Sunday, 28 November 2010

Moments of 2010: I Danced on Stage with Salif Keita

So, it's already that time of year again, when all the obsessive collectors, freaks and weirdos of the musicsphere start ranking everything and reminiscing about a year that's still in progress. And that's just the Tones of Town staffers!

Seriously though, the end of year phenom is something you can't really escape if you're at all interested in reading anything your contemporaries are writing about music. For better or for worse, it's here to stay. But of late I've started finding it a tad unimaginative Рgreat, you listed five albums that either a) everyone's heard of, or b) no-one's heard of. Well done, collect a medal for taking part on the way out. So, I hear you ask, how do you plan to escape the clich̩ of the end of year bollocks? Well, I don't think I can. No, I hear you add, what I meant was, you're obviously leading into what you're going to do for end of year whatever, so why don't you tell us all.

Thought you'd never ask.

Just thought I'd mention a few pretty cool musical experiences I've had this year. Granted, I'm not the most widely-cultured, -listened, and -gigged, but hell, this whole blog's about personal feeling and personal experience.

So, I thought I'd tell you all about Salif Keita. Not just generally Salif Keita, you understand, but hey, have a bit of background. Salif Keita's a musical icon, a legend of Malian – of 'African' music, famous worldwide, all that. He's a sixty-one year old albino, and as such a campaigner for the world albino community, who are often victims of human sacrifices (you do hear news articles and charity press releases along these lines from time to time, generally referring to Africa but hey let's not generalise here). He got worldwide attention for the first time in 1987, with the release of Soro, which demonstrated his sound – that marriage of traditional Malian sounds with European and Western production and musical styles. The album that introduced him to me was 2002's Moffou, which is generally one of my absolute favourite albums ever. Go listen to it, in fact hell, here, I'll embed “Yamore” for you.

(That's not the official video - the official video's to a single edit four-and-a-bit minutes long. This is not a song that should be heard in shortened form.)

How does this link to 2010? Well, on 7
th April, I went to see Salif Keita perform the second date on his world tour, playing the Barbican. Quite frankly, it was incredible. The audience isn't really like one I've been in before, there's everyone from people my age up to people of probably pensionable age, we're all sat down, it's terribly civilized but there's this buzz in the atmosphere, or maybe it's just the first time I'm actually going to see a gig on these terms. It's not me and a mate or three, in a dingy converted theatre drinking £4 cans of Red Stripe, I'm sat in this epic hall (and the Barbican is a wonderful looking venue) waiting to see a musician the like of whom I've never seen before.

The rhythms kick in and they just keep going, it's not relentless or anything but there's this pulse, this fizz in the air coming from the music, from the grins and the energy in the performance, all while the big man himself holds court in the middle, letting that wonderful tenor of his just cut through it all and do the spine-tingly thing that we all love in music. He's playing songs I've never heard before, but that's no surprise, not only is this promoting an album I've not listened to before, but I only own two of his back catalogue – I've heard one more on Spotify but I don't think he plays anything from it. But hey, who cares? The point of this isn't to sing along to the songs you love, it's all sung in Bambara anyway, and I don't know about you but I'm not fluent in it.

Then, still on a high, it's the last song of the set, and ah – I know this one! It's “Madan”, from Moffou. Love this song, it's a real rip-snorter, full of energy, packed full of melody, this celebratory feel. And hell, it looks like I'm the only one who the music seems to have gotten under the skin of, look, there are people on there dancing! They're just ordinary folks, probably commuted in from god knows where, and they're dancing on stage with Salif Keita, getting grins from the backing band and stuff – why can't I go on there? I'm close enough to the front. Hang on, Salif Keita's leaning forward to get more people on stage, I could totally go on stage.

Yep. Salif Keita just dragged me on stage to dance with him, his band, and the 20-odd other randoms. The big man himself. I'm a little starstruck.

Aside from that, I'm dancing – no, flailing, trying not to look too indie and trying not to care that I'm dancing on stage in front of about 3,000 people, 3,000 strangers. Because, that's one of the overriding traditions I take from African music – it doesn't really give a fuck if you look a bit foolish as long as you look like you're having fun. This isn't about irony, or affectations or worrying about how cool you look. It's you, it's music, it's you giving in to the power music can have if you let it. It's the sort of thing that's got a timid soul like me out of that seat, grasping a world-famous musician's proffered hand, dancing and laughing with a professional djembe player. It's one of my moments of the year not just because it was a hell of a lot of fun, not just because it was a fantastic gig dancing notwithstanding, and not just because it's an experience I'm unlikely to repeat in a hurry, but because it reminded me why I love music. What could be better?

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Walkmen - Lisbon

There's a question that is constantly floating about the worlds of computer games that goes something along the lines of this: "Are computer games art?". The answer, of course, is impossible to even consider because Art itself is subjective, and the broad brush strokes given to anything that is suddenly proclaimed to be artful is nothing short of redundant these days. If suddenly, someone, somewhere was to figure it out and understand if or if not the latest Gears of War title was Art then would anything change? Would it be a validation of the medium? Would it change people’s opinions of gamers and games to any degree? My sceptical mind says no, but that day will come. To some, it already has - I would say it has came close; in certain games, such as Okami and Mass Effect, where the uniqueness of the medium is shown unabashedly, with artistic merit, to say that the work and sales of all these people who work on these massive projects needs recognition from people outside the medium is not required.

I say this because it is related to the music industry as a whole, in a way. You see, bands recently have became almost corporate entities - the actual market forecasts of massive multinational companies are dictated by the performance of the albums that they have invested in. Does the recent album by Coldplay feel artful because it is music, or is it less artful due to gestation period upon which millions of pounds were spent on production? Are Hollywood films still artful when they are staunchly formulaic to make money? As I stated at the start, it is neither here nor there for me to say, nor is it for anyone else to define. Art is just something that is and in this 21st century world we live within, like it or not, we need to have a definition of something we cannot define. I like to think of it as Quantum Criticism.

This relates to the Walkmen ever so slightly, so I'll admit that we have gone off topic even before I have started to discuss the band, and the album, so we should probably start I think. Firstly, let me explain the Walkmen as they are to me. I saw them away back in the hazy days of 2002. I guess it was by accident rather than by design, but I had been exposed to them via the way of The Rat which, I guess, is how most people back in those times would have as MTV 2 was playing the hell out of the video. The song was all I knew. That cold night in Edinburgh where, after a few illicit beers, we missed our last train back to Glasgow and my friends and I waited for a father to pick us up and take us back home. I didn’t persue the Walkmen after that gig.

In full circle I rediscovered them again in my adulthood just before the release of You & Me was announced. I picked up the three albums prior to You & Me and started to pick their subtleties apart. Then, with one swoop, You & Me came along and gave me one of my all time favourite albums. The slow, measured, slick build up from all the songs actually gave me one of my first ever amateur reviews. In this short, badly written, and well misspelled review (I gave it 8/9, an arbitrary scale not needed anymore) I quite surprisingly made a valid point that “I feel that if I had been involved with them any early [sic] ...I wouldn’t have understood the point of The Walkmen”.

With this, their sixth studio album, Lisbon, the band has the problem of having to follow up their masterpiece. There is no doubt that You & Me is their most impressive body of work to date and it feels like the album the rest were written to allow for, Lisbon is the sound of a band realising that they have managed it, and they can relax and spread out in their new found peace. However, don’t mistake that observation for it being complacent – straight away on Lisbon there is an immediacy of difference. More brass horns and less dark piano crawl over this record, and the vocals are sounding warmer with every track. If this album was to be described as a season it would be spring, but a dark, twisted, malevolent spring in which the flowers are all blooming and the trees are back in colour... but the flowers are blues and blacks and the leaves have grown back in autumn colours.

Inside the album there is a feeling that the album is artful. This bring me back to my first point, in a round a bout way. There’s a sense that the band are working their way through a plan, an almost mapped out journey of destinations and like most journeys there are blips and bumps along the way. The scenery is beautiful and the album soars beyond it’s early forefathers in most, if not all, the tracks, but is solemnly covered by its direct predecessor. Imagine that the first albums where cityscapes; the tumbling suburbs and the hostile industrial landscapes, the last two albums are the wonderful countryside of calm. Whilst the band are making music that feels timeless, like an old band used to, the rest of the world is screaming ahead into Autotuned Soylent Green futures, and this timelessness is present in not only the instrumentation, or the vocals, but right in the Walkmen’s life blood. The album feels artful because it is not new, it’s old, and it feels like an album used to feel. Lisbon is as good as You & Me without being You & Me again, and that’s some of the highest praise the album can be given.