(P)review: African Concert Series update

A quick look backward and forward: into the recent past, recalling my most recent visit to an African Concert Series event, and ahead, to let you know about theilr upcoming events.


I collected a new venue in mid-May, on my first encounter with the Africa Centre, slightly hidden away (especially at the moment, thanks to some street hoardings) in the Southwark / London Bridge area. It’s a smart, all-purpose space with an upstairs level that can serve as intimate recital room, lecture hall, or simply a place to gather.

It was the perfect setting for t’his particular gig, focusing on ‘African Art Music for Strings’. With no interval, the evening was structured to build in intensity. Six musicians took part overall: four from the current Ubuntu Ensemble collective – André Swanepoel and Claudia Dehnke on violin, Louise Lansdown on viola and Elliott Bailey on cello – Leon Bosch on double bass and Tunde Jegede on kora.

Bosch carried the first section of the evening as a soloist. A great champion of his instrument as lead voice, as well as African classical music, Bosch’s latest CD (‘The South African Double Bass’)  features a number of newly-commissioned pieces bringing the bass up from the depths into the spotlight. But this evening, we were treated to a première performance of a new work that Bosch had only received the previous weekend! ‘Something in Between’, by film composer Viwe Mkizwana, aimed to occupy a kind of hinterland between jazz and classical music. The warm, fuzzy tones of the double bass can inevitably suggest jazz, and Mkizwana’s achievement here was to embrace that at certain points, while writing against it at others. I could hear agile, high runs that simply seemed in denial of anything you might expect – until these were shored up by a sonorous bass line or even a drone: such an exciting piece to listen to.

Bosch gave the rest of his set over to composer Grant McLachlan, the selections including yearning meditations on the South African national anthem (‘Yihle Moya’) and ‘Stimela’, based on a township folk tune called ‘Shosholoza’ that Bosch grew up with. This latter piece, its keening melody punctuated by percussive notes and strikes on the bridge, reminded me anew how much of the African art music I’ve heard to this point revels in rhythm; it’s not just there in the undertow, ensuring the piece moves forward, but celebrated, accentuated.

This was equally true in the very next work, the first of the evening performed by the Ubuntu string quartet. Fodé Lassana Diabaté’s ‘Sunjata’s Time’ (arranged by Jacob Garchik) took an approach that I’d never knowingly heard before in this format. Broadly speaking, each movement took one instrument out of the four and cast it in a ‘soloist’ role; perhaps not especially unusual to favour an individual voice for an extended period, but this was absolutely essential to the entire framework. As each player took their turn – viola, violin, cello – the other three would morph into a rhythm section, chiefly there to maintain the constant pulse apart from certain sections where, say, they might interact with the lead instrument in a quasi-concerto relationship. My excited ‘Western’ ears kept zinging between various mad reference points – was that strumming creating a bluegrass feel? Did that whirling solo line really make me think of some type of funk and Celtic folk cross? – and I can only imagine and hope that these fevered reactions are a valid response to the type of rhythmic exhilaration one is bound to find in African composers who are melding together all the musical worlds they have experienced and jump-starting them with their own nations’ heartbeats.

In fact, it was a heartbeat-like rhythm that began the next quartet, ‘KOMENG’ by Mokale Koapeng. This was an urgent, evocative work that featured powerful, dissonant, minimal plucking (the sounds the group produced reminded me of a single-string instrument called the ngoni), where effects held as much importance as distinct notes.

Two pieces by Godwin Sadoh felt more familiar, in the sense that they seemed (on my single hearing) to lean more towards a Western style of harmony that I was familiar with. However, they still featured percussive pizzicato, and in ‘Ise Oluwa’, a bravura opening that brought in each instrument one by one to fill out the sound.

The final pair of tunes added musicians to the quartet line-up. In the first, composer Jegede joined the group on the kora to play his own String Quintet, ‘Exile and Return’. I adored this piece, having loved the kora for years after discovering (thanks to world/roots music magazines) the albums of Toumani Diabaté. Jegede delivers those unmistakeable cascades of notes that make the kora so delightful, but here writes for it as a natural ensemble instrument, creating high runs and bass lines that ‘surround’ the quartet, as well as ‘harp with attitude’ moments where the kora’s crystalline tone cuts through the group sound at its most plangent. Glorious.

We closed with another Jegede composition, ‘Lamentation’. No kora this time, but Leon Bosch rejoined the ensemble in its place. As the name suggests, the work brought the evening to an elegiac conclusion, Bosch’s double bass taking the lead against the more abstract drones provided by the higher-pitched instruments.

Another fantastic evening then, as Rebeca Omordia’s series goes from strength to strength. Sadly, I cannot attend the upcoming two events, but here are some brief details I hope will be of interest.

Short notice alert! The next concert takes place on the Saturday after this post goes online, 4 June. Please note the unusual starting time of 11.30am, at the Africa Centre. It’s a ‘Young People’s African Concert’, featuring storytelling alongside music-making on African instruments. Omordia will feature on keyboards, along with Julian Rodriguez on violin and Moussa Dembele on kora and balafon. Segue Martins Fajemisin is on presenting duties.

Next up is ‘Chamber Music by African-American Composers’, featuring a programme of works by Laurence Brown and Florence Price. The concert is at 7pm, 7 July 2022, at St Olave’s Church in Tower Hill, London. Keep an eye on the African Concert Series website for further details, and forthcoming ticket link. https://theafricanconcertseries.co.uk/whats-on/


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