The current popularity of percussion can be seen, like the parallel fashion for ethnic-print trousers, as a sort of cult of the primitive for the contemporary concert hall, with the exotic essence of all things shaken, rattled and rolled, and disparate musics from around the world, simply reduced to a few spectacular stunts.
Admittedly, percussion extravaganzas look good - think of the lights bouncing off all those shiny surfaces - but what about the sound? Can a sense of child-like wonder be sustained for two hours or so without exhausting the child in all of us?
Bringing together Evelyn Glennie and Nana Vasconcelos, two of the foremost bangers and shakers from straight music and jazz, must have seemed like a dream ticket to the Bath Festival. It turned out to be a bit of a nightmare, and sorely exposed the often ill-judged coups of festival billing, where artists unfamiliar with each other are pushed on stage and expected to gel, although the faults of this performance lay more in the enforced novelty-value of percussion itself.
It started badly, with the Brazilian Vasconcelos taking a 15-minute solo on the berimbau, a sort of bow strung with wire that uses a bulbous gourd as a resonator. Rather like the bagpipes in Scotland, the berimbau has a strong totemic significance that quite outstrips its musical merits, which, on the Darwinian scale of things, equate to a particularly basic form of pond-life.
He strummed it, he stroked it, he hit it again and again, but it still stubbornly refused to make a single convincing noise (compared to the berimbau, the banjo is a miracle of modern technology). And, although he is undoubtedly Brazilian,Vasconcelos is certainly no Airto Moreira - his percussive compatriot - who has a similar weakness for the berimbau but sensibly sets a strict time-limit on its use (one minute max, then back in the sack).
Glennie followed - amid a general air of indulgent incomprehension, and more coughing than I've ever heard outside a school assembly - with a long, composed marimba piece that was quite beautifully played, although one's enjoyment was somewhat tarnished by looking at the stage and counting just how many instruments were still waiting to be used. Then came a conga and bongo duet, before Glennie embarked upon a big-time drum solo that, despite its technical fluency, suggested that she could never keep the beat for Slade. Vasconcelos answered with a bit of Bobby McFerrin- style body-slapping and some vocals straight out of the tabla player's training manual.
The low point, though, had to be Glennie's party piece: a Chinese-sounding story, accompanied by flower-pot percussion and lyrics like "Mother of light, you who are loved by the starry sky", which just went on and on like a parody of a multicultural primary school lesson. All things considered, this concert was the worst I've ever heard. Come back, Ringo, all is forgiven: at least you could keep the beat.
Phil JohnsonReuse content