This was a Barbican-promoted gig taking place at Cafe Oto, something which was confusing enough already, even without someone from the Barbican appearing on stage to tell me that it was part of a series called “Transcender”. A series celebrating “transcendental, devotional, spiritual and sacred music”. Er, and how exactly does Islaja fit into that? There may well be some devotional traditional Finnish music, but Islaja seems a long way from any such roots these days. I don’t know, maybe a diagram or something might have been useful.
Bradford’s The Family Elan fitted slightly better into this logical framework, offering fine interpretations of traditional folk music from around Europe. Even if at times I felt they were making some of them up. “This is an Azerbaijiani minstrel song”. OK. “This is a tartar summer song”. Er, right. “This is a Turkish mountain song”. Fine, I guess. “This is a Serbian sailor song”. HANG ON, does Serbia even have a coastline? Despite the intriguing unfamiliarity of this material, I actually preferred their versions of British folk songs – the Celtic ballad “Willie O Winsbury” (which has been performed by the likes of Anne Briggs and Pentangle) was the standout moment, the clean vocals of Stephanie Hladowski, brother of the equally talented bouzouki-playing leader Chris, the conduit to a long forgotten time.
I’ve seen Islaja play several times before, but her music is much changed since the last of those occasions. Understandably, given that she has moved to Berlin, the shamanic, sometimes shambolic (endearingly so, mind) folk of the earlier records has been replaced by something more electro, inspired perhaps in part by collaborations with the likes of Blevin Blechdom. This has required considerable rethinking of her live set-up, which now consists of Korg, melodica, an iPod, a balloon, and (possibly the only ever-present over the years, aside from her ability to give the impression that she has never even seen a mic stand before, let alone know how to adjust it) some wind-up children’s toys. Given the complexity of much of her new album, this presented considerable problems: how, for example, to recreate the saxophones, marimbas and the like which feature on a track such as “Joku Toi Radion”. The answer – iPod backing tracks – wasn’t always entirely satisfactory. The show was much more successful when the backing was no more than a skeletal electronic pulse, leaving Islaja free to scribble fragmented keyboard and melodica solos over the top, and to sing. Oh yes, to sing. Let’s not forget that extraordinary voice, a voice which still forcefully conveys emotion, from its malevolent rasps to its passionate declamations, despite the near-impenetrable language she sings in. A voice such as this transcends all such barriers.