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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 December 2007, 10:30 GMT
How Yunasi became the Next Big Thing
By Ben Sutherland
BBC News

Yunasi receive the award from the BBC's Mark Coles

The final of BBC World Service's Next Big Thing music competition returned to London's famous Maida Vale studios - and with acts of all ages now allowed to take part, there was the promise of seeing the very best of the world's unsigned talent.

Jeremie Johnson was the first finalist to take the studio floor. Despite his English-sounding name - and his very English-looking chunky sweater - he is of Indian parentage and lives in Dubai.

He may have been the youngest finalist but he could not have been more composed. He stood alone, smiling, eyes closed, waiting for his backing track to his song In My Shoes to kick in.

Johnson began in a breathy whisper, gripping the microphone before launching into a soaring, elegant falsetto that just brushed the ear on its way to the roof.

He put in a controlled, focused performance which kept the emotions in check until his angry song finished, when his face almost exploded into a grin.

He was kept waiting for the judges' verdict until the cameras could get into place - but it was worth it.

"What a voice, almost operatic," said producer William Orbit.

Top performance

Next was Maya McCallum, from France. To enter the contest, she had submitted a photograph of her wearing only body paint.

But here she had brought not only clothes, but also an entire band - The Toy Factory - and two microphones.

"Which one are you going to use?" asked a cameraman. "Both," she replied.


And she did. With an arresting "Alors!" she launched into her dreamlike song, about the isolation of living in Paris, her head bobbing between the two microphones as she waved her right arm like an automaton.

Her voice was slightly drowned out by the screaming clarinet behind her, but judge Tahita Bulmer, singer with New Young Pony Club, was particularly taken by her.

But it was the next act, East African band Yunasi, who really got the judges' attention.

Their fast-paced song Ndi Ndi Ndi, about the dangers of drinking, was based around thrilling percussion, powerful vocals and some astonishing dance moves.

They featured several unusual instruments, including bongos, an accordion, and a calabash - a percussion instrument that looks like a spacehopper cut in half and then strapped to a piano stool.

Not only was the song great - they have already won an award for their songwriting - but they really performed, and finished to prolonged applause.

Famed producer Nile Rodgers spoke for all the judges when he said "we were over here dancing and singing, even if we didn't know what we were singing about".

'Not a boy band'

The following group, Icelanders Hraun, could not have been in greater contrast.

The five-strong band had brought guitars, mandolins and a large red keyboard - but none of them would be played.


Instead their song - about a troll's love for another troll that has been turned to stone - was virtually acappella, with only a little acoustic guitar from the frontman.

"It's a kind of Andy Kaufman thing, having the instruments and not playing them," their lead singer revealed afterwards. "Also, we didn't want the judges thinking we were a boy band."

With their chunky frames and large beards, they probably need not have worried.

The final act, Vrelo from Serbia, were as far from Hraun in looks as Yunasi had been in sound.

They comprised seven young women singers dressed as schoolgirls, a tambourinist in a violent red dress, and three men who clearly had all come dressed as The Edge from U2.

Their rousing anthem, rooted in ancient Serbian tradition, could have worked as the basis for a football chant, and was pegged to some astonishingly powerful drumming and guitar work.

Judge Talvin Singh praised their ability to combine "fabulous, amazing tradition" with a modern sound as "rocket science" - and in a nod to the dress of the girls, noted "the whole British Airways thing going on".

Winners named

Then it was time to announce the winners. Like last year, the judges could not decide second place and so gave it to Jeremie Johnson and Vrelo equally. Also like last year, there was a clear winner - Yunasi.


As their name was announced, the group exploded into more dancing, chanting and singing - and were soon joined by everyone else.

"Somehow we knew we were going to take it," said the band's lead singer Simon Maranga Nyarieko. Indeed, they had even prepared press packs for just such an event.

They will now go on to perform at the O2 arena as part of the World Service's 75th anniversary concert.

Judging by this performance, the professional acts performing that night will have to be on top form if they are not to be outshone by the newly-crowned Next Big Thing.

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