Sometimes singing in an unfamiliar language and playing unusual instruments pose an extra challenge for musicians seeking to connect to the audience, but there was no such difficulty on Saturday night at the Esplanade Concert Hall.
Thierry Biscary, Jamixel Bereau and Xan Errotabehere, the musicians making up Kalakan, are best summed up as a band of singers cum percussionists whose music is centred around traditional music from the Basque country, sung in in the Euskara (Basque) language.
Visiting Singapore for the first time as part of Voices 2014, the Esplanade's Festival of Voices, Kalakan's passion in performing the music of their homeland was evident from the start. A brief introduction by founding member Biscary, and passionate, extended commentaries from Bereau on their music and vision, helped build extraordinary audience rapport.
Kalakan's music spans three part chants, folk and dance music, to purely percussive interludes, mainly with roots in traditional Basque music, while borrowing rhythms and ideas from other cultures such as Brazil.
Whether a capella or accompanied by their own drumming, the repeating motifs and rhythms drew the audience ever closer to the music. By the sixth song, the audience was clapping along with the musicians, and for some songs later, a sprinkle of audience members accepted the invitation to dance to the music.
Two uniquely Basque traditional instruments were prominent in the concert.
The txalaparta, an instrument based on the planks of an apple cider press, was struck with four stout wooden poles by Biscary and Errotabehere in complex syncopation, not unlike that in Balinese gamelan music.
Errotabehere also played on the alboka, a reed instrument with two pipes ending with cow horn, using expert circular breathing technique that created a continuous drone like that of a bagpipe.
An hour into the concert the musicians were clearly feeding off the energy from the audience, who were singing, clapping or dancing with them during most pieces.
There were poignant moments too, such as when Bereau led the trio in singing a song expressing love for the homeland. The festival atmosphere in the hall was supported in no small way by an excellent sound reinforcement team, which was able to find a balance of sound among voice, alboka, a small single-handed recorder and thundering percussion.
It is no wonder that the world famous Basque pianists, the Labeque sisters, invited Kalakan to be part of their European tour, and Madonna, introduced to Kalakan through the Labeques, made the trio a major part of her MDNA tour in 2012.
Tonight's audience may have only filled the stall section of the hall, but those who attended had a rollicking good time, reminiscent of some of the best WOMAD concerts heard in Singapore at the beginning of this millennium.