EIF music reviews: Floating Points | Shona the Musical Choir

When organisers of the Edinburgh International Festival first mooted their intention to disperse events around the city and away from the overcrowded centre, a brownfield site in an out-of-town retail park was probably not top choice of atmospheric venue.
Shona the Musical ChoirShona the Musical Choir
Shona the Musical Choir

But as uninviting as the location might sound, this year’s Edinburgh Park programme of contemporary music is proving a source of great joy for deprived gig-goers, who are already familiar with the concept of partying in large open-sided tents at summer festivals – simply substitute the hot, sweaty flesh-pressing of old with the Festival’s Covid-proof socially distanced seating on bright and breezy nights.

Even the sight of the grey dome pavilion on first approach packs a certain festival frisson. This is a huge, airy space, capable of holding thousands but restricted to 670 keen souls for the duration. A degree of decorum may have been injected to proceedings but for three weeks this temporary new home for live rock, pop, jazz and electronica conveys that transitory carnival feeling.

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If the audience for Floating Points (****) were out of practise, they didn’t show it, as the muscle memory kicked in with the bassline, and seat shimmying became shape-throwing and hands pumped upwards in exaltation.

The Mancunian musician otherwise known as Sam Shepherd is classically influenced, most recently collaborating with veteran jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra on the album Promises. Hopefully that concert presentation lies in the future but for these times his solo son et lumiere set of sculptural electronica did very nicely.

Droplets of sonorous synthesiser notes landed as the accompanying corruscating lightshow fired up behind his bank of equipment. And then a beat, a palpable beat, and a delighted cheer from an audience resigned to chair dancing for the next hour. Many could not resist the bass and leapt up in their spot, looking round for validation.

Quickly, Shepherd’s seamless suite became a hands-in-the-air celebration, whether in communal ecstasy or private rapture. Undulating patterns on the screen matched to skittery drum'n' bass rhythms. The crowd responded to every quickening or intensifying of the beat but it was the sensation of the sub bass reverberating in ribcages which provided the most visceral thrill of the night, with joyfulsmiles at the rekindling of that familiar feeling as more and more joined the dance.

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Shepherd’s audio-visual production is hardly original – Orbital toured this sort of electronica extravaganza round the festivals throughout the 1990s and his fruit salad light show dates back further to the early days of Pink Floyd. But his set was infectious, immersive and dynamic, switching to a slower, languorous tempo, then ramping up to an ecstatic electro reverie before a blissful breather brought this act of techno communion to a close.

There was joy flowing freely from Shona the Musical Choir (***) , an Edinburgh-based ensemble drawn from across the African diaspora. As director Neo Vilakazi explained, they are named for the Shona people of Zimbabwe and their repertoire, co-written by Vilakazi, Ramcise Modie and Morgan Njobo, with lyrics by Vilakazi, is intended to evoke the culture and landscape of the continent.

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A trio of djembe drummers kicked off what was effectively a colourful concert presentation of a stage musical inspired by events in Zimbabwe at turn of the millennium.The interracial love story came across more clearly than the political backdrop but, regardless of the fuzziness of the narrative, the singing was superb, from the unimpeachable power of the soloists to the emotion of the massed voices behind them, while the songs, sprinkled with hip-hop and reggae seasoning, covered the time-honoured musical theatre range, from sentimental to bombastic to uplifting.

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