Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking at a time when I am, for once, submerged in work – and work what’s more of a remunerative nature, with clients and expectations and tight deadlines – I must tell you nevertheless about something remarkable that happened on Friday evening.
My wife and I went out together. Yes, only the other evening we went to the refurbished theatre in Brive, something of course which we don’t very often do, but there I had an experience that I’d like to share with you. It was called… Sandra Nkaké and her band.
It was a last-minute thing. Everything depends on my weary wife’s reserves of energy. By the end of another busy week absorbing people’s troubles, she’s normally run out of the kind of stuff that must keep camels plodding across the hot sands of the desert. On Friday, though, buoyed by the thought of a samedi libéré and a whole week off at home, she was up for it. So I got on the blower and reserved a pair of tickets.
I confess, I’d never heard of Sandra Nkaké. She looked interesting, however, with her asymmetric Afro and the line-up of the band (bass, guitar, drums, keyboards and… flute) promised something a little different, so I folded down the edge of the page in the theatre prospectus. It remained folded down for months. In our customary fashion, we were non-committal right up to the eleventh hour. But the beauty of You Tube is that you can watch a sneak preview of what’s on offer. It looked good.
The theatre in Brive’s somnolent centre has been lovingly – and expensively – restored. The money, of course, no doubt came mainly from the exorbitant taxe foncière that Debs pays, but it has been put to better use in this case than it was, say, in creating the town’s network of fanciful roundabouts.
One thing, I suppose, about living in a place where culture comes in comparatively small doses, is that this type of event is often sold out. So there’s plenty of the ingredient that money can’t buy: atmosphere. The concert wasn’t completely sold out, which probably explains why my last-minute reservation secured the best seats either of us have ever had for a live musical event. Three rows back, dead centre. Reach out and touch…
A wonderful thing about France – another paradoxical aspect of national life, given the infamous Corrézian quarter of an hour, which dictates that meetings don’t start until the last person has leisurely taken up his or her seat 20 minutes or so after the scheduled starting time – is that even ‘rock’ concerts begin at the published time. This is much appreciated by a pair of veteran concert-goers at a time of life when they are less indulgent than they might have been as students of the whims of musicians with super-egos.
The band came on first in the now time-honoured fashion. Five young men in dark suits and ties who appeared far too young to have witnessed Kraftwerk in their pomp, but astute enough to have borrowed their look. Sandra then, in her tight black hip-hugging jacket with a green silk bow that kept coming undone, skipped on stage, leapt into the air and landed on a perfect, graceful and endearing curtsy that pre-figured a sense of theatre and an effortless ability to move with the loose-limbed fluidity of a ‘tiger on vaseline’.
Another surprising and paradoxical aspect of concert-going in France is the extent to which the audience is prepared to let their collective hair down. By the second number, they were clapping along in unison and a young contingent in the balcony were shrieking like kids at a Beatles concert. Every time it defies my outsider’s impression of a collective cork up the nation’s back passage. Perhaps it’s the removal of food from the equation. At parties, for example, you have to wait and hope till half past the dessert course for any exuberance to begin.
I know very little about Sandra herself, other than her Cameroonian origin, her ability to tie bows withouth breaking step, her asymetric Afro and a winning charm. I know equally little about her besuited band, other than the evident fact that they were as tight as a gnat’s chuff. Polite and gracious to a fault, Sandra introduced in colloquial French the songs she sang in perfect English about everyday life in some nameless big city. At times the music was contemporary enough for the ICA. At others, it was classic enough for a smoky jazz club in 1950s Greenwich Village. If it’s of any help, I’d describe her as a blend of Brooklyn’s Me’shell N’Degeocello, Malawi’s Malia and Benin’s Angelique Kidjo. I suspect, though, that she could dance the socks off all of them.
Transfixed and with a permanent grin of contentment, my attention was diverted only by a few young women in the front row who seemed intent on viewing the whole spectacle through the tiny screens of their phones and digital cameras. Were they hoping to be film directors, I wondered, or just keen to be the first to post some images on their Facebook page?
The crowd called her back for two encores. With their repertoire seemingly depleted, they fulfilled their obligations by breaking into an accapella number for an impromptu tour of the auditorium. It was a perfect way to end one of those concerts that you know will stay forever in your memory, all the more so for being so unexpected.
Another wonderful thing about starting on time was that it finished at a civilised hour. We were back home just in time for another nostalgic documentary on BBC4: the story of Mott the Hoople. My only gripe was that there was no anecdote to explain how a band from Hereford could come up with such a gloriously insane name. If anyone can shed light on the mystery, answers please on a postcard…
Debs phoned me from Brive the following morning. She and The Daughter had taken the train to town together. Guess who I’ve just seen walking up to the station? Sandra Nkaké and the band!
Had she…? No she hadn’t. So taken aback was she that she’d missed the chance to tell them how we’d both agreed that it was one of the best concerts ever witnessed. I like to think that I might have shaken her hand in such a situation and sprinkled stardust over her shoulders. As it is, all I can do is strongly recommend that you catch her if you can.