Edinburgh International Festival music reviews: Princess Nokia | Ibn Battuta: The Traveller of Time | Istanbul 1710

New York rapper Princess Nokia makes her lively EIF debut while early music specialists Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI feature in two transportive and intriguing concerts. Reviews by Fiona Shepherd, Carol Main and David Kettle

Princess Nokia ***

Leith Theatre

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In early 2020, Princess Nokia, the New York rapper born Destiny Nicole Frasqueri, simultaneously released two albums, Everything Sucks and Everything Is Beautiful. That duality of mood was present throughout her broad and somewhat random set at Leith Theatre. She arrived on stage, looking utterly glamorous in sports casual and executing some kickboxing moves, to the turbo strains of The Prodigy’s Firestarter, and later said she wished to embody the late and lairy Prodigy frontman Keith Flint in her performance. At the same time, she self-declared as a “beacon and vessel of love” and dedicated the sort-of-sweet jazz-influenced Apple Pie to some ecstatic teenage fans in the front row.

Princess Nokia
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In the spirit of being all things to everyone, she rapped over some serious bass music but also gospel funk breaks and spaghetti western samples, danced to a deep reggaeton rumble, sang a cappella with varying success and offered the benefit of her street wisdom across a deliberately PG-rated version of her repertoire, from the quaking beat and girls-in-charge message of I Like Him to her rapid-fire rhyming over the irresistible bassline of Slumber Party.

There was no care for momentum or a creative arc to the show. Individual tracks were launched into, took hold to general crowd frenzy, only to be discarded in slash-and-burn time, usually on a fade-out from her DJ. The fire was indeed started – and then extinguished, and then reignited.

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It was an odd way to make an impact on her first visit to Edinburgh but given the communal girl crush vibes emanating from the crowd, who knows what Nokia would have had to do to provoke a negative response? It was clear she was an inspiration to the young girls in her audience and she was rewarded for her staccato efforts with a sports bra lobbed on to stage in adoration. Fiona Shepherd

Ibn Battuta: The Traveller of Time ***

Usher Hall

With a wide-ranging culturally diverse group of musicians, gathered together from China, Syria, Armenia, Greece, Turkey, Spain and Morocco, under the leadership of early music specialist Jordi Savall, the Hespèrion XXI ensemble have developed a fascinating concept in tracing the journeying of 14th century Arab writer Ibn Battuta through music. Even though the Usher Hall wasn’t quite the right place to hear it on Wednesday evening, the travelogue of places visited by Battuta provides the winding thread for showcasing a series of 19 instrumental and vocal pieces linked together by narrative, matter-of-factly delivered by actor Assaad Bouab.

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Percussive tablas and modal sounds of instruments such as the oud, plaintive flutes and medieval lute helped transport the audience eastwards to Africa and across Asia. Evocative though the music was, a huge map on a screen, or live video homing in on Hespèrion XXI’s unusually distinctive instruments, or digital images of the exotic sights written about by Battuta could have lifted the performance to a different level. Amplification, although necessary in such a large space, skewed how the instruments were heard and did not do any favours to the soprano and baritone soloists in terms of balance or singing together as a duo. Carol Main

Istanbul 1710: Jordi Savall & Hespèrion XXI *****

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Queen’s Hall

It’s perhaps not surprising that Catalan polymath Jordi Savall should be drawn to the 18th-century Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir: both are cross-cultural musical pioneers, Savall during decades of research and performance across both early music and “world” music, and Cantemir in the decades he spent in Istanbul/Constantinople three centuries ago, and the research he carried out into Ottoman music. Savall’s passion was evident in his performance with five international musicians of numbers from Cantemir’s Book of the Science of Music, and short pieces from around the same time.

It's virtually impossible, of course, to analyse these performances without the level of scholarship that Savall himself possesses, but taken on purely musical terms, these were gloriously lithe, agile accounts, delicately decorating melodies with ear-tweaking microtonal intervals and ever-shifting, unpredictable rhythms, according to the particular personalities of the sextet of instruments involved – from Savall's own somewhat raw, unadorned vielle and lyre, to the spectacular sweeps, harmonics and tremolos that Hakan Güngör drew from his kanun plucked zither.

The music ranged from whirling dances to gentler solo meditations, and a duet between Güngör and his colleague Dimitri Psonis on santur (struck zither) was particularly memorable. As so often with Savall, it was a glimpse into music long forgotten or overlooked, in wonderfully committed, persuasive performances. David Kettle