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Songlines Series (Yorkshire Festival)

Howard Assembly Room, Leeds
Wednesday 22 June - Saturday 2 July 2016

It was with something of a heavy and troubled heart that I approached Leeds Grand Theatre last Wednesday night after hearing of the murder of Qawwali singer Amjad Sabri in Karachi, coming only a few days after the tragic death of one of our own local heroes Jo Cox. Both share the distinction of being taken from us in the most brutal and pointless of ways and on the eve of the EU referendum, it seemed that despite the perceived status of the world being an extremely small place, it appears that we still have a long way to go in terms of how we should be looking after one another. Such major distractions are difficult to put aside, even as we take our seats at the Howard Assembly Room for a concert that in effect celebrates world unity through its music, a place we can normally go to forget our troubles.

Sitting in the wings whilst thumbing through the handsome colour programme, a free publication that accompanies the Yorkshire Festival, I noticed that five of its pages were dedicated to the Songlines Series, a series of five concerts that form part of the eighteen-day programme of events, this series organised in partnership with the Howard Assembly Room, Yorkshire Festival and the excellent Songlines Magazine. The headliners taking part in each of these specific events provides an eclectic programme, which includes Congolese band Mbongwana Star, Malian singer Rokia Traoré, German experimental pianist Hauschka, New Mexico-based duo A Hawk and a Hacksaw and finally Yorkshire's very own Eliza Carthy with her Wayward Band bringing the series to a fitting close on Saturday 2 July.

Opening the series was the six-piece Congolese band Mbongwana Star, whose dazzling show kept the audience on the edge of their seats - if not out of them - throughout the performance. It was pretty infectious stuff from the start, or rather from the moment the band's charismatic singers Coco Ngambali and the highly animated Théo Nsituvuidi Nzonza wheeled up onto the stage via a large ramp that stretched from one side of the stage to the other. The two frontmen maintained their energy levels throughout the ninety minute show, whilst performing songs from their current album FROM KINSHASA, including From Kinshasa to the Moon, Malukaya, Shegue and Susanna.

Supporting the band was Estère, a young singer/musician from Wellington, New Zealand. Performing solo, Estère, with her name emblazoned across a board propped up before her, revealed that much of the material performed in her short set originated in her bedroom back home "in my pyjamas" she confessed. With an assured command over her gadget machine, which the performer affectionately referred to as 'Lola', Estère delivered such punchy numbers with equally punchy titles as Control Freak, Gun Kid, I Can Pay My Rent, Jellyfish Stings and Culture Clash.

The following day, our attention turned to Mali as Rokia Traoré returned to the venue for an outstanding two-hour performance with a set consisting largely of material from the singer's latest album release Né So. As the lights dimmed around the auditorium, all the attention focused on the doors to the right of the stage as the band casually stepped through them and up onto the stage, leaving a single silhouetted figure alone in the dark, a figure so slight that she could easily have been mistaken for a child. Stepping up onto the stage moments later, Rokia Traoré made a beeline for her guitar which was propped up centre stage as a gentle applause rippled around the room.

Starting with Mayé from her new record, the singer dominated the stage from the start, making up in musical flair, soulfulness and high energy what she may lack in physical stature. Revealing songs predominantly from the new record such as Tu Voles, Ô Niélé, Kènia, Amour, Obikè, Ilé and Sé Dan, the set also included a couple from Rokia's back catalogue, Zen from the TCHAMANTCHE album and the stomping rock and roll of the title song from her last album BEAUTIFUL AFRICA.

Sadly unable to attend the Hauschka and Eliza Carthy events due to other commitments, the festival rounded itself up for me personally with a pretty low-key and highly intimate performance by New Mexico-based duo Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost, otherwise known as A Hawk and a Hacksaw, whose adventurous experimentation and musical dexterity on hammered dulcimer, accordion and fiddle thrilled an attentive audience. The duo's investigation into Eastern European instrumental music and traditional folk song was well researched, finely-tuned and performed with tangible concentration. The performance wasn't intended as a finale to the series, that role being left in the capable mitts of Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band, but as a concert in its own right, it was brilliantly executed with the duo leaving the stage and joining the audience in the centre of the auditorium for their acoustic encore.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky