Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi’s set took an unexpected turn at GlobalFEST. Webster Hall’s Studio room was packed. Described in the program as “Electro-inspired voice of Tunisia’s Arab Spring” she was accompanied by synths and drums and as such she was delivering a solid show, and keeping the audience of presenters and other music biz types swaying and clapping. I was having a tough time shooting in the crowded room, and after the 5th person bumped into me and ruined the shot, I got ticked off enough to rudely elbow my way into the front of the room. And that’s when it happened. The PA imploded. And that’s how I caught Emel’s most engaging song of the set; one in which her warmth and humor really shone. My thanks to Michael Jones for taking my camcorder sound and making it listenable.
As a music journalist it may seem out of place to bring up the socio-political issues of the day. But in the music that I have recently covered at the English Folk Expo, I found this song whose words and music stir me, and drove me to think about who we are and what we stand for as a species.
It’s a great song, written by Sydney Carter about the revolutionary cleric John Ball who preached against the class system. His sermons were a rallying cry for the Peasant Revolt of 1381.
In Ball’s own words:
“From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by…. unjust oppression…. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”
These were radical thoughts for a time when Church, Manor and Monarchy were the only systems, and the working class were starving while the royalty feasted. The rebellion was harshly put down. Ball was drawn and quartered and his severed limbs put on display as a caution to anyone who might think to challenge the powers of the day.
But Ball’s words are remarkably close to the words of our own founding fathers, 400 years later. As an American attending the English Folk Expo, I found myself deeply moved by this song and its back story, and thinking about it repeatedly. It was also by far, the most often sung tune of the event.
The version I have chosen to post is by the glorious Melrose Quartet. These four people presented such a strong show that I truly wanted to stop my camcorders and just enjoy myself. In fact, this video only exists because I HAD stopped shooting, and then started with my handheld again.
For all the hope and idealism of the lyrics of Carter’s anthemic song, the reality is that we all carry within us the primal hard wiring that seeks to subjugate the “other.” Perhaps it is a survival mechanism, but whether by a fluke of birth, race, wealth or brute force, there will always be a battle between the predators and the prey, the haves and have-nots, or simply “us” vs “them.” Even the victims of yesterday can become the oppressors of today; no one is exempt. It is why all spirituality attempts to connect us to each other, to see the face of the godhead in the face of the stranger, and to become better than the isolated, selfish creatures we are.
It is the toughest commandment; “to be ruled by the love of one another,” but these days it is one we need to carry forth beyond the Holidays and into every day, and to everyone. It may even be more of a survival strategy that we ever thought. To quote a founding father “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
This song may not be a traditional Christmas Carol. But it should be.
The Concert at the Main Stage was part of the Homegrown Festival, a joint venture between the The Met Arts Center and the EFEx
For more about the Melrose Quartet: melrosequartet.co.uk
For more about the English Folk Expo: englishfolkexpo.com/
For more about The Met: themet.biz/
Note: I am presenting over half an hour of music in this video so if you wish to skip around in it, I have provided the time code for the beginnings of each segment.
This past WOMEX was held in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, a historic city and an important pilgrimage destination for Christians. The impressive cathedral houses the tomb of Saint James, and the Old Town is full of stores selling religious souvenirs and special confections (the sweet nut cakes were particularly delectable). At night the streets are full of students — there is also a university — and backpacking pilgrims of all ages. There are plenty of charming plazas and winding streets lined with cafés where one can linger over wine and tapas.
WOMEX always starts off with a gala evening event in which the host country presents a sampling of its musical culture. This year the program was produced by the virtuoso bagpiper Budiño. In case you are saying to yourself, “Whoa, back up! Bagpiper? A Spanish bagpiper??” I’ll just say that Galicia has a venerable and ancient Celtic heritage that was wonderfully present that evening But not all acts were Galician Celtic. There was a healthy dose of Basque music, nuevo fado, timple from the Canary islands, and Flamenco jazz.
The evening opened with Mercedes Péon; a brave move, as she is for sure the most progressive of the artists presented. Having started out as a passionate folk revivalist (as you will see, she is also an accomplished bagpiper) she has gone on to incorporate electronica into her music, producing a sound that is bracing and rich.
03:38: From there the music transitioned into the delicately rippling notes of the timple (pronounced tim-play), a diminutive 5 stringed instrument intrinsic to music of the Canary Islands. Unlike the ukulele that it resembles, it has a full resonance despite its high timbre, possibly due to its rounded back. This was entrancing stuff, beautifully performed by Germán López with Antonio Toledo providing sensitive guitar accompaniment.
09:40: António Zambujo is one of the best known of the male Fado singers, and in the years since I first heard him he has become even more stylized, using extremely long held notes and adding ornament at the last moment. We tend to associate Fado with female singers, who interpret the repertoire very dramatically. By contrast Zambujo injects it with a caressing intimacy that we would normally associate with Brazilian singers such as Caetano Veloso.
12:35: Rather than present a straight flamenco act, (which again, shows adventurous programming) the next act was jazzer Jorge Pardo a player who plays flute and saxophone and who has forged a fusion with flamenco. He was accompanied by a trio that was equally infused.
18:14: Xabier Díaz is a fine singer and tambourine player and he opened his set with a haunting solo vocal with Gutier Alvarez on Zanfona (Hurdy Gurdy). But for his second number he brought out Adufieiras de Salitre, a twelve woman ensemble of singer/percussionists–and performed a number with them that brought the house down.
23:26: An ancient Basque instrument that is enjoying a revival is the Txalaparta (just pronounce the “x” as “ch”); a kind of percussion instrument that is always played by 2 persons or more. The music is played in hocket, and requires real teamwork. Oreka TX displays just this kind of joyful teamwork, and has even created variations of the original instrument, in this case replacing the traditional wooden slats for glass, giving the txalaparta a less percussive, more celestial sound.
27:00: The evening closed with a kind of bagpipe book-end. Budiño delivered a fiery dance set that let the audience know in no uncertain terms that Galician Celtic music was every bit as foot-tapping and soul stirring as that of its cousins across the water.
For more information on the artists: