Vishwa Mohan Bhatt gives an astounding, ear-bending performance at the Capstone

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt gives an astounding, ear-bending performance at the Capstone

Back in the 1990s, idly sifting through CDs in Probes Records, I stumbled across an album called A Meeting by the River that featured an Indian musician whose name was unknown to me: Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. But, drawn by Ry Cooder’s name I bought the record and once at home discovered a gem.

The Grammy award winning album is a masterclass of musical interplay, particularly outstanding considering that Cooder and Bhatt met for the first time only a half-hour before the recording. Most of all, though, it is the album’s mood of harmony and peace, a reverie of tranquillity, that enthrals the listener.

So when Vishwa Mohan Bhatt introduced his performance at the Capstone last Saturday night saying that his was as ‘music for meditation and  thepurification of the soul’ I expected a similar mood to follow. Continue reading “Vishwa Mohan Bhatt gives an astounding, ear-bending performance at the Capstone”


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:

See also

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.






African Sanctus

The other day I was writing about the importance for me of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew in opening up new musical horizons. Now, with news of the death of the composer and musicologist David Fanshawe, I’m drawn back to another album of the 1970s – African Sanctus – that was seminal for me, one of the first sparks to set alight a love of African music.

In African Sanctus the Latin Mass is juxtaposed with live recordings of traditional African music, which Fanshawe had recorded himself in three years  journeying up the Nile to Lake Victoria. The work, in 13 movements, blends field recordings from Egypt, the Sudan, Uganda and Kenya with elements from the western Catholic mass.  The lp sleeve notes described the music as being for an ensemble of  ‘African tapes, choir, operatic soprano, light soprano, shouter, African drummer, rock drummer, two percussion, electric guitar, bass guitar, piano, and Hammond M-100 organ’ which was pretty far out for 1975.

African Sanctus was premiered live in London in 1972, and really took off after a BBC TV documentary three years later (be good to see that again), and the release of the lp, which became a bestseller. The work was ahead of its time in many respects:  using backing tracks with live performance was uncommon; in effect it introduced sampling; it brought world music to the attention of people like me; it fused genres; and it scored pop, ethnic and classical instruments and vocal styles together.

African Sanctus is a synthesis of Christian and Islamic tradition, but also fuses references to religious and spiritual traditions which are far older than either.  For Fanshawe, a key moment in its conception came at the beginning of his 1969 journey.  He was in Egypt and, sitting in a Christian church, he heard the muezzin of a nearby mosque calling the faithful to prayer, and imagined this sound placed in counterpoint with Western choral harmony. And so, on the Kyrie, Fanshawe layers a western choir singing the Kyrie over a recording of the muezzin in the Mohammad Ali mosque in Cairo in a way that is totally respectful to both traditions. This one track crystallizes Fanshawe’s vision of  shared humanity, and seems even more pertinent today.

‘It informs both listener and performer about African music and its relationship to Western polyphony and captures the eternal and spiritual soul of music. It is an event, a celebration of power and energy, both visual, aural and multi-cultural, now performed live all over the world. For David Fanshawe there are no musical barriers.’
–  official African Sanctus website

African Sanctus was first performed in London in July 1972, and was later played on BBC Radio on United Nations Day. On Easter Sunday, 1975, a documentary about the making of the work was broadcast on BBC1’s Omnibus programme. Made by composer and film-maker Herbert Chappell, this charted Fanshawe’s progress recording the work in North and East Africa, and coincided with the release of the album. The two men retraced Fanshawe’s original journey and tried, largely unsuccessfully, to find the musicians he had recorded on his original trip. The documentary was nominated for the Prix Italia.

David Fanshawe – only 68 when he died – created something new: he didn’t force European rules onto the African material, but found a way of creating a sense of real equality between the two traditions, a symbiotic relationship reflecting his humanist message. In the original lp sleeve notes David Fanshawe wrote:

African Sanctus began to evolve in the heat of summer whilst I was riding with Bedouin nomads across the desert towards Egypt on a camel. That was in 1966 when I was studying at the Royal College of Music. Since then I have been on many hair-raising journeys and have recorded music from well over 50 tribes in Arabia and North and East Africa. African music is fascinating, weird, and wonderful, but like so much folk-art it is rapidly vanishing and one of the main reasons why I wrote African Sanctus was that I felt, quite simply, that instead of just recording tribal music I could preserve and create my own music around it, thus adding many more colours and variations which would express my adventures and love of people in a composition where African music, African songs and dances, religious recitations and ceremonies would live within the heart of a work conceived along ‘Western’ lines in the form of a Mass. The driving force is one of ‘Praise’ and a firm belief in ‘One God’.

African Sanctus attempts to fuse different peoples and their music into a tightly knit unit of energy and praise. It reflects the changing moods of music today and I hope moves with the times, for we are all living and sharing life together on a very small planet.

My journeys are always exciting. Means of transport varies from walking, donkey-riding (terrible strain!), camel-riding (even worse strain!), paddle-steamer, canoe, jet, light aircraft, sailing dhow, and endless trucks and lorries across remote deserts and scrub. It is a relentless search. In 1969 I hitch-hiked down the Nile through Sudan and into Uganda. In many ways that safari was my most fruitful; practically all the recordings – all extremely rare and valuable – in African Sanctus stem from that journey. In 1970 I returned again, travelling in a huge arc towards the Indian Ocean and ending up in a dug-out canoe on the Tana River. Whilst on the river I unfortunately hit a hippopotamus on the head with my paddle, the canoe upset, the tape-recorder drowned, and I was pursued hotfoot to the river bank. Finally, I sailed across the Ocean to the Island of Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf where I had the good fortune to meet Judith who is now both my wife and travelling companion.

In 1972 with the help of the Sir Winston Churchill Memorial Trust we both returned to East Africa and were initiated as European members of the Taita Tribe (a proud moment), got lost in the bush when my light aircraft crash-landed due to failing light, were thrown into a Tanzanian prison for recording the Royal Drums of the Sukumu Kings minus our shoes, and finally returned to the Phonogram Studios, London, to record the final version of  African Sanctus.

The work began as a composition for choir and African tapes and was given an exhilarating first performance by the Saltarello Choir in July 1972; this performance was later broadcast on United Nations Day, October 24, 1972. Since then the work has developed (or moved with the times), as I have added twice as many drums and group. Now it is even being developed as a stage show based on the break-up of tribal law.

We have all been experimenting at the studios and I owe special thanks to sound engineer, Peter Olliff, whose patience and artistic wizardry have created a final balance between the African and European elements at all times, a most critical one. I hope African Sanctus will stimulate and inform both listener and performer and that the total sound will reflect the music and people of Africa. What others have said in words, I have tried to say in music.

There are hundreds of hours’ worth of songs, dances and rituals, an entire ethnological treasure-trove, that David recorded painstakingly around the world belonging to tribes and communities in developing countries whose heritage since then – the 60s, 70s and 80s – has since disappeared. He has saved for posterity the voices of their ancestors and the musical footprint of their existence. David’s passion for the music of other cultures was never touristic, he had a deep respect for the people and cultures he engaged with and believed that the recording of their music was an act of love and admiration, which it was. As every decade passes since he conducted his monumental task, his contribution will seem ever greater, ever more precious, to rank alongside that of Bartok in Hungary or Evgeniya Lineva in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. His own composing paid tribute to his research into other cultures but retained an authentic, heartfelt Britishness, confirming the truth that it is only by appreciating one’s own culture that one can truly relate to those of others, as equals. He will be sorely missed as a musician, friend, composer, but beyond the personal, his contribution to the preservation of now lost musical wonders of the world was a towering achievement that can never be matched or repeated. The world of music is a hugely poorer place without him.
– Howard Goodall – composer and broadcaster.


Africa Oye: Authenticite!

Africa Oye 2010

This weekend in Sefton Park saw the annual Africa Oye festival draw probably the biggest crowds ever over two days of constant sunshine. The festival has grown considerably from its early days and now there’s a beer tent  and stalls offering all kinds of food, CDs, clothes, musical instruments, jewellery and more.

Espoirs de Coronthie 2

On Saturday I spent some time enjoying sets by Espoirs de Coronthie from Guinea and To’Mezclao from Cuba. Espoirs are a group of seven musicians and dancers, performing very much in the style of Guinean Authenticité: utilising the rhythms and instruments of traditional music, but updating their lyrics to deal with contemporary topics and daily life in Conakry. ‘Authenticité’ refers to Guinea’s state-sponsored programme in the 1960s and 1970s which established national and regional orchestras to promote authentic Guinean culture following independence from colonial rule.

Espoirs de Coronthie 1

Last summer I listened often to Authenticité, The Syliphone Years, a superb retrospective album retracing the history of those orchestras. A review of the album on the Radio France International website fills in the background:

‘Guineans celebrated the dawn of a new era in 1958, waking up to their newly won independence. But once the celebrations had died down, President Sékou Touré was faced with a harsh reality. After years of French cultural influence, the former colony had totally lost touch with its musical heritage and its own cultural roots. When President Touré wished to organise a grand musical gala in Guinea, he had to call in ET Mensah, the Ghanean king of high-life, because no local group had ever developed a repertoire based on traditional home-grown songs and rhythms.

In a bid to turn this disastrous situation around, President Touré instituted a government initiative based on reviving authentic Guinean culture and creating a popular style of Guinean music by modernising tradition. President Touré saw in this cultural initiative a vital means of forging an all-important sense of national pride amongst his compatriots.’

Espoirs de Coronthie  have become a real phenomenon in Guinea, where their music can be heard in coffee shops, clubs, on radios, in the street, and even in taxi cabs. As we saw in Sefton Park on Saturday, their music is  based on traditional instruments  such as the balafon, kora and djembé, supplemented by vocals from three singers and wild dancing. It was a powerful show, full of infectious energy.

This YouTube clip shows the group performing at a Festival in October 2009 – the presentation is the same as at Africa Oye, even down to the lead singer’s repeated exhortation, ‘We are together!’

Earlier, the festival had opened with a set from the seven-strong Havana collective To’Mezclao (from todo mezclado– all mixed together). In Cuba they are huge stars, mixing pop with cumbia, merengue, rap and reggaeton as well as the more traditional forms of Afro-Cuban music.

This morning the Daily Post reports that this year’s Africa Oye was the most successful in the event’s history.

Organiser Paul Duhaney said he had been taken aback at the success of the event this year, estimating that at any one time around 10,000 people were enjoying the music and many stalls selling everything from African – and other – food to clothes and CDs, arts and crafts.  Beginning in 1992 as a series of small gigs in the city centre, the event has gone from strength to strength, moving to its present Sefton Park home in 2002 to cope with demand after brief spells in Princes Park and even Birkenhead Park.

Mr Duhaney said: “I think Liverpool as a city should be proud of this – other cities don’t have anything like it. And there is something for everyone here.  “It’s a local festival in the sense that we want people from Liverpool coming here – but in terms of the acts on stage it’s an international festival. These are acts who could easily charge £15-£20 a ticket, but people can see them here for free.”

Rokia Traore rocks out at the Phil

We saw Rokia Traoré play to a lamentably half-empty Philharmonic Hall last night in what was a triumphant, guitar-driven and characteristically high-energy set.  The focus was mainly on songs from her most recent album, Tchamantche, with the rock-guitar direction of that album accentuated: Rokia and her band now really rock out. This was a major contrast with her acoustic and more traditional Malian approach when I last saw her in 2004.

She  began, though, alone in the spotlight, picking out on her Gretsch guitar the notes of the stately ‘Dianfa’, from the last album. But the set soon changed gear with her French trio on guitar, bass and drums driving along raunchier versions of the Tchamantche tracks, with a Malian ngoni player and  female backing singer both adding punch and excitement.

At the time of  Tchamantche‘s release Rokia said that she wanted to create a new musical style that was ‘more modern, but still African, something more blues and rock than my folk guitar’. She had heard an old Gretsch, the classic electric guitar that was central to the group sounds of the 1950s and 1960s, played by everyone from Chet Atkins to George Harrison. That was the sound she had been looking for, and it is the sound that defined Tchamantche and this concert.

The set mainly featured the exquisite and adventurous songs from Tchamantche,  including ‘Dounia’, ‘Aimer’ and a more driving rendition of our favourite track, ‘Zen’, with the n’goni player switching to mbira thumb piano (as seen below, performed on Later with Jools Holland last year).

Another featured number from Tchamantche was ‘Tounka’, the song about migration from Africa to Europe, which she explained she had written as a positive message to encourage Africans to see that migration will not solve Africa’s problems – Africans must solve them at home. And this is more than empty rhetoric: she recently launched the Fondation Passerelle (‘passerelle’ being French for footbridge) to help young in Mali to build careers in the music business. After years of living in Amiens, she now spends much of the year in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

This was music that at times sounded more rock than Mali, and towards the end of the show, more decidedly funk and Afropop, but always distinctively African. One surprise was ‘Quit It’, once recorded by Miriam Makeba, which Rokia sung in English, encouraging us all to check out the work of Makeba, the artist she regards as Africa’s greatest, on YouTube. So here’s that number from that source:

At another point, she had segued from one of her own songs to the work of another African hero, Fela Kuti, with a rousing treatment ‘African Woman’. It was an exhilarating performance.

The support band were a revelation. Named after a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, led by their main writer and singer Tim Elsenburg, played an excellent set of what has been termed ‘British atmospheric art-pop’. They performed numbers from their second album, Twice Born Men, as well as some from their first, We Just Did What Happened and No One Came, the most outstanding of which was the mesmeric but rather unfathomable ‘In The Water I Am Beautiful’. Overall, it was a beautiful performance, with – as The Sunday Times has put it – ‘the indefinable floatiness of the verses the springboard for a succession of delicious pop choruses’.

Introducing their final song, ‘There It Will End’, Tim Elsenburg said ‘at the end of a lovely sunny day, here’s something really cheerful for you:

ECM: 40 favourites

Posts here during the last couple of days have celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of ECM Records. To round things off I thought I’d put together a list of 40 of my favourite ECM albums, in no particular order. Continue reading “ECM: 40 favourites”