Live Music + Gig Reviews

Fofoulah @ Vortex, London

21 February 2015

Fofoulah Whilst D’Angelo and The Vanguard deliver a reportedly almighty live show at the Hammersmith Apollo, a lesser known act are establishing their own party on the other side of London. It’s standing room only, a relatively unusual arrangement for the always excellent Dalston jazz club the Vortex, and one that immediately creates a lively atmosphere.

Sadly, the lack of a listening vibe somewhat hampers the opening solo set from keyboardist and composer Dan Nicholls. Nicholls is a versatile musician, exploring violence and decay on his masterful debut album Ruins and dealing in polyrhythms, math-rock and improvisation with his thrilling band Strobes.

Tonight, he performs one of his solo electronic sets, now something of a regular treat on the jazz and improv scene (he also opened for Troyka at their recent album launch). From somewhat tentative beginnings, this set has developed in to something innovative and exciting. The sense of restlessness and turbulence sets it apart from a lot of electronic music, with Nicholls unafraid to experiment with rhythm, time and texture. This is music that demonstrates the open-mindedness at the heart of the London jazz scene. His choice of sounds is consistently engaging, although a sizeable portion of the talkative audience seem not to notice.

Fofoulah remain one of London’s most exciting and entertaining live acts, taking challenging music and rendering it thrilling and celebratory. They are a fearsomely tight proposition, not least because of the rigorous connection between drummer Dave Smith, bassist Johnny Brierley and guitarist Phil Stevenson. This comes across most clearly on the crisp, poised introductions to tunes such as the penultimate No Troubles Smith is now the first port of call for much West African-inspired music, having toured with JuJu and Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters and also about to be heard guesting on the forthcoming, dependably excellent album from Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba. He plays with a determined confidence and commanding clarity, generating much of the band’s sense of forward motion and energy.

As excellent as the band’s self-titled debut album is, it is clearly in live performance that they really come alive. The combination of Batch Gueye’s more prominent vocals and dancing (sometimes right in the thick of the audience) along with Kaw Secka’s brilliant Sabar drumming provide a visual as well as sonic stimulus, exhorting the crowd to move. Movement is of course an irresistible feature of this music, and it’s impossible to find a pair of feet anywhere in the room that are not engaged, in spite of this music’s rhythmic intricacy and surprises.

The set list of course draws liberally from the recent album, with compelling, expanded versions of Make Good, The Clean Up, Reality Rek and Fighting Chance. Yet there are also selections from the band’s earlier EP (including a pleasing piece of contrast provided by the more longing and melodic My Heart), recognising those who have followed the band’s journey from the beginning. There are also some compositions that seem to be as yet unrecorded, and which suggest that the band’s extraordinary intensity levels are not likely to recede any time soon.

Tom Challenger’s electronics set-up, enabling additional harmonies and live sampling, is fascinating and it occasionally feels as if his contributions should be more upfront. The sheer volume and punch of the band sometimes dominates. Yet it is this energy that also makes them so captivating. Fofoulah are a live act that demand to be experienced.

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Fofoulah @ Vortex, London
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