Monday, 23 April 2012

Noah and the Whale at Royal Albert Hall

      Playing at the world famous Royal Albert Hall, with a capacity for over 5000, is no mean feat for the most confident of artists, but Blackpool's Rae Morris seemed to overcome her apparent nerves to deliver a stunning support set. Opening with Don't Go, the power in her voice echoed around the enormous venue, as the audience was left captivated by the stunning simplicity of the song. With only a keyboard for company on stage, nothing detracted from Morris' lilting melodies, and despite the rather nervous chatter between songs, the short set was a mesmerising one.

      The second support act, Bahamas, lived up to its name with summery twangs and rousing choruses, though it was a shame that singer, Alfie Jurvanen's, voice was masked by the 'oohs' and 'aahs' of two backing singers dressed like sparkly baubles, awkwardly swaying out of time. However, Okay Alright I'm Alive with its insanely catchy chorus, and lo-fi guitar immediately turned the set around, causing me to forget about the prancing women, and instead, focus on Jurvanen's ability to produce music that sounds like Villagers on happy pills.

      Walking on stage to screams from teenage girls and middle-aged folks alike, it's clear that Noah and the Whale have certainly succeeded in appealing to the mass market, and opening number, Life Is Life, reinforced for me why the band have become so popular in recent years. With close harmonies, a pulsing drum beat, and Charlie Fink's earnest singing, complete with his cheeky trademark grin, it's hard not to feel a certain warmth for the band that first made it big with their ukuleles back in 2008. Playing Just Before We Met, with its full-on electric guitar and bass, it's hard to imagine that this is the same band. Fink relates that playing at the Royal Albert Hall had always been a dream of his, and it's lovely that Noah and the Whale have grown into a band that can play sell-out shows at such huge venues, and yet still remain so humble in their demeanour.

      At one point during the set, violinist, Tom Hobden, travelled back to another time (well according to Fink, anyway) only to appear on the screen conducting an orchestra for the aptly named Love Of An Orchestra. Despite the rather 'gimicky' nature of it all, it showed the band's playful side, and prompted much laughter from the audience.

      With a good mix of songs from all three of their albums, and a cover of John Cale's Barracuda, Noah and the Whale showed that they can do more than just Five Years Time; and with a new jazzed up version of their famous first single, it was a refreshing change to a song that has been so overplayed since its release 4 years ago. Despite the lack of on-stage banter, the dapper lads from Twickenham proved themselves worthy to play at the renowned venue, and the applause after the encore was a testament to the huge success they've become.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Interview: Count Drachma

You'll recognise them from Oxford folk-poppers, Stornoway, but Oli and Rob Steadman have also recently been playing music native to their home country of South Africa, with their Zulu influenced side project, Count Drachma. I got in contact with Oli to discuss writing in Zulu, the rise of 'world music', and Wikipedia.

First of all, how does the lineup differ from that of Stornoway?
     We've got the StornoBrothers Oli and Rob Steadman. O plays guitar/sax and sings, R is on percussion and harmonies, and they're joined by lifelong bassplaying compadre Alexander Badamchi-Zadeh plus Kirini Helga Kopcke on Maskandi violin.

I understand you were brought up to speak Zulu - isn't this quite unusual amongst white South Africans?
     That's generally true of our generation and the ones before. Rob and I were fortunate enough to go to a progressive school that challenged the politics of the time, and encouraged Zulu in addition to the usual Afrikaans/English lessons. In hindsight I'm not quite sure why Zulu was chosen - there are 11 official languages in S.A. and in Johannesburg you encounter all of these plus many European languages! I studied for six years at a basic level before we arrived in Oxford - not long enough to become fluent, but I'm able to slowly piece together translations and I'm starting to create my own Zulu songs.

You've covered a variety of different songs, from Zulu nursery rhymes to folk songs, but do you think you'll eventually start writing your own songs in Zulu?
     We've been following the folk approach to learning traditional songs and imitating other musicians. Now I'm discovering how liberating it can be writing music in another language. Having a restricted vocabulary helps me to think more clearly about what's being said. The words are taking a while, so the focus right now is on the rhythmic side of things - the Zulu Maskandi guitar style is very distinctive, and I'm enjoying seeing what happens when it collides with the Celtic Jig and the more West African percussive sounds Rob is bringing to the group.

Will we see any recordings from Count Drachma at all, or are you focusing on gigs at the moment?
     We have some demos up, which were recorded to give an idea of what we're like live. For now we just want to perform.

With popularity rising for groups like Tinariwen and Amadou and Mariam do you feel world music is coming into a wider acceptance?
     My experience of music has always tended to the international because of the country I grew up in. Until recently the music we had access to from outside was restricted, so people treasured anything that was harden to get their hands on. When I came to the UK the only European music I knew was Pink Floyd (Piper At the Gates of Dawn - at the time I thought they were Italian). I remember being more into Orchestra Baobab (Specialist In All Styles), and the young S.A. bands Tweak & Freshlyground.
Here's a video of Johnny Clegg talking about the Migrant Tradition - growing up in many places and being exposed to different cultures growing up:

Do you have any plans to play in Africa at some point? Either with Count Drachma or Stornoway?
     That'd be a dream come true. I've realised that both bands are in a position to do so because of our personal connection to home. When I lived in S.A. no international bands ever came to play - I don't want us to follow that trend!

Have you been able to collaborate with any African musicians over here at all?
     Count Drachma is still a very new project - once we're confident with a sound of our own, we want to take things to the festivals, WOMAD and Larmer Tree especially, to share what we're doing and invite collaborations with others.

You've made it your mission to update the Zulu Wikipedia to stop its closure - how did you first get involved in the project?
     This started at the same time as the band began playing together. Both were the result of a trip home to South Africa, where I started hearing the language and music again. Out of curiosity I found the Wikipedia , and was shocked to hear it was due to be shut down because no Zulu speakers were using it. It's been four months now and we've managed to pull through - the site has over 500 articles and several regular contributors. If any Zulus out there can lend a hand it'd be hugely appreciated.

For those of us who aren't as tuned in with South African culture, what bands/singers would you recommend? 
     Both of these Zulu language projects have led me to discover much more about South African music. I've been writing the English Wikipedia articles on Maskandi bands, and found out some great stories. Musical rivalries, Maskandi guitar battles, political songs about things happening in the country right now. my favourites of the current crop of Maskandi stars are Inzingane Zoma, Imithente, Bhekumuzi Luthuli (recently deceased), Thokozani Langa, and David Jenkins. For an older sound - and perhaps more familiar because of their international success - I'd recommend Johnny Clegg's bands Juluka/Savuka and the saxophonist Dudu Pakwana.

And finally one which I'm sure many people are eagerly waiting to hear the answer of: when can we expect to see Stornoway's sophomore album on the shelves?
     We're in the later stages of this endeavour and can promise its arrival this year. It'll be worth your wait!

Count Drachma will be playing a number of gigs in Oxford and London in the coming months - for more information visit:
Read my interview with Rob Steadman here

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Up and Coming: Kyla La Grange

The soulful, husky, almost Kate Bush-esque voice of Kyla La Grange is powerful and majestic, and a refreshing break from the many slightly 'breathy' singer-songwriters out there at the moment. La Grange has been tipped as 'one to watch' in 2012, and I'm by no means surprised. Heavy Stone (listen below) swells with emotion and soaring vocals, and makes your hairs stand on end. She sings with authority and sophistication, reminding me of Lana Del Rey, however La Grange clearly has her own distinct sound, one that reinforces why her debut album is so greatly anticipated.

La Grange embarks on a tour of the UK this month, starting at the Jericho Tavern in Oxford on April 15th. For more information visit:

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