by Ian Mann
October 31, 2011
Valdo is a one man band and then some. Ian Mann enjoys the Cameroonian artist's remarkable solo performance and takes a look at his two albums.
Muntu Valdo, The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 29/10/2011.
Over the course of the last few years The Edge’s “Jazz Notes” series has proved to be a resounding success with international stars such as Tord Gustavsen, Bobo Stenson, Tomasz Stanko, Matthias Eick and Ralph Towner all visiting this remarkable venue in rural Shropshire. The cream of the UK’s jazz musicians, among them members of the Loop and F-ire Collectives, have also been regular visitors and many reviews of jazz events at The Edge can be found elsewhere on these web
“Jazz Notes” grew from humble beginnings, initially just featuring local Midlands based bands, but is now an established part of the UK touring circuit and The Edge is a favourite venue of many musicians. The success of the jazz programme has led to artistic director Alison Vermee casting her net further with a series of folk and world music events under the banner “More Music at The Edge”. Tonight was the second concert of the series following an earlier appearance by the folk group Southern Tenant Union, an event that I was unable to attend due a previous commitment at the Harmonic Festival in Birmingham.
The music of the Cameroon born solo performer Muntu Valdo therefore represented the venue’s first excursion into “world music” and I’m pleased to report that the event was a great success. A late surge in pre-orders plus a healthy number of door sales ensured that a highly respectable audience of 80 turned up with every one of the tables in the cabaret style set up occupied. Valdo, a highly skilled performer with considerable personal charm ensured that everybody went home happy and on the evidence of this evening it would seem that the “More Music at The Edge” series is really starting to take off.
I’d seen Valdo perform live once before, earlier in the year in a decidedly chilly marquee as part of the music programme at Hay Festival (as chronicled in our “Notes from Hay” feature). I very much enjoyed his appearance there but felt that tonight’s show was better again, two forty five minute sets instead of a single hour long performance. Valdo refers to his music as “Sawa blues” after the region of Cameroon that he hails from. However as jazz journalist Kevin Le Gendre astutely observes in his liner notes for Valdu’s latest album “The One And The Many” (2011) he draws extensively on the various musics of the African diaspora, American jazz and blues, Jamaican reggae, Brazilian samba and more. There is a hint of artists as superficially diverse as Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Milton Nasimento in his sound. One should never forget that all these musics have ultimately come out of Africa never mind how westernised and mainstream they may seem to have become.
Valdo isn’t afraid of utilising modern Western musical technology to enhance his sound. His basic acoustic guitar/harmonica/voice set up is augmented by an array of foot pedals (operated by bare feet for extra sensitivity) which allow him to loop and layer his sound, sometimes using updated synclavier technology to introduce guitar generated tuned percussion sounds to an already rich sonic mix. In other words Valdo is a one man band and then some. The album title “The One And The Many” is an oblique reference to Valdo and his “sorcerers” as he refers to his array of foot pedals. Live looping is now pretty much standard music practice but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody deploy it as skilfully and comprehensively as Valdo who also uses it to multi track his voice in a rich tapestry of melody and rhythm. He does so much more than the basic guitar layering of most other practitioners.
As I’ve mentioned Valdo is a highly personable performer who actively encouraging his audiences to sing and clap along with his highly melodic songs. The fact that he sings in the Sawa language hardly seems to matter, Valdo is a great communicator and his choruses are so catchy that even English audiences have no trouble singing along in an unfamiliar language. His voice is warm and highly expressive and even though he was fighting the effects of a cold he still sounded great. For all his guitar, harmonica and technological skills it’s Valdo’s voice that is the key to the success of his music. Some of tonight’s most affecting numbers were when he played it “straight”; just voice guitar and harmonica, the latter held in a neck brace in the style of Bob Dylan or Neil Young.
Most of tonight’s material was sourced from “The One And The Many” with Valdo occasionally dipping into the repertoire of his previous album “Gods & Devils”, recorded with a band back in 2005. It’s a tribute to his solo performance skills that the basic sound of the new album is remarkably similar to that of the band recording. At this point it should also be stated that Valdo is more than just a charismatic live performer, both albums stand up to regular and repeated home listening.
Immersion in the albums also serves to heighten the listener’s understanding of Valdo’s political sensibilities. Amongst the numerous love songs there are also musings on the current state of Africa, economic migration and the legacy of European imperialism. “The One And The Many” thus also represents a call for peace, brotherhood and solidarity. At Hay I didn’t really register the political aspect, Valdo’s sunny disposition ensures that he’s not an obviously “angry” performer, but tonight the English lyrics of songs such as “Gods And Devils” and “No Mercy” plus a brief rant about the situation in Dharfur left one in no doubt as to where Valdo’s political sympathies lie. Even a seemingly innocent sing-along such as “Djongo” (translation “The Sword”) from “The One And The Many” is deeper than it appears. An inspection of the translation in the album insert reveals a particularly shocking and bloodthirsty lyric and an indictment of imperialist politics.
Now based in London Valdo is slowly acquiring a following for his highly individualistic music. Tours with his countryman jazz bassist Richard Bona and with Ladysmith Black Mambazo have exposed him to large audiences and have won him a lot of friends in the process. Indeed there were moments tonight when Valdo’s multi tracked and layered solo vocals sounded remarkably like his Ladysmith friends with maybe just a hint of Bobby McFerrin thrown into the mix.
Tonight Muntu Valdo won many new fans, as I’m sure he does at pretty much every live performance. Although his music can conveniently bundled into the “world music” bag his songs are melodic and accessible enough to hold considerable appeal to a broad range of listeners. I’d be surprised if there was anybody in the audience tonight who didn’t enjoy some aspect of Valdo’s performance. Mainstream success is probably unlikely but the quality of his live performances should ensure that his fan base continues to grow. He’s certainly a performer I’d be happy to see again but having witnessed the solo show twice I think I’d rather like to see him with a band. That could be really interesting. However I’d urge listeners of all persuasions to check out Muntu Valdo both live and on record. He’s an artist well worth listening to on any level.
The “Jazz Notes” series takes over at The Edge again for the foreseeable future until gypsy jazz guitarist Robin Nolan appears under the “More Music” banner in April 2012. Let’s hope this new strand goes from strength to strength in the manner of its more established companion series.