Live Review: Sankorfa @ Borderline (London, April 23)

It’s something of a cliché now to say a band defies categorisation but the sonic mavericks of Sankorfa are only too worthy of this observation. Formed in 2004, Guildhall School of Music alumnae Michael Allen, Zands Duggan, Ruth Gomez and Scott Wilson are the four multi-instrumentalists behind the band, who borrow their name from an African word meaning ‘looking back to go forward’.

Their energetic live performances, as demonstrated at the Borderline venue in London last Friday consist of these highly skilled percussionists swapping and navigating around various instruments to produce strange soundscapes that are at once lush and stark. 

With such qualities in common and the experimental nature of their work it’s only too tempting to compare Sankorfa to another band for which the beauty of their music is in its peculiarity – Portico Quartet. However there are enough elements to distinguish these two separate entities to render the comparison somewhat inaccurate.

For a start, their difference in instrument selection suggests the influence of Jazz on Portico’s style is a lot more prominent – thus their output generally more melodious – than that of Sankorfa. In truth the latter are not as concerned with discernable melodies as they are with playing with new ideas in audio, demonstrated on compositions such as ‘Kloshing’ and ‘Seven Minutes in the Hurt Locker’ (currently available for free download). This is not a criticism as such and can make for a very interesting listening experience. It’s hard, for instance, not to readily engage with the West African-inspired rhythms of ‘A-OK’.

There is something that transcends both time and culture captured in the Sankorfa sound. Nevertheless it does require the audience to meet the group half-way at times and is therefore not always the most accessible of music forms. Friday’s show wasn’t helped by the fact that the Borderline is a black hole of a venue; a depressing, windowless edifice that manages to devour some of the vibrancy of its acts.

Enjoyment was also hampered by two seriously over-zealous drunks one of whom, not satisfied with maniacally heckling the band at every opportunity, was also determined to flout social mores about personal space. To their credit Sankorfa did their best to remain unflustered by these distractions and attacked each number with gusto. This particular show had an added emotional factor being Ruth’s last performance with the group but they managed to keep it celebratory.

There is always some difficulty in adequately articulating the live music experience; a group as out-of-leftfield as Sankorfa make it that much tougher. Yet rather than dissuade the uninitiated, it should be an incentive to check out this nimble-fingered outfit as soon as, to satisfy curiosity if nothing else.

–Tola Ositelu

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