Live review: Baaba Maal presents “In Praise of the Female Voice”

Baaba Maal presents “In Praise of the Female Voice”
Royal Festival Hall, 12 March

The last few Baaba Maal gigs I’ve seen were all collaborative efforts. There was the marathon Africa Express show up in Liverpool, where he rocked out with the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Hard Fi – and following that, a Meltdown show at the Royal festival Hall, at which he shared the stage with long-time collaborator Mansoor Seck and Brit rappers Kano and Bashy. Tonight’s gig was a similar joint effort; this time round Baaba played host to a string of female vocalists from Africa and the UK: Eska, Krystle Warren, Annie Flore Batchiellilys, Speech Debelle and VV Brown.

Baaba has been singing the praises of African women in an honorary feminist style for some time now (as he was the last time I spoke to him), and this gig was, in effect, him taking that further. Sure enough, the track ‘A Song for Women’ (from his last album, Television) had an airing – done as a beautiful duet with VV Brown. But I’m running ahead of myself…

Eska was the first lady to take the stage after Baaba and his band had got things started (actually, the first lady to take the stage was host Andrea Oliver, larger than life and rocking a ‘baldhead’ look as only she can). I’m one person for whom Eska can do no wrong, and she was on brilliant form – both as a vocalist and as a multi-instrumentalist. The first of Eska’s two songs was a reworking of Odyssey’s ‘Inside Out’ (of late, she’s been taking old 70s and 80s disco-pop tunes and reinterpreting them in a quirky jazz style). For her second song, ‘Rock of Ages’, Eska emerged from behind the keyboards and accompanied herself on a violin.

Annie Flore Batchielys was definitely the surprise act of the night – or at least the one with the most unusual entrance. Having been led onstage arm in arm by Baaba, she proceeded to back-track her way out of the band’s little circle, and stayed out of it for nearly all of the song she was supposed to be accompanying Baaba on. When she did start singing, however, she was electrifying. She did a couple of songs on her own while the band took a short break. I didn’t catch all of what she said while she was talking to us (Note to self: might be time to start listening to those French podcasts again), but everyone caught the profuse thanks to Baaba Maal in the closing lines of her last song.

For my money, Krystle Warren was the most intriguing of the other guests, but you kind of got the impression that she’d been added on to the bill at the last minute (especially when she didn’t appear in the grand finale). VV Brown was dignified and elegant while Speech tried to play up to the “rappers are rebellious” stereotype by declaring that she was going to take up more time than she’d been allocated for her set. But there was plenty of love in the house – as the founder of the South Bank’s Women of the World season (of which this gig was a part) discovered when she chatted to Andrea about the advances that have been made by women in the 100 years since the first International Women’s Day was observed. It was only at that point that I realised there was supposed to be a feminist angle to the whole event – but I’m sure I speak for all the blokes in the house when I say that it never felt exclusive or “girls only.”

I left the RFH nodding my head along to the opening track of Annie Nightingale‘s post-gig DJ set. As I stepped out of the venue, I wondered what Kwame Kwei Armah and Paul Gambaccini had to say about their feminist sides, and contemplated coming along on Sunday to hear them speak. In the end, I didn’t.


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