The intimate St. Ethelburga's very quickly filled up to the rafters last Saturday night, and people even had to be turned away at the door. (There really is a lot to be said in favour of advance booking. Avoids disappointment.) Indeed, Avalonia At St. Ethelburga's on 19th May had been a most promising sounding gig from the day it was first announced. The legendary singer Najma Akhtar, pioneer of Ghazal - Jazz Fusion and much else, with superb Irish folk musicians such as acclaimed singer and guitarist J. Eoin and flautist Jacquelyn Hynes, versatile multi-instrumentalist Maurice Judge (on Irish bouzouki and banjo), and Middle Eastern beats from Egyptian master percussionist Hossam Ramzy. Sounds like an amazing and exciting combination!
Previously, Ms. Akhtar and J. Eoin had already collaborated in Ms. Hynes’ innovative World Fusion group Taraba in 2007/2008 apparently, but Avalonia is a completely new project that raised almost impossibly high expectations that surely would always be very difficult to live up to. And especially so on a first public outing with very little prior rehearsal. So, kudos to all the performers for sheer bravado right from the start!
However, the performance of Avalonia At St. Ethelburga's that ensued last Saturday night was most remarkable indeed. Who could fail to be but utterly seduced by the angelic voice of Najma Akhtar, a voice that by its utter grace and charm alone could melt and break hearts, today as ever! J. Eoin could not fail to impress either, both singing solo and in duet with Ms. Akhtar, with his most marvelously evocative, so quintessentially Irish, Celtic voice full of that Celtic charm and charisma. And then there were the magic flutes and whistles of Ms. Hynes, likewise so evocative. And a mix of Indian and Irish songs and tunes each so complementary to the other.
An altogether very exciting and attractive mix. However, one could not help but feel that Maurice Judge's excellent bouzouki and banjo might have been a touch under-used perhaps. Likewise, one sadly could not help but wonder if the otherwise usually excellent Hossam Ramzy really made an essential contribution here. Sadly his most notable impact was in the too enthusiastic use of chimes,
which mostly seemed totally out of place and were, if anything, an irritation, and almost equally in the over-use of assorted cymbals. Some lively darabuka and daf providing exciting cross and poly-rhythms in Arabic meters perhaps might have been much more interesting in the context.
As much as I personally love flute of any kind, perhaps a little less in the way of Jacquelyn Hynes' superb flute solos here might have been more also. (There also were issues with Ms. Hynes' mic, or more precisely, with the sound, as one could very loudly hear each and every intake of breath.) And one positively would have liked to hear much more of Najma Akhtar's and J. Eoin's exquisite duetting, perhaps both in Irish (gaelic) songs as well as in say ghazals. (A poetic form common throughout the Middle East and South Asia that also has a certain affinity to Celtic music, especially since the latter was so heavily influenced by the Arabic music of the Moorish refugees from Spain who also introduced so many of the ancestors of what are now considered quintessentially Celtic instruments such as the bodhran and free-reeds like the Uilleann pipes.) What a beautiful blend of voices that complement each other just gorgeously.
Minor issues as noted earlier not withstanding, Avalonia At St. Ethelburga's was a most memorable and enjoyable experience indeed. And bearing in mind that this was only a first performance for the new Avalonia project, it was quite breath-taking and amazing. Ms. Hynes' arrangements, especially of the Gaelic duet song, were generally most excellent. No doubt much will yet be ironed out and improved upon for subsequent events.
But even as was, Avalonia At St. Ethelburga's positively stirred the soul and touched the heart deeply. And made one wish for good dancing shoes as well!
If you were unfortunate enough to have missed this wonderful event, book now for Avalonia's next outing at The Green Note in Camden Town, London NW1 on July 8th. It's bound to sell out ahead of the event.
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