A mish-mash of jazz, spoken word, freestyling and stories, Tongue Fu brings together people who love words with people who love music and lets them riff. The result, as you would expect, is mixed, but what didn’t quite work for me had other people spellbound and vice versa, so it’s an intriguing evening.
Compere Chris Redmond kicks off the show
by describing Tongue Fu as “writing without writing”; the improvisation is emphasised and it leads everywhere from slightly off-kilter freestyled rap to gorgeous messes, touching on everything in between. Redmond’s opening piece, ‘Slow is the new fast’ was a bit too obvious for me; it didn’t say anything new but it did rehash ideas about time and stress very well. Redmond is an extremely personable compere, though, and a generous one.
Jan Blake spoils us with a few minutes of singing in her wonderful deep voice before launching into a beautifully-told West African version of the Oedipus myth. In the second half, she tells a more upbeat tale about trust and camels, which is captivating. The amazing band (Riaan Vosloo on bass, Arthur Lea on keys and Patrick Davey on drums) manage to follow her from West Africa to the Middle East without flinching; these three are an impressive and tight ensemble. Deanna Rodger’s angry, political poetry encountered a problem which came up again in some of Soweto Kinch’s work: it feels slightly jarring in the ridiculous opulence of the Royal Albert Hall – it’s hard not to wonder how comfortable such inherently anti-establishment artists feel here.This juxtaposition lessens the impact of her pithy lyrics, also not helped by the sound levels which meant many of her faster lines got lost. Rodger is an energetic and hugely entertaining performer, and one with interesting things to say, but I am not sure that this format best serves her style.
Raymond Atrobus opened with some thoughtful, gentle poems – one which related a conversation with his grandma is particularly well-judged. The others are fun but feel slightly inconsequential, especially in contrast to Rodger’s blazing words. The mix of styles and performers is sensible though, and the bits that weren’t my cup of tea were more than balanced out by the bits that were. It’s just hard not to wish for an entire evening of Soweto Kinch.
There is no doubt that there was a huge amount of talent on stage tonight, but the star of the evening was undoubtedly Kinch. To be perfectly honest, when Kinch is around, everyone else could just take the night off (apart from the band, please), because he can do everything, extremely well. He raps, he freestyles, he plays glorious saxophone – which he endearingly calls his “saxomophone”, a la Homer Simpson. Kinch closes both halves of the show, in rather different moods: the first half sees his least successful number as he veers towards the political. Kinch redeems this incongruity, though, with warmth and humour. He chooses ‘Elgar’ as his word for a freestyle game, spitting lyrics that, thanks to the audience, incorporate existentialism, labia (yes, really), Godzilla, anthropomorphism and redemption. Kinch’s verbal dexterity is impressive, and he powers through some tracks from his new album, too. He’s almost certainly the only man alive who can get away with asking his band to give him “’Pomp and Circumstance’, but funky”. To my mind, he is at his best when he returns to a more traditional jazz jam, joining drums, bass and keys with his sax, leaving the lyrics to one side and letting his mercurial and melancholic music do the talking.
Tongue Fu was at the Royal Albert Hall on 19 February. See the Tongue Fu Facebook page for upcoming performances.