Tuesday, March 16, 2010

as if this explained a lot

I went to a local festival on Saturday afternoon, a carnival in a park, a row of food stalls, a band, and tents dedicated to paintings, crocheted flower badges, and New Zealand bone carvings. One of the stalls was selling Ethiopian food. When I saw the sign, I thought, "Mahmoud Ahmed." As he came into my head I prepared myself to enjoy a dramatic coincidence. My brain lifted itself to attention; it felt as skin feels when it erects its hairs to trap the heat. It became sensitive in pinpricked dots. "This time last weekend," I wanted to think, "I was watching Mahmoud Ahmed. Now I am here, looking at an Ethiopian food stall in a park …" but I saw the Addis Ababa singer on Friday and Sunday, not Saturday, so that piece of very exact nostalgia (which would have filled my mind with unshed tears -- oh Mahmoud Ahmed, who sang on Stage One twice without letting us know that he was racked with toothache!) fell through.

(Francis Falceto, compiler of the Éthiopiques series, told us about the toothache in an Artists In Conversation event at Womadelaide on Saturday night, apologising for Ahmed's absence. Ahmed was in pain, Falceto said. It hurt to speak. He was saving himself for his shows.)

At Womadelaide in 2009 I stood in front of Dengue Fever fretting and distracted like Proust's narrator when he sees Berma for the first time. Once home I found footage of the other musicians on Youtube and my emotions coalesced. The Narrator reached the same point with, I think, the help of M. de Norpois and a newspaper article. A few days ago I came across a passage in John Livingston Lowes' The Road to Xanadu that reminded me of it.

But I have had the feeling … that Fancy and Imagination are not two powers at all, but one. The valid distinction which exists between them lies, not in the materials with which they operate, but in the degree of intensity of the operant power itself. Working at high tension, the imaginative energy assimilates and transmutes; keyed low, the same energy aggregates and yokes together those images which, at its highest pitch, at merges indissolubly into one.

Lowes is proposing that Coleridge's imagination submerged a collection of different books in its "Well" until they emerged as the Ancient Mariner. But the idea of imagination assimilating and transmuting caught my attention. My brain had to stow the 2009 festival away in its Well for a while before it could pick out the highlights, and present them to me, transmuted into a whole impression, in other words, a mental object that I could walk around and judge.

These are the acts I saw this year, in the order I saw them. All of the youtube videos with the exception of the Calexico one were posted by a blog called Womadelaide Live.

Yamato, the Drummers of Japan.
Japan is full of drumming hobby groups. Yamato is that hobby grown huge. They've worked out comedy routines -- one woman emerging above the biggest drum with an enormous stick, one man going berserk while the rest raise their eyebrows until he notices and looks sheepish. The boom of the drums rolls off the stage like a thunderstorm.

Ojos de Brujo
Part of the Spain's nuevo flamenco movement, a combination of flamenco, hip hop, and other music. I saw them twice and didn't like them as much as I thought I would (I enjoyed their first album (not so much the next two) and imagined they'd have a strong live presence). The different musicians seemed disassociated from one another, as if they were gesturing across gulfs from pocket-sized stages of their own. Other members of the audience didn't come away with the same impression. I overheard them afterwards telling their friends what a wonderful time they'd had. The lead singer, Marina, was endlessly active -- possibly the most extroverted performer at the festival. Makes starfish with her hands as she talks. I sat two rows in front of her on the flight home.

I abandoned Ojos de Brujo to watch the second half of Calexico's act. Every year the organisers bring in one US indie-rock crossover-music band like this. Last year it was Dengue Fever (US/Cambodia), the year before it was Beirut (US/Balkan, with wobbly trumpets that make the professional world music reviewers humph with scorn, but they don't seem to understand that the group is working to an indie aesthetic, not the trad one that rewards tightness. I've noticed that the richer the country, the more likely it is that some portion of its audience will regard shaky or distorted playing as evidence of a valued authenticity. Lots of it in Japan, eg, Maher Shalal Hash Baz). In 2010 it was this US/Mexican group, "from Tucson, Arizona" (the announcers kept saying), which perked me up every time I heard it because M. was raised in Arizona. I told him. He didn't seem to care.

The nightclub scene in Addis Ababa reached an apotheosis in the 1960s and early '70s before the Derg junta arrived to throttle it with eighteen years of curfew. (The word Falceto used was "strangled.") The only nice thing you can say about Mengistu is that he wasn't Pol Pot, who had Cambodia's urban musicians driven into the countryside and worked to death or shot. Mahmoud Ahmed, a youngish singer back then, still has his flexible, quavering voice and superb accuracy. The show ended in an audience roar of, "Mah-moud, Mah-moud, Mah-moud!"

Grrilla Step
One of the Avalanches came up with the idea of combining krump and PNG log-drumming, which sounds, on paper, like the genesis of a novelty act, but there is nothing incongruous about the performance (although putting the krumpers, in their urban streetwear, on the same stage as a man in traditional PNG half-nakedness, might have seemed so, if both parties didn't acquit themselves so well): very fast, very forceful, the percussion suits the music, and the dancers move with an exactness that is exciting. The human body, which fails us, which decays, which ages, which suffers cramps, injuries, stumbles, shakiness, has here been willed into precision. They pop and twitch as if ghosts are grabbing at them.

The Skatalites
Not the popular hit of the festival but the band with the loudest fans. The lead saxophonist, who was probably the only original member of the Skatalites onstage, was a stubby man with a round chin and catfish whiskers.

Gochag Askarov
Mugham singer from Azerbaijan. I spent most of my time watching his tar player, Malik Mansurov, whose nickname in my head was Mr Severe for his silver crewcut and stern expression. Poking around in the CD tent I discovered that the Musique du Monde people put out a solo album of Mr Severe over a decade ago. (Musique du Monde is a good label for things like tars, or dombras, or other out-of-the-way instruments.) M.M. is extraordinarily dedicated, according to the album notes, a man who abides by tradition, resisting all calls to simplify or modernise his music, yet he is also modest and friendly. Onstage he looked as if he were about to shoot you or sell you hardware.

Mama Kin
"[H]er highly personal songs of love, life and motherhood are brought to vivid life over a stomping piano groove," according to the programme notes. I sat in front of her trying to work out why I was so dissatisfied. Reducing interesting ideas to, "I was strong," I wrote in my notepad. She would tell us the story behind the song, and then sing the song itself, and the lyrics were, without fail, blander than the prose. The lightbulb came on two mornings later when I watched Jane Siberry sing at the Women's Voices workshop. The voice in Siberry's song was that of a daughter addressing her mother, and the lyrics began by establishing both parties in a place (the narrator asks her mother to "put that teatowel down" -- you can assume they're in a kitchen), then goes on to sketch out the exchange between them. The mother has sometimes exasperated the daughter ("Don't worry 'bout my health. / My body is just fine"), but the daughter loves her nonetheless. She tells her mother that she can rely on her. We might guess that she has had to overcome her exasperation to reach this point of sympathy. It is an emotion she has had to work for, it is not a straightforward baby-method of loving someone, it is adult, and it has weight. Think of Paul Kelly's "How to Make Gravy", which lets us know the singer-narrator is in prison without ever having him say, "I'm in prison," or Larkin's Myxomatosis, in which the act of violence at the centre of the poem is never named. Indirectness asks us to think a little, keeping us alert, waiting for the next clue. Mama Kin was too simple, too direct, and she didn't have those hints of place and character.

Besh o droM
Hungarians, mixing traditional music with other ideas. "Hop-a hop-a!" at high speed. The djembe player grinned like a man who was doing the only thing in life he had ever wanted to do.

Los Amigos Invisibles
Venezuelans, based in New York: Latin funk and disco. The keyboard player took his shirt off and the singer wore purple sunglasses. I took a photograph more or less up his nose.

The keyboard player still had his shirt on at this point.

Mairtin O'Connor Trio
An Irish trio with O'Connor on accordion. Then there's a fiddler and guitarist. O'Connor lives near the site of an old monastery, he told us, and his white hair falls all around from a single point at the crown of his head like a friar's.

The Public Opinion Afro Orchestra
A Melbourne-based Afrobeat band, with brass, dancers, socially-conscious lyrics, and the big-band Nigerian sound, but the cold was starting to kick in, and I wasn't paying attention.

Lepisto & Lehti
I do not understand the Finnish enthusiasm for tango.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Witness: a man who can play the trumpet with one hand and grab his crotch with the other. From Chicago, an all-brass party band with effective audience management tactics. "Let me hear you say Yeah Yeah!" -- and bob up and down, while they played synchronised strutting urban horns -- which was huge fun. Respect to the man with the tuba, who had to keep both hands on his instrument and so got locked out of the crotch-grabbing and audience-waving-at sides of things. "Everybody, even the cool motherfuckers, all right, get down a little low."

Babylon Circus
Some time after I saw them perform I walked past the table near the CD tent where they were signing autographs, and a quivering plump tween boy came to the front of the line, and said passionately, "That was so good. I am totally in love with you." He seemed more sincere than the girl who loved Eliades Ochoa. Someone had handed the band members a lilac-dyed long-haired chihuahua. One of them tucked it inside his jacket.

Eliades Ochoa
Former Buena Vista Social Club member making the most of an adoring crowd. We were "alle grande familia," he said, or however it's spelt. My Spanish is on a level with his English, which seems to consist of one sentence: "My English is … no good." Nobody gave a damn about languages at this point, everybody loved him. Then he played "Chan Chan" and everybody loved him even more. (On the subject of languages, I've noticed that bands who come from non-European nations will address us with whatever European language they know, even if it's not English. As far as most of the crowd is concerned they might as well go on speaking Wolof or Mandarin. It would lead to less confusion. I think we once convinced a Tuareg we could all understand French because we shouted, "Oui, oui," obligingly during a pause in his speech when he looked at us. On the other hand, each performer usually attracts at least a small group of their -- what's the word I want here? Their home team? Who will understand the language. My mind has been arrested by the memory of the Portuguese who roared into Mariza's concert years ago, waving football scarves. Every time a Greek group plays we end up with a circle dance, which I love very much and sometimes even deign to get involved in.)

Gilles Peterson
Late night UK DJ stationed near Gate Two. I hung around his set for a while on the way out. He was working through a string of African-American samples when I heard him: Nina Simone, and a rapper I didn't recognise.

Ross Daly & Ensemble
Cretan music. Daly has the kind of dedication that Musique du Monde attributes to Mr Severe. Intricate, measured, intelligent -- music that the musician has to pay attention to in order to play it at all, and so, so do you, to listen. The impression you come away with is one of profound integrity, your brain washed clean and beautiful by the effort of listening. Ended with a circle dance, the leading man tucking one hand behind his hip, the fingers gathered loosely together at the tips.

Unified Gecko
Turkish-Israeli-Australian folk-rock band. I recall liking them at the time but don't remember what they sounded like. Sorry, Unified Gecko. According to my notepad I was standing, waiting for them to start playing when I overheard this exchange:

"Are these guys Aussies? No. They're not Unified Gecko?"


"From Melbourne. Oh, Melbourne" as if this explained a lot.

On a tangent, I heard someone else at a different venue talking about their favourite Womadelaide act. "I think the best show I've seen was a few years ago, the overtone singers. Did you hear the Tuvan overtone singers? From Siberia?"

Mariem Hassan
Nicknamed "The Voice of the Western Sahara." The Western Sahara is a sliver of ex-Spanish colony being jealously tusseled over by the nations around it. Last time I looked, months ago, it was part-sort-of Mauritania and part-limbo. Anyway, they want autonomy. Hassan's group is something like a minimalist version of the Tuareg groups that have become popular since Tinariwen stormed into our non-Tuareg lives a decade ago. There's electric guitars, and a woman on percussion. Hassan has one of those strong, abrasive, long-noted desert voices, and is a powerful ululator. At the end she wrapped herself in a flag. I thought, "Do we know what we're cheering?" We were cheering a general ideal of freedom, I think. How many of us knew the first thing about the Western Sahara, or what freeing it might mean?

A band fronted by the Narcoleptic Agentinean from Moulin Rouge, here growling in Russian. A one-joke band, but they push the whole Russian-criminal-cabaret thing marvellously, and it was worth being there for Kolman's asides, which were all about black prison bread and the tears of little children. "Can you feel in your mouth [pause] the black prison bread? [dramatic glowering pause] Well you can sweeten it with rrrevenge." And they rip into the next song, which is probably about murdering someone with a broken bottle in a brothel.

The Armada
A three-piece band led by Jeff Martin, formerly of the Tea Party. I hadn't thought of the Tea Party -- hadn't listened -- to the Tea Party for years, but when I saw that Martin was an ex-, I wondered if I remembered liking them. I think I did. Standing a little way ahead of me in the crowd I saw a black mohawk that seemed familiar, then, under it, the word Yamato on the back of the t-shirt and, yes, it was one of the drummers from Yamato. After the show one of the other audience members flew up to him, gushing. I worked my way surreptitiously around to the front and saw that he was wearing an apron.

Kathakali Dance Ensemble
They spent four hours donning makeup. We were allowed to peek into the tent. Then two hours performing a story from the Mahabharata. (The moral of the story was that the human body is but a transient envelope containing the perpetual soul, therefore it is quite all right to knock your enemy down, rip open his stomach with your bare hands, smear yourself in his blood, and dance around with his intestines in your teeth.) The makeup came off and the demons and nobles were replaced by middle-aged balding Indian men, which seemed wonderful in itself, as if the whole six hours (seven, counting the one-hour interval) was only a lead-up to this, the one marvel that seemed really unbelievable even as I was watching it happen.

Dean & Britta
A US indie duo providing a live soundtrack to Warhol's Screen Tests. Surging music.

LAFA & Artists Dance Company
Modern dance company from Taiwan, performing "an extended version of its beautiful and acclaimed work Single Room." I enjoy dance but the price of tickets stops me going, so I was grateful for this.

Women's Voices
Mariem Hassan, Mariem Hassan's percussionist, Amal Murkus (Palestinian singer), Marina from Ojos de Brujo, and Jane Siberry sang together to celebrate International Woman's Day, which made me uncomfortable, because I'm not so sure about having my consciousness raised through song, thank'ee all the same. After this I wished I'd managed to fit Siberry into my schedule somewhere else.

Young Wagilak Group
I'm going to copy out the note I wrote for Whispering Gums. "A mob from Arnhem Land, dancing and singing. Everything but the dancing and singing was disorganised (they arrived ten minutes late to their own show, which was unprecedented in this tightly-run festival) but once they opened their mouths to sing their bodies and minds seemed to snap into focus. The man in the middle (whose name I didn't catch) was one of the best traditional singers I've heard -- an articulate voice with a firm backbone."

George Kamikawa & Noriko Tadano
"I've seen that man busking in Bourke Street Mall. Haven't I?" Kamikawa was a salaryman for one year in Japan (says his biography) but he couldn't stand it, and for the past ten years he's been a blues slide guitarist with a confident zoom and zing. He's based in Melbourne. So is Tadano, and he met her there. She plays shamisen. A hard pluck stabbing through to the zoom. A lot of the stage patter revolved around alcohol. "Get pissed," Kamikawa ordered. "Where did you learn language like that?" Tadano asked. "What?" "Who taught you to talk like that?" "Aussies."

Arrebeto Ensemble
I saw so little of this that my opinion can't be called informed. Clearly articulated instrumental flamenco nuevo, as far as I could tell.

Kamel el Harrachi
An Algerian oud player, ripping into chaabi with panache and an expression of perplexed agony, thanks to the way he had to turn down the corners of his mouth when he sang. He seemed to be coming to the end of one song, then -- ha ha -- a few notes popped out of the tune -- and a rising pleasured moan of "Ah-h-h!" flew across the crowd because this was undoubtedly the beginning of "Ya Rayah", and who, who knows "Ya Rayah", doesn't love it, unless they've heard it a million times and have reached the point of wanting to strangle the composer?

Djan Djan
I only saw a little of this group's set because the All-Star Jam was up next and I was itching to get into the pit and see what was happening on Stage Two. But the combination of kora, tabla, and guitar was rippling along on that easygoing lilt koras can adopt when they want to, and the tabla kept things from getting sleepy.

Ravi Shankar & Anouschka Shankar
One show only, and his fame drew an enormous crowd. Womadelaide has sit-down shows and standing shows, designated as such, an intelligent and needed response to a problem that was bringing some performances down in an atmosphere of anger and nastiness. One group of people would settle on the grass, meaning to watch the musician from their rugs, then another group would come and stand in front, wanting to dance, and everything would devolve into shouts of, "Sit down!" followed by shouts of, "Stand up!" and it was ruining (as you can imagine) the performances. This all happened years ago. Sit-down shows on Stage One still have the ghost of this charge of mutual resentment running through them: the stage is huge, the crowd is huge, and in all this mass of people there's always somebody out there who's too tall, or wearing a hat. The Shankars were a sit-down show.

Dub Colossus
A Town Called Addis was one of my most-loved albums two years ago. (The most-loved was Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara's Soul Science, in which the musicians do a lot with a little.) I was panging to see this group. The album leans so heavily on mixing that there was almost no way anyone would be able to reproduce it on stage without bringing out your big machine and sitting there, pushing knobs, so this was not so much 'Dub Colossus' as 'A live show based on Dub Colossus, featuring people who appeared, sampled and remixed, on the album.' Nick Page, the UK brain behind the Ethiopian mix, was present, looking like Bob Hoskins and being droll. He introduced the musicians. "This is" -- and he said the man's name, whatever it was. "Excellent piano player. Keyboard to you. Great player. Nice hat." A pause as the man stood there. "Taciturn."


  1. Thanks for this ... I'll have to come back and listen to some later BUT I do enjoy taiko drumming so have watched that one now. I've seen TaikOz a few times and they are returning to the National Folk Festival this year so I hope to catch them again. Anyhow, will check the other videos out over the next little while.

  2. It's thrilling, watching people fix that huge elemental noise under their control. In the workshop they told us that the purpose of the poses (coming to the end of a movement with both your drumsticks level and horizontal above the drumskin, for example, or throwing your hands up and shouting, "Hah!" or "Hai!" at the end of a line) was to establish power over the drum.