Yussef Kamaal

Yussef Kamaal


Islington Mill’s Burrow has a surprisingly intimate quality in spite of its unmistakable industrial look. The lighting is considered, creating a warm tone on the stage, essentially only a small step up from the audience floor. I enter the room to a steady building kick drum, followed by some rippling keys. Soon comes affected vocals – though not lyrics – and clunky chords. Multiple heads bob to the oscillating rhythm, and as I scan the room, it’s largely a crowd of men. The music of Sarathy Korwar strips down to just piano and guitar, and we’re told that in the music to come there’s influence from somewhere in Africa that came to India centuries ago. Sampled vocals set off the track, along with ambient live vocals, sitar-like strings and rumbling drums. The vocalist adds whispering sounds as the drums become skittish and the guitarist turns to speedy fingerpicking with commendable skill, and due claps and cheers as he slows down. The mic-work continues, hitting strange reaches and animal-like noises. Our drummer chats a little before the next track, a lighter, keys-driven number. There are drum crescendos accompanied by percussive layers in the vocals, somewhat like an elaborate beatbox, almost in competition with the drums. As the vocals come to a halt, reverb-laden samples of vocals return and eventually all the other components fly over them, whirling and whisking each other away together. I catch that the last song is called ‘Bismillah’, taking shape with a sample of slow-tempo, low-range vocals, with increasingly frequent drum stabs. Our vocalist makes darkly bassy sounds, the keys pick up the tempo, and people at the front of the room are arcing forward in enjoyment. It’s a performance of good technical prowess, laying the groundwork for the main act.

As the place fills up further, I reaffirm that it’s very male heavy attendance. Quickly, the band become tricky to see (and I’m a reasonable 5”8). I slip to side for a better view and see there’s five on stage, all ready to showcase pieces of Youssef Kamaal’s Black Soul. All in the room hush themselves for a light, squeezing trumpet intro. The ensuing drumbeat makes me think of Taylor McFerrin’s ‘Already There’, whilst the trumpet flickers up and down with warm chords in the background. There are spacey keys accompanying the cascading trumpet work, which lifts up and pauses, keeping us hanging. The opening track ends with big appreciation but no word from the band – not a cold tactic but a seeming keenness to play next song, which is beginning with ratatat sounds and shining keys before the beat picks up. I think about my early and enduring love for Erykah Badu’s Baduizm and how I’d have loved to hear its rimshots, sultry bass and jazzy swells back in the day – and here I am with other live flowering chords and groove. The trumpet is doing the talking – and does so with force – offering wonderful crescendos that the packed floor hollers at. We hear some words from  drummer Yussef Dayes (one half of the band’s portmanteau name) asking to touch up the volume, in dulcet London tones. The keys go on to give the grace of an old film, with quick-beat drums and low bass intermingling.  At this point I wish I was better schooled in theory to describe the intricacies of the performance, with all the fineries of a tight jazz piece. In any case, it’s making me two-step – this is in the vein of music I enjoy best, a close cousin of soul, funk and RnB. There’s now wob-wobs on the keys, and The Burrow is teeming with red light. Lots of nods and unspoken communication go on between the band members, perhaps owing to frequent tempo changes and drop outs. The trumpeter is really something, bumping up and down in contrast with the relatively composed strings section behind. There’s generous cymbal in what is seemingly next song – there’s no proper break – and squelches on the keyboard. The trumpeter retreats back, and what ensues is a massive (in the adoring sense of the word) guitar solo, all done with total body control apart from some screwed up eyes for either concentration or satisfaction with the sound. When the music eventually breaks, keys player Kamaal Williams chats, and proffers: “Let me show you an example of how this all started.” This is surely a nod to the initial formation of the band and a reminder that the keys and drums not only backbone the arrangement but also warrant being shown off. There’s a top-deck keys intro, followed by drums, the rest of the band on standby. I’ve been knackered since the depressing endeavour that was Staying Up For The Trumpocalypse, and was freezing when I arrived here – now, jacket and coat off, I am lapping up this tonic. It’s like neo-soul with licks of what you can find in Hiatus Kiayote, though the jazz thread is much more discernible, the arrangements a bit less like math-funk. I lose myself in the throes of it for a time, closing my eyes involuntarily; there’s joyous dynamism in the tempo. In the “last song”, the overall structure keeps mostly to an underlying two-chord pattern but has flair, picking, riffing, cutouts and retreats, all the hallmarks of an amazing collection of jazz folk, as you get with Snarky Puppy. We’re not without the requisite encore, in which our trumpeter helps us shoutout “one more tune” using the horn. It ends with a funky affair, especially the bass, which – having managed to step forward a square – I can finally see clearly.

The eve is peppered with lots of soloing, but it’s the nature of the beast, and all done without obvious ego. There’s not been an overload of conversation with the audience, though the band relays considerable friendliness in the chat that does occur, and mostly it seems the members are simply taken away by their own melodies. They leave to huge applause but without a word, just smiles and a slight curvature of the back into a bow, acknowledging a job gloriously well done.

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Hannah Ross

Hummer and strummer with Kurt Vile hair. Likes neo-soul, reverb, and most things put out by Beggars. Will review for money and/or free tickets + exciting new music.