Monday, 4 July 2016

One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer – One Music?

A plummy voice shouts...
"…these tunes were never made to go with scotch, whisky or beer!" complained Ali Farka Touré judging his American Blues Brothers! There is a theory that West Africa, and Mali in particular, gave the world the blues that some of us know and love today! There certainly seems to be a strong link between the traditional music of Mali and Mississippi Delta Blues and later American variants. Perhaps Ali Farka Touré is less judgmental and closer to the truth when he declared, "They,” (the Americans) “have got the branches and the leaves, but we’ve got the trunk and the roots."

Tonight as Ali’s son Vieux Farka Touré takes to the stage at Kings Place, the songs, the atmosphere and the way they are played seem a million miles away from the standard blues image of a smoke filled American bar with a jilted lover hunched over one bourbon, one scotch and one beer. 

At the risk of stereotyping the Blues, what we have tonight is a celebration of music, not the lament of lost love. It is played with a wide smile on the face, not with mournful despair. It is performed in the slightly sterile surrounds of Kings Place, to a respectable, predominately white middle class audience! As we are treated to the brilliance of his ‘trunk and roots’ music we become aware that this is significantly different to the blues, and primarily reflects the traditional music of his home country. The differences are not missed by many in the audience, and in a particular show of English eccentricity (for a gig that is!), as Vieux introduces the next song, a plummy voice shouts from the otherwise silent audience,

Err excuse me!"

Vieux looks bewildered and finds the face of the voice in the crowd; he stands in expectation to hear the question from the politest heckler in the west…

What tuning are you in?

A smile sweeps across his face.

Ah!” he intones, shaking his head and wagging his finger as if this is the biggest and most important secret in the world of music. His gestures imply that if he let slip his tuning his magical guitar playing powers would desert him!

But he can’t keep the pretense up for long, and slowly he strums the open strings, E-A-D-G-B-E, explaining to those in the audience who haven’t the foggiest what is happening that it is standard tuning!

Not the tuning,” he says, directing his comments back to the heckler. “Its the way you play….

It is often said that a sign of greatness is not what you play but what you don’t play! This couldn’t be said of Vieux Farka Touré or the tradition of the music he plays, as he effortlessly fills the bars with notes. Why play one when 12 will fit?! He is accompanied simply, by bass and drums. Part way through the evening he apologises that he hasn’t got a full band with him! I’m not sure any of us have even noticed so full is the sound and so high the energy. 

I called it Tajik Folk... 
I’m sat on the front row and I’m not sure what is more disturbing - the eye contact with the artist, that for some reason I find so difficult to hold, or the way my seat is moving due to the enthusiastic seat dancing of my neighbour!

The interval comes too soon, and as I go in search of my ‘One Bourbon’ I am struck again by the cultural homogeity of the audience and a sign that advertises more ‘World Music’ at King’s Place! What is it about ‘World Music’ that seems to primarily attract the white middle classes? And why do we call it ‘World Music’? I start to become just a little embarrassed. To call this ‘World Music’ is to buy into the belief that mainstream music is what we in the North have given the world and anything else we patronizingly lump together as ‘World’. As I sat a few years ago, on a very cold January day, in the Gurminj Museum in Dushanbe in Tajikistan surrounded by musical instruments, some of which were hundreds of years old, listening to Samo play, I didn’t call it ‘World Music.’ I called it Tajik Folk. A few years before that as I sat under the warm July Palestinian evening sky listening to a local musician I did not think to myself I’m listening to ‘World Music.’ I just knew I was enjoying a great evening of Palestinian Music. What I am listening to this evening is not ‘World Music’ but music from Mali. 

However, the embarrassment caused by the realization that antiquated colonial attitudes are still alive and well in lefty middle-class London is nothing to what I encounter in the second half of Vieux’s set. The conversation during the interval with a fellow gig-goer who found their mislaid one scotch next to my one bourbon was short and sweet but along the lines that we weren’t sure how many gigs he had played with an audience sat in such respectful statuesque silence! Surely people dance at his gigs we reflected!

As the second half continues, the artist encourages us to our feet and to dance – well, I say dance!! Even more embarrassing than our crass title of ‘World Music’ is the sight of white people trying to move to African music. Why did he encourage it? Quite possibly to have a good laugh at us!

Despite the embarrassing dancing the gig ends far too soon. It has been a wonderful night of ‘trunk and roots’ Malian music! 

Gig: 45 of 50
Date of Gig: Wed. 27th January 2016

The Kings Centre

Vieux Farka Toure

Running total of artists seen 92

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