The first thing I appreciate are the seats – for some reason (*cough* touts, *ahem* bots), I’ve never managed to get much closer than the balcony nosebleeds at the Royal Concert Hall. Tucked snugly behind the sound desk on a rainy Tuesday night, canopied by the terrace above, I feel ensconced within a cosy pocket of calm air.
That calmness lends itself exquisitely to the sparse minimalism of opening duo Solo & Indré, who showcase traditional folk instrumentation from their respective home countries. Comprised of Solo Cissokho of Senegal on the kora (somewhere between a harp and a lute) and Indr? Jurgelevi?i?t? from Lithuania on the kankl?s (a box zither of Baltic origins), both artists intertwine their instruments with such subtlety that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were designed together in the same workshop.
The deeper, more resonant plucks of the kora undergird the kankl?s’ higher, shimmering runs, but neither instrument settles into a predictable role, with each taking the lead at various points. Tonally, Solo & Indré hold West African gaiety together with Baltic melancholy; each song a short story full of emotional peaks and troughs. They’re charming characters too, as both players alternate between friendly mid-song conversation and arresting vocal interludes.
Once they’ve left the stage to gracious applause, it’s time for the main event. Oumou Sangaré simply exudes star quality, her confidence showering like stardust down on the front row with each toss of her immaculately braided hair. It’s such a rare thing to see: that indisputable born-to-perform aura, but with none of the rehearsed perfection all too familiar to pop stars who have been churned through the system. Sangaré is spontaneous, living completely in the moment, and straight fire: a larger-than-life human being who so clearly revels in what she does.
Her voice is flawless, soaring into the rafters as she switches registers between English, French and Bamanankan. Her songs are deeply rooted in Malian culture, but their positivity and optimism are universal. It’s an irresistible mix for this audience, most of whom obey her exhortations to dance along without a moment’s hesitation.
Tearing through cuts from last year’s LP Mogoya like ‘Kounkoun’ and ‘Bena bená’, Sangaré’s band display an astuteness for blending the signature sound of the Wassoulou region (the kamele n’goni harp, played by Abou Diarra, exerts a strong presence throughout) with more contemporary pop rock and synth pop, driven by a Parisian bass-drums-keys trio specially assembled for the tour.
Sangaré’s generosity of spirit shines through when, midway through the evening, she invites a young girl from the audience to join her on stage. The girl – whose parents named her Oumou, after their musical hero – is bundled up into Sangaré’s arms for an on-stage embrace, as if they were family, showing the depth of her groundedness. One feels the youngster – like the audience – will remember this encounter for quite some time.
For more on the Celtic Connections click here.