Harmony that transcends boundaries

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Catherine Bott is a Hispanophile soprano specialising in the Renaissance repertoire. She also presents BBC Radio 3’s Early Music Show, fronting earnest inquiries into matters such as whether Tallis’s Spem in Alium was first performed at Nonesuch Palace. (Eventual anticlimactic conclusion: probably not.) When the modern art gallery owner Fred Mann established a record label, he asked whether there was a recording she had always wanted to make.

The result is Convivencia, an idiosyncratic hybrid of Spanish Renaissance song, Arabic oud music and poetry. Bott is accompanied by David Miller on lute and vihuela (an ancestor of the guitar), by the percussionist Stephen Henderson on tar, tablah, tbilat and douf, and by Abdul Salam Kheir on oud. Eschewing Bott’s usual repertoire of court music, “associated”, as she puts it when we speak at the BBC’s Radio Theatre Café, “with kings relaxing after a hard day’s inquisition”, it celebrates that period of Spanish history when the Andalus was under Muslim rule and Moors, Christians and Jews lived together in relative harmony.

But the era of convivencia was fragile; even on this disc, most of the songs record not its heyday but its passing, as Ferdinand and Isabella embarked on the reconquista. Moors battle over Antequera and lose Alhama; the boy king Boabdil sighs for Granada for the last time.

Bott sees the project as “convivencia in action: two English people, a Welshman and a Lebanese. Abdul Salam is a very benign and reflective man – and a major-league virtuoso. The rest of us learnt to read music when we were very young; he imbibed music through the heart and the ears and the soul, which is true to the history of Moorish music in Spain.”

She is cagey about drawing modern parallels: convivencia could as easily be seen as a form of apartheid as a forerunner of multiculturalism. But she allows that “London is immeasurably more interesting than it was 30 years ago. I’m very proud to be part of a country where people come from other countries because they think they’ll be safe.”

Some 21st-century convivencia was on display the other night in Amsterdam’s ethnographic museum, the Tropenmuseum. Downstairs is a perfect tiny theatre, with gilded east Asian gods glowering from alcoves. The band playing was A Fula’s Calling: two German instrumentalists, an Iranian percussionist, a Senegalese guitarist and singer and an Indian tabla player and singer, all resident in the Netherlands. A Russian friend of the band, Oleg Kirev, casually assembled an alto saxophone and joined in from his seat in the audience before ambling on stage.

The band’s convener, Mark Lotz, played a variety of flutes, the bansuri breathy and Japanese, the bass flute so large that he looked like a man waltzing with a boa constrictor. The musical landscape wavered all over the atlas, but the singing, from Omar Ka and from Sandip Bhattarcharya, was geographically distinctive. Ka had the high, keening voice of a desert bluesman, at its best in an old Malian folksong, and the delicate acoustic guitar to match; Bhattarcharya mixed a headlong Qawwali rush with staccato vocal percussion. Music is often reduced by being described as a universal language; voice is utterly local.

A Fula’s Calling’s signature was the visible care they all took of one another, as the vocals segued from Bhattarcharya to Ka and back again, and the delight they took in each other’s performances: a palpable expression of friendship that blurred no boundaries.

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