Music Til Eternity Passes Away

17th Annual Lanzarote Visual Music Festival

“Electric Amazigh” Javier Infante and The North Sea Quartet

Jameos Del Agua – October 20th 2022

I am pretty certain, after contemplating the matter for most of my seventy years, that art cannot survive in isolation. I am not sure, though, that I can submit any evidence that gives me even that less- than-complete certainty. I was once told by a wise man, the keeper of songs, that music (and every other art form) is intended for light years of travel, offering different  temporal and spatial meanings and will do so until eternity passes away, as Jim Croce put it. 

On an evening when Jameos Del Agua, the theatre in the cave in the cliff seemed even more magnificent than ever, the rocks seemed to wrap the five musicians on stage in a security blanket. Come follow your art, down to an underground theatre in a cave, to hear how the sounds that have stretched from the moment of the world´s creation and that will continue to morph  until the moment of our extinction, were captured by Javier Infante and The North Sea Quartet. And they put Time (and the sounds) in a bottle and sent it floating, until  eternity passes away

We have been privileged to attend a dozen or so events at this wonderful conversion, by the late Cesar Manrique, of an underground cave into the circa 1,000 seater arena that it is today. We have seen the cave decorated with rows of National Flags for Canaries Day  observations and have heard speeches from Kings and Presidents, and have seen it simply lit for chamber music performances. We have seen it set with a mini dance floor too, and have heard classical, folk-lore, jazz and popular music here. We have even listened to a vocalist, as an artist, sat in the wings of the stage, painted an image  of the artists on to a massive canvas, visible to all the audeince. 

The tiny lights hidden in the cracks of the rock faces and the rock ceiling always put me in mind of that Dylan Thomas village in Under Milk Wood.

The paint that highlights those wafer thin fissures reminds us just how fragile we are to the enormity and power of nature gathered here in the raw. And yet there is a safety in this bosom of the earth somehow and perfect peace in the majesty of the music and the sounds of silence. 

Some reviewer I am. I don´t know where to begin to describe tonight´s concert other than waffle on, as above, in the hope the words will fall to the floor and rearrange themselves, Countdown fashion, into something that makes a vague sense.

There were five people on the stage, with guitarist Javier Infante at the rear centre of an arrow-head formation, as it were. Diagonally, to his right were the two male violin players, and diagonally to his left were their North Sea Quartet colleagues, a male player of the baby cello and a female violinist. 

After a polite ripple of welcoming applause they took their seats and began to play music with Infante, often Knofleresque (Local Hero film-score style) on his guitar, beautifully understated and yet the more identifiable for that. The fiddle players, let´s call them, put me in mind, perhaps because of the inclusion of the female member, of The Corrs though if there was any temptation here to cut a rug into a jig it was mercifully resisted.  Instead we followed echoes that meandered away along the cracks in the rock face, or were bounced back from the inscrable rock walls that surrounds the stage, and were then bounced back to us by the hard surface, albeit slightly changed by nature. 

From the Canadian Cajun scene of the seventies and eighties I heard memories of Beausoliel  but when the fiddles really flowed It felt as if I was rocking to Mumford And Son. My wife Dee swore she heard the faint rustle of Scarlet Ribbons at one time.

The music was impossible to categorise, and yet it brought to mind scores of reference points. Some of those percussive noises, and the pizzicato on the strings, and even on a couple of occasions on some hand-held percussive instruments, brought to mind the art and geology of Ildefonso Aguiller. Here in the percussive sounds of the North Sea Quartet were reminders of the pops and bubbles and squeaks he taped on his field recordings to learn the secrets of the lava fields and landscapes of our island.

And all this was complemented by the subdued but dramatic lighting, and by a backdrop that covered the rear entrance of the cave. On to this were thrown cinematic images of the landscape, with its metaphorical danger sign of  ¨no soft place to fall´. We saw images of what might have been large fish beneath the water surface or shadows of huge (almost prehistoric-looking) birds over the sand drafts.

Even this wonderful, melodic, ever-shifting music could not still or tame Time but neither could Time capture the music. The players´ instruments shifted and shimmied and sashayed and simply refused to play in any one style for long enough to become categorised. And yet, this helter skelter race, through millions of years from dot one to who know what destination, did not feel like a flight for freedom. Instead it was it was contemplative at times but was mostly skittish and joyful.

The concluding encore of the most recognisable piece of music of the evening, Guantanemera, saw two of the violinists leaving the stage via the apron and out into the steep staircase that divides the audience. This, indeed, was jig-like, here a bit of Corrs, there a sounds like The Rankins from Nova Scotia

Naturally, we bought the cd on the way out, and I look forward to, as much as I´m sure you do too (!) delivering my review of the album. It might clarify a few things, so watch this space.

Meanwhile, we knew from their newsletter, last summer, that The North Sea Quartet (NSQ)   had recorded their first album together with guitarist Javier Infante in the famous Studio 2 of the MCO in Hilversum. It is going to be a beautiful record, they promised us,  with pieces written by Infante and the NSQ very own Pablo Rodríguez, inspired by North African, Sephardic and Canarian folk music. As you have read, Sidetracks And Detours now have a copy of that album.

However, last summer Karin decided to quit as a member of the North Sea String Quartet. The concerts were getting harder to combine with her work in Berlin, which she wanted to keep as her focus. Co-founder, Karin has undeniably left her mark on the development of the quartet. She will be greatly missed, their newsletter told us, for her swinging style and imaginative solos and surely also her sweet personality. NSQ publicly wished  wish her the best of luck in her German career and will of course keep on following her closely!

After a period of searching and trying out, NSQ has now found a worthy replacement in the person of George Dumitriu! George is a remarkably versatile musician. He has studied classical violin in Romania and the Netherlands, but also jazz guitar in the Netherlands and the United States. Playing concerts around the globe and appearing as a guest teacher at several conservatories, he has built an impressive resume. On top of that, he is a very gifted composer and arranger. NSQ are therefore very happy to welcome him in the ranks!

Ton Maas writes on the sleeve notes that Although the album, Electric Amazigh was officially released more than a year ago in August 2021 it remains sounding like a still-new work of the Dutch jazz string North Sea String Quartet and the Canarian guitarist-composer Javier Infante.  

This is a vibrant collaboration in which acoustic and electric sounds converge in a timeless look at the traces of the aboriginal past of the Canary archipelago that continue to resonate in the present. “Amazigh”, which translates from Berber as “free man”, also gives its name to the ethnic group that inhabited North Africa and which would later become the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of the Canary Islands.

North Sea String Quartet are four string players from the new generations who combine the assets from all kinds of musical worlds: Hop ! Make sure you get to see them somewhere, urges music afficienado Oene van Geel.

They compose, they groove and they improvise, making them one of the most versatile string quartet in The Netherlands, combining their own compositions with improvisation. Their music could be defined as a mixture of jazz, folklore and world genres.

For Javier Infante, this cultural and emotional imprint is the starting point of a personal exploration to place this period in the context of today. Presented in the form of a suite through nine fascinating pieces, Infante presents the electric guitar as the main narrator of a varied and cinematographic journey in which his guitar finds in the Dutch string quartet an essential travel companion to find the timbre and rhythmic palette required by each piece. Likewise, the vast electric guitar solos walk accompanied by the spontaneity of the quartet giving rise to a strong creative and experimental spirit in which beautiful melodies, improvisations and powerful rhythmic passages are interspersed.

We were promised in that newsletter that these would be strings that would make us move. I did move, both physically into some toe-tapping and hand clapping activities, but far more importantly I was emotionally moved, too.

A number of years ago, as I was watching Tokyo Waltz, a documentary about cellist Yo-Yo Ma, fiddler Mark O´Connor and with bass player Edgar Meyer on tour in Japan, I hear Ma admit to his colleagues that he would never be able to match their sense of timing and swing.  He couldn´t even hear exactly where he was off, although they had pointed this out repeatedly.  All to no avail.  The North Sea String Quartet, a group of young players based in the Netherlands, has long crossed that divide.  Yes, their line-up is that of a classical string quartet, but unlike most of their colleagues swing and improvisation are second nature to them.  Hence their moto ´Strings That Make You Move´. For new challenges they look farther afield: in adventurous explorations of unknown sonic realms.

While working with vocalist Lilian Vieira they acquired the breezy elegant characteristic of Brazilian samba, and in collaborating with viola picker and singer Roland Satterwhite they made themselves at hom in the raw, bare boned world of Mississippi delta blues.  Choosing an instrumentalist for their next project helped them to steer clear of the traditional division between soloist and accompanying ensemble.

It just so happened that the new collaborator was handed to them on a silver platter by the organizers of the Festival Canaries Jazz & Màs.  The quartet members had already admired guitar player and composter Javier Infante for quite some time but had never met him.  And since Infante and Pablo Rodriquez both hail from the Canary Islands, it felt natural to use that share background as a source of inspiration for this collaboration. 

To most Europeans, the archipelago is first and foremost a popular tourist destination, but instead of being just a bit of Spain close to the African coast, the islands have been a vital hub connecting Europe and the Americas ever since the sixteenth century.  For both Javier and Pablo this meant that the musical backdrop of their youth was an incredibly rich tapestry: lots of Cuban and Venezuelan influences, jazz and pop, the local traditions from the various islands, plus North African and Sephardic music.  All of these strains ring through in this unique meeting of the musical minds, but only after having been leavened and fermented to become ingredients that blend organically. 

Ayres del Hierro, for example, was based on melodies and rhythms from the island of El Hierro, and combined with a rhythmical pattern that Infante created with the help of numerology.  Starting point for Queso Majorero was a folk song from the island of Fuerteventura, which was transposed to a sephardic scale with an unusual time signature in five-eight rather than the more common three-four. 

Bentayga was written as an ode to a famous archaeological site with remnants of the ancient Guanchen, the original inhabitants of the islands who were probably related to the Berber populations of northern Africa.  For this composition, Infante chose an African rhythm in twelve-eight and made it sound like a religious chant. 

I was amazed to find out that the album was originally conceived as a completely acoustic affair.  After listening to the final masters, this hardly makes any sense at all as the combination of electric guitar and bowed strings sounds so electrifying, exciting and inevitable, thanks in part to the inventive and sometimes unorthodox orchestrations by Infante and Rodriguez.