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Meltdown 09

Curated by Ornette Coleman

Baaba Mal

Photo by Mark Mawston

Opening Band Kobi Israelite

Royal Festival Hall

Southbank Centre

June 15 09







A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Opening band Kobi Israelite features as its centre piece, an accordionist who performs solos as feverishly as any self-respecting rock guitarist or drummer might, though, it must be said, not as effectively as the group’s own bass player does on their more rock-oriented numbers. However, when Kobi Israelite show their audience what they can do in relation to their native Balkan/Yiddish inspired music, they go into excellent overdrive and their numbers become almost instantaneous crowd-pleasers. In the band’s more tedious moments, however, their half hour set did seem to be a tad longer than thirty minutes, though, happily some of their elevating moments helped to make up for any intermittently poor musical choices.

When the announcer stepped back onto the stage after the twenty minute interval to announce headliner Baaba Mal, he used adjectives like ‘magical’ to describe the Senegalese musician, whetting the audience’s appetite along with their whistles, many of which, judging by their frequent comings and goings during the opening set, were already well-lubricated by that time. Mal’s loose gold suit, its shiny fabric reminiscent of rock n rollers of yore’s sharkskin pride and joys, glistened under the spotlights as he sat alongside another guitarist and picked up his own guitar. There was a slight pause before the pair began to play, making the sound of his voice, once he began to sing, all the more potent. Mal is a singer to be reckoned with, a marvel of sorts, for the warm soulfulness and gentle lyricism he exudes on ballads, and, the sense of playful hopefulness he inspires on livelier numbers. It’s no wonder he is known as ‘The Nightingale’ in his native country. I for one was instantly captivated by both Mal’s clear, high-pitched voice and his and his fellow guitarist’s intricate fingering work and  horoughly savoured the first two, beautifully rendered acoustic numbers, both of which were sung by Mal in his native language, Pulaar, the language of the Fula ethnic group, a nomadic people also found in Niger, Somalia, Guinea, Mali, and Benin.

An unusually tall drummer, with his talking drum astride his shoulder, often echoed the words sung by Mal with a boingy wording of his own, as several individual drummers lent percussive density to the mix. The surprisingly buoyant Latino hybrids the group performed with Mal on vocals worked particularly well with their funky African grooves neatly blending with firey Salsa flavoured riffs from horns (two saxophones and two trumpets) flamenco guitar and a multitude of handily hammered drums. Television, the title track from Mal’s recently recorded album, his first for some time, is a delicious blend of frothy pop hooks and traditional Senegalese licks which reverberates satisfyingly in the consciousness after just one hearing.

Mal, who still seems boyish at fifty odd, (kind of like the ageless, late Miles Davis) also has a way with the audience, seemingly swaying them at will with a look, a gesture and of course, his songs. Most of what Mal does, along with his band, many of whom are drummers, seems to be aimed more at the audience than towards one another, unlike many other ‘World Music’ concerts I’ve attended. But perhaps their enjoyment of this free interaction is simply derived from the fact that their audiences seem to be enjoying them so. In an era of ‘stars’ who are all too aware of their instantaneous status, it’s very refreshing to note that Mal’s heady self-awareness assuredly stems more from the exuberance of a musician who is, inadvertently enjoying new found levels of fame, and, experimentation after years of distinctive  performing rather than that of one who believes the universe owes them acclaim. And Baaba Mal and company’s joy in what they are doing is highly infectious!

It should be said at this point, that although I tend to almost instantly become hooked on nearly all of the music coming from Africa that I have ever heard, be it by a member of the illustrious family of the late, great Nigerian Afro-pop originator Fela Kuti, via his son Femi (whom I’ve yet to see live) or Seun, ( whom I luckily have), his fellow Nigerian World Music pioneer King Sunny Ade, Manu Dibango, the great Cameroonian saxophonist/vibraphone player, who, is generally created with making the first disco single - Soul Makossa, or more contemporary stars such as Mal’s fellow country-man Youssou N'Dour, (whom I’ve also enjoyed seeing live) and/or, any number of other profoundly affecting musical artists who hail from the so-called Dark Continent. Mal has had more than his fair share of critical antagonists over the years, presumably because he is more in the tradition of some of the similarly experimental aforementioned African superstars before him, rather than more traditional African musicians, though his music always, includes some traditional African spice in its mixed spice gumbo.

I must confess that until I’d attended this concert, I’d never basked in the live glow of Baaba Mal’s particular brand of radiance. However, having fallen under that sunny spell for myself, I can confirm that it has been a charmed experience doing so and one that I hope to repeat sometime in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, I’ll just have to make do with Television.



Meltdown programme updates will be posted on Southbank Centre website
Meltdown continues through Sunday 21 June 2009

For the complete line-up see:
Meltdown number: 0871 663 2520





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