Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Tunde Jegede review – African chamber music for kora and cello

17 February 2024

Multitalented Tunde Jegede and NOK orchestra perform music with a unique fusion of African and European cultures.

Tunde Jegede

Tunde Jegede, Mohamed Gueye & NOK Orchestra (Photo: Barry Creasy)

Though Tunde Jegede was born in the UK, and studied music in the European tradition at the Guildhall and Purcell schools, his musical soul is still tethered to his West African ancestors, and while he may write for, and perform with, classical European instruments (he is an accomplished cellist), the bases of much of his compositional outputs are the musical traditions of Mali, Nigeria and neighbouring countries, in confirmation of which he is also a virtuoso player of the kora, a 21-stringed instrument that combines features of (in European terms) a harp and a lute.

Saturday evening’s event at Wigmore Hall, one of 12 in their ‘African Concert Series’ featured Jegede’s music, and on stage with the composer (who took the soloist role in his own kora and cello concerti) were NOK Orchestra (a string quartet along with a selection of wind instruments a string bass and percussion) and player of African percussion, Mohamed Gueye.

The kora has a beautiful sound to it and its playing throughout the first half of the concert brought the constant motion of split chords, out of which (in the manner of classical guitar) melodies emerged; it’s perhaps a pity that the kora’s natural dynamic meant that, in combination with other instruments, it needed some amplification, as this created (perhaps it was Wigmore Hall’s sound system) a somewhat unbalanced texture.

Jegede’s 5 movement Mandé Suite for string quintet, percussion and kora was first off the blocks, and it’s a lovely work that feels almost like a set of folk tune arrangements in which melodic material is repeated across the different instruments. The relaxed busyness of ‘Kaira’ gave way to the slower, more chordal pace of ‘Jairaby Ballad’, in which the melody picked out in the kora peeked through the texture. The slow moto perpetuo returned for ‘Masane Cissé’, where violinist Vincent Ademola Haastrup took the melodic burden with an assured richness of tone. The shimmering kora ‘cadenza’ at the opening of ‘Tabarah’ led to an insistent percussion accompaniment of a violin canon and a final riff between drums, kora and bass, and the suite finished with the upbeat rhythm and pizzicato strings of ‘Jairaby’.

“…the bases of much of his compositional outputs are the musical traditions of Mali, Nigeria and neighbouring countries…”

A revision of one’s views around the concerto form was needed for Jegede’s Kora Concerto; as stated earlier, the sustained chordal motion in its playing tends to make one think of it as almost a continuo instrument, especially (as in this work) where it is up against an ensemble that features a string quintet, percussion (marimba and African drums), a harp and six hefty wind instruments (flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet), all capable of lengthy held notes. Indeed, for much of the concerto, while the kora was definitely in the mix, it was the winds whose voices and melodic lines that prevailed.

In general, the concerto has a Minimalist feel about it – a persistency of key dominates in all four movements, and the continuous movement of slightly changing chords in the kora underlay, as well as the short melodic fragments that come and go reinforce this. In general, it worked as a piece, though the wind ensemble occasionally felt a little fractured. The short duet for harp and flute in the second movement, and a similar duet between violin and kora later in the same movement brought a sense of delicacy; the funereal chords and a pickup into fluttering strings and wind in the third movement brought some enjoyable textural contrast, and the final increase in tempo by the pecking, clucking winds was exciting.

The second half saw Jegede swap his kora for a cello, opening with a suite of African Songs arranged for string quartet and percussion by Jegede and members of NOK Orchestra. Here we heard the most varied, tuneful and rhythmic material of the concert, where ragtime and Kaiso influences were contrasted with pentatonic, almost Chinese sounding arrangements, Gueye’s tama (a ‘talking’ drum) playing making the fourth of these pieces very special indeed.

The concert finished with Jegede’s cello concerto Invocation, a cut-down version of the original scored for string quintet, percussion and the solo instrument. The low unison note of the opening movement (‘The Call of Divination’) gave way to a mournful pentatonic melody, and once again, Jugede’s still Minimalist style predominated, with short thematic passages passed around the ensemble. Interestingly, the lyrical cello opening of the second movement (‘The Tragic Heroine’) was achieved through a series of minor arpeggios, and echoed Jugede’s kora techniques. The concerto finished with the enjoyably insistent rhythms of ‘The Fire of Invocation’.

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Tunde Jegede review – African chamber music for kora and cello