Music from South Africa

Music On The Line | Union Chapel, London
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The Independent Culture

When will producers of world music concerts learn that, where amplification is concerned, more means worse? That the louder the music, the less you actually hear? We handle sound with fine sophistication in the recording studio, but in the concert-hall we blast it out at a volume to zap beasts in the field. Woodstock and Womad may be one thing, but the Queen Elizabeth Hall is quite another.

When will producers of world music concerts learn that, where amplification is concerned, more means worse? That the louder the music, the less you actually hear? We handle sound with fine sophistication in the recording studio, but in the concert-hall we blast it out at a volume to zap beasts in the field. Woodstock and Womad may be one thing, but the Queen Elizabeth Hall is quite another.

At Islington's Union Chapel on Saturday we were greeted by the usual signs of trouble: big speakers and a posse of bright-eyed young men with a lorry-load of equipment. So proud were they of this that they used it to serenade us with a pre-concert concert. By their standards that was only moderately loud, but it got the sense-dulling process off to a lethal start.

You'd never have guessed that the South African diva Sibongile Khumalo had a singing style marked by finely-calibrated gradations in timbre; you knew from what you saw that her scat-singing was out of this world, but in the general maelstrom your ears caught none of it. We did get a whiff of the Ghanaian Rex Omar's infectiously engaging art, but nothing like the real thing heard on record. What a sad inversion that for the "real" thing we have to turn our backs on live performance, and seek solace in an archive.

Am I being unfair? This event was meant to be as much a party as a performance. It marked the climax of a notable project to bring together young talent from five countries linked by the "Greenwich" Meridian and going south via Spain (Elena Andujar) and Mali (the blind duo Amadou and Mariam). And this was a follow-up concert to one in Ghana: Music on the Line - presented by Serious and the British Council - should definitely be repeated. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Thursday, amplification was at its usual brain-deadening level. This didn't matter for Camerounian Sally Nyolo's gig, which was kids' rock video stuff, but it ruined an otherwise riveting a capella set by the mischievously camp Kings of Lagos.

For African music without sonic contamination last week, you had to go to South Africa House, where an extraordinary project was unveiled. Former Financial Times critic Max Loppert has had a dream - to create a Voice Academy at the University of Natal in Durban. Last Wednesday, six young singers from that city showed what they could already do. They had a natural aptitude for Verdi, but they also sang KwaZulu songs: wonderful. The impoverished university needs £600,000 to make the dream a reality: time for rich people like us to help.

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