The foyer of the National Theatre may not be the most obvious place to go to hear world music, but I was one of many passers-by who felt compelled to stop and listen when Modeste and his musicians took the stand. He delivered his opening song in a whisper, but it was enough to halt conversation among the sandwich-munchers; even the nobs in the restaurant above looked down and cocked an ear.
His second number was pitched high, but still very soft: its melodies had that gracefully turning quality we associate with Mali, and his finger-picking was almost in the Djelimady Tounkara class. He may hail from Madagascar, but as the set wore on, there were times when we might have been back on the West Coast in the Seventies: his support guitarist and stately female percussionist enriched the mixture with precision.
For the most part, though, we were down in the Indian Ocean, soaking up the melodies he had composed and the words he had written for them. Too much to hope for a leaflet with translations, but they were to be found in the CD Modeste, on sale afterward. "What can we do when our sunshine's been taken away?" asks one, going on to incite rebellion against the thugs who terrorise Malagasy folk. He sang it with gentle fervour over the softest of hand-drum accompaniments, but the point came across strongly.
Up, then, to a church hall in Hampstead, where one of Georgia's most adventurous choirs was presenting the latest fruits of its musicological research. Folk music is just about the only export this impoverished former Soviet state has left, but Mzetamze invest it with rugged splendour. Its members are all women, who have made it their mission to preserve the songs sung by women in Georgian villages: while the men specialise in work-songs, laments and, above all, drinking-songs, the women officiate at rituals of birth, marriage and death, and at all the events in the agricultural calendar.
What they gave us was a cycle that began with the sweetest of cradle songs, progressed through joke-songs to songs to accompany ring-dances, spinning and the laying of tables for feasts, and ended up with some magnificently haunting dirges, in which the musical sobbing felt chillingly real. It's no wonder so many Brits are joining groups to sing in the Georgian style: the language may be hopelessly arcane, but the angular harmonies go straight to the heart.
The vocal timbres are not so easily acquired, as Mzetamze demonstrated. You have to clear your voice of any vibrato or Western prettiness, and you must evince an elemental warmth. You may occasionally have the benefit of a three- or four-string lute, but for the most part you're unaccompanied, exposed. When these women come to a hall near you - and they often visit Britain - do not miss them.Reuse content