African Soul Rebels

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 28th February 2010

As ever an eclectic mix of styles from the African continent were presented and this year’s instalment of the African Soul Rebels featured musicians from as far afield as West and southern Africa, with the little known nation of Benin represented by the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Contonou. It was indeed the latter who started off proceedings, a kind of equivalent of Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab, though with a quite different and more urban sound. The group were in their prime during the 1970s and 1980s before disbanding and were known throughout the region for their Afro-funk beats. Comprising a ten piece band with three horns, two lead vocalists, beefed up percussion and the obligatory cheesey keyboard, Poly-Rythmo immediately set about hitting the choiciest of retro grooves with the reed players providing a wonderful counterpoint to the singers. Stylistically Poly-Rythmo oscillate between Afro-funk (though never derivative of the Nigerian sub-genre) with a subtle use of the drumbeat pattern associated with the music and more laid back styles that enable the emotional warm of the saxophonists and trumpeter to shine through. Key to the overall sound is the use of rhythm guitar to propel the beat and this is what Poly-Rythmo do to perfection while the slick arrangements fail to prevent the band from offering a rawer edge to their music, as their excellent recent compilation from 2007 ‘The Kings of Urban Groove 1972-1980’ so amply illustrated. It was this gritty side to the band’s repertoire that had the audience on the edge of their seats, particularly on the extended workouts with manic percussion work from the bongo player and reed players doubling up on cowbell to add an extra layer. Call and response dialogue with the public worked wonders and on the minor themes the band came across as akin to the Malian supergroup the Ambassadeurs with whom Salif Keita first plied his trade. Make no doubt about it, this was a master class in African big band extravagazna and the sheer versatility of the musicians in shifting from one style to another made for an intoxicating beginning to the evening.

Taking centre stage as the principal act for the final performance, Malian diva Oumou Sangare cuts an imposing tall, yet equally elegant figure and arrived on the stage after her two female vocalists has entertained the audience with their tambourines. The band hit an instantaneous rhythmic groove and were made up of kora player, hand drummer as well as two guitarists and flautist, with the West African calabash instrument intriguingly stuck to what appeared to be a piece of plywood and played on a table. The lilting sound of the band serves as an ideal background over which Oumou’s piercing nasal vocals soared and enveloped the auditorium. They excelled on the mid-tempo numbers and the building of intensity was enhanced by Sangare inviting the audience to clap along which they immediately reacted to. Oumou Sangare has had to fight long and hard to achieve her status in Malian society and was anxious to point out that in her native country, and in Africa more generally, the plight of women is an extremely hasardous one. She devoted one song to this very subject and emphasized the inestimable contribution that women make to society as mothers. Despite language barriers, Sangage managed to convey this message most effectively. Instantly recognisable were the introductory chords to one of her most loved songs, ‘Wanita’ where for once her vocal delivery was far more delcate and restrained, entering into a lengthy call and response session with her two vocalists. By now the audience were up out of their seats and Oumou Sangare departed to a standing ovation which ended the evening on a high note.

In between the two main acts were a relatively little known trio from Capetown, South Africa, the Kalahrai Surfers who are a clear indication of the multi-racial side of South African music in the twenty-first century and of the multitude of musical influences that South Africa has taken on board, including techno or electronica as evidenced by the array of sound effects the trio had at their disposal. For instrumentation the trio use programming beats plus bass and rhythm guitarists while the vocals veer sometimes towards reggae and at other times towards mainstream reggae, and even indie rock that takes in Talking Heads’ innovations. This made for an interesting contrast with the primarily acoustic instrumentation of the other two acts and was a reminder of how globalisation has greatly facilitated the dissemination of newer electronic sounds to the African continent. Particularly impressive was the use by the Kalahari Surfers of lyrics to put across political content as demonstrated on songs such as ‘General amnesty’ and ‘Child soldier’. Tim Stenhouse