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Things Learned At: Transmusicales
Jeremy Allen , December 15th, 2014 10:21

Jeremy Allen reports from Rennes, on performances from Kate Tempest, Islam Chipsy, Curtis Harding and more

Photo by Moz Pic

Transmusicales is a truly international festival

Transmusicales - Rennes' premier musical showcase - is in its 36th year, and while it's normally a chance to show off the creme de la creme of France's plein d'avenir, this year it feels more international somehow. Maybe it's the scheduling, or maybe it's down to when I get out of bed, but there just seems to be far more catching the eye from outside of the Francosphere this time around. Excellent French rappers Le Zooo are on in the middle of the night (way past my bedtime) for instance, intriguing Canadian musician Pierre Kwenders is finishing just as I arrive, and Paris-based Sabina (who is actually half German/half Italian) is disappointingly on the night before we even hit Rennes. Meanwhile the promising Jeanne Added - who like Benjamin Clementine last year - plays five nights at L'Aire Libre, a venue that, to my knowledge, has never actually been found by anyone.

But no matter, there is still plenty for the eyes and ears to feast upon, not least of all Vaudou Game ('vaudou' is french for 'voodoo' and pronounced more or less the same way). Though the band are comprised of a crack team of French musicians, at their core is leader Peter Solo, from Aného-Glidji, Togo. The music flits wildly between hard funk and surf rock, and Peter - dressed in the finest yellow loons you're ever likely to see while his naked torso is covered in beads and bling - engages in call and response voodoo chants with the band that sound not unlike sea shanties. As spectacles go, there's little to top this, and when the whole band - dressed all in white like sailors - form a semicircle in order to do a little dance each, you know you've got value for money; in fact you should feel obligated to buy a round at the bar once they're finished just to celebrate. To top it all, Solo invites his famous uncle Roger Damawuzan, soul music pioneer and Toga's answer to James Brown, to duet on 'Pas Contente', and Damawuzan proves he can still throw some pretty amazing shapes.  

Other intriguing propositions include Metá Metá from Brazil, a band so meta they named themselves twice. The stage is a colourful melange of reds and oranges and the sax is king here, played by a encourageable bear who maintains the focus even though he's parping from the left flank. If their brand of jazz is a little too indie around the edges, then South Africa's Tumi Mogorosi is a character who seeks no compromise. With a choir of hip cats in splendid hats and a compliment of brass in the round, Mogorosi and his intrepid recruits fearlessly explores atonality as he feverishly attacks the drums like an angry spider. The unpredictable sonic odyssey sees us pass through scary worlds, ethereal worlds, and occasionally zones where a groove threatens to break out. One band all about the grooves are A-Wa, an Israeli trio of sisters taking music from the Yemeni tradition (and some of their musicians too) and mixing it up with electronic instrumentation and middle eastern funk. They're a splendid proposition, and the only trio of sisters called Haim (that's their surname) that it's not okay to throw tomatoes and abuse at, at least until they suck up to David Cameron on live TV.

When the temperature falls below freezing, you need a bit of Islam Chipsy

The problem with going to watch live music at the outset of December is the strong possibility it might get cold. One must create one's own body heat until Parc Expo finds an affordable way to heat nine giant aircraft hangars, and thankfully at Transmusicales 2014, Islam Chipsy is on hand to get people dancing. Some dance dangerously, some dance violently, but dance they do as the frost forms outside. The three piece might have begun life soundtracking weddings, where dancefloors are always likely to be partisan, but taken out into the wider world their unique take on Chaabi resonates wherever they go. With the all powerful double drumkit whammy and the peripatetic and inimitable playing style of the Cairo king of the keyboards, it's an irrepressible combination. Chipsy batters his keyboard with a frequency (and at a frequency) that always attacks, and he joins a lineage of genuine entertainers on the ol' Joanna that includes Jerry Lee Lewis and Liberace and then nobody else for decades. If you've ever wondered how someone like Liberace managed to captivate crowds in the 70s just by tinkling, then this is how - by completely wowing the shit out of people - though his fans were much older and a lot less interactive. Most of them are probably now dead in fact, which is an observation you can't level at this crowd.  

Photo by Dominique Vrignaud

Rock is in the water and it might be dead

When did rock become such a dirty word? Critics have been predicting its death for some time now, and usually when that happens there's a sudden burst of activity that reawakens our desire and pleasingly makes these soothsayers eat their words. But that cyclical cat and mouse between rock and pop seems to have finally come to an end - or at least the next phase has been in gestation for a ridiculous amount of time and shows no signs of emerging chrysalis-like with a fresh slant or direction any time soon.

If there are questions about the future of rock then Raury is certainly not the answer. He's no doubt a talented young man, though what it is he's talented for hasn't quite been established yet. He dances, he throws shapes, he minces, he slips in some Michael Jackson, he chucks in some Santana, he doesn't quite know yet how to put all of these pieces together yet, and it just comes across as unfocused, and at times, embarrassing. The pièce de résistance? A cover of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' so bad that one wonders if Kurt, completely out of his gourd on drugs, was suddenly projected into the future where he witnessed this very performance in his mind's eye, and so depressed by it was he that he shot himself as a result.

Curtis Harding, on the same stage preceding 'Indigo Child' Raury, wears shades indoors and uses the word "bitch" liberally and says things like, "that's what I want you to do France, keep shining like a motherfucker". The American singer might just be the new Roachford. Even post-rock and the quiet/loud of South Korea's Jambiani becomes a might predictable very quickly, while The Ringo Jets put the last three letters into Istanbul and add their own "shit" at the end. Australia's Courtney Barnett is at least charismatic enough to hold your attention, and some of her spoken word style singing on tunes like 'Avant Gardener' is charming enough, but it's hardly cutting hedge.

Photo by Dominique Vrignaud

French kids like the Tempest; the sonnets not so much

There's something of the performance poet about Kate Tempest, and while her flow is impressive and her observations about everyday life are sound enough, there's always a feeling that any minute she's going to tell disadvantaged kids what an iambic pentameter is. Another thing that elevates her above mere performance poetry is the fact the beats are so hard, and at times it's like Public Enemy fronted by Tracey Barlow, an interesting enough equation. Surprisingly perhaps, the French crowd are exceedingly enthusiastic despite any language barrier. "I wish I could do it all in French but I can't," says Tempest between songs, "je suis desole". An English teacher who worked in France once told me that French kids - even the ones who are really good at Shakespeare - have problems understanding iambic pentameter because the meter conflicts with the stresses and the intonation of their natural speech. Whether that's true or not, I can't be sure, but I can confirm that Kate Tempest is a hit with the sizeable crowd jumping around in Hall 3 on Thursday night. Whether this will transfer into anything more long term between Tempest and the French record buying public remains to be seen.

If songs are like children, then Cosmo Sheldrake needs some contraception

With a name like Cosmo, one wonders if his parents are old hippies, and with his clipped tones and gilet, if they're the type of old hippies who now operate on the boards of Monsanto or ICI. Putting idle speculation aside, watching Cosmo Sheldrake perform is an enjoyable experience, and so watching a good magician should be. He starts from scratch and builds songs with a loop station, creating banks of vocal sound from his own beatbox and harmonious larynx, in much the same way as Jamie Lidell used to, though when Lidell performed in this way he would channel some of the Motown greats; Cosmo on the other hand, comes across rather like a more acid fried Alt J. His lyrics are largely and deliberately nonsensical, and on two occasions during his set he claims to write two new songs on the spot before our very ears. Which is all well and good, only he must realise decent songs are not inexhaustible and the ratio per artist is probably not as great as he might think. Keep churning them out and the well will run dry. If songs are children then Cosmo clearly isn't too concerned about what his get up to or how they develop emotionally. He probably wouldn't be cruel enough to call any of them Cosmo though.