On The Next Northern Sky Vaults Radio Show:

Ward Thomas - Petunia and the Vipers - Moriarty

Orchestre Ruffanti - Noura Mint Seymali - Joe Pug

Molotov Jukebox - Catherine MacLellan - Ted Hawkins

Plus Television (Vinyl Junkie # 174)

Tune in here: streams.museter.com:2199/start/acoustic/

Mondays 19.00GMT - Wednesdays 17.00 GMT


Beverley Folk Festival 2014

Well, I guess a lot can happen between the beginning and the end of a music festival. They usually start with some degree of optimistic anticipation upon arrival, closely followed by anything from mild satisfaction to unbridled euphoria as your favourite bands, singers, musicians, comedians, authors or dancers take to the stage. Then there's the celebratory drinks, the late nights and the hangover that often comes with it, not to mention the frequent belly laughs. John Hegley can certainly make that happen with or without a hanky on his head. Inevitably though, along comes the bottom lip, which makes an appearance at the end of the festival as we pack away our tents for another year and return to the life we left behind a few days ago. It's a tried and tested and totally acceptable way of going about things.

The bottom lip has finally returned to a smile as I sit here poised and ready to reflect on what was possibly one of the best Beverley Folk Festivals that I've attended in a good while. As far as the weather was concerned, it looked promising from the start with the sun sticking around pretty much for the duration. As the tent pegs were driven into the soft ground on Friday afternoon, to a beat, the first rhythmic pattern of the weekend, a sound that appeared to mingle with the popping of celebratory corks, old friends were reunited whilst new friends were made, all on a green field bathed in glorious sunlight. That sunlight was reflected in the faces of those who arrived early, all celebrating in tandem as musicians sound checked beneath the white marquee roofs. Beverley Minster peered majestically across the pastures as stalls were being erected, tents were being pitched and Wold Top beer was being poured.

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Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté at the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Once again, relying heavily on my trusted TomTom, I negotiated the Friday afternoon rush hour traffic on the outskirts of Leeds, particularly where the M1 meets the M621, in order to arrive relatively early for a concert that I'd been looking forward to for what seems like a lifetime. Yes, although I've been to the Howard Assembly Room on several occasions before, I still require the aid of modern technology to get me through Leeds, a city I've never quite been able to get used to. I suppose I ought to be thinking along the lines of, if a father and son combo from Mali can find it, then why can't a Donny lad? Tonight the traffic was particularly kind, the weather bright and cheerful and the staff at the Opera North box office cheerful and helpful.

This venue has always provided the discerning music lover with a comfortable and intimate space to see and more importantly hear some of the world's most interesting sounds, whether it be Portuguese Fado, Sahara Desert Blues, Cuban Soul or something closer to home, Northumbrian folk songs perhaps? The most recent treats the venue has had on offer have been mainly from Africa; the young Tuareg band Tamikrest and Mali's Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba and Rokia Traoré. The musical agenda seems limitless and tonight it was the turn of Mali once again, this time with the emphasis very definitely on the traditional kora, played by two of the instrument's leading players, both from a family that boasts a 70 generation Griot oral tradition pedigree.

My initial aim was to catch up with the two musicians backstage before the concert but alas that particular avenue of opportunity was closed off to me by heavy duty yellow and black striped roadwork barriers. I did however get the nod for a few photos during the first couple of numbers, albeit hindered by lighting that hadn't quite managed to progress from 'fantastically subdued' to 'slightly better' and wasn't likely to anytime soon. No matter, I steadied my hand and slowed down the shutter speed and managed to record one or two images for you dear reader. There appeared to be a further challenge for anyone who actually wanted to see the duo by the use of dry ice, which effectively obscured the visuals with a smokescreen that serves no apparent purpose other than to sting your eyes throughout the set. Just a little niggle, but not worth getting in a tizzy about.

Toumani Diabaté and his son Sidiki, named after Toumani's father, who was and still is regarded by many as the grand master of the instrument, have joined forces for the first time as a duo for a series of concerts in the wake of the release of their first collaborative recording TOUMANI & SIDIKI, one of only three albums of instrumental kora duets ever to have been recorded.  

With Sidiki Diabaté opening the concert with a fine instrumental solo, he was soon joined by his father, dressed almost identically in a traditional shiny blue robe, looking much more like an older brother than a father, who once seated at his instrument let the fireworks begin. If Sidiki approaches the instrument with animated vigour, then Toumani's posture suggests a much more relaxed attitude, as if he was sitting on the river bank tying flies before casting off. I think the word I'm looking for is 'cool'. Having worked with the likes of the flamenco group Ketama, bluesman Taj Mahal, American jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd and Icelandic nymphet Björk, not to mention Ballaké Sissoko and the late Ali Farka Touré, I guess you need to know your chops and tonight those chops were very much on display. What I didn't quite expect, although I really should have, was the virtuosic mastery of the instrument as demonstrated by Sidiki, who attacked the kora with youthful spirit as his father proudly looked on providing the necessary rhythmic arpeggios.

Performing two instrumental sets, Toumani and Sidiki spoke little throughout, until the end of the concert that is, when the older musician addressed the sold out audience with a few words of peace and love, describing the hardships and struggles that the poverty stricken endure trying to get to Europe, with devastating results, but reassuring those who have taken an interest in Mali's turbulent history in recent years, that the Diabaté 'family business' does what it can through music, which has its own in-built healing propensities. A warm embrace between nations to end on before the duo returned for a final encore.

When the house lights came up at the end of the concert, flooding the room with the light I could've done with an hour ago, the two koras stood majestically on the now deserted stage, giving the curious audience members a chance to inspect the beautiful detail, albeit from a couple of metres away. Meanwhile in the bar area, a table had been provided for CD and Vinyl signing, the father and son cheerfully engaged in conversation with their growing legions of fans. I waited around until the end, chatting to one of the organisers, before seizing the opportunity to take that photograph I initially wanted earlier in the evening. Mission impossible finally accomplished to the strains of the iconic Lalo Schifrin theme tune. 

Allan Wilkinson

Northern Sky


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Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard at the NCEM, York

I can't remember the last time the trees were quite as green as I walked along the path through the grounds of St Margaret's Church tonight, leading up to what is now home to the National Centre for Early Music. It seemed to me that Nature itself was inviting me along to the venue with the full spring bloom enhanced by some unexpected blue skies and yes, the sun was even out in all its glory on this fine spring evening. It really had to be if the natural forces were to match the highly spiritual musical event that was soon to commence in the concert room. With a quietly congregated audience already seated, presumably due to the fact that no alcohol was going to be served on the premises this evening, avoiding the usual spirited hustle-bustle around the bar area, the audience had their bums on seats before you could say Kamancheh Spike Fiddle. 

No sooner had I arrived than I was led into a large side dressing room, the door of which appeared to be three feet thick. Inside sat tonight's main attraction, the Iranian Kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor, whose moustache Don Van Vliet would've been proud of, and santur player Ali Bahrami Fard, both of whom jumped up onto their feet immediately as if they were about to dutifully greet the Lord Mayor of York, or perhaps even the Grand Old Duke of York. "It's only me" I said, shaking both musicians by the hand. "I'm Allan from Northern Sky" I continued, pausing for breath. "I'm here to write nice things about you". The two musicians noticed I had my camera dangling over my shoulder and immediately stood side by side posing for a shot, which I immediately took advantage of. The dressing room was devoid of the usual detritus created by your standard issue folk combo; no beer bottles left sideways across a table, no half-eaten triangular sandwiches, no carefully piled cairn of peanuts in the middle of the table, nor even the obligatory bowl of assorted fruit, usually left until the end. The room was in fact as tidy as an airport prayer room on a Sunday morning. 

After a few words with the two musicians, both of whom were warm and graceful and who radiated a certain serenity, I took my seat in the concert room for what promised to be a meditative and contemplative evening of music. The mood was enhanced by the diffusion of light that filtered through the leaded stained glass windows, which reflected onto the surrounding stone walls of the Centre. The covered grand piano had been pushed into a corner beneath the specially installed acoustic panels, one of the only modern aspects of the otherwise venerable surroundings. A raised platform had been erected in the usual stage area with a perfectly fitted carpet covering the entire stage area down to the last millimetre. Greg Lake was vilified in the Seventies for his Prog Rock-era excesses, especially when it came to his own personal Persian carpet, which required its own articulated lorry. In the case of tonight's performance, a Persian carpet could not possibly be more fitting for the Persian music we were about to be treated to. 

With no official introduction, the two musicians approached the stage from the rear of the hall, both dressed in comfortable looking collarless silk shirts; they faced the audience and took a respectful bow before taking up their respective instruments. As Ali Bahrami Fard uncovered his bass santur, a 96-string hammered dulcimer and made himself comfortable sitting on two cushions, Kayhan Kalhour knelt down a couple of metres away from his collaborator and began bowing his instrument during a short period of tuning. Once the tuning between the two instruments was complete, the concert began in earnest. 

It soon became apparent after forty minutes of what we all imagined to be the opening piece, that there was going to be no intervals but instead, one long segued piece of mostly improvised music. This was utterly refreshing; no talk, no jokes, no applause, no endless re-tuning. With no breaks or pauses, the no-alcohol policy was probably spot on for this occaion. Our beloved folk stars could learn a lot here. The piece ran for just over an hour and a quarter, during which the interplay between the two instruments flittered between the serenely introspective, the incredibly haunting and the thrillingly climactic.

During the performance, one or two people got up from out of their seats, for no other reason than to take a closer look at the two musicians at work; to watch their fingers, to see how they communicated, not only through their instinctive and empathetic ears but also through their eyes, their glances at one another. At times the delicate bowing of the Kamancheh was so gentle it sounded like a wind instrument, its whispered breath-like quality effectively creating the same resonance as a low whistle. Nowhere better was the music realised than during the complex interplay between the instruments in an almost call and response manner. 

Mostly bowed but occasionally plucked, the Kamancheh's closest musical cousin has to be the violin, but on this occasion, Kayhan introduced a specially modified five-string version, the Shah Kaman, in order to create the low bass sounds. The santur, which resembles the hammered dulcimer, has also been modified to cater for the bottom end. After the 75 minute suite finished, which was rewarded by some lengthy applause and a standing ovation, the two musicians rose to their feet with ease. After sitting on my calves for over an hour I would require assistance from two aides to get me back on my feet, but it just looked like second nature to these two.

Repairing to one of York's fine hostelries at an earlier than expected time, for a well deserved Guinness, I pondered on the realisation that those endless tuning festivals, the pointless between song patter and the frequent spells of applause sure do clock up the hours at gigs. Much better to perform your piece, make your statement and send us off to the bar blissfully contented. 

Allan Wilkinson

Northern Sky


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Next Gig

  • at Cherry Hinton Hall in Cambridge
    Thursday, July 31, 2014 - 18:00 - Sunday, August 3, 2014 - 23:00

Last Gig

  • at Cherry Hinton Hall in Cambridge
    Thursday, July 31, 2014 - 18:00 - Sunday, August 3, 2014 - 23:00

Upcoming Gigs

17 Oct 2014 - 18:00 - 19 Oct 2014 - 23:00

Recent Gigs

Cambridge Folk Festival
31 Jul 2014 - 18:00 - 3 Aug 2014 - 23:00
Moonbeams Festival
11 Jul 2014 - 18:00 - 12 Jul 2014 - 23:00
Beverley Folk Festival
20 Jun 2014 - 18:00 - 22 Jun 2014 - 23:00
Toumani and Sidiki Diabate
6 Jun 2014 - 19:30 - 22:00
Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard
5 Jun 2014 - 19:30 - 23:00
Doncaster Folk Festival
23 May 2014 - 19:30 - 25 May 2014 - 22:00