NewMusicMondays – 14 December 2020

One of the things that’s been very different about 2020 is the greater use of virtual meetings, with face-to-face get-togethers being impossible as a result of various Covid-19 restrictions, not to say the closure of many arts venues. Many of us have become familiar with the different proprietary technologies in use, while the Oxford English Dictionary has noted that ‘mute’ and ‘unmute’ have seen ‘significant’ rises in usage this year.

It’s worthwhile noting at the outset that this sort of thing would not have been feasible had there not been significant investment in broadband networks in the past twenty years to put fibre deeper and deeper into the telecoms network.

As we get to the year’s end, Covid-19 has meant a very different approach to annual award ceremonies, with many such events simply being cancelled, a great shame for many awards winners, while others have been re-jigged to be broadcast over the internet. One such event which marks the end of the year for many music fans is the awards given out by Songlines magazine which champions traditional and innovative music from around the world. This year’s ceremony, hosted by broadcaster and musician Cerys Matthews, went out last night and you can catch up with the hour-long presentation via YouTube.

My first choice this week comes indeed from the Songlines ceremony and is by Blick Bassy, who won the ‘Africa’ award for album of the year for 1958 (it’s the first award in the ceremony, 75 seconds into the above link). This album – actually released in 2019 – commemorates the heroes of the liberation struggle in Cameroon and in particular Ruben Um Nyobè (a trade unionist, savagely killed by the French military in 1958). Bassy, who sports some of the most startling eyewear I’ve ever seen, has been making music for quite a while and now lives in rural France, with a smallholding in a village west of Bordeaux; 1958 was written as a means of teaching Cameroonians aspects of their own history that have not featured in history books and to dignify the memory of the leaders of the struggle long denied domestic recognition of their role as a result of generations of political leaders not wanting to upset France. Bassy featured on Cerys’s 6Music show yesterday morning (from 64 minutes, just after Marvin Gaye’s ‘Mercy Mercy Me’); and here he is performing ‘Mpodol’ in front of a small studio audience, as broadcast at the Songlines ceremony although not recorded specially for it. Note Blick’s unique, heartrending voice as well as surprising prompts from trombone and trumpet:

Bassy has a number of tour dates lined up in France for 2021, alongside Les Amazones d’Afriques; 1958 is not on bandcamp, but there is a variety of ways in which you can pick it up via the artist’s own website – or, of course, from a record store near you.

My second pick is a bit of a repeat, as I’ve featured the voice of Kelly Finnigan previously in this series. 24 November saw the release of A Joyful Sound, his Christmas album featuring ten Christmas songs, all self-penned and recorded with a large number of major collaborators on the soul scene, including his own band, the Monophonics, as well as the Dap-Kings and the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – a tribute to Finnigan’s increasing presence as one of the scene’s key movers and shakers. Here he is (@8.46) with ‘Just One Kiss’, featuring the mighty Dap-Kings horn section, gentle piano, sleigh bells, 70s psychedelic soul sonics and Kelly’s wonderfully soulful voice:

The link is to a stream of the whole album that Colemine Records, Kelly’s label, have put out to promote the album – so Christmas online get-together parties can have a gorgeously soulful input – but if you prefer something to watch while being moved by the music, here’s a short animation in which the elves in Santa’s factory convert lumps of coal (nicely done!) into a range of Christmas gifts to the sound of another track on the album, ‘Santa’s Watching You’. The limited edition vinyl has already sold out but you can always pick up a properly paid-for streaming copy, or a download, via Finnigan’s bandcamp.

I’ve again got a bonus pick this week which came my way via one of those Twitter promoted ads for the Witherbys Arts Festival, for which 2020 is the debut year, featuring a range of Scottish musicians. Day Two of the event featured the Nevis Ensemble, the youthful and joyful guerilla orchestra bring orchestral and other tunes to the people wherever they are, and it makes it into my lockdown selection of music since their appearance at Eriskay community centre on their 2019 Hebrides tour was one of the last gigs I went to before lockdown. (The above link includes a clip from that actual gig, with the orchestra performing ‘Mairead nan Cuiread’, a waulking song (luadh, in the Gàidhlig, where the rhythm was intended to assist the women as they worked the tweed and echoes of which you can hear in many songs by Runrig).

The clip by the Nevis Ensemble features the orchestra’s horn section – two trumpets, trombone, tuba and horn – in a socially-distanced setting on ‘The Christmas Song’ (‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’); ‘Quintet’ by Michael Kamen (making a contribution to the debate about whether Die Hard is a Christmas film); before closing with a medley of Abba tunes. After all, what is any sort of party, Christmas or otherwise, that doesn’t feature an Abba tune or two? And there is definitely no Christmas until the horn section has played.

The Witherbys Arts Festival takes place via YouTube until 18 December.

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