Tonkori in the Park
World music at the City of London Festival,
reviewed by MALCOLM MILLER
An unusual and refreshing lunchtime experience formed one of the concluding events on 13 July of this year's City of London Festival (26 June to 13 July 2006), in which the Japanese theme, Trading Places: London-Tokyo, was evident in the distinctive music on offer throughout. This free lunchtime event was a special world music concert by Oki Dub Ainu, renowned for his mastery of Tonkori, a traditional Ainu instrument with five strings, and his creative fusions with other world music artists, and in new mixed popular styles including African and trance music.
With his four man group comprising bass guitar, and a variety of percussion, Oki performed at the bandstand in Finsbury Circus Gardens, one of London's oldest public gardens dating from 1606, to a lively circle of interested audience seated with sandwiches on benches and surrounding walls in the midday sun. A graduate of Tokyo University, he returned to Japan after a spell working in films in New York, finding his roots through his Tonkori training in 1992 in Hokkaido, an island the size of Ireland where, as he explained in his interval speech, temperatures reach minus 40 centigrade in the winter. He studied the traditional melodies for Tonkori, often from recordings, one of which he performed here with great sensitivity, a beautiful pentatonic tune set to a gently swaying lullaby rhythm, the delicate plucked sounds of the narrow oblong lute clearly etched against the summer afternoon breeze.
The concert had begun with a hard rock -- Tonkori fusion for which Oki is well known, in his WOMAD performances and CDs. A quietly repetitive, trance like strain was joined by heavy electric bass and percussion boards imitating drum kit, gradually building up a tension and climactic body of sound that might have been heard across the road, despite the traffic noises, in Moorgate Station. By way of overture it led to the first vocal number, in which Oki himself sang in what appeared to be African dialect, then joined in close harmony by two other members of the four piece band; here the husky voice and mainly two note melody were clearly evocative of Africa, yet one could hear the Tonkori contrasted as an amplified plucked string against the bass guitar. The mood switched to a caressing lullaby for the last song of the first set, here again the three part harmony with its West African echoes, set over a gently pulsating cushion of sound and a simple folk like melody that gradually rose to a climax then receded; the textures were subtle and nuanced, the melody well-shaped and this was a satisfying performance.
Copyright © 15 July 2006
Malcolm Miller, London UK