou Sarr on percussion –  was sensational.  But the format of the evening was a little disappointing, with a vociferous section of the audience becoming pretty restless after a while.

The advance details for the event stated that ‘Tales from the Sahel will feature ancient Fula stories from Senegal; a discussion between Baaba Maal and the UK playwright and journalist Kwame Kwei-Armah about how such mythological tales have led to the inspiration that is modern Africa; and performances of songs that have emerged from these two apparently divergent strands’.   But there were no ancient Fula stories and the ‘conversation’ between Kwame Kwei-Armah and Baaba was far from revalatory, especially for an audience that was pretty evidently very well-informed about Baaba Maal and his music.

The stage was set with a table and chair for each of the two conversationalists, flanked by Maal’s guitars, Palmer’s drums and Sarr’s djembe, sabar and water drum.  Kwame Kwei-Armah kicked off by saying the evening would consist of an unprepared conversation betwee himself and Baaba Maal, explaining that they had met in Dakar last year when he was artistic director of the 3rd World Festival of Black Arts and Culture, and that the inspiration for the evening’s format came when Kwame spent an evening at Baaba’s house there. As the night went on, the house bustled with friends and acquaintances dropping by, engaging in animated, freewheeling discussions about everything under the sun, with Baaba, fluent in a variety of African and European languages, translating from one to the other for the benefit of those present.

The trouble with this element of the evening was that Kwame Kwei-Armah’s chat with Maal wasn’t especially probing or revealing for anyone who has perused their Baaba Maal CD notes or read interviews with him.  Too much of it was along the lines of Armah saying things like, ‘what a fantastic gig – me on stage with the great Baaba Maal, and getting paid for it!’  We did learn about the important influence of Baaba’s mother (who sang for pleasure at weddings and other ceremonies) and his father’s very different musical preferences.  He was a fisherman, he sang religious songs, and was fundamentally opposed to the idea of a son of his singing popular songs.  His mother also influenced Baaba Maal’s views about women in African society – her experience of polygamy was an unhappy one, as is that of most women in polygamous marriages, according to Maal.

The conversation also made plain the enormous debt that Baaba Maal feels he owes to his lifelong friend and mentor Mansour Seck. Since his father was a fisherman, Baaba Maal was expected to become a fisherman as well. However, under the influence of  Mansour Seck, Maal devoted himself to learning music from his mother and his school’s headmaster. In 1974, after his baccalauréat he chose to study music while also taking a fine arts course in Dakar. In this way he was able to convince his father that he was training to become a teacher – albeit a teacher of music. However, he and his old friend Mansour Seck and were soon recording musical performances at the radio station.  He persuaded the stationa announcer not to mention his name, but eventually his performances became so popular that, one day, the announcer let slip his name – and his father found out.

Little of this would be news to most of those in the Manchester audience who, an hour into the session, with the musical interludes short and the conversation extended, were getting restive, with calls for ‘more music!’  Armah seemed to recognise the way things were going, abandoned a promised audience Q&A with Maal, and handed over to the musicians.  They completed the show with three or four numbers that moved from contemplative passages in which Baaba Maal’s voice soared above his acoustic guitar, to storming finales driven by Mamadou Sarr’s thunderous percussion.  Sections of the audience shook free of the format’s shackles and danced – one or two joining the musicians on stage, where Sarr whipped them to a frenzy.

Baaba Maal was born in 1953 in Podor, in the Fouta province, Senegal. That makes nearly 60 – something very difficult to believe, with his still-youthful appearance.   He is of the Toucouleur or Haalpulaar (pulaar-speaking) people, of northern Senegal, sings primarily in Pulaar and is a deeply-committed promoter of the traditions of the Pulaar-speaking peoples who live on either side of the Senegal River in the ancient Senegalese kingdom of Futa Tooro.  He spoke passionately about his home town, which has featured in several of his songs.

In 1982 Baaba Maal completed his musical training in Paris at the Conservatoire. Mansour Seck joined him and they began touring in various European countries. In Brussels they recorded their first album, Djam Leelii.  I can still remember when the album was released in 1989 in the UK, bringing home the vinyl lp with its emblematic cover featuring a room, photographed through a doorway, that contained traditional wooden furniture and a modern matt black stereo system, red LED glowing.  I recall the moments when the first notes of the opening track, Lam Tooro, flooded the room.  Like the rest of the album, it was beautifully hypnotic, with the two musicians’ guitars and Baaba Maal’s ethereal voice, accented by dabs of African percussion, producing pure magic. It remains one of my most treasured albums, amd Baaba Maal’s best in my view.

In July 2003, Baaba Maal was appointed as a Youth Emissary for the United Nations’ Development Programme. As part of his role, the musician-ambassador devoted a significant amount of time and energy to raising young people’s awareness of AIDS and HIV. In 2006, Maal organised the first Les Blues du Fleuve (River Blues) festival in Senegal. The festival has become an annual spring-time event, linking the countries that border the Senegal River and involving all branches of the arts from music to painting, crafts and public lectures.

Baaba Maal recalls his childhood in Podor (BBC World Service)

Baaba Maal: Baayo

Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck: Djam Leelii

Mamadou Sarr with Baaba Maalperforming in Ireland in 2009


Remmy Ongala: songs for the poor man

When the first wave of what came to be categorised as ‘world music’ hit the UK in the early 1980s, it resulted in leading record companies in the UK releasing some outstanding albums of African music. Some were added to my record collection, among them Baaba Maal’s Djam Leelii, Salif Keita’s Soro and King Sunny Ade’s Juju Music, and two Sound d’Afrique compilations released on the Virgin record label.  One album I played repeatedly was Agwaya by Orchestra Makassy from Tanzania, long since out of print.  The music capered and glittered, driven on by the dazzling lead guitar of Remmy Ongala.

Ongala had been born in Zaire, and had experienced a tough childhood;  both his parents had died by the time he was nine.  After building a reputation as a musician in Zaire, Ongala moved to Tanzania.  In 1980 Orchestra Makassy, a band from Dar Es Salaam, got together in a Nairobi studio to record an album for some young Brits who wanted to cash in on the African music boom that was happening back in the UK, thanks largely to the King Sunny Ade album.

The band was named after Mzee Makassy, the leader and principal vocalist, but it was Remmy Ongala’s driving guitar, particularly on the opening track, ‘Mambo Bado’, that grabbed your attention right from the first note.  Here it is again to brighten up the January gloom:

Ongala’s fame spread throught East Africa as a result of his guitar work with Orchestra Makassy, and later Orchestre Super Matimila.  He brought to these bands the soukous dance style of his homeland, mixed with Tanzanian and other East African rhythms.  Today the Guardian marks his passing on 13 December with a revealing obituary by Robin Denselow.

One thing that Denselow highlights is how much the British ear missed when listening to Ongala’s music – he wrote outspoken Swahili lyrics which championed the urban poor, dealt with subjects such as poverty and Aids.  In 1989, Ongala and Orchestre Super Matimila travelled to the UK to make their first recordings outside Africa, for Real World. The album Songs for the Poor Man included several of his most thoughtful lyrics, sung mainly in Swahili.

Kifo (Death Has No Mercy):

Terje Isungset’s ice music

If I had been in London this weekend I would have gone to Somerset House to hear Terje Isungset play his ice music.  Over the past decade, Isungset has produced a series of entrancing albums on which he plays instruments he has made out of ice: drums, marimbas, chimes and other percussion instruments,  all carved the purest of materials – frozen water from an ancient lake.

Terje Isungset is a renowned Norwegian percussionist whho began making ice music in 2000 when the commission of the winter games in Lillehammer asked him to compose and play in a frozen waterfall. He accepted the challenge and using only the things the river gave him – stones, ice, water and wood – he  produced the first of his minimalist ice compositions.  In 2001 the first of six ice music albums was released.  Each of them have a different character – the most recent, Hibernation,  incorporated lullabies from the Sami people of northern Norway sung by Sami Joik-singer Sara Marielle Gaupand, who joined him for the concerts in London this weekend.

Isungset is playing a series of nine concerts in a temporary geodesic dome beside Somerset House. It’s cold, but nowhere near as cold as Geilo in Norway, where Isungset has established the world’s first ice music festival.

The Guardian has this review of his performance at Somerset House:

Visual spectacle aside, Isungset makes fascinating music – it’s not the sound art or ambient abstraction you might expect. Pure-toned singer Lena Nymark adds wordless vocals: folky, pentatonic motifs on New Day and a longer, more chromatic line that reverberates across Isungset’s four-note ice marimba riffs on Mellom Fjell, a tone poem about the awe felt surrounded by high mountains and deep water.

On the closing Global Ice, a Nobel prize ceremony commission, Isungset picks up the wonderfully odd-looking ice trumpet, and produces a roar that soars across looped and pre-recorded ice percussion – an abrasive, primeval sound that’s far from ice-clear, but magnificent in its madness.

One of his best ice albums is the live Ice Concerts (2008).  Chris Jones, reviewing it for the BBC, had this to say:

Terje Isungset, like many of his Nordic compatriots, straddles the divide between jazz, avant garde and even folk. A lot of this has to do with the inherent Scandinavian respect for nature and its power on the imagination. Isungset, a percussionist who has worked with just about every major name in Norwegian jazz, is a man who uses nature’s materials to make his music. Anyone who has seen him perform knows that he can express himself more fully with a ram’s horn, a bunch of twigs or a couple of pebbles, better than most musicians could with a whole fjord full of modern gadgetry. Ice Concerts, culled from his tour of Arctic spots in 2006, sees him extend the pallette of sounds that he first explored on his album Iceman Is. And yes, it’s all made with nothing more sophisticated than frozen water and the human voice.

Les Triaboliques

Three faces that might have been chiselled from Mount Rushmore, Les Triaboliques took to the stage in the Rodewald Suite at the Phil last night and gave a blinding performance of dazzling fretwork on guitar and other, less-familiar stringed instruments.  Les Triaboliques are Justin Adams, Lu Edmunds and Ben Mandelson, all guitarists with long pedigrees, and pioneers in exploring new landscapes in world music.  They describe themselves as playing ‘distressed string band music for the 21st century’.

The set consisted mainly of tunes from the trio’s debut album, rivermudtwilight, released last autumn. Influences on the mainly self-penned songs range from the blues and North African desert blues to echoes of klezmer, Turkish and Siberian sounds.  But what really lifts the music out of the ordinary is the exquisite artistry of the trio.  On the album they employ a multitude of instruments, many of them exotic.  Last night, Adams stuck to guitar, while Edmunds played a cümbüş manufactured in Istanbul as well as loaned guitars (his own had been accidentally left behind in snow-bound Bath).  Mandelson, returning to the city of his birth – he attended Hope Place Primary, just round the corner from the Phil – played guitar, mandolin and a Greek barizouki (a baritone bouzouki).

Each of these musicians has trod a long and winding path toward Les Triaboliques. Justin Adams has recorded two desert blues albums with Juldeh Camarah, Desert Road and Soul Science, but before that contributed inventive guitar work to albums with Robert Plant, Sinead O’Connor and Jah Wobble, and produced albums by the Tuareg rockers Tinariwen. After a punk apprenticeship, Ben Mandelson served time in bands such as 3 Mustaphas 3 and Billy Bragg’s Blokes, as  became well-known for his tireless advocacy world music as director of  Globe Style Records. Lu Edmonds first came to prominence as a guitarist with the Damned, and subsequently with the Mekons, 3 Mustaphas 3 and Billy Bragg.

The set opened with ‘Crossing the Stone Bridge’, an original composition by the trio, featuring Adams on electric guitar and vocals, Lu on the oud-like cümbüs and Ben on barizouki: ‘We belong to the earth/crossing the stone bridge/all our
possessions piled on our backs’. After this, there wasn’t one less-than-outstanding number.  There were superb versions of  traditional numbers like ‘Corrina Corrina’ and ‘Jack O’Diamonds’ and an astonishing interpretation of ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’, presented in a medley with the Jewish traditional tune ‘Hora Anicuta Draga’ (it works!). ‘I think the two tunes share a kind of noble melancholy’, Adams has said.

The title track of the album, ‘rivermudtwilight’, with savage, choppy guitar riffs, was introduced by Mandelson  as a song that could have been written for the river that flows through this city and past the Pier Head: ‘down, down, down by the river – river mud’. ‘Black Earth Boys’  is a trio-composed song about migration – those who make the perilous journey across mountain, desert and sea to reach Europe.  Introducing the song, Mandelson, whose family had a shop on Bold Street, recollected similar journeys that brought migrants to Liverpool: in the late 19th century Jews from eastern Europe were sometimes duped by agents who sold passages to America, but abandoned their victims in Liverpool telling them they had arrived in the New World.

A truly great evening.