BBC Radio 3 World music Awards, Dingwalls, London
Africa's own Charlie Chaplin
Tuesday 15 April 2008
These days, it's not enough just to have an awards show. Now, there is a pre-awards show, announcing the nominations – or, as tonight, the actual winners – before a more lavish occasion when all the winners perform.
Still, this evening had some welcome contributions from a few of the winners. The night's big winner was the Malian ngoni maestro Bassekou Kouyate, who won both the Album of the Year for Segu Blue, and beat off strong competition to win the African award. Although Kouyate was there, sadly, he didn't perform and accepted his second award with a speech in French.
Language barriers are, of course, always a problem for an event like the Awards For World Music, which in seven years has grown to the point where the venue chosen for this year's Award Winners Concert is the Royal Albert Hall. It's doubtful, however, that the organisers will find a more beautiful overture than that provided tonight by Kaushiki Chakrabarty, a previous winner who, accompanied by harmonium, tamboura and tabla, opened proceedings by singing a gorgeous evening raga. Starting with a series of low drones, she built up to passages of rapid ululations fluttering across the scale in elegant parabolas, like small flocks of birds momentarily scattered by danger.
The next performance was by Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara, who won the Culture Crossing award for their album, Soul Science. Adams is one of the country's most gifted world-music aficionados, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of African guitar styles, and a light touch as producer of groups such as Tinariwen. One-string violin virtuoso Camara is less well-known here, though there are clearly pockets of acclaim. "First of all," he said on receiving the award, "I want to thank my friends in Hackney!" Accompanied by a turbaned, pointy-bearded percussionist, Justin and Juldeh played a couple of pieces that had the room up and moving – the first a lovely, loping blues boogie whose cyclical electric guitar and violin figures proved itchily infectious, the second a more restrained, swaying combination of ngoni and acoustic slide guitar, with Camara's deft picking gently stippling Adams's warm chords and blurry bottleneck sweeps.
The Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade offered a couple of the smoky, light, fado-style chansons that won her this year's Newcomer award. Next, Francis Falceto, boss of Buda Music, was presented with the World Shaker award for his stewardship of the multi-volume Ethiopiques series, which reintroduced the world to the various strands of Ethiopian pop that the dictator Mengistu had tried to obliterate by banning.
Transglobal Underground, on tour in France, accepted via video the Club Global award one can't help thinking they ought to have received several years ago, before the exotically attired Chinese chanteuse Sa Dingding brought a touch of glamour to the proceedings. As she stepped on to the stage in a blaze of finery to accept the Asia-Pacific award, she assured us how much she loved her country's culture and would use her "mother eye" to look back on its history (at least, I think that's what she said).
The evening was brought to a close by the winner of the Middle East/North Africa award, Rachid Taha, who, through an interpreter, took great pains to point out the double-meaning of prix (both "prize" and "price). He explained that "the only prize is for humanity, so this prize is given to the children of Iraq" – one of the few politically charged moments of the evening. After a brief break to set up, he and his band performed a short but thrilling set that made clear why Taha is one of the leading lights of Mediterranean music, a figure with the potential to do for the region's international cultural profile what Bob Marley did for the Caribbean. Key to his band's distinctive, driving sound is the combination of electric guitar and oud, the latter providing fast flurries of detail within the loping dub-blues grooves, while the lead guitarist sprays squalling lines of distortion in a manner reminiscent of Ernie Isley.
Sometimes, the results sounded like the classic Bo Diddley beat re-routed through the Middle East, a confirmation of the Western rock roots that Taha claims as just as much part of his ancestry as the rai of his native Algeria. But what came across most strongly as the diminutive singer, clad in his little hat and an absurd black tailcoat, clowned and cajoled the audience out of their seats, was the comic-heroic nature of his stage character: he may wish to be regarded as the African Joe Strummer, but he's just as much the African Charlie Chaplin, another fighter against illiberalism who couldn't help but capture hearts across cultures.
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