LIVE REVIEWS

Vieux Farka Toure

Bixiga 70 supported by Kefaya,  Drygate Brewery, Glasgow (30th January 2016)

Vieux Farka Touré Moussu supported by  T e lei Jovents,  Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow (31st January 2016)

Expanding its remit over the years to include a more universal mix of musical styles and traditions, Glasgow’s ever-expansive Celtic Connections festival brought some impressive acts to the city this year.

You can’t fail to notice the “Celtic” in the title. And though there was a strong showing from artists yearning, pining and sentimentally paying homage or, nostalgically recreating it, there were also those artists whose music took it to pastures new. Not only would you have found omnivorous takes on the Celtic template, but thankfully, an abundance of musicians from the “world music” stage, untethered to European tradition.

Over two consecutive nights – just a snapshot of the festivals 300 events; spread over twenty venues in Glasgow – we were musically transported to the Middle East, Brazil and Mali. Celtic Connections grand finale ended on a high with Saturday night’s Bixiga 70 and Kefaya performance at the Glasgow craft beer institution, the Drygate Brewery, and Sunday’s Vieux Farka Touré and Moussu T e lei Javents performance at the Mitchell Theatre.


Saturday

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Even though the tail end of storm Gertrude threatened to drown the arriving audience, the sweltering carnival atmosphere of São Paulo’s Afro-Brazilian collective Bixiga 70 soon dried us all out; erasing all memory of the night’s unpleasant maelstrom. But before the good times can begin, we had the warm up act, “a collective within a collective”, the transglobal Kefaya. Baring the unofficial protestation-rallying cry of the Arab Spring, translated into English as “enough”, the London-based group laid on the third of their performances at the festival with aplomb. Working with such leading luminaries of their tradition as the Indian vocalist Shankar Mahadevin, Kefaya remained an instrumental traversing experience that night.

Even in a festival packed with virtuosos, one of the group’s founders, Giuliano Modarelli, will take some beating on the acoustic guitar. Elements of Spanish, Greek, Turkish and the Middle East merged in an undemarcated fashion. The synchronisation with fellow founding member, pianist Al MacSween, is well rehearsed but sounds entirely organic. Those celestial, phaser affected and often Rhodes sounding keys of MacSweens glide and dance around lightly but sonorously. As if to prove their borderless, free roaming across the musical map spirit, they absorb influences from Palestine, the Mediterranean and Africa – hear there evocatively enough and Afro rhythmic lamenting, but not so well entitled, ‘Bubbling Brook’. Drawing on political folk songs and anthems, and sounding like an Agitation Free jazz collective riffing on progressive rock and atavistic roots music, their seamless self-titled “guerrilla jazz” brand of activism recalls the Goran Kajfes Subtropic Arkestra, Radio Tarifa and the late 60s keyboard chops of Herbie Hancock when he sat-in with Miles Davis.

It all comes together to form the most mesmerising and effective of soundtracks, and even has a Celtic musical connection, with the Irish bodhran drum practitioner Cormac Byrne joining the quartet that night, adding a touch of the Gaelic rhyme to the already rich melting pot. They finished on, unless my ears deceived me, an Arabian meditation entitled ‘Daesh’, another trance like conjuring of a mystical vista, both mysteriously exotic and, for obvious reasons, threatening. Constantly changing their set up, this might have been one of the only occasions to catch this particular quintet. They will soon release their debut LP, Radio International, which I hope will fairly represent their tremendous live skills.




Respectfully remaining seated during the Kefaya experience, even though they soared and tapped out a groove you could dance to, the evening’s main attraction took little time in seducing the audience to its feet. We sure needed the group’s natural sunny disposition and Afro Latin styled release.

Speaking Fela Kuti as though they were born to it, the São Paulo ten-piece not only takes its name from one of Afrobeat’s most famous coveted bands but also embraces it fully. Despite a contemporary penchant and adoption of Kuti’s blueprint infectious raw rhythms, there are very few bands today that transcend it or, use it adventurously, even uniquely. Bixiga 70 is fortunately one such band that does take it to another level. A premier outfit, lending the inimitable Brazilian spirit to the exciting environment of a legendary Lagos nightspot in the 1970s, they perform tracks from the group’s last two albums, Occupai and III. Matching Kuti’s polyrhythms with Fania All Stars percussion, South American cumbia and carimbo and a hard-working horn section, Bixiga launch into their set with consummate showmanship. Adding an electric shock to their recordings, even previously calmer reflective instrumentals suddenly sound busier, fuller and alive. With Christ the Redeemer himself sharing percussion duties; a trombone player given the most breath sapping giddy solos of the night (we were all in awe at the prowess of Douglas Antunes); and various other phenomenal performances, this was among the very best live performances I’d ever seen.

Swaying in time, sauntering and encouraging us all to join in the most rambunctious of dances, Bixiga flaunted a dizzying cornucopia of San Francisco cop shows, Yusef Lateef, Antibalas, Hailau Mergia, Shaft in Africa (if Kuti and ginger Baker had scored it) and samba. By the end of their tropical fusion set, the entire venue was dancing in the aisles. For one night only, the city was an unofficial atelier of the group’s native São Paulo.





Sunday

Across the city the next evening, in the auspiciously housed Glasgow Mitchell Theatre, one of Mali’s leading electric guitar legends, Vieux Farka Touré also roused a seated auditorium to its feet. As amiable as ever, Touré broke up his trance like and meditative amped-up Saharan blues grooves with odd encouragements for the “good people of Glasgow” to let loose and enjoy themselves. Arriving from his native Mali of 40° heat and unabated wall-to-wall sunshine to the miserable Glasgow weather, Touré joked about the contrasts. Yet his style of northern and southern Malian traditions mixed with contemporary rock, jazz and traversing blues translates perfectly to an audience accustomed to the damp climate.

Closer to home, his support act for the night, which seemed on first sight an incongruous choice, soon made sense. Moussu T e Lei Jovents hail from the old European gateway of Marseilles. Informed by a nostalgia for a time when the famous port saw a steady stream of people moving between the African continent and France in its heydays of the 1920s and 30s, the band return to that era musically when the region was one big melting pot of shared cultures. Mainly a tourist destination, always though a good spot for the artists, Marseille has suffered some of the same problems as Glasgow – especially in the shipbuilding industry. In jovial nonchalant showmanship, Moussu T e Lei Jovents act out their wry witticisms with resigned irony. Dressed and performing in stereotypical fashion of the earnest put-upon factory worker of French farce, the group ad lib with equally clichéd props and observations from Glasgow. “Insert here”, they change the template music hall songs with an attempt to embrace the “gin alley” idiosyncrasies of the city – a song in dedication to the local inebriated woman who chewed their ear off in a bar, and swigging throughout from cans of the local Tenants larger. Yet at its heart there is a serious message, a staunch defense of the local Occitan language – which when mentioned tonight, got a few cheers from the audience.




In a gentle knock-about fashion the band liltingly play out scenes from old Marseilles, musing between the provincial and worldly they sound like La Plage Boys holidaying in Brazil. The group’s vocalist Tatou, in the role of a wise and grouchy labour gang leader (the only prop missing, a Gauloises dangling from his mouth; though at one point he walks off stage for a mock cigarette break), interacts in a form of staged camaraderie with his percussionist, banjo player, drummer and bassist. Later on, the banjo player will be asked to duet with Vieux Touré, exchanging the southern French style with his Malian blues one. With some audience participation – a swaying sequence of moves here and a seagull impression there – Moussu T e Lei Jovents began to warm to the crowd. Well staged, relaxed and gentle, they were in the end a perfect counter to Vieux’s energetics.




Often referred to, in flattering tones of course, as the “Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara”, Vieux Farka Touré is indeed a virtuoso. But rather than set fire to his electric guitar in a blaze of teeth-chewing acrobatics or, play whatever he feels like without informing his backing band, our latter day guitar talent plays with a far lighter, attentive touch. The son of the late esteemed multi-instrumentalist and singer Ali Farka Touré (who is paid tribute to that evening), Vieux integrates fluidly the lineage of his Mali homeland’s distinct desert blues with an abundance of global styles. His recent collaboration with the American singer Julia Easterlin on the Touristes album encapsulates the ease with which he works; the process of lending his signature tone to a number of experimental covers by Dylan, Fever Ray and Nirvana, as well as gilding and cradling an African tribute to his old man (a version of the West African classic ‘Kaira’ entitled ‘Little Things’), showcase his many talents. However, Vieux would draw upon songs from his Mon Pays, The Secret and Fondo albums, flanked by his favoured, and incredibly erudite, backing band of Jean-Alain Hohy on bass, and Jean-Paul Melindji on drums.

Vieux built up momentum gradually with apparent ease that night. Locked in with his faithful comrades to an entrancing and deeply resonating set list, he moved like flowing water between shoe-shuffling meanders and more fiery Bamako club movers. Synching perfectly throughout, his stunning dexterous and accentuated finger work cascading in a repetitive motion, Vieux shows no signs of effort on his face even as he plays a thousand notes per second. Amiable as I’ve said, our maestro chatted with the audience, asking after our welfare and imploring us to have a good time. Though it’s impossible to not be enticed by the African rhythms infectious nature, there are many poignant words to be found in Vieux’s work. His 2013 LP Mon Pays (“My Country”) was a lamentable cry for peace in Mali, which unfortunately went unheeded. A pause and thought followed by an impassioned plea to the continuing problems in the region was met with Glaswegian solidarity.

Like the equivalent of a Billy Graham concert, even the infirm and elderly rose to their feet: Walking sticks tossed to the side, hip replacements worked-in, the congregation moved forward by the end of the night into the aisles and space in front of the stage to show their appreciation. It was a reverberating performance from Vieux, spellbinding and adroitly composed; the perfect end to Celtic Connections 2016 festival.

Words: Dominic Valvona




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