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”

40 years of ECM: Just Music

Just Music, the second ECM release

Forty years ago today the Mal Waldron Trio started to play in Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg.  They were recording the first album, Free At Last!, issued early the following year on the new music label founded by Manfred Eicher.   Since then, ECM has issued over a thousand albums spanning – and blurring the boundaries between – many idioms. Personally, I can’t imagine the last thirty-odd years of my own musical journey without ECM.

I remember the first ECM vinyl LP that I bought, in the days of independent record shop browsing, in the sadly-missed Decoy Records on Deansgate in Manchester. It was Folk Songs by the trio of  Jan Garbarek, Charlie Haden and Egberto Gismonti. I’d been going to the shop for a while, mainly to explore the blues, r&b and what’s now called Americana upstairs. But gradually I began to spend more time downstairs flicking through the jazz albums and educating myself in a genre that had opened up for me with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. The ECM albums, with their distinctive covers, drew me again and again; sometimes I bought one just because the cover art suggested that what was inside would be more of a certain sound I was searching for – like a landscape stretching to a far horizon. So titles like Paths Prints, Photo with Blue Sky and Places (that road snaking to the horizon!) were added to the collection.

Is there any other label like ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music)? Is there any other producer alive as significant as  Manfred Eicher?

Reading Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, it seems that, as much as the label’s remarkable musicians have contributed to its success, the part played by Manfred Eicher is hugely important. Not only in defining the purity and clarity of the ECM sound, but also in bringing together musicians from differing geographical backgrounds and musical traditions – ‘ far-flung sound worlds’ – to create a truly new European contemporary music.

In Horizons Touched there is a perfect example of how such collaborations may come about, as told by Eicher himself:

‘I first heard the Officium defunctorum by Morales at Seville cathedral in the 1970s.  When I listened to it again twenty years later, while driving through the jagged lava fields of Iceland, I was enormously moved…The sky like ash or lead.  The luminous sound – night before one’s eyes.

While working…in Iceland, I listened alternately to the Hilliard Ensemble’s recording of Gesualdo’sTenebrae Responses and the chants of saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Suddenly Morales seemed like a southern continent with northern birds of passage skimming in broad circles overhead – on the shores of the basalt sea...What remained was the idea.

And that is how the recording of Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble in the Provostry of  St Gerold came about – Officium, a recording that presents new and far-flung sound worlds.’

ECM is renowned for its meticulous approach, not just to the recording process, but also for the distinctive quality and design of the album packaging. Eicher again:

‘I believe the producer’s role is to capture the music he likes, to present it to those who don’t know it yet. It’s a very important and difficult task, which must be dealt with reponsibility and integrity. If you work in that direction, caring for the sound, getting some precise information or inspired sleeve notes in a booklet, working on the pictures for the record cover, then a kind of symbiotic unity is at work, and people feel you have been producing the record for good reasons. So you can touch them, beyond cultural borders, they understand and appreciate what you have to offer them. It’s all about taking risks, but still being generous and rigorous.’

Hundreds of records made under his artistic direction include those of Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Dave Holland, Egberto Gismonti, Anouar Brahem, Pat Metheny, Paul Motian, Charles Lloyd, John Surman, Ralph Towner, Terje Rypdal, Bobo Stenson and Tord Gustavsen. Whilst for ECM New Series he has produced recordings by composers Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, Giya Kancheli, Heinz Holliger, Meredith Monk, Gavin Bryars, Steve Reich and John Adams.

Manfred Eicher

Manfred Eicher

Eicher’s own background, as a musician active in both jazz and classical music, gave him an unusually broad vantage point from which to survey the genres, and the producer has been credited with helping to bring form to improvised music and a sense of ‘improvisational’ flexibility to recordings of contemporary composition.

The label has documented jazz and improvised music from both sides of the Atlantic and brought together many musicians in new and influential combinations, amongst them the ‘Belonging’ band with Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, and the ‘Magico’ trio of Charlie Haden, Jan Garbarek and Egberto Gismonti.

Scandinavian jazz was emphasized in the early years and Eicher is still finding musicians from the Nordic zone. The last decade has seen the arrival of Trygve Seim, Christian Wallumrød, Matthias Eick, Tord Gustavsen, Arve Henriksen, and others. Southern Europe has also been explored: Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava brought with him pianist Stefano Bollani, now also recognized as a major player. From Greece, Savina Yannatou has explored folk musics of the Mediterranean and the wider world, and ECM has produced the work of Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou, including the soundtracks for films by Theo Angelopolous.

The ECM tradition of cross-genre collaboration has opened my ears to many new musics. Apart from Officium, there have been albums by Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, the jazz/poetry/folk collaboration of  Starflowers which brought together Finnish folk singer Sinikka Langeland with the jazz musicians Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim  and Anders Jormin. And in 2009 there was the stunning Siwan, initiated by Norwegian pianist and composer Jon Balke, inspired by the music and poetry of medieval Al-Andalus, and featuring Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui, American trumpeter Jon Hassell, and baroque strings.

And finally, my favourite record of all time is also ECM’s biggest selling record: Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert.  This is the one I would want on a desert island. It is entirely wonderful, but what happens at 7 minutes 20 in is, I believe, the most transcendental moment in recorded music.

Birds without wings: the lost cities of the Levant

Birds without wings: the lost cities of the Levant

Last Friday’s World on 3 with Charlie Gillett was one of the best music shows I’ve listened to in a long while. As his studio guest, Charlie welcomed Yasmin Levy, whose music is a fusion of Flamenco and the Judeo-Spanish Ladino style. As well as performing songs from her forthcoming album, Yasmin also discussed her work and participated in Charlie’s radio ping-pong. Their choice of music, and the discussion – which ranged from Yasmin’s views on what makes for truly expressive singing to the challenges of translating Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (one of the songs on her new album) into Spanish and the revelation of singing the song in the Hebrew style of the synagogue and the cantor – made engrossing listening. Continue reading “Birds without wings: the lost cities of the Levant”