Live Reviews: Niwel Tsumbu and Clear Sky Ensemble

Spiegeltent, Dublin Fringe Festival / 19 September 2007

Clear Sky Ensemble is almost a feature writer’s dream. Here is a group led by a guitarist/singer/percussionist/composer from Congo and containing musicians from Brazil, the US, Germany, Iran and Italy, as well as Ireland. The package could almost have been put together as a model more of interculturalism (active co-operation between cultures in the creation of a new entity) than of multi-culturalism (many cultures co-existing autonomously). The Fintan O’Toole article is already writing itself, but the wary concert-goer will want to know if the experience is as worthy as the concept. A performance in the Spiegeltent at the Dublin Fringe Festival gave us a chance to see for ourselves.

The opening number gave us some idea of what to expect – an African rhythmic feel, heavily riff-based, with light dancing solos and loud all-in choruses. You could go back to Fela for comparison, but the singing was more exuberant, the drive less relentless, the approach airier and more celebratory. The Latin element in the blend was more pronounced in what followed. One thing could not be disputed – the sheer musicianship of the group leader, Niwel Tsumbu. As a singer, he shows flexibility and expressive power, and ranges from a kind of playful scat to full-throated passion. He was as happy digging into complex, involving solos on guitar as laying down rhythmic patterns. And he threw in some lively drumming too when the urge took him. And to this we must add an attractive and energising stage presence.

With Donegalman Eamonn Cagney and Justino and Diego Ramirez from the US behind African, Latin and standard drum kits (and with Tsumbu himself in the reserves), heavy percussion might have been expected to predominate. Happily, all this hardware was deployed selectively, exuberant when foot-tapping energy was required, subtle when a soloist was in action. There was a nice contrast between the slow-burning woody sax of Italian Clinio Cucuzza and the brighter 70s-coloured trumpet of Brazilian Tonyho dos Santos. These two were essential to the group sound. If Cork pianist/keyboardist Eoghan Horgan is always as fluent and commanding as he was on this occasion – whether in a group context or out on his own – more should be heard from him. Fellow-Corkonian Brian Hennessy on bass held his own too. Kathryn Döhner on violin had one intense outing in the spotlight but otherwise her presence seemed largely decorative. Ahmad Mahboob has an attractive voice but the splashes of Iranian colour he provided here and there asked little of him and weren’t really integral to the group sound.

If the concert had a fault, it may have been that, as one lengthy, lively and generally enjoyable individual piece followed another, it was difficult to see direction in the overall shape of the performance. Why was an impressive build-up of energy followed by a longish meander? Was this solo slotted in for musical reasons or because the others needed a break? The concert would have lost little if cut by thirty minutes. Nonetheless, the strongest impression is of a plenitude of individual talent working in happy community. This is a group that has already proved itself. Let’s hope it is given the chance to keep growing and to impress even more. And (who knows?) Fintan may really get round to writing that article.

Published on 1 November 2007

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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