Musafir, Queen Elizabeth Hall

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The Independent Culture

Musafir introduce themselves in a very engaging way. On comes a figure as though straight from the desert, with a cloth bundle from which he draws a weather-beaten rubab on which he plays a merry solo. A tribesman joins him with a customised goblet-drum, adding crazy scales and rhythms. Then another drummer appears, then a man with clappers in each hand, who gyrates and undulates even though, like his colleagues, he's squatting on his knees. With the arrival of the tabla player, plus the patrician principal singer, the troupe is complete. These may be Gypsies from Rajasthan, but their infectiously convivial sound recalls that of the Romanian Taraf de Haidouks: that is as it should be, since all Gypsies trace their ancestry to that region of India where Musafir belong.

This was fairground art, as befitted a group who had spent their lives moving from village to village and singing for their supper. The clappers and goblet-drum first duelled, then duetted; tabla and vocalist played their antiphonal games, taka-taka-ta; the jew's-harpist turned his tiny instrument into a mouth-orchestra.

What kept the audience on the edge of their seats was that other fairground ingredient, the trick dancer. Musafir's bold beauty did her first dance entirely on her knees, as though rooted to the spot. She progressed to dancing on glass tumblers, then on upturned daggers, then on a bed of nails - and all with a rack of pots on her head. Watching the mask slip, as she took her bow, I was suddenly put in mind of backstage cruelty to circus animals.

In strictly musical terms, this concert was rough stuff, apart from one moment when the rubab-player broke into song and revealed a magnificently melismatic talent. There was more duelling and duetting in Remember Shakti, in which the guitarist John McLaughlin joined up with his Zakir Hussain on tabla, V Selvaganesh on electric mandolin, and percussionist U Shrinivas. If you have listened to their CD of the same name you'll know that it harked back to the Seventies, to the first encounters between this English enthusiast and Indian musicians from north and south.

This time they gave us a 90-minute display. The comedy of their musical exchanges, which drew on the Indian classical tradition, was balanced by the Bollywood sweetness of guest singer Shankar Mahadevan. Where McLaughlin was laconic, Hussain and Shrinavas were gloriously prolix; Selvaganesh's dazzling art was all his own. The amplification, however, was woefully crude: get the record for the real thing.

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