Rhythm Sticks 2005 – Ensemble Bash & Nana Vasconcelos

Graham Fitkin
John Cage
Second Construction
Peter Garland
Apple Blossom
Traditionl arr. Thomas Segkura
Nyive Iwa
Simon Limbrick
Mopti Street
Traditional arr. Stuart Jones

Plus improvisations by Nana Vasconcelos

Ensemble Bash
Chris Brannick, Joby Burgess, Stephen Hiscock & Andrew Martin (percussion)

Nana Vasconcelos (percussion and voice)

Madeleine Mitchell (violin)

Reviewed by: Josh Meggitt

Reviewed: 20 July, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Ensemble Bash is a four-piece percussion group formed in 1991 devoted to performing contemporary, classical and traditional musics. This concert was immediately invigorating: Graham Fitkin’s Hook, commissioned for the ensemble, a relentless eight minutes of minimalist motoric funk for four vibraphones and drums, is very much a post-Reich piece but nodded more towards modern techno and electronics.

A more patient, open structure was next explored with a riveting performance of John Cage’s Second Construction. Moving from petty tinkles on tuned percussion, later incorporating gongs, shakers and tuned bowls, it became dominated by a repeated melodic motif played on prepared piano. There followed “Nyive Iwa”, a traditional tune from Northern Ghana, which made it clear where so much contemporary music is derived. Simple shifting patterns were established in 4/4 time on marimbas and drum, quickly developing into a frenzied dance.

As Ensemble Bash made its exit, headliner Nana Vasconcelos entered, picking away at a berimbau, a one-string bowed instrument commonly heard in Brazilian bossa nova but actually a product of Angola. Winner of numerous awards and named ‘best percussionist in the world’ by jazz bible “Downbeat”, it is easy to see Vasconcelos as an unstoppable music-making machine, effortlessly creating rhythms, melodies, songs and atmospheres from whatever is at his disposal. From the berimbau he coaxed complex repetitive lines from struck, bowed and beaten wood and hair, and accompanied by slightly disconcerting howls. After a brief introduction, in which he spoke of his native Brazil, he transplanted Arthur Lyman’s exotica from the cocktail lounge to the Amazon, led by yelps, bird-calls, gongs and shaken conch-shells, filtered intermittently through a delay-effect pedal – refreshing to see a technique borrowed from the New York minimalists.

While these improvisations instantly confirmed Vasconcelos a master of spontaneous musical creation, it was his understated work alongside Ensemble Bash that was most transfixing. Peter Garland’s Apple Blossom opened with barely perceptible plonks from all five musicians on wooden marimba, even incorporating the naff melody of a mobile phone that went off during the piece. As musicians gradually drifted off onto other instruments – small bells, triangle, drums – Vasconcelos introduced a soft bass thud via an amplified glass bowl and subtle vocal breaths reminiscent of a toned-down Bobby McFerrin. His contribution to this pretty bed of bubbling atmospherics was expertly handled, each gesture a masterful stroke of control.

Following the interval, violinist Madeleine Mitchell joined the troupe for some enjoyable though less successful fusion experiments: Mopti Street, an improvisation based on Malian themes, and Kotetchke, a vigorous workout on a traditional Turkish melody. Of the two, Kotetchke’, involving demanding fiddle-work from Mitchell beside an interesting array of percussive colours, was the stronger piece, although it was still Vasconcelos that dominated. The evening ended with the audience clapping along to some riotous, primitive dirge bashed out by all percussionists, a sea of smiles both on stage and off.

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