PRIMORDIAL AND POLYRHYTHMIC ‘ANCIENT AGENTS’ is a PERCUSSION DELIGHT

Eclectic, exploratory with Afro-middle eastern medleys, a percussion-lover’s dream come true with udus (oval ceramic pot played with hands), a tabla, a box drum or ‘cajon’ (sat on and beat), a riq (Arab tambourine), the esoteric frame drum, and bells and rattles, this album and live performances are guaranteed to jump-start one’s wistful and primordial body and soul.

Percussionist Ronan Skillen (tabla and didgeridoo) and his cohorts are raising funds for their first ‘Ancient Agents’ album entitled just that. It’s important to get the variety of percussive sounds just right with amplification which made the group’s live performances in Capetown venues quite challenging, yet with profoundly real outputs.

Ancients concert at Nassau 16 September 2017: credit Gregory Franz

As expected, live performances capture the moment’s emotions and musical rhetoric as the musicians suss out each other’s attitudes-as-they-happen. Studio-recorded albums offer something a bit different; yet this album has managed to stay true to the innuendos and subtle rumblings of messages which Skillan’s quartet uses to successfully captivate the listener.

One of the most innovative percussionists from Europe, Fredrik Gille of Sweden, offered instruments not often heard, at least live, in South Africa: he sits on the cajon and taps away; his frame drum has resonances that defy pure, simple notes, conveying sliding note intervals, echoes, and pulled notes similar to the didgeridoo. His frame drum solo is magic to watch:

Fredrik Gille & frame drum

While the guitars carry the tunes, Skillen follows suit with his various small to large items, tapped, banged at times, or just clicked through the air, along with his consistently flawless tabla playing. But that sliding didgeridoo in shining metal does raise eyebrows….”Normally, didgeridoos don’t ‘slide’ as they are made of one long bamboo pipe”, Skillen joked at his recent Nassau concert at Capetown’s Groot Schuur High School’s auditorium.

Ronan Skillen & metal didgeridoo

However, his handmade didgeridoo is made of three metal pipes and a wooden mouthpiece. Simple. Hence the sliding note intervals complementing the slippery resonance and echoes of the frame drum as earlier noted. Pure magic!

This ‘Nassau’ venue is known also as “Jazz at the Nassau”, which offers occasional Sunday evening jazz concerts very popular to an established local crowd of jazz enthusiasts. The Ancient’s performance there reeked of earthy, low frequency, primordial vibrations coming from all the instruments, as though the instruments were deliberately designed for this quartet.

Listening to the Ancient’s recorded album, one is further engaged with their interpretations of ‘world’ sounds. The traditional mixed with the electric contemporary bring alive the magic of sound through breath, sentient percussion, and melodic strings – as physics meets with soul, producing very moving earfuls of sonic wonderment. For instance, a favourite track is bassist Joubert’s Middle Eastern-influenced “Kelefa” displaying a haunting bass solo, then the guitars crescendo into a quiet refrain with Gille’s percussion. The frantic pace begins again with Joubert’s exhausting bass runs, then a humourous play with our ears as harmony and rhythm produce erratic pulsations and expectations. A splendid piece!


Khota’s “Misir Wot” strikes Ethiopian pentatonic sounds with his acoustic guitar and creates wonders in his “Unearth” with Congolese Soukous and danceable rhumba beats. The two Ancients-designed songs, “Clouseau’s Dream” which opens the album, and “Ancient Agents”, highlight the polyrhythmic collaborations amongst the musicians, each contributing their own distinct signature.

The musicians come from diverse experiences – Reza Khota, a fan of alternative guitarist, John McLaughlin, has explored classical and improvisational guitar in a variety of forms, much revealed in his album, Transmutations, released in 2014. Bassist Schalk Joubert, a highly sought-after musician, has also combined South and West African music with Euro-Middle Eastern influences and continues his exploratory arts with well-chosen collaborators far and wide. Ronan Skillen who co-produced the eclectic Ancients’ album has professionally roamed ethnic geographies, including studying Indian classical music with Indian notables, and created his own versions of wind-percussion sounds with the didgeridoo.

Fredrik Gille, a Euro additive to this other-worldly collective soundscapers has experienced Arab Palestinian musical joy , and performed with Algerian, Tunisian, Swiss, and Latin groups. An enthralling expose of Gille’s photographic prowess in the Anna Pavlova Ballet Photography Contest 2017 made him a winner in the “Movement and Passion” category.

Be willing to be aurally transported to parts of the world, maybe not familiar to most, but recognizable, thanks to the continual cross-pollination which these South African and Swedish creatives are giving to their music.

Ancient Agents album was released in September 2017 in South Africa, and can be obtained through the website: www.ancientagents.com

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