Movies

To The Wonder – Beautiful

wonder1To the Wonder is more like a painting than a film.

If you want the usual things you might expect in a film like a story or dialogue then forget about it. You’ll probably end up walking out half way through like two of the five people did from the grossly under patronised auditorium where I saw the film.

I strongly suspect the two quitters hadn’t seen the Tree of Life, director Terrence Malick’s most recent film before this. Because To The Wonder really follows on from where that left of. Not in terms of narrative because of course there isn’t really one. But in terms of tone and style.

For a maverick director who has only made six films in five decades, all of which have been strikingly original and varied in subject matter if not theme, it is a surprise that he has made two films so close together in terms of time (rather than the 20 year wait between films we are used to from him) and in terms of look and feel.

What I am trying to say is that if you hated the Tree of Life you are gonna hate To the Wonder. If you loved Tree of Life though you are gonna like this.

Although To The Wonder is not as ambitious. There are no half hour sections about the birth of the universe, and the spirituality is laid on less thick too.

In fact Malick’s previous five films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, New World and the Tree of Life) have undoubtedly been on a clear trajectory from relative convention to extreme experimentation with the medium of film, albeit it big budgeted and kinda mainstream film. To The Wonder takes almost a step back from the Tree of Life. Well half a step maybe.

It is a tight film, set uniquely for Malick in the present day. There is less to chew on than in the Tree of Life too. With the exception of Javier Bardem’s priest popping up every now and then and questioning his faith among the down trodden and poor of society, this is purely a portrait of a relationship. From the ups to the downs.To the Wonder - Javier

But this is a film to look at and admire like you would a painting in a gallery. The relationship is shown via snatched images and poetic whispered voiceovers in the vein of Hiroshima Mon Amour.

There is no narrative drive. Conversations and dialogue are heard in fractured splinters, and barely audible. Indeed the camera follows this idea, slowly but constantly moving around, over and under the actors, as if the artist is looking for his angle. In fact the film is almost cubist in its presentation of the characters.

And Malick’s landscape work is just as powerful as ever. Like the Impressionists he uses natural light and the outdoors to paint his canvas.

From the most impressionist of cities Paris, his camera drools over the beauty of the Tuileries Gardens and the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries in the  Musée national du Moyen Âge. And a trip to Mont St Michel is wondrous in its beauty.

wonderThe America of Oklahoma and Malick’s more familiar territory of wheat fields and grassy expanses of flat featureless horizons are shown with his usual deference to nature. Yet he mixes in images of suburban America in all its ugly blandness too while focussing on the beauty of a sunset amid this man-made mess.

There are obvious flaws though, such as the rather randomness of the Javier Bardem character whose story seems to have little connection to the main one. And there is also little to get a grip on. It feels a bit lacking in substance and a bit lacking in emotion.

It is however a daringly beautiful film, even when looking at ugly suburbia. It is a film to look at. And a rather original and wonderfully presented portrait of a man and a woman.

Advertisements
Gigs

Richard Thompson – Electric

RT9_2468423bBarbican, London, 26 February 2013

Anyone expecting a pleasant evening of easy listening folk from the back catalogue of one of the founding members of 1960s British folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention, was in for a shock.

After the second song I turned to my friend and said I feel like I am watching the Jimi Hendrix Experience. And not just because we were watching a three-piece with a bass player who looked from a distance a little like an older version of Jimi’s bassist Noel Redding.

But because Richard Thompson’s set at the Barbican this week was a virtuoso vision of guitar driven prog rock more akin to the great rock bands of the late 60s and 70s, then anything approaching the folk for which Thompson is more associated.

To underline this point the encore saw the band do a cover of 60s supergroup Cream’s White Room.

The setlist featured heavily tracks from Thompson’s latest album Electric, which also features the live outfit of slick drummer Michael Jerome who would look more at home in a jazz band and the extraordinary bassist Taras Prodaniuk, attired in a suit and looking very 70s.

With Thompson looking almost like a skipper from a whaler with his white beard, beret and black jeans , the trio looked completely uncohesive.

But their playing together was, well, electric. Around Jerome’s barrage of artillery on the drum kit Thompson and Prodaniuk traded incredible fire from their guitars.

20130226-095228-088984

They followed each other as tight as can be on the “folk funk” (mostly funk) of opening tracks Stuck on the Treadmill and the thundering Sally B. And went off in worlds of solo exploration on the first old track of the night, For Shame of Doing Wrong, a dark Doorsy blues like number from the 1975 Richard and Linda Thompson album Pour Down Like Silver.

And so the evening went. Prodaniuk must be one of the most impressive bass players I have ever seen. Who is he! His instrument looked like a part of him and the space he found within musical bars was incredible, running up and down the fret board with amazing nimbleness and authority.

During their spars he often had the upper hand, before melting away to let his boss Thompson explode with all manner of licks, chords and sounds. It is no wonder that Thompson has been voted one of the best guitar players ever by Rolling Stone Magazine. His technique and variety seems limitless.

Unfortunately though this was a rather one-dimensional evening, which also suffered from the fact that the Barbican is just not a good place for this type of music.Rock trios don’t play any better than this. They can’t. It’s impossible. Although it has to be said White Room sounded flat and made the band sound inferior to Cream, an impression soon put to rest when they did their own Stony Ground. Why is it that even the greatest bands just can’t do other people’s songs as well as the originals?

The band performed at Shepherds Bush Empire the night before which would have been far more suitable.

The audience also seemed somewhat bemused by this onslaught of guitar. Although there was some gentle bobbing about during another oldie Wall of Death and everyone sang along to the set closer of 1983’s Tear Stained Letter.

The inclusion of murder ballad Sidney Wells and sea shanty Little Sally Rackett might have gone someway to providing a hint of folk, but even these were performed at break neck speed with guitar solos piercing the skin.

In fact everything this evening was about as far away from folk or even folk rock as can be.

20091217-131441-054128Now I am not even close to being a traditionalist, and this was an astonishingly talented and impressive and spirited performance which was at times hugely enjoyable. But a few smatterings from Thompson’s more folkier side would have given the evening a much more varied and welcome mix.

This was made clear when someone shouted out “Beeswing” at the start of the second encore. Thompson hesitated, musing no doubt, how he could do this with the band. He then asked the other musicians to wait, picked up an acoustic guitar and played, as if he’d been practising it all day, an off the cuff rendition of one of his most beautiful songs.

Beeswing is a truly wonderful song, somewhere in the folk spectrum between John Martyn and Nic Jones, about a free-spirited woman and her lover moving about England. Its elegiac like melody is underlined by some wonderful guitar parts and it was one of the highlights of the evening.

Thompson can sing no doubt and by god he can play electric guitar. But his folky down to earth English voice does tend to suit the more folky numbers more which are also beautifully played. More of those would have made a good night into a great one.

Movies

Lincoln – predictably good

imagesThe opening scene in Steven Spielberg’s latest history lesson has the camera sweep over a civil war battlefield and close in on bloody hand to hand fighting, shown in graphic gruesome detail.

It makes you think that we are about to be immersed in the battles of the American civil war in the same way Spielberg threw us viscerally onto the D Day beaches in the mind-blowing opening 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.

But the opening battle scene of Lincoln, though epic in scale, lasts little more than a minute or two. The rest of the movie is a very talky affair set almost entirely in the corridors of power in Washington.

The political battles that take place here however are shown to be as critical, if not more so, as those actual battles waged in the American south. And especially if you like history and American history in particular (which I do), Lincoln is a fascinating look at the political machinations that brought about the abolition of slavery in the US.

The movie is bravely framed over a tight two-week period beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s second term a President. And the nods to President Obama, just beginning his own second term, are palpable. Foremost among these are perhaps the inference that the current occupation of the Presidency by Barack Obama, a black man, is the ultimate achievement of the events Lincoln depicts.

Lincoln is not a subtle film. It is an extremely American one too which, despite the fact that most of the world had already abolished slavery by 1865, suggests the US’s abolition as a world-changing act.

Its pomposity is underlined by a score of solemn military trumpets and sentimental strings. And some scenes, for instance the dissolve at the end of the movie from a flickering flame by the President’s death-bed to an earlier speech, are saccharine, clichéd and old-fashioned.Lincoln8]

In fact, and especially in comparison to Lincoln’s contemporary releases such as the Life of Pi, Django Unchained and Zero Dark 30, which all tread new ground, Lincoln does feel like an old-fashioned movie.

It is perhaps because of this that it is a slightly underwhelming film. Because despite some of the above criticisms, Lincoln is actually a very good, extremely well made movie.

It is also an intelligent one, with a very detailed focus on the politics at play in passing what is undoubtedly one of the most significant pieces of American legislation.

This is a superb history lesson in fact, which shows us the compromises that were made (by white politicians), the swallowing of pride by very public figures and the priorities that the President was weighing up in terms of finishing the civil war or getting the abolition act passed.

lincoln102

All this and the shady political practices of the day are very clearly communicated, which is no mean feat. But the film also has moments of real drama, notably the anticlimactic sounding climax, which is the vote itself.

And despite some rather corny camera work there are moments of real cinematographic beauty too such as Lincoln being watched by his black servant as he walks out the White House in the final stages, and where the film would have been better to have ended.

That there is only a minimal presence of black people in a movie about the abolition of slavery and that they are mostly servants of the white elite feels patronising and unfortunate. Though as the film is set almost entirely among the political class of Washington this is probably an accurate reflection of how things were. It is strange that despite the seriousness of Lincoln, it is Tarantino’s playful Django Unchained that really shows the horrors of slavery.

The most moving moments of Lincoln though are undoubtedly the reactions of the few black characters to the abolition act being passed, including a lovely scene involving Tommy Lee Jones’s character.

Of course part of the film’s strength is the acting; Daniel Day Lewis is predictably brilliant. His portrait of America’s most revered historic icon is thoroughly endearing.

121102Lincoln_6858033

Yet unlike some other Day Lewis films, such as There will be Blood, this is not a dominant performance from him. Yes some actors are wasted (David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but Tommy Lee Jones is as powerful a presence as ever, playing one of the movie’s most interesting characters. And Sally Field too is very strong, portraying Lincoln’s wife as a complex and sympathetic person.

If anything Lincoln himself is presented as just too saint like to be credible. He seems charming, wise and pretty much faultless, even when dealing with his fragile wife and past demons. Yet  it is this strength of character, depicted both softly and commandingly by Day Lewis that helps make the film such an enjoyable watch.

An American history professor’s dream come true perhaps, but Lincoln is much more than that. It is a really good film with clever story telling and great performances. It is hard to say why it feels slightly underwhelming. Perhaps because it is just so predictably good.

 

 

Movies

Zero Dark Thirty – intelligent

imagesIt’s a little on the right-wing side of the war on terror argument but Zero Dark Thirty is an intelligent thriller which is at times engrossing and exciting.

It is quite an achievement of the film that while the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden is told in almost documentary like meticulous detail, and we know the ending, it is still a very dramatic piece of film making. Albeit it takes time for the tension and excitement to fully engage.

The story traces CIA agent Maya’s obsessive hunt for Osama Bin Laden over ten years, starting with her arrival at a detainee camp in the Middle East and the torture by fellow CIA agent Dan of Ammar, an Al Qaeda money man.

A fairly convoluted series of twists and turns in the hunt then follows, with Maya believing throughout, often a belief she alone holds, that a lead revealed by this first torture victim is the key to finding Osama.

This section of the film drags a bit at first with the various plot strands a little too out of reach to be fully comprehensible but they are close enough to get the gist. And punctuated amongst a lot of interrogations and CIA meetings are some genuinely exciting set pieces, most notably “the meeting” with a potential Al Qaeda informant at a base in Afghanistan.

The tension really begins to ramp up in the second half, as Maya’s frustration at her boss’s inaction starts to boil and the net around her lead – Osama’s courier, gets tighter and tighter.  A scene in the crowded streets of Rawalpindii as a CIA surveillance crew try to spot the courier is another thrilling set piece.

Indeed the location work is excellent with the streets of Pakistan (filmed mostly in India) brought very realistically to life.images (1)

Finally of course is the Navy Seal’s nigh time attack on the compound and the elimination of Bin Laden which is a thrilling 25 minute sequence of film.

However the sum of its parts do feel greater than the whole of the film. And perhaps the greatest hindrance to its total success is its rather piecemeal style in which different characters seem to come to the forefront of the drama. This prevents us getting involved with key characters at key times.

Jessica Chastain’s Maya is undoubtedly the lead player and is played very well. But in almost all the key action scenes she is watching from an office and not involved (realistically so no doubt), while those at the forefront are recently introduced characters we are not engaged with – though the scenes are often very engaging.

There is no real character development at all in fact. And there is ironically, no real bad guy either. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are almost abstract ideas (which I guess in some ways they are in reality).

images (2)Maya’s obsession with finding Bin Laden, who even her boss at one point suggests is old news, is in fact rather inexplicable. And such is the presentation of the Americans as self-righteous and arrogant “defenders of their homeland,” it is hard to find anyone with whom to really sympathise with or root for.

Though I am not sure this is the intended message. While accusations that the film shows a tolerance towards torture have been defended by director Kathryn Bigelow who says she finds torture “reprehensible,” and many critics say the torture scenes are so horrendous they are clearly anti-torture, I am not so sure.

Though not in a major way, the film for me did feel slanted towards support for the war on terror and the results that torture brings. Indeed when Obama becomes President and the detainee programme is halted, CIA agents Maya and Dan, who are the closest we have to heroes, are critical of how this impedes their work.

The effect of torture on the CIA agents inflicting it is touched upon, but only just. And the relationship between Dan and his victim is presented as so matter of fact business is business like, that it almost waters down the horror of the violence and brutality.

And the structure of the film itself – opening with the torture scenes which result in the lead that finally gets Bin Laden – suggests torture works.

But this is a rich and deep film which, while seeming to take a stance, and one I don’t like, does offer up opposing views.

Indeed one of the fascinating aspects of the film, is how the practices of CIA changes over a 10 year period, as, in the background, the attitude in Washington shifts with the replacement by President Obama of Bush. There is a great scene in the corridors of the White House involving an altercation between Mark Strong’s old school tough CIA agent and an Obama adviser, with the later pointing out that he was in the room when “your man” (i.e. Bush) sold us WMD.

And the final scenes are not ones of triumph either. In the thrilling raid on Bin Laden’s compound, it is the innocent children with whom our sympathies rest as this horrific, almost alien invasion is executed with sci-fi like gadgetry and cold precision.images (3)

And finally Maya’s emotions are pleasingly ambiguous. What has been solved?

So while it does seem to offer an opinion, it also leaves a lot up to the viewer to decide. The camera does seem to, most of the time, be observing, which along with its very realistic style adds to the film’s documentary like feel.

Yet it is also an exciting thriller, which despite being a little too cold and aloof in its detail and characterisation is a thought-provoking, fascinating and intelligent piece of film making.

 

Movies

Django Unchained – wild

Django UnchainedQuentin Tarantino doing a western! As a western nut and a Tarantino fan what could be better. Though Django Unchained is not the Wild West so much as the Deep South, but it’s a hell of wild ride there none the less.

The film is firmly in Tarantino over the top territory with his trademark violence, tense dialogue and sheer fun.

Who knows though why critics are hailing this as a return to form or the director’s best work since Pulp Fiction because it is not significantly better than 2009’s excellent Inglorious Basterds.

It is also a sprawling unfocused film lacking the tight perfection of Tarantino’s best work Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. Although arguably Django Unchained’s lack of focus is half the fun.

Yet while fun, its focus on the horrors of slavery in the American south might make this the director’s film with the most to say, his most political almost.

The first third of the film is a sheer joy for a western fan with Tarantino again showing his sheer love of film. The opening red rustic title sequence imposed over scenes from the Alabama Hills (in California) where hundreds of westerns were filmed in the 40s and 50s is a wonderful Western homage.

This had me grinning for a good 45 minutes as it continued with a spaghetti western style entrance into a mud strewn town to the great western composer Ennio Morricone’s music from the Clint Eastwood movie Two Mules for Sister Sara.

The opening also saw a similar scene to the opening of Inglorious Basterds with Christopher Waltz again dominating a tense scene with just dialogue alone. Like in Basterds this is a bravely long, funny, uncomfortable and brilliant scene.

The film’s plot is pretty straight forward. It involves Waltz’s sophisticated German bounty hunter Dr Shultz (who travels as a dentist in a cart with a hilarious giant tooth on top) freeing Jamie Foxx’s slave Django in order to help him track down some wanted men that Django can help identify.

This is swiftly achieved with the film’s first visit to a plantation and a hilarious piss take of a proto klu klux klan raid led by Don Johnson’s Big Daddy.

Some camp fire therapy about Django’s German speaking wife Broomhilda who has been sold and Shultz’s explanation of the German folk tale that is the origin of her name (that will come into play later on), leads the pair to team up over the winter and kill white men before seeking to buy Broomhilda out of slavery.

A montage scene (even Rocky had a montage) swiftly gets us through the winter with some more Western homage in the form of the country and western music and snowy Wyoming mountain scenery.

From here the film goes in a completely different direction and the next act is set largely on the Mississippi Candy Land plantation owned by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie.django-unchained-leonardo-dicaprio

This large section of film is brutal. And not fun at all. It is extremely well done though and its exposition of the sheer brutality of the plantation system and the treatment of slaves is somewhat similar to Schindler’s List close up look at a concentration camp.

Leo is pure racist evil, and convincingly so. The word nigger is used constantly and torture and death scenes are graphic and disturbing. Has a film treated the horrors of American slavery with such graphic honesty?

Amongst all this is a convoluted plan by Shultz and Django to buy Broomhilda from Leo’s Candy.

A dinner table conversation is another virtuoso piece of scriptwriting by Tarantino which while not containing the memorable lines or phrases from his earlier films is excruciatingly menacing and a masterwork.

But after around two hours of relatively few action scenes, and you think Tarantino is actually really making a conscience film, the director talks directly to his audience through Shultz who says “I just couldn’t resist,” before all hell breaks loose.

The final act is a rather flawed series of climaxes following a completely over the top shoot out with blood and bodies splattering with almost comical exaggeration – as well as an exploding Tarantino himself.

Although such has been the brutality and racism on-screen for all this time, you can’t help but want Django to kill everyone and revel in his “black revenge fantasy” as the film has been dubbed.

It is also almost a relief that the complete over the top nature of the climatic violence makes this section of film feel light-hearted and in the realms of comedy with Foxx hamming it up wonderfully.

So quite a ride then!

django-unchained-jamie-foxxThe film is undoubtedly flawed. It is too long with way too many false endings, the last of which is so hammy it makes it hard to think about the whole film seriously.

But it is also hugely entertaining, with wonderful acts from Waltz and Foxx, gripping scenes of long tense dialogue, great cinematography and an incredible and apt soundtrack mixing Johnny Cash, Richie Havens, James Brown, schmaltzy country and western crooners and hip hop!

Its uncomfortable honesty about slavery is profound and deeply shocking, yet an important statement too. While it’s humour and almost self mocking exaggeration are highly enjoyable.

Typically for Tarantino then a unique movie. Yet its mix of styles is at once its genius as well as its flaw.

 

Gigs

Glen Hansard – unmissable

20091007-201259-349735Barbican – Wednesday 30 January 2013

If Glen Hansard or his band The Frames are passing through your town, buy a ticket and go see them because they have to be one of the best live acts around.

An Irish indie rock band that started out in the 90s, The Frames are shockingly underrated. They are kind of a rockier version of Damien Rice, mixing Gaelic, country, folk and rock influences. But despite being much more varied and prolific than Rice, The Frames have enjoyed nowhere near the same fame.

Glen Hansard is The Frames’ front man. And what a front man. He exudes personality and charisma, yet despite seeming at home in the spotlight he also seems like a thoroughly decent bloke you’d just love to sink a few Guinness’s with.

He actually was the guitar player in the 1991 Alan Parker film The Commitments and returned to the screen for the 2006 indie film Once which was a surprise critical and commercial success. Hansard and co star Markéta Irglová wrote and performed the songs for the film’s soundtrack and won the 2007 Oscar for Best Original song for Falling Slowly.  

Hansard has recently released his first solo album, Rhythm and Repose and has been touring to support it. Finding the album a bit too mellow and uninvolving, I stupidly had low expectations from Hansard’s solo gig at the Barbican last Wednesday.

First of all despite the concert being billed as just Glen Hansard, the entire Frames were also on stage, along with a keyboardist, backing singer and horn and string sections – 13 musicians in all. This gave the songs from Rhythm and Repose a much larger sound and they greatly benefited from the live horn and string arrangements that are far more muted on the album.

Secondly, it dawned on me, after about 5 or 6 songs in, that Set List, The Frames live album, is without doubt the best live album made – ever! So it was no wonder that this was turning out to be a great gig. But it just got better and better.glen2

The first five songs were from Rhythm and Repose and although they sounded really good, they are still mellow and it was clear Hansard wanted to rock.

And sure enough on When Your Mind’s Made up, from the Once soundtrack, he and the band let go – big time! Like many of The Frames and Hansard’s songs this track builds from a quiet folky start to a point where it suddenly just explodes into border line heavy rock, such is the intensity of the noise created by guitars, drums, bass and tonight string and horns too.

Hansard can sing too. He has an excellent range veering from falsetto, to soulful to screaming. And at times tonight he almost looked like he was going to burst a blood vessel such was his screaming of heartfelt lyrics while he strummed his guitar with incredible ferocity.

He seemed to often be egged on by the demonic looking excellent Frames drummer Graham Hopkins. With his kit at the front of the stage next to Glen, Hopkins was also a joy to watch, playing almost Keith Moon style, hunched over his kit and when a song went incendiary (as many did) his sticks and body went into a rage of wild action.

Hansard however was clearly capable of going nuts on his own, as he did during a sintering version of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks during a mid set solo acoustic section.

The solo section also saw him at his storytelling best, discussing how he received his first ukulele from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Veder, as he went on to play one, discussing mid song how an American thought Pennies from Heaven was actually called Panties from Heaven and then changing one of the choruses to reflect this, adding “I’ve never seen the song the same way since.”

He also told a hysterical story about his recent travels to India and meeting a man who knew only four words of English yet could communicate absolutely everything with these – sometimes depending body, sometime depending mind. Brilliant!

This was billed as a Glen Hansard gig, so despite all The Frames being present, all the material was from Hansard’s solo record or from his collaborations with Once co-star Irglová.

The main set however closed with the one Frames song of the night, Santa Maria.  Hansard dedicated it to “the people in Brazil” and it couldn’t have been more appropriate.

“The feeling comes in waves and burns us and I don’t wanna die” goes the second verse in this brilliant song with a fantastic undulating bass line which also starts quietly yet gets tenser and tenser before exploding in a fury of noise that is perhaps best described as controlled chaos. Incredible.

With the audience on their feet giving this fantastic gig the standing ovation it rightly deserved, Glen returned for the encore alone. He came to the front of the stage, asked the audience to not sit down again, and sang unamplified Say it to Me Now, from Once.

mqdefaultHe was then joined by Frames’ violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire for the lilting sun kissed beautiful country song Gold (also from Once), also performed unamplified. I don’t know what people at the back of the hall made of this but I was blessed to be just four rows from the front in the centre. With the two musicians stood so close at the front of the stage this felt like being in an Irish pub lock-in. It was simply wonderful.

The full band returned for the Oscar winning beautiful Falling Slowly, with Glen, and then backing singer Charlotte both amusingly forgetting some of the words.

But as if this gig hadn’t thrown up enough surprises, entertainment or moments of musical brilliance, the grand finale saw the entire 13 piece band unamplified, front of stage sing Leonard Cohen’s hymn like Passing Through, trad jazz style. Then Glen got the whole audience signing along before leading his entire group, while still performing the song, off the stage on a single file procession through the aisles of the Barbican up and down and around and right through the body of the audience. Amazing. Quite simply an umissable gig.    

 

 

 

          

Gigs

Sahara Soul – Joy from Mali

sah008Last Saturday’s Sahara Soul concert at London’s Barbican featured three very different bands from Mali, a giant of African countries for its musical output.

When I booked the tickets a few weeks ago though I had no idea how topical the show would turn out to be. For although Mali has been in serious turmoil for over a year, it is only with the French military operation launched there last month that the situation has hit the UK headlines. Indeed so topical is Mali it seems, this concert received far more mainstream reviews than is usual.

Mali was considered an African success story due to 20 years of economic growth, a flourishing democracy and relative social stability. But in 2012 all that changed. Al Qaeda practically formed a separate state in the desert north while the democratically elected president was ousted in a coup.

So when Saturday night’s show was introduced with the news that French troops had just captured the northern city of Gao to audience cheers, it was clear that tonight was about more than music. Though never has the cliché about the unifying power of music seemed more relevant.

The three bands performing represented three different Malian ethnicities and three very different musical styles. They also hold different political visions for Mali, though tonight the message was all about getting peace first.

sidi%20toure
Sidi Toure

First up was Sidi Toure, who actually comes from Gao where the radical islamist regime has in the last year effectively outlawed music, and forced musicians like Toure into exile.

A member of the Muslim Songhai people (the vast majority of Malians are Muslim), dressed in robes and a kufi hat, he played folky “songhai blues” – on a swirling rhythmic acoustic guitar.  

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of Sidi Toure’s relatively mellow set was his incredible percussionist. Leaping about at the back of the stage, encouraging the audience to clap along, while his wrists were a blur of rhythm on the single cylinder type drum that he somehow got bass and hi-hat like sounds from at the same time with just his hands and small sticks.  

Next up were the completely different Tamikrest (though the same cylinder drum thing was in use). Tamikrest are a younger and rockier version of Tinarwien. And like them are Touareg people – nomads from across the Sahara.

It was in fact a rebellion by Touareg militias in the north of Mali last year, part of a prolonged separatist campaign, which led to the establishment by Islamic extremists (who some say hijacked the Touareg cause) of a separate state.

Tamikrest rock. Seriously. Their leader, Ousmane AG Mossa, looks like a young laid back Jimi Hendrix dressed in desert robes with hair looking like it had been electrified by his Les Paul guitar.

Perhaps it is the difference in his political opinions that contributed to his ‘too cool for school look’, or maybe he just is too cool for school. During the ensemble finale he seemed to keep to the sidelines.

It was down to the side of the stage that a handful of women from the almost all white Barbican crowd leapt to one by one to let loose and dance to Tamikrest’s ripping set of desert blues. This was played with looping melodic dusty sounding electric guitars, supported by furious percussion and astonishing undulating bass.

Saharan Touareg band Tamikrest performs at Sahara Soul, a music festival at the Barbican Hall in London
Tamikrest

Tamikrest are not nearly as subtle or intricate as the more famous Tinariwen. And Ousmane’s vocals were almost too laid back to be audible. But this was off set by the whooping backing vocals of female bandmate Wonou Waldet Sidati and the generally great music that is the saharan blues meeting western rock music – and that bass player was just amazing!

All the songs tonight were sung in French, or the languages of Mali. The between song chat was also in French, each artist apologising for their bad English. This meant I didn’t understand a lot of what was being said. What was clear though was that everyone was happy about the French helping Mali oust the Islamic radicals from the north.

You didn’t need to speak French though to understand final act Bassekou Kouyate’s list of liberties that have been stripped from society by the extremists. “No music, no TV, no telephones, no democracy. This is no good,” he said. Adding that Sharia law “is very bad”.

Sahara Soul
Aminata Sacko and Bassekou Kouyate

In his headline act Bassekou Kouyate, a big bear like man from southern Mali, commanded the stage while leading his six person band called Ngoni Ba which included his son Moustafa and his wife Aminata Sacko.

The whole band were dressed in purple robes and Kouyate himself looked like an African king, albeit one who played the very basic looking lute like instrument called the ngoni with one leg on the monitors at the front of the stage, rock style!

The ngoni is quite an incredible instrument. It seems to come in different varieties with Kouyate playing lead guitar like solos on a small variant while other members of the band played rhythm like larger versions of the instrument.

Kouyate’s music is totally different to the two preceding band, sounding more like southern African music. It sounded happy too. And indeed Kouyate and his band were a cheery bunch who despite the between song talk of sharia law and war couldn’t help but infuse the Barbican with a feeling of warmth.

wp-bassekou-kouyate-5432In fact it is quite amazing how the Barbican crowd managed to resist the jubilant energy of the band who danced on the stage in mini spontaneous synchronised routines or when the percussionist leapt to the forefront playing crazy shell like instruments or a mini drum held on his shoulders which made all kinds of sounds. 

Kouyate finished his set to a standing ovation and then the grande finale saw all 17 musicians that had played tonight back on stage for a messy but joyful encore. 

The crowd needed some encouragement, but resistance to dancing was now futile. In the end, war seemed very far away from this concert hall, where it seemed, it was all about the music after all.