Mind over marimba

Two hearts, four hands, sixteen mallets - all beating as one. Edward Seckerson tests the vibes of Denmark's Safri Duo

Safri. Say it loud and fast, it's a surge of energy - zap - an electric shock. Say it soft and slow, it's a mysterious whisper, a shiver, a frisson. Uffe Savery and Morten Friis are a Danish percussion duo. Safri is a composite of their names - two for the price of one. There's a hint of Africa buried in there, too, allusions to safari and saffron and much else besides. As a name, it has spice. And it's percussive - naturally. What you hear is what you get.

But what you get is maybe a little surprising. If Evelyn Glennie can be said to have "outed" percussion - as in out of the closet and into the ghetto - then the Safris are working towards ethnic integration. It's high time, they earnestly believe, that percussion was less of a side- show, less of a speciality act, an "entertainment". The music, not the hardware, comes first, they're saying, and anything you can do...

Their latest Chandos CD presents a typical Safri programme. Here's how it goes. You keep your custom-made set-pieces under wraps for the big finish. You start quiet and sophisticated with a little Bach. You proceed to Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Ravel... Hold on a minute, we are still talking percussion here? We are. Marimbas, actually. Two marimbas, four hands, three or even four mallets in each. That's 12 or 16 fingers, a head start on even the busiest keyboard counterpoint. It's an extraordinary instrument, the marimba, a happy alliance between the primitive and the futuristic. This soulful and soft-centred super-xylophone (actually a cross between a xylophone and a vibraphone) can warble and croon and percuss its way through an amazing spectrum of colours. Flexible and exotic, but hard- edged when needs be, it lends itself to a surprisingly wide range of repertoire. Small wonder it has all but transformed the fortunes of percussion as we know it. If percussion has a versatile singing voice, then this is it.

For the Safris, it's very much the centre of their universe, a way forward and a way back. Back to the future. Or Bach to the Future, as their compatriot Per Norgard would have it in a brand-new Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra scheduled for performance next year. That promises to be something of a landmark, not just for the Safris but for the Danish percussion tradition as a whole. Norgard - the father of that tradition (which came of age on the crest of Waves, his and Denmark's first piece for solo percussion) - shares the Safris' fascination with the past as a hot wire to the future. His Well-tempered Percussionists (also on the new CD) makes a whole new experience of Bach Preludes by merely re-phrasing them. Shift the bar lines, and you shift the whole perspective. Suddenly these venerable pieces are foretelling the rhythmic revolution of our own century.

The Safris play a lot of Bach. And they play it "straight". Not as straight as they used to, mind. In the beginning, they were, by their own admission, overly respectful. Inhibited. What would the Baroque purists make of them? What indeed. Enter their own friendly Baroque specialist. Liberate the music, he advised them, free up the expression, use the big dynamic range of the marimba. And so they started thinking beyond the instrument to the music. And that was the turning-point. "It shouldn't be about the instruments," says Uffe Savery triumphantly, "it should be about the music - always. Bach made many transcriptions for many different instruments; some of his music was composed with no specific instrument in mind. The notes are music in themselves. They are not dependent upon a specific instrument's character." Implying that if Bach had had access to a marimba as opposed to a clavichord... Well, why not?

"I suppose that, in the beginning, our work with classical transcriptions was, to some extent, experimental, educational. We wanted to transfer some of the traditions associated with this music to our contemporary repertoire. I think we realised that only through learning it, digesting it, understanding it completely - the way the lines worked, the shape, the structure - could we arrive at the highest level of musical expression. Because so much of the contemporary repertoire is complicated, because it is so hard just to play the notes, I think there's a tendency to concentrate on the notes at the expense of the music. So we were determined to bring the same approach, the same feeling, to contemporary music that we bring to Bach..." or Mendelssohn, or Chopin, or Ravel.

Ravel. Alborada del gracioso. The Safris' own transcription (for two marimbas) has become something of a calling card for them. Through the blur of flying mallets and swaying torsos, it's as if the piano version - enriched and magnified - has somehow been projected into another dimension. The effect is of some huge astral guitar picking and strumming its way through first light. The coolness and fluidity and luminosity of the sound would surely have captivated Ravel. So, too, the playing.

It's not the virtuosity of the Safris that so quickly transports you (though, heaven knows, that is staggering enough), but the musicality. From the heart, by heart. The seamlessness of their interaction is spooky: the split-second reflexes, the dovetailing of rubatos, the fine-tuning of dynamics - that's not just the fruit of exhaustive rehearsal, that's telepathy. You hear it, feel it, see it. The body language alone sets up tingling lines of communication. They don't even need to look at each other any more. There's an electromagnetic force at work here. They probably bend cutlery in their spare time.

Uffe and Morten have been "playmates" now since they marched together in the Tivoli Gardens Boys' Band. That comes as no surprise: a chemistry like theirs isn't manufactured, it just is. They fit. Uffe is the patient one, the thinker, negotiator, spokesman. He has to know exactly why he's doing what he is doing. He's the stabilising influence. Morten is more impulsive, the sparking-plug or ignition of the duo. Says what he thinks, when he thinks it. He's taught Uffe a thing or two about spontaneity. So they complement each other. They know it, their wives know it. It's "the other marriage", and so far so good. The Safri wives have been a part of the Duo from the start: they've come of age with the group, shared its growing pains. Morten says it wouldn't have worked any other way. It's very much a family affair.

But then, so was their musical education. Denmark has been home-sweet- home for percussionists ever since Bent Lylloff took over the faculty at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. He was the Academy's very first student in percussion; he effectively put percussion on the syllabus there; and he was super-quick on the uptake where the Safris were concerned. Together with their teacher, Max Leth, he helped develop what they now refer to as their "pianistic" approach to percussion - with special emphasis on the way in which tuned instruments like the marimba might integrate into a more "orchestral" texture involving drums, cymbals, gongs and so on (as witness a piece like Jacob ter Veldhuis's Goldrush, the title-track of their new CD). Again and again, though, the Safris will stress that they are less interested in expanding their arsenal of instruments and "special effects" than in expanding their musical vocabulary. They've the odd "theatrical" teaser up their sleeve (one project involving some well-tempered fireworks may well make it to Hampton Court - watch this space). But of much more immediate concern is the ongoing quest for new material: composers they can work with, transcriptions they can work on. Either way, they currently have a little money to spend - money for commissions, publicity, equipment (like their spanking new van) - thanks to a three- year appointment as Danish State Ensemble. How fitting that they should bang the drum for Copenhagen in this, her year as European City of Culture.

Meanwhile, in an empty harbour restaurant just outside Copenhagen, the interview is winding down. All around us, men and machines are winding up for the evening trade: a hand whisk in counterpoint with an electric processor, the chop-chop-chopping of busy hands punctuating the whirr of a calculator and the ring of a telephone. Funny how percussionists sharpen one's awareness of extraneous noise. Uffe and Morten look like they want to join in. Jam a little. The talking is over. The rhythm of life goes on.

n Safri Duo at City of London Festival: Thursday 7.30pm Guildhall Old Library, London EC2. Booking: 0171-638 8891

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us