Live Review: The Creole Choir of Cuba

The Creole Choir of Cuba
Monday 17 May
Wilton’s Music Hall, London E1

While introducing the choir, our MC John Simpson remarked that the venue we were in had a ‘Cuban’ feel to it. He wasn’t wrong; Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s East End is the oldest surviving Music Hall in the world, and it does give the impression that it could fall down at any time (“carefully neglected”, as one audience member put it). Looking as old as it did, you were reminded of those crumbling concert halls and old nightclubs that always crop up in films set in Cuba. The choir fitted in perfectly.

The machinery working to bring the Creole Choir of Cuba to an international audience has been grinding away for over a year now – ever since Simpson and his production team discovered them singing during a trip to Havana, and got them booked for last year’s WOMAD and Edinburgh festivals. The choir’s real name is ‘Desandann’ (descendants) and it’s made up of the descendants of Haitians who have emigrated to Cuba over centuries. Through song, they have preserved aspects of Haitian culture that are hard to come by these days – even in Haiti itself. The choir are now as identified with Haiti as they are with Cuba – which has resulted in their being at the forefront of Cuba’s contribution to the ongoing disaster relief effort in Haiti. Call it divine providence or just being in the right place at the right time; either way you can’t deny how very timely it is.

Armed with just their voices, two congas and a variety of shakey things, Desandann had us all in their grip for the best part of an hour. In that time, we scanned the emotional spectrum – all the way from pathos and melancholy through to elation and sheer joy. They treated us to laments, upbeat merengues and Haitian folk songs, all with a heavy dose of Africa running through. We clapped; some of us even danced. As the choir sang their last song, they walked down the aisle, dispensing hugs and handshakes to the audience as they disappeared one by one into a door in the back of the auditorium, leaving us clamouring for more.

After their WOMAD appearance last year, the choir recorded an album at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios. It’s due for release in four months’ time and I’ve heard some of the tracks. Get it – that’s all I’m saying.

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From the Y Crate: Bill Wolfer

From the Y Crate, #16:
“Wolf” by BILL WOLFER (Solar/Constellation)

Yet another lost ‘blue-eyed soul’ offering. Wolf is one of my favourite 80s soul albums – which is ironic, because I only discovered it in the 90s. I came to Bill Wolfer via the singer Jon Gibson (yep – more blue-eyed soul) and I can still remember the look of absolute shock on Jon’s face when I interviewed him and mentioned to him that I owned a copy of Wolf.

The story behind the album goes something like this. It was the early 80s, and Solar Records (the label that gave us Shalamar) had high hopes for two white acts they’d signed. In the red corner was Jon Gibson – a very soulful singer whose voice bore an eerie resemblance to that of Stevie Wonder (whom he had worked with on and off). In the blue corner was our man Bill – a master session keyboardist whose work could be heard on some of Motown’s best albums. Hall and Oates were making a killing on the charts around this time, and someone at Solar had a bright idea: why not put these two guys together and we can have our own Hall & Oates? (Stop laughing. This is the music industry we’re talking about, and you want original ideas?).

Thankfully, that idea got vetoed, and the two acts released solo albums instead. Bill produced Jon Gibson’s Standing on the One; Jon did lead vocals on a few tracks on Bill’s Wolf. Bill was able to pull in a few stellar names to appear on Wolf. Stevie Wonder‘s harmonica playing on “Soaring” is simply awesome (as is Crystal Blake’s vocal). And if you listen very closely to “So Shy”, you just might be able to pick out Michael Jackson‘s voice in the chorus (the album was recorded at around the same time Michael was working on Thriller, and Bill had previously toured with the Jacksons and played on their Triumph album). You can also just about hear him on “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” – one of two tracks on which Bill does lead vocal in a Herbie Hancock vocoder stylee (another case of “shy keyboardist syndrome”, I wonder?).

Bill went on to produce Shalamar’s hit “Dancing in the Sheets”. He also worked with Vanity and produced some of Jon Gibson’s Christian music offerings. I’m told that he’s making Latin jazz these days. That I must investigate…

2009: My Year in Music

And what a year it’s been!

My gigs of the year:

Delirious’ last ever gig (HMV Apollo, Hammersmith, November)
Staff Benda Bilili (Barbican, October)
Chic (HMV Forum, September)
Daby Touré at Africa Oyé (Sefton Park, Liverpool, June)
Shlomo and the Vocal Orchestra (Greenbelt Festival Mainstage, August)
Monica Giraldo (Magic Mirrors, Cannes, January)
Speed Caravan (Jongleurs, Camden, October)
Afrobeat Vibration with Dele Sosimi & friends (Empowering Church, London, several months in the year)

My favourite new discoveries of the year:

Sonnyboy: An unassuming, multi-talented soul singer I met in Cannes. His song ‘Josephine Brown’ has kind of been played to death at my home since then – both the mellow soul original and the housey ‘Psycho remix’.
Ndidi Onlukwulu: Another Cannes discovery; a Canadian singer who sits somewhere between Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey-Rae.
Charlie Winston: Met him in Cannes too. He’s English, but has been a lot bigger over in France this past couple of years. Landed himself a deal with RealWorld after babysitting for Peter Gabriel (true story!).
The Apples: I met this lot at Greenbelt, where I was their host for a couple of seminars they did. An awesome nine-piece funk band from Israel with no guitars or keyboards, just two turntables and loads of horns.
Muntu Valdo: This Cameroonian singer-songwriter is a great example of how digital looping technology has revolutionised live acoustic music. Shut your eyes, and you’d think he had a 10-piece band (and at least five backing singers) on stage with him!
Freshly Ground: I was introduced to this lot by friends who’d either been to South Africa and seen them, or had discovered them via Youtube. Brilliantly quirky; great fun; all-round brilliant band.

My favourite albums of the year:

MaxwellBLACKsummer’snight: Yay! Maxwell’s back! He may have lost his trademark Afro, but the angelic voice is still there – and that’s what counts. ‘Pretty Wings’ is soul at its finest.
PortlandThese Broken Hands: Soothing, thoughtful, sublime… just a few of the nice adjectives I’ve thrown at this album since I first heard it. Ideal late-night listening from the Midlands-based band.
Staff Benda BililiTres Tres Fort: From living rough on the streets of Kinshasa to capturing the hearts of World Music fans everywhere, 2009 has been a fantastic year for “Africa’s #1 disabled band”, and 2010 is set to be even bigger. Wait till the film’s released; the whole world will be chanting “Giruppa! Giruppa! Giruppa! Sexamachine!”
Jars of Claythe Long Fall Back to Earth: This is fast becoming my all-time favourite Jars album – especially the tracks ‘Scenic Route’, ‘Weapons’ and ‘Boys (Lesson One)’.
Van HuntUse in Case of Emergency: Seriously classy soul from the über-talented (and still criminally underrated) American singer.
And a special mention for: DJ Because’s Audio Sensei (not so much a ‘mixtape’ compilation as a compelling audio collage) and Sara Watkins’ self-tiled album (‘alt-country’ set, produced by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones). Poles apart musically, but both absolutely brilliant.

Tragedy of the Year: Losing Michael Jackson. End of.

My “sometimes I’m just too sarcastic for my own good” moment of 2009: The time I posted a daft comment on Facebook, insinuating that Mika had had a sex change and was now Lady Gaga… only to receive several shocked emails asking if it was true.

‘Twas the Year of the Skank: It seemed as if everybody was inventing daft dances and making songs up to go with them. My personal favourites (including a couple from 2008) were: the oh-so-ironic ‘Stupid Skank’, Skepta’s ‘Rolex Sweep’, ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees & Toes’, and Guvna B’s ‘Kingdom Skank’.

Most Pointless Musical Campaign of the Year: The anti-Cowell “RATM for Christmas number 1” thing. Yeah, let’s show that Sony executive how much we hate him… by buying a Sony song! If this is what passes for “revolution” in the 21st Century, God help us…

… and in the “If I never hear this crap again, it will be too soon” category:

Jazmine Sullivan’s ‘I’m in love with another man’: Yes, I know I’m not in the target audience for this song. But imagine the uproar if some man had sung a song that basically said, “Look, girl – we’ve been together for a while and you’ve never been unfaithful to me. But here’s the thing: I’m dumping you for someone else. No reason; I just am.” Sick, isn’t it? (and not in the way ‘da kidz’ use the word ‘sick’ these days). It made me long for Eamon’s charm and subtlety (now there’s something I never thought I’d hear myself say).

Greenbelt ’09: Day 4

So far, I haven’t had much luck with getting to see any of the talks or workshops (with the exception of the one I hosted, of course), so my aim for today was to see at least two.

My first one was Robert Beckford’s Live Aid vs. Dead Aid session in the Centaur. A very thought-provoking presentation in which Robert compared and contrasted two opposing views on aid to Africa. On one hand, you had Dambisa Moyo – author of the book Dead Aid, who argues that all aid corrupts, and that hardcore capitalism is the real solution for Africa (because we all know the credit crunch is just a blip, right? Sorry). Then there’s Bono, putting the case forward for humanitarian help and for the aid that is given to be targeted better and with more transparency to weed out any corruption. Robert himself seemed to be looking for a third option, drawing on the strengths of both sides, rather than be polarised. A very interesting talk – that is, once I’d got over the fact that he’d cut his dreadlocks off…

My second session with the Apples was titled Tracing the History of Funk. This time round, I just introduced the band (after an impromptu jam) and they took it from there. Four band members, including Ofer (one of the DJs) and the drummer, who did most of the talking. Starting with pre-slavery West Africa, he took a sample drum rhythm from Ghana and showed how it cropped up in different forms within Salsa, Brazilian Samba and Bossa Nova, New Orleans marching band music, Bebop, Jazz, and finally funk (or to be more precise, James Brown in the late 60s). The audience was full of funk fans aged from 10 to 50-plus, all with a deep love for the music. When the session ended at 3.00pm, the band literally ordered us to go and see the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who were just about to start their Mainstage set.

I also managed to see the Women in Music panel discussion, led by Pippa Wragg – another member of Greenbelt’s music group. I even got to make a comment!

The Press Room closed at 6.00pm, and I decided that for my last few reviews, I’d just go and see stuff I wanted to see. That included Foy Vance (who’d played the Big Top earlier in the weekend, but ‘d missed it), Sister Jones and Brian Temba. And Athlete, of course (or what little would be left of their gig by the time my DJ set had finished). The Welcome Wagon seemed promising, too.

Sister Jones had started their set when I arrived at the Performance Café. Got a big hug from Brian, who was due on next. Both sets were brilliant – and then I finally got to meet Steve Campbell (their producer) for the first time, having communicated with him via email for several years.

After Brian’s & Sister Jones’ gig, I headed for the Blue Nun for my go at Djing. The delightful DJ Ayo was on before me, playing some nice House music – so for continuity’s sake, I started my set with a house tune from Ghana – an Afroganic track. Followed that with a jazz groove thing from Spha Bembe, and then with Max de Castro’s tale about a samba dancer’s wardrobe malfunction.

Predictably, there was a mass exodus around 9.25 when Athlete were due to start on mainstage, but I was determined to enjoy my time on the decks. This was also around the time that I noticed the note next to the decks with the venue’s music policy written on it: “Keep it mellow. The Blue Nun is not a banging dance venue!” Oops, too late – by then we’d already done Soca, Kuduro and Samba/D&B! Stuck with mellower stuff for the rest of the set, then caught what was left of both the Athlete and Foy Vance gigs. Caught up with Steve, Brian and the Sister Jones ladies again, and saw them off as they headed home. Then one final Last Orders (at which I did get to see Athlete) before bed.

And that was it – one of my best Greenbelts ever. Still wish I’d seen 100 Philistine Foreskins play, though…

Greenbelt ’09: My DJ Playlist

These are the tunes I played during my DJ slot in the Blue Nun wine bar on Monday night:

  1. Emagbo – Afroganic
  2. Lobhalaza – Siphamandia ‘Spha’ Bembe
  3. A Historia… – Max de Castro
  4. Adouma – Angelique Kidjo
  5. A Minha Fantasia (It Ain’t Over) – So Pra Contrariar
  6. Isto e Kuduro – Frederic Galliano Kuduro Sound System featuring Zoca Zoca
  7. Can’t Stop – Greenjade & MV
  8. I Sing – Victizzle
  9. En Mi Puertorro – Andy Montañez feat. Voltio
  10. Levanto Tu Nombre – Waldo Badel & Orquesta Horeb Internacional
  11. Josephine Brown – Sonnyboy
  12. Travelling On – Sam Payne
  13. Welcome – Isaiah Katumwa
  14. Picking Up Where We Left Off – James Taylor’s 4th Dimension
  15. Righteous – Dag
  16. Crazy – Liquid
  17. Soul Makossa – Manu Dibango
  18. Sanyu – Isaiah Katumwa
  19. Baba Rere – Kunle Ayo

Greenbelt ’09: Day 3

SUNDAY!!!

Seriously beginning to wonder if I’m not overworking myself. This is a festival, after all. A man needs to have a little fun…

During the night, I’d discovered that my tent is on a bit of a slope. Didn’t do anything about it then because I was trying to sleep, but once I got out of bed I re-positioned the airbed/sleeping bag combo so I won’t keep rolling off the thing at night.

IDMC had an early slot in Centaur venue with Christian Aid. I went along to that, then got to hang out some with John Fisher, ClauDieon and the rest of the gang before they had to dash off to the second of three gigs they’ve got on today (not to mention a ferry ride to France afterwards – and I thought I was overdoing it!).

Having alternated between “Yeah, go for it!” and “What have I let myself in for?” nearly every day last week, I did my first presenter’s slot this afternoon, introducing four members of the Apples to a laid-back crowd in the YMCA tent. In half an hour we talked about how the band got together, the cultural scene in Israel and the underground music scene that’s grown off the back of it. A couple of guys in the audience asked some questions, and then the band used the remaining half-hour to play tracks from some CDs they’d brought; recordings by other Israeli underground acts, including a side project of the soundman and one of the DJs, a reggae artist, a couple of other jazz things, and a very Rai-like party tune which went down really well with the audience. “The Israeli underground scene is like a big community,” they said. “We’re all friends, so we support each other.” I love that indie family vibe and camaraderie… and there was a bit more of it on show in the evening when Jahaziel and Karl Nova turned up for their slots on the Mainstage and Underground. Jahaziel played both. I saw all of his Mainstage set and a little bit of his Underground gig (I caught him teaching the audience the ‘Ben’ Yu Knee’ Reggae dance).

I finally caught up with Carl. My DJ slot is in the Blue Nun from 9pm to 10pm tomorrow. Hold on – isn’t that when Athlete are playing?

Africa Oyé ‘09

oyelogoMany music fans who visit Liverpool do so on pilgrimages to the Cavern Club. My now annual pilgrimage to Scouseland is music related, but has nothing to do with the Beatles. The thing that’s brought me up here again this year is Africa Oyé – the UK’s biggest free African music event. It’s usually held (at least, since I’ve been going) over a weekend in June.

Miserable grey clouds hung over Sefton Park all weekend. Thankfully, though, the worst that happened was the odd drizzle. I turned up on Saturday afternoon and dutifully waited at the fence by the mainstage for Ali the Press office guy to give me my pass (I was there mainly with my Sounds of Africa producer’s hat on).

It was whilst waiting for Ali that I met Maya. She had come in the place of a friend of hers; an Irish radio presenter who couldn’t make it because he was ill. Throughout the weekend we worked together, pooling our equipment and oyebirdinterviewing artists (and Paul Duhaney, the festival organiser) together.

Africa Oyé aims to bring the best in African music free to the Liverpool public. That’s ‘African’ in the broadest sense of the word; this year’s two headliners were both reggae artists (Freddie McGregor on Saturday and Carol Thompson on Sunday). The lineup also usually features Latin music – though sadly there were no salsa bands there this year. Kasaï Masaï kicked off the festival with a blend of Congolese sounds and high energy dancing.

Next on were a Senegalese trio called Groupe Lolou. I managed to miss much of their set – but only because Maya and I spent so much time talking to their manager in the press/hospitality tent backstage. Turns out that back down in London (where they all live), I’d been to one of their friends’ houses to interview another Senegalese musician! I even managed a brief conversation in Wolof (well, ‘how are you?’ ‘Fine thanks.’ Counts as a conversation to me). I should meet with them again once their album’s out.

Up till this weekend, I’d never seen Daby Touré perform live – even though he’s played Greenbelt twice, and I’d interviewed him in person a couple of years ago. He recognised me the moment he saw me, and was as thought provoking, amiable and funny throughout the interview as he’d been the last time we’d chatted – in an Arabian-style parlour in Momo’s in London. He played both days, and was a monster onstage. Fantastic.

In between sets, I had a wander around and tried to set up interviews – including one with Kwame Kwei-Armah, who was there as ambassador for the Foreign Office’s Know Before You Go campaign, aimed at getting people to ensure they’re covered for every eventuality before they go off travelling.

I only stayed long enough to hear Freddie McGregor sing ‘When Push Comes to Shove’, then I set off home (tiredness had got to me, and the clouds looked threatening). Didn’t think much of Chino (Freddie’s son) who was one of his special guests. A reggae song about ganja – very original… The little I heard of Freddie sounded great, though.

The Congolese singer Gordon Masiala kicked things off on Sunday, and provided one of my most hilarious interview moments ever. Whilst onstage, Gordon had made a point of informing us that he was wearing Versace. I’d heard a lot about Congo’s Sapeurs before (and had met the king of them, Papa Wemba, once), so I asked Gordon about the significance of high fashion in Congolese music and culture. That was his cue to give Maya and me a close-up inspection of all his designer ‘garms’. He then went off on one about how he was the best-dressed Congolese musician ever. For a minute, he sounded just like the ‘Rolex Sweep’ song: “Papa Wemba can’t dress like me; Koffi Olomide can’t dress like me; Awilo Longomba can’t dress like me. One glass of champagne for me…” at least I can now say I’ve seen the inside label of a Versace jacket…

My best new discovery on Sunday (and a slightly more level-headed interviewee than Gordon) was the Cameroonian singer Muntu Valdo. With just his guitar and a harmonica, Muntu rocked. He had a Digitech Jam Man (gadget that allows musos to create loops whilst playing live, so they can make up their own accompaniment) which he used not only to create complex backing rhythms and music, but also to provide backing vocals for himself! That gizmo has really revolutionised acoustic music.

Kanda Bongo Man had a sore throat and so delegated most of the lead vocals in his set to his two backing vocalists. Despite the throat, he and his band rocked. Is it me, or are the girl dancers in Congolese bands getting really young these days?

Final act of the festival was Carol Thompson. I really hadn’t been that interested in seeing her sing, to be honest. I vaguely remembered her from back in the 80s, but thought that putting on mellow lovers rock tunes after all the bouncing about we’d done to Kanda’s soukous jamfest would be a major anticlimax. So it was rather reluctantly that I took my position by the stage.

“I’m only going to hear one song, than home,” I told myself. In the end, she won me over. A medley of her old hits morphed into a cover of the Commodores’ ‘Easy’. She followed that with a Gospel-flavoured song based largely on Psalm 23 (“In the times we’re living in, we need to be more spiritual,” she told us). Rather than do the usual ‘say goodbye, walk off the stage and do an encore’ thing, she just sang right through, ending with a medley of old ska songs that had the entire audience screaming along (I have all the screams on tape!).

“Everybody in Liverpool is a performer,” Maya informed me as we enjoyed a post-festival drink. I certainly met a few: the old bloke with no front teeth who kept rallying other people in the crowd to dance; the guy in a cowboy hat who managed to outdance Kanda Bongo Man and his entire band; and of course the women in the front row who got louder and louder whenever they saw my Zoom recording machine pointed at them!

And that was Africa Oyé 2009: a weekend in which I heard some brilliant music, made a new friend, got a few contacts and ate way too much Chinese food for one person. Looking forward to next year’s already…