Hejira at the Royal Festival Hall, London, March 8th 2017.
To celebrate International Women's Day, the Women of the World group presented 'Hejira' at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Festival director, Jude Kelly, introduced the evening telling the large audience that this seventh year of the WOW festival intended to celebrate extraordinary women artists. Joni Mitchell, Kelly said, was a poet who, like Bob Dylan, had changed language. The artists on the bill were celebrating Joni in diverse ways.
Tomorrow's Warriors is an organization who describe their aim to 'inspire, foster and grow a vibrant community of artists, audiences and leaders who together will transform the lives of future generations by increasing opportunity, diversity and excellence in and through jazz.' Kelly told the crowd that this innovative collective had commissioned new arrangements of 'Hejira' by Cassie Kinoshi, Max de Lucia and the director of the Nu Civilisation Orchestra, Peter Edwards.
'Hejira' was to be performed by the Nu Civilisation Orchestra, a multi ethnic mix of men and women, with a brass/ woodwind section of five, a drummer, percussionist, keyboard/piano player, fretless bass and a guitarist. In the second half the orchestra were joined by a string quartet. The 40 piece Southbank Centre Voicelab choir (led by Liz Swain) were working in collaboration with performers from Women for Refugee Women. Fronting each song were vocalists Lisa Hannigan, Nadine Shah, Emel Mathlouthi and Eska. The singers were joined by poet Sabrina Mahfouz, whose poem about difference (in the guise of a mermaid) was not out of place in an evening devoted to Joni's music.
Lisa Hannigan kicked off the evening with a stirring, heart felt rendition of 'Coyote', which featured a great solo from the trombonist. Lisa told us of her own experiences, singing backing vocals as a child whilst her Mum took lead to the songs of 'Ladies of the Canyon'. Lisa's passion for Joni's music shone through and, as she moved into singing 'Furry Sings The Blues,' her vocal sounded intriguing and interesting. The introduction was moody, but the space and mystery were to be overwhelmed by a heavy arrangement which featured drum patterns that, unfortunately, seemed to trudge unimaginatively through several of the songs from 'Hejira'. It was difficult for any of the singers to bring any subtle interpretation to the lyrics with arrangements that, at times, had such little sense of space. Joni once famously commented that, until she met Jaco Pastorius, she couldn't find a bass player who didn't put a dark picket fence through her music and on this occasion the fence came from the bass drum and some dense arrangements. 'Amelia', such a song of the air, was laboured and even the stirring singing of the choir in the second half couldn't rescue 'Song for Sharon' which came off worst of all.
However, there were some simply brilliant moments where everything came together, and each of the singers had one outstanding moment where the Orchestra felt comfortable, cut loose, and the singers could breathe air into the songs, bringing something new to the party. A really fabulous big brash Geordie interpretation of 'Blue Motel Room' from Nadine Shah was full of vibrant joy and a 'Black Crow' that reminded me of a seventies jazz/funk vibe, freed ESKA to scat over the orchestra, with the choir exuberantly pinning down a riff of 'Black Crow - Flying.' However, the evening was stolen by a simply stunning, imaginative arrangement of 'Hejira' delivered by the sublime Emel Mathlouthi.
Starting with some classy improvisation from the bass and guitar players, with some very tasty but minimal percussion, off stage the extraordinary voice of the Tunisian singer swooped and soared, evoking a call to prayer. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. As she walked slowly on, Emel called us to be with her on this 'Hejira', travelling in some vehicle, sitting in some café. The verses were intertwined with some ecstatic soloing from members of the band which was completely in keeping and felt connected to the song. The addition of the string quartet at the start of the second half had brought additional texture and feeling and as Emel sang 'I looked at the granite markers...' I found I could not stop my tears. It was extraordinary and profound.
Emel followed this with one of her own songs, 'Kelmti Horra' simply played with her guitar. In that moment, I was transported back to January 1970, to the very the first time that I had seen Joni sing on that very stage, on the very same spot.
I later found a translation of some of the words Emel sang:
'I am free and my word is free/ Don't forget the price of bread / Don't forget he who sowed in us the seed of sorrow / Don't forget he who betrayed us ... I am the soul of those who do not forget / I am the voice of those who do not die."
Emel's voice, passion and magnetic presence had me transfixed. Could have been Joni in the room.
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