Thanks to the Harmonia Mundi CD, we knew roughly what to expect when the Aka Pygmies took the stage after pianist Tamara Stefanonic had finished her Ligeti etudes. But the reality, as mediated by the Pygmies' "discoverer" Simha Arom, was stunning. The Pygmies had been juxtaposed with the music of Europe's leading contrapuntist because - as Arom's deft lecture-demonstration proved - their own polyphony is just as complex.
Their opening song was first delivered without its normal drum accompaniment, and then in a deconstructed "minimal" version whose lines became crystal clear. Next, they sang a song whose triple pulses followed simultaneous cycles of four, eight, and 12 beats: the audience were invited to clap along with its implicit central pulse, but totally failed to do so. A Pygmy clapped it out, then Arom pointed out a fundamental difference between the Pygmies' music and ours: for them, tempo is absolute. While we can choose what pace to take a piece at, and how to vary the speed, their tempo is unvarying. But it wasn't musicological aperçus that made this concert such a privilege to attend: it was the sheer delight of seeing and hearing these natural virtuosi do their thing.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan blossomed in the Blackheath Halls - Mahwash and the Ensemble Kaboul were starting their tour. Farida Mahwash is the living voice of Afghanistan's musical golden age (the Sixties), and most of her musicians also hail from that period. And here, too, we got a contextualising lecture: rubab-player Khaled Arman sketched in the background - traditions from India and Persia blended with Afghanistan's own folk styles; he demonstrated his instrument's wide tonal palette. Then Khaled's cousin Osman played solos on tanbur and flute, while his father Hossein sang and played the harmonium. Tabla and tombak first duelled, then duetted dazzlingly.
At the Festival Hall, the Harlem Gospel Choir were cheered before they'd sung a note. "Are you ready for the Gospel?" asked their leader. The congregation roared "Yes!". This was simple music, but with rich harmonies: each song built to an intense climax, with the soloists hanging on to their penultimate note until you thought there couldn't be any breath left. Bidding us goodbye, they announced that they were off to sing for the Pope. If anything can help the old boy, these gutsy crowd-pleasers just might do the trick.Reuse content