World Music: Sounds of the Cite

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The Independent Culture
PARIS METRO users know Barbes as an interchange just past the Gare du Nord; it's the station for the cosmopolitan Goutte d'Or area. Calling a band the Orchestre National de Barbes has a nice satirical panache. This is no orchestra, and the nation isn't France. Imagine an Orchestra of the Republic of Brixton and you'll get the idea.

The Orchestre's sensational South Bank performance may do little for tourism, but it had a big impact on the musical map. The band plays contemporary urban music from the second and third generations of North African Parisians, reflecting Muslim roots and everyday experience. The energy levels are prodigal: most of the audience was packed down at the front of the hall within minutes.

There certainly are enough of them to look like an orchestra: by the end, the stage held about 30, including extra African drummers and a mysterious influx of Belgian saxophonists. But the basic number still fluctuates at about a dozen.

In their publicity, the word nomadism crops up. Forget the exotic desert images, because their wandering has a sharply focused musical purpose. A number will start with an ageless vocal line or an acoustic Arab lute before the other players join in: keyboards, saxophone, percussion and eventually three guitars and a drum kit to lay down a powerful groove.

At this point, the music might turn into modern rai, or define its own style: Moroccan reggae, Muslim salsa. They can develop from one to another with some wit, making nods in passing to Rolling Stones songs or basic pop chord sequences, though the rock element is small and this massive group's sound stays light, clear and agile.

The stage act is as dynamic and organised as the music. The players arrive as a shuffling procession and keep on the move. Even in the wildly accelerating finale, every spontaneous-looking leap marked some musical turning-point, reinforcing the instrumentalists. Lead singers rotate, and solo instrumental sounds change as resourcefully as styles. There's an inventive keyboard player with an ear for uncannily realistic traditional wind sounds. After a 100-minute set, the possible combinations still sounded inexhaustible.