Funded by the Norwegian embassy, and backed by the logistical support of the Sewalanka Foundation and Arusri Art Theatre, Norwegian band The Core performed at Barefoot on the last leg of their South Asian tour.
The core of The Core are Kjetil Møster on sax, Steinar Raknes on double bass, band-leader Espen Aalberg, directing from the drum-kit, and Erlend Slettevoll on piano. But for this evening, and the gigs that preceded it, they were joined by Indian musicians Fateh Ali on sitar (and vocals) and Prasenjit Mitra on tabla, as well as Norwegian singer Kirsti Huke.
Unlike so many ‘fusion’ events, this was not simply the one-night-stand of two incompatible musical styles, but a legitimate intertwining and cross-referencing of the highest quality, mixing themes of traditional music and techniques of improvisation. The best numbers, driven by the repetitive, balletic, rhythmic units of the tabla, worked on the general principle of layering and defining a musical mood, leading to some magnificent 10-minute, Bolero-style sustained crescendos. There was an added physical buzz to hearing it live, too: you can often only find this kind of thing on CD.
Needless to say, it was very well received, as measured both on the applausometer and by comparison, especially once Huke got more audibly involved. I overheard murmurings about ‘Asian Björk’ – though I’d have said it was more like the best bits of Kula Shaker’s tragically-forgotten second album (Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts: you ever seen a copy?).
I would like to have passed on some of the song titles, but they were nowhere to be seen, and my beery ears proved stubbornly unreceptive to Hindi (I’m guessing) as rendered in a Norwegian accent. The ‘lyrics’, seemingly all open vowels, didn’t provide many clues, either. (In all, I felt slightly sorry for Huke who – ‘renowned’ as she may be in Norway – didn’t really get much of a chance to shine in this particular play-list.)
Mitra did some solo South Asian scat – the audience applauding in a way that suggested they couldn’t tell if he was roundly insulting them or simply warming up (‘tip of the tongue, and the teeth and the lips…’) – then broke into a spell of virtuoso tabla. Technically speaking, this was astonishingly accomplished, like a 10-year-old Soviet gymnast on the parallel bars. But like the gymnast, it started to pall after about three minutes (albeit someone grumbled afterwards that she’d like to have heard more, and that the Indian and jazz elements hadn’t been separate enough – which just goes to show you can never please everyone).
The Barefoot garden setting was spot on. The heavy tropical night; the low-hanging trees; the temple bell; the cow-headed god in the corner; the drink… I felt like I’d scored a bit-part in Apocalypse Now – even if it seemed too much to hope for a fatted calf getting demised on the stone floor.
I wouldn’t have had the rows of chairs, though: they seemed to imply (if not actually impose) a formality to the evening that the punters didn’t want and the event itself couldn’t sustain.
Neither was I alone in wishing the gig had been longer. I overheard Aalberg saying that he thought the second half was the best they’d played the entire tour. Alas, attention had begun to drift by that point. Consecutive quarter-hour instrumentals are always going to be considered background music (very good background, in this instance; but background nonetheless). And without a singer – essentially, a lead singer – The Indian Core didn’t stand much chance of being anything else.