Vieux Farka Toure
All photographs - Ayse Balkose
The final gig in the TalkingGigs Spring series featured a truly stunning vocal performance by Mor Karbasi, supported by the amazing musicianship of Joe Taylor (guitar) and Yshai Afterman (percussion). Add to that the fascinating tales from Mor of her musical and personal journey and the stories behind the songs, gave a brilliantly memorable evening for performers and audience alike.
My thanks to Celia Mather for her excellent review below which captures both the detail and the feeling of this magical gig.
"I was blown away!" So said one of those who filled in the 'feedback survey' afterwards. "Astounding vocal techniques", commented another. Yes indeed, the Talking Gig with the singer Mor Karbasi in Sheffield on 8 May 2017 was another extraordinary event. Over 160 people came to the HUBS to hear and watch her stunning performance, as well as learn about the fascinating story of how she explored her family roots to find her artistic and personal identity. Accompanying her were two first-class musicians: her partner Joe Taylor on guitar, vocals and percussion (and somewhere in the background was their two-month old baby son), plus percussionist Yshai Afterman.
Mor and Joe kicked off the evening with a song that her mother had sung to her when she was very young: an old Sephardic Jewish song, originally from Greece, about a beautiful dark-skinned girl. As with several of her renditions, she sang different verses in different languages: Hebrew (in which her mother sang to her) and Ladino (which she came to learn more recently). As we heard later, her
mother continues to be a seminal influence on her musical career, still helping to write lyrics for which Mor and Joe find tunes. And from this very first number we understood what a superb singer Mor is.
Their next piece was a wedding song from the Sephardic community in Morocco. This is where her maternal family came from, living in Marrakesh before moving to Israel. Meanwhile, her father's family came to Israel from Persia (now Iran). Coming from a very poor background, her father was proud to be the first to have a tape machine, she told us - on which he liked to play Led Zeppelin. Mor was born in Jerusalem.
Joe, meanwhile, is British, with a rock music background, though also with a long interest in Spanish guitar. It was on holiday in Egypt that he met Mor. He had taken his guitar with him and apparently they were soon playing 'Hey Joe' together amid the palm trees. At first, they could not be together as she had to do compulsory Israeli military service. But they stayed closely in touch, even writing songs together while on the phone. Eventually, Mor came to the UK, and now they are back in
The third number, another Moroccan Sephardic piece, was seemingly about a woman who regrets trying to drown a handsome young man who had approached her. It was in 3:3 rhythm, and now Mor was joined by Yshai on a 'riq', a Middle Eastern tambourine. Along with soaring vocals, she stamped, clapped and threw her long, dark locks in a 'Flamenco' style of which we would see much more as the evening progressed.
In between London and Jerusalem, Mor and Joe lived in Seville, exploring the Spanish music they love. Mor said she had always been attracted to it even though, when young, she did not know that this is where her lineage comes from. As Mor said, for many centuries, people of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths lived peacefully together in southern Spain. But in the late 15th century, the Christians demanded that the Jews and Muslims adopt Christianity, leave or be killed. The majority of Jews fled to countries across North Africa, Europe and the Middle East, creating the Sephardic diaspora. There, they absorbed from the cultures of their new homelands. They developed the Ladino language, a variety of old Spanish mixed with much else including Hebrew and Arabic, which is still spoken today though it is gradually dying out, she said. Their music took in the complicated rhythms and melodies that are common throughout Arabia and North Africa.
Even before she knew her connection to this history, she was attracted to the music. "Artists are always searching for their next inspiration, looking for meaning. I was always looking for my roots: how come I am singing Ladino? In fact, as I found out, my family come from there."
After the gig, Mor told me she really appreciated the 'talking' bit. It meant, she said, that in the second half she felt the audience knew her well enough such that she was free to express the music more. Indeed, Mor's beautiful vocals and theatrical persona, along with Joe's Flamenco guitar and Yshai's percussion, now had all the space they needed. Her singing seemed to include even more multiple quarter tones. To her clapping, she added hand circles and snapping fingers, and she increasingly threw her red velvet skirt as well as her hair. The audience responded with their own vibrant clapping and cheers.
One song, somewhat more wistful and in Hebrew, she dedicated to her great-grandmother who was said to be very beautiful when young. "I only saw her as an old woman, with her head covered. But just once I saw her full beauty when she removed her head cover and revealed her long white hair", Mor recalled.
More songs followed, several again about brides, including 'Ojos de Novia' (Eyes of a Bride), the title song of her most recent album (2016). The lyrics of another, which opened with Yshai's superb drumming on a wide range of instruments, Mor translated as "When I'm alone at home I like to close all the curtains and pretend that I'm a witch" - not a particularly common refrain!
Introducing the next song, Mor said, "In Seville, I used to love walking in the old Jewish quarter: I felt as if I had lived there before. Then I learnt about a Jewish woman who fell in love with a Christian man when this was not allowed. She continued to love him, but it didn't end well. It inspired me to write this song, evoking passion and grief."
In the final number, they had the audience clapping along and singing a refrain, which was followed by a very warm response, with long applause and calls for 'more. For their finale, they did two pieces. One started off very differently, with Mor accompanying herself on keyboard; it had quite a poignant feel until she moved to the front, dancing very assertively while Joe and Yshai snapped their fingers. The final number was full of vibrant drumming and singing. And so ended the last of
their 11 gigs on this tour of the UK.
"All those communities melded into one woman", commented a friend afterwards.