Souad Massi, Shepherd's Bush Empire

The last time Souad Massi sang in London, she packed out the Queen Elizabeth Hall. This time she relocated to the rougher, more youthful ambiance of the Shepherds Bush Empire, but the gamble paid off: she found an appreciative new audience. This Algerian chanteuse loves both Western rock and traditional Arab instruments, and joined a flamenco band at 17. A mish-mash? No, a winning combination. There's an Arabic way of swinging melismatically round a note, rather than simply landing on it, and Souad Massi is mistress of it, particularly when abetted by the spike-fiddle.

We got no spike-fiddle at the Empire, but the evening polarised between the desert-dry timbre of the oud and the Spanish guitar, plus her own irresistible voice. Her manner is modest, and her natural sound is clean, strong and pure; there's a hint of the West Coast torch-singer when she forces out something more dramatic.

Down at the Barbican it was a piquant moment when the Yoruba Women's Choir took the stage. Their natural habitat is a church: while they sported flamboyant head-dresses, their power-packed leader Bola Are - resplendent in electric blues and pinks - paraded in her Sunday best. "Good evening in the name of Jesus Christ," were her first English words after a torrent of Yoruba; bent double, she jigged back and forth while giving out her calls, and the choir swayed gracefully in response. The music was basic village stuff, with the singers whipping themselves up till they collapsed with exhaustion; if we had been on stage among them, we would doubtless have been whipped up too.

But we were separated by the proscenium arch, and viewed from the stalls, things weren't so great. The band was ludicrously over-amplified, with the voices drowned by roaring percussion and stabbing electric guitars. It was a relief when the South African Gospel Singers came to replace them: another 10-member choir, also dedicated to the glory of God, but an infinitely more sophisticated bunch of musicians.

Led by the formidable Pinise Saul, these singers and their superb jazz ensemble had helped liberate their land: they had been first assembled to provide the soundtrack for Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom. They mainly sing in the language of Xhosa, and their songs reflect the musical richness of the impoverished townships.

At the Barbican, they were magnificent. Everyone was a born soloist, yet their choral discipline was immaculate. They took us down musical by-ways full of sorrow, anger and hope; I bought their new CD Rainbow People in the foyer, and have been listening to it ever since.

Comments