Diaspora Music Village 2004 - Festival Weekend Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens, London
Saturday, 3rd July 2004, 12.30pm
Feat. (in order of appearance)
Tassa Drummers, Trinidad & Tobago
Al Ahmady Group, Yemen Daphna Sadeh & The Voyagers, London
London African Gospel Choir, London
Obaid Juenda & Yusuf Mahmood, London
Green Mamba (Isicathamiya Choir), South Africa
Maalem Abdembi & Sidi Mimoun Group, Morocco
Shyam Brass Band, India Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra,
Trinidad & Tobago
Date of Review: 2004/07/12
Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra (11-piece Ensemble from Trinidad), the closing highlight of the day
For more photos of all the performers of this wonderful event
please also see the slide show near the bottom of this page.
Diaspora Music Village Festival Weekend, Kew Gardens
Daphna Sadeh, on stick bass, the
wonderful facilitator and leader of
Daphna Sadeh & The Voyagers
Green Mamba from South Africa
The 19th Diaspora Music Village 2004, organised by Cultural Co-operation, this year culminated in the Festival Weekend at Kew Gardens on 3rd and 4th July. It is the Saturday, 3rd July event that is covered here.
The Cultural Co-operation organisation had assembled an outstanding line-up of artists from abroad as well as from various diaspora groups in and around London for the Festival Weekend. The venue, The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, was a pleasant if somewhat unusual one that necessitated attendees acquiring a free entry pass to the Gardens from Cultural Co-operation in advance.
The weather certainly seemed co-operative, with a beautiful, warm, sunny summer morning and afternoon, with just one fairly short shower in between. The crowd started building up very gradually, and by the time the thunderous Tassa Drummers from Trinidad provided the ceremonial opening of the show off-stage and the Al Ahmady Group from Yemen were setting up on stage around 12.30 the allocated area on the south side of the lake had been barely half filled. However, this soon changed and eventually the area became pretty near packed to capacity.
The Tassa Drummers provided a wonderful opening to the afternoon's performances. This tradition evolved in Trinidad out of the East Indian Shi'a community's celebrations of Hosay, a festival commemorating the martyrdom of the grandsons of the prophet Mohammed. The festival has long since assumed a mini-carnival like mantle in Trinidad, especially in St. James, a western suburb of the capital, Port of Spain, and tassa drumming now has a long tradition outside the confines of Hosay as well.
The Al Ahmady Group from Yemen
The Al Ahmady Group from Yemen that followed may have come as something of a surprise to many who associate that country with the strictest of Islamic observances, where generally musical instruments and especially any kind of dancing by women was strictly prohibited. Yet, here were the Al Ahmady Group with all manner of musical instruments, and a female dancer as well! Hailing from the ancient trading port of Mukalla, the group draws upon indigenous Hadhrani forms as well as African and Indian rhythms. Their superb performance was only marred by the crowd still settling down and unruly kids running wild. (Alas, it seems too much to expect [most] parents to exercise some kind of control over their offspring.)
Based in the London area, Daphna Sadeh & The Voyagers represented several diasporas. The musicians hail from Israel, the British Jewish community, Turkey, and in the case of special guest musician Tigran Aleksanyan, from Armenia. The music of Daphna Sadeh & The Voyagers typically boasts even more diverse backgrounds. It is, broadly, a blend of various Jewish traditions as well as Arabic/Middle Eastern and Mediterranean musical traditions in a contemporary world jazz idiom. Daphna Sadeh & The Voyagers' performance was as spirited as one has come to expect from this all-star line-up, with woodwind ace Stewart Curtis switching among tenor sax, piccolo and clarinet, while guest Tigran Aleksanyan played the duduk and zourna as well as clarinet. Daphna Sadeh herself was, as ever, the great facilitator and the inspiration to her fellow Voyagers, and there was some great soloing all round. Sadly, the crowd still had not settled, and a seemingly ever-increasing number of uncontrolled children really detracted from the excellence of this performance.
Also from London were the London African Gospel Choir that followed on with a stunning performance of South African gospel songs and dance routines. One really would have wished for more of this breathtaking show.
The stunning London African Gospel Choir
It was exuberant and joyful, and the enthusiasm and enjoyment of the performers was infectious.
They were followed by Obaid Juenda & Yusuf Mahmood from London, a group specialising in modern Afghan popular music. Their mix of instrumentation was an eclectic one, including as it did modern synths, the traditional Afghan rubab (rebek, originally introduced to Central Asia by Jewish migrants coming from the Middle East who settled in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) - the inspiration for the better-known Indian sarod, and Indian influences such as the tabla (which sadly has replaced the native Persian tombak in Afghanistan since around the end of the 19th c., along with North Indian ragas having replaced the Middle Eastern/Central Asian maqams) and harmonium.
Obaid Juenda & Yusuf Mahmood's music proved remarkably accessible and enjoyable, with not a hint of any influence of Bollywood "music", that dread bastardisation. Although this was music in a decidedly modern idiom, it somehow did bring back memories of the old Afghanistan, before it was devastated by foreign interference and invasion from one side or another.
Green Mamba from South Africa are a Isicathamiya Choir, the blend of a cappella singing and dancing that was first popularised in the West by Ladysmith Black Mombaza in the 1980s. The former's performance was every bit as impressive as any by the latter. Green Mamba were outstanding.
Next we witnessed a return to the stage of the Tassa Drummers from Trinidad, making their way through the crowd while drumming. Their joyful noise was utterly hypnotic and absorbing, as well as, of course, somewhat eardrum-splitting even in this wide open space. (Imagine then, if you will, the near-deafening sound of the - hundreds of! - massed tassa drummers on the streets of St. James during the aforementioned Hosay festivities! Glorious!)
I had been looking forward to the next act, the Polish klezmer band Yarehma. Sadly in the event, like the crowd, I found myself incapable of working up any enthusiasm for this band. This was a very pale reflection of the vibrant, emotive klezmer form. Competent musicians, no doubt, but any kind of real klezmorim Yarehma did not appear to be. The publicity blurb said, "based in the resurgent Jewish quarter of Kazimierz in Krakow..." Well, being based anywhere in particular does not of itself make you a good klezmorim, and in any event, last time I heard from somebody visiting Krakow and its Jewish quarter (recently, I might add), yes, the Poles had been rebuilding it to assuage their national guilt, but not a single Jew was to be found living anywhere near. This recent upsurge in Polish klezmer bands seems to be as much a part of this trying to come to terms with their guilt over their anti-semitic past and their part in the holocaust as rebuilding synagogues and whole Jewish quarters. If Yarehma are anything to go by, they're certainly not hitting the right note, as it were. Their performance did nothing for me. It simply failed to speak to the heart, as well as to the feet.
Gnawa music is a form of trance music of sub-Saharan origin that was brought to Morocco even in pre-Islamic times. Maalem Abdembi is one of this ancient art form's acknowledged and legendary masters. His Maalem Abdembi & Sidi Mimoun Group gave an inspired and outstanding performance that quickly made one forget the somewhat insipid previous offering.
Following the magnificent Maalem Abdembi & Sidi Mimoun Group, the quite possibly finest of India's brass bands, the Shyam Brass Band, marched boisterously through the crowd to the stage. Originating in the military marching bands of British Imperial times, Indian brass bands eventually evolved to be almost indispensable at almost any kind of community celebration. Their repertoire in modern times is sadly largely Bollywood-inspired, therefore not for the faint of heart and musically sensitive souls. Nevertheless, it is their sheer energetic and boisterous performance style (and actually, their extremely high musicianship) that makes the better of these bands almost a must-see, must-hear. Shyam Brass Band, naturally, quite clearly fall into this category and are certainly the very best that I have heard, as well as seen. Their performance was nothing short of spectacular.
With the sun by now very low on the horizon, it was soon time for the closing highlight of the day, an eleven-piece ensemble from the Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra, one of Trinidad's greatest large pansides or steelbands. Hailing from Trinidad's second city, San Fernando in the south of the island, Skiffle Bunch were lead by their long serving captain or leader (and founder-member), the charismatic Junia Regrello. Backstage we chat while the pans are being set up. Softly spoken, friendly Regrello clearly loves his band with every fibre of his soul, his faith in them and their abilities is as boundless as his - and their - enthusiasm, and he stands fully behind them. A panman with every fibre of his existence, a panman after my own heart. He gently chides me for being a "Despers man" (a supporter of Desperadoes Steel Orchestra) and says Skiffle Bunch are now at least as good. (Regrello may have said 'better than', actually, but uttering something like that seems akin to blasphemy to an old Despers man!) Be that as it may, Skiffle Bunch are indisputably one of Trinidad's very finest "pansides" after a mere eleven years as a large "conventional" band (previously, Skiffle Bunch had been a "traditional" or "pan around the neck" band since around 1976), and that is no mean feat. And I will confess to having been a fan for a while already.
The eleven-piece ensemble of the cream of Skiffle Bunch put on a performance that was nothing short of brilliant and gave the crowd a taste of what good pan should sound like. So rousing was their performance that they even managed to inject some real life into the generally rather passive audience. A great way to end a great day.
Cultural Co-operation can justly be proud of having laid on as magnificent a world music show as today's with such an inspiring range of music and artists from many parts of the world. This is a wonderful achievement indeed, all the more remarkable for having been undertaken by a voluntary organisation. WOMAD could learn something here!
Obaid Juenda & Yusuf Mahmood, London - Afghan popular music
Yarehma, a klezmer band from Poland that sadly failed to gel
Maalem Abdembi And Sidi Mimoun Group from Morocco - gnawa music
Please note that the photographs in this review and particularly in the accompanying slide show had to be compressed more extremely than usual. This has resulted in lowered image quality and some, sometimes strong, artifacting.
For help with the slide show and its controls please see the Help page.