Live Music + Gig Reviews

Midori Takada & Lafawndah: Ceremonial Blue @ Barbican, London

7 April 2019

Midori Takada, at the Barbican (photo: Mark Allan/Barbican)

Midori Takada, at the Barbican (photo: Mark Allan/Barbican)

It begins in darkness with a bell, a tinkling ring that opens proceedings, the bulk of the crowd seemingly still hanging around at the bar or checking their phones rather than watching the stage. As the dregs finally filter in to their seats, on she gently shuffles, our mistress of ceremonies Midori Takada, resplendent in shiny quilted purple jacket, (presumably supplied by fashion house Kenzo who orchestrated this collaboration) and adds to the existing tone by ringing the various other bells, congregated on the left of the stage, along with gong, vibraphone and other instruments.

After a few minutes of gentle clanging, the aural equivalent of a sound bath, eight sombrely attired monks arrive from the wings and begin throat singing. It becomes apparent this won’t be a ‘concert’ per se, but rather a ritual, a cleansing. There’s an eager optimism that perhaps this will all be like Philip Glass’s wonderful Einstein On the Beach opera. Maybe we’ll get an epic highly constructed instrumental ballet / R&B event? But it quickly becomes apparent that’s not the case and this feels all rather pat, rather quickly. 

It follows a distinct and rather simplistic pattern: first the bells, then the monks, followed by drummers and Lafawndah, then here comes the crafty fox to vogue and dance provocatively before getting banished and finally each element elegantly disappears back in the ether. For a collaboration, this is all about Takada, and you certainly can’t fault her technical prowess. She is deft with every instrument she picks up and creates wave after wave of ambient joy, but the other elements she’s chosen feel unrehearsed and disconnected. 

The majority young crowd are here to see Lafawndah, who recently released her second album, yet she barely registers throughout. There is only one section towards the latter half of the show in which she is allowed to sing a conventional song. Yes, she chants occasionally and waves her hands, but there’s only one ‘song’ in 90 minutes, and that’s a real shame. It’s clear she is showing reverence towards Takada and the other performers, that she has been a dutiful student, but for an artist who is all about exploring national identity and personal strength, this feels a wasted opportunity. 

This is not the only jarring section. The titular fox again seems tokenistic, even if the monks circling him and banishing him does bring the one dramatic physical moment. There are obvious lighting difficulties during Lafawndah’s performance and when the monks are scheduled to filter off, they appear off sync, and what should take five minutes seems to take an eternity, as one monk tricks the other and the audience, before giving in and leaving the stage.

Turning a 20-minute film into a 90-minute live ceremonial ballet performance was always going to be a stretch, and had the show be trimmed down to a lean hour, perhaps it would have been a more enjoyable experience. It was meant as a deep inhalation and exhalation but it’s one that leaves you neither breathless or alive.

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