Ketama, Toumani Diabate and Danny Thompson – Songhai (1988)

In 2012 I went to watch Flamenco in a tiny little club in Madrid. I had pre-booked and took the supper option. This was very Spanish, including, for one course, a plate of cheese and marmalade.

Ok… big deal. Man Goes To Flamenco Show would not be a headline that would sell a lot of papers. But for me it WAS a trip into another world. The good thing about music is that there’s so much of it, so many countries or continents or, if you prefer, postal codes. And there’s always surprises and new to you countries or continents or postal codes. Earlier on that holiday we’d seen Martin Simpson in Hampshire and Spiers and Boden in Hampshire – much more up one of my more well walked musical streets.

I suppose I had an idea of something fairly formal, very well played and featuring just a couple of guitars. I had no idea. Things got interesting over supper, in fact. The club had a screen set up and were playing videos. Of “Flamenco”, but not quite what I’d expected. I recognised Paco de Lucia, but hadn’t expected to see him playing in a trio with double bass and accordion. There were fiddles in another video – playing lines that I vaguely recognised and categorised as being in Gypsy territory. It was all rather interesting – Flamenco was a bigger postal code than I’d imagined.

Then the music started. There were two sets. Each about 40 minutes, each, as far as I could see (and as I later confirmed) completely improvised with the sole guitarist following the dancers. There was singing as well. The dancers added percussion – mostly hand claps (very fast, very precise) but occasionally hitting other items. The whole thing had a wild, uninhibited edge to it that I’d not expected.

The venue did not amplify music – a factor in my chosing to go to that club – and there was a sign at the entrance asking all patrons to please keep quiet during the show (in Spanish, of course).

Fat chance! In the second set those performers cranked up the excitement until the audience could no longer contain themselves and lifted themselves and the roof.

Musicians can surprise, even if you are expecting to enjoy what you expected to hear. And Flamenco is a far wider genre than I’d imagined.

You may add as many “duhs” as you like, but I am still delighted to find my musical world expanding and full of surprises.

This 1988 album helped to expand my horizons.

Ketama are a “new Flamenco” group who were very active in the 80s. They ended up seeking a jam with Malian Kora player Toumani Diabate. Having accomplished this goal they started planning a recording session. Joe Boyd wanted the project for his Hannibal label, agreed to co-produce and brought on board the remarkable – and remarkably versatile – double bass player Danny Thompson.

The big thrill for me here was to finally get around to listening to Diabate. He’s remarkable. He repeatedly plays rapid-fire, complex parts with great attack and unflagging accuracy.

Indeed the levels of musicianship are high throughout. This album offers no reason for me to modify my judgement that Danny Thompson, despite what HE says (and what does he know?) is one of the finest players on any instrument anywhere.

Ketama are right up there too with a ferocious attack, great rhythm and great rhythm playing with the very fast right hands that all good flamenco players have.

So we’ve a spanish gypsy quartet playing with an English bassist and a Malian kora player. Describe it like that and it sounds like it has considerable potential to be a mess – but it isn’t.

There’s a musicological theory that much Western music is rooted in styles introduced during the Moorish occupation of the Iberian peninsular. It’s easy to imagine another branch sprouting from the same roots in West Africa. So there’s some common musical language between the Malian and the Spaniards involved in this album (which maybe why Ketama sought out Diabate) and with the inventive and versatile Thomopson on bass everything comes together in a pleasing and natural way. Diabate’s parts are striking but also don’t sound out of place or like they’re superimposed over the Spanish compositions. Or vice versa when it’s a Diabate composition – Ketama don’t sound out of place, the partnerships never sound forced.

Throughout there’s a real sense of joy throughout: The joy of coming together and making exultant music at a high level. This is always attractive, and generally a sign that the players involved are of a high calibre.

So this was a way for me to stake out some new musical territory. One of the joys for music lovers in this day and age when so much music is so easily available is that you can extend your borders in many directions – including some that you may not have known about, or that you had hoped for and are happy to have confirmed.


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