The African Soul Rebels Tour (Live Review)

The African Soul Rebels tour, 2010.
The Anvil Arts Centre, Basingtstoke.
24th February, 2010.

There is currently a healthy number of high-quality ‘world’ music events held annually in the UK, and many can be traced back to enthusiastic promoters Music Beyond The Mainstream…
Cold, Wednesday night rain was falling on Basingstoke, a town famous for its abundance of roundabouts (and little else). Inside the modest Anvil Arts Centre however, the temperature was rising as the stars of the 2010 African Soul Rebels tour took to the stage. Now in its 6th year, the tour is the brainchild of Music Beyond the Mainstream, an organization set up by a conglomerate of venues devoted to presenting innovative and exciting music from around the world. Previous Soul Rebels shows have seen such prestigious artists as Baaba Maal, Amadou & Mariam and Femi Kuti take to the stage before delighted audiences. This year’s tour includes a real gem in the form of Malian chanteuse Oumou Sangare, the true star of the night’s performance, and the main attraction for the 350-odd crowd of seasoned music fans.
That is to take nothing away from the night’s opening act, Benin’s evergreen Afro-funk masters Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, who took to the stage one after another amid a flurry of drums and applause. Then followed 45 minutes of near faultless rhythmic interplay between the 10-strong lineup, reminding everyone of why the band were feared by the great Fela Kuti in their ‘60s heyday. Bandleader Mélomé Clément strutted about the stage, taking control of the vocals, or blowing solos from his alto. The players behind him danced playfully in a manner belying their advancing years, especially during more raucous moments such as crowd favourite Gbeti Madjro. However, despite the energy it felt as if the band were uncomfortable in the formal setting of the theatre as opposed to the more interactive clubs and dances their music was born in to. This could be the reason behind a recent review in The Guardian of the tour’s Barbican show, in which the band was accused of lacking luster, a description that appeared invalid at the Anvil.
Certainly lacking in luster however, was the night’s second act, Warrick Sony’s Kalahari Surfers. During a short interval the various horns, percussion and guitars were replaced by FX units and a laptop, behind which stood Sony (with guitar attached) and Johannesburg-based reggae vocalist Teba Shumba. Sony’s anti-establishment stance as a white man in South Africa has been widely publicised in his homeland since his arrival on the music scene in the early ‘80s. His lyrics, performed over dub-infused electronica, are heavily political, such as with the attack on the South African bourgeoisie, Durban Poison. Here Sony and Shumba traded lines of vocal in a bilingual cal-and-response over a brooding beat, one that often drowned out some of the key lyrical moments. This track was a rare highlight in an otherwise disappointing performance, one that promised an electronica-tinged ‘world’ sound typified by acts such as Transglobal Underground, yet delivered a concept with unrealised potential. Sony’s guitar playing was loose, intrusive, and largely unnecessary, while Shumba’s vocals struggled to find a place amid the synthesisers and drum machines. The mood was considerably darkened after the upbeat Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo, and although the songs of Kalahari Surfers contained many thought-provoking messages, these were lost beneath the failings of their execution. Warrick Sony appears to have hit the age-old stumbling block of how to perform electronic-based music live on stage, falling half-heartedly between the two existing methods of fully live band and fully digital DJ.
Perhaps the thinking behind positioning the static and plodding Kalahari Surfers in the middle of the bill was to accentuate the sheer profundity and joy in witnessing headliner Oumou Sangare. The contrast between the two could hardly have been greater, and as her bare-footed backing singers followed the band on stage, rhythmically tossing up in to the air and catching some variety of bead-covered percussion instrument, the crowd seemed to be stirred back to life. An energetic djembe player led the crowd in a stadium-rock style handclap, as the band began to construct a building rhythm, with the percussion, drums and guitars, joined by the ever-delightful kora. As the rhythmic intro began to plateau in to the opening song, Sangare appeared. Dressed in a flowing yellow dress, the reigning Queen of African Soul proceeded in wasting no time in justifying that title, with songs such as Sounsoumba showing off her impressive yet naturally understated vocal abilities. On slower numbers, such as the emotional Sukunyali, Sangare prowled the stage majestically like a lioness, commanding every inch of space that her microphone cable would allow. Her particular Malian flavour of Afro-soul is similar to that of her compatriot, fellow Music Beyond the Mainstream favourite Rokia Traoré. But it is Sangare who has rightfully inherited the thrown following the death of previous ‘Mama Africa’, Miriam Makeba. As a young girl, Sangare followed her mother in to singing, performing at weddings and soon becoming fiercely in-demand. In 1989, after years of performing with the National Ensemble of Mali, she released her solo début, Moussoula, a personal record dealing with the mistreatment of women in her country. It was on this subject that Sangare decided, in halting English, to discuss with the Anvil audience. She described the pain of forced marriage and inequality, before performing the album’s title track to an appreciative reception. Aside from Moussoula, most of the set consisted of material from last year’s Seya, an album that sold 80,000 copies in Mali just 4 days after its release. Sangare enchanted the audience with her mastery of performance on songs such as Djigui, and served as a powerful matriarchal bandleader, chastising her musicians James Brown-style if they failed to begin a song immediately on her instruction. Aside from this, her band performed immaculately, and the audience was treated to a virtuosic display of explosive dancing from her backing singers during rhythmical breaks, each one drawing a rousing cheer. As the set flew towards its conclusion, Sangare informed the crowd that it wasn’t just Mali performing for them tonight, but the whole of Africa. On this cue, every member of the night’s previous bands appeared, picking up various percussion instruments and guitars, and joining in on an extended version of standout Seya track, Wele Wele Wintou. Sangare remained in control, instructing the singers, and occasionally bringing various members forward to solo. After a final building climax of the song’s chorus, the performance was over, and the musicians humbly bowed their way offstage to euphoric applause. Music Beyond the Mainstream continue to bring together exceptional talents from across the globe, and, as proved by the African Soul Rebels tour, an abundance of it can be found on the world’s poorest continent. More like this for 2011 please!

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