A collaboration between musicians from the Gulf and the UK shows how maritime heritage unites two traditions, writes
East meets West
The Meltdown Festival, that annual jamboree of music and performance curated by a leading musical figure - be it Nick Cave, Patti Smith, David Bowie or Ornette Coleman - is this year in the hands of a British folk rock legend, named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 20 guitarists in the world: Richard Thompson.
Thompson's Meltdown ranges from Shostakovich string quartets to a solo Elvis Costello; from the rich Americana of the Cajun band Beausoleil to his own Cabaret of Souls show. But bookending the festival are two concerts that reflect Thompson's long-term fascination with Islamic culture (he converted to Islam in the 1970s). At the festival's end there is a night of Islamic punk - Taqwacore bands such as the Kominas - while opening the festivities on Friday was a unique collaboration between two very different traditional cultures discovering, through music, much common ground between them.
Initiated by the British Council, Shiftings Sands draws together three members of Bellowhead - the drummer Pete Flood, the trumpeter Andy Mellon and the saxophonist Brendan Kelly - alongside the award-winning songwriter and guitarist Sam Carter, the Middle Eastern music specialist Giles Lewin, and the harpist Corrina Hewat. They have been matched with an array of traditional musicians from the Gulf; from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait, where the British musicians found themselves this February, exploring and amalgamating their own traditional music repertoire with the traditions from the Gulf - and discovering in the process the ties that bind them together.
Building upon those first sessions, the theme that emerged from a week of rehearsals was that of the sea - the shanties of Britain mixed with the Gulf's rich song traditions wedded to the Arabian sea - pearl diving songs and fishing songs, and the exquisite lyricism of the likes of Living By The Water - a ballad that compares water's tangibility and evasive flow to the similar qualitites of love. For the young singer Kanya Shaban, from the UAE, this is the first time she has experienced such a cultural exchange, as it is for many of the Gulf musicians. By day a clinical pharmacist in Abu Dhabi, Shaban learnt to sing at home - following the same oral folk process that many a British folk singer has taken. "The rhythms and scales of the music of the Gulf are very different from western folk music," she says, during a break in rehearsals. "We tried to select the rhythms and tunes that can be combined with western music to give a full picture of the traditional music of the Gulf - to merge it into a shape in which everyone can understand the concept of the song."
Kamal Musallam, a Jordanian-born and Emirates-based guitarist and oud player with three albums released on his own indie label K&G, is perhaps the one Gulf musician at the festival with a track record in musical fusion. "It is lovely to work with people like Andy Mellon and Sam Carter - a beautiful guitarist. And I'm surprised someone like Giles Lewin [on violin] knows Arabic music so well - he plays exactly like an Egyptian player. It is amazing. So that makes the differences between us that much less - and they are very open minded and eager to learn. And we are eager to learn from them."
In conversation, Mellon, Flood and Carter trace their own journey of exploration from the Scottish sea shanties to Bahrainian pearl-diving gems. "There's still plenty more to learn and always will be," says Flood. "The first time we worked with Abdullah Bahashwan, the quanun player, he was playing us a rhythm from Saudi that was uncountable. I couldn't understand what was going on. And he was like, yeah, there's lots of rhythms like that."
"But the first song we did in Kuwait was a very easy start," adds Mellon, the project's overall musical director. "We fused Bear Em Down - a sea shanty - with a traditional Kuwaiti song and you could see how you could splice them together with no problem at all - they were almost identical." Flood nods in agreement. "That was a great moment. You could see the sea in both of those tunes. The Kuwaiti one was very rolling, with the call-and-response vocals floating on top of it - very marine. But it turned out that was a bit of a fluke."
Instead, the repertoire established during the South Bank rehearsals mixes British folk tunes such as the rousing, rugged Santiana and the more ballad-like Johnny Was a Shoemaker, with instrumentals and songs from the Gulf, with Kanya Shaban seizing the lead vocals with sheer élan. "During the festival we can perform something that is easy, modern, perhaps strange to their ears but interesting," she says. "I hadn't had the experience of singing in English before - it's a great opportunity to sing in a different language."
"We explore a piece more in its entirety rather than being in that foggy world of fusion," adds Mellon. "To have something that works rather than being crowbarred in and having material that doesn't quite fit together." On the night of the performance the 13-strong ensemble takes to the bandstand as early evening sunshine blazes through the hall's great windows, and as they pick up and run with a labyrinthine Gulf rhythm repointed by Flood's drumming and Kelly's middle pillar of sax, you can see the crowd thicken from the bar and foyer, drawing around a garlanded band stand circled by Astroturf and deckchairs - and becoming entranced.
The music's rolling gait is redolent of the set's maritime theme, pitched somewhere between the drama of storm-tossed seas and the pearl diver's descent. The Grey Selkie - a haunting, supernatural ballad from the Orkney Islands and a song that graces albums by Joan Baez, the Byrds' Roger McGuinn, and the Songs of Magic and Ritual compilation from the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle - is a song that takes on a three-dimensional form in the harp and voice of Corrina Hewat, the Arabic percussion of Bahrain's Mohammed Hamada and Thani Salem Thani, and the counterpoint vocal of Shaban.
When Carter takes the lead on one of Nic Jones's songs from the classic Penguin Eggs album, rather than injecting the more intricate, numerological rhythms of their own traditions, the Gulf musicians slide and sway into the western folk structure as if they were riding its surf, weaving delicate embellishments around the beat, and on the likes of the call-and-response Santiana, there's a compelling match between the full-throated lustiness of the shanty with the exquisite ornamentation Shaban brings to the mix. On the set's closing song, Living By The Water, with its twin themes of love and the sea - the two ideas binding these two different musical cultures together are united in one rousing and affecting finale, with the audience led into vollies of syncopated handclaps that bring them to their feet as the set rolls to a close.
With plans and ambitions to take Shifting Sands to major festivals in Britain and Europe, and to the Gulf countries through this year and into the next, it's hard to deny the unexpected riches these musical pearl divers have recovered from the sea floor. What promises to be one of the most successful projects of its kind, Shifting Sands is one musical topography you hope will run and run.