Pentatronix: Sabar Soundsystem featuring Si Tew and Ling Peng / Sura Susso / Haiki Loki – Nottingham Contemporary, Friday June 7
Originally written for LeftLion.
Appropriately enough, given Sabar Soundsystem’s roots in African music, the premiere of Pentatronix was preceded by two African performers with Nottingham connections.
Haiki Loki left Ethiopia, her country of birth, at the age of twelve. Once resident in Nottingham, she now lives in London, where she has recorded an album for July release. An elegantly self-possessed performer with a warm, silky vocal style, she fronted a three-piece troupe, holding the audience rapt with her self-penned soul/jazz compositions.
Music as quiet as this can sometimes get lost in large stand-up venues, but Haiki’s subtly commanding presence warded off any such dangers. Stepping forward, she perched on the edge of the stage and sung about leaving her comfort zone, to a stark, bluesy backing that evoked some of the spirit of early Everything But The Girl. A toddler’s gurgle briefly broke the spell. Haiki stooped down and asked her name. “I want you to come to every gig”, she grinned.
Later, during an Amharic song, learnt on an extended visit to the singer’s birthplace, a girl of six or so threw graceful ballet shapes in a corner of the room, lost in her own world. Elsewhere, old Nottingham friends smiled, waved and traded quips with the stage.
This easy-going homecoming mood was challenged by the final song, inspired by George W. Bush’s presidency (“I can see there’s evil in your eyes”), but when rage sounds this seductive, mellow good humour can’t so easily be dented.
Sura Susso plays a Gambian kora, handed down from father to son over many centuries. It’s made from calabash and covered with cowhide, with a long mahogany neck and twenty-two nylon fishing strings. Before beginning his set, Sura demonstrated the essential kora technique. His left thumb strummed the bassline, his right thumb picked out the melody, and his two forefingers added rippling improvisations.
A sound hole, cut from the calabash bowl, doubled as a repository for tips. “Please show your appreciation”, we were urged, smilingly. “It’s usually with money, but there’s no pressure. We take credit cards. You can swipe…”
You wouldn’t think of playing a kora in public, without already being a virtuoso. Schooled in his instrument since childhood, Suro is unquestionably a master player – but more than that, he is a born performer. Kora music can sometimes sound arid and ornamental, but in Suro’s hands, it was given added passion, variety and depth. His playing ran the full gamut, from gentle and reflective to intensely rhythmic and whoop-inducingly frenetic. A first class performance.
Pentatronix is a new collaborative project, in which Mikey Davis’s Sabar Soundsystem – a sizeable percussion troupe, with African drums and bespoke tubular chimes – is augmented by the classical Chinese playing of Ling Peng and the electronic beats, samples and basslines of Si Tew.
The fusion might sound unlikely, but actually it’s logical. The Sabar chimes follow a five-note pentatonic scale, making them ideally suited for Ling’s Chinese melodies, and Si’s background in electronic dance music makes him a natural partner for Sabar’s percussion, which aims to evoke the feel of modern dance music acoustically.
At the front of the stage, surrounded by stacks of kit, Si and Ling forged their own rapport. Ling would conjure up an exquisite melody, on her zither-like guzheng or her bowed, python-skinned erhu, and Si would sample it, treat it and echo it back. Around and behind them, a shifting array of players, led by Mikey Davis and featuring Biant Singh on tabla, pounded seven shades of merry hell out of their combined arsenal. The effect was tumultuous, uplifting and energising. Naturally, dancing became the only valid response.
It wasn’t all perfect. The tablas needed to be mixed higher, especially when their job was to augment a particularly brutal beat. The beautiful-looking guzheng was underused, and removed from the stage too early. There was the occasional moment when the specially commissioned compositions seemed to teeter on the brink of chaos – but the sheer glee of the players, and of the unstoppable Mikey in particular, swiftly put paid to any potential logistical pitfalls.
Arts Council funding brought the Pentatronix project into being, but the troupe are on their own now, seeking to take their show onto the festival circuit. This is the sort of thing that would work brilliantly in the open air, whether in sunlight or moonlight, as all who witnessed it could testify – so let’s hope that this Contemporary show was the first of many more.