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Elizabeth Kinder
Photo: Sophie Ziegler

The Elusive Ethnomusicologist

Elizabeth Kinder’s monthly column

You know when you go to WOMAD and there’s all these unaccompanied kids in workshops learning Malagasy dance techniques or African drumming and you think, “how handy for the parents,” free to do a spot of unaccompanied hemp-related goods shopping or to grab a swift tantrum-free hair-of-the-dog. You don’t immediately think “How wonderful! These children are learning skills that will set them up for life, both practically and metaphysically – and who knows where it could lead?” Yet of course these kids are learning skills that are both exciting for how they feel and for their entrancing Technicolour glimpse of other worlds.

This is what happened to Welsh singer-songwriter Jasmine Powers. We were put in touch by a mutual friend and she tells me mum is a flautist with a love of afro-jazz and a dislike of folk music and dad is a guitarist and tin whistle player with a love of folk and dislike of jazz. They took their daughter to WOMAD where, during a workshop, she fell in love with the dance of the Ivory Coast. And clamoured every year to go back. “Marcel”, master of said Ivory Coast dance, she says, “taught me how to move.”

A useful skill when you’re performing. Had I too learnt from Marcel, my friend might not have yelled from the audience – I was onstage in a band and clapping a rhythm during a particular song with what I knew was grace and ease – “What are you doing Lizzie! Stick to saxophone!” She was laughing her head off. “You look like a performing seal!” And started to mime a turn at the zoo.

I doubt Jasmine Powers will experience this kind of audience participation, not just thanks to Marcel but also the brilliant grounding at WOMAD’s West African drumming workshops. These have fed into her life and work, she says, as surely as the fado and the Cape Verdean songs and her love of Maya Andrade; as have the Brazilian CDs her mum listened to and the folk records she heard with her father and the ceilidhs and eisteddfods they all went to together.

Underpinning all these glorious sounds from far-flung places and the sense of freedom they imply (a sense of freedom that inspired her to go to Morrocco and work with local musicians) is her connection with the place she grew up in. She is inspired by the freedom in the peace and beauty of the Pembrokeshire coast and by the joy that singing in Welsh at primary school every morning brought her, because her headmistress thought that to sing was the most important thing.

She has just started out on a musical career. And all this music from all those lands has ended up not as you might expect in an afro-world-folk combination, but in something she describes as ‘neo-soul’. “What’s that?” I ask. “Not ‘shouty’ like soul,” she says. “The phrase was coined for Eryka Badu.” And so I’m intrigued and waiting for the record. And I think how freeing is our connection with place through music. It’s like a free bus pass. The promise of unlimited travel is ours. And how brilliant to hear that WOMAD sets the seeds of mind-expanding wonder in a way that has nothing to do with hemp.

Elizabeth Kinder


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