Eugenio Bennato/Taranta Power/Modeste Hugues, Union Chapel, London

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The Independent Culture

Europe in Union is off to a flying start with the sexiest folk dancing imaginable and the mystery of a missing guitarist. Organised by fRoots magazine and BBC Radio 3, EiU is a series of monthly concerts timed to coincide with the interest among the world music audience in all things European. Tonight's inaugural bill features Eugenio Bennato from Naples, paired with the London-based guitarist Modeste Hugues.

From the first chord he strums, it's clear that Hugues's heart has never strayed far from his native Madagascar. The skipping rhythms and lightness of touch that give Malagasy music its distinctive flavour are in abundance in a set that finds Hugues and his two percussionists starting out relaxed and intimate (no mean feat when faced with the hard pews of the Union Chapel) and then working up a head of steam towards a finale of uninhibited percussion and rapid-fire guitar. Hugues is a pleasingly smoky-toned singer and a fine guitarist, able to play rhythm and lead all at once. He's so effective in this musical sleight of hand that audience members scan the stage in search of a (non-existent) second guitar player.

Headliners Eugenio Bennato and Taranta Power also start off slowly with an unaccompanied song performed by one of the band's two powerful female vocalists, which leads into the first in a series of wild workouts based around Southern Italy's insistent tarantella rhythm. There is percussion, chanting and singing. A dancer swirls erotically. The squat, curly haired Bennato is a laid-back presence, sitting centre stage, calmly strumming a mandolin while (well-choreographed) mayhem erupts all around him. Band members take it in turn to sing and perform in different permutations. One minute they're tearing through their best-known song, the raucous "Che il Mediterraneo Sia", the next Bennato is crooning a delicate ballad dedicated to the children of boat people who landed in Italy.

If Hugues is an exile nostalgically drawing on his homeland for inspiration, then Bennato and company are musicians with strong regional roots who are looking out to the world. The chanted vocals tip their hat to rap, the relentless beat has echoes of techno and one tune ends in a ricocheting crescendo of dub. Much of the sophistication of the arrangements is all but lost in the Chapel's murky sound mix (which tends to reduce everything to a bass-heavy thump) but the spirit and spectacle of the band in full swing more than compensates.

Europe in Union continues on 19 Oct and 16 Nov (020-8340 9651)

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