By Stefania Ianne
I have been following Songlines – the prestigious British magazine dedicated to the celebration of world music – and their coveted awards for quite a few years now, looking for diversity in rhythms and meaning, away from the familiar and often trite Western musical patterns. I have not been alone in my search for diversity: droves of mainstream artists have trodden the path to Mali, looking for inspiration and originality in the desert. The Awards Winners’ concert has become a fixture in the music calendar and I have been a faithful member of the audience whenever in London, and this year is no exception. One thing is for certain: despite their cultural differences or generation divide, people want to dance, and the Songlines awards concert, in its 8th edition this year, has consistently met this undeniable need and united the most diverse of people. Tonight at the Barbican Hall, Songlines editor-in-chief Simon Broughton is on stage to introduce four of the winners for 2016. This year the choice has been to select fewer artists for them to display their talents fully and play as much time as possible, rather than having a large number of musicians from all over the world playing less, as it used to happen in the past. The four categories represented tonight (out of 9) are: Best Artist (Mariza), Newcomer (Songhoy Blues), Asia and South Pacific (Debashish Bhattacharya) and Europe (Sam Lee & Friends).
First on stage is Englishman Sam Lee (& Friends), winner with the album The Fade in Time (2015). Over the years, the softly spoken Lee has rediscovered the origins of songs produced by the nomadic culture of Britain and Ireland. He has studied them in depth and he has made them his own, and, with his warm and ironic reinterpretation, he is keeping alive the oral tradition and the intimate connection with nature that generated the music that has made him and other artists famous. Passions run high during his live performance, every song is introduced by the singer in a whisper, as if talking with a group of fellow adventurers around a fire: very theatrical.
The second group on stage are Songhoy Blues, from Mali. In the past decade, Malian musicians have accustomed us to a very recognisable sound. The harmonies of the desert are mirrored in the inflections of their unique voices, joyful despite poverty and, now, war. The picture is completed by a predominantly blues guitar, closing the chasm between the African and American coasts. Garba Touré, guitarist, displays a sound that is even more typically blues than many Malian guitars that have travelled to Europe over the past 15 years. The band, among the protagonists of the documentary They Will Have to Kill Us First (2015) about the ban of music in Mali by Islamic extremists, directed by Johanna Schwartz, are currently living in exile, and this war on musicians is told in their songs. However, Songhoy Blues manage to do it with a smile, and they drag the hall in a dance that is obsessive and liberating at the same time.
Next on stage is the winner of the Asian and South Pacific category Debashish Bhattacharya, a pioneer and virtuoso who has reinvented the tradition of Indian raga through the use of the Hawaiian lap steel guitar. On stage, the setting and costumes are traditional, colours are extremely bright, the music is heavenly. Bhattacharya succeeds in the impossible task of calming the overexcited dancing and leading the audience to a collective trance, mesmerising us with the supersonic motion of his heavily ringed fingers. At the end of his performance, Anoushka Shankar, sitar player, composer and daughter of the late master Ravi Shankar, appears on stage, very elegant in black, to give the award to Debashish Bhattacharya, a humble man of very few words who is rewarded with a standing ovation.
The diva of the evening, though, is the headliner, African-Portuguese fado singer Mariza, the overall winner of the prize, adored by public and specialist press alike. Mariza has rekindled the popularity of Portuguese fado by creating unexpected bridges with pop and adding a touch of electronic music in her latest releases, without losing sight of fado’s origins and tradition. As always, she appears on stage with her short bleached hair and welcomes us with a wry, open smile, extremely stylish in a long sequin dress. Accompanied by her loyal acoustic guitarists and a drummer, Mariza performs her nostalgic ballads from the winning album Mundo (2015), her immense voice being always the protagonist. She is in a jovial mood and keen to involve the audience and joke with us, meaning that we will not be able to enjoy a full performance. We soon realise that the London curfew is long past when we become aware of countless people rushing out of the auditorium in order to catch the last train. Too bad, because they will miss the unmissable acoustic finale, with the three guitarists each placing one of their feet on a chair and Mariza singing without a microphone, reaching the remotest corners of the large Barbican hall with her powerful voice. I remember the 2007 edition of the BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music concert, when Robert Plant went on stage to present the Africa award to Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed, a legend in his country who prefers to sing for weddings and private events than bother about making it in Western world-music circuits. Tonight it’s Simon Broughton to award the prize to Mariza, joking that José Mourinho was supposed to do it but he had to decline last minute, leaving us without celebrities…