Eugene Skeef and the Abantu Ensemble started an extraordinary performance at the British Museum last night with the sound of bird song. Not sampled sparrows, but chirrups beautifully mimiced through the clever use of the human voice, paper, piano, saxophone and assorted percussion instruments. The set-list suggests it was a piece called ‘Ingoma KaMakhweyana’ (Song of the Hunter’s Bow), but Skeef explained afterwards that most of it was improvised. Whatever, it was quite simply beautiful and as I write this listening to the real weekend dawn chorus in my garden I’m not sure which I prefer.
With a backdrop of the magnificent Benin Bronzes down in the basement of the British Museum, the Abantu Ensemble could have played anything and it would still have been a captivating evening. But last night the music, plus the poetry of Leeto Thale, was so inspiring it was only after the performance was over that we had the space to gaze on the beautiful African art surrounding us.
It put in mind George the Poet’s equally compelling show in the same gallery, in which he details the history of Benin, the theft of its treasures by colonialists, and the unwillingness of an age-of-empire British population to believe that anything so beautiful could have been crafted by people of a continent they had been brought up to believe housed only savages. A similar story is told in the South Africa: art of a nation exhibition itself (reviewed previously, over a pint, by markontour), to which the Abantu Ensemble’s night was a contribution.
While many of the songs were wonderfully dreamy and thoughtful, the highlight of the night was the upbeat final song, which made me wish to have been born African so that my useless limbs could be persuded to dance in rhythm to anything other than late 1980s indie, but nevermind – we all got to sing along and clap at the end
The Abantu Ensemble are described in the blurb for the evening as “a loose-limbed performance group.. delivering music and poetry with a small ensemble of superbly gifted artists”. I guess they don’t peform together too often as I can’t find anything to link to on YouTube. But there’s no need for those who were there, as this one is going to stick in the memory for a long time.
South Africa: art of a nation closes on 26 February