Monday, May 15, 2017

Songhai – Andalusian gypsy to Mandinka - Review

Toumani Diabaté - all smiles for Fez

At its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Songhai Empire, based in the Sahel region and including - among many others - the territories of modern day Mali, Mauretania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, was one of the largest states in the history of Africa. Its rise coincided with the fall of Al Andalus. One might imagine, therefore, that a collaboration between Malian and Spanish flamenco musicians might draw a geographical and historical line from Spain down to the Niger basin, passing directly through Morocco.

Juan Carmona

The Songhai Project, a musical experiment begun in London between Malian kora maestro Toumani Diabaté and flamenco musicians from the band Ketama in 1987, is so much more than the sum of its extremely talented parts. And so much broader than a journey from North to South (or vice versa). As Toumani explained, Songhai is about "breaking down borders." In thirty years, he claimed, he has neither learned Spanish, nor have his Spanish colleagues learned French, because they don't need to; they communicate through their music.

José Miguel Carmona

Apparently the original members (Diabaté and the Carmona brothers) have not played together since 1987 when the two Songhai albums (released in 1988 and 1994) were recorded. But that communication is still strong and has infected the newer members of the project. Whether singing a trilingual call and response, improvising a jazzy number or jamming between the kora and Spanish guitar, the artists had a constant connection.

The talented backing singers

The set opened with a flamenco number, featuring José Miguel Carmona on guitar alongside a Spanish vocalist. Then the double bass of Javier Colina, a further guitar (played by Juan Carmona) and a percussionist joined the stage for a mellower, jazzier number as the vocalist also became a percussionist. The first track with the whole ensemble (adding the Malian contingent to the mix - three vocalists plus Toumani Diabaté on kora) had a distinctly Afro-Cuban beat, featuring the five beat rhythm common to the salsa and son of the Caribbean as well as to the music of their African heritage. In fact, had the vocalists not been wearing traditional Malian costume, they movements would have suggested they were the backing singers in a Cuban timba band. This Afro-Cuban heritage will be further explored by Aziz Sahmaoui on Saturday at the Jnane Sbil.

At Bab Makina tonight, this was only the first inkling that we were in for a real adventure which would take us not only from the Iberian Peninsula down through North Africa through the Sahara, but also over the Atlantic and back again. We were treated to a bluesy track reminiscent of the desert blues of Tinariwen, pieces where the tinkling kora shone out like a waterfall, while in others the flamenco guitar was centre stage.

Javier Colina - his double bass produced the sound of a guembri

In another still, Diabaté and Carmona had a battle, kora vs. guitar, the tempo increasing in pace until neither could pluck any faster. A slower ballad, Diabaté told us, was a tribute to the Fes audience, as it had been written by none other than Ahmad al-Tijani. If most of the audience had missed that reference, they could not ignore the first piece of the encore, as Colina turned his double bass into a guembri to play a popular gnaoua song. After that, the audience was on their feet for the final flamenco/salsa crossover number and the band left the stage to shouts of "otra" and "encore".

Music so infectious a crew member was up and dancing
A 30 year reunion - for nostalgia's sake!

Review and photographs: Lynn Houmdi


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