Type “children of Aleppo” into a Google search field. What you’ll find are some of the most disturbing news reports and video clips you’re ever likely to come across.
Syria’s second-largest city became a battle zone between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2016, and staring at the news coverage that confronts you, you can’t help but feel devastated that geopolitical situations can force innocent children to face such horrors.
But Aleppo is not the only place where such travesties are happening.
Scour news coverage of the war in Yemen, where South African arms are being used against the Yemeni people, and make sure you pay attention to the stories about the children who are being killed or maimed and the ones who are dying of starvation.
To the big men behind these global conflicts, those children are merely “collateral damage”, with some of those big men clearly sitting in our own government. But to the rest of us, the news reports from Yemen and Syria are glaring examples of how much of our world appears to give scant regard to the concept of humanity.
But South African jazz composer Carlo Mombelli is one South African who is paying attention. On his contemplative new album Angels and Demons, Mombelli offers the mournful piece Children of Aleppo, which is dedicated to “children everywhere who have suffered and lost their lives through the hunger for power and greed of those who were meant to protect them”.
Children of Aleppo begins with a piece of unaccompanied, mournful piano courtesy of Peter Cartwright. After 90 seconds, Mombelli’s band begins to improvise over the top of the piano. It’s exactly what Mombelli, Keenan Ahrends (guitar), Kyle Shepherd (piano) and Jono Sweetman (drums) cook up on top of the piano that is so otherworldly.
The result is an compelling achievement that leaves you feeling suspended in time as it seeps into your pores before you even realise. It’s certainly a fragile creation, much like the children who inspired it.
Mombelli has been through somewhat of a purple patch since the release of his 2014 album Stories. While that album was recorded with some fantastic European musicians in Switzerland, it was the South African band he put together to perform those compositions at home that earned rave reviews from many critics.
The South African Stories band, which included Kesivan Naidoo (drums), Shepherd (piano) and Mbuso Khoza (vocals), delivered a stinging set of shows in 2014 and 2015 that many who were fortunate enough to be in attendance cherish to this day.
With that band, Mombelli went on to record his next album, the magnificent I Press My Spine to the Ground, which was among BBC Radio 3’s top albums of 2016.
Shepherd is the only remaining member of South African Stories on Angels and Demons. Sweetman, who plays in the Kyle Shepherd Trio, has replaced Naidoo on drums, and it’s immediately clear why. Naidoo’s dynamic and bombastic drumming style would not have served such a collection of delicate and subtle compositions.
That’s because subtlety is the name of the game on Angels and Demons, whether it’s Ahrends’s guitar licks, Sweetman’s gentle percussion or Shepherd’s beautiful piano solos. The album seeps from one composition to another, like one long outpouring. In a sense, it’s a musical stream of consciousness.
All the while, Mombelli’s band paints with some the most beautiful textures and colours we’ve ever heard on a record by the veteran bassist. It seems Mombelli’s purple patch has legs yet (on this form, you’d be a fool to bet against it).
Pulses in the Centre of Silence, is another track on the album with a decidedly ambient feel, again dominated by a piano performance on top of which the band paints with sound.
About two minutes into the composition, Ahrends begins a guitar solo that is truly transcendent, opening the composition up for the listener to see it in all its glory. It’s the first hint on the album of the special listening experience one can expect.
The eight-minute Athens, which arrives towards the end of the album, is another highlight. It’s a track on which Shepherd and Ahrends shine the brightest. Their piano and guitar solos, overlayed on to the gentle, hypnotic rhythm created by Mombelli and Sweetman, are not flashy but hit all the sweet spots.
Reconciliation Hymn, which features Susan Mouton on cello, is built around a simply breathtaking melody that Shepherd and Ahrends explore deftly with their instruments.
The next piece, Rewired, is a rare example of the band exploring more charged material. It’s a welcome change of pace and a great way to lead into the mournful Children of Aleppo.
By the time the album comes to a close with In The End We All Belong, a composition dedicated to his father Angelo Francesco Mombelli, a chef and restaurateur, it’s clear that much like his father, Mombelli has been cooking up a feast for his hungry fans.
Angels and Demons is an instant classic.