Over the past few days I watched a Senegalese Ian Curtis perform and saw singing men being sprayed with perfume.
I had heard about Senegalese singer Modou Gaye via Fartbook, failing to notice that the event was billed as ‘Sufi-jazz.’ Had I seen the moniker in advance I would have boycotted the whole affair, since hyphenated jazz mixes almost invariably give me a feeling of ill-well against all mankind. As is turned out Modou was amazing.
The first thing which strikes you about him is the extent to which he resembles jazz great Miles Davis (who, this article informs me, happens to be one of his influences): the same hairline, intensity of stare and also facial features while we’re at it.
The second thing you are made aware of is his mad bonkers dancing, which is like charades crossed with aerobics and consists of running on the spot and sudden pointing at the sky and slow motion head swaying and even fifties style twisting. He seems to interpret the hidden emotions inspired by the music through physical movements which somehow go beyond the boundaries of dancing: much in the same way that synchronised swimming isn’t really swimming in the plebeian sense of the word. When a note struck a particular chord with him (geddit – they just keep on a-comin’) he would be transported into a musical frenzy, head thrown back, eyes shut, mouth open and looking for all the world like a hero of the top shelf. Sometimes he would engineer these little raptures himself, banging away at his African xylophone until the Eureka moment struck and he found the right note which he would bang out repeatedly with a violent fervour.
There were inevitably a pair of backpackers in Indian silk scarves coiled around their necks on the sidelines, also getting jiggy with it - self-consciously - as the rest of the audience studiously ignored their whirling in circles like three year-olds at a birthday party. In the same row as me were sat a pair of middle-aged moustachioed Lebanese gentlemen. When they first arrived they had sat in different rows, one in front of the other, bellowing at each in a mixture of French and Arabic about things being mnee7 and pas vrai. Why do people on the wrong side of 50 always sit at least one seat apart? Is it to make room for the colostomy bags? My mother employs the same policy of apartheid whenever we travel on a train together, insisting that I sit opposite her (if that is, I am allowed in the same carriage) or across the aisle from her but on no account next to her – she claims that I ‘make her too hot’ – a complaint never yet elicited from a sober male with all his wits about him, alas. Anyway these gentlemen eventually conceded defeat and sat next to each other once they realised the sheer impossibility of being heard over the music. I looked over at one point and saw them swaying in unison, arms at 90 degrees, balled of fist and smiles all over their faces.
Because the music really was fantastic. Over the course of the evening Modou got a series of musicians on stage and went from acapella Sufi to electronic to Afrobeat. One of the best moments was a duet between him and a Nubian guy, Modou singing in Wolof and Adel ‘Meekha’ Ibrahim singing in Nubian, which was incredibly stirring. The electronic bit was interesting but only because the backpackers attempted to prove that it is possible to dance to the sound of a cat scratching at a door.
The concert’s finale brought together the billions of musicians who had appeared over the course of the evening with some amazing Sudanese blokes on guitars and drums, as well as two bongo players, one of whom resembled a bongo (it's the law) and one called Shams who looked exactly, but EXACTLY, like a young River Phoenix. They jammed their way through some fantastic songs, accompanied by a French bloke on saxophone who was also great despite having a 1970s Joy of Sex type beard and haircut. Listening to them play I pondered what an odd place the world is, that Africa gave the world blues, jazz, funk and soul through its stolen sons in the States and that these rhythms made their way back to Africa to be reinvented once again. Just imagine the world’s music if there had never been an Africa. Wouldn’t be worth getting out of bed in the morning.
Yesterday night there was a celebration of the life of Nubian musician Hamza Alaa Eddin, who died a year ago. I had never heard of him before I went but, having developed a sudden drum fetish after Modou, decided to check it out. It turned out to be a sort of get together for members of Nubian society in Cairo, men in gigantic white turbans and women dressed in a kaleidoscope of colours and covered in yellowy gold greeting each other exuberantly. I don’t know if it was the outfits or the occasion or what, but most of these women were spectacular, and glided in with a finely-tuned self-assurance just short of arrogance which seemed to fill the hall.
The music itself was excellent, delivered by a singing oud player and about six drummers, backing vocals/swaying provided by an ever-enlarging group of men behind the singer. What is distinctive about the music is its odd beat which the audience seemed to be able to pick out of the polyrhythmic sound intuitively. It is nothing like the beat used in Arabic music, but to my uninitiated ears neither did it sound like any African rhythm. Rather, it reminded me of the slightly illogical, undulating, beat of Gulf Arabic music.
Nubian music seems to demand audience participation, specifically in the form of finger clicking. Every so often a member of the audience would make his way to the stage and click the fingers of his right hand at the singer, who would nod his head in acknowledgement. When not clicking some of the audience would clap, a highly complex series of a pair of short staccato claps followed by a single clap. One particularly lively old man interrupted his walking stick-waving in front of the stage to mount it and work his way round the musicians spraying each one of them with what looked like perfume – though it might have been mosquito repellent who knows - they clicking their fingers in return. He made his exit clicking and returned to the audience where he proceeded to dance with an elderly lady, he stick held straight up vertically above his head, she gliding across the floor making tiny, almost imperceptible movements. On stage meanwhile the drummers drummed with gusto: indeed, one with so much vigour that his turban slowly unravelled before our, and more to the point his, very eyes.