2016 August

Ustad Rshid Khan at Barbican, London; May 30th, 2016

This piece, written by Althea SullyCole, was originally published for “A World In London”
On Monday, May 30th, Ustad Rashid Khan performed at the Barbican as part of the Mystic Voices Festival produced and presented by Anandadhara with support from the Sama Arts Network.

Khan’s ensemble consisted of two statuesque women on tanpura (Aarthi Iyer and Sandhya Murthy), vocal support (Nikhil Madhav Joshi) between them, a sarangi player (Murad Ali Khan) on Khan’s right and tabla (Shubhankar Banerjee) and harmonium (Ajay Joglekar ) players on his left. Together, they composed a beautiful tableau in their iridescent clothing in the magenta light. Working his way up the 12-note scale paired with elegant hand gestures bending from the wrist, Khan took many pauses to clear his throat at the beginning. Such a show of technique could be compared to being presented with an indecipherable menu. By the end of the performance, however, his precise intonation often blended so well with the harmonium one wouldn’t necessarily have noticed when he had let the note go. The effect was a sonic feast so saturated that one couldn’t help but be gratified not only by his or her own enjoyment and newfound kinship with the knowledgeable audience.

I’m certainly no expert in Hindustani music, but I am not entirely ignorant to it either. I am at the very least cognisant of the weight of the legacy that Khan carries on his shoulders as the great-grandson of Ustad Inayat Hussain Khan (1849–1919), the founder of the gharana vocal tradition of Hindustani music local to Northern Uttar Pradesh. Is his performance authentic? Absolutely; who can argue with a standing ovation after a 3 and half hour performance from a largely North Indian audience? Did Khan’s voice lend itself to a mystic transformation, as advertised? Perhaps not so much. There is no doubt Khan is a refined and impressively technical singer, but at no point did his voice bring him, or the audience for that matter, to an electrifying catharsis. In fact, it was the tabla player’s solo accompanied by the harmonium and sarangi that represented the most dynamic moment of the evening. Whatever your take from it, however, an invitation to see Ustad Rashid Khan should not be turned down.

Gilberto Gil & Caetano Veloso at Barbican, London; May 4th, 2016


This piece, written by Althea SullyCole, was originally published for “A World In London”


Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil’s triumphant return to the London stage at the Barbican on May 4th was so full of intimacy, grace and humility that one would never know that they remain two of the greatest pioneers of Brazilian popular music. The engagement marked nearly 45 years since their exile to London during the military dictatorship in Brazil in the 1970s, yet they still seemed perfectly at home. In button up shirts, black jeans, and matching black sneakers, the two descended onto the stage as if it were their front porch Bahia; Veloso sat with his guitar resting over crossed legs, while Gil used a classical guitar foot stool (unorthodoxly under his right foot), with one glass of water and and another of red wine between them.

With more than 40 albums of material, the two 73-year-old artists had a vast repertoire to draw from for this monumental performance. From massively popular hits like “Tropicalia”, “Expresso 2222”, “Filhos de Gandhi” and “O Leozinho”, to more obscure songs like “É De Manha” (written in 1963 by Veloso, this was the oldest composition of the evening) and “As Camélias” (the newest piece, written in collaboration), they breezed through 25 pieces in less than an hour and half, returning for 2 encores, amounting to a composite performance of 30 pieces in two hours. The feel between them, nostalgic for another time, place and circumstance, achieved a sort of unison seldom seen in younger performers, as their two hands wandered over the neck and nylon strings of their respective guitars like choreographed dancers. However, when the performance began to feel too relaxed or nostalgic, Veloso would spice things up with a performative shimmy or 2 step, dancing to the delight of the crowd.

As individuals, Veloso, one of the most romantic voices of our time, exhibited the best of his dextrous and evocative vocal command in classic pieces like “Tonada De Luna Ilena”, while Gil displayed his endless creativity in characteristic labyrinths of chord progressions, coming to an impressive zenith in a jazzy interpretation of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”. Together, their effortless vocal harmonies and undulating samba rhythms produced the most romantic atmosphere one could imagine in a room filled with nearly 2,000 people. Indeed, these songs and these performers put their audience at such ease, you can feel couples leaning into one other, holding hands and old friends swaying gently together, shoulder to shoulder. If you are not afforded the rare opportunity to see these two perform, I highly recommend purchasing their new album, “Dois Amigos, Um Século de Música” (“Two Friends, A Century of Music”), and putting it on in your living room with a few friends. This is the most authentic performance.

Rokia Traoré at Roundhouse, London; February 6th, 2016


This piece, written by Althea SullyCole, was originally published for “A World In London”


Singer songwriter Rokia Traoré performed at Camden’s Roundhouse on February 6th and Althea SullyCole was there!

Although Traoré is of noble Malian Bamana dissent, it is much more accurate to say that her music is the product of an increasingly globalized world, perspective, and set of influences, rather than of Mali. She grew up all over the world, settling temporarily in Algeria, France, Saudi Arabia and Belgium in her youth. She has released 5 solo albums since 1998 and her current tour is in promotion of her 6th album, “Né So”.

What is perhaps most notable about Traoré’s performance is her uncanny ability to make any room, no matter how big or small, into an intimate space. She waits for silence before she begins the solo guitar riff of “Mayé” at the beginning of the show. This focused sound exudes strength and calm, asking the audience to lean into it, like children gathered around a sage storyteller.

When the music really gets going, however, it is the strength of her sharp and reactive ensemble that carries the show. Namely, Bintou Soumbounou singing backing, and sporadically lead, vocals in the powerful jelimusoBamana style of mali that Traoré sometimes lacks; Moise Ouattara on drum set bringing a rich syncopation that would rival a much larger Malian percussion ensemble; Matthieu N’Guessan performing a very contemporary West African bass style, in the vein of Richard Bona and Habib Faye; Stefano Pilia, an Italian musician, the only one not of West African descent it seems, bringing in cinematic soundscapes with his ethereal guitar style; and, lastly, Mamah Diabaté, a star n’goni player, whose every accent feels perfectly timed and balanced with the rest of the performance.

Apart from a few selections, namely “Koté Don” from her 2004 album Bowmboi, followed by “Mélancholie” from her 2013 album Beautiful Africa and “Zen” from her 2008 album Tchamantché, Traoré performed all new material from her forthcoming album, taking the audience on a politicized acoustic journey through dark, measured introspection to electrified and exuberant celebration. Through it all, however, Traoré remains devotedly on message, speaking candidly about current issues such as the refugee crisis.

Traoré concludes with “Strange Fruit,” an anti-lynching anthem popularized by American jazz singers Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, and based upon the poem first published as “Bitter Fruit” by the Jewish American teacher Abel Meeropol. It is hard to believe that the piece could be any more haunting, but Traoré’s intimate performance style and worldly voice brings current black issues, once confined to the African-American community overseas, to be relevant to each member of the audience personally, reflecting on the growing awareness and relevancy campaigns such as Black Lives Matter from the States are gaining globally.

If you have the chance to see Rokia Traoré live, it is a rare and important opportunity to witness not just an award-winning musician, but also an eloquent poet and powerful activist do her work alongside a virtuosic ensemble. If not, you can still get a hold of her album, “Né So,” out later this month on Nonesuch Records.

Vieux Farka Touré at Kings Place, London; January 27th, 2016

This piece, written by Althea SullyCole, was originally published for “A World In London”


Malian vocalist and guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, who has joined us on A World In London on two separate occasions in 2010 and 2015, performed at King’s Place near King’s Cross in Central London. Touré has released three studio albums, one live album, and several notable collaborations since 2007.

Touré sauntered on stage at 8:15 pm or so, donning a traditional mint bou bou and a fedora shading his eyes. He picked up his guitar and dashed into the first two pieces, “Filipa” and “Fafa,” with a particular urgency. His backing musicians, bassist Jean-Alain Hohy and drummer Jean-Paul Melindji, in more contemporary dress but similar visors, followed suit.

His third song “The World,” then launched the audience into the most alt-pop/rock sound of the evening, followed by “Ali,” a salute to his father, the late Ali Farka Touré, (pioneer of the desert blues style of northeastern Mali), with a more African feel.

After one more song, “Jakhal” and a twenty minute intermission, it became clear that Touré had saved much of his energy for the second set. Indeed, “Waliadu,” a cover of his father’s most iconic tune, was certainly the crowd favourite of the evening. The modern Malian traditional “Jarabi” that followed, reinvigorated by one of Touré’s most creative and harmonic solos of the concert, was certainly a high point. By the end of the tune, Touré’s voice relaxed into an earthy, sonorous unison with his guitar–a welcome moment of meditation in an otherwise hasty performance.

To conclude, Touré delivered a few dance tunes, leaving his backing musicians room to build upon dynamics and even do a bit of soloing, though the spotlight remained consistently on Touré. The final few notes ended abruptly, evidently in expectation of an encore.

There is no doubt that Touré is a seasoned performer and virtuosic guitarist with a powerful command of his audience and a seemingly infinite well of creativity at his roots, which is why I couldn’t help but wonder why Touré didn’t seem to be exerting much energy into his performance. Was it the intimate, seated venue, which, compared to the hipster underground dance club stages Touré graces in Mali, lacks some sort of electricity? Maybe the odd twenty minutes between sets stunting the momentum? Perhaps it is that Touré lacks a bit of the patience, charisma and feel of the dessert blues sound without straying too far away from it outside of collaborations with other artists. Or maybe it is that audiences are witnessing Touré evolve a way to stay within the genre his fans expect to hear while also distinguishing himself from his family lineage. Whatever the reason, and however it may read, Touré remains a dynamic and dextruous artist worth watching.