A Tale of Three Festivals

It’s been a while since my last newsletter, but I hope to take up the slack with colourful tales of far-away places. There’s plenty to report so sit back – this may take a while.

As some of you may recall, I have expressed my fatigue with ‘mixed salad’ world music festivals. I prefer local events that concentrate on the matter at hand – the musical culture of a region. Last autumn’s trip to Rajasthan began my ‘year of festivals’, justifiable as research for my book on World Music, and not unconnected to the fact I was able to wangle invitations to a quartet of great events.

I warmed up for the January trip to the River Niger Festival in Francophone Mali with a Parisian sojourn celebrating the French edition of White Bicycles. I shall now disappoint those who are taken in by my façade of self-effacement by bragging about my week of interviews for press, radio and live television (!) entirely in French! (Highlights on my website.)

A week later, I boarded an Air Ghaddafi flight to Bamako via Libya. The plane was comfortable and on time, the only drawback being the alarming chartreuse colour of the faux-leather seats. A further upside of the trip involved sitting across the aisle from the reassuring blonde mane of Professor Lucy Duran, ethnomusicologist, BBC world music deejay and veteran Bembera-speaking Mali-hand. Following Lucy around like an obedient spaniel is definitely the way to see the country.

A highlight of the first few days in Bamako was a visit to the home of ngoni maestro Bassekou Kouyate for a band rehearsal. Many of you will be aware of Bassekou since his cd Segou Blue (produced by Lucy D) seems to have won all possible awards and he pops up at every festival on the Civilized side of the Atlantic. His band consists of 5 ngoni players, his singing wife, Amy Sacko, and a percussionist. What is an ngoni, you ask? Well for a start it is the grandfather of the banjo (hint to anyone involved with booking American country music festivals like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass or MerleFest – Basekou tore it up on his first visit to the US 20 years ago for a bluegrass banjo festival in Memphis…) Ngonis vary in size, pitch, neck length and number of strings but essentially are hide-covered half-gourds with dowel necks (perfect for bending strings even more sinuously than on a banjo’s flat neck). The group swings like crazy and have managed to strike off in new directions within the confines of traditional Malian music – my ideal of cliché-avoiding modernity.

For years Basekou played with Toumani Diabate  (during which time I had the pleasure of making several records with them) and he often stole the show during Ali Farka Touré’s last tour. He is a man of great presence and charm and a stunning soloist. Having been the primary instrument of the royal courts of West Africa for many centuries before being lately eclipsed by the kora, the ngoni is now making a strong comeback in the 21st.

We tore ourselves away from Bamako and drove down the Niger River (heading counter-intuitively north) to Segou, ancient capital of the Bamana empire, founded in the 17th century. It is a very pleasant river town with a bustling market and plenty of open-air bars and restaurants. The festival stage is located on a barge at the foot of a riverbank amphitheatre. The Duran gang stayed at a riverside art gallery on the edge of town that rents rooms and serves excellent French food in a post-traditional mud-sculpture setting, and the town has other good hotels and rooming houses.

Opening night was a bit worrying, with its over-the-top River Goddess sculptures floating in by torch-light and dodgy ‘interpretive’ dancing salvaged from Alvin Ailey’s trash bin – but I needn’t have worried. Friday, Saturday and Sunday saw some of Mali’s best – Selif Keita, Bassekou, Mangala, Abdoulaye Diabate, Afel Boucom and Neba Solo –play outstanding sets for an almost entirely local audience. The weather was perfect, the beer cold, the African Cup of Nations was on TV during the occasional boring set while the huge river rolled calmly past. We made excursions to ancient earthen mosques and rural ruins that harboured families of mud-cloth artisans and took a pirogue up river for a swim and a cookout on the last day.

Back in Bamako by Wednesday, the Amitié Hotel pool provided respite from the heat while cool evenings inspired walks through the town. Friday is jam session night at the Hogon Club and it is worth examining this phenomenon a bit more closely. Toumani Diabate is Mali’s greatest kora player, now receiving the international acclaim he deserves. (But be sure to buy his older Hannibal recordings before spending your money on the more recent stuff…!) He was away on tour, but the Friday night sessions he initiated almost ten years ago were going strong. A rhythm section sets up in this wonderful outdoor dance hall and singers and soloists come and go all night. Toumani’s great vocalist, Kasse Mady, arrived during the evening and made my night by singing a praise song for me and Lucy Duran and jumping down to the dance floor to embrace us.

Ten years ago, Malian music, like much in Africa, had degenerated into cheap synth imitations diluted by Anglo-Amarican rhythms. Live music had been killed by deejays and recordings had lost their charm. But musicians heard the more traditional cds Mali’s stars made abroad for ‘world music’ labels and during Toumani’s Friday jams started to experiment with a kind of post-modern approach to their roots. Now every time you get in a taxi, koras, balafons and ngonis are blasting from the speaker. Mali’s music is as strong an export these days as it has ever been: the late Ali Farka Touré, Amadou and Mariam, Selif Keita, Toumani Diabate, Oumou Sangare, Rokia Traore, the Rail Band, Tinariwan and Bassekou’s group ‘Ngoni Ba’ have put Mali atop the world music hit parade.

There is also, of course, Northern Mali’s Festival in the Desert every January. But the music there is very different, more Saharan than African, and I am afraid my image of it consists of dozens of French fashion photographers getting their SUVs pulled out of sand dunes by long-suffering Tuaregs and rock stars jamming with local bands. Unfair, I’m sure, but I think you’re better off at the River Niger Festival in 2009.

(Info at www.festivalsegou.org/homepage.htm and help with visas can be found via airvacances@airvacances.net)

So that was two down, two to go: for years I had coveted trips to Fez for the Sacred Music festival in June and Siberia in July for Sayan Ring. Jackpot! – with my book deadline looming, I got invited to both.

The spring had its own musical highlights – Paul Simon’s Graceland reunion in Brooklyn, for a start. It was quite affecting to hear those bass accordion notes that kick off “Boy In The Bubble”, once so exotically Zulu, now iconic and familiar, and to see the crowd leap to its feet as Ladysmith Black Mambazo formed their semi-circle on stage. I admired the respect Simon demonstrated for his musical collaborators back in the ‘80s and it was again evident at BAM. Journalists have memorialized the pub meeting that ‘invented’ the term, but if there were a starting gun for “World Music”, it would have to be Graceland.

Mali was brought back to mind when I returned from to London and caught Vieux Farka Touré at the Jazz Café. He has added a rock edge to his Dad’s music without much compromising its essence. I see the American ‘Jam Band’ circuit in his future – no bad thing! A few days later my old friend Boris Grebenchikov filled the Albert Hall for an entirely Russian concert. While true that Sri Chimnoy’s organization gave away tickets, there was no denying how much expat Russians and Anglophones alike enjoyed the show. Boris’ group Aquarium were the samizdat stars of pre-Glasnost Russia, tapes being copied and passed through hundreds of thousands of hands in those years. In 2007 he brought London a ‘rockist’ band that was starting to show its age but this time he had a cracking group of Irish, Americans, Russians – plus a Polish woman playing Oriental bowed instruments – that pleased everyone, even me!

A couple of nights later I went to a book launch for Clive Palmer’s biography. I realize there are a few out there who might not recognize the name: he was half the ‘Robin & Clive’ duo that morphed into the Incredible String Band when Mike Heron joined. Clive wandered off on his travels when I made it clear how much I loved the songs Robin and Mike were composing. I hadn’t seen him since 1966 when we took the cover photo for the first ISB album at Harold Moore’s Record shop in London (still there on Gt Marlborough St – an institution deserving of all Londoners’ amazon-avoiding support!). Having greeted Clive as I entered, I was carried downstream by crowds in the tiny 12-Bar Club and half an hour later found myself standing next to him at the bar. He looked like an old man in the Sixties and now is one so he has hardly changed at all; we picked up where our last conversation left off 40 years ago. He and some friends from Cornwall played a lovely set of rags and reels; he still picks a mean banjo and is as much his own man as he always was.

White Bicycles’ Dutch edition was launched the following week so I went to Brussels and Amsterdam for press, radio and a couple of readings. The nuances of cultural nationalism are always interesting, so I was fascinated to discover how snobbish the Dutch are about the Flemings (my publisher being from Antwerp). “Surprisingly good translation – not too many Flemishisms” said one Dutch journalist!

Back in London, Orchestra Baobab reminded a heaving dance-floor in Shepherd’s Bush how much better they are these days than their old Dakar night-club rival Youssu ‘Ndour – but no doubt you’ve heard me bang on about that comparison before. Sorry, I just can’t help myself!

A few days later it was off to Fez, a city I last visited in the 70s. In those days, when I imagined I had more disposable income than I know I do today (and when exotic hotels were still comparatively cheap), I had a room in the luxurious Palais Jamai on the ancient walls looking out over the old city. Sunrise blasted me awake and I listened to the noise of a huge urban sprawl starting its day. It was as loud as any city should be but something was missing. After a few minutes, I figured it out – the engine! The noise comprised shouting, wheels grinding, donkeys braying, leather slapping on stone, carts negotiating cobbled streets – but no motors! Thirty years later, it hasn’t changed much, just a bit cleaner. In that setting, it is hard for a festival to put a foot wrong.

I’m not certain I would be so positive about the festival if all concerts had been held in a soul-less arena. The immense and beautiful oak tree in the courtyard location of the afternoon concerts certainly enhanced my memories of events there, as did the beautiful courtyard and garden locations of the evening and midnight shows. I wrote a piece about it all for the Guardian Review, which some of you may have seen (www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jun/28/saturdayreviewsfeatres.guardianreview17) so I won’t go over old ground here. Suffice it to say that Fez is a wonderful city and its annual festival is a great thing, albeit not quite what it evidently once was.


One memory of Fez I didn’t cover for the Guardian was my meeting with two Moroccan woman journalists from Casablanca. If there were ever two sophisticated, worldly, modern Moroccan women, these were they. They took me to a restaurant deep inside the Medina so I could experience a real p’stilla, the pigeon pie for which Fez is renowned. We talked about music, politics and culture and found ourselves mostly in agreement: Bush bad, traditional music good! But when I asked whether they had husbands and children awaiting them back in Casablanca, I got bitter laughs. One of them described sunning face down by the hotel pool that afternoon and undoing the strap of her bikini top to get an even tan. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a (male) fellow journalist snapping a photo with his cell phone camera. She knew this ‘scandalous’ shot would virus around her office within hours – and this from an educated and ‘modern’ Moroccan guy! With men of such primitive mentalities, she asked, how could she be expected to marry one?

Her friend said that some younger girls in Casablanca were experimenting with sex and ‘dating’, but it was like Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism: no one knew how to handle the freedom that fell into their laps and everyone was disturbed and confused. These are beautiful and intelligent women of around 30 who felt themselves caught between two worlds and saw almost no possibility of ever marrying or even falling in love. Very sad!

Memories of 2006’s trip to Addis Ababa were brought back to me in London when the Barbican presented Ethiopiques at the end of June. Francis Falceto is the genius behind this series; he first heard an Ethiopian record in the early ‘80s and has been regularly visiting the only un-colonized country in Africa ever since. He has tracked down old reel-to-reel master tapes in the back of Ethiopian garages and brought portable recording gear to Addis Ababa venues, putting together the 24-volume Ethiopiques cult series one album at a time. Mahmoud Ahmed is the star of the Ethiopian revival, a commanding presence and a powerful singer, one of whose records used to be in the Hannibal catalogue. The English concerts featured the American big-band Either/Orchestra, a bunch of Berklee-trained jazzers obsessed with Ethiopian music. Why not an Ethiopian band to accompany these great singers? Because synthesizers and drum machines so dominate Addis Ababa nightlife that Francis despairs of putting together an adequate backing band there. If you haven’t heard this music, start with one of the first five volumes or the compilation now available in the UK.

In early July, I set off for Russia and the Wild East. Moscow has become the world’s most expensive city and the changes since my first visit in 1990 are astounding. Muscovites have made the transition from comrades to consumers with ease; they stride in and out of expensive shops with the same strut that the Russian army showed invading Georgia! (OK, that’s a bit of a stretch, but it is hard not to notice today’s Putin-esque confidence in contrast to the ashamed insecurity of the Yeltsin era.)

Moscow is home to my friend Sasha Cheparukhin, who started as an environmentalist and evolved via benefit concerts into one of Russia’s leading music promoters. During our pre-Siberia stopover, he filled a Moscow park – in the rain, mind you – for the first visit by Buena Vista Social Club and some very high-class Russian salsa dancing was evident beneath the umbrellas. Other highlights prior to setting out for Shoshenskoye (Lenin’s Place of Exile) included beautiful harmonies at an evening service in the Novospassky Monastery in Moscow and a preview of Central Asian throat singing at a performance by Hun Huur Tu in an 18th century Italianate hall adjoining the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Sasha was charged with inviting foreign ‘experts’ like myself as well as non-Siberian musicians, mostly Russian. A motley crew of liggers and musos assembled at Vnokovo Airport for the flight east – four and a half hours across four time zones – which only took us half way from Moscow to the Pacific! A morning glance from the window of our Vladivostock Airlines jet found a carpet of intensely green hilly pastureland traversed with rivers. The bus from Abakan airport to Shoshenskoye passed through beautiful rolling country quite unlike any image one might have of Siberia. Our destination was hundreds of miles Southwest of Irkutsk in the autonomous region of Khakhasia, close to Tuva and not far from the Mongolian border – and a long way from the endless forests of the Trans-Siberian Express.

Sayan Ring is free; the crowd is mostly local with visitors from adjacent Siberian regions camping in fields around the ‘Stadion’ (which turns out to be a running track with a few small bleachers in a clearing in the woods). But any notion that this is an amateurish event is soon dispelled. All performers undergo exhaustive sound checks, the PA mix is generally excellent and groups come on and off stage with brisk precision. There is complementary food and drink for performers and ‘VIPs’, balloons for kids and food and beer stalls in clusters nearby.

The music is a rich mix of Asian throat-singing, Russian choirs and smaller groups, solo performers, Russian folk-rock bands and even a Soviet-style regional ‘folk ensemble’ from Krasnoyarsk. My favourite discoveries were the Irkutsk Authentic Music Society, a trio who sang songs collected from a valley doomed by a dam, once home to the oldest Russian community in Siberia; the remarkable Albina and her trio of Yakut singers and jew’s harp virtuosi; Alash, a Tuvan quintet who throat-sang in weird and wonderful harmonies; Natalya Neliobova, a half-gypsy singer from Tomsk; and Khool Zhingel, a Tatar/Russian quartet from Kazan. Special guests included Sergei Starostin and Inna Zhalana, two of Russian folk music’s pioneering artists.

The long set by the Krasnoyarsk Ensemble was particularly fascinating. Very theatrical, it nonetheless signalled a radical shift away from past styles. Igor Moiseyev, who invented the ‘State Ensemble’ aesthetic, detested ‘authentic’ folk music and felt the ‘folk’ needed uplifting with ‘professional’ music that was bright and happy instead of gloomy and old-fashioned. All Soviet and Eastern European ensembles (except the Bulgarians) slavishly followed his kitsch lead. But this outfit, though still sporting ‘happy villager’ outfits and ‘jolly’ attitudes, was trying to sound authentic! They even had a go at Tuvan throat-singing and did a good impression of the ‘head voice’ typical of village women across Russia. Authenticity is the new Black!

http://festival.sayanring.ru  – (but it’s in Russian. There should be more info on-line in coming months.)

Sasha had arranged a trip to Tuva for interested musicians and guests. My hand was up! Nights in a yurt beside the Yenesei River; dinner with the remarkable Albert Kuvezin, rocking throat-singer of the group Yat-Kha (whom I first met 18 years earlier when I was a juror at the Asia Dausy festival in Kazakhstan); a visit to the great museum and ‘centre of Asia’ monument in Khyzyl; great vistas of the Tuvan mountains – all unforgettable.

On a somber note, I would like to report meeting the heroic Davlat Khudonazar, a Tadjik film-maker and political activist. Now based in Moscow, he works with Tadjik and other Asian communities to ameliorate their suffering at the hands of Russian skinheads, policemen and construction bosses. He arranges the return to Tadjikistan of an average of a coffin every three weeks as a result of mostly un-investigated and un-mourned deaths of Central Asians in Moscow. Some Russians I discussed this with shocked me by suggesting a nostalgia for the old Soviet Union. I bristled, thinking they were proposing that Russia dominate the ‘near abroad’ once more. Not at all, they said; they remembered a time when Tadjiks, for example, weren’t ‘foreigners’ in Moscow, but fellow-Soviets. Like liberal Yugoslavs who detest the racist nationalism that followed the break-up of their country, they remembered a time when the government was made up of Georgians, Ukrainians and Uzbeks as well as Russians. There is certainly a bit of rose-coloured spectacles in this vision, but there is an important point to ponder. Giving every ‘national’ group their own state creates as many problems as it solves, as Ossetia, Georgia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, Cyprus, the Basque region, Ulster, Israel and Palestine can bear witness.

My favourite memory of the trip was watching a crowd of ordinary Russian Siberians knowledgeably cheering on Tuvan throat singers at Sayan Ring. They seemed to know the good from the bad and to be proud of their local Asiatic culture. As I watched, I chewed on a skewer of the best shashlik Shushenskoye had to offer from a stall run by a Palestinian educated in Moscow on a PLO scholarship in the ‘60s who had married a Siberian girl and loved Khakhasia almost as much as he loved his Palestinian homeland.

I am making an effort to curtail my wanderlust for a while until I get the book finished. Hasta la proxima.