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A Magazine for Sheffield
Live / stage review

Ben Ottewell / Shah e Maardan

17 January
The Greystones

It can be a daunting prospect when entering a venue to see a lone acoustic guitar and microphone sat on stage, awaiting the performer. Every music fan worth their salt has endured their fair share of well-meaning but ultimately bland musicians, strumming away and singing to seemingly no one’s pleasure but their own. Just think of almost every house party, bonfire, barbecue or social gathering you’ve ever been to. So many memories tainted by the familiar twang of the poorly-played acoustic guitar. It’s become an instrument synonymous with the hobbyist, the hopeful amateur.

But when Ben Ottewell saunters on stage looking like a confessional poet of sixties America – relaxed and a little bedraggled, but with the bookish edge of John Berryman – and begins playing, it quickly becomes clear that here is a man who still knows how to get the most out of his instrument, and even more so his voice, famous for its deep, rasping sincerity. His setlist is a crowd-pleasing mix of new and old material, primarily solo work but peppered with songs he wrote for his former band Gomez, who won the Mercury Prize back in 1998.

While a seated venue in the backroom of a pub with a capacity of 150 isn’t exactly Kanye headlining Glastonbury, it’s testimony to Ottewell’s long career as a performer that the room is captivated throughout, and anyway it’s this kind of intimate ambience that lends itself best to the singer-songwriter. It adds a particular kind of earthy wisdom to the themes of his songs, as though they’re reflections on a life not far removed from the experiences of his audience, changing the dynamic of the performance into something more akin to the bardic roots of his folk rock genre.

Liam Casey


13 January

Writing on the BBC’s website, Asian Network presenter Bobby Friction defines qawwali music as "the physical and musical manifestation of the Sufi religious tradition in South Asia". Emerging in the area that is now India and Pakistan in the 13th century, the form sees tablas, dholaks and ecstatic chanting work together to evoke a spiritual union with God, both for the performers and the audience. Led by singer Mohamed Zubair, Shah e Maardan are a group of qawwali players based in Sheffield and Bradford, with sell-out gigs at Regather and Hallam Students' Union already under their belts.

Before their sold-out return to Regather and during the interval, we were treated to cuts from the late Charanjit Singh's groundbreaking Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, a 1982 record that accidentally invented acid house by setting ancient Indian songs to synthesisers and drum machines. This smart choice on the PA opened our minds in preparation for a marathon two-and-a-half hour performance from Shah e Maardan, with songs that frequently stretched well beyond the 20-minute mark.

Even as a secular observer I felt overwhelmed by the sense of devotional fervour that the nine-man group built up during each piece, layer upon layer, without any rush to reach a resolution. At points the cascading percussion and euphoric vocalists reminded me of the joyous abandon channelled by late-nineties Boredoms. Every song started with the musicians taking turns to sing, each introducing a new vocal melody, before complex polyrhythms gradually took hold and led us to a sonic apex that glittered with possibilities often left unexplored by western music.

With most of the audience unable to stop themselves from drumming along on their chairs, we were invited to our feet in the climactic minutes of the final piece, dancing as the sound crashed against us like successive waves.

Sam Gregory


Next article in issue 119

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