tue 18/02/2020

The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, with Damon Albarn & Guests, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, with Damon Albarn & Guests, RFH

The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, with Damon Albarn & Guests, RFH

Music crosses borders in the shadow of war, with Bassekou Kouyaté and Paul Weller

Syria-main-A family reacts in shock as they survey the damage of a government air strike on the Sunni village of Al Barra, 28 October 2012Nathalie Mohoboob

Before playing a version of  “Out of Time”, the lead single from Blur’s 2003 album Think Tank, Damon Albarn explains that “at Glastonbury, it really was out of time: there was a problem with our monitors and we were about a bar a half out.” Last night’s rendition at Royal Festival Hall was not perfect, but the Syrian National Orchestra’s backing was enough to earn a fist pump from Albarn, who skipped off the stage theatrically as if to underline his pleasure.

The night’s imperfections – a rare frog in Albarn’s throat for The Beatles’ “Blackbird”, a couple of technical hitches, the odd bit of squawking feedback – did not detract from the performance, serving only to underline the levels of ambition to which the Africa Express collective continues to aspire. The project’s co-creator and galvanising force actually featured very little and, but for a brief appearance by Paul Weller for an Arabic-flavoured version of his 1993 classic “Wild Wood”, this was an evening where Western artists formed mere punctuation between cadenced sentences from elsewhere.

The Syrian Orchestra were present throughout, often joined by a full choir, and expertly led by Rachid Hlal. There were recognisable snippets from their collaboration with Gorillaz on the Plastic Beach album, but for the most part this was a musical education for the London audience and the thousands watching live on YouTube from countries – and refugee camps – around the world. As singer Faia Younan joked, “This is a traditional Syrian song, so none of you will know it, but if you do know it, sing along.” There was inevitable poignancy too: earlier Younan had expressed her wish that “tonight we see the real face of Syria: art and music and culture.”

At times the melancholy of strings-led arrangements combined with thought-provoking visuals to encourage introspection: an image of the spinning globe gradually revealed as being seen from a bombed-out building was a stark reminder of the pity of war. But mostly the music simply soared. Tunisian Mounir Troudi got the party started with his showman’s take on Sufi; Mali’s Bassekou Kouyaté gave it some Jimi Hendrix, the ngoni master plugging his instrument into a wah pedal; Noura Mint Seymali introduced us to Mauritania’s Saharan blend of Maghreb and West African vocal stylings. A diverse and finely crafted show was yet another Africa Express sampler: following the strands might take your record collection a lifetime to catch up.

This was an evening where Western artists formed mere punctuation between cadenced sentences from elsewhere

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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