Glasgow’s annual Celtic Connections festival has long pushed the boundaries of what a Scottish folk music festival can be, in recent years becoming a truly worldwide meeting-together of performing arts from cultures ranging from the ancient to the modern-day, with almost nothing ruled out-of-bounds: world music in its widest sense. Having suffered cancellations occasioned by the cruel vagaries of Covid-related restrictions, (and online-only last year) nonetheless even the curtailed programme still represents a triumphant 18-day showcase of cultural connections across the globe, with concerts, ceilidhs, talks, art exhibitions, workshops, free events, and a special series of commissions celebrating Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022 – a tribute to the festival’s Creative Director Donald Shaw and his team.
A very wonderful example of the Connection eclipsing the Celtic was the concert at the city’s Royal Concert Hall on the 28th January: British-Asian musician and singer Abi Sampa, performing with her Orchestral Qawwali Project, followed by one of Asian music’s most revered figures, sitar-player Anoushka Shankar, performing her father Ravi’s Concerto No.3 for sitar and orchestra. And arrayed behind them, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Clark Randell.
Sampa is a mainstay of the current UK-Asian fusion scene, combining a western music with authentic Qawwali – the vigorous Sufi devotional music, rooted in the 13th century. She gained national attention competing in tv’s The Voice in 2013, appearing at the Glastonbury Festival and collaborating with UK fusion eminences such as Nitin Sawhney, whose music I was reminded of repeatedly during her set. Her Orchestral Qawwali Project is a ten-piece ensemble with Sampa’s soaring and diving vocals in dialogue with Amrit Dhuffer’s Tabla and Fram Karbari’s harmonium, with Rushil Ranjan on various instruments – all urged forward by the group’s lithe, vocal responses and tight-as-it-gets clapping.
Sampa is the UK’s first female qawwal, women having been traditionally proscribed from taking part, and even the addition of orchestral instruments represents the breaking of a taboo. Augmenting the classical qawwalis were original pieces by Rushil, the groups’s seeming musical director. I wondered on occasion though if the set might have had an equal impact without orchestra – their contribution, although rising to the concert-hall setting, was most valuable when they engaged in occasional vigorous and attacking figures, rather than adding colour in chordal washes. I also wondered if it struck anyone else that some of Sampa’s highly-developed vocal articulation is not a million miles from, for instance, Capercaillie’s Karen Matheson, although of course the settings are very different – as often happens with Celtic Connections, you are suggested of cross-global similarities.
The ensemble’s final move however was to revisit the late Nusrat Ali Fateh-Khan’s enduring Musst Musst; name-checking him, to approving cheers, on an evening when his pioneering influence could be keenly felt, seemed highly apposite, and by then a very full audience had been elevated somewhere wonderful, and ready to stand in ovation.
World-renown has been the lifelong mantle of Anoushka Shankar, as heir to her father Ravi’s peerless legacy as history’s prime force for marrying western and eastern musical classical traditions. A highly-accomplished sitar player, recording artist and composer, her career has been one of transcending musical boundaries, embracing a mix of genres including flamenco and electronica, and tonight reprising his Concerto No.3 for sitar and orchestra, together with a selection of solo pieces. When she arrives, in a full-length flowing dress, positioning herself on the dais and taking up her instrument, there is the palpable spirit of the presence of someone special.
Premiered in 2009 (including Anoushka among the players), the suite is a lively, shifting dialogue between Indian and western classical instrumental voices, brightly melodic, albeit elegiac at times, and the orchestra’s role is exploited extensively, with instruments and sections taking their turns to the fore. As with most pieces of fusion, it struggles to satisfy a purist sensitivity in either camps, but its colourful, lifting melodicism, and quite thrilling virtuosic runs on sitar, together with masterly playing all-round (including some supreme lead violin) are the winning elements that make this a specially-memorable evening.
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 28th January.
With grateful thanks to the Celtic Connections team for their assistance.