Mokoomba The National Centre For Early Music April 10, 2014
This gig was on the ninth night of a 12-date tour, so Zimbabwe's Mokoomba were well primed for action, tightly configured and slickly earthy. The UK itinerary was assembled by the Making Tracks organisation, who are dedicated to presenting global sounds from all lands. Their taste is always trusty. As is often the case for gigs presenting such rootsy fare, the NCEM was surely close to a sell-out, with throngs spread around the converted church's walls, either for a better view, or a better dance. Despite the band's vigorous display, the mostly seated nature of the gig allowed closer study of their musical intricacies, without overly dampening the atmosphere. Indeed, the two sets featured a blend of relaxed song'n'dance with traditional pieces that held their own as concisely-structured works, equally effective on aural and spectacle levels.
Coming together in 2001, Mokoomba are part of the Tonga culture, emerging from the Victoria Falls region. Listeners who might have expected a strong sound of Zimbabwe were confronted by a pan-African shake-up. This outfit didn't have the mbira (thumb-piano) dominated sound of Thomas Mapfumo or Stella Chiweshe, but they also didn't possess the old school pop-sparkle of the guitar-loaded Bhundu Boys or Four Brothers. Their sound is still embedded in the tradition of their homeland, but it's also embellished by styles from other African regions.
Mokoomba opened the evening with all six members singing in harmony, after the fashion of South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, gradually introducing percussion and moving into their main band formation, which features half of the team as percussionists, largely on congas, calabash and shakers. Trustworth Samende and Abundance Mutori's electric guitar and bass flanked lead singer Mathias Muzaza, and the songs veered towards Congolese soukous, with traces of Malian and Senegalese vocal qualities during the slower numbers. Muzaza's unlimited energy made him a constant dervish figure, spidering around the stage either to deliver his own lines, or to mimic the moves of his cohorts. His voice is capable of at least three distinct tonalities, as if he's slipping into different characters to deliver each set of verses. There's a deep, resonant growl that's reminiscent of South African one-off Mahalthini, ringing with deep vibrations that have a kinship with Mongolian throat-singing. Then, he has a middle-voice, with the dramatic flair of a Freddie Mercury. Muzaza's highest range still benefits from a theatrical shaping of sound, projecting far whilst holding steady and strongly-shaped sustains. Sometimes, he even oscillates in-between these basic characters. You've probably heard no-one who's quite like him, as a vocal individualist.
Samende's guitar was an electro-acoustic model that frequently produced sounds of a kora or n'goni nature. Whether this was with the aid of effects pedals, or an unusual form of string-attack, it was difficult to ascertain. He and Mutori played a sensitive duo at the start of the second half, chasing another bout of vocal-and-percussion revelry. For a band that's now playing very regularly, often in a festival situation, Mokoomba are refreshingly non-reliant on overdone audience participation techniques. Perhaps it's because their English isn't too fluent, but towards gig's end, Muzaza did begin chatting with the crowd. This suggests that the players want their music to speak, running quickly from one song into the next, building up a spiralling intensity. Even though there were more exhortations towards the climax, the clapalongs sprang naturally from the audience's awakening, rather than being coerced unnaturally. Mokoomba's encore was something else again, devoted to an all-percussion orgy which sealed their reputation in the memories of the satiated throng.
Alistair Anderson & Dan Walsh The Black Swan April 10, 2014
Wandering up Walmgate, the night's second gig was a highly contrasting pub session at The Black Swan Folk Club, again on the brink of capacity, but in a much more intimate upstairs room. This was traditional music that required silence and concentration. Apart from its singalong outbreaks!
Alistair Anderson is a veteran master of English folk, playing concertina and Northumbrian pipes. The young Dan Walsh was one of Anderson's deftest students at Newcastle University, and the duo have now taken to playing together, even though this might be an occasional venture, so far. Walsh is also a member of the Urban Folk Quartet. The Anderson/Walsh duo might be arriving from completely different quarters, but the combination succeeds, both as contrast and bonding. Their set was constructed from all possible permutations, mixing solo spots with pairings, these manifested by one or the other taking the compositional reins. Anderson has written for dance companies, and this might be because he's almost a dancer himself. When pumping the concertina, every phrase is accompanied by an appropriate waft or flourish of his instrument, to emphasise the jaunty flow. A flighty ditty such as "Geld Him, Lasses, Geld Him!" demands such expression, really. Likewise, "The Rusty Gulley," another fine rendition. Anderson's piping is statically delivered by comparison, but that wheezing, inflatable underarm beast would be quite sensitive to being jolted around, interfering with the delicate precision of fingering. It was a warm night, and the pipes were bleating and groaning whilst being fine-tuned, but once the melodic chase began, they were set free to sing. Anderson's explanatory interludes were both erudite and playful: he's part enthusiastic obsessive and part absurdist debunker.
Walsh also cuts his talent into halves. He soloed on banjo, at an almost unbelievable pace and picking intricacy, leaping from Stateside styles to Scottish. Then, he sang in troubadour mode, offering his "Back To Stay," where he appreciates the time spent in Newcastle, but is eager to embrace his home of Stafford once again. Walsh's mélange of Americana and British roots complements Anderson's forays into the music of other cultures, although most of his pieces during this gig were decidedly English. Walsh strode through "At Least Pretend," adopting what can only be termed a bass slap-thumb approach to his strings. Anderson related a touching old tale of the now-departed Will Atkinson, a long-lived harmonica player from Northumberland, then proceeded to skip through a nameless tune that the old master taught him. When the pair played together, they had a rapport that stretched the emphasising of phrases into a joint sport, the duo timing tight stabs of melodic simultaneity. One song might feature Anderson in supporting position on a Walsh original, then the latter would switch to a more rhythmic accompaniment to a tune by the former. Whichever way, they both shone with an elegant dash.
The Toasters Fibbers April 11, 2014
The Toasters are now in their 33rd year, still riding high as purveyors of transmogrified Jamaican ska music. All sorts of cross-pollination was involved back in 1981, as mainman Robert 'Bucket' Hingley was initially inspired by The Beat, those Birmingham (England) re-writers of traditional ska. This singer/guitarist has developed the combination of stepping jump-beats and pop-rock song-crafting, shaping a signature Toaster sound. He has the advantage of appealing to a broad range of music lovers, uniting the reggae, punk and skanky festival-grizzled scenes alike. Hingley's accent is pretty odd, sounding almost Australian at times. In fact, he's an Englishman, but settled in NYC since 1980, where he ran a comic book store, which is where he gathered the early members of his band. A decade ago, Hingley moved to Valencia in Spain.
There was ample room on the dancefloor, which was surprising for a Friday night, and also given that York has a reasonably popular ska dj-scene. Still a good, lively gathering, but not exactly sweaty, and only sporadically soaked in beer. The Toasters hurtled into a 70 minute set of condensed trotting, with nearly every short song dedicated to the pacily pumping beat. Amongst the oldies were "Secret Agent Man," "Pirate Radio," "Sitting On Top Of The World" and "Don't Let The Bastards Grind You Down." Sometimes, Hingley's poppy sensibility tipped the tunes too much towards a dilute style, for those who desired a harder ska romp, but then, there's not much point in merely re-formulating old genres. Hingley has his own approach. His vocals provided more of a central focus, given that he's not really a lead guitarist, apart from a smattering of short solo licks towards encore-time. His work was to build the core of every song, strumming that classic dampened, clipped chank. The startling solo duties went to the horns, with both trombonist and tenor saxophonist determined to display enormous stamina for fleet outpourings, notes played at breakneck speed, with lip-fraying accuracy. The remaining heart-core was pumped by bass and drums, but its the horners who provided the variety flying above the dancing beats.