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Budapest Café Orchestra, Birnam Arts Centre

 

You’re never quite sure with the Budapest Café Orchestra if their glorious Mahler Adagietto is going to break into a cod Cossack version of Guns N’Roses or if Summertime might segue into I Heard it Through the Grapevine.

 

Being kept on tenterhooks is one of the pleasures of encountering the musical masters of Harringay in their charity shop chic, down the river hats and standard lamp-lit stage set. In the event, the Adagietto stayed true to Mahler’s intentions, portraying a sad prolonged delicacy that was gorgeously poignant, and Marvin Gaye did indeed elbow George Gershwin out of the way, briefly, in a Summertime that pulled as many legs as it tugged heartstrings.

 

Not so much a band name as a whole genre of its own, Budapest Café Orchestra embraces an encyclopaedia of music and mischief. From Macedonia to Mull and from Hank Marvin to Edvard Grieg they kidnap melodies and make them their own, lending them variously heavy Slavic soulfulness, an unlikely but somehow apt rhythm and blues bassline, some gypsy swing pep or the slapstick pathos that comes from frontman Chris Garrick dragging a horse hair across a violin string to make a creaky door-like melody.

 

Garrick once managed to have himself introduced on BBC Radio Scotland as “Crease Garrique” – he lived in Perpignan at the time – so pinches of salt are required with him and Adrian Zolotuhin, whose droll introduction to his various stringed instruments was both education and hoot. Add superb interplay between Garrick and accordionist Eddie Hession, now virtuosic, now triple piano plaintive, and a wonderfully self-contained quartet sound and the audience leaves grinning as well as musically impressed and satisfied.

 

From The Herald, September 19, 2016

 

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Youssou N’Dour, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

 

He’s introduced onstage as the king of African music. He looks the part, too, resplendent in a white tunic suit. A large turnout of his Edinburgh-based Senegalese constituency is there to greet him, dressed to kill and keen to get the party started after a half-hour delay. What’s particularly impressive about this king is his court, however.

 

It wouldn’t do to suggest that Youssou N’Dour, a superbly expressive singer and justifiably a folk hero across the world now, gets upstaged by his band. The singing here, though, became a cog in a wheel with fantastic forward motion. You really daren’t look away from components such as the outrageously brilliant percussion section or the bass guitar and guitar team to N’Dour’s left, and there was quite a distraction early on as an over-exuberant, not to say aggressive reveller was ushered away.

 

The power of the drum can rarely have been emphasised so generously, and by power I don’t mean volume but strength and sheer musicality. Features for talking drum and djembe didn’t just give the players the spotlight. They added feverish excitement, tone and momentum to the marvellously arranged if not always clearly delivered songs.

 

Seven Seconds, N’Dour’s hit collaboration with Neneh Cherry, with his backing singer taking Cherry’s role, sounded like a curious artefact, older than its 1990s origins, compared to the bubbling sounds of contemporary Africa around it, and indeed one of the best “songs” came from N’Dour’s rabble rousing timbalero who good-naturedly goaded the crowd, chanting to see if they were awake, present even. They were and the party was apparently continuing elsewhere – with the band doubtless still effervescing.

 

From The Herald, August 26, 2016

 

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Wooonta Trio, Zoo Southside, Edinburgh

 

Listed below the event’s main heading in the Fringe brochure, Wooonta Trio are, as is often the case with small print, worth paying attention to, their music being a refreshing amalgam of east and west. The eastern influences come through the use of sitar and the erhu, a two-stringed, bowed instrument, and the west is represented by French cellist Hugues Vincent and an approach that owes something to jazz improvisation and composition as well as oriental folklore.

 

T.S. Lo, Taiwan’s sole representative in the group, brings an amazing range of tones and expression from the erhu, and plays a major part in their stated aim of creating a journey in each piece that leaves lots of room for spontaneity. The three musicians work superbly together, supporting and interacting with apparent ease, and while there’s plenty of heat, as their improvisations build in intensity, the essential melodies are very clear, with Japanese sitar player Ryohei Kanemitsu playing cool, direct lines as often as the more intricate, fevered note clusters associated with certain ragas.

 

They don’t exactly outstay their welcome, playing for just forty minutes, but in this case brevity adds to the potency of what they have to offer as part of the multi-disciplined Taiwan Season visiting the Fringe.

 

From The Herald, August 24, 2016

 

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Kensaku Satou, Space Triplex, Edinburgh

 

Kensaku Satou’s musculature is testament to his dedication to Taiko drumming, a tradition that calls for strength and stamina as well as percussion nous. His performance has touches of theatre, as he arrives in robes and changes costume several times before concentrating on the massive power and precision of the finale, and each piece has its own character as, between times, he moves from drum to drum to a drum kit of five instruments that he negotiates with startling skill.

 

The variety of these drums can be measured by the biggest being “played” with a kind of mini caber that Satou bounces adeptly on its skin and the others, including one worn over his shoulder and featuring impressively “flying” hands, requiring sticks of different dimensions from baseball bats to super-thick wooden knitting pins. Taiko can sometimes be regarded as an austere art form but Satou eagerly involves the audience at one point and the over-arching impression is of an artist who communicates with not just superb sticksmanship but also genuine musicality. Ear plugs aren’t required.

 

From The Herald, August 24, 2016

 

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Flamenco Global Connect, C Chambers Street, Edinburgh

 

Guitarist Ricardo Garcia’s Flamenco Global Connect spins the world on its axis. As well as having a Spanish guitarist, Garcia himself, and a Japanese saxophonist, Yuichiro Tokuda on soprano, giving an excellent impression of a typically Edinburgh meteorological phenomenon, the haar, on the opening number, the connection leads to Tokuda playing fevered flamenco lines while Garcia’s guitar is off on a Kenyan safari.

 

Flamenco meets hip hop and a fandango stitched into a waltz offer further riches although anyone thinking that, by now, some more traditional flamenco fare might also be welcome should fear not. The arrival onstage of the superb Rebeca Ortega, in the first of an assortment of flamenco dancing dresses, and singer and cajon player Ivan Martin puts Chambers Street firmly in the flamenco heartlands.

 

At times Ortega is as much a part of the rhythm section, with Martin alternating between discrete handclaps and beautifully judged cajon strokes, as she is the imperious, dancing focal point, her steps beating furious, intricate tattoos under a long train that she swishes, lifts and manoeuvres with marvellous dexterity and no little significance.

 

Garcia’s solo guitar reading of Isaac Albeniz’s classic Asturias is another treat, as is Martin’s heartfelt, troubled-sounding but ultimately uplifting singing in a show that delivers musically, visually and with its pungent, suggested aromas and flavours, near-as-dammit gastronomically.

 

From The Herald, August 10, 2016

 

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Anda Union and Rant, Mackintosh Church, Glasgow

 

The top of Maryhill Road became a little part of Inner Mongolia on Friday evening as the voices and instruments of Anda Union took us right into the hearts of their homelands. This was the group’s third visit to Scotland and the international tours and high profile festival appearances they’ve undertaken since they wowed the Edinburgh Fringe on their first trip would appear to have raised their performance level even higher.

 

Their ensemble sound – orchestration really – as their horse head fiddles (a kind of two string cello), percussion, flutes, frets and precise, muscular bass create variously vivid colour, gentle backdrops and mighty, vigorous momentum is breath-taking in its control, discipline and exuberance, and their vocal harmonies, using the two-tone Khoomei throat singing style, are fantastically rich.

 

Each of the traditional costume-clad band members introduced us to their grassland homes through music and song that was so descriptive as to be transportive, none more so than their female singer, Tsetsegmaa’s ballad of longing and deep, deep connection. There’s humour in their presentation, too, with their male singer, Biligbaatar, wearing his description of “The Mongolian Casanova” with just the right blend of pride and self-deprecation. It was all of an exceptionally high quality piece but their 10,000 Galloping Horses finale especially carried the sort of realism that might make an opportunistic gardener fetch a shovel.

 

Fiddle quartet Rant also created transportive music with their superbly voiced arrangements of Shetland tunes and a drop-dead gorgeous Icelandic praise song, and the arrival of their guest vocalists, Ewan McLennan and Julie Fowlis, served to underline the sensitivity, care and sheer good taste that informs their instrumental work.

 

From The Herald, February 1, 2016

 

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Reem Kelani, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

 

Reem Kelani doesn’t hang around. The Manchester-born Palestinian singer was renewing her Scottish connections – her father studied in Glasgow and she has entertaining memories of her own experiences of Millport bars – and she wasn’t to be hindered by formalities like waiting for the sound engineer’s thumb’s up.

 

Her off-mic introduction turned out to be an endearingly apt overture to a performance in which she combined restless energy with vigorous political engagement, persuasive audience involvement and an illustrated, impressively far-reaching musicological dissertation.

 

Visiting Celtic Connections as the headline attraction in a Burns Night celebration staged by the festival in conjunction with BEMIS, the organisation that empowers Scotland’s ethnic and cultural minority communities, Kelani took care to include her own Burns tribute, The Slave’s Lament, delivered as a deeply-felt blues, as did the previous participants.

 

So we had a raw, rugged Tibbie Dunbar from grooving Govanhill collective E Karika Djal’s violinist-guitarist, a slightly awkward-sounding Now Westlin’ Winds paired with Punjabi praise singing by Sarah Hayes and Sara Kazmi, and a rather lovely Auld Lang Syne from Syrian Maya Youssef, whose playing of the zither-like kanun employs an array of techniques to coax sounds and emotions from the strings.

 

Kelani’s frank emotional engagement with her material could easily tumble into complete chaos but she has her performance under her own kind of control and the way she works with her highly schooled quartet and her songs’ exacting arrangements is mesmerising. One song was taken from village square to conservatoire in a primal to baroque adventure and another, with the audience’s participation, brought harmony to the Middle East. If only political leaders could find such healing charm.

 

From The Herald, January 27, 2016

 

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Toumani Diabaté with RSNO, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

 

The main event, billing-wise, sat between two sets of more conventional African music, a programming choice that might have emphasised the unlikely nature, the unsuitability even, of the first-ever venture in integrating the Malian and western classical traditions. Instead, it underlined just how lovingly the orchestrations had been crafted to create a natural partnership.

 

With Toumani Diabaté and his son Sidiki, both now, you’d have to say, masters of the African harp, the kora, seated in front of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and members of Diabaté’s band, the Symmetric Orchestra, taking up position alongside their RSNO colleagues there was an ease about the stage set-up that was matched by the use of orchestral sections as extensions of the African musical language.

 

Violas played gently jabbing riffs over a dancing cello undertow as the violins explored and developed a melody in sympathy with the Diabatés’ soulful improvising. It was beautiful, undulating, understated and quietly proud music that had its moments of humour – Sidiki quoting The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, as he would do again in the final set – as well as truly compelling emotional power.

 

Either side of this came Trio Da Kali, whose blending of balafon player, Lassana Diabaté’s amazing percussive virtuosity, Mamadou Kouyaté’s coolly energetic bass ngoni lines and Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté’s gospel-like vocal style, quickly became infectious, and the Symmetric Orchestra in more familiar guise. This again featured Lassana Diabaté and his almost torrential creativity but it was the parting father-son duet, with Diabaté senior calling for humanitarian concerns to take priority over economic ones, that left  the strongest impression of music’s ability to override words.

 

From The Herald, January 19, 2016

 

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Zűrös Banda, Jazz Bar, Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s Balkan population turned out in enthusiastic hand-clapping and in more courageous cases, dancing mode on Sunday to welcome Hungarian sextet Zűrös Banda. Currently touring to introduce their traditional music infused with rock and jazz sensibilities, the group gathers together music and metres from Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Macedonia as well as its native Hungary and plays it with a verve, musicality and intensity that will surely win it friends wherever it travels.

With Edinburgh’s resident Hungarian violinist, Jani Lang on board as both band member and emcee, and doing a double shift as his local folk group, Dallahan provided the support, we were given steers as to the songs and tunes derivations and although the songs were all in Hungarian, we got a more than fair idea of their content from the extraordinarily expressive singing of Branka Básits.

Those who remember the early Scottish visits by Zűrös Banda’s fellow Hungarians Muzsikas will remember the impact also of their singer, Márta Sebestyén. Básits has similar qualities. Intense of voice, with a hugely becoming low vibrato, she radiates joy and relays sadness with a whole lot of soul and a vivacious stage presence, navigating often highly intricate time signatures and rhythmical melodies with nimble diction and a warm, engaging vocal tone.

When not singing she was to be found in front of the stage, joining the party that was going on as Lang and his countryman on accordion brought out the Middle Eastern flavour of Macedonian dance tunes and traded white lightning choruses over the certain but flexible guitar, bass guitar and drums rhythm team. Great stuff and remember that name: Branka Básits.

From The Herald, December 1, 2015

 

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Moishe’s Bagel, Salt for Svanetia (own label)     

Moishe’s Bagel’s first venture into providing soundtracks for silent films proved a great success when Salt for Svanetia was shown, with the band playing live, at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness in March this year. The film gives a startling snapshot of life in a landlocked, remote and self-contained Soviet community in the 1930s yet the quintet’s music, together with notes on the scenes it accompanies, captures the visuals so vividly that it stands up as a dramatic, wonderfully atmospheric work in its own right. Violinist-mandolinist Greg Lawson’s theme tune conveys both the hard lives led and the unforgiving grandeur of the location with a soulfulness that permeates the album as a whole, and the rhythmical intricacies of bassist Mario Caribe’s The Towers of Svanetia and the contrasts between dancing, accordion-led work songs and the searing sorrowfulness of pieces such as pianist Phil Alexander’s Milk to the Soil combine to create an affecting portrait that resonates long after the music stops.

From The Sunday Herald, November 22, 2015

 
 

Akbar Ali Khan, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Alchemy Glasgow’s inaugural festival of music, dance and literature from India, Pakistan and the UK ended on Sunday with a splendid celebration of the oldest musical instrument of all, the human voice.

As elsewhere over the four days, there was long family tradition involved and the Pakistani singer Akbar Ali Khan and his three brothers, accompanying him on harmonium and hand drums, can draw on three hundred years or more of music being handed down the generations.

Khan comes across as a quiet, actually rather shy young man and his spoken communication with the audience consisted of an occasional, softly intoned “thank you”. His singing, however, is fearless, covering the intervals from a low, ruminative rumble to a high-pitched, soulful cry with a voice he is able to shape apparently at will.

The songs tended to fall into a similar format, opening slowly and building into an exultant, recurring chant, although some bypassed the intro and exploded with joyous rhythm and an almost rowdy – in the best possible sense – chorus, with Khan urging the audience to clap along as he improvised at times mind-boggling, mesmerising variations.

Opening the concert, Indian singer Parveen Sabrina Khan belied her youthfulness – she’s twenty-two – by giving superb accounts of Rajasthani court songs and beautifully melodic ragas with a masterly sarangi (an Indian cousin of the violin) player and tabla player she’d only met in the afternoon.

Like Akbar Ali Khan, she has the expression of an old soul in a young body and her animated singing in partnership with some lovely, deft and expressive sarangi phrasing somehow conveyed lyrical content ranging from queenly allure to rain’s horticultural benefits without need of translation.

From The Herald, May 26, 2015.

 

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Angélique Kidjo with Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There can’t be too many examples in the RSNO’s illustrious history of its musicians being deserted onstage by a guest sashaying into the auditorium, still singing through a radio mic, and exchanging hugs and high fives with as many of the audience as possible, passing along the stalls in the process.

This, though, was the finale to Saturday’s visit by Béninoise force of nature Angélique Kidjo, who may have added a first or two to both Celtic Connections and RSNO lore. Have we had a Santana song sung on the festival’s mainstage before? We did here with Kidjo’s elastically expressive rendition of Samba Pa Ti. Has a RSNO audience ever been chided for being rubbish at a sing-a-long? This one was, quite pointedly, but as much in the spirit of Kidjo engendering a good vibe as in her insistence on being the boss.

Kidjo’s first response to conductor-arranger Gast Waltzing’s suggestion that he could cloak her astonishing voice and celebratory songs in orchestrations was one of disbelief. Actually, it might have been stronger than that, and there were occasions when the orchestra threatened almost to swamp her and others where the coming together of two cultures wasn’t entirely successful.

These were overshadowed majorly by the parts that worked, however. At one point, indeed, during her Brazilian sojourn, it seemed that Kidjo, rather than Waltzing, was in charge of the orchestra as she had them swinging to her hip-sway.

It was feelgood music, punctuated by tenderly reflective passages with just guitarist David Laboner’s careful accompaniment, that carried serious clout. The threats to our personal privacy in the wake of world leaders’ response to terrorism informed Kidjo’s impassioned plea for freedom. Education as a human right and peace were invoked in no small gesture from a singer – and woman – whose sincerity is unimpeachable and whose actions with UNICEF speak louder than words. The audience left smiling. They’d been entertained, moved by vocal magnificence, but also, I suspect, been given more than a night of music to consider.

From The Herald, January 19, 2015.

 

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Namvula Rennie, Shiwezwa (Namvula)

Shiwezwa is the first album from a singer-songwriter with an interesting family line. Namvula Rennie was born in Zambia, where her Zambian-Scottish parents were missionaries, and she spent her childhood in Switzerland and Kenya before being sent to school in the UK. She was named after her great-great-great grandmother – Namvula means ‘mother of rain’ - and her aunt Maureen Lilanda is one of Zambia’s leading singers and musicians. All of this, plus a group of top London-based African and jazz musicians, including Scottish drummer John Blease, goes into an album that sounds at times as if it, too, might have been made in Zambia. Namvula sings in her native Lenje as well as English and Portuguese. Sign of the Times has a more Scottish influence and Old Man is more transatlantic but Na Ndayeya, with its Iberian tinge and kora party section underlines Namvula’s status as a citizen of the world and along with the hi-life beat of Andorinha bodes well for her taking this music out on the road.

From The Sunday Herald, November 2, 2014.

 

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Hamilton de Holanda, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

If the BBC need a theme tune for their coverage of the Olympic Games in Brazil in two years’ time, they might wish to consult Hamilton de Holanda. This sorcerer of the bandolim – a ten-string version of the mandolin – has at least one contender, a piece he composed last Friday, Escola da Bola, that sounded like a Brazilian classic that every band in the country has at its fingertips. Perhaps one day they will.

For now, though, it serves as one of a dozen or more exhibits presented here in the case for de Holanda’s genius. His playing of this small instrument with the colossal range of expression teems with fluency, of course, but what makes the music that pours forth so special is the richness of tradition – the choro - that he brings to everything he plays.

This goes beyond mere notes, and there were many of these as he stated a familiar theme and flew off into a fantasia of melodic variations and chordal developments that piled depth upon depth. It was music that contained a wealth of poetry and presented itself as almost a visual and certainly a physical art form as the instrument became not only an extension of his being but also a percussive device of astonishing intricacy and intensity.

Every piece was a highlight but his conversion of I’ve Never Been in Love Before into an etude was a delicate delight, his development of O Que Sera (the love theme from Cinema Paradiso) into an Egberto Gismonti-esque strumdinger was a marvel and his whistled coda, with accompanying harmonic, to a rare vocal item was witty brilliance personified.

From The Herald, July 1, 2014.

 

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Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

It’s little wonder that Catrin Finch finds working with Seckou Keita liberating. After all, there can’t be too many gigs for a concert harpist where she gets to run her nail down a bass string with mock venom, use the harp’s body as a conga drum and administer gleeful skelps instead of arpeggios.

This all happened during Future Strings, where Keita’s kora was used to produce various effects, including a pantomimed rub of his beard. They’re clearly completely at ease with each other, these musicians from different continents but although they’re part of separate cultures, they’re both also representatives of long traditions and it may be this that makes them such a natural musical pairing. Then again, maybe it’s just because they both happen to be great players.

When Finch introduced something from the sixteenth century Welsh harper Robert Ap Huw’s manuscripts, Keita was able to add, in an entirely complementary way, a tale and melody of similar vintage from his own lands and the two flowed together like comingling streams. And so it went over two sets of absorbing, conversational interaction, some of it reflective, some of it spectacularly intense, some of it dancing to a celebratory rhythm.

A piece inspired by the building in the 1960s of a reservoir at Tryweryn found Finch playing both electro harp and the concert model and intoning folk memories of lost homes and flooded valleys while Keita tugged a sympathetic rhythm and voiced a wordless, soulful commentary. Church bells chimed figuratively. Ships sailed. Mists hovered and best of all, Finch became a veritable string band, riffing and grooving alongside Keita’s agile, high tensile melodising.

From The Herald, May 13, 2014.

 

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Buika, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

When Concha Buika told the Herald last week that performing onstage was a life or death issue, she wasn’t exaggerating exactly. True, no-one died here, although a former lover was excised from a song as the Miami-based Mallorcan decided in the heat of the moment that she could no longer, to put it more politely, countenance his return domestically. But this was a visceral, no prisoners taken experience.

The contrast with Cuban-born Cape Verde-rooted Mayra Andrade’s opening set could hardly have been more stark. Andrade’s music and band lilted and grooved easily, encompassing Latin American, ska and rockabilly influences but in a fairly conventional, always very personable presentation.

Buika doesn’t do conventional. Hers was a performance of turmoil, as if she she’d brought her whole life on stage with her and was exorcising her demons as well as celebrating her joys. At times child-like (especially when she didn’t want to leave at the end), she also appeared possessed, accompanying her astonishingly expressive singing with seemingly electrified dance moves.

This, along with her borderline chaotic approach, won’t be for everyone, and some in the modest-sized audience left early. The set-list was decided spontaneously and songs arranged and then altered in situ, underlining the responsiveness and superb quality of her guitarist and percussionist, both of whom displayed a range of tones and dynamics that was as breath-taking as Buika’s volcanic yet masterly delivery. Her voice is a sonic marvel, adding layers of feeling to a wondrous Ne Me Quitte Pas and investing Don’t Explain with a bereft soulfulness that spoke of a whole heap of personal experience being channelled into a lyric.

 

From The Herald, January 23, 2014.

 

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Rokia Traore, Liquid Room, Edinburgh

Rokia Traore clearly has an eye as well as an ear for the theatrical. The Malian singer-guitarist began this set with what could easily be used as a blueprint for building musical drama, her strumming on her vintage Gretsch guitar appearing to draw increasing power and colour from her band by almost imperceptible degrees as she lilted mesmerizingly.

If she’d wanted her audience’s undivided attention – and not that she needed to work hard to get it – she had it. And she kept it, right to the end when she and her backing singers, in turn, strutted their considerable stuff before exiting stage right.

She cuts a slight figure, looking supremely elegant in trimmed short hair and low-cut dress, but Traore appears to have a character of steel as well as the ability to exude warmth and a propensity to party onstage – when she danced to her ngoni player’s rolling and tumbling feature virtually all other movement in the room became laboured by comparison.

Her band – a rare example of African spirit and creativity marrying happily with rock guitars and drums – is at once disciplined and expressive, turning on a sixpence from uptempo exuberance to a slower, almost menacing beat, and over its dance-provoking energy she sings with both mighty command and deep expression.

The lyrics are mostly in her native languages of French and Bambara, and at one point she sings a bewitching unaccompanied Malian hymn to someone from back home she’s spotted in the audience. But she knows how to captivate in English, too, declaring her love for her continent on Beautiful Africa and delivering Gloomy Sunday as a heart-stopping encore.

From The Herald, November 11, 2013.

 

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Querencia, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

At the end of Saturday’s Hispanic Festival showcase, a voice came unbidden into my head, asking: Where on earth do they find these people? The answer is, of course, starkly obvious but the festival and its director, Maria Conte, do seem to have a hotline to a supply chain of extraordinary flamenco talents.

This latest in a run that’s becoming almost routine in its brilliance, with direction from Conte herself, majored on the character of the participants rather than technique, although you have to know what you’re about also, one presumes, to pull off the moves and percussive footwork that are involved.

Querencia translates as fondness and there was love in all its guises in the dramas that unfolded in guitar music, raw, vocal cord-paring song and flamboyant movement. Guitarist Pedro Sierra provided an expert soundtrack, setting the scene with improbably fluent, at times searingly intense commentaries. He’s currently Ballet Flamenco de Andalucia’s music director, so you’d expect expertise, but his feeling for the dancers’ needs was further explained in a guitar-free encore where he proved no mean mover himself.

Often the only accompaniment required was hand-clapping or the fervent, whole-hearted singing of La Tobala as grand master José Galvan variously primped comically, suggested proud defiance or removed his jacket with a flourish that was part torero, part balletic hero. His daughter, Pastora all but filled the stage with her personality and dress-lifting manoeuvres that carried both a certain hauteur and a sense of fun, not to mention her voluminous shawl. All in all a fantastically entertaining evening that made the exit onto a wet Clerk Street seem disorientating and prosaic by comparison.

From The Herald, October 21, 2013.

 

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Quilapayún, Picture House, Edinburgh

The hands at work onstage are impressive enough but at regular intervals during the first visit by Quilapayún to Edinburgh for some twenty years, the thought occurred that whoever is responsible for making sure that every one of these instruments being pressed into service makes it to the next concert is performing a Herculean task.

Quilapayún need this collection of wooden flutes, various strings, frets, keyboards and percussion to effect their transition from the folkloric voice of the Chilean people in the 1960s and early 1970s through classically trained sophistication and on to quite the party band. It’s like watching, in the space of ninety minutes, the Spinners morph into Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.

Like exiles the world over, they haven’t forgotten their roots and their dedications to national heroes, be they poets or presidents, and ordinary citizens alike positively brim with beautifully harmonised fervour. The vocal arrangement that imparted Uruguayan activist Daniel Viglietti’s Por Ellos Canto would have done credit to Brian Wilson and the impassioned singing of Ramona Parra, a young woman shot dead in a 1946 Santiago demonstration, ensured that its heroine’s spirit remains vividly alive.

All the while, the fourteen-string tiple passes through various hands, guitars are strummed, a snare drum is stroked with casual expertise, maracas briefly shake, flutes intone their descants and the pan pipe’s dual role as melody and rhythm instrument is brilliantly underlined before first, something akin to Chilean salsa brings the isolated pockets of dancing in the audience together in jubilation and then, band and audience unite in a defiant Chilean anthem that makes stepping out onto Lothian Road afterwards feel slightly alien.

From The Herald, April 22, 2013.



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Gurdas Maan, City Halls, Glasgow

Fully three hours after arriving onstage Gurdas Maan is still urging his musicians on, encouraging them to increase the pace, conducting them through various subtleties and sharing pleasantries with all and sundry. And although he’s barely stood still for more than a few seconds throughout the whole time, Maan gives every appearance of being ready, willing and able to continue for another three hours or more.

At fifty-six, he looks to have maintained the regimes that allowed him to complete his masters degree in Physical Education and gain a black belt in judo. His dancing and extraordinarily graceful movements are just part of his attraction, however. Top of the bill by some way is the voice. While the meaning of what this Punjabi icon sings and says is lost on someone who doesn’t share his native language - and he apologises at one point for his poor English – the quality of his singing in terms of variations of timbre and agility is astonishing.

His fans in the packed auditorium respond to their particular favourites, some of which smack of praise singing or dispensing wisdom, others appearing more mischievous, by bringing him money or other gifts. A tartan scarf is gratefully accepted and immediately draped over Maan’s shoulders, a Scottish touch alongside his resplendent yellow tunic and lungi.

Maan’s vocalist-percussionist gives him a breather by telling jokes and tales about his soberly dressed fellow band members. But Maan hardly stops pacing and with a flick of his wrist his percussion section cracks into another insistent, irresistible bhangra rhythm, call and response vocals and a keyboard descant once more creating something magical and exultant.

From The Herald, April 4, 2013.



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Kayhan Kalhor, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh


Kayhan Kalhor must have been beginning to wonder if he himself was going to be appearing here. Originally scheduled to feature the Tehran-born master of the kamancheh, a four stringed upright Persian fiddle, and his ensemble, the billing was changed due to visa problems to a duo of Kalhor and his long-term musical partner, Erdal Erzincan. Then this accomplished player of the Turkish lute, the baglama, also ran into visa problems.


If Kalhor was in any way troubled by having to resort to plan C at the last minute, it didn’t show in the music he created in a performance that was mostly solo with occasional apposite contributions from the most quietly judicious of hand drummers, Adib Rostami on tombak. Opting to play one long set of some eighty minutes instead of his intended programme, Kalhor give a brilliant demonstration of his instrument’s considerable sonic range and his ability to communicate emotions and a kind of tonal poetry directly and very personally to the listener.


The kamancheh is played mostly with a bow, in a variety of strokes that range from light feathering to intense, tightly focused wrist movements. To these Kalhor adds various plucked notes and percussive tapping and jabbing to create a sound that’s both soulful and utterly mesmerising. At one point, without resort to electronic assistance, he set up a loop effect, using what sounded like the bowing equivalent of circular breathing on the lower strings while exploring and developing a catchy motif on the treble strings.


Not the most straightforward, organisationally, of Scottish debuts, then, but one that, musically, made a return visit and further exposure to Kalhor’s musicality very attractive propositions.


From The Herald, June 18, 2012.

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Asgeir & Mo, Danza de Andalucia (own label)

This splendid CD comes not from flamenco’s heartland in Spain but from Stavanger, in Norway, a land better known perhaps for moody Nordic jazz and the hardanger fiddle. Guitarist Asgeir Aarøen and violinist Bjarte Mo have clearly studied the flamenco forms intimately, however, and their playing, along with flute, percussion, double bass and occasional string quartet, is soulful, fiery, precise and beautifully reflective as required. The title track especially catches fire, with the arrival of dancer Noelia Sabarea’s brilliantly exhilarating footwork, and as the focus shifts to include music from other countries and other styles including latin jazz, there’s real emotion in the suitably Israeli-flavoured Night in Netanya. The closing Summer Song, the only vocal track, doesn’t provide the strongest of finishes but generally speaking this is hugely expressive music – all written and arranged by Aarøen - that makes me want to hear Asgeir & Mo & co playing live. It’s available through iTunes, Amazon and Spotify.

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Roberto Fonseca, Yo (Jazz Village)

Touring with the Buena Vista Social Club introduced at least one facet of Roberto Fonseca. This frequently astounding album reveals many more sides to the virtuoso piano prodigy who, like fellow Cuban Omar Sosa, has delved deep into his country’s links with Africa, notably the Gnawan traditions of Algeria and Mali’s rich griot-borne heritage, and brings them together with his youthful obsession with jazz-funk and his training in the European romantic tradition to create music that speaks with many accents and emotions but does so very directly. To a piano trio style that can be both urgent and reflective Fonseca adds Hammond organ, Rhodes and Moog plus talking drum, kora, n’goni and the startling African voices of recent Glasgow visitors Fatoumata Diawara and Assane Mboup, of Orchestra Baobab. The result is both a party – the opening 80’s is intoxicatingly exultant – and a masterclass in understatement that has its roots in Afro-Cuban rhythms but slips easily into gospel music, the spoken word, hip-hop and daringly skilful electronica.

From The Sunday Herald, April 1, 2012.

 

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Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Jazz may be the sound of surprise, a description ascribed to writer Whitney Balliett, Duke Ellington and others, but it doesn’t have the sole rights to the term. Even into their encore the twenty-three women who make up Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares were producing sounds that seemed to come at once from the most human of musical instruments, the voice, and some laboratory where white-coated scientists were saying, “Yeah, but imagine if we added these notes to that chord then changed abruptly to this one with an added perpendicular ninth.”

There’s no lab and no scientists and probably no such thing as a perpendicular ninth, it’s just that what’s been handed down through the Bulgarian tradition is an ability to produce harmonies that make the Beach Boys sound like laggards by comparison and an agility that takes melodies round the least predictable corners with ease, often accompanied by gleeful yelps.

Whether dressed in eye-catching traditional costumes or in their more glammed-up second-half garb, the choir presented authentic songs detailing love, longing, lust and champion pepper growers, all with extraordinary vocal colour and rhythmical certainty. A trio broke off to describe the local beauty with Swingle Singers-esque sophistication combined with earthy Balkan brio. Two men arrived to deliver virtuosic daftness with an unintelligible but somehow still effective punchline, and perhaps the most poignant moment was the story of the young monk watching the village girls dancing, and wondering where they’d been when he was about to take his vows, which ended with the most gorgeously regretful vocal cascade from the full ensemble. Not just surprising but actually consistently stunning.

From The Herald, October 24, 2011.

 

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Omar Sosa, Calma (Ota)

Those who have followed Cuban pianist Omar Sosa’s career since he bewitched the Tron Theatre’s Victorian Bar back in 2000 know never to predict his next move other than to assume that it’ll involve beautiful, captivating music. A year after that Scottish debut, Sosa was back with an outrageously grooving, rapping octet and memories of a later transformation of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall’s foyer into the planet’s hippest, most exuberant world music/jazz club remain vivid. This, as its name suggests, is an entirely different proposition. Recorded in one session without overdubs, it features Sosa playing solo piano plus Fender Rhodes, sampled sounds and electronica to create a spontaneously improvised mood of soulful contemplation and at times playfulness. Melodies evolve gradually, almost glacially, with the lightest of touches and here a gospel inflection materialises, there a child’s voice adds atmosphere or a mysterious rhythm creates impetus. This is not the album to get your party started but it could be the tonic to quietly revive your spirits afterwards.

From The Sunday Herald, May 8, 2011.

 

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Renaud Garcia-Fons, Méditerranées (Enja)

Over the past fifteen or so years Renaud Garcia-Fons has been stunning a slowly growing audience with his double bass prowess. In the Frenchman’s hands the bass can become both something akin to a lower register flamenco guitar, reflecting his Catalonian roots, and a bowed instrument that captures whalesong’s plaintiveness and musical pitch. There are examples of these here. His pizzicato playing on Camp d’Argeles is a technical but more importantly soulful wonder, and his arco solo on Fortaleza a masterpiece of construction and outrageous articulation. Méditerranées is more about Garcia-Fons the composer and arranger, however, a collection of pieces, some miniature, tracing a journey round the Mediterranean’s cultural riches, languages, dances and history. Incorporating accordion, lutes, flutes, clarinet and multifarious percussion, it’s all beautifully played and in the case of Los Secretos, gorgeously sung by Garcia-Fons’ teenage daughter. Sometimes I wish that he’d developed these impressionistic pieces further or just got his improvising teeth into them to make the album less episodic. But it’s still fascinating and rewarding listening.

From The Sunday Herald, April 10, 2011.

 

 

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Buika, Niña De Fuego (Atlantic)

Forget her posing nude on the cover, its the naked emotions and a voice smokier than a French barbecue stall that are the star attractions of this magnificent third album from flamencos rising sensation. No little girl of the fire, María Concepción Balboa Buika is a woman who smoulders with percussive diction and erupts in soul baring declarations of love and desolation to, variously, latin jazz grooves, gospel-flavoured piano, splendidly abrupt flamenco guitar, handclaps and forlorn trumpet. Powerful, dramatic, intimate and at times almost cinematic music, and Buika lives every seductive syllable.

From The Herald June 21, 2008.

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Odemba OK Jazz, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

The sound of Kinshasa hit Edinburgh with full party force on Thursday. As guitarist Dizzy Mandjeku said in noting the cabaret seating front of stage, nobody in the Congolese capital would dream of sitting down to the music that pays homage to his late boss and inspiration, Franco Luambo, rumba master, guitar innovator, songwriter and general African music business dynamo.
 
It was a gentle warning. Presently, Mandjeku’s trumpeter left no doubt that he was having none of this reclining while the twelve piece worked up a sweat with a whole catalogue of moves. Quite right, too, although the view from the second row of tables did allow close appreciation of brilliantly fluent, punchy bass playing – right-handed guitar, left-handed style, thumb, fingers and even pinkie picking and dampening the strings – and Mandjeku and his guitar playing colleague playing duck’s bum tight unison lines and taking solos that were like finger-tip controlled cascades.
 
The Ark principle’s at work here: aside from bass and drums - another hero whose whipcrack precision produces a relentless drive, there are two of everything, guitars, saxophones, trumpets, female vocals and male vocals, all performing with teamwork that coalesces in the big picture with intuitive understanding. Songs come in rapid-fire choruses, delivered in exuberant voices and peppered with trumpet commentaries that would make the Tower of Power horns look almost indolent and inattentive by comparison.
 
When the sitting down stopped, the “Simon says” action produced not so much dancing as temporary mass migration, including a stage invasion, although the band’s prolonged ensemble game of statues proved that even they could stay still to an energising, way beyond feelgood groove.
 
From The Herald, October 5, 2009.
 
 

Orchestra Baobab, HMV Picture House, Edinburgh

It’s music that, in the days before the internet opened doors to unlimited choice, usually happened in ports, where different sounds drifted in through the shipping channels. They were brought in by sailors, of course, although sometimes so naturally have certain styles coalesced that it seems as though it’s the currents themselves that washed the notes together.
 
Such is the case with Orchestra Baobab, who grouped together in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, Africa’s westernmost port, and since the 1970s have been having a ball mixing and matching songs and music from their native traditions with salsa in particular and Cuban influences and, indeed, the whole Caribbean musical caboodle in general.
 
The result, as reggae rhythms race along at a clip and tenor saxophonist and all-round character Issa Cissoko celebrates the St Thomas carnival Sonny Rollins-style, is akin to having a Swiss watch’s mechanism powered by a human heartbeat. Congas, timbales and maracas interlock with basslines of unarguable certainty. The two-man horn section toot, honk, riff and improvise tantalisingly and the guitars contribute discrete rhythmic patterns and liquid, thoughtfully constructed solos.
 
On top of this frankly feelgood melange the group’s multi-lingual, contrastingly textured vocals are almost an embarrassment of riches, with Rudy Gomis’s high, smooth soul preaching a particular delight and the blend of this with his colleagues’ more grainy tones calling to mind the late Cuban son master Ibrahim Ferrer. Even a prolonged monitor problem, although a distraction, couldn’t stem the music’s momentum or spoil the party onstage as Cissoko, altoist Thierno Koite and rhythm guitarist Latfi Benjeloun matched the percussionists’ interlocking strokes with relaxed but precise choreography.
 
From The Herald, April 7, 2009.
 
 

 

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, I Speak Fula (Out Here)

 
With a supernaturally invigorating live act and a band that appears to breathe as one, ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate could be Africa’s next major export. This second album captures all the qualities of his shows while adding a few guests. Kouyate’s brother Andra’s voice rumbles splendidly on the addictively scratchy Bambugu Blues and Vieux Farka Toure adds fluent guitar on two songs. But it’s Kouyate and his band, including his wife, the fabulous Amy Sacko’s vocals, his own liquid solo expression and their jangling ensemble patterns, that shine like stars in waiting.
 
From The Herald, September 19, 2009.
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

Benjamin Escoriza, Alevanta! (Riverboat)

Benjamin Escoriza emerged in the 1990s with the fabulous Spanish adventurers Radio Tarifa - forever known hereabouts as Radio Terrific - as one of the most distinctive singers in world music. Parched, gravelly and conveying an A to Z of fiery emotions, his voice rasps out here in songs that give flamenco a contemporary edge as well as following Radio Tarifa's footprints into Moroccan music and on to Sephardic and Cuban influences. Whether declaiming to urgent acoustic guitars and handclaps, riding an electric groove that transports Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues to modern-day Marrakech, or luxuriating in an array of ouds, accordions and exotic reeds, Escoriza is always utterly compelling.

From The Herald, May 5, 2007

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Trilok Gurtu & the Arke String Quartet, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

Last time Trilok Gurtu played the Old Fruitmarket, the rake sloped down towards the stage and there was a power cut. I'm still not convinced about the reversal of the layout of the venue, although I understand the reasoning behind it, but this was the Indian percussionist at full wattage.

Of all the collaborations he's featured in - and there have been many - Gurtu's meeting with the Arke String Quartet has to rank among the best. The Italians, who substitute double-bass for cello, use pick-ups to enhance their instruments' natural sounds and are not above adopting ukulele-style strumming if the music so demands, create a fabulous sound. They can be an all harmonics and flutey-toned backdrop or upfront soloists - violinist Carlo Cantini's bite and intensity is almost supernatural - or they can gang up with Gurtu in fiercely tight riffing reminiscent of the percussionist's sometime partner in crime, guitarist John McLaughlin.

Another Gurtu co-conspirator, Joe Zawinul, sprang to mind with Cantini's street-sounds-flavoured composition, Fez. And if the rowdy behaviour of a previous audience inspired another piece by Gurtu himself, such disrespect wasn't going to happen here as Gurtu seduced the auditorium with awesome percussion magic and pure theatre, culminating in the audience singing along with his intricate tabla rhythm vocables.

Earlier, another cross-cultural collaboration, India Alba, had set the scene admirably, merging adapted pipe marches with Indian violin and tabla ragas, cittern-led Scots-Indian melodies and the late Gordon Duncan's famous bagpipes setting of AC/DC's heavy-rock anthem, Thunderstruck. Along with Gurtu's gang, this quartet brought Celtic Connections 2008's Old Fruitmarket programme to a satisfying close while keeping the audience primed for future adventures.

From The Herald, February 5, 2008.

 

Parno Graszt, Spiegel Garden, Edinburgh

Catching Parno Graszt when they have something to celebrate must be quite an experience because this Hungarian gypsy troupe certainly know how to turn a gig into a party. There's a natural exuberance and bounce to their music as, largely predicated on the tambura's bright, chiming sound, songs are taken up and given as many choruses as the mood dictates.

Often the mood will be set by band members whose roles are multiple. The spoons player, for example, is an amazing dancer whose skipping, foot-slapping moves join the dots between the South African gumboot dance and Appalachian ham-boning. Later he'll produce a pole and perform a don't-try-this-at-home routine - part juggling, part martial art. Less concerned with skill is the mother figure, a woman who's clearly used to getting things done when she wants them doing and who imperiously fills the dancefloor.

While all this movement is happening, the band plays and sings on, introducing flamenco-like flavours on guitar and accordion and revealing a variety of vocal tones that, if they were singing in French or English, might pass for Cajun or blues. Whatever language he uses - and it seems to contain a vocalese of his own devising - the percussionist who beats his palm on two water jugs while maintaining a constant flow of improvised mouth music in tandem with the bassist's slapped lines is the source of much of the group's energy. Not your standard rhythm section, perhaps, but then not much is standard in the Parno Graszt manifesto.

From The Herald, September 1, 2008.

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Jarmila Xymena Gorna, Hashgacha (33 Records)

The flip strapline to Jarmila Xymena Gorna's wordless singing might be Kate Bush meets Flora Purim jamming with Bobby McFerrin, but dropping these names only begins describe her music. Gorna comes from a Polish Jewish family and it's as if she gathered her own history and oppressed peoples' traditions globally - Native Americans, rainforest-dwelling tribes and Balkans for starters - into her sophisticated, soul-bearing vision. Add a touch of Chick Corea's Spanish dances, rangy oud licks and flugelhorn-french horn chorales to Gorna's keyboards and audacious one-woman 'Beach Girls' harmonising and the picture gets bigger. If the stunningly cathartic My Hope and A Seal Upon My Heart's dizzying choir didn't sway this year's Radio 3 World Music Awards judges, we can only marvel at the quality of artists who did.
 
From The Herald, April 16, 2005.
 

Márcio Faraco, Interior (Universal)

Dubbing Márcio Faraco “the Antonio Carlos Jobim of his generation” may be an over burdensome compliment. But with this second collection of songs, saudades, sambas and bossas comes the distinct feeling that, somewhere, Frank Sinatra and Stan Getz must be cursing the grim reaper for turning up before they could get their chops round them. As with its outstanding predecessor, Ciranda, Faraco writes and performs with a similar spare grace to Jobim, his careworn, papery voice and gentle acoustic guitar luxuriating in sad, soulful melodies to fastidious accompaniments that vary the mood from deliciously languid to mildly celebratory. A gorgeously understated work from an artist who deserves to escape from the well-kept secret category.

From The Herald, October 26, 2002. 

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Oumou Sangare, Seya (World Circuit)

For those who found Oumou Sangare’s recent Celtic Connections appearance disappointingly brief, her new album will come as a timely, more generous confirmation of this Malian’s power to entrance. Sangare long ago realised the value in couching serious cultural points in engaging melodies and rhythms and has mastered the art of integrating western musical ideas while making music true to her roots. Thus Hammond organ, strings and even the JB Horns sit easily with hypnotic ngoni patterns and messages denouncing polygamy and under-age marriage soothe, reassure and issue the ultimate, irresistible party invitation.
 
From The Herald, February 21, 2009.