Fusion was the overriding theme of this concert at the Cutty Sark – a night of unrelenting genre-bending that took its audience across Europe and sub-Saharan Africa on a voyage of musical discovery, retracing the steps of the 19th-century vessel that sat proudly above our heads.

Kabantu, the Manchester-based quintet who create unlikely marriages of folk music from around the world, joined forces with that quintessentially British of ensembles, the BBC Singers, adding a further element of musical crossover – this time between the oral and written traditions.

BBC Singers and Kabantu at Cutty Sark © BBC | Mark Allan
BBC Singers and Kabantu at Cutty Sark
© BBC | Mark Allan

The evening was divided into three sections, the first two giving each ensemble the opportunity to perform on their own, before coming together for a grand finale. When conductor Alexander L’Estrange led his singers down the aisle beneath the burnished hull of the 19th-century clipper, the suspicious ubiquity of water bottles gave us our first hint that a night of gimmickry awaited. Part one, entitled “The Suez Canal Route” was a hodgepodge of maritime-themed ditties that opened with Charles Trenet’s Beyond the Sea. Thankfully a Thomas Weelkes madrigal, The Andalusian Merchant, broke the spell before too many hips began swaying.

L’Estrange’s setting of Ariel's Song “Full Fathom Five” – words spoken by Ariel to Ferdinand in Shakespeare’s The Tempest – was a pleasantly hypnotic work built around a clever bit of word painting. Occurring throughout the piece, an abrupt drop on the word ‘five’ effectively conjures the murky depths of his father’s final resting place. This, and a beautiful soprano solo made up for an excessive number of ‘ding dongs’ in the tenors and basses.

It was at this point in the night that the much-anticipated water bottles were unleashed. A colourful array of semi-filled vessels gave “draughty” accompaniment (via Helmholtz resonance) to Anders Edenroth’s Water, originally written for the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. Whilst the programme notes helpfully reminded us that the bottles provide “both an interesting soundscape and a visual reminder of the importance of water to human life”, my rain-drenched shoes had left me apathetic towards such life-affirming sentiments, and the jejune inclusion of musical flasks served only to entrench my conviction that the work must remain solely in the repertoire of youth choirs.

BBC Singers and Kabantu at Cutty Sark © BBC | Mark Allan
BBC Singers and Kabantu at Cutty Sark
© BBC | Mark Allan

Kabantu kicked off Part 2 with a high-energy Scots reel composed by violinist Katie Foster in honour of her home country. Whilst the playing was exceptional from each member of the quintet, their sound suffered from a shopping-centre acoustic that greedily swallowed up Foster’s fast-moving fiddle passages. The space was kinder to slower works like Ulidzile, a traditional South-African funeral song, and Zizu and Nuala, which explores traditional Indonesian scales and gamelan-inspired cross rhythms. The latter also features the Hang – a mesmerising percussion instrument shaped like a flying saucer, only invented in 2000.

Part 3 opened with a semi-improvised montage-cum-jam session as both ensembles combined to revisit several of the works performed in the first half. Starting underneath the stern of the ship at the back of the hall, the BBC Singers slowly processed down its centre aisle towards Kabantu, spouting an assortment of vocal pyrotechnics, and resembling an overgrown gaggle of rebellious choristers. On making it to the front however, the group split and climbed the stairs either side of the stage, crashing together in great waves of sound, soaring over the ferocious, polyrhythmic accompaniment below.

BBC Singers and Kabantu at Cutty Sark © BBC | Mark Allan
BBC Singers and Kabantu at Cutty Sark
© BBC | Mark Allan

It was at this moment, when the two musical traditions were so starkly juxtaposed that the collaboration felt most effective. Once L’Estrange had put away his dress up box and unleashed that Cathedral-tinted sonority we associate with great British choral music, the performance finally began to take on a life of its own. Unfortunately the dress up box made one last appearance in the concluding item, a rendition of the South African gumboot dance Isicathulo, in which a wellington-booted Abel Selaocoe (of Kabantu) led the terribly British BBC Singers in what felt like a Friday night episode of Blue Peter. Still, the dance was received with a hearty cheer and a standing ovation, so perhaps it was actually brilliant and I simply let my soggy shoes get the better of me.

***11