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The Noisy Women - 'Flying Free'

Cafe Oto Feb 2023

Arriving early at London’s Café Oto, my friend and singer Sarah Moule and I found ourselves watching the Noisy Women set up. Soon we were ensconced in Oto’s cosy warmth, armed with nothing but our smiles and mugs of hot Oto tea, the slight chill of the February evening quickly forgotten. Watching the various musicians and Café Oto staff as they set up, there was an overwhelming atmosphere of welcome and the musicians seemed delighted to be there and that we had come.

The evening was titled ‘Noisy Women – ‘Flying Free’’ and even though the participants’ background was in Oto’s information about the evening, it did not prepare us for the incredible experience which, unknown to us at the time, lay ahead.

The Noisy Women comprise musicians of different backgrounds, connected by improvisational music. Faradena Afifi founded the ensembles Noisy Women Present and The Noisy People’s Improvising Orchestra. Together with Maggie Nicols, Gwendolyn Kassenaas and Marion Treby, she founded The Noisy Women, a group that seeks to explore collaborations in music, dance and art.

For this performance, the four founders were joined by trumpeter Charlotte Keeffe, singer and percussive artist Nicky Smith, vocalist Jo Morrison, and guitarist Julian Woods. ‘Flying Free’ proved an impeccable choice of title for this wonderful exercise in the art of enjoyment, listening – and a little audience participation.

Faradena Afifi was a wonder as she played keyboards, violin, ‘cello, sang and made illustrative noises on almost anything she could lay her hand on – and the choice on stage from which to choose was impressive. There were bowls, a huge gong, various instruments, a piano and keyboard, strings and bass. Faradena proved herself a great raconteur too as she introduced combinations and engaged the audience in delightful narratives about what was going to - or might - happen.

The evening was divided into three trio performances and a full ensemble finish with each combination demonstrating the diversity which happens when intuitive improvisers get together.

Gwendolyn Kassenaar created beautiful chalk drawings, which were drawn live and projected on a screen behind the ensemble. The drawings were inspired by the music and activities on stage. Her body swaying as she connected with the sound and her hands working those sounds into images of colour, Kassenaar created bright splashes, sweeping curves, feathery motifs and short, sharp points, combining to transform the music into a landscape of visual sensuality.

Charlotte Keeffe is a trumpet player I have long wanted to see and her performance at this event served to confirm she is one of the most intuitive players on the circuit. Listening intensely, her face a wreath of emotions, her fingers found the keys, flickered across them and fell where necessary, emitting sounds perfectly pitched to emphasise or interject between the creativity of the rest of the players on stage, whether in trio format or as part of the ensemble. Her innate ability to listen as well as deliver was impressive. Vocalist Jo Morrison was immersive and captivating. Her interpretive vocalisation demonstrated her marvellous voice as well as her ability to interpret senses and feelings. Jo's delivery and profound emotion made it feel at times as if her vocals carried the whole of life – from snatches of conversation, laughs, pain, joy and frivolity – they were all in there. There was deep emotion, joy, despair, sadness and sometimes a rise towards a sense of delirium which as a combination, was breathtaking.

Nicky Smith remained behind the gong for much of her performance, which added something of a sense of mischief and mystery at once. Her way with things that make noise was a joy to hear and observe when you could see her, as she created sounds using bowls, the gong and many other percussive objects.

Marion Treby is a glorious pianist. From deep, guttural sounds to full use of the entire keyboard, her delivery was intuitive, and she has that ability – hard on piano - to play almost without the audience realising she is providing the scaffolding around which the ensemble work, and emerging to deliver stellar solo sections.

Often in the background, but never so much as to be forgotten, Julian Woods maintained his bass playing, delivering percussive, freely improvised support, or creating spontaneous riffs and solos. There is a thoughtfulness to Julian’s delivery, and he made a strong contribution to much of the performance.

Maggie Nicols was entertaining whether on piano, keyboard, vocalising or tap dancing. She engaged the audience in a bit of participation, inviting them to begin one number based around a John Stevens exercise where you sing and sustain the first note you feel like singing. 'There can be', she informed us, 'no wrong notes – it is impossible.' Judging from the almost entire participation of the audience no one was arguing with that and we made a noisy yet somehow liberating contribution to the performance. Maggie’s improvisation is a delight to observe, as she sings, whether overtone, head or chest voice, she knows which to use, when and when to hang fire. She looked completely immersed, smiling frequently and the warmth of her personality and outstanding vocals almost matched the fiery red of her outfit.

Chris Freeman took photographs from many places and angles and it will be interesting to see what he saw when the images become available.

This was not just a performance but an experience. Observing audience members at different times, I saw amusement, consternation, surprise and some simply sat with their eyes closed, lost in the experience.

What struck me was the strength in the music but also the femininity of the performance. There were vocalisations which could only be created by women, and there were places where the sounds were so familiar, from the giggles, musical quips, staccato intakes and emission of sound and the emotions expressed. It was as if they portrayed parts of the narrative that accompanies every woman’s life.

Whether you are into free music or whether your desire is to hear classical tones amongst the improvisation, there is something for everyone - and a lot more if you open yourself to the completely immersive experience that is Noisy Women. I think my companion for the evening, singer Sarah Moule, summed it up when she said afterwards her head felt a little different and it was a really liberating evening. It was indeed and my wish is these women continue flying free.

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