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21 août 2008

Fathers of fusion

By David Honigmann, Financial Times, Published: August 16 2008

It’s a hot Sunday night at the World of Music and Dance festival (Womad), and Hamid Mantu, tall, thin, and wearing a leopard-skin fedora, is high on adrenaline. He and his band, Transglobal Underground, have just stormed through their set.

This has been a good year for TGU. They won a BBC Radio 3 Award For World Music in the Club Global category, a sub-genre that they did as much as anyone to create. And they won a BBC Folk Award as well, for their work on the Imagined Village project. The times have caught up with them.

But Mantu is reminiscing about his first Womad. In 1982, Hamilton Lee (as he was then called) and his friend Tim Whelan were in the audience, watching Echo & the Bunnymen play with a group of drummers from Burundi. “That was a key moment,” says Mantu, “seeing that concept.” Whelan drily insists that his main memory of 1982 was asking himself: “Why is someone painting my face green?” But he concedes the importance of that first Womad in his later career. “You think there are about five people in the country who are into the same thing as you – and then you find there are thousands.”

At the time, Lee and Whelan were part of the indie band Furniture, whose best-known song, “Brilliant Mind”, is a staple fixture of superior 1980s compilations. Furniture’s musical horizons were widened in 1987 when they were dispatched on a tour of the Middle East by the British Council. “We played a great big theatre in Amman in front of the Crown Prince,” recalls Whelan. “We’d been a shambolic indie band, turning our back to the audience. Suddenly we found we had to put on a show.” Egypt was another revelation. “A huge pop music tradition that gave nothing to, and took nothing from, England.”

A second tour sent them round eastern Europe in 1989. “We saw Romania at the end of Ceausescu. It was all radically different: a new and nasty experience.”

Furniture collapsed shortly afterwards, and Whelan and Lee, along with a musician who called himself Count Dubulah, started experimenting with a wider range of sounds. “It was no group, just an idea,” says Mantu.

“Me and Hami,” recalls Whelan, “had always been more funk, jazzy, whatever. Nothing with rock guitar, but old rock’n’roll, 1950s music, doo-wop. TGU started as a way of putting together all the stuff we were genuinely interested in. We made ‘Temple Head’ [the group’s influential first single, later the soundtrack for a Coca-Cola advert], people danced, end of story.”

But it was the beginning of a story as well. The band released a series of albums – notably Dream of 100 Nations and International Times – that brought a sparkling, exotic range of instrumentation to the lumpen British dance scene. TGU’s marriage of world sounds with dance beats, plus a touch of widescreen soundtrack majesty borrowed from German sonic experimentalists Can, spawned a thousand imitators. It also attracted a horde of collaborators. Natacha Atlas joined as singer and bellydancer, and TGU acted as her producers as she began her solo career. (She still works with them: Whelan is mixing her vocals into a film soundtrack as we speak, and her Arabesque stylings hover in the air behind him.) Johnny Kalsi drummed with TGU for a couple of years, until his own Dhol Foundation was up and running. The Zulu singer Doreen Thobekile was a later member. Neil Sparkes partnered with Natacha Atlas: their first live performance was at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1992 and remained with the band for several years before leaving with Count Dubullah to form Temple of Sound.

“From 1992 to 1996”, he says, “we were gigging as much as Blur. We got taken under the wing of Britpop. But it was really a reflection of the diaspora of music in London.” For Mantu: “We still reflect what’s going on in London at the moment. We’re all based there, listening to and loving different kinds of music.”

Whelan remembers that “when we first used to play Womad, no one thought we were world music. We came from the opposite end: music from inside Britain, moving outward.” He cites the influence of “a generation of Arabic musicians who have grown up in London, and the whole London African music scene”.

“It was an update of the Specials meet Parliament with Arabic vocals and immense dub,” says Sparkes. “We may have been making dance music, but it was never techno, never ambient crystal-gazing.” They were, says Mantu, “confused. Not fusion music but confusion.”

TGU is often described as a collective: its membership fluctuates, and no one – not even Mantu or Whelan – has been present for every single one of the group’s performances. “We say collective”, says Whelan, “because you can’t call yourself the Chaotic.” A stable line-up, says Mantu, would in some ways be easier. But “people that leave always come back. Wherever we go in the world, people always want to jump on stage with us.”

This year, TGU have been busier than ever. For two or three years, they did not play in Britain at all; now, the rise of the smaller festival has kept them in strong demand, with appearances at Larmer Tree and the Big Session, as well as at the Festival at the Edge, a storytelling event.

They also tour frequently around Europe. Mantu raves about a festival five hours from Kiev at which the band recently played. “At 1am there was a fire show, with someone being lowered into a flaming pit for about 40 minutes. It was a Ukrainian ritual, apparently.”

In its current incarnation, as well as Whelan and Mantu, the group consists of four other members. Tuup (an acronym for The Unorthodox Unprecendented Preacher), is billed as a storyteller. “Hipsters, flipsters and finger-popping daddios,” he toasts, channelling Lord Buckley, as the band launch into “Nile Delta Disco”. Krupa Pattni sings in a beret. Gurjit Sihra thumps a dhol, a double-skinned Punjabi drum. Sheema Mukherjee plays cascading runs of sitar.

“TGU,” says Whelan, “has developed its own existence that’s bigger than the people in it. It’s like having another personality in the room.” How would he describe that personality? Whelan pauses. “Very, very tall. It’s carried on of its own accord. Every time we think it’s run its course, something new comes along.”

Transglobal Underground play the Beautiful Days Festival on Saturday night [Aug 16], the Pontadawre Festival on August 17, and Bestival and Ilfracombe Folk Festival in September

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