Monday 19 November 2007

Atlantic Waves in London

The Grand Divas of Fado, 1 November 2007 and Portuguese Guitar Masters, 2 November 2007

You might expect that Atlantic Waves, London’s international festival of exploratory music, would feature very esoteric music; and considering the number and variety of musicians, you might expect to find uneven performances too. But you’d definitely be wrong. The Portuguese music headlining the festival proved that great music is universal. And the festival gathered ‘la crème de la crème’ of musicians, regardless of their age or musical style. And once again, London has proved one of the most cosmopolitan musical scenes in Europe, able to draw not only the best international musicians but also some of the most receptive audiences.

Festivals are always a hazardous cocktail, where some of the fine ingredients can easily be diluted by more banal elements. It is rare to find consistently high musical standard over a variety of performances. Although different in their stage experience or stylistic approach, the fado singers and the guitar players of the Atlantic Waves festival all impressed by the high quality of their performance. The Atlantic Waves festival certainly does not deserve its name; considering the geographical outreach of the musicians, it should rather be called the Atlantic-Pacific Waves Festival, as it draws musicians from all continents, spanning traditional Portuguese music and the more recently developed lusophony.

Quite naively, your reviewer expected to see rather dull concerts attended by world music connoisseurs and other specialist aficionados. Instead, it was probably one of the liveliest and most enthralling musical experiences I have had lately. Having half of the audience (if not more?) Portuguese-speaking was of tremendous help. The passion of the audience for this music could be felt at every second, be it in a whisper, a laugh, precipitated applause or a sigh of jubilation. It is only during these rare concerts that one can really grasp the meaning of music as an act of communion and profound sympathy between human beings.

Atlantic Waves perfectly shows how globalisation revives and instils new blood into local forms of music. Whether these forms are contemporary (lusophone) or more traditional (fado), external influences shape their musical inner structure and influence their development. Custodio Castelo’s guitar pieces are perhaps a unique synthesis of the medieval fado legacy and rock and post-rock harmonies. Reminiscent of the classical symphonic structure, Castelo’s pieces seem to be driven by a single principle: the exploration of the guitar universe itself, which becomes the artist’s sole benchmark and musical imperative.

It is difficult to sum up all these individual performances, as they were all singular in their beauty. Amongst the young talents, the fado singer Raquel Tavares exhibited an incredibly well-developed sense of drama. The skilful guitar playing of young Ricardo Parreira coupled with the acoustic of St Giles Cripplegate church gave an almost spiritual imprint to his performance. Both in their early twenties, Tavares and Parreira showed a remarkable technical mastery of their respective instruments.

Joana Amendoeira, Mafalda Arnauth and Custodio Castelo are among those who play with the traditional fado genre and develop their own synthesis. At one point when most female voices had the typical fado gravity, Amendoeira’s voice sounded like an angel of salvation. Her fado was the expression of a disarming happiness, a pure joie de vivre. Arnauth’s charisma and vocal vigour gave her songs an almost electrifying feeling, strangely reminiscent of Celine Dion’s pop style. Custodio Castelo’s performance constituted one of the festival highlights. Was it his Promethean energy while playing the guitarra portuguesa? The innovative harmonic approach and the musical construction of his pieces showed the complexity and maturity of his music.

Maria Da Fe and Beatriz Da Conceicao’s performances also provoked this feeling of musical achievement and perfection. Da Fe’s voice was akin to live mercury with its unbelievably sharp crescendos and languidly falls. Da Conceicao’s voice, although slightly altered by age, embodied the profound spirit of fado. It is difficult to define the beauty of her last song that night: it was neither passion nor tragedy, because her fado transcended these feelings. She was probably very close to the sublime that night, inspiring the feeling that nothing is left; that all paradises are lost paradises.

Atlantic Waves festival website.


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