In a week where the UK was plunged into uncertainty and despair at the outcome of the referendum on EU membership this show at the Royal Festival Hall by a group of musicians from Syria and beyond, led by Damon Albarn, was to offer a fleeting chance to experience the now seemingly eroded values of hope, togetherness and compassion.
The Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director Jude Kelly introduced the night with a speech that tried to contextualise tonight’s show by referencing the role played by refugees in the construction of the Royal Festival Hall (half of the workforce that built the venue in 1951 came from migrant backgrounds). Later, Albarn would more light heartedly allude to the difficulties of arranging visas for over 50 musicians from Syria. Tonight is proof that his collaborative, cajoling spirit and musical desire show no signs of abating.
Lone, spot-lit, pleading voices from the choir begin the show, quickly seizing their chance to proudly project the music and culture of their country in less familiar surroundings. It’s a trait that remains throughout the evening with early stages seeing traditional, instrumental pieces alternate with songs. The orchestra may be traditionally Western in its instrumental make-up but it is the sound of the qanoon (a lesser heard Middle Eastern string instrument) that initially catches the attention and exerts a wider rooting affect.
Paul Weller is the first of many guests to take to the stage, playing a version of Wild Wood that benefits from lifting accents provided by the orchestra and the kora of Seckou Keita. Later, Syrian singer Faia Younan takes to the stage saying how she hopes the audience will see “the real face of Syria” tonight. It’s safe to say they succeed. The musicians may play in front of a selection of images that reference the recent war and destruction of their homeland but the music reveals itself as a far more permanent, accurate and deeply-felt portrayal of their nation. Younan contributes seductive, heartfelt vocals while the orchestra moves at a restless pace. Later, Mounir Troudi ups the intensity and energy even more, his deeply resonating songs transporting us successfully to the streets of Damascus.
Malian ngoni maestro Bassekou Kouyaté and Seckou Keita join forces on Al Ajahleh which soon presents itself as something of a centre piece to the set. They have built reputations as two of the most respected global musicians over recent years and tonight they integrate their respective talents alongside the orchestra to formidable effect. Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali also makes a striking impression, offering an exciting glimpse of what will feature on her second album which is due to be released later this year. She may be of diminutive physical presence but her voice remains a genuinely thrilling and raw proposition, even more so live.
Albarn and Weller combine for a sparse cover of Blackbird by The Beatles but it is the uplifting, powerful contribution of the choir alongside them that really makes the song soar. Albarn reappears later alongside Kouyate to play a version of Out Of Time, providing a reminder of how poignant a force his voice can be. They are suitably understated contributions given the broader geographical and musical focus of the evening and it is telling that their grander statuses are ultimately outstripped by the performances of the lesser known musicians.
What becomes apparent as the show progresses is that language per se is not strictly needed tonight – values and messages are carried within the music that reveals itself to be a powerful communicative force. That they are able to create a such an oasis of heartwarming inclusivity and welcoming positivity within a far gloomier situation makes tonight’s show even more remarkable.