“Streetmusic Arabe is an irresistible strike against segregation, cultural purity and imperialism” - the flyer promised. Nettle began the mission. The percussionist and violinist/oud-player were extremely good, but Rupture (himself no slouch) arguably crammed a bit too much into each short track (electro/jungle/industrial clatter and the rapid twisting of every available FX knob), making the whole slightly less than the sum of its parts. The combination occasionally lost focus – as instrumentals the sound might have benefited from elongation, introducing the elements with more clarity. Nevertheless there were passages of thundering energy and astonishing beauty (mainly from the violin) and the sum was never less than compelling. An appropriately jolting entry-point into the night. One lady behind us muttered something about not liking the clatter.
Next up were the treat for the Arabists and the Arabs, the reason why many were here. Traditionalist Moroccans Nass el-Ghiwane were extremely affecting (even if we couldn't understand a word of their songs). Songs often began with the melody on a decidedly non-Deliverancy banjo sometimes accompanied by thrumming on the huge Kleenex-box bass, then the lead vocalist would start drumming and we'd be off, the four rich voices soaring in unison, punctuated with guttural consonants and call and response sections – with many songs unexpectedly speeding up in the middle for added exhilaration. Though we’re sure a downtempo version of one or two songs would have worked, chillout clearly wasn’t their game.
Rupture's solo turntable set after the break was dense, dissonant but all too short, and rather more appropriate for Fabric than a South Bank concert hall. Along with the lumping together of diverse acts, this highlighted the relatively underground nature of Middle East music in the UK, apart from Graham Norton’s Turkish tune and the motifs of modern r&b of course. The ‘heart’ of his sound, supplied in Nettle by the two musicians, was in his dj set provided by the found sounds – recorded vocals and ‘real musicians’ (doubtless from at least three corners of the globe), which he superimposed over the grimey and glitchy beats ’n breaks. These included, played over but not otherwise connected to the chirpy beats, the acapella domestic violence song off Tracy Chapman's first album, but not the acapella rape song off Tori Amos’ first album (he might want to drop that one in next time). Difficult to say whether he picked the former because he loves it and thought its message would be enhanced by scuttering electro, or was it just because it was a soulful voice with no drums behind it? Careful deterritorialisation of diverse sonic phyla, or cynical po-mo juxtafest? It might help to talk to Rupture to find out, and happily we’ll have the chance at NOISETHEORYNOISE#2. A starting point for info on both Nettle and Rupture can be found here.
The last lot, Clotaire K, did get the crowd going, despite the best efforts of the bouncers to get everyone to go back to their seats (apparently at a recent Jeff Mills RFH gig, some groover fell out of one of the boxes and broke his ankle – but not before continuing to attempt to dance around while dangling from the box). Clotaire K were fronted by a polyglot rapper (perhaps a French beur?) and supported by a drummer, dj, crusty bassist and a Bez. The dancers must have been the already-converted, because for the first five songs what our ears heard was a fairly unpleasant rock-rap dirge, reminiscent of 90s bands like Senser, token Arabic samples and scratching choruses. Bad noise. Not even made better by denunciations of Bush and testimonies to John Peel. Luckily things improved as variables were introduced such as the rapper’s plaintive oud-plucking and Bez-one’s natty bodypopping and beatboxing. Yet the drumming remained stodgy, that samey slow thud so beloved of hip hoppers gone metal. Mr Clotaire himself has sufficient talent to take his Lebanese-American influences onto the next stage.
A diverse night – modern acts with classical influences, pure tradition followed by next-level turntablism, Clotaire’s “clash of the civilisations” and much of it secular in character (countering the impression of an Arabia wholly succumbed to demagoguery) . As a primer this was good but, enshallah, the acts should be able to find their own British audience to sustain return visits without the need of South Bank curation.