The latest single to be released from Les Amazone d’Afrique‘s critically acclaimed album République Amazone is ‘Mansa Soyari’. The song and its video feature the outstanding Malian singer, Rokia Koné, whose powerful, distinctive voice will stop you in your tracks. Little known outside of her native country, this singer is one of the rising female stars emerging in West Africa.
‘Mansa Soyari’ is a song about women. About African women seizing opportunity. Women’s strength. Women’s freedom. Women fighting for education. Loosely translated as kingdom in movement, the song refers to an African queen from the past, when women held great power in Africa.
Rokia urges women to take more responsibility and not to stay in the shadows. Look to the powerful women in history who headed kingdoms, who led the way as activists and advocates for women’s rights – these women are an inspiration for today.
“To be a woman is an opportunity
Don’t stand shy
Don’t be in the shadow
The strength of women develops countries
We women fight for our girls
To go to school
To be a woman is a chance”
Rokia Koné, Mansa Soyari
The video was filmed in Mali’s capital, Bamako, and juxtaposes Rokia performing in a city nightclub, with her at home, surrounded by family members. In the club, she performs with wild abandon – giving her heart and soul to the song. At home, she is seated, dressed in traditional clothing, but still radiates the positivity of a young, modern African woman sending the message of equality and opportunity.
Rokia Koné grew up in the village of Dioro, a village some 100 km from Segou, Mali. She comes from a musical family where her singing talents were supervised by her uncle. Growing up in the cradle of the ancient kingdom of Bamanan, with its rich ancestral culture, Rokia was naturally influenced by the area’s predominant musical heritage, specifically “Bamananfoly”, one of the essential strains of Malian music.
Photo credit: Karen Paulina Biswell
Rokia’s musical career really began when, in 2008, she started singing with Alia Coulibaly. By 2012 Rokia had founded her own group, quickly monopolizing the cabarets and cultural centres Bamako. Affectionately nicknamed La Rose de Bamako (The Rose of Bamako), Rokia’s music is a mix of traditional Bamanandougou rhythms and modern sounds of blues, rock, jazz. She sings mainly in Bamanankan, the national language of Mali and spoken by the majority of Malians. Her lyrics speak powerfully of themes of unity, social cohesion and peace.
Today, Rokia Koné is an key member Les Amazone d’Afrique. Founded in 2016, Les Amazones d’Afrique is an all-female collective from West Africa, united in calling for equal rights and against violence towards women, strong in the belief that music can support social progress and trigger a change of attitude.
Les Amazones d’Afrique released their debut album in 2017 – both the message and the music achieving significant interest and glowing reviews. In fact, one of the album tracks, ‘La Dame et Ses Valises’ was listed by Barack Obama as one of his favourites of 2017. The album was produced by Liam Farrell aka Doctor L (Mbongwana Star, Tony Allen, Assassin) who supports the magnificent vocals with an exciting, kinetic production, powerful in its energy and groove. Whether undisputed stars or up and coming young artists, these are among the most admired musicians, and indeed the most influential women, in West Africa. Featured in the album are singers Kandia Kouyaté, Mamani Keita, Angélique Kidjo, Rokia Koné, Mariam Doumbia, Nneka, Mariam Koné, Mouneïssa Tandina and Pamela Badjogo.
Forthcoming UK tour dates will see Rokia Koné take a lead, with fellow West African singers Awa Sangho, Mamani Keita, Kani Sidibe and Sam Rawit. Also look out for a previously unreleased track from Les Amazones d’Afrique ‘Mamani Blues’ featuring Mamani Keita on 18th May.
Les Amazones d’Afrique’s debut album République Amazone is available with a 25% discount via the Real World Store throughout May and June using the voucher code realworld25. The vinyl album is also part of a Voices of Africa bundle offer alongside classic albums by Ayub Ogada, Geoffrey Oryema and Papa Wemba.
Real World has had the honour to work with a diverse mix of talented female artists from every corner of the world. In celebration of International Women’s Day, we’ve created a new playlist which is an expanded version of our 2001 album Gifted: Women of the World. Have a listen on Apple Music and Spotify, and get to know a bit more about these wonderful women below.
The story of Maryam Mursal is both tragic and inspiring – the tale of a strong and determined woman whose music reflects her life, a powerful and dramatic mix of sorrow and joy. To hear her sing is to recognise the triumph of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity; in a feat of breath-taking endurance, before her extraordinary voice could be heard in the west, Maryam was forced to spend seven months walking across the Horn of Africa with her five children, fleeing the civil war in her native Somalia, eventually finding refuge at the Danish embassy in Djibouti and a new life in Europe. Throughout her remarkable journey she had kept a journal, and it provided powerful material for her song writing that became two records for Real World: the more traditional New Dawn, recorded with members of Waaberi, and The Journey, a funkier modern take on her Somalian roots.
Totó la Momposina
Totó La Momposina’s entire life has been dedicated to representing the music of Colombia’s Caribbean coastline. As a singer, dancer and teacher she embodies that fertile place where Colombia’s African, Indigenous Indian and Spanish cultures mingle to create a unique musical tradition. Totó is not only its greatest interpreter, but a restless innovator too. It was an invitation to perform at the WOMAD Festival in 1991 that led to Totó’s participation in the first Real World Recording Week that year, and ultimately to the recording of the songs – with legendary American producer Phil Ramone at the controls in 1991 and English producer John Hollis for the follow-up sessions in 1992 – that would become her pivotal Real World album, La Candela Viva. Now in her sixth decade reflecting the experience of her native Colombia through her life and music the two things have become intertwined: the story of Totó La Momposina is truly the story of modern Colombia.
Ríoghnach is the vocalist with recent Real World signing, The Breath, and has also guested with Afro Celt Sound System. Drawing on the influences of traditional Irish folk song, Connolly’s original lyrics pour forth from her own life in a torrent of meaning. She sings songs of birth and death, woman’s rights, first love, the call of motherhood, the death of men at sea and post-colonial wrongs. All delivered with compelling emotional honesty and a raw urgency as bandmates Stuart McCallum, John Ellis and Luke Flowers delve deeply into the spaces between rock, ambient, folk and jazz to deliver a powerfully hypnotic accompaniment that moves from chilled soundscapes to rocking anthems.
Born in South London to a South Indian immigrant family, Sheila Chandra discovered her voice at the age of twelve and from this moment her chosen path was to be a singer. Lacking any real contacts or access to the music business, she nevertheless honed her vocal skills as a labour of love, developing the ability to cross continents in a single vocal line and weave seamlessly the vocal styles of the Arab world, Andalucia, Ireland, Scotland, India as well as more ancient structures such as Gregorian plainsong. Chandra’s trilogy of albums for Real World she says are the best work of her musical career: A true fusion within one mind and one voice.
Though this may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with Brazil’s music scene, Daúde is a rare find: a Black woman in Brazil’s eclectic pop-roots music, known as Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), and the first to fuse MPB with African roots and modern production values, setting the whole thing alight with sensual, driving dance beats. While many of her peers have been abandoning Brazilian music to undertake rock, hip-hop, techno and dance, Daúde takes the opposite tack. She looks to see how these forms can be brought back to enhance Brazilian music, not to replace it. The mix is all her own and the style she has created is unique.
Central Asia’s Silk Road legend conjures a centuries-old route to a world of fabulous opulence, architectural treasure and music that has entertained kings at court and villagers in communal celebrations. Music embodied by the image of a lone woman singing and plucking away at an ancient lute; an ethereal beauty with tumbling dark hair and a luminous, otherworldly voice. A woman not unlike Sevara Nazarkhan – if she was around a few hundred years ago, that is. Armed with a healthy respect for tradition and a penchant for sonic experimentation, Sevara is doing things her way. Her first album Yol Bolsin is meeting place between old and new and her follow-up, Sen, takes Central Asia’s Silk Road on a stunning detour. Today her critically acclaimed albums and international touring have established Sevara not only as one of Asia’s most timeless and talented singers but a emerging pop diva for the future.
Lisa Jen Brown
Lisa Jen Brown is the lead singer in Welsh band 9Bach. 9Bach’s music is an atmospheric, evocative, and emotional hybrid of the Welsh folk tradition, and of contemporary influences and working practices. Building on a deepened, almost ambient sound picture, the songs take you into the landscape and the emotions that it evokes. Lisa’s heritage is central to her identity: ‘For us, writing and singing in Welsh is the most normal thing to do; it’s instinctive. We’ve had a few queries and comments asking why do we sing in Welsh when we could make more money singing in English? The answer is Welsh is my first language… my creative brain and ideas swim in the small streams that run into the crystal clear lakes – LLyn Idwal, Llyn Ogwen, the Ogwen Valley. I can’t escape that, it’s in you if you’ve been breathing this air since forever.’
Mariam Doumbia is one half of Amadou & Mariam, ‘the blind couple from Mali’, who have been playing their warm African rhythms and infectiously catchy melodies for almost thirty years now. After establishing a reputation in Africa, the duo finally broke onto the international music scene in two stages, first with the hit single ‘Mon amour, ma chérie’ in 1998. They then confirmed their new star status in 2004 with the album Dimanche à Bamako, produced by Manu Chao. Mariam features on ‘I Play The Kora’ on Les Amazones d’Afrique‘s album République Amazone.
Jane Harbour is a composer and violinist, based in Bristol, England, and a member of Spiro, which she formed in 1993. She was classically trained in the Suzuki method and studied with Shinichi Suzuki in Japan, and became inspired by Bach, Bartok, Britten and Stravinsky. Her composition later became influenced by electronica, American minimalism and systems music, blending melodies of classical weight with driving rhythmic riffs of unusual spiky beauty, deep layers of interplay between the instruments and a dynamic use of systems, aiming to produce moving, exciting and new music.
The journey from Lhasa in Tibet over the high Himalayas to Dharamsala in India has got to be one the most testing and physically gruelling exploits that anyone can undertake and yet hundreds of Tibetans do just that each year in search of freedom. Yungchen Lhamo walked this road to exile as a teenager back in 1989. Her musical gifts had already been recognised in Tibet where her name, which means “goddess of melody and song” was given to her by a holy man. She has released three acclaimed albums on Real World Records, Tibet Tibet, Coming Home and Ama, which features duets with Annie Lennox and Joy Askew. The diminutive and yet visually arresting Yungchen has a voice of astounding clarity and purity. Her songs are intimate tales of love for her homeland and her people and her story is an emblem of courage, perseverance, devotion and musical genius.
Nneka Lucia Egbuna is an award-winning Nigerian singer based in Germany. She is deeply influenced by her roots and the political and social states of her home country are often prevalent in her music and live performances. What makes Nneka’s type of music unique in the diaspora is the blending of her native Igbo language with English language – projecting a positive image for Nigeria abroad and this style has been widely accepted by her fans. Nneka features on ‘La Dame et Ses Valises’ and ‘I Play The Kora’ on Les Amazones d’Afrique‘s debut album, République Amazone.
Songwriters have often travelled far and wide in search of inspiration. But the crazy journey undertaken by Austrian singer, songsmith and musician Pina Kollars is unusual by anyone’s standards. Raised in Vienna, she studied classical guitar at the city’s Conservatorium and could easily have chosen a career as a full-time classical instrumentalist or music teacher. But Pina opted for a dramatic change of scenery. Armed with just her guitar and a few songs – and accompanied by her then-husband and their baby daughter – Pina moved from the Austrian capital to pastoral West Cork, in Ireland. Inspired by her new environment, Pina’s songwriting blossomed and she was soon showcasing her talent for representatives of the London music business. With little Luise often by her side on these flying visits to the capital, she quickly built herself a formidable reputation among London’s talent spotters. ‘A ball that had been standing still for an eternity suddenly began moving, and Pina perked the interest of Real World Records. However, by the time she was making her debut record, Quick Look, Pina was facing up to the aftermath of a painful divorce, a separation that she went on to examine in heartbreaking detail on the album.
Kandia Kouyaté is a Malian jelimuso (a female griot) and kora player; she has earned the prestigious title of ngara, and is sometimes called La dangereuse and La grande vedette malienne. Kouyaté’s dense, emotional, hypnotic manner of singing and her lyrical talents have earned huge acclaim in Mali, though she remained relatively little known outside Africa, due to extremely limited availability of her recordings. Her home town of Kita is known for love songs, which form a large part of Kouyaté’s repertoire. She can be heard on several tracks of the debut album by Les Amazones d’Afrique.
Jocelyn Pook is one of the UK’s most versatile composers, having written extensively for stage, screen, opera house, and concert hall. She has established an international reputation as a highly original composer, winning her numerous awards and nominations including a Golden Globe, an Olivier and two British Composer Awards. Encouraged by Real World’s penchant for blurring boundaries, she channelled her trademark combination of classicism and innovation into an exhilarating gem of an album, Untold Things, one which pulls off that rare coup of putting listeners in touch with their deeper feelings. ‘Untold Things’ will, no doubt, be the source of many an epiphany. You could say that it has a spiritual, even magical, quality, as befits one who is constantly changing artistic shape – and whose surname is the Celtic word for fairy.
Angélique Kidjo’s first performing experience was as a six year old actor-dancer in her mother’s theatre troupe. From that point on, music became her sole passion. As a teenager, Kidjo was inspired to write songs by the sounds of Hendrix, Santana, Miriam Makeba, Fela Kuti, James Brown, the Beatles and Aretha Franklin. Before her twentieth birthday she was one of Benin’s few professional female vocalists. Difficulties with the political environment in her homeland prompted Kidjo to relocate to Paris. Thriving in the city’s African music underground, she progressed from singer of Jasper van’ hof ‘s fusion band Pili Pili, to leader of her own band within five years. Established as one of Paris’s top live acts, Kidjo was quickly discovered by Chris Blackwell and signed on Mango. Today, Angelique Kidjo is a bonafide global phenomenon whose performances are always legendary events. Her style of music varies from afro-funk, reggae, samba, salsa, gospel, jazz, Zairean rumba, souk and makossa which combined together creates her soulful unique sound of music. She features on the opening track of République Amazone by Les Amazones d’Afrique, ‘Dombolo’.
Often referred to as the ‘golden voice of Mozambique’, the late Zena Bacar’s philosophical view of the world fed her band Eyuphuro‘s contemporary songs of love and social criticism, providing a sharply observed commentary on life in Mozambique and particularly the inequalities faced by women in that society. The woman-man relationship on the band’s only Real World release, Mama Mosambiki, is characterised by a sequence of songs about love, such as the love she unselfishly gives to her lover (‘Mwanuni’); to her husband (‘Nifungo’ and ‘Nuno Maalani’); to her children (‘Oh Mama’); to society as a whole (‘Samukhela’ and ‘Kihiyeny’) — and in return is rewarded by being abandoned, divorced, forgotten and ignored.
Assitan Keïta, popularly known as Mamani Keïta, is a singer and musician from Bamako in Mali. ‘Mamani’ literally means ‘grandmother’. She was raised speaking Bambara, and was a backup singer for Salif Keïta. Having worked with Real World in the past on Tama‘s album Espace and Gifted: Women of the World, we were delighted to make a connection with the singer once again for the groundbreaking project Les Amazones d’Afrique in 2017.
We’ve had a look back on Real World’s catalogue to select 5 albums of Irish traditional music you should know about and compiled a new playlist on Apple Music featuring a selection of Irish traditional tracks from our catalogue alongside essential classics and new music by other labels. Listen to the playlist on Apple Music, and enjoy our quick rundown:
Matt Molloy famously maintained a no-taping policy at music sessions in his iconic Irish pub in Westport, Co. Mayo. That was until one week in the early nineties, when he set about the task of capturing the music in its most untainted form. As a member of The Chieftains, the Bothy Band and the most renowned flute player of his generation, Matt has been involved in of hundreds of commercial recordings, but his plan was to reverse the normal recording process in this instance: it was to be enjoyable for the musicians no matter how severely this inconvenienced the technology. The result is an album which captures the Irish traditional session in all its raw magic and spontaneity. It’s an immersive experience in which even the jolly pub audience, the Westport Set Dancers and the character of the unique venue all play a part in making you feel like you’re right there, armed with a pint of Guinness. Featured musicians include Matt Molloy himself, renowned guitarist Arty McGlynn, Sean, Cora and Breda Smyth, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Paul Doyle and Noel O’Grady.
Released in 1992, Lament was a special project conceived by performance artist Nigel Rolfe as a donation to the city of Derry and its people. Each performer on the album was asked to record their saddest air as a memory for the loss of innocent lives during in the Troubles. Amongst those featured on the album are Davy Spillane, Christy Moore, Paddy Glackin and Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill.
“It is important to make a tribute, a marker to the sad and unnecessary loss of life through violence in the troubles in these islands. This gathering of laments is a monument to this sadness, to innocence, to hope. Whilst listening there is reflection of a landscape, of a human condition and of profound grief. The situation of innocent death served by others for political gain happens nearly daily in Ireland” — Nigel Rolfe
The Seven Steps to Mercy was the first of four solo albums recorded by Iarla Ó Lionáird for Real World Records. The success of the first album by Afro Celt Sound System in 1996 album meant that Iarla’s solo career had to be put on hold for over a year, but eventually he entered the studio with the noted Canadian producer Michael Brook. “He’s one of the first producers I’ve met who shared my vision,” Ó Lionáird said of the pairing, “Everyone else seems to want to tart up the raw, ancient stuff to make it palatable. Michael, who comes from an experimental rock’n’roll background, didn’t want to do that, and observing this ultra-modern musician getting to grips with a deep, ancient approach was amazing.”
Born in Cúil Aodha in Gaelic-speaking Co Cork in 1964, Iarla’s mother, grandmother and grandfather all sang sean nós (literally “old style”), the unaccompanied music of Celtic ancestors. His grand aunt, Elizabeth Cronin, was also a noted singer, recorded by (among others) the great collector Alan Lomax during his travels in Ireland in the 1940s.
The album closes with a magical recording of Iarla from his childhood singing the haunting ‘Aisling Gheal’, perfectly encapsulating the rare beauty of his voice and the musical heritage which he represents.
The Gathering documents a homecoming of the Irish diaspora made in triumph and strength. The album was recorded live in Cork at Éigse na Laoi 1995: The Gathering. This was the fifth in a series of traditional music festivals presented by the Music Department of University College Cork featuring traditional musicians from Donegal and Shetland, the United States, Cape Breton Island and England. Several of these musicians returned to Cork for The Gathering and were joined by musicians from Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Galicia, Ontario, Quebec, Northumbria and New Zealand. This album includes some of the musical highlights of the extraordinary event, featuring Kathryn Tickell, Karen Tweed, Martin Hayes, Brendan Power, Pierre Schryer, Alasdair Fraser, Carlos Nunez and many others.
In March 2018, The Gloaming will play seven sold-out shows at Dublin’s National Concert Hall. To mark this occasion, they have released Live at the NCH, a collection of performances recorded at the venue which has become a home from home for Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Iarla Ó LionáirdCaoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett.
To put Live at the NCH together, producer Thomas Bartlett sifted through two years of performances and settled on six tracks: ‘The Booley House’, ‘Cucanandy’, ‘The Sailor’s Bonnet’, ‘The Pilgrim’s Song’, ‘The Rolling Wave’ and ‘Fáinleog’. Using the studio recordings only as points of departure, these performances stretch out and roam in unexpected new directions, incorporating new tunes and rearranging old ones, filled with the excitement and delight of five master musicians coming together as one – a fine exclamation mark following two landmark studio albums by the band.
Listen to our Irish Traditional playlist on Apple Music
Original art by Marc Bessant from the back cover of Thomas Mapfumo’s 2006 Real World release, Rise Up
Music has always played a role in society as a means of protest against socio-political and cultural issues, and over almost 30 years of Real World Records, we have worked with many musicians from across the world who have been outspoken and protested against the status quo through their music. We’ve compiled a new playlist, Protest!, featuring tracks from our artists and releases which make bold socio-politcal statements alongside other classic protest songs from across the world. Listen to the playlist on Apple Music.
Below are 10 essential tracks taken from the playlist that you should know about. You can also listen on Spotify.
1. Les Amazones d’Afrique – ‘I Play The Kora’
Les Amazones d’Afrique are an all-female, all-star collective of west African musicians — including Angelique Kidjo, Kandia Kouyate, Mamani Keita, Mariam Doumbia (of Amadou & Mariam fame), Mariam Koné, Massan Coulibaly, Mouneissa Tandina, Nneka, Pamela Badjogo, and Rokia Koné — who have come together to campaign for gender equality and an end to violence against women. Their 2017 debut album, République Amazone, raised not only awareness but also funds for The Panzi Foundation, led by Dr. Mukwege in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, which has treated more than 50,000 female victims of sexual violence.
‘I Play the Kora’ was the group’s first single. The multi-stringed kora, ubiquitous in West African music, serves as a metaphor in the song; traditionally, only men were allowed to play the instrument; women were denied. Released in 2016, the song directly benefits The Panzi Foundation with every download.
2. Thomas Mapfumo – ‘Vanofira Chiiko? (What Are They Dying For?)’
Thomas Mapfumo, the legendary ‘Lion of Zimbabwe,’ today lives in exile in the United States after being one of his country’s most outspoken critics against the tyranny of dictator Robert Mugabe. Just as his revolutionary songs once spoke of rebellion in what was then Rhodesia, Mapfumo’s respected work continues to be a call to arms and a voice for justice.
‘Vanofira Chiiko? (What Are They Dying For?)’ challenges why youths die because of politics, and urges people ‘Let’s not send them to do the dirty work but instead send them to school — for the sake of tomorrow.’
3. Los De Abajo – ‘Resistencia’
Los De Abajo (‘Those from below’) began in Mexico City in 1992 as a Latin ska quartet, which over the years expanded to eight band members and stylistically broadened, to encompass elements of rock, reggae, salsa and cumbia into their work. Founder and lead singer Liber Terán writes many of the songs, but all band members in the egalitarian collective receive equal pay for their contributions.
The band are supporters of the libertarian socialist Zapatista Army of National Liberation and have staged benefit concerts for the revolutionary group, now more active in politics than insurrection, which defies political classification and supports indigenous Mayan traditions and indigenous land rights. The Zapatistas’ Comandante Esther is featured on the song ‘Resistencia.’
4. Spaccanapoli – ‘Pummarola Black’
Italy’s Spaccanapoli grew out of the original ‘Gruppo Operario’ (Workers Group) E Zezi, which was formed when the musicians met as socialist factory workers in the automotive industry around their native Naples. They are the inheritors of a tradition that has existed for centuries in the local rural culture of southern Italy, nurtured by the hard realities of the working man’s life.
With their song ‘Pummarola Black,’ they address the inequity in pay for black North African auto workers relative to Europeans working in the car factories.
5. Misty In Roots – ‘How Long Jah’
Misty in Roots was formed in Southall, London in the mid 1970s. Their first album of Rastafarian songs was championed by legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, helping to bring roots reggae to white audiences for the first time. They were invited to play in Zimbabwe in 1982 in recognition of their support for the independence movement, and were the first reggae band to tour in South Africa, Poland, and Russia.
Firm in their convictions, Misty hurl down their messages from the mountain tops, wailing for the oppressed, criticizing the world’s materialism and asking ‘How long, Jah Jah, must we suffer?’
6. Aurelio – ‘Lumalali Lumaniga’
A prodigy of percussion, Aurelio began performing at Garifuna ceremonies in his coastal Honduran village as a boy, even at the most sacred events where children were usually not allowed. By the time he left home to attend school at 14, he was a respected musician with a firm grounding in Garifuna rhythms, rituals, and songs. His culturally-endangered Garifuna people are a minority in Central America descended from shipwrecked African slaves and the indigenous Arawak Indians of the Caribbean, with distinctively unique language, music, food, and traditions.
Aurelio has devoted his life’s work to the cause of raising awareness and appreciation for — and preserving — Garifuna music and culture. He first pursued this goal by serving as a representative to the Honduran legislature, one of the first persons of African heritage to do so. Written during a political campaign, his song ‘Wéibayuwa’ calls out politicians as ‘bloodthirsty sharks,’ highlighted by Senegalese rappers and hip-hop musicians from the poverty-stricken medina of Dakar, commenting in their Wolof language that they, too, are marginalized.
His song ‘Lumalali Lumaniga’ — translated as ‘the voice of silence’ — speaks on behalf of the unheard poor, elderly and sick, denouncing NGO leaders who pocket money meant for the good of all.
7. Remmy Ongala – ‘One World’
The great Ramazani ‘Remmy’ Mtoro Ongala (1947-2010) was a guitarist and singer born in Kindu, near the Tanzanian border, in what was then the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Rising to stardom in the 1980s soukous scene, he used his music as a vehicle to address social concerns, including poverty, AIDS/HIV, urbanization, and domestic violence. Known as “the voice of the poor man,” he created conscious music with socio-political commentary.
His powerful ‘One World,’ sung in English, decries the small-mindedness of geo-political borders, nationalism, and bigotry
8. Ramy Essam – ‘Segn Bel Alwan (feat. Malikah)’
Egypt’s Ramy Essam stepped onto the world stage as the voice of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, when his songs spread like wildfire among the demonstrators. During the height of the uprising, he performed in front of millions of people in Tahrir Square, and his revolutionary anthems became the soundtrack for a new generation of Egyptians struggling for a better life and a more just society. But under then-ruler Hosni Mubarak, fame came with a heavy price. Ramy experienced brutal torture and arrests meant to silence his voice; his songs were banned and he was forbidden to perform in public.
In 2014, Sweden offered him asylum and, with his voice freed, he’s toured and released rock-influenced recordings, becoming a symbol of social activism and a beacon of bravery for youth in the Middle East.
9. Charlie Musselwhite – ‘Black Water’
After half a century of nonstop touring and recording, blues icon Charlie Musselwhite is living proof that great music only gets better with age. The Mississippi-born legend cut his musical teeth alongside Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, playing pure, honest blues on the south side of Chicago in the early 1960’s – and he’s been at it ever since, delivering the truth with a voice and harp tone like no other.
Charlie penned his song ‘Black Water’ about the devastation left in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a stark tribute to all who suffered in and around New Orleans and in his home state: ‘Old black water lappin’ at your back door/Hello America, better get ready for more/Trouble, trouble all around here/ just too tired to shed one tear/ Black Water/ It’s a sign of our times.’
10. John Trudell – ‘Bombs Over Baghdad’
John Trudell (1946–2015) was a Santee Sioux/Mexican author, poet, actor, musician, and political activist. He was the spokesperson for the United Indians of All Tribes’ takeover of Alcatraz in 1969, broadcasting as Radio Free Alcatraz. During most of the 1970s, he served as chairman of the American Indian Movement.
After the deaths of his pregnant wife, three children and mother-in-law in a suspicious fire at their family home on the Shoshone-Paiute reservation in Nevada, Trudell retreated from politics and turning to writing, which led him into a second career in music and film; he appeared in roles Pow Wow Highway, Thunderheart, On Deadly Ground, and Smoke Signals, and was an advisor to the production of the acclaimed Incident at Oglala. His art became a platform for his social conscience, and his activism was not limited to indigenous issues alone; his song ‘Bombs Over Baghdad,’ released in the early 1990s during the first Iraq war, needs little description.
Spiro is a machine that runs on many fuels; classical minimalism, electronica, Bach, systems music, punk and folk, to name but a few. These influences breed riffs, rhythms and tunes which fight out their place on the 10 tracks on ‘Repeater‘, an anthology drawing from our 4 albums for Real World. Here are some thoughts about how we use traditional music in Spiro. How, when its there, it becomes a springboard to create something new, and when it isn’t, it often leaves ghosts behind. The majority of Spiro tracks fall into the latter category, but traditional tunes have always been a very important part of what we do. 3 tracks: Shaft, The White Hart and Burning Bridge, see them coming out to play on Repeater, a collection that to us sums up our musical and familial history.
That history, it must be said, is pretty sordid, and has included a fair amount of abuse – of ourselves and each other, but also of some innocent traditional folk melodies, and, subsequently, from many a frustrated purist, who has often been moved to throw stuff and bellow ‘you can’t hear the tune!!’ But if you could hear the tune, then the tune would’ve won the fight, and where’s the interest in that? The excitement for me is in creating a general melee in which those tunes are fighting for their lives amidst strong opposing forces – riffs, systems, other tunes and rhythms. Perhaps any kind of relationship is more dynamic if there’s a bit of interaction, friction, a bit of dissonance, where the elements are being forever changed and dented by each other. In Spiro we’ve all sustained mutually inflicted injuries enough to know this, but I feel it’s especially true regarding the relationship of musical ideas to each other – that’s what to me makes interesting new music.
L-R: Jon Hunt, Jane Harbour, Jason Sparks, Alex Vann; Photo credit: York Tillyer
Jon, guitarist and tireless enthusiast of the stunningly beautiful northern English folk tune tradition, is my combatant in the band. My own natural creative instinct is to pull in the direction of original composition; original melody, riffs, systems, layers, dissonance, – the bigger, thicker, crazier and more vertiginous, the better. Jon gravitates towards traditional repertoire, dressing the tunes like the pop stars they once were, in fantastic bold grand spangly cloaks of chords, and keeping in check any transgressions beyond a 4-minute pop song structure. We love what we both stand for but band fights do happen (which, traditionally in Spiro, often end viciously by reminding the other member of their most despised ear-worm) but hey, it makes for an interesting dynamic, and the fight continues, but thankfully mostly in the actual music.
When creating a track from a traditional tune I’ll first set up a kind of Spiro dating agency. Hopeful bright pure English melodies are introduced to a suspect array of moody edgy riffs. I’m looking for that Happy Accident – or should I say that Beautiful Uncomfortable Accident – a chemistry between the two that’s just right. I avoid like the plague the Boringly Comfortable, or the Mutually Queasy. Once a match is made, the tune, and all the other musical elements in the track, are treated like characters in a (fairly traumatic) story. You get to know them as they set out on a journey; they collide, break each other down, destroy each other, change each other, get re-born, become fused together.
“When creating a track from a traditional tune I’ll first set up a kind of Spiro dating agency. Hopeful bright pure English melodies are introduced to a suspect array of moody edgy riffs.” ~ Jane Harbour
I want to care about them and myself feel a little bit broken down/destroyed/fused (could be a self-destructive streak I guess). In the track Shaft, the tune Bobby Shafto gets mashed up in the middle section, and reduced to what sounds more like morse code, but the tune is actually still there. I’m Over Young To Marry Yet in the track Burning Bridge has to deal with another melody line playing out alongside it. Original tunes don’t escape this treatment either – I’ll write something only to disintegrate it – so the tune of The Vapourer survives, true to its name, only in the air between the instruments at the end of the track, absent from any one part, but heard as a result of the three together, in one gloriously unhealthy co-dependent mash-up. We Will Be Absorbed, after all… (a tune that follows the same fate). Darkling Plains has three tune lines vying for attention with each other.
One of the many reasons traditional tunes are so inspiring is because they needed to be strong enough melodies and/or ring emotionally true enough to people to be passed down aurally through the generations, giving them a timeless quality that we revere. Good tunes survive like strong human genes – to quote Bill Bryson on evolution and survival in ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’: they have been ‘healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so’. I uphold those qualities of truth and emotional resonance as something to try to aim for – in writing the tunes for We Will Be Absorbed, Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow, The Vapourer and I Fear You Just As I Fear Ghosts, I’ve been looking for some raw truths in myself.
I also love traditional music for it’s danceability, and – for all my love of chaos – for the strong backbone of structure that it gives to a track. The strong chord sequences that the tunes Bobby Shafto and The White Hart suggest, allow the arrangements to roll effortlessly around those chords long after the tunes have finished, leaving endless riffing possibilities. This approach has gone on to inspire non-traditional tracks such as Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow, whose structure rolls ‘both sane and mad’ (Keats) to its conclusion. At times I’ve simply nicked Jon’s chord sequence but not the traditional tune it accompanies, and used it as a springboard for writing new material (Vapourer / I Fear You Just As I Fear Ghosts), traditional structure still wonderfully intact. Eastern European rhythms alone inspired The Sky is a Blue Bowl, written after the band’s ‘Hamburg’ – an early tour of Hungary.
Melody of one kind or another is for me the first building block of a track, but I’m not prescriptive about how I get my kicks in this department. Riffs can have enough melody to carry a track. Sometimes they’ll come out spontaneously when I’m playing or come into my head, other times I’ll spend many a happy hour on the sequencer painstakingly constructing them and using systems to converge them – I love writing parts like the Burning Bridge riff in which a tuneful line is fighting with another line; so the track is a fight within a fight, a kind of fractal tussle. In Yellow Noise I wanted to create a track that survives on riffs alone, like a bit of electronica, using its tunefulness in a techno way. Put it this way, if melody is our building block, then riffs are our mission statement, manifesting in many ways and in many juxtapositions. Could be we all pile onto one riff, bigging it up before breaking it down; or Jase juggles as many simultaneous lines as you care to throw at him, like a kind of human sequencer; or Alex punktuates (no spelling error intended) the sound with his instinctive, edgy, painfully beautiful riffs.
Last year I was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 to write an orchestral piece based on archive recordings of traditional song from the Peter Kennedy Archive. This was obviously hugely exciting. I was able to work with the BBC Concert Orchestra, conductor Martin Yates and six of the BBC Singers and chose to create a tale which continues the personal journey of the notorious folk figure and admirer-spurner Barbara Allen. In the piece, Kynde, she has – you guessed it – a total breakdown as she tries to come to terms with her regret after her would-be lover dies. In the same way I love to melt down instrumental themes, I used systems to convey Barbara’s confused, fractured thoughts and her longing for re-connection and clarity. I disintegrated the voices, and the story, cutting and painfully repeating the stark truth of the archive tape’s words, juxtaposed with Barbara’s vulnerable internal world, represented by the live singers. I had a lot of fun, and Barbara turns out alright in the end.
As for the future and Spiro’s next album, rest assured there’ll be plenty of meltdowns to come – oh and the music might crack up a bit too… we have a lot of fun, and the tunes turn out alright in the end.
Catch Spiro on tour this Spring with folk trio Leveret
Spiro recorded The Copper Suite live in The Big Room at Real World Studios in January 2018.
The Copper Suite was written for the centenary celebration of Bob Copper’s life and work, at Cecil Sharp House in London on 24th January 2015. As the only instrumental group invited to take part in the event, Spiro were very honoured to join the fabulous array of performers from the world of English folk music, and to perform a specially composed instrumental suite based on tunes from the Copper family repertoire.
The Copper Suite is based on the following traditional English tunes from the repertoire of the Copper family: ‘The Bold Fisherman’, ‘Lord Thomas’ and ‘Spencer the Rover’. All other composition elements in the piece are by Jon Hunt, Alex Vann, and Jane Harbour of Spiro.
‘As one of my handful of favourite and most innovative instrumental bands working in English folk today, I always plotted to include Spiro in any live event I produced. How to fit them into a massive concert celebrating the centenary and (generally unaccompanied) songs of English folk giant Bob Copper held at Cecil Sharp House in 2015 provided only a slight challenge. I pointed out to them the beauty of many of the melodies in the Copper Family repertoire and wondered if they might work them into an instrumental suite. It turned out to be one of the hits of the night and I’ve been pestering them to record it ever since. Hurrah!’ — Ian Anderson, Editor, fRoots Magazine; producer, Bob Copper Centenary Concert
The Copper Family are a family of singers of traditional, unaccompanied English folk song. Originally from Rottingdean in Sussex, England, they have been described as ‘the first family of English roots music, vital to its history and a frame of reference for the new generation that is reviving a tradition of earthy, hard edged story based music’.
‘Largely at the instigation of Ian Anderson of fRoots magazine, The Copper Family decided to include Spiro as part of the Bob Copper centenary celebrations back in 2015. An inspired choice it was too because from it sprang ‘The Copper Suite’. There have been many interpretations of songs from the family repertoire, some good, some bad, and some which leave one asking, why? Fortunately Spiro’s piece is none of the those…it excels! What they have done is to take three songs from our family and successfully written them into a cohesive whole, despite their being, on paper at least, so radically different that they would not be considered natural bedfellows. At the centre lies ‘Lord Thomas’, certainly the most unusual ballad from the repertoire and one rarely sung (as it’s so darned difficult), and this is bookended by ‘Bold Fisherman’ and ‘Spencer the Rover’. What results is a piece of orchestral beauty which ably demonstrates the inherent loveliness of English folk tunes; in this Spiro follow in the exalted footsteps of Percy Grainger, Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth et al, yet through the use of traditional instruments retain the roots of the original without distracting the listener from the essential values at the core. We loved it! Highly recommended.’ — Jon Dudley, Jill Copper and Coppers All
‘We don’t actually use traditional tunes that much and it’s been less and less with each album but when we do use traditional tunes I’ll really look to get that uncomfortable but beautiful relationship between the tune and the backing… but with this we just wanted the tunes to fly’— Jane Harbour
The band tracked the piece live in The Big Room at Real World Studios in January 2018 through a newly restored vintage Neve BCM10 console by engineer Patrick Phillips.
Catch Spiro on tour this Spring with folk trio Leveret
Featuring seven of the UK’s top instrumentalists in two incredible ensembles, the Eccentric Orbits Tour showcases the unique and distinctive music of Leveret and Spiro in a show that will fly the flag for new English instrumental music. The two groups share much of the same raw material – tunes from a handful of 18th-century tunebooks, as well as original compositions – but their musical orbits follow widely divergent paths.
The Copper Suite is available to download/stream now, and Spiro’s album Repeater is available for a limited period with a 25% discount exclusively through the Real World Store using the discount code >>realworld25<<.
During his short but extraordinary career, Martyn Bennett was simply one of the most exciting, daring and innovative musicians working in Scotland, or anywhere, and he leaves a musical legacy of stunning brilliance. Grit was to be the final album he released before his untimely death in 2005, and is known for its prominent use of samples of folk records and archive field recordings. Here are 8 of the many recordings sampled on Grit:
1. ‘What A Voice, What A Voice’ by Lizzie Higgins
‘What A Voice, What A Voice’ is sampled on Grit‘s most widely-recognised track, ‘Blackbird’. Lizzie Higgins was an Aberdeenshire ballad singer who came from a Travelling background. This traditional folk song is found mainly in the English folk singing tradition under the title ‘I Wish, I Wish’, although Higgins and her mother Jeannie Robertson (also a celebrated ballad singer) are noted for opening the song with the alternative line ‘What a voice, what a voice’. ‘Blackbird’ has become synonymous with Scottish cyclist Danny MacAskill’s popular film The Ridge (2014), in which he cycles the daunting Black Cuillin ridge on the Isle of Skye.
“Although sadly no longer with us, I will never forget the first time I heard her sing this song. I was about 12 years of age and couldn’t believe that a person could make such an amazing sound”Martyn Bennett
2. ‘Moving On Song’ by Sheila Stewart
Sheila Stewart’s ‘Moving On Song’, written by folk legend Ewan MacColl, is sampled on the opening track of Grit, ‘Move’. Stewart grew up in a family of travelling people whose roots in Scotland have been traced back to the eleventh century and whose music and song gained world-wide renown during the folk music revival. Her style and repertoire is mostly credited to her uncle Donald Stewart, who nurtured her talent from an early age.
“I have known Sheila Stewart since I was a youngster. A powerful and passionate singer, she comes from a family of travellers famous for their music and songs. Here she sings of the struggle and persecution of the Roma, who are the oldest race of nomadic people in Europe – they have certainly been in Scotland for well over a thousand years.”Martyn Bennett
3. ‘Coleshill’ by Murdina and Effie MacDonald
The Grit track ‘Liberation’ contains part of Psalm 118, in Gaelic, to the tune of ‘Coleshill’, sung by Murdina and Effie MacDonald and recorded by Thorkild Knudsen in 1964 (courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives/Greentrax Recordings*). The English translation of the psalm is recited by Michael Marra.
“I was initially very worried about my setting of this Psalm, as I was sure it would be offensive or misunderstood, so I decided to visit Murdina at her home in Balantrushal on the Isle of Lewis. Although now in her late eighties, Murdina is a most impressive woman. She reassured me that back in 1964 she too had been very apprehensive about recording religious material for inclusion with what she termed ‘the vain songs’. It had given her many sleepless nights but she was resolved by something that came to mind from the scriptures: “I will cast your bread upon the waters…”
“This piece ‘wrote itself’ at the beginning and end of a most traumatic and life changing experience. I could not find any other way to express the profound feeling of losing faith, and the determination to find it again. Out of respect for Murdina’s and Effie’s wishes, proceeds from this recording will go to raise money for the Stornoway Bethesda Hospice in Lewis.” Martyn Bennett
4. ‘Al-ward Al-foll’ by Musicians of the Nile
One of the more obscure samples on Grit, ‘Storyteller’ contains a fragment from ‘Al-ward Al-foll’ from the Real World Records album ‘Charcoal Gypsies’ by Musicians of The Nile. See if you can spot it in there.
5. ‘Bandari’ by East-West Ensemble
‘Move’ features a Ney flute played by Amir Shahzar from the track ‘Bandari’ on East-West Ensemble’s Imaginary Ritual.
6. ‘No Regrets’ by Edith Piaf
An excerpt of ‘No Regrets’ by Édith Piaf features on Grit‘s ‘Nae Regrets’. Édith Piaf was a French cabaret singer, songwriter, and actress who became widely regarded as France’s national chanteuse, as well as being one of France’s greatest international stars.
“Annie, from Dundee, was about 4′ 10″ with a voice, not of an angel, but the power of a small PA system. I often heard her unmistakable voice in noisy pubs enthusiastically accompanied by as many as thirty musicians. There was something about her that reminded me of Piaf.”Martyn Bennett
7. ‘Daughter Doris’ by Davie Stewart
‘Storyteller’ contains the story ‘Daughter Doris’ told by Davie Stewart, recorded in Edinburgh in 1955 by Hamish Henderson and taken from the School of Scottish Studies Archives.
“A tinker piper from Arrochar, Loch Fyne, recounts his version of this well known allegory also known as ‘The Maiden Without Hands’. It is a fairly sussed psychological analysis on internal family politics and their power struggles, covering deceit, victimisation, brutality, complicity, guilt, empowerment, reconciliation, and finally, genetic repetition.”Martyn Bennett
8. ‘The Bonnie Wee Lassie Who Never Says No’ by Jeannie Robertson
‘Ale House’ contains the song ‘The Bonnie Wee Lassie Who Never Says No’ – sung by the late, great Jeannie Robertson.
“Jeannie was ‘discovered’ in the early 1950s by Hamish Henderson. Recorded many times over the last twenty years of her life, her heavy, passionate voice and huge repertoire of ballads made her an underground cult figure during the 1960s folk revival. Awarded the MBE in 1968, her singing style influenced a whole generation of singer songwriters including Ewan MacColl and Bob Dylan.”Martyn Bennett
Grit is now available on vinyl for the first time – 2LP, 180g yellow vinyl, with digital download card. For a limited period, the album is available with a 25% discount exclusively through the Real World Store using the discount code >>realworld25<<.
If you have a story to tell, my default setting is to always tell it.
We all love a good story, whether it frightens us or enlightens us or simply shocks us, it’s a way of communicating. You can bond over a good story. It’s a barometer to gauge how well you get on with someone if that story binds you. In a way it can tell you a lot about a person. If that story particularly moves you both, then it’s alright – you are going to get on!
When you put these stories with beautiful melodies then – oh! – it’s dreamland. In any language – in all the languages – the folk song tradition is sublime. Without a language you can understand, the story through the melody – it’s very clever!
For me, the Welsh folk songs are our soul music, our roots, and a taste of what our ancestors saw and felt. They are ‘their’ stories but most of the time sit so close to the emotion and ‘feeling’ we can relate to now. That’s why we can really feel it when we sing them.
I guess the natural progression for me as a singer – also new to songwriting – was to write about the stories I felt that needed to be told. Based on the emotion, the political significance and a determination to sing about it. From the true story of a girl befriending a crow that brings her gifts, to the story of the Queen of The Black Lake from the novel that changed me as a teenager, to Ivan who grew up in Moscow with a pack of wild dogs, to The Stolen Generation – the atrocity of forcibly removing the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, by the Australian Federal and State government.
These are stories that, to me, have to be told. It is something I want to sing about! The stream of beautiful old Welsh traditional songs that have been handed down to us (a gift to say the least) have done pain and heartache and love so well that I can’t even dream of matching them. It’s more interesting for me to be reaching out and listening to stories from a world with no borders and responding to them by simply telling their stories.
Lisa Jen Brown is the lead singer and writer in contemporary Welsh folk band 9Bach. Their 2016 album Anianis available with a 25% discount on CD and vinyl for a limited period using the code >>realworld25<< in the Real World Store.