Omar Afif & Steve Kettley

Traverse Theatre
May 4th, 2023

My now second home is the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh situated in a large town square. I had arrived for another wonderful few hours of music that was to welcome a very special act. Omar Afif & Steve Kettley had joined their musical forces for an interesting hour. Afif play’s an instrument called a Guembri, it is a three stringed bass lute, an ancient instrument, while Steve’s project was on wind instruments such as a saxophone on which he played the most.

Their paring up had an obvious flavour of something a little different than usual music we might hear, actually quite striking combinations were explored. I say that Afif played the guembri but it is worth taking note that he was a master of something called Gnawa – Moroccan Sufi Praise music. Both musician’s have indeed a praiseworthy connection to make and they have been involved in music forever. They collaborate, have their own bands and groups and Afif has been promoting this music for a fabulous 14 years, the music draws on hundreds of years of existence.

Omar and Steve walked on in cultural clothing, I think as a comment on the differences of costumes we have in the world, a different stitch here or hem there, I smiled because on stepped a genuine Sufi Master in a brown tunic of rich finery followed by a man wearing a flowery shirt, jeans and definitely western shoes (though Omar wore trainers) it was a big comment made with the littlest of means.

I’m sure that the theme of the event was to comment (or question) upon many things, and as these were aspects in a kind of sensation, that led us, then the music started. On what looked like a one string instrument out came a sound, a booming beat, it felt like a procession had begun. It was fun being in the presence of these guy’s, who made a kind of music that had its own interests, with the formal dress in mind a great settling happened in the audience and filled the room with something clear and very purposeful.

I struggled a little with the sax sound at first but I guess with anything new there’s always a jolt of some kind that you haven’t heard before it will do that. The saxophone was divisive where as the Moroccan presence had a capacity to flutter with it in all sorts of notes, complex playing and unstopping perfection.

In the 14 years he has been in the UK he must have enjoyed his instrument very well. It play’s as it looks, but in the steady hand of a master is it unravelled into a deep, deep sound, as if through the musician it can talk and wonder around. His study, his easiness and his contribution at this time handle these styles that he loves to explore have made him a group leader of cutting edge definitions of music mixing the traditional African with psychedelic and blues.

As a reviewer there is nothing more pleasant than the release of information whether it comes from on line or, flyer or by the grace of the performers and writers themselves. He told stories about his instruments, what they were for, what colours they inspire and also as means of healing, using I think specific notes and handling that you sneakily feel might have a truth to it.

I also think that the mood spilled a little love into the room, gradually becoming a kernel of strength that came from this sustained sound, vibrating, with hand making complex movement at speed. The sax kicked off at time and withdrew at times, but it all morphed into one by this gradual process of very great good will, an absolute pleasure to have been around for this.

Daniel Donnelly

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