Babel Med Music 2017
March 16-18, 2017
Babel Med Music is at once a public festival, a conference and a trade fare, possessing the capacity to be experienced on multiple levels, as the ratios of these aspects are juggled by the individual attendee. Its thrust is primarily towards global sounds, rootsy and ethnically-inclined, from purist into fusion, but mostly the latter. This year, there has been an attempt to include jazz as a strong ingredient, but out in the field this was not so apparent, both in quantity and inherent genre manifestations. Marseille makes an ideal home for the appreciation of global musics, being a major French port, and a nexus for the Afro-Mediterranean and beyond. To underline this, the daytime talks, panels and seminars, as well as the evening multi-stage showcase gigs, are housed on the dockside zone, within a short walking distance of each other. Not much else is around the Dock Des Suds venue's part of town in the evening, but it was easy to barfly in a corner old-man café, and then masticate merguez
in-a-baguette, just up the street.
In the daytime, the many business stands, conference events, and a small number of afternoon music showcases, were situated in a huge hangar, accessible via a zig-zagging metal staircase, if the ascenseur
was too slow in coming. The small live act stage programme contained a few gems, only caught by a smattering of these music- lovin,' music biz types. A particular highlight of this local-region platform was Nafas, a global-jazz trio featuring saxophonist Fred Pichot, bassist Sylvain Terminiello and drummer Ahmad Compaoré. Their sinuous parts spliced Afro-Arabic groove to free jazz abstraction, revolving around some notably pliable basslines, building up a genuine force of optimistic expression. No bland audience flattery was needed: they just delivered a set of consistent musical dynamism. The next afternoon, La Mossa, an all-female polyphonic group also delivered a compelling set, full of vocal exuberance, members taking turns to glide forward and lead off a particular song, or pick up a hand-drum to palpitate, all of them well-versed in theatricality as a means to enlarge their degree of communication.
For the hardcore music freak, untethered by business networking concerns, the evening multi-stage gigs in the Docks Des Suds venue provide the crucial core of this festival, with an abundant programme that is varied and imaginative, combining unfamiliar growers and established presences on the worldwide scene. All of the stages are housed in a sprawling venue, with an outdoor bar and restaurant run that featured a nightly dj scene. On the first evening, there were a few instances of the planned jazz content being derailed, for whatever reasons. You know when you're at a gig, and the only thing worse than the faint sussurus of chatter is the far louder snake-hisses made by the close-proximity complainers. Then, a third faction latched onto the absurdity of this, making their own exaggerated ssshhh-ing sounds. Unfortunately, this happened early in the Israeli New Yorker pianist Shai Maestro
's set, making a concentration on his admittedly mellow meanderings quite challenging. With multiple stages and staggered timings comes the problem of folks entering and leaving in a constant stream. Not a disadvantage for the majority of acts, but the occasional quiet band can suffer from this situation. Then, the Canadian (with Haitian parents) saxophonist Jowee Omicil
turned in a disappointing set, too full of showbiz tricks, tepid funk grooves and endless party-calls to the crowd. The evening's pinnacle was scaled at midnight, when the French-Algerian Mehdi Haddad led Speed Caravan with his heavily electrified oud, subjecting North African music to heavy surf-rock and psychedelic augmentation. Where leopard-skin meets duct-tape, as his chosen axe-coverings, with buzzing spirals of rai fuzz coaxed out of his footpedal mountain, sounding like slide-howling, without the bottleneck, as he bends every single note into the heavens. Haddad sustained this energy level and soloing frenzy throughout his entire set, with no slippage whatsoever.