Monday, August 01, 2011

WOMAD 2011 - Friday and Sunday thoughts

The centre of gravity appears to have shifted in the three years since my last WOMAD experience, away from the main stages to the Big Red Tent at the opposite end of the excellently-appointed Charlton Park arena. I know in the past that strange dance-related events happened there long after we grey-hairs were tucked up in bed (sometime after 9:30pm), but just an hour into Friday and the young Womadeers were already out in force, packing the space for a serendipitous wig-out to blazing Congolese stand-in Baloji. The Belgium-based singer’s appearance threatened to peak the festival barely before it had started, and was a microcosmic example of the visa-related shenanigans that have affected WOMAD line-ups over the years, as the EU-based African answered the call made necessary by Sierra Leone’s Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew’s lack of timely paperwork.

This year, thanks in large part to a partnership with the French Music Office, a more Eurocentric approach was plainly in evidence, with quirky experimentalist Chapelier Fou one of a number of left-field continental artists that blessed the nearby Charlie Gillett stage over the weekend. The Frenchman mixed samples and loops around shards of classical violin, an instrument heard in a more warmly traditional setting on the same stage two days earlier as young fiddler Rua MacMillan lived up his 2009 award as Scotland young musician of the year. Another Scottish fiddler, Aberdeenshire’s Sarah Beattie, wove threads of Gaelic beauty through trio Pacific Curls’ Maori tunes and tales rich in atmosphere and verve (disclaimer: sometimes musical impressions can be accentuated by positive culinary – and musical - experiences in the flavoursome Taste the World tent).

Early evening saw the Siam Tent come into its own, as it inevitably does when the hottest part of the day is behind us, with the Ethio-dub mashup of Dub Colossus seeping dark and dirty east African jazz-tinged grunge out of which emerged a crowd-popping version of Up Town Top Ranking.

Back in that Red Tent, a vibrant Friday afternoon (a capella girl quintent The Boxettes a picture of charm and preternaturally flexible diaphragms) turned into an exuberant old school punky reggae party courtesy of the mighty national treasure the Dub Pistols (they may have been on something, who can say?) while on the Open Air Stage the various Cuban and Malian greats that make up Afrocubism fought a poor sound mix and almost insurmountable expectations to deliver a set that made up in charm and individual musicianship for what it lacked in spark and interplay. Charm aplenty from Abigail Washburn too, the claw-hammer gal from America lighting up the Radio 3 (aka The Real Charlie Gillett) Stage with her wry observations coloured by expert but unshowy banjo and mountain-dew voice, her between-song patter remaining just the sweet side of cutesy. The contrast between this cool and folksy (in a good way) sound and the rawer, more WOMtrad sound of the extraordinary Sufi soul vocal aerobics of Faiz Ali Faiz later that night could not be more extreme or indeed more apposite to this land of sensual contrasts.

Plenty of contrast too in the heavy north African (by way of Paris, natch) groove of Aziz Sahmaoui and the University of Gnawa. I’d have liked to have seen just a bit more of the guimbri bass that lends gnawa such a heady and individual style, but the crowd wasn’t complaining at this intricate blend of oud, kora and guitar so neither will I (especially as their workshop was so bright and watchable). This was Sunday afternoon, and my new favourite stage the BRT was showing worrying signs of a...crouch...towards the worst of all festy blights, the cordon sani-chair that springs up around the edge of a tent as the forty-plus (I know I am – shoot me if I ever get like this) begin to suffer from Festival-Leg. This is a bit like trenchfoot only not nearly as painful, potentially fatal or indeed worthy of such defiantly stiff-upper-lipped, head in a book/The Independent intransigence in the face of anybody actually trying to get in to witness the performance. The masterful Penguin Café were the carriers, transporting the disease from their Cambridge Folk festival appearance the previous day, and so in the absence of any possibility of ingress, attention (and tippy-toed apologies) were turned to the Open Air stage Italian all-black-clad folk-rockers Nidi D’Arac, one of the undoubted hits of Friday/Sunday, full of rhythmically propulsive Mediterranean guitar-driven gusto and bursts of shit-kicking intermingling violin.

A veritable hit on a top-notch day, but possibly matched by Amparo Sanchez’s admix of Espana, Americana, Mexicana and that keening, gravelly vocal. The pocket dynamo’s throaty vocalising is as nothing to the extraordinary Ayarkhaan, a trio from the Russian republic of Sakha whose guttural cadences (think the Trio Bulgarka transported to Mongolia) create a mesmerising pocket of space around their static, sumptuously attired figures. They stop time with those voices, but also bend it and the air around them with a remarkable aural toolset that comprises no more than the jaw’s harp (which they call khomus, which appears to be a phonetic Asian term for all manner of instruments). A veritable BBC sound department array of ambient textures and impressions are issued forth. You name it - birds, galloping horses, grasses blowing in the breeze - boy can these ladies deliver.

On the same day, old-time Ghanaian guitarist Ebo Taylor served as an interesting comparison with Brooklyn-based rapper and fellow Ghanaian Blitz the Ambassador. Both are ‘old-skool’ in their way, but whereas the former taps into the new-found zeal for Afrobeat and Highlife guitar figures to deliver a jaunty take on early 70s west African swamp-pop, the rapper references the early days of ‘consciousness’ hip-hop and jigs it all up with some loose Troublefunk go-go style brass which thankfully buries his rather average delivery in a rolling bubbling groove. Two sides of the same coin, both perfectly at home on a broiling Womad afternoon.

What else? Nathale Natiembe, chanced upon in a sparsely-attended dance workshop. Nevertheless her stark, emotive maloya suddenly made sense placed in its dark, contemporary setting; and finally, this year’s guitar discovery Bombino from Niger, a cool, intimate purveyor of singer-songwriterdom that speaks to every soul and is a perfect comedown after a weekend of sensory highs.

DISH OF THE FESTIVAL: Goan Fish Curry for the nth year running.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

DONSO - Donso (Comet)

It is easy to see why this confidently-executed and edgy album has the support of uber-cool personages such as Radio One’s Giles Peterson. Donso is the creation of French producer and DJ Pierre-Antoine Grison (aka Krazy Baldhead) who fashions a multi-layered electronic base for Malian singer Gédéon Papa Diarra, with Thomas Guillaume and Guimba Kouyaté adding threads of organic lustre on ngoni and guitar. Fans of Mamani Keita’s Electro Bamako and Yelema albums will know how the judicious application of crunchy pre-programmed beats can accentuate the repeated vocal motifs of Bambara phrasing, and Diarra’s child-like nasal tenor works in large part because of its remarkable similarity to his compatriot (Diarra lacks some of Keita’s presence, though, and so Mamani is very welcome as a backing vocalist to bolster a number of tracks).

Highlights include Mogoya, whose popping beats and squealing synths could be mistaken for a Missy Elliott/Timbaland production if it were not for the intricate buzz of ngoni working in and around it. On the propulsive Hunters a looped ngoni figure fades in and out of alternately thin and thick layers of snappy electronica. On Diya, the bassy hum of Guillaume’s donso n’goni predominates, pulling the rhythm in all sorts of interesting directions. Djandjigui is more guitar-driven, and thus most reflective of the band’s live sound. It also features Diarra’s best vocal - supple, confident, playful with the intricate use of melody. More of that next time round and Donso really will be close to an Electro Bamako II.

JAYME STONE - Room of Wonders (JS)

Jayme Stone last appeared on the world music radar with his impressive meeting of banjo with the kora on the Africa to Appalachia album. On this intriguing, stylistically wide-ranging follow-up, the Canadian has stretched his influences right across Europe and out to Brazil, taking in reels, polkas, bluegrass, classical and even a re-interpretation of Riccardo Tesi’s southern Italian accordion music.

European folk music is the hub of Room of Wonders, which is inspired by Stone’s reaction to hearing a Bach French Suite and the folk influences inherent therein (ironically, the Bach piece covered here is arguably the one truly weak moment). Fiddler Casey Driessen effectively takes top billing as he saws, plucks and chops his way energetically through the various genres while Stone’s chirpy banjo fills provide a common path back to the duo’s North American roots.

It all comes together best on the constant key-shifts of the exhilarating Bulgarian mountain dance Planinsko Horo, the Norwegian polka Andrea Berget where a strutting Stone tip-toes around delightful conversational interplay between Driessen and guest Jaron Freeman-Fox; and the traditional break-neck bluegrass hoe-down Ways of the World.

No doubt none of this ticks any authenticity boxes, and there is an air of almost wilful eclecticism to the approach. By necessity we only get a taste of the genres explored, and at an almost academic remove. But it’s hard to argue with the sublime, telepathic musicianship on this entertaining set.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

TAMIKREST - Toumastin (Glitterhouse Records)

They’re keen this new generation of Kel Tamashek rockers, these self-styled spiritual sons of Tinariwen. Little more than a year after their atmospheric debut album Adagh comes this solid follow-up to consolidate the band’s place at the peak of the rockiest end of the desert blues outcrop.

The Tinariwen comparisons inevitably remain – from frizzy-haired Ibrahim-a-like lead singer Ousmane Ag Mossa, through lyrics that focus on the Touareg struggle for autonomy and nomadic freedom, to the vocal ululations and rhythmic undulations that add texture to ringing electric guitar lines. The Tamikrest template is clear, forceful electric guitar winding over a relaxed groove, with Mossa’s earnest vocals backed by the pulsing drone of rhythm and bass guitars (there should be a collective noun for this ubiquitous desert blues rumble – a tremor of Touareg guitars perhaps?).

The solemnity of the lead vocalist is uplifted by the exultant ululations of female backing singers, who also provide alluring responses to the lead singer on the funky love song Tarhamanine Assinegh and the twisting Tidit, a tune that seems to channel mid-70s American blues-rock as well as the best of Tamikrest’s fellow Touareg spiritual travellers Terakaft. Elsewhere, on the stripped back Aidjan Adaky, Mossa’s heartfelt vocal rides on a hypnotic wave of feedback and sustain.

It almost goes without saying – and indeed seems pretty much de rigeur at the moment to point out with each new Touareg release - that overall the album doesn’t break much new ground, although Tamikrest do absorb tinges of country- and blues-rock guitar into their sound. On the one occasion when they do try to cross-over into western rock terrain, on the album’s closer Dihad Tedoun Itran, the result is an incongruous clash between country rock, heavy metal guitar, viola and a 4/4 drumbeat. Most uncharacteristic for a band of subtle rhythmic pull, and a reminder perhaps that this music is indeed like the camels that are so often used as a metaphor to describe it - at its best taking steady steps forward, absorbing the sustenance of other styles when required but likely to stumble and fall if asked to move too quickly onto unfamiliar ground.

ABDOULAYE TRAORE & MOHAMED DIABY - Debademba (Naive)/DIOM DE KOSSA - In My Father’s Shadow (Talik)

Debabemba means “big family” in Bambara, and there’s a feeling of extended family get-together about this beefy, sonically wide-ranging album that was hatched in the bustling Parisian suburb of Belleville. Traoré, a guitarist originally from Burkina Faso, has teamed up with Ivorian Diaby, a singer with a remarkable voice that combines the forceful declamations of his griot antecedents with velvety, emotive expression.

Produced and arranged with a sumptuous Parisian-African sensibility, the album is topped and tailed by a folsksy ballad and a salsa workout, between which the listener is taken on a whirlwind tour of electric Bambara, jazz, soul and blues, tinged with Afrobeat in places and all of it infused with strains of Andalusion guitar and Arabic textures (including the snaking, breathy melodies of flautist Naissam Jalal).

If that sounds a bit too rich a mix, at times Debademba does trip over its own ambitious attempt to create such a melting pot of styles, particularly in the two extended jazz inflected workouts that weigh down the midpoint of the album. But either side of those tracks, Debademba exudes impressive reserves of vibrancy and inspiration.

Agnakamina – all tumbling rhythm, twangy guitar and wild flute – crackles with energy; Kiele Djola builds a strummed mandolin opening into an up-tempo blend of north- and west-African grooves; and Loundotemena swings exquisitely around acoustic guitar, with balafon with ngoni melodies trailing and mimicking those of gospel-style female backing.

Guest singers Fatou Diawarra and Awa add more distaff variety in consecutive songs towards the end of the album, the latter’s slightly other-worldly tones breathing character into Camille Hablar’s cello on the off-kilter Africa Blues. All of which tips the balance of this appealing album in favour of successful execution of myriad influences against the overwrought mess it could so easily have been.

Diom de Kossa is an Ivorian singer whose spacious album contains tunes that sound as if they were written for outdoor summer airing. De Kossa floats easy melodies in his strong baritone voice over a stock electric four-piece backing, with backing singers and the deployment of traditional instruments such as the konting lute leavening arrangements where the repeated choruses and ever-so-slightly extraneous lead guitar or drum fills can lead to a serious case of festival-style mind-wander, although there’s usually enough of an edge to snap the listener back to attention. With a couple of jaunty traditional numbers beaten out on the Yadoh drum, Baba Toulenga makes for a decent, unobtrusively feel-good summer soundtrack.