Vieux Farka Toure

Kefaya and Elaha Soroor

Global folk traditions with a cutting-edge sound rooted firmly in the 21st century Songs of our Mothers - Songlines Best Album Nomination

Saturday 29th February 2020, 7.30pm

The HUBS, 6 Paternoster Row, Sheffield

Alistair Dempster writes: Afghan singer Elaha Soroor and award-winning music/producers Kefaya, captured everyone's imagination with a fabulous evening of music, from the sublime singing of Elaha to intricate guitar from Giuliano Moderelli, driven along by Al MacSween's keyboard jazz influenced rhythms, all kept in time by the effortless syncopation of Joost Hendrikx’ drums - all done in an Afghan 7/8 tempo . The result was a mesmerizing musical event that had the audience gripped from the first few bars of the opening tune. All the Afghan folk tunes were given a contemporary treatment by Kefaya to form the basis for their stunning album called Songs Of Our Mothers; a vibrant musical interpretation on Afghan folk music filtered through myriad forms, from spiritual jazz and dub to Indian classical music and electronica. The album won the Songlines Best Fusion Album category and they were also nominated for Best artist. They were meant to appear at WOMAD later that year, but for those of us fortunate to have heard them at The HUBS on the 29th February then ... you heard them at Talking Gigs2 first.

My thanks to everyone involved - with particular thanks to Celia Mather for the review below and to Don Murray for all the photos.

Talking Gigs2: Kefaya with Elaha Soroor, 29 February 2020 (Celia Mather)

Don't we just love it when musicians from different genres, cultures, histories come together and create something different? That's exactly what Kefaya and Elaha Soroor have done.

Kefaya is a duo of organist Al MacSween and guitarist Giuliano Modarelli from the UK and Italy, who met at Music College in Leeds while studying jazz. Completing the line up is drummer Joost Hendrikx. There, they were pulled towards a wide variety of music styles. Giuliano said he was particularly drawn to the music of the Indian community in the city: a new exposure for him. They told us they now like to go to India, not only for the music but also to get away from the British winter.

After completing their studies, they moved to London, aiming to explore even more possibilities, and there they met Elaha, who is from Afghanistan. Through her, they discovered the wide range of music played among Afghan communities across Europe. A special connection immediately formed especially between her and Guilano through his knowledge of Indian classical music, and they all decided to collaborate and see what it might bring.

The first number they played us was a Hazara love song from western Afghanistan, close to the border with Iran. "When you love someone deeply, you love them, however imperfect." With an electronic intro and backing to Elaha's beautiful vocal melody, somehow 'Afghan rock' seemed a fitting term.

Keyboard player Al was wearing a T-shirt with the slogan 'No Nationality'. The politics of anti-racism is very important to the band. They said they are particularly disgusted by the language used against refugees, Muslims, and so on. "We connect through music, and it's a way to express political ideas." The title of their first album - 'Radio International' - embeds their wish to promote internationalism instead of patriotism.

Their second song, with guitar backing, was by a famous Hazara-Afghan woman artist Delaram; known as Abe Mirza, from the 1960s who, Elaha told us, was sent to jail for being a singer and sadly never sang again. It is about her loneliness in her home town, at a time of great conflict in Afghanistan, and when women were not known by their own names but rather as 'sister of' or 'mother of'. Her story and the song have great resonance for Elaha as she has also been persecuted for her singing, even though 50 years on. She had already been singing with various music groups and styles when she rose to fame through the Afghan version of 'X Factor'. However, for religious fundamentalists it is inappropriate for anyone, particularly women, to be involved in music and her exposure on TV was considered especially 'extreme'. It was even suggested that she was a prostitute in a ‘porn’ film.  As a single woman living independently, it was already difficult to find somewhere to live but now she had to move several times. "People could kill you for this, and there were attacks on me and my family", she said. Eventually she had to flee the country.

Elaha and Kefaya's recently released album 'Songs of Our Mothers' is based on Afghan folk songs that are traditionally passed on by Afghan women to their children, usually with just a two-stringed instrument as a backing. Now set in the band's contemporary fusion, they were asked how hard it was to find the right mix between their styles. For Elaha, "Musicians find a way to understand each other's languages. We all have a common mentality. We believe in similar things". She has always been interested in something more than traditional, looking for re-interpretation. She likes rock in particular, especially for the bass which is missing in Afghan music. "We just learn and share with each other. We may be from different parts of the world but we understand each other through music", Al added.

Then they played 'Charsi', which apparently means 'Pothead' (i.e. weed smoker)! They confirmed that the herb is smoked in Afghanistan, but they had changed the words, now asking the guy who is smoking it to come and share. Here they turned to a South Asian rhythm, but nevertheless with an electric guitar opening, and they were joined by TG's Alistair on bodhran drum.

In the second half, we were treated to more pieces with pounding, complicated Asian rhythms, along with psychedelic organ, and reverb on strings, along with Elaha's beautiful voice. Her big smile when singing and body movements showed just how much music flows through her veins. One song, from Herat on the western border of Afghanistan, has a title which translates as 'Orange', a revolutionary colour in neighbouring Iran. Another had 7/8 timing, to which they invited the audience to clap along. We seemed to do quite well - until the musicians stopped leading us so as to pick up their instruments! Guiliano's guitar riff was extraordinary, and then what had been a steady drum burst through into a highly intricate, creative solo by Joost. Elaha's smiles and head shakes said it all, as did the huge cheers from the audience afterwards.

Next was a protest song 'Indignados' from Kefaya's first album, composed by Al and Giulinao who, have spent most of their lives writing songs for equality and human rights. Rock? Jazz? With its very strong 4/4 beat, now everyone in the hall could 'get in the groove' with yelps as well as claps, while still enjoying the highly complex organ and guitar interactions.

They ended on a high note: a love song, including ululations from Elaha. Encouraged to get up and dance along, many of us found it not that easy, with a rhythm we're not used to. But they did get a standing ovation on which to end.

'Songs Of Our Mothers' went on to win the Songlines 'Best Fusion Album' award in 2020 as well as the band being a nominee in Best Group. Elaha Soroor won the Songlines category “Best Newcomer” for 2020.

Celia Mather

Alistair joins the band on bodhran