Every March Fragmented Frequencies travels to Womadelaide in search of the new, of strange cultural collisions, unique traditions and inspiring musical personalities. Some seem to have just dropped from an alien planet fully formed, utilising approaches and instrumentation far outside our Western understanding, whilst others merge traditions liberally in an attempt to create true global appeal.
Ayarkhaan are a trio of Siberian women whose ethereal, almost cosmic vocals and harmonies preserve the legacy of the indigenous people of the Sakha Republic. Dressed in exotic opulent finery with jewelled headbands and brightly coloured ornate dresses, their sound and presence would be enough, yet one totally unexpected element pushes it over the edge and headlong into genius: The Khomus, or Jews Harp. When the three of them pull out this instrument, reach around their faces and begin twanging in unison, murmurs of astonishment ripple through the audience. It’s a remarkable sound, their tempos coming from the gate of the horses as they gallop across the Siberian plains. Yet there’s something else. These women have clearly been influenced by contemporary techno music. The collision between the Siberian traditions and electronic music is astounding. They breathe into the microphones, conjuring up a bleak and cold Siberian plain, causing an involuntary shiver on a 33-degree day. They’re truly one of the most beautiful, astonishing and weirdest acts you will ever see. Youtube them – you wont be disappointed.
The ngoni is an ancient West African lute like instrument with an incredible textual sound. It’s the “African guitar,” according to Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, the Malian master musician with his band made up of family members. Bassekou’s sound is newly electric as evidenced on his excellent Jama Ko (Out There/ Planet Company) album of this year, recorded during the political coup in Mali. Over the four days they play repeatedly in increasingly extreme heat, their sounds drifting effortlessly over the lush botanical gardens. Bassekou has been strongly influenced by Western artists, like the blues of Taj Mahal (who appears on his album), and the banjo of Bela Fleck. Not only does he use a wah pedal, and have pickups dug into the hide of his ngoni, but the most telling example of his desire to embrace western approaches is more compositional, and owes a little to a Canadian with a Crazy Horse. With his family settling on a repetitive groove he repeatedly solos over the top, leaning back, with a contented smile and gently rips these blistering solos. Vieux Farka Toure may be Mali’s Jimi Hendrix, but Bassekou is their Neil Young.
Womadelaide offers some remarkable moments. Like Tunisian oud and freejazz, complete with falsetto, Dhafer Youssef cupping a hand over his mouth like he’s about to whisper, before delivering a heartbreakingly sad high-pitched vocal that no one in the audience seems to know how to take.
“She learnt Swahili from the spirits while in a trance,” offers Reunion Island singer Christine Salem’s translator in the Taste of The World tent. She’s cooking Chicken Cari with a Tomato Rougail. And while her band help out initially, they quickly lose interest, grabbing the water cooler to use as percussion, banging pots and pans, and shakers while chanting. Between offering how much chilli to add, Christine joins in, her mix of Creole, and Swahili vocals truly captivating. It’s one of the most intimate performances of the festival, unplanned, totally off the cuff. Then she feeds us chicken.
Finally there’s Serbian composer Goran Begovic and his Wedding and Funeral Band. A unique Balkan orchestra, with brass, guitar, a vocal choir, strings, and percussion they’re equally adept at bringing the huge bombastic party music from his recent Champagne for Gypsies (Cartell), as his classical scores to Emir Kusturica films. It’s the concert hall colliding with Serbian traditions and it’s astounding. Much like Womadelaide itself, where Algerian pop sits easily alongside Mali rock music, traditional Indian vocal music, reggae legends, South African jazz and bombastic Tajikistan percussion music via Israel. See you next year.