Originally posted on The Guardian. Click here to view the original article.
Old Billingsgate, London
The Guardian, Monday 2 July 2012 10.32 EDT
In Rio, this annual celebration of the links between Brazil’s black culture and Africa is held in a grand disused railway station. In London, the Back2Black festival took over Old Billingsgate, the enormous one-time fish market, transformed with elaborate lighting, artwork, banners and a stage in the main hall, another in the vaults and a third outside by the river. With Brazil’s former culture minister Gilberto Gil acting as host, this three-day festival (co-produced by the Barbican) was packed with celebrities from Brazil, Africa and elsewhere, and with some intriguing collaborations, not all of which worked.
The headliner was Gil himself, showing off his dance moves, playing guitar and proving that he’s still in excellent voice as he switched between samba rock and reggae, reworking Bob Marley songs in Portuguese before ending with a reminder of the African roots of Brazil’s candomblé religion. He was also responsible for one of the best Brazilian-African collaborations, joining the young Cairo-based singer Dina El Wedidi for her song Egyptian Bossa Nova.
There were more experiments from the new band featuring Brazil’s gravel-voiced Arnaldo Antunes and guitarist Edgard Scandurra, working with Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté, who added exquisite decoration to their often straightforward melodies. Their best songs were Toumani’s own Kaira, and the uptempo Cara, which featured rapid-fire kora work from Toumani’s extraordinary young son Sidiki.
Less successful was the collaboration that featured Criolo, touted as the biggest new name in Brazil, who gave a bombastic, theatrical performance that mixed hip-hop, reggae and crooned balladry. He then excitedly announced the arrival of Mulatu Astatke, the veteran Ethiopian jazz star, who played percussion, keyboards and vibes as Criolo’s band crashed through a brassy treatment of Ethiopian favourites such as Yègellé Tezeta. It didn’t work; Astatke was largely inaudible.
Elsewhere, the best African sets came from Hugh Masekela (also thoughtful and very funny in a subsequent discussion session with Gil), the rousing Amadou & Mariam, Vieux Farka Touré, and the Kinshasa singer Jupiter with his furious, hypnotic fusion of rap, funk and chanting. From Brazil, there were solid performances from Jorge Ben Jor, who, of course, revived Mas Que Nada, and samba diva Mart’nália. The biggest disappointment was the sadly undynamic US soul star Macy Gray, while the most welcome surprise was the return of the elegant and angry Linton Kwesi Johnson, who revived his reggae poetry attacking police brutality and Margaret Thatcher.
Gilberto Gil performs with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican on July 4.