Oumou Sangaré & Béla Fleck – Southbank Centre, London, July 18, 2012.
Because I’m English, and so by default have a dangerously corrosive jet-stream of cynicism coursing through my veins at any given moment, I haven’t yet written a truly rave review of any gig. There is always something to unpick: the tuning, the sound, the crowd, the queue for the bar, the overpriced drinks – you get the idea. But now, for the first time in a long time, I can honestly put my hand on my heart and say the gig I attended on Wednesday was one of the best I have ever seen.
Banjo extraordinaire Béla Fleck and Malian songstress Oumou Sangaré first collaborated back in 2005. As documented in the film Throw Down Your Heart, they met when Fleck rocked up in Bamako, the beating heart of Sangaré’s West African homeland. On Wednesday the duo were joined by a four-strong band, a backing singer, kamalengoni harp, drums and a beast of a bass player (more on that later).
Before the music even began we knew we were in for a treat when Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal turned up to announce the gig. Next, the ever unassuming Fleck opened the evening with a solo acoustic banjo interlude. I liked it from the off but admittedly straight-up solo banjo isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, as the player remarked himself ‘Not everyone can handle that’. Yet Fleck’s furiously fast finger work and genius phrasing had the whole audience rapt. He injects a tangible layer of gesture into his work. Appropriately, his technique reminded me of the tone language of a West African táma (talking drum). Like the táma Fleck is quite literally able to speak to his audience via his instrument and so seamlessly cue melodic punch lines and laughs. After being treated to an excerpt of his newly composed and classical-toned ‘Concerto for Banjo’ and a set of arranged African songs, Oumou Sangaré and her band joined them on stage.
I’ve seen Sangaré a few times now and never been blown away her, but on Wednesday she was on top form. Her voice at full volume is soaring and powerful enough to rival that of legendary blues divas like Bessie Smith and griot masters like Sory Kandia Kouyaté alike. Fleck, now on amplified banjo, melted into the band providing tight accompaniment. ‘Timbuktu’ tackled political upheavals in Mali, while Sangaré’s classics like ‘Seya’ were re-imagined as feisty funk numbers.
Admittedly this portion of the gig felt more like a solo show for Sangaré, but the duo soon redressed the balance with the song ‘Djorolen’. For this the band left the stage leaving behind the two headliners and a hushed hand drum. The lyrics speak of the hardships Sangaré faced as a young girl providing for her family; she sings, ‘The worried songbird, her thoughts go far away’. The bird metaphor is a powerful one for the Malian diva who is pioneer of the Wassoulou genre. Wassoulou singers tackle issues of women’s rights through song and call themselves kono (songbirds), which separates them from griots (hereditary praise singers) and allows them agency to oversee and comment freely on pertinent issues affecting females in African society. The emotion here was palpable and the entire Queen Elizabeth Hall sat spellbound. Afterwards Baaba Maal impulsively returned to the stage and performed a praise song for Oumou. Maal began a cappella with the rhythm section slowly curling in at the edges as his song unfolded. Shimmering drums, sidestepping bass and punctuating harp rumbled underneath the impressive improvisation.
The last portion of the evening showcased the full band and allowed time for extended solos. Bassist Sekou Bah tore it up with his musical monologue moving from extended jazz chords strummed across the fretboard to quirky classical quotes and funky freefalling to a heavy rock ending with distorted sledgehammer-ing chords. It was an exceptional evening and a firm standing ovation was duly given.
(Part of Southbank Centre’s Festival of the World with MasterCard)