Monday, June 02, 2003


More music. As alluded to elsewhere in this blog (can't provide a link as my permalinks are all crapped up - help anyone?), London in May seemed like the world music capital of the, er, world. (World music, what a dreadful, Anglo-centric term that is. What we (I?) mean is traditional, contemporary, fusion, folk, rock, classical music from different ethnic, religious and national backgrounds. Er, let's stick to world music.)

On the South Bank, we had the London African Music Festival. As usual, those infectious West Africa guys were there, but credit the organisers for dipping toes into North Africa. Just to prove that there is a rich musical heritage and current scene other than in sub-Saharan Africa. We took in two concerts in this series. Hossam Ramzy's eclectic mix of master musicians from Egypt and beyond has been covered elsewhere.

Souad Massi came highly rated. The Algerian chanteuse has been likened to Joni Mitchell and other great female singer songwriters. Her new album "Deb" has been called the most melancholic CD you'll hear this year. How surprised we were when she launched into bland euro-pop in her sold out gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. More surprising too, but Robin Denselow in the Guardian wax lyrical. We remained underwhelmed, disappointed even. Not that this was a bad performance, but what this MOR stuff had to do with Algeria or an African music festival.

In contrast, the support act, Abdelkader Saadoun, was much more enjoyable bringing together the traditional sounds of Algeria and upbeat modern takes on Arabic music. His flyer talks of an amalgam of countless styles and traditions in his music. Amazing that he fitter so much into a 40 minute set. I loved his plucking on the traditional mandolin, so far from the dull three chord strumming of Souad Massi. Being the QEH there was nowhere to dance, but we jiggled as much as we could in our seats.

Meanwhile, over the river, the Barbican put together one of the weirdest series in living memory - er, well Lee "Scratch" Perry curates Meltdown that could top it. X-Bloc Reunion brought together an eccentric mixture of artists from all over the former Soviet Union and its satellites. The festival kicked off with two legends of the Caucasus - Djivan Gasparyan from Armenia and Alim Qasimov from neighbouring Azerbaijan. Poignant this as these two countries have been at war for most of the years since independence. Unfortunately the two giants did not appear on stage together. Instead it was Russian folk music nutcase Sergey Starostin to link Qasimov and Gasparyan's sets with appearances at the end of the first and the beginning of the second.

Qasimov is an exponent of wailing singing style evocative of the Silk Road. Azerbaijan its a predominantly Muslim nation and its music reflects influences from the Arab world and Qawwali singing of Pakistan. What was missing from this shimmering performance was some explanation of the lyrical songs, some context.

Joined on stage by Sergey Klevensky, Starosin gave a virtuoso display on traditional flutes and woodwind instruments. After the break, he and Klevensky swapped between instruments, including bagpipes, that brought about one of the three or four hair standing on end experiences I have had in a concert. Never had I heard such a sweet, passionate yet haunting sound.

In his native Armenia, Gasparyan has the status of royalty. He is master of the duduk, the reedy woodwind instrument with roots in early Christian days in this mountainous country with such a sad history. Again lacking a bit of context, Gasparyan and two other duduk players played for an hour or so. Each tune had an opening evocative of the mountains and shepherds of his homeland before moving to a lyrical conclusion. Superb stuff: context and interpretation would have added to a special evening.

A few days later, Yat-Kha took the stage at the Barbican (the theatre, this time) for another unique performance. Yat-Kha have toured with their live accompaniment to the cult classic Russian film "Storm Over Asia" for several years. This was the UK debut of this weird collaboration. The film was made in 1928 and depicts the story of a poor Mongolian from the Steppes who gets embroiled in the struggle against imperialism and the forces of capitalism. Apparently the film suffered the censors cuts, but here was restored to its full 144 minute length. If a little clunky and blatant in its propaganda, the shots of the steppes and the Altai Mountains are stunning, even in faded black and white. Yat-Kha music fitted the film well, with the odd jokey reference. Yep, and throat singing. For the temple scene and the thrilling, swirling, wind blown finale, Yat-Kha pulled out the stops. A brave effort, especially with a depleted line-up missing their usual bassist, but much enjoyed by an expectant audience. Now I'm a Yat-Kha freak.

Roll on the next festival!

:: Posted by pete @ 19:27