Listening to folk, ethnic or world music in a concert hall will always remind me of Gardeners’ Question Time. GQT, as it is known to its adoring fans, will always be populated by questions concerning a particular plant, whose name will either be obscurely Latinate or quaintly mimsy, and the wisdom or otherwise of planting it in an area of Britain known for its loamy / acid / chalky (delete as appropriate) soil. After much teeth sucking and mercifully brief anecdotes, the advice will always be that plants only thrive in habitats that suit them.
Musicians and concert promoters, of course, always know better. Somewhere in the triangle defined by the needs to proselytise, subsidise and advertise comes the belief that the venue and the context doesn’t matter, and that the music will survive no matter how infertile the soil.
Thus I found myself at Kings Place, at the Songlines Encounters Festival in the company of My Glamorous Companion whose knowledge of Egyptian belly dancing had brought me here. The programme was of Egyptian dance music from Guy Schalom and the Baladi Blues, followed by Sarah Savoy and the Francadians, a Cajun zydeco band from Louisiana.
Kings Place is a lovely space in which to perform, with warm acoustics and good sight lines. Guy Schalom’s Baladi Blues took to the stage, all dressed in Elvis Comeback Special black. After the band took their places to polite applause, Guy placed on foot on the chair next to him, lifted his tabla onto his thigh, and the band kicked off in a succession of sinuous dance tunes.
Guy’s pose concentrated all of the view onto his groin. His open stance was already somewhat frank, and as the tabla was adjacent to the nexus of legs and hips, with his hands providing a series of intricate semaphores, it was the most obvious thing to look at on the whole stage. No-one else was seizing the initiative. At more intense moments his hips would lower, the angle would change, and the shop window would display even more of his wares. There was even a titillating amount of thrusting going on.
It wasn’t vulgar, and I don’t think it was deliberate, but there was certainly a frisson surrounding his playing style. The Ed Sullivan show would probably have considered filming him from the waist up. Two other things served to highlight this eroticism; one was his incandescent charisma that blazed off the stage, and the other was the high cheekbones and deep-set eyes atop an impish grin that suggested he was having more fun than anyone in the world had ever had – and that sense of fun was infectious and charming.
My Glamorous Companion for the evening had seen it all before, and had given me to believe that Guy’s usual audience was usually of a female slant, owing to the links between Baladi music and bellydancing. For me, this was all new, despite a previous trip to Egypt. This performance, intense and sensual, deserved a Rabelaisian orgy of knicker-throwing devotees, of flexible waists and writhing torsos, frenzied and noisy. Instead we found a more reserved, chin-stroking audience of a certain age, full to capacity, yet in full control of their underwear, assured of girth and distinctly unfrenzied.
At times MGC and a handful of other women in the audience shouted, clapped along and bounced in their seats. Sadly, the overwhelming passivity of the vast majority of the audience served to quiet these outbursts, or at the least, to ensure that they were sporadic rather than contagious, as they would normally have been.
Between pieces he would introduce songs and the remainder of the band in a northern-tinged English accent, at odds with his Mediterranean looks and dark swept-back hair. The Egyptian members of his band made up a pleasing array of physical racial stereotypes; the accordion and oud players had furry doughnut hairstyles and slug-smuggler moustaches, and they sat hunched over their instruments as if they were extras in the café scene in Cairo, while the sax player stood confidently and smiling as if he would as likely sell you a carpet as play a sax solo.
Completing the line-up were a frame drummer who shuffled his various drums through the songs, and an incongruously ginger-haired and trilby’d Adam Warne, a beatific and slightly distanced smile playing over his face regardless of the song or the heat of the tempo.
During the interval I caught up with some of the musicians and was somewhat star-struck to find myself standing next to Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin fame (a big fan of Egyptian music, having recorded the amazing ‘No Quarter’ album with a band of Egyptian musicians, including tonight’s oud player, Abdul Salam Kheir. There was an obviously warm conversation between the two, and the traditional multi-cameraphone salute accompanied their reminiscences).
It was only when MGC and I looked around and noticed that there were no other audience members in the bar that we realised the second half had started. We looked at each other. We were enjoying the chat and the Kings Place Pinot Grigio… did we really want to go back in for the second half?
To be continued…
Part 2 will include;
- The 6 foot Louisiana belle in Mary Janes
- You can’t listen to folk music sitting in rows
- Dancing in concert halls and winning CDs
- The curse of ‘interesting’
- Alcohol and folk music – the missing link
- World music in concert halls; middle class, middle brow, middle England