Soul Noel @ The SouthBank Centre, London [Event Review]

Soul Noel main

Friday evening was the opening night at London’s Southbank Centre for Soul Noel– a specially commissioned project that sees producers and event organisers ‘Serious’ (London Jazz Festival pioneers) combine forces with ‘Black Routes’ a touring network of African and Caribbean music. The premise is simple- Christmas carols and seasonal songs remixed in the style of Ska, Reggae, African Hi-life, Jazz, Blues and Soul.

The concept might seem a bit obvious and cloying to some but the results are extraordinary. At the helm is renowned trumpeter Kevin Robinson (who has worked with the likes of Mica Paris, The Brand New Heavies, Lauryn Hill, Annie Lennox, Ray Charles and Hugh Masekela to name but a few) as musical director supported by premiere musicians, Femi Temowo (guitar) amongst them and a tight chorale of eight vocalists singing in lush four-part harmonies. As if that wasn’t enough to whet your appetite prestigious vocalists Ola Onabule and South Africa’s Sibongile Khumalo are thrown into the mix to perform various solos.

It’s hard to think of a western Christmas standard that is not covered by the SN team; ‘Joy To The World’, ‘Little Drummer Boy’, ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’, ‘Away In A Manger’ ‘A Partridge In A Pear Tree’ (which gave each member of the chorale a chance to show us their talents) ‘Deck the Halls’ etc…there was even a medley of family favourites such as ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘White Christmas’. Still as one would expect from a project as culturally diverse as this, Soul Noel incorporated seasonal songs as well as popular spirituals from the African continent.

Onabule’s classically influenced vocals sour strong and lithe over the delicious harmonies of the chorale although at times his voice tends towards an affected quality that can grate (most noticeable on his interpretation of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’). Thankfully, the breathtaking vocalisation of the chorale makes up for this. A few sharp notes at the start of the show soon smoothed out into the most sublime harmonisation I have heard in too long with the eight singers literally caressing my tear ducts on several occasions.

Sibongile Khumalo
Sibongile Khumalo

Ms Khumalo herself could teach a master class on the optimum vocal presentation. Technically astute but not in any way soulless she lets the pure and simple beauty of her voice tell the story, using her range to reflect the emotion of the song and not self-indulgently. She is Ella-esque in her versatility, her vocals just as well suited to scatting and jazz improvisation as they are to traditional South African hymns and pop standards.

“We Bathandwa”, a song from Sibongile’s homeland brings the show to an early standstill. The band opt for an acoustic arrangement; Robinson takes up his bugle horn to accompany Ms Khumalo’s delicate delivery and with the signature goosebump-giving South African harmonies by the chorale the piece is altogether something awe-inspiring.

Other highlights from the show include the moving rendition of the lachrymose South African pop anthem ‘Paradise Road’ and a wonderfully-infectious samba version of my favourite carol, ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’. Really, it’s not as cheesy as it sounds; my shoulders and hips couldn’t remain still. Many a time I was skanking almost uncontrollably in my seat, wishing that we in the audience weren’t so thoroughly British in our inhibitions and would just jump up and dance- as several of the songs demanded.

The only fly in the ointment were the apparent technical faults that plagued some of the performances. It’s not the first time in the recent past that a major venue’s level of sound engineering problems has left me confounded. There were times during the show that we could barely hear Robert Mitchell’s piano (which was a shame because it was superb when we did), the lead singers’ mics weren’t always at the right volume and the chorale’s voices appeared to involuntarily fade in and out. Technical hitches notwithstanding, there’s no denying the musicians expertise and their ability to fully realise the non-traditional direction of the arrangements. Richard Bailey’s drumming for the set is outstanding; he and bassist Neville Malcom are largely responsible for the irresistible urge to move to a good deal of the numbers.

In all Soul Noel is a beautiful, spiritually uplifting experience. Anyone struggling to get into the bright mood of the season after an exhausting 2009 would do well to pop down before the final gig this Sunday and get a yuletide boost. Easily one of the best concerts I have attended this year, my only wish is that the Soul Noel team returns to London Christmas 2010 and play a lot more dates than the four shows scheduled for this festive period. Oh, and an accompanying live soundtrack release would be lovely too.

Soul Noel are:
Sibongile Khumalo, Ola Onabule – lead vocals. Chorale: Billie Godfrey, Phebe Edwards (Sopranos), Mary Pearce, Chantelle Duncan (Altos), Bryan Chambers, Daniel Thomas (Tenors) and Victor Bynoe, Ken Burton (Basses).

Musicians: Kevin Robinson – Musical Director and Trumpeter, Femi Temowo – Guitar, Neville Malcom – Electric and Double Bass, Robert Mitchell – Piano and Richard Bailey – Drums.

Soul Noel plays a matinee today and and evening show tonight and on Sunday 13 December. Tickets start from £10. For more information and to book please visit the Southbank Centre website here.

For information on the upcoming show in Bristol on 14 December please follow the link.

Review by Tolita