Celtic Connections’ Vibrant Night of African Talent, Home-Grown in Scotland

Samba Sene. Image marc marnie / Celtic Connections
Samba Sene. Image marc marnie / Celtic Connections

Afro Celtic Connections

From: 27 Jan 2023

St Luke’s
17 Bain Street
Glasgow & the Clyde Valley
G40 2JZ

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Scotland doesn’t need to look abroad for its international music, points out storyteller and bandleader Chief Chebe, as his collective GABO closes out an electrifying evening of African dance music as part of Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival – there are plenty of talented artists fusing musical cultures from around the world right here at home. 

Afro Celtic Connections, a joyous and vibrant concert at Saint Luke’s celebrating some of Scotland’s best home-grown Afrobeat, Afropop, funk and dance music, couldn’t prove his point any better. 

Senegalese singer Samba Sene and his band Diwan kick off the evening with their energetic, sun-kissed fusion of West African Mbalax, funk, reggae and ska. Under a kaleidoscope of shifting coloured lights, the Edinburgh-based group deliver bright, bubbling guitar riffs and propulsive conga rhythms as their charismatic frontman dances and claps along with the audience. 

Pausing in between the upbeat, balmy melodies, the singer and guitarist talks about the constant cultural exchanges that a festival like Celtic Connections rests upon. When he first moved to Scotland over 20 years ago, Sene explains, he hardly knew any English and had trouble understanding Glaswegians. ‘Please speak slowly, I’m from Edinburgh,’ he jokes. 

And the cross-cultural influences in Diwan’s music couldn’t be clearer, as Sene incorporates the lyrics of Loch Lomond into a gorgeous mishmash of ska grooves and scratchy guitar. 

Coming on stage to an already lively party atmosphere, the night’s second act open on a softer note with a soulful, kalimba-flecked melody. The Jit Jive Duo are composed of legendary guitarist Rise Kagona and percussionist Andy Cooke. During his days in the Bhundu Boys, Kagona helped pioneer the genre of jit, an exhilarating blend of Zimbabwean chimurenga music and Western pop and rock. 

Rise Kagona. Image marc marnie
Rise Kagona. Image marc marnie / Celtic Connections

Now an Edinburgh resident, Kagona treats the audience to songs written throughout his career. One of the earliest compositions he performs is a song based around the Robert Burns’ song Red, Red Rose which he found on a torn-out page on the street in his native country when he was young. It’s a fascinating story, and it makes for an endearing song, rendered in the duo’s close, crisp harmonies and outlined in lithe rock and roll guitar. Another breezy tune is embellished with the playful lyrics ‘you can’t trust ducks to watch your food, […] no matter how hard you try, you can’t baptise cats.’ 

The pair are joined on stage by two dancers, Raquel and Betty, whose wild, ecstatic movements and beaming smiles heighten the energy after a couple of gentler numbers. By the time the duo conclude their set with the Bhundu Boys’ Ndoitasei, the crowd are dancing along with the pounding drums and twisting, intricate guitar lines. 

It’s a tough act to follow but the most raucous music is saved until the end, as Chief Chebe and the Glasgow African Balafon Orchestra (GABO) bound onto the stage. The eleven-piece group consist of drummers, guitarists, singers, a keyboardist, a saxophonist and of course two musicians on the balafon, a West African xylophone. And there is barely a moment of rest for any one of them from the moment they take to the stage. Percussive, exuberant and infectiously carefree, the band’s long, expansive pieces layer jazz, funk and Afrobeat to create a glorious, if chaotic, jumble of colour and texture. 

Music like this, and indeed like the many different styles showcased at Afro Celtic Connections, is all too often side-lined into the sweeping category of ‘world music’. But, as well as being indiscriminate, this label lends an outsider status which ignores the diverse and thriving musical culture here on our doorsteps. This is not just world music, this is Scotland’s music. 

With thanks to Zoë White for this review.

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