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.

Keith Jarrett: The Koln Concert (1975)

This is the one I would want on a desert island. It is entirely wonderful, but what happens at 7 minutes 20 in is the most transcendental moment in recorded music (IMO). Recorded live on 24 January 1975 at the Cologne opera house. The concert was part of a European solo tour begun in 1973 on which Jarrett returned to acoustic piano after years with Miles Davis,who had insisted on electric piano, which Jarrett hated. Jarrett recalled in a documentary:

Köln … there were just so many negative things in a row.  I hadn’t slept in two nights. The piano I had ordered did not arrive in time for the concert. The one in the hall was substandard and badly tuned. I nearly refused to play, and only changed  my mind at the last minute. Almost as an afterthought, the sound technicians decided to place the mikes and record the concert, even if only for the house archive.

When Jarrett played the first four notes, a ripple of laughter went through the auditorium: he was quoting the opera house’s intermission bell. But just as quickly, the reaction turned into awed silence as he turned the banal and familiar into something gorgeous and mysterious. On the record, the concert would be cut into four segments, but that night he played two separate ‘movements’ lasting about half an hour each, plus a six-minute encore.

The Water is Wide cover

Charles Lloyd: The Water Is Wide (2000)

The title track is just sublime. The album features Charles Lloyd in the company of one of his dearest friends, drummer Billy Higgins, who would pass away less than a year after the album’s release. Guitarist John Abercrombie is joined by pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Larry Grenadier. The session includes two spirituals, “The Water Is Wide” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” The latter features just Lloyd and Higgins, starkly setting the melody against a hypnotic drum chant. Lloyd’s closing “Prayer,” written for Higgins during a life-threatening episode back in 1996, features just the composer, Abercrombie, and guest bassist Darek Oles. These tracks have deep personal meaning and spirituality.

Jan Garbarek: Visible World (1995)

Quintessential Garbarek, full of world music influences and spacious themes. “The Creek” is the standout track – a beautiful and uplifting folk melody.

Anouar Brahem: Astrakhan Cafe (2001)

Astrakan Café reaches  deep into the music of the Balkans, with Barbaros Erköse on clarinet and Indian and Turkish percussion from Lassad Hosni. Erköse is a Turkish clarinetist of gypsy origin. His low, warm, rounded tones blend perfectly with Brahem’s oud. Highlights include the two title tracks which have their roots in Russian and Azerbaijan music; “Ashkabad,” an improvisation on a melody from the folk music of Turkmenistan and “Parfum de Gitanie,” which takes a fragment from Ethiopian sacred music and slows it to the point of stillness.

Keith Jarrett Trio: Changeless (1992)

For me, this stands out from all the rest of the excellent Trio albums simply because it isn’t a standards album: consisting entirely of Jarrett originals, this is like one of his solo concerts translated into the group format. Each of the first three selections is built upon a constant revolving theme, evolvings like a Jarrett solo piano improvisation. “Dancing” has a swaying Latin beat in the percussion and bass; “Endless” is full of lyrical invention at a slower tempo; “Lifeline” is catchy and hypnotic; and the fourth number, “Ecstasy,” grows out of “Lifeline,” closing the album perhaps inevitably with a drawn-out, peaceful piano tremolo. Bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette go with the flow.

Tord Gustavsen: The Ground (2004)

Amazingly, this album reached the top of the charts in Norway. It’s quiet chamber jazz, in the mould of Bill Evans. All tunes are composed by Gustavsen, and have blues and gospel chords. There’s some Satie (the exquisite “Tears Transforming”), a dash of flamenco (“Sentiment”), and a heaping of tango (“The Ground,” “Being There”), with Gustavsen’s piano substituting for the bandeon. It’s soothing music that ebbs and flows like the ocean on a warm summer night.

Stephan Micus: On The Wing (2006)

Born in Germany, Stephan Micus has travelled in virtually every Asian and European country as well as in Africa and the Americas, fascinated by the variety of musical cultures around the world. He studies with local master musicians and has learned to play numerous traditional instruments, many of them unknown in the Western world. I find I am constantly playing his honest, spiritual music. Here, Micus employs Middle Eastern and Asian instruments, from the Iraqi mudbedsh (a single reed instrument made from cane) to the long-necked and bowed Turkish sattar and the Egyptian nay. In addition, he uses the reed flute of the Balinese gamelan orchestras called the suling, the Japanese harmonica known as the sho, the double-reeded hné from Burma, the shakuhachi, sitar, and the hang from the Caribbean. A beautiful album.

Jan Garbarek: Rites (1998)

Two contrasting CDs make up this double album: the first opens to a slowly-emerging, mysterious chant and continues through a series of meditative, spiritual melodies, including a new take on ‘It’s OK To Listen To The Gray Voice’. The second disc, from its opener ‘It’s High Time’, consists of dances, gospel shouts, waltzes, and all manner of joyful ceremonies, including the suite that comprises  ‘We Are the Stars’, Garbarek’s own composition for sax and choir, and ‘The Moon Over Mtatsminda’, composed and performed by the Georgian conductor Jansug Kakhidze without Garbarek but blending perfectly with its intense spirituality and beauty. Don Cherry’s ‘Malinye’ (see Codona, below) is a moving tribute to the trumpeter that features Garbarek  accompanied only by percussion and accordion.

Shankar: Song For Everyone (1984)

Song for Everyone features Zakir Hussain on tabla, Trilok Gurtu on percussion, and Shankar’s own manipulation of a drum machine providing rhythmic pulse.  The interplay between Shankar’s plangent chords, Trilok Gurtu’s tabla and Jan Garbarek’s soprano saxophone on the title track is one of ECM’s greatest moments. ‘Paper Nut’ has Garbarek’s wailing sax over an infectious, insistent rhythm.

Andy Sheppard: Movements in Colour (2009)

I wrote about this album earlier in the year and it has become one of my favourite albums of 2009. It’s Andy’s first CD on ECM and several tracks are named after, or inspired by, paintings. The Quintet here features John Paricelli on guitars, Arild Andersen on double bass, Kuljit Bhamra on tabla and percussion and Eivind Aarset on guitar and electronics. A distinctive feature of the album’s sound is the percussion of Kuljit Bhamra. This is music from a very happy place, especially ‘Bing’, ‘May Song’ and ‘We Shall Not Go To Market Today’.

Jon Balke & Amina Alaoui: Siwan (2009)

A truly wonderful album, one of the highlights of 2009. It’s a gorgeous blend of Gharnati music from the Spanish Al-Andalus period (730-1492), Scandinavian improvised jazz and European baroque music. Siwan, the title of keyboardist and composer Jon Balke’s latest album for ECM, is derived from a written language known as Aljamiado, which used Arabic script to transcribe Ladino, spoken by the Sephardic Jews of Al-Andalus. The word siwan means ‘equilibrium’ or ‘balance’  and Balke has created music that balances different cultures and time periods. Earlier post here.

Sinikka Langeland: Starflowers (2007)

I’ve been entranced by Starflowers since I first heard it in 2008. It’s a haunting album by the Norwegian/Finnish singer Sinikka Langeland, with extraordinary accompaniment from Scandinavian jazz musicians such as  Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim and Anders Jormin. All the lyrics sung by Sinikka Langeland on the album are from Norwegian poet Hans Børli,who lived as a woodcutter, writing his poetry by night, alive with his experiences of the Norwegian forests.

Agnes Buenas Garnas: Rosenfole: Songs From Norway (1988)

I remember how stunned I felt listening to this for the first time. Here Jan Garbarek takes medieval Norwegian folk songs sung by Agnes Buen Garnas and complements them with minimal touches of tenor or soprano saxophone, to produce a hauntingly beautiful album. Garbarek and Garnas weave their magic on songs like the cloud dance ‘Maalfri Mi Fruve’, the chantlike ‘Rosensfole’ enhanced by shakers and t saxophone, and ‘Venlete’ with its Native American Indian percussive and sparse synthesiser decorations from Garbarek. Mesmerising and haunting.

Keith Jarrett Quartet: Belonging (1974)

Keith Jarrett’s first recording with his ‘European’ quartet –  Jan Garbarek (sax), Palle Danielsson (bass), Jon Christensen (drums) – opens with the insistent piano chords of ‘Spiral Dance’ that whirls you  into an album which moves between gospel-touched workouts like ‘Long As You Know You’re Living Yours’ and the energising ‘The Windup’ and slower, more reflective pieces. A milestone in 1970s jazz and in the ECM story.

Jan Garbarek: Folk Songs (1979)

This occupies a special place in my heart – it was the first ECM album I bought, and the first time I heard Jan Garbarek’s plangent saxophone.  It’s a collaboration by bassist Charlie Haden, Jan Garbarek on tenor and soprano, and Egberto Gismonti (guitar and piano) in which all three partners excel, producing airyand atmospheric music that crosses the boundaries between jazz and world music, with Gismonti introducing beautiful Brazilian themes topped off with Garbarek’s lyricism.

Keith Jarrett Quartet: My Song (1978)

The finest, and, in the haunting title track,  most moving representation of Jarrett’s European Quartet.  This album is the most rewarding of the Jarrett-Garbarek collaborations and Jarrett contributed all six compositions.   Beautiful, and evocative playing, Garbarek’s singing tone meshing perfectly with Jarrett’s cascading piano.  I have to admit, though, that I find the frenetic ‘Mandala’ out of place in an album full of yearning and beauty.

Anja Lechner & Vassilis Tsabropoulos: Gurdjieff Chants, Hymns and Dances (2003)

What genre of music is this? It’s easier (and best) just to enjoy this CD than to attempt to classify it. Tsabropoulos is a classical pianist who has recorded several albums for ECM New Series, Anja Lechner is a cellist. Together they present a programme of compositions by Tsabropoulos, which take as their inspirational starting point ancient Byzantine hymns, and music by the Armenian-born philosopher-composer Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. The pieces draw upon melodies and rhythms, both sacred and secular, of the Caucasus, the Middle East and Central Asia.  It is a project that blurs the dividing lines between East and West, between composition and arrangement and improvisation, and between contemporary and traditional music. Typical ECM, you might say.

Anouar Brahem: Thimar (1998)

A collaboration between Brahem, oud, John Surman soprano saxophone and bass clarinet and Dave Holland, double bass.   It’s a superb fusion of  jazz tradition with Arab classical music.  Holland’s bass takes on a rich and lyrical dimension, Surman brings folk and jazz interests to the mix, while Brahem (as composer ) takes uson a journey that starts somewhere between Europe and North Africa and arrives at a still, quiet and spiritual place.

Dollar Brand: African Piano (1969)

Not an artist you’d associate with ECM, but in 1969 this solo set was recorded in a Scandinavian jazz club. It’s a typically intense and committed performance from the man subsequently known as Abdullah Ibrahim. I picked this up a long time ago on vinyl after having discovered him through the African Marketplace album.  After that rambunctious introduction, this austere blend of South African folk melodies and modern jazz sensibility bound together with a muscular, rhythmic pulse required a bit of  adjustment, but I grew to appreciate the spiritual sincerity of the artist, cherishing many more albums and live performances.

Codona: Codona 2 (1980)

Codona was a remarkable  and inventive fusion group consisting of Don Cherry, Collin Walcott, and Nana Vasconcelos. Collin Walcott played sitar, tabla, sanza, timpani; Don Cherry featured on trumpet, melodica, doussn’gouni; and Nana Vasconcelos utilised every conceivable kind of  percussion.  They released three self-titled albums on ECM in 1978, 1980 and 1982, and it’s very hard to pick just one.  But number 2 features the wonderful Cherry composition, ‘Malinye’.  Fabulous music, and if you like it, Don Cherry released an album (not on ECM) in 1989, called Multikulti.

Bobo Stenson: Cantando (2008)

Again, very difficult to pick just one Bobo Stenson Trio album, but this most recent one, featuring a new line-up that we saw play at the RNCM earlier this year, is excellent. Bassist Anders Jormin is still here after 20 years, but long-time drummer Jon Christensen is replaced by the young Jon Fält who is more physical and probing. Only one piece is an original. The other works here are by highly diverse composers, from Ornette Coleman to Alban Berg, from Astor Piazolla to Don Cherry. Cherry’s ‘Don’s Kora Song’ begins with clipped cymbal from Fält and the insistent rhythm of Jormin’s bass before Stenson joins in, moving from rumbling low notes into Cherry’s lyrical melody.

Charles Lloyd: Jumping the Creek (2005)

Another absolutely essential album for me, particularly for the opening song, ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, which, over 13 minutes, builds from spare, skeletal phrases to gorgeous full-blown lyricism.  The band – pianist Geri Allen, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Eric Harland – is outstanding. ‘The Sufi’s Tears’ features Lloyd on taragato, a soprano saxophone-like instrument used in Middle Eastern and Indian music. Accompanied only by Robert Hurst’s bowed bass, the mournful melody gradually gives way to a dancing  improvisation. Magnificent.

Keith Jarrett: Sun Bear Concerts (1976)

A great collection of Jarrett solo performances on six CDs, all of it improvised off the cuff in five Japanese concerts in Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo, and Sapporo. Standout passages are in the Kyoto concert, where Jarrett gets into a  gospel mode, and the Sapporo concert.

Charles Lloyd: Sangam (2006)

This wonderfully percussive set was recorded live as part of a tribute for the late Billy Higgins, Lloyd’s long-time drummer. It features Zakir Hussain (tabla) and Eric Harland (drums). Lloyd plays everything from tenor and soprano to flutes, taragato, piano, and some percussion. On the opening track, the interplay between Harlan’s drums and Hussain’s tablas is truly outstanding. But the high point of the set is ‘Guman’: shakers are heard, then Lloyd on piano begins a riff of a single, short, low repeated note that continues through the track. Hussain sings an unearthly vocal and the music gradually becomes more complex and dense. Throughout the set Lloyd extends complete freedom to the percussionists, allowing the music to unfold. It’s utterly compelling and gives true meaning to the term ‘Sangam’: confluence and coming together.

John Surman: Road to Saint Ives (1990)

Another musician whose work has given me great pleasure is John Surman. This album is entirely a one-man production, from composition to instrumentation, with Surman building layers of sound over keyboard and percussion using bass clarinet and soprano and bass saxophones. The album has special resonance for me since it is designed to be a portrait of the landscape and spirit of Cornwall. Tracks that haunt the memory include ‘Perranporth’,and ‘Piperspool’.

Jan Garbarek: It’s OK To Listen to the Gray Voice (1985)

Another landmark Garbarek album for me, on of the early ones I acquired after starting to collect his work. There’s some excellent bass from Eberhard Weber, particularly on ‘The Crossing Place’ and classic Garbarek melodies on ‘Mission: To Be Where I Am’ and ‘One Day in March I Go Down to the Sea and Listen’. The guitarist is David Torn, and he gives some tracks a more aggressive edge.

Keith Jarrett: Spirits (1985)

Keith Jarrett regards this as one of his most important recordings, a set of musical invocations that is pure improvisation. It’s a deeply personal work on which he alone plays all the instruments – recorders, Pakistani wooden flute, tabla, various percussion instruments, guitar, saxophone, piano, and chant. The haunting music was recorded simply by Jarrett at his home in 1985 with no engineer present.

Jan Garbarek: I Took Up The Runes (1990)

One of the best Garbarek albums and a quintessential ECM release. Accompanied by Eberhard Weber on bass Rainer Bruninghaus on piano, with percussion by Nana Vasconcelos and Manu Katche, this is a superb blend of jazz and Scandinavian folk themes. The centrepiece of the album is the five-part suite, Molde Canticle’. Utilising a beautiful Nordic folk tune,this is one of Garbarek’s best compositions. The opening track is version of Sami singer Mari Boine Persen’s ‘Gula Gula’.

Keith Jarrett Quartet: Personal Mountains (1979)

The European Quartet recorded live in Tokyo in 1979, though not released for ten years. It’s a varied set, ranging from turbulent R&B  to elegaic passages, with superb interplay between Jarrett Jan Garbarek, on tenor and soprano sax, Palle Danielsson on bass, and Jon Christensen on drums.

Christian Wallumrod: The Zoo Is Far (2007)

This is music by a sextet consisting of Wallumrod on piano, Arve Henriksen on trumpet, Per Oddvar Johansen on percussion, with three string players on Baroque harp, violin and cello There are 24 short pieces that draw on Baroque sources, including Henry Purcell Fantasias, Norwegian sacred music, and Pakistani music. It’s fascinating and haunting music with unexpected textures.

Don Cherry: Dona Nostra (1993)

A great album with Don Cherry on straightforward trumpet, Bobo Stenson on piano and Lennart Aberg on sax. There are two Ornette Coleman songs, otherwise the music consists of group originals.

Egberto Gismonti: rarum: Selected recordings (2004)

The rarum series provide excellent compilations of ECM artists in different settings. Egberto Gismonti has appeared on so many ECM releases, apart from those as leader, making this an excellent career overview. From Rio de Janeiro, he has delved deep into his country’s magical music that absorbs and transforms the many cultures that have met there.

Enrico Rava New York Days

Enrico Rava: New York Days (2008)

This album from veteran Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava who can sound amazingly like Miles Davis, was well-received earlier this year. It was recorded in New York,with Stefano Bollani on piano and a bunch of American jazzers. The original compositions pay homage to both Davis and Duke Ellington. His best album for a long time.

Rabih Abou-Khalil: Nafas (1992)

I love Rabih Abou-Khalil’s albums, especially the classic Blue Camel. This is the only collection he has recorded for ECM, and it is one of his best. From Beirut, Rabih Abou-Khalil here plays flute and oud, supported by nothing more than Arab drums in most of the songs.

Stephan Micus: Towards The Wind (2002)

Another beautiful album from the master solo musician. The opening track, ‘Before Sunrise’, features a fine solo performance by Micus on the Armenian bass duduk, which he studied with the master, Djivan Gasparyan.  Micus also plays the kalimba, shakuhachi, a Chinese sattar, and a talking drum from Ghana.  The music that Micus has made for over thirty years and seventeen albums crosses and transcends all borders, and does so with a genuine respect for all cultures.

Anouar Brahem: Le Pas du Chat Noir (2002)

All of Anouar Brahem’s albums are exquisite, this opne particularly so. It’s a aprtnership between Brahem’s oud and Jean-Louis Matinier’s accordion. His music, though strongly Arab-inflected, has the spare, chamber feel. He’s a contemplative player, and this melding with piano and accordion suits his style perfectly. The interplay between musicians is delicate, with many moments of great beauty, like the exquisite piano on ‘C’est Ailleurs’ or the filigree touches between accordion and piano that decorate and nudge along many of the tracks.

Jan Garbarek: Madar (1992)

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Manfred Eicher as producer at ECM is the way he puts together musicians from vary different backgrounds and genres. Madar is an example of this: here Jan Garbarek is accompanied only by Anouar Brahem on oud and Ustad Shaukat Hussain on tabla. Garbarek’s tone is yearning and passionate, perfectly complementing the middle eastern mood on a set of group originals, two of which are actually based on traditional Norwegian melodies.

Jan Garbarek: Ragas and Sagas (1992)

And here’s another example: a  superb collaboration between the Scandinavian Garbarek and musicians from the Indian sub-continent. Some of Garbarek’s finest playing is here, augmented by the resonant voices of Deepika Thathaal and Ustad Fateh Ali Khan as well as outstanding tabla work by Ustad Shaukat Hussain, and, guesting on drums on the deeply spiritual ‘Saga’, Manu Katche. This is a mesmerizingly recording.

Hilliard Ensemble & Jan Garbarek: Officium (1994)

And finally, to complete a trio of magnificent and unprecedented collaborations recorded in just two years: Garbarek improvises around the four male voices of the Hilliard Ensemble to produce one of ECM’s best-selling albums Chants, early polyphonic music, and Renaissance motets by composers like Morales and Dufay form the basic material, beautifully recorded in an Austrian monastery, the voices seem to swell in waves, with Garbarek’s soprano sax soaring in the monastery acoustic, or echoing the voices unobtrusively and sparingly.

Trygve Seim: Sangam (2004)

A second album in the list entitled Sangam (‘confluence’ in Sanskrit, a term that could describe many of the albums that ECM has issued over the years, blending traditions and musicians from diverse backgrounds).  This one is Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim’s second album as a leader, in which he seamlessly blends elements of jazz, contemporary composition, and various folk traditions. ‘Destined to be one of ECM’s classics’,  John Fordham predicted in the Guardian; ‘At times Trygve Seim sounds like no sax player you’ve ever heard – more like wind in the trees, or wooden flutes… ‘.  The centrepiece of the recording is the four part suite,  ‘Himmelrand i Tidevand’ (‘The Edge of the Sky and Tides’) which adds two trombones and a string ensemble to the mix.  To me this sounds like an indefatigable northern brass band on a journey, pausing every now and then to take stock of the landscape and the state of the world, sometimes in a mood of melancholy, at other times filled with joy. [This choice was added on 20.11.2011 – see comment below]

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

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 – that 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.

Out of a truly informative and stimulating discussion, there was one theme that particularly resonated for me: in the radio ping-pong session, Charlie had brought in an album by the Turkish accordianist Muammer Ketencoğlu, called Smyrna Recollections. Ketencoğlu is from Izmir, as the city that was once called Smyrna is known today. The track Charlie played, ‘Alma Miya’, was sung in Ladino, the language of the Jews living in Smyrna that was based on Medieval Spanish brought from Iberia, and the language that Yasmin Levy mostly sings in. Songs in the Ladino language were among the most important manifestations of Sephardic culture in Smyrna, a tradition that survived more than five centuries.

Part of the Ottoman Empire from 1425, Smyrna was for centuries a prosperous trading port to rival Constantinople. By the end of the 19th century, Smyrna had grown into one of the largest, richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the Mediterranean. It contained large Armenian and Jewish communities, plus at least twice as many Greeks as then lived in Athens. There were 11 Greek newspapers available in the city, as well as seven in Turkish, five in Armenian, four in French and five in Hebrew. Smyrna was also home to a collection of amazingly rich Anglo-Levantine families. The Girauds owned the Oriental Carpet Manufacturing Company, which employed 150,000 people, while the Whittalls controlled an even larger fruit exporting empire. Smyrna was one of the first Christian communities in the world. Smyrna was one of the few places to escape the 1915 Armenian genocide, and the city still retained its ancient cosmopolitan character at the end of World War 1.

Then suddenly, in 1922, Smyrna was snuffed out in a single week of mass-murder, rape, looting, pillage and one of the greatest acts of arson in the 20th century. At the end of it, the New York Times ran the headline: “Smyrna wiped out.” The story is told in a book by Giles Milton called Paradise Lost Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Greece occupied Smyrna and the surrounding region in 1919, encouraged by the Allies, and in particular Lloyd-George, to protect western oil interests – and a Greek-Turkish war began. When the Turks entered the city on September 9, few guessed the scale of the horrors that would be meted out on the city. Estimates vary but some suggest that  100,000 people were killed, with many times that number turned into homeless refugees. There was a large ethnic Greek population living in the area occupied and it was these who suffered terribly when the Greek army was routed, defeated by Kemal Ataturk, Turkish nationalist leader and founder of modern Turkey. His troops slaughtered the Greek and Armenian population, and burnt the Greek and Armenian part of the city.

The Great Fire of Smyrna destroyed much of the city in September 1922. It occurred four days after the Turkish forces regained control of the city thus effectively ending the Greco-Turkish War. Milton’s book documents convincing proof that it was Kemal Ataturk’s nationalist troops who brought in thousands of barrels from the Petroleum Company of Smyrna and poured them over the streets and houses of all but the Turkish quarter. Moreover, it is clear that it was done with the full approval of Ataturk, who was determined to find a final solution to his ‘minority problem’ to ensure the future stability of his fledgling Turkish republic.

But Smyrna wasn’t unique in having a history of tolerance: one historian has referred to the ‘multiconfessional, extraordinarily polyglot Ottoman’ multiculturalism. This pre-1914 tolerance, and the bloody fragmentation of that multicultural world as the empire collapsed, were part of a wider pattern across Ottoman lands. What is true of Smyrna was equally true of Salonica, Istanbul, Alexandria and Jaffa. For across the Ottoman world, eastern Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side by side for nearly one and a half millennia. By modern standards, the Christians and Jews were often treated as second-class citizens, but it was a kind of pluralist equilibrium that had no parallel in Europe until the 1950s.

This ‘Paradise Lost’ survived until European ideas of the nation state shattered the mosaic in the early 20th century. Across the Ottoman empire, the century saw the bloody unravelling of that tapestry — most recently in Kosovo and Bosnia, but before that in Cyprus, Palestine, Greece and Anatolia. In each, pluralism was replaced by a savage polarisation as minorities fled or were driven to places where they could be majorities.

I’m reminded of three haunting books that I read a couple of years ago.  The first was Mark Mazower’s Salonica: City of Ghosts, about a city which for five centuries was home to one of the most extraordinarily diverse societies in Europe: a mish-mash of Roman, Byzantine, Jewish, Christian, Islamic; monasteries, synagogues and mosques, languages and faiths. Mazower concludes the book with this passage:

‘…that older city may turn out to serve the living in new ways only now coming into view. Nation-states construct their own image of the past to shore up their ambitions for the future: forgetting the Ottomans was part of Greece’s claim to modernity. But today the old delusions of grandeur are being replaced by a more sober sense of what individual countries can achieve alone. As small states integrate themselves in a wider world, and even the largest learn how much they need their neighbours’ help to tackle the problems that face them all, the stringently patrolled and narrow-minded conception of history which they once nurtured and which gave them a kind of justification starts to look less plausible and less necessary. Other futures may require other pasts.

The history of the nationalists is all about false continuities and convenient silences, the fictions necessary to tell the story of the rendezvous of a chosen people with the land marked out for them by destiny. It is an odd and implausible version of the past, especially for a city like Salonica…In this city, the dominant group for centuries was a people who clung to the medieval language of the country from which they had been expelled, yet who felt in Salonica, as Rabbi Moses Aroquis put it in 1509, that ‘to them alone the land was given, and they are its glory and its splendour and its magnificence’ As it happened, God had already given it to the Ottoman sultans so that, in the words of the fifteenth-century chronicler Asikpashazadé, ‘the metropolis of unbelief should become a metropolis of Islam Before that he had given it to Christians, and in 1912, the city’s Greeks once again gave thanks to God for the triumph of their army. They all claimed the city for themselves in God’s name. Yet is it not said: where God is, there is everything?’

The second book was City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa by Adam LeBor in which the lives of six families from Jaffa illuminate the narrative of Palestine and Israel in the 20th century.  The port of Jaffa had been for centuries one of those Mediterranean cities where Muslims, Christians and Jews had co-existed – like Salonica and Smyrna – under Ottoman control. LeBor’s narrative follows the intersecting lives of several families: Jews arriving in Jaffa as refugees from persecution in Europe, and Arabs fleeing from Jaffa as refugees when the Israelis conquered the city in 1948. He tells how, throughout the 19th century, until the 1921 Arab riots in Jaffa, the Jewish Chelouche family – who arrived in Palestine in 1838 from Algeria and opened a money-changing shop – could sit, as Jews and Arabs did in every port around the southern and eastern Mediterranean, with the Arab Hammami family, who owned a shop in the clothing and textile market. They would drink coffee, smoke, talk, and invite each other to weddings as neighbours and fellow-businessmen. Despite the deterioration of relationships as more and more Jews arrived in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, Jaffa maintained its position as one of the Middle East’s truly cosmopolitan cities. But the forces of nationalism – Israeli and Palestinian – were to destroy it.

At the beginning of the book, LeBor quotes the Arab writer Najib Azouri in 1905:

Two important phenomena, of the same nature but opposed, are emerging at the moment in Asiatic Turkey. They are the awakening of the Arab nation and the latent efforts of the Jews to reconstitute on a very large scale the ancient kingdom of Israel.  These movements are destined to fight each other continually until one of them wins.

Finally, I was reminded of Louis de Bernieres’ splendid novel, Birds Without Wings, which draws us back to Smyrna and its hinterland. De Bernieres sets his story in Eskibahce, a small hillside town along the Anatolian coast from Smyrna, during the period from about 1881 to 1922,  the last years of the Ottoman Empire. The town is home to Muslim Ottomans who learn the Koran without understanding Arabic, Greek Christians who have lived in Turkey for so many generations they no longer speak Greek, as well as foreigners such as Armenians and Circassians. The Ottomans pray in their mosques but see no harm in asking their Christian neighbours to petition the Virgin Mary for them when extra help is needed. The Christians, in turn, recite prayers while prostrating in the Muslim fashion. A Greek teacher writes letters – in Turkish, but written in Greek script. The Greeks and Turks have lived together for so long and intermarriages have happened in so many generations that many are related in some way, and get along well as neighbours or even lifelong friends.

‘Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows’ says Iskander the Potter. ‘For birds with wings nothing changes; they fly where they will and they know nothing about borders, and their quarrels are very small. But we are always confined to earth, no matter how much we climb to the high places and flap our arms. Because we cannot fly, we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us. Because we have no wings we are pushed into struggles and abominations that we did not seek, and then, after all that, the years go by, the mountains are leveled, the valleys rise, the rivers are blocked by sand and the cliffs fall into the sea’.

‘History’, remarks the book’s narrator, ‘is finally nothing but a sorry edifice constructed from hacked flesh in the name of great ideas…It is one of the greatest curses of religion that is takes only the very slightest twist of a knife tip in the cloth of a shirt to turn neighbours who have loved each another into bitter enemies’.

Returning to Yasmin Levy…I have a wonderful memory of seeing her perform in Llangollen two or three years ago. She was born in Jerusalem and is the daughter of Isaac Levy, who was a renowned composer and cantor, and pioneer researcher into the rich history of the Ladino music and culture of Spanish Jewry and its diaspora. She has developed a distinctive new interpretation of the medieval Ladino Judeo-Spanish song by incorporating elements of Andalusian flamenco and Turkish music, utilising instruments like the darbuka, oud, violin, cello, and piano. For me, her best album is her second, La Judería (‘The Jewish Quarter’).

Yasmin has said:

I am proud to combine the two cultures of Ladino and flamenco, while mixing in Middle Eastern influences. I am embarking on a 500 years old musical journey, taking Ladino to Andalusia and mixing it with flamenco, the style that still bears the musical memories of the old Moorish and Jewish-Spanish world with the sound of the Arab world. In a way it is a ‘musical reconciliation’ of history.

Yasmin Levy: Mano Suave (Dutch TV)

Yasmin Levy: Irme Kero (Dutch TV)

Smyrna postcard: Greetings from the East

Oumou Sangere: On the Waterfront

Oumou Sangere: On the Waterfront

Oumou Sangare

Saw Oumou Sangare put on an electrifying show at On the Waterfront last night – a short series of free concerts in the spectacular setting of the Pier Head plaza. In the one-hour set, Sangare performed songs from her recent album, Seya (Joy) with a stripped-down band consisting of drums,  djembe, kora, flute, ngoni, electric bass, and two young female backing vocalists who dance and twirl calabashes, one of whom Oumou introduced as her daughter.

On an evening when the rain of recent days thankfully held off, but with a chilly breeze whipping in off the river,  the band drove the beat forward from the first number, Oumou’s voice soaring over the interweaving pulses and beats. One of the features of the set was how Oumou engaged directly with the audience, using French and her ‘not so good’ English to explain the lyrics of her songs. She is a champion of women’s rights, and she was at pains to get across how her songs express the problems that women face on a daily basis because of polygamy and arranged marriage in Mali, but also  the importance of love, the pain of exile, and the frailty of human life.

Oumou Sangare 3

The whole performance was relaxed and joyous, ending with an extended introduction, by Oumou, of each member of her band, bringing them to the front of the stage hand on their shoulder. Introducing the djembe player, she aked if anyone in the audience could play the hand drum; several hands went up and she invited one guy up on stage to briefly demonstrate his skill.

Oumou Sangare 2

Oumou’s songs are expressions of her own philosophy and wisdom, born from her experience growing up in a poor family in Bamako and being catapulted to stardom at only the age of 21. She has brought to the world the hauntingly beautiful music of her homeland: wassoulou.

Wassoulou music is based on the song and dance traditions of Wasulu, a remote and densely wooded region in southern Mali. In the 1950s, in the villages, the youth created this style out of the songs of the ancient hunters’ societies and made it their own. At first, the elders opposed it furiously, comparing the main instrument, the six-string harp, to a bed bug because of its nervous rhythms that made young people dance frenetically as if bitten. But by the late 1970s wassoulou had begun to emerge as a new popular style in Bamako among migrant communities from the region. It had strong, hypnotic dance rhythms and the lyrics talked about general aspects of life in contemporary Mali. But Sangare took all this much further with her debut album, Moussolou (Women).

Not only was there a new bold rhythm and musical colour but she also had a personal mission: to improve the subservient position of women in Mali.Her songs talked openly about subjects that had never before been expressed in public in a fundamentally conservative society, such as female sensuality, in her stunning hit song Diaraby Nene (The Shivers of Love).

This summer I’ve been listening to her great new album Seya (Joy).  This review from Pitchfork:

Sangaré gets a hand from a whopping 47 collaborators on the album, including master guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, and Tony Allen. Most appear on a track or two, and mixed in with all the electric guitar, bass, flute, sax, and trap drums are a host of traditional Malian instruments, including the ngoni (a cousin of the guitar and banjo), the balafon (a type of marimba), and an arsenal of drums and percussion that give the album a diverse and always interesting rhythmic base. It opens with a blast of rhythmic balafon and dives into a fractured groove topped with an arcing flute, as Sangaré sings a forceful appeal for women’s equality in society and the home. Women’s rights are an issue she’s built her public life and much of her music around, and it’s a theme that crops up across the album.

“Wele Wele Wintou” sets dark female harmonies against a sharp sax theme behind Sangaré’s rapid-fire vocal, which speaks out against forced marriage. Subtle wah guitar burbles through the verses, and Tounkara takes one of the most unusual solos I’ve heard, playing far down the neck with a dark, blunt tone. You could probably listen to just the instrumental backing tracks to most of these songs and come away satisfied by the richness of the interlocking rhythms and the subtle harmonic shifts. Even slow tracks like “Senkele Te Sira”, which features another brilliant guitar part from Tounkara, have a dynamic, vibrant character that perfectly matches Sangaré’s sometimes towering vocals. She knows how to accent a phrase, unleashing a powerful wail at key moments to drive home a thought in a way that makes her passion clear in any language.

And this from the BBC:

Seya traverses a wide range of moods, from confident and celebratory to more austere, stripped down meditations. And while few artists give as good a groove as Oumou, the latter are often the best settings to appreciate her extraordinary voice; if Aretha Franklin had grown up in Bamako, she might have sounded something like this.

Apart from the declamatory Donso – an adaptation of a traditional Wassoulou hunter’s song – the material is all original as usual, and the basis of her distinctive sound remains the twitching, funky sound of the kamel n’goni(‘youth harp’), mostly played by ‘Benogo’ Brehima Diakité. But with fifty musicians taking part, there’s more variety of sounds and textures than ever. She’s used electric guitar before, but never with the kind of squealing rock treatments heard on Senkele Te Sira and Kounadya, which also features a great retro Hammond organ solo by co-producer Cheick TidianeSeck. There’s brass and the occasional deft use of strings, as well as guests such as flautist ‘Magic’ Malik Mazzadri and drummer Tony Allen, but none are allowed to overshadow the star.

Though it’s difficult to pick highlights from such a consistent album, the driving opener Sounsoumba and the radiantly joyful title track, with its lovely swooping chorus vocals, are the most instantly appealing of the more upbeat pieces.

Oumou Sangaré – Seya

Oumou Sangare ‘Sounsoumba’

Special acoustic version of the ‘Seya’ album opener filmed at World Circuit’s Livingston Studios, featuring Benego Diakite on kamelngoni.