Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Gig: Okavango

Okavango: An African Orchestra

Glenn Gould Studio. Friday, February 25, 2011.

Although I'd paused many a time on Front Street to nod hello to Glenn Gould, relaxing on his bench in front of CBC headquarters, I'd never actually been inside to the concert space that bears his name. Perhaps unsurprising, given that I'm probably better-travelled in the city's dives than the fancy music venues. The Glenn Gould Studio turned out to be a comfortable, woodsy room, designed (as the name implies) as a recording space, fairly intimate with a capacity around three hundred people. The event was the debut of Okavango1, a new cross-cultural exercise conceived by Nadine McNulty to bring together some very talented musicians who might normally share stages, but never at the same time.

The CBC-ish audience (older, affluent-looking) entered to find the roaring face of a lion greeting them from the stage, but less threatening in his current incarnation as a rug. The seven members of the band were fanned out in a V around him, drummer Walter MacLean at the centre providing the pulse.

One of the ensemble's goals is to provide us with an image of a non-monolithic Africa. All too often — and I'm sure I'm as guilty as a lot of people — "African music" is used as a shorthand descriptor, as if it's a singularity instead of a multiplicity. That's a recipe for losing sight of the enormous diversity within African music, where different instruments, tuning systems and tonal approaches can be found in different parts of the continent. And in providing a space for these differences to find a common ground, it also meant that this group could come together in an sorta-idealized Canadian way to find an "Africa without borders... before the borders were created".

Although the programme listed the show as being organized with the first half devoted to "traditional and popular songs from various regions of Africa" and the second to a suite of specially-commissioned new compositions, it turned out that the two sets of songs were intermixed. But regardless of whether they were brand new or reinterpretations of old classics, it was a chance to see how all these instruments could gel together.

The first set led off with "Shosholoza", a South African song well-known across the south of the continent, a little mellow to start before being kicked up by Pasipamire Gunguwo's marimba. After that, Nuudi Kooshin (who is usually just referred to by his last name) led the band on "Kharami" — a Somali love song.2 The kaban (Somali oud) mixed well with Daniel Nebiat's krar (Eritrean lute) and Sadio Sissokho's talking drum found a place on top of that, one of those elements that you wouldn't normally expect in a song like this.

Waleed "Kush" Abdulhamid, meanwhile, was adding his usual nimble basslines, but with a bad cold couldn't pitch in on vocals. He had prepared an arrangement of "Malaika" (well known from its performances by Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte) but deferred when it came time to play it. The band egged him on and he gave it a try before quickly calling it off. In what would be a technically imperfect but heartwarming moment, he was convinced to try again, and this time the audience took up the chorus for him, saving his ravaged voice.

Sadio Sissokho, who grew up immersed in the Senegalese griot tradition, played a kora that had been passed down through his family for many generations. Communicating with the crowd in French, Sissokho got some live translation help from Donné Roberts, and he was equally soft-spoken on the slower "Khaira", slowly building up with his intricate picking patterns as his vocals increased in intensity.

Between songs, there was some discussion about the difficulties of everybody getting in tune with one another while all the stringed instruments required recalibration. Daniel Nebiat's first contribution was "Semaetat", a new composition backed by the ringing, zithery tones from his krar. Roberts threw in some tasty licks that went back and forth with Nebiat, and the first half ended with Roberts' "Valala". At the outset, he enlisted the crowd to sing along on the la-la-la chorus — it turned out to be a jaunty song buoyed by his guitar and marimba and included a nifty kora solo.

After an intermission, the band reassembled for a second set starting with Pasi Gunguwo's "Sanje", easing in and out with bird calls sandwiched around a nice simmering groove with Gunguwo's mbira holding the rhythm underneath it all. He spoke about how that was the hardest instrument for everyone to find a meeting point with, as it cannot be tuned — meaning everyone else had to tune to match it. Nebiat's reinterpretation of "Hadar Gerki", a classic Ethiopian love song, again had a rollicking talking drum line — creating a "peanut butter in my chocolate" kind of vibe where the mixture is unanticipated but not unpleasant.

The last couple selections were something of a summary and statement of purpose from the band. "Sega", an instrumental with a Malagsy groove written by Donné Roberts, was a showcase of how the diverse instruments could work together, stretching out and giving everyone a chance to take a solo. The show then closed with another new composition from Sissokho called "Africa Bollo", meaning "Africa Unite".

As the band finished, they brought up Nadine McNulty to the stage. Her vision in bringing these different styles together should be praised. And anyone wanting to get a better handle on any of the composite elements should be keeping an eye out for the shows she puts together under the Batuki Music banner.3

Listen to a couple songs from this set here.

1 The very name is suggestive of the cross-cultural meeting place that the band embodies: the Okavango Delta is "a basin in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana where animals come to graze and drink water. Animals of prey as well as predators are forced to coexist and share the meager resources because of the harsh environment around them."

2 Kooshin made the claim that across his eight albums, all his songs were love songs; Daniel Nebiat would later teasingly refer to him as "Dr. Love".

3 One alumnus from this show (Daniel Nebiat) will be opening at Batuki's upcoming presentation of Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba at The Great Hall on Sunday, November 27, 2011. This should be a completely fabulous show — the band knocked my socks off the last time they were in town — and I can't recommend it highly enough.

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