July 8, 2008

A Bluesy Blur of African Sounds


World music


By the conclusion of this richly flavoured concert gathering, the house was right behind the massed musicians and singers on stage, playing out over the closing duet of "Sunset Coming On" between Damon Albarn and Candi Staton. Around them were members from the bands of Lobi Traore, Afel Boucoum, Toumani Diabate and Wassoulou singer Kokanko Sata Doumbia, as well as American folk singers Victoria Williams and Simone White, with Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen behind them all on a raised dias dictating the groove, the ranks of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble swaying to the right of the stage.

It was a celebration of Honest Jon's, the record label that grew out of the West London record shop in 2001, after Damon Albarn walked through its doors with a rough mix of the sessions that would become the label's debut, Mali Music, the following year.

The Barbican hosted the launch of Mali Music in 2002, and since then, Honest Jon's has expanded its roster with new albums from the likes of Candi Staton as well as a plethora of young Malian artists - including Traore, Kokanko and Boucoum - alongside one-offs such as Terry Hall's Roma collaboration with Mushtaq, and some great archival releases - West African music from the 1920s, British Jamaican sounds in London Is the Place For Me, and a reappraisal of Lal Waterson's unique songwriting on Migrating Bird.

This live chop-up - a lavish feast in Lagos slang, a juxtaposition and reconstitution in dance terminology - was dominated by the powerful Malian lineup, and began with Kokanko playing the hunter's harp accompanied by the balafon, and singing in her strong, throaty voice, before the first of two horn-drenched showcases from the Hypnotics with Tony Allen.

Staton, just back from her Glastonbury appearance, delivered a soul classic in "I'm Just a Prisoner" between a full Afel Boucoum guitar workout and another astonishing display of solo prowess on the kora from Toumani Diabate, who visually held the stage centre in richly-coloured robes and bent over his kora, with its 21 strings and seemingly infinite possibilities.

Each artist had a couple of songs, and Staton reprised with a debut performance from her new album. "Who's Hurting Now" was a strong, sultry southern blues that won her the house, while folk singers Simone White and Victoria Williams played with more minimal backing, Toumani adding flurries of kora like a head of foam on White's "Stand So Tall" and Williams's "Psalms".

Lobi Traore's band worked up a sweat in their musical steam room of African and American blues. Their two songs segued into one, with plenty of Hendrix-style showboating. More or less throughout, the matre 'd of this particular chop-up, Damon Albarn, was just one player hidden among the 20-odd musical cooks filling the stage through to the powerful, horn-drenched instrumental play-out following "Sunset Coming On". For the most part, the Blur star was sat among Afel and Lobi's band members to the left of Toumani, taking part in the bigger conversation on the melodica, and only at the end stepping up to the front mic with a guitar and lead vocal duties to duet with Staton.

The night's chance operations and combinations delivered a thrilling, well-paced evening of music, and while there was no material remaining for an encore, Lobi's band took the Barbican free stage after the concert and played out some great West African blues to the foyer crowd. Honest Jon's should keep this thing on the road.

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