Havana Cultura: Cuban music festival

I’ve learned – through a connection at the London Bloggers Meetup – about an upcoming series of events at London’s Barbican that sound pretty exciting.

Havana Cultura is a programme of music, film, dance, and more that celebrates Cuban artists. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, and there are events happening all over the world, but the London ones are happening in the next few weeks.

Check out the musical events:

Saturday 27th June
Harold Lopez Nussa + Pablo Milanes + Son Tropical
PLUS Kumar on the club stage after the main performance. Tickets are between £10 and £20. Plus there’s FREE pre-show performances from 2pm by Changui de Guantanamo, Omar Puente, London Lucumi Choir and Yoruba Andabo. If you can get to the Barbican early that’s a bargain!

Listen to Harold Lopez Nussa tell you himself why he loves playing jazz piano.

Sunday 28th June
Loss Van Van + Yoruba Andabo
Tickets also starting at a tenner. But there are FREE pre-show performances from 2pm by Son del Tropico, Osvaldo Chacon y su Timba, Charanga del Norte and Leo Duany & Tumbao Tivoli.

I’m going to try to check out at least one of these shows.

If you go to those gigs and you’re a budding mixologist, Havana Club rum is running Cocktail Classes on June 27th and 28th, with a free 1-hour class at 4pm each day. Tasty. It’s hard to get more Cuban than that.

In addition to the music events there’s a series of Cuban films from 3rd July to 9th July.

Folk America: Greenwich Village Revisited

I’ve just returned from the second Barbican concert night of Folk America, the BBC folk series. Last night was the stompin’ kind of folk, played by the new generation. Tonight was called Greenwich Village Revisited, and featured some of the original members of the ’60s New York folk scene. It was a quieter, more thoughtful, more moving night.

On arriving I just caught the end of the Coal Porters playing in the lobby. A bluegrass version of “Teenage Kicks”? Suits me.

Tonight’s emcee was Billy Bragg. He’s always been a socially aware performer but has attained special folk status with his Mermaid Avenue projects. Billy played Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” to start the night off. The stage was made to resemble a New York coffee house. Unlike Seasick Steve the night before, Bragg didn’t hang out on stage the whole evening.

First up was Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn. He’s a class act with his jauntily-perched fedora and trimmed goatee. Age has weakened his high, ethereal voice just a touch but it’s still full of both honest heartbreak and bounce-back optimism. He played solo and covered Dylan’s “My Back Pages”, a song Odetta performed at Martin Luther King’s 1963 DC march, a Clancy Brothers tune, Joan Baez’s “Silver Dagger”, and Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)”. I also never wholly realised how complex the guitar parts to “Eight Miles High” are before I saw McGuinn play it tonight.

Next was Texan Carolyn Hester. Her voice was surprisingly sweet and as strong as I recall it being years ago. She sang songs of love and peace and was so down-to-earth that you had to believe her. Her version of “House of the Rising Sun” made you want to weep. When she did Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”, which she performed years ago with Nanci Griffith at Bob’s 30th anniversary concert, I quite honestly did well up.

After the break Bragg played a couple more tunes, then handed the stage toEric Anderson. Anderson was the artist I knew least about going into the evening. From what I heard he’s a great lyricist, but as a live performer he is – now, at least – breathy and lacking in dynamics. The fact that his songs are long make it worse. Things improved when Roger McGuinn joined him for “Thirsty Boots”. Anderson’s a great songwriter, no doubt. And I won’t write off anyone who tells stories about when Clapton and Hendrix and McGuinn all came ’round his place to jam. But it didn’t deliver the impact of the other performers.

Last was songstress Judy Collins. And I’ll be damned if her soprano voice wasn’t as clear and stratospheric as it’s always been. She started with “Both Sides Now”, the Joni Mitchell song she popularised. She continued – on guitar and piano, which I didn’t know she played so well – with songs that showcased her tender, soaring vocals. She was full of stories too, like meeting Leonard Cohen and listening to Dylan writing “Mr. Tambourine Man”.  She was classy, upbeat, and sounded great.

Judy Collins

All five performers came out to encore with an extended version of the best hymn ever, “Amazing Grace”. We sang along, because we felt it.

As last night, this show was recorded, and is planned to be shown on BBC4 on 13-Feb-09.

Black Watch at the Barbican

Wow. I caught Black Watch – a touring production of a National Theatre of Scotland play – at London’s Barbican Theatre last night. It was one of the best plays I’ve ever seen.

Black Watch focuses on the Scottish regiment of that name. It tells the story of some young Scots who’ve recently been in Iraq and, in doing so, explains the history of the regiment, its proud traditions, and the impact on it of the most recent conflict. It also tells a story we’ve seen many times before in film and book – what it means to be a young soldier – but in a way that’s not too heavy-handed. It was mainly dramatic but also had song, dance, video, and structures: a lot was packed into a small space. It was as foul-mouthed as young Scottish men in a warzone are likely to be. It was tense and funny and historical and human.

Black Watch has received enormous critical acclaim in its tour around the world (Australia, the US, Canada, and other places). It’s been hugely anticipated here, and tickets for the entire run sold out really quickly. There was a large line of people hoping for returns last night.

Black Watch at the Barbican

Kent, and Honest Jon’s Chop Up

Saturday was some kind of big day.

We hit the road with our houseguests and drove down to Kent. Our destination was The Three Chimneys in Biddenden, a pub of some acclaim. It was certainly was very nice, but unfortuantely we’d only gotten through our starters when their power went completely out and they weren’t able to make the rest of or meal. We boogied back to the George & Dragon in Headcorn to complete our lunch. On our way back to London we stopped off at Leeds Castle, a pretty impressive place with some large and interesting grounds. Our mission to deliver an English country-side day-trip for our Amerian visitors was a success.

We weren’t back in London for long, though, before we had to head to the Barbican Hall for a special musical event: Honest Jon’s Chop Up. Honest Jons is a music shop in Ladbroke Grove that’s always specialised in funk, reggae, R&B, and – lately- African music. In 2002 Honest Jon’s created a label to release some of the music they thought was important. Mali Music, an album of collaboration with Blur/Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn and several west-African musicians, was the first release on that label but there have been many since, covering Afrobeat, R&B, folk and more. Last night’s event at the Barbican was a combined live performance from many of those artists.

There were some impressive names on stage: soul singer Candi Staton; Albarn with his cohorts from his The Good The Bad & The Queen Project, afrobeat legend Tony Allen and Verve bassist Simon Tong; kora player Toumani Diabaté, singer and kamelen n’goni player Kokanko Sata Doumbia; guitarist Afel Bocoum; ‘Bambara bluesman’ Lobi Traoré and his band; the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble; and folk singers Simone White and Victoria Williams.

We got there a bit late and missed the start and walked in on a music-fest well underway. Rather than feature the artists in turn, it was a mass event: almost all of them (about 25 people) were on the stage all the time, with several sitting in and out at each song. They’d go into a wonderful west African groove highlighted by Diabaté’s incredible mastery of the kora, and segue into a blues jam with Traoré on electric guitar (which would invariably make Doumbia get up and dance). Albarn would throw in some keyboard, or just bop along at the back. Candi Staton belted out a tune or two. The Brass Ensemble danced the whole night and added some great horns to nearly every song. Even when White and Williams, gentle women in whispy frocks singing equally gentle songs, took the stage they’d be accompanied by some drums.

The official show lasted less than 90 minutes (and we saw less than that), but it was a really joyous, loose, fun jam. I could roll out clichés about music in some cultures being more about shared event and storytelling than about performance. But it’ll be enough to just say that it was a living example of rhythm and joy: everyone on stage had a brilliant time, and even a reserved, seated Barbican audience was convinced to get up and dance for the last song.

Afterwards in the lobby some of Honest Jon’s shop DJs spun some R&B and dub in the bar/lobby area, followed quickly by Traoré’s blues band doing an extra set for those who wanted to continue dancing. Liberated from our numbered aisles and seats, many of us did.

Photo from aurélien. via Creative Commons license