Live Music + Gig Reviews

An Honest Jons Chop Up! @ Barbican, London

5 July 2008

From soaring horn sections, via Malian blues and a hearty dose of southern American soul, through to a roaring standing ovation, this “chop up” showcase of artists signed to Honest Jons Records – and some friends – was an evening to remember. The label was set up in 2001 by the record shop of the same name, in conjunction with Damon Albarn. Their first release was entitled Mali Music, a project headed by Albarn, and upon which several of the artists on tonight’s bill collaborated.

The stage was draped with the flags of nationalities that were to be performing, and highlighted the range of musical styles to which we were to be treated. The Malian flag was centre stage, naturally. The evening’s festivities opened with all of the musicians coming onto the stage – where they stayed, in their respective positions. This made the transitions between the eight different artists and bands very quick and efficient, but it can’t have done much for the performers themselves. Kudos is due in particular to one member of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble who sported a sousaphone all night.

Talking of which, their song Sankofa, performed with Tony Allen, with its pulsing brassy beat, was particularly good. Later on in the evening, they played an equally exuberant cover of Rabbit Hop by Moondog, which was originally recorded in 1955.

When Kokanko Sata moved to the front of the stage, she played a three-stringed hunters’ harp – the kamelen n’goni, accompanied only by her deep, throaty voice. Her self-titled album (recorded under a mango tree over six days, in continuous takes, no less) includes a full band, and features the distinctive sound of the balafon. On a few occasions the rhythm got the better of her, and she spontaneously started dancing during other people’s songs, to the audience’s delight. Her second performance was a duet with Alpha ‘Pedro’ Sankare, performing The Djembe, a track from Mali Music.

Candi Staton, fresh from Glastonbury, was a real treat. She filled the auditorium with her voice during the classic, I’m Just A Prisoner and also performed a new song on the stage for the first time: Who’s Hurting Now. Following Staton’s first performance was Toumani Diabaté, a master of the kora: a 21-string harp unique to West Africa. Given the richness of the sound being produced, it was difficult to reconcile that just one person was creating it.

Simone White and Victoria Williams, both American singer-songwriters, brought something a little different to the proceedings. White managed to hold her own, with the quirky Bunny In A Bunny Suit, but Williams seemed to struggle slightly. Her solo performances on an acoustic guitar were eminently listenable, but it probably didn’t help that she immediately followed raucous numbers on both occasions that she played.

The fusion of African music and American blues as performed by Lobi Traor was, to quote the young people of today, pretty ‘far out’. He and his band performed their allocated two songs in one big, glorious continuation. One of the guitarists was particularly adept at playing his guitar at first over the back of his head, and shortly thereafter, on his back, with his legs kicking frantically in the air.

It wasn’t difficult to get caught up in their enthusiasm, especially during the last song of the evening, Sunset Coming On, also from Mali Music, which Albarn sang along with Staton. It abruptly shifted from a fairly downtempo number into a fast-paced dance, and the hitherto slightly reserved audience responded enthusiastically, cheering and clapping ever faster.

Albarn conducted his assembled group of musicians to a rousing finish, rounding off two hours of fantastic, eclectic music. Delving into the back catalogue of Honest Jons is very highly recommended.

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