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The noble Savages

The noble Savages

What to listen to: from opera’s Janis Joplin to Malawian jailhouse rock

What to listen to: from opera’s Janis Joplin to Malawian jailhouse rock

April/May 2016

Tender is the knight

ROCK With her cropped hair and piercing gaze, Jehnny Beth is beautiful in an uncompromising way – just like her taut, tense music. She is the lead singer of Savages, a post-punk four-piece from London whose muscular bass lines weave in and out of the drums, and whose abrasive guitar melodies graze Beth’s clear, sonorous voice. Before you know it, you’ve lowered the drawbridge: Beth has captured your heart.

Savages are born after their time. Like many of their forebears from post-punk’s heyday in the late 1970s and 1980s, they have a manifesto. “The world used to be silent,” it reads. “Now it has too many voices/And the noise is a constant distraction.” Beth thinks music should do more than entertain. It should be “pure, authentic, ephemeral”; it should have something to say.

The band’s magnetic live performance draws you in. They can sound violent; they take themselves seriously. You would too if music was your armour: “Four women facing the world, facing the industry, protected by their sound, indestructible,” in Beth’s words. Their latest album “Adore Life” is about love and its wounds. They’re not the kind of songs you’d woo anyone with, but still: it’s good to see the chinks in their armour. ~ CHARLIE McCANN

Savages tour America and Canada, Mar 27th-May 28th

 

A voice that makes music well up like tears

CLASSICAL There’s some mysterious quality in Alice Coote’s voice that stops one short and tugs at the heartstrings: vibrant in tone and russet of colour, it has a grain that is instantly recognisable and unforgettable. Every performance the mezzo-soprano gives is marked by a blazingly personal commitment and sincere style of interpretation. Sometimes called the Janis Joplin of the classical world, she can make music well up like tears.

Coote, who is 47, is at the peak of her career and has an ever-growing legion of fans in Europe and North America. She has made a name for herself by crossing the gender divide. Drawn to operatic “trouser” roles such as Handel’s Xerxes that require her to cross-dress, she often appropriates songs originally intended for tenors or baritones. This isn’t just role play: for Coote what matters is not being female or male, but being human.

This sensibility shines through “Woman and Man: The Human Soul in Love”, an enthralling new recording of a recital she gave at Wigmore Hall two years ago. The programme then was all Schumann, a composer whose palpitating emotional intensity matches hers, and on the album you can hear her wonderful capacity to inhabit different skins and mine depths of painful feeling.

At its heart are two song-cycles, “Dichterliebe” (“A Poet’s Love”) and “Frauenliebe und -leben” (“A Woman’s Love and Life”). The first may be nominally male in orientation, the second female, but with the help of her regular accompanist, Christian Blackshaw, a superb pianist with whom she clearly shares a musical sixth sense, Coote makes the experiences they embody transcendently universal. Love, anger, remorse, the agony of loss in “Nun hast du mir”, the enchantment of spring in “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai”, the rapture of “Widmung” – they’re all here, expressed with the naked power and delicate sensitivity of a truly great artist. ~ RUPERT CHRISTIANSEN

 

Malawi’s jailhouse rock

FOLK The songs on “I Have No Everything Here”, the Grammy-nominated album by the Zomba Prison Project, will make you want to cry, dance and press “repeat” again and again.

The musicians are inmates at one of the oldest maximum-security institutions in Malawi. Originally built for fewer than 400 prisoners, it now houses over 2,000, some 50 of them women. They are charged with crimes ranging from murder and theft to homosexuality and witchcraft.

In August 2013, Ian Brennan, a Grammy-winning producer, and his wife Marilena, a photographer, entered the prison. In exchange for running a series of classes on violence prevention (Brennan has run courses and written books on conflict resolution), they were allowed to document and record the music of the inmates. There was a prison band – all male – but in the end the women, who used buckets instead of drums, contributed over half of the songs. Within ten days, they had recorded six hours of music.

The songs are raw and simple, sung mostly in the tribal language Chichewa. Some were recorded in the prison yard. At once joyful and plaintive, the titles reveal their depths of suffering. “I See the Whole World Dying of AIDS” rings true in a country with one of the highest rates of HIV in the world. “I Am Alone” – sung by a female inmate with no accompaniment – is hauntingly resilient.

Brennan has used the proceeds of the album to hire legal representation for the inmates. Three women have been released since the album’s making. ~ FLEUR MACDONALD

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