Desert Music, Bath Festival, Bath

Call of the wild
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The Independent Culture

It sounded like he ultimate world-music joke. Two sets of musicians from completely different cultures collaborating on a special project named after what their homelands had in common: sand. Following four days of rehearsal, the results would be unveiled as the climax to Bath Festival's World Music Weekend, then go on tour. Laugh? I nearly bought a sarong. What transpired , however, made this co-production between the festival, Asian Music Circuit and Visiting Arts one of the gigs of the year.

It sounded like he ultimate world-music joke. Two sets of musicians from completely different cultures collaborating on a special project named after what their homelands had in common: sand. Following four days of rehearsal, the results would be unveiled as the climax to Bath Festival's World Music Weekend, then go on tour. Laugh? I nearly bought a sarong. What transpired , however, made this co-production between the festival, Asian Music Circuit and Visiting Arts one of the gigs of the year.

The acts in question did appear poles apart. The performers billed simply as "Senior Musicians from Rajasthan" looked at first quite overwhelmed by their surroundings. By comparison, the world-music star Afel Bocoum and his five musicians from Mali seemed as slick as a Las Vegas lounge combo. The Indians played first, followed by the Africans, before both came together for the final collaboration.

It was immediately evident that the Rajasthanis could more than handle themselves. Described in the hazy programme notes as "hand-picked... from a number of remote villages, steeped in their traditions yet open to the challenges of a collaboration", the septet of brightly-turbanned men from the Thar Desert stole the show with a wily performance of supreme professionalism.

Their performance featured two sarod players and four singers – all vying to outdo each other with the power of their voices. But their ace in the hole was an incredible dancing castanet player. They mixed praise songs to king or bride with Sufi-style wailing in the manner of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. When they'd finished, we all went wild. Now the ball was definitely in the Africans' court.

With an electric guitarist and bassist in the ranks, Afel Bocoum's band couldn't help looking dismayingly modern. But there did appear to be common ground, and it wasn't just sand. The one-stringed njarka violin bore a definite family resemblance to the sarod, with the percussionist's calabash a kind of cousin to the khadtal or castanets. But with Bocoum hammering away at his acoustic guitar in the familiar African-blues style of his mentor, Ali Farka Toure, the performance lacked a sense of surprise compared with what had gone before.

The collaboration, when it came, was also a little predictable, but great fun and very moving. Basically, they jammed on musical material drawn from what the two cultures really do seem to share: circular, trance-inducing riffs that go on and on and on. At the end, everybody embraced one another like long-lost brothers.

Hopefully this collaboration will evolve as the tour continues, but the Rajasthanis should be seen just their own music – and for that dancing castanet player.

On tour. Tonight: Salisbury (01722 320333); 30 May: Ystradgynlais, (01639 843163); 31 May: Cardigan (01239 621200); 1 June: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (020-7960 4242)

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