Frederick Bernas embarks on a voyage of discovery to investigate the less talked-about aspects of Bristol’s vibrant music scene.

While most students will probably know the names of the three Bristol venues I visited during this musical adventure, how many can say they have a good awareness of what kind of shows are going on? This applies particularly to the first episode of my quest: the Egyptian group El Tanbura, which played St George’s concert hall on February 22.

Once I got over the initial shock of five middle-aged men (and one relatively young guy – emphasis on the relative sense), wearing nightshirts and various headpieces, singing, clapping and dancing around the stage with the backing of four instrumental accompanists, it was actually quite an enjoyable show. The hall was nearly full, albeit with people who looked like librarians, and the night could definitely be categorised as a unique cultural experience. Type “El Tanbura” into YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.

Part two was a lot less random: a night of funk at Thekla on February 25. The show, a tribute to the late great James Brown, was headlined by two musicians who worked with the Godfather of Soul for many years. Alfred ‘Pee Wee’ Ellis on saxophone and Fred Wesley on trombone were joined by a selection of Bristol’s hottest session players including upcoming alto saxophonist James Morton. The result was a truly funkadelic showcase which brought equal delight to both young and slightly older sections of the full-house crowd; my favourite tune was a slowed-down version of the classic ‘I Feel Good’ right at the end after a lengthy encore. It’s safe to say the Godfather himself would have been proud of his former colleagues, both now into their 60s, grooving as hard as any of the younger guys out there and continuing to spread this music to new audiences.

My final gig took place at the Colston Hall on February 27. Entitled ‘African Soul Rebels’, its lineup featured three differing acts from across the mysterious continent. First up was Akli D, a guitarist and singer from Algeria who combines different African styles into his own brand of exciting composition. He was followed by Ba Cissoko from Guinea, a virtuoso player of the traditional kora instrument (a predecessor of the guitar with up to 25 strings). Last, but definitely not least, was Nigeria’s Femi Kuti – son of the man who pioneered the Afrobeat genre, Fela Kuti.

Each performer brought something new to my ears and the experience gave me a strong desire to discover more African music. Femi Kuti’s set justified its headline status; it was filled with frantic energy which transmitted to the audience through the leader’s passionate, booming vocals and powerful saxophone interventions, the tight five-piece horn section and three dancers who didn’t stop moving. Definitely not something you get to see every day.

Published in the Epigram, 12/3/07.