Claire Sawers

Freelance Writer

Feature: Five comedians share their thoughts on race.

Shappi Khorsandi

Shappi Khorsandi

The Herald 
30 July 2016

Shappi Khorsandi

(pictured, left)

Fringe regular Khorsandi has tackled race plenty times before, with shows such as The Asylum Speaker and The Distracted Activist. This time Tehran-born Khorsandi, who grew up in west London in the 80s after her Iranian family fled in exile, is ‘reclaiming patriotism’. According to her press release, “She’s celebrating her 40th year in Britain with a love letter to her adopted land. Skinheads welcome.”

Oh My Country! From Morris Dancing to Morrissey, The Stand, 8.30pm, 3rd-28th August, (not 4th,15th).

Read Claire Sawers’ review of Shappi Khorsandi’s Fringe show online at The List here

Nazeem Hussain

Patron of RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees, an Australian organisation run by refugees, this Muslim comedian of Sri Lankan descent will be covering Britain after Brexit in his debut Fringe show. He’ll also be discussing the rise of the Australian extreme right wing, immigration and his TV comedy show Legally Brown.

Legally Brown, Assembly George Square Studios, 8pm, 3rd-28th August (not 16th).

Athena Kugblenu

This half Ghanaian, half Guyanese comedian grew up in north London. Her debut Fringe show will explore politics, class, immigration and heritage, “in a way that encompasses, rather than isolates, highlights rather than diminishes and relentlessly challenges stereotype.”

Reality Check, Laughing Horse @Southside Social, 10pm, 13th-28th August.

Jamali Maddix

UK-born Maddix has a Jamaican dad and Italian mum and is bringing his first solo show to the Fringe. “The time is ripe to talk about racism. My only debt to the audience is to be funny. I can’t apologise for what colour I am. Although I’m not saying I’m a role model, I’m a piece of s**t person and I hate responsibility.”

Chickens Come Home To Roost, Pleasance Courtyard, 8.15pm, 3rd-29th August (not 15th).

Bilal Zafar

A former care assistant in Manchester, this London-based comedian’s material often deals with his experiences of islamophobia and racism. His debut show promises to take his audience, “on a fascinating and hilarious journey of how he became a prime target for the furious far right around the world.”

Cakes, Just the Tonic at The Mash House, 3.40pm, 4th-28th (not 15th).

Read online at The Herald here.

Feature: Brexit Britain has made the comedy circuit a worrying place for many non-white comedians

The Herald
30 July 2016 

Shazia Mirza on the cover of The Herald Saturday Arts magazine

Shazia Mirza on the cover of The Herald Saturday Arts magazine

When the Brexit vote is no laughing matter

IT WAS Friday June 24. “Black Friday.” Many were still struggling to swallow the EU referendum news, and comedian Nish Kumar was playing a gig at London’s Comedy Store. More than a decade into his comedy career, it was the night he got his first racist heckle. “Go home!”, shouted someone halfway up the room. “I am home . . .?”, Kumar offered back. Born and raised in the UK, Kumar’s parents are from Kerala, India, hence his brown skin.

Fellow stand-up Paul Tonkinson was quick to Tweet about Kumar’s heckler, saying, “There’s no way this would have happened pre-Brexit.” The National Police Chiefs’ Council reported an alarming 57% rise in reports of hate crime that weekend, and hearing that xenophobes were now straying into the traditionally pretty liberal, arts-loving environs of the metropolitan comedy club sent ripples throughout certain pockets of the comedy scene. In particular, the non-white pockets.

Birmingham-born comedian Shazia Mirza has been performing material about Islamophobia since 2000, including gags about her Pakistani Muslim parents, so should be pretty unfazed about putting a non-white voice onstage by now. Yet since Brexit, she’s turned down six venues on her UK tour.

“I decided not to play certain venues, where I think it might not be safe now,” says Mirzia. “I don’t want to go to Sunderland, or Folkestone, where they’re not necessarily going to want to hear what I have to say. I wouldn’t have said that before.”

Three days after Brexit, a friend of Mirza was assaulted in the street during Ramadan, and asked, “Why haven’t you left yet?” When she replied that she was born in Britain, they spat back, “Change your f***ing clothes then.”

For Mirza, it’s a worrying jolt back to the 1970s, the last time she remembers people being openly racist.

“I was five when someone called by mum a ‘black bastard’ on a train, it was horrific. Lots of Irish in Birmingham were labelled as terrorists around then too. But that kind of visible racism – graffiti on walls, abuse in the street – I’ve not known it since my childhood. It seems so backwards and old-fashioned to go back there.”

Mirza believes certain racist views have been dormant for years, and the referendum has helped bring them to life. Sameena Zehra, a Brighton-based comedian who grew up in Kashmir, agrees.

“The referendum has unleashed something, or legitimised a lot of people’s views. It’s as if all the work against xenophobia before now, we didn’t teach them it was wrong to think like that; we just told them it was taboo. Now there’s this institutional endorsement of how they feel, certain people have just gone apeshit.”

Zehra, who will host a nightly club during the Fringe, The Cult of Comedy, and perform her solo show Poetry Can Fuck Off at The Stand, isn’t scared to go onstage, in fact it’s made her more determined to address racism through her work.

“The court jester used to make fun of society’s issues, and treat very dark matters very lightly. He could move across the entire continuum, play in front of noblemen and commoners and get away with making jokes about them all. As comedians, we need to focus on that power.”

She believes comedians are uniquely placed to speak about issues too often minimised and swept aside.

“I’m a brown, able bodied, heteronormative, middle class woman, but ask the LGBT or disabled community, and many would say the same, very disturbing problems can be written off as ‘just anecdotal evidence’ when it’s a much larger, culturally ingrained problem. It’s great these fictions are now being exposed, and we need to learn how to have nuanced conversations about them.”

Comedian Njambi McGrath has lived in London for over twenty years, and grew up in Kenya. She is writing a memoir about her childhood, where she witnessed the effects of structural racism, after both her parents were sent to concentration camps, on Winston Churchill’s orders.

“After centuries of portrayals of black people as backwards and dangerous, and these constant, subliminal messages, bigotry becomes a disease.”

Although McGrath has never experienced racist abuse in a comedy club, she admits she’s now “very nervous” about performing. If one did show up, she isn’t confident they’d want to discuss their views if challenged.

“Often it’s not a grown up debate. I would argue until I’m blue in the face, but would they want to listen? I grew up in Africa, so I know how easy it is for politicians to make people turn on one another. When people are living unhappy lives, they are very easy to incite.”

She is looking forward to playing Edinburgh, which she considers “an intelligent audience”, but is worried about other places. She describes a recent gig in Lichfield where she went on after three white male standups.

“The audience was in bits. Hysterics! I thought they’d be an easy crowd and I was about to shred it. But they just stared at me. I absolutely died onstage. I don’t want to cry racism – I wouldn’t cut it in this game if I couldn’t accept a crowd just not finding me funny. But sometimes racist vibes can be much more subtle.”

Mixed bill lineups can be more daunting than a solo show, admits Tez Ilyas, performing Made in Britain at the Pleasance.

“I’m feeling good about Edinburgh,” says Ilyas, after coming off stage at Latitude Festival. “I’d be surprised to get heckled by someone who’s seen my name and face on a poster and paid to see me. Playing to crowds who don’t know you is tougher. I’m certainly more apprehensive about playing gigs outside of metropolitan, liberal bubbles like the Edinburgh and London scene.”

For Nish Kumar, the “Go home” heckle has given him fresh material for his Edinburgh show.

“I’m 30 years old – I’m too old to be bullied! I refuse to be intimidated by the actions of a small bunch of dickheads.” He thinks of Edinburgh audiences as “judiciously comedy savvy and well behaved” and remembers a recent gig at The Stand where a drunk woman in the crowd kicked herself out before the show began, worried she was about to get boisterous.

“I’m painfully aware that I’m in a privileged, luxurious position. My job gives me a platform to discuss these disturbing ideas. In a protected environment, with security. Others don’t have that ability to challenge the idiocy. The worst thing we can do is dismiss what’s happening, and downplay the significance of hate crimes.”

Nish Kumar: Actions Speak Louder Than Words, Unless You Shout The Words Real Loud, Pleasance Courtyard, August 3-28; Shazia Mirza, The Stand, August 4-13; Sameena Zehra: Poetry Can F*ck Off, The Stand, August 4-28 (not 15); Njambi McGrath: 1 Last Dance With My Father, Laughing Horse @ Espionage, August 3-27(not 8, 15, 22); Tez Ilyas: Made in Britain, Pleasance Courtyard, August 3-28(not 15).

Read online and view a photo gallery at The Herald here


Feature: Religious Stand-Ups at the Edinburgh Fringe

The List Edinburgh Festival Guide
July 2016


Katy Brand

Losing their religion

There’s a swarm of Fringe comedy shows this August with stand-ups reflecting on their heavily religious teenage years.
We hear about their conflicted views and what made them leave the faith

A black Christian, a gay Baptist and a radical evangelist all walk into a bar. Well, they had to, they were booked to do a stand-up gig in there. They’re not the only ones either: this year’s Fringe programme reveals a clutch of comedians whose shows are inspired by their childhoods growing up in religious households.

Shazia Mirza returns to the Fringe for a ten-night stint, continuing her quest to make sense of her experiences as a British-Asian woman raised in multi-faith Birmingham by a Muslim mum who is now ‘strongly anti-burka’. Tom Ward was raised by a fundamentalist Christian dad and Catholic mum who banned Christmas and fashionable trainers in the house. His show Sex, Snails and Cassette Tapes looks at how he found personal salvation through girls, surf-rock bands and charity shops. Elsewhere, Ali Hassan examines his Muslim heritage in Man Interrupted, if only to answer his four children’s knotty questions about modern-day Islam.

And who knew that Katy Brand, star of Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show, was once a radical fundamentalist Christian? ‘My local church seemed really cool and vibrant to me as a 13-year-old,’ she remembers. ‘It was one of those Church of England ones that got hit by a trend which came over from America in the 90s, and suddenly we were speaking in tongues and praying out demons.’

It didn’t hurt that Brand had a crush on the worship leader, and there was a gospel rock band that she could sign up for. ‘I felt like a celebrity,’ she winces, before confessing the whole thing gives her ‘the massive, deep cringe’ now. ‘Suddenly I felt important and I could show off. We’d go into supermarkets on Saturdays and preach, and I’d tell all my friends they’d go to hell if they didn’t go to church … Looking back, I was an obnoxious dick.’

She’s grateful that her self-imposed radicalisation was short-lived, but now, as stepmother to a teenage daughter, she can see exactly why it happened. ‘Teenagers are ripe for radicalisation,’ says Brand, whose young dabblings in the right-wing waters of Christian extremism provides an inspiration for her debut stand-up show, I Was a Teenage Christian. Her parents were laid-back and liberal, so she imagines her attempts at rebellion were probably ‘Saffy Syndrome’, like Julia Sawalha’s militantly sensible, teetotal 16-year-old bookworm in Absolutely Fabulous.

‘You feel valuable, which is appealing,’ Brand explains. ‘Plus, maybe you’re interested in the afterlife and ghosts and mortality at that age too. It all depends what religion gets you first really: it could have been dangerous. If I’d been 13 during the Crusades, I’d probably have been off on a horse, slaughtering people.’

Like Brand, it was the social aspect of religion that sucked comedian John Pendal in. As a shy, awkward child of devout Baptist parents whose lives revolved around prayer meetings and church trips, he was bullied at school. After attending a holiday camp for fundamentalist Baptists at Butlins when he was 16, and joining the church’s theatre and youth group around the same time, Pendal suddenly felt popular. ‘I was allowed onstage, with a mic! As the bullied kid, it felt like heaven. Religion did a lot for me; god was like this invisible friend when I didn’t have any.’

Pendal became involved with his church in Watford, and enjoyed feeling respected in the Baptist community. Until, that is, he mentioned to a church leader that he was turned on by a muscly male bodybuilder he’d seen in an episode of Neighbours. ‘The church sent me for counselling. I was told “gay” didn’t exist. They tried to convince me there were no homosexuals in Africa. I was very confused and considered abstaining from sex, like celibate Catholic priests do.’

It wasn’t enough though. When Pendal formed a platonic friendship with a gay man from the Metropolitan Community Church – dubbed the ‘Inclusive Church’ because of its doors-open policy to the LGBT community – he was kicked out of his youth group and stonewalled by many old friends. ‘I got handwritten hate mail from members of my old church, saying I was on the path to hell.’

In fact, those formative experiences within the Baptist church sent Pendal on a very different path. In 2003 he entered the 25th ‘International Mr Leather’ contest in Chicago, and became the first Brit to win. ‘The contest involved me giving a speech, so I basically got up and joked that I’d been raised in the strict teetotal bubble of the Baptist church, then got kicked out for going for a drink with a man. It got a huge round of applause and I won.’

Winning meant he spent eight years touring the world, giving speeches to the BDSM community, and discussing kinks and fetishes. It was a perfect training ground for stand-up comedy and supplied plenty material for his debut show, John Pendal: International Man of Leather. ‘I had no self-confidence in my looks: I still don’t. But coming out aged 22 – whilst in the Baptist church, and with everything that’s happened since – has definitely given me an outsider’s view on the world, which every comedian needs.’

Pendal now has ‘mixed feelings’ about his religious upbringing. On the one hand, he made friends through his church, but is deeply confused by certain hypocrisies. ‘I still never buy lottery tickets: the indoctrination is so strong! But after being condemned by the very people who had welcomed me, my faith was gradually kicked out of me.’

Religion also remains a double-edged sword for Njambi McGrath, a Kenyan-born comedian who has lived in the UK for over 20 years. The Kikuyu tribe that her family belongs to was heavily influenced by Glasgow-born missionary Doctor John Arthur, who brought Church of Scotland teachings to Africa.

‘Dr Arthur labelled many ethnic practices as “morally repugnant” and banned our traditional clothes and jewellery,’ says McGrath. ‘But he also spoke out against female genital mutilation and helped it become a criminal offence. Some girls began performing circumcisions themselves; the psychology behind that is incredible, but as we know, cultural and religious beliefs can become so deeply ingrained.’

McGrath has first-hand experience of the complicated, controversial effects of Christian evangelism: her mother was ordered to spend time in ‘The Room’ below their church, as ‘purification’ and punishment for the sin of divorcing Njambi’s father. Her Fringe show, 1 Last Dance With My Father is McGrath’s attempt to confront her past, and the father who beat her.

‘It’s hard for me even now to condemn god: I grew up surrounded by Sunday school, religious songs, morning prayers, evening prayers that went on so long your dinner was stone cold! I used to read the bible before bed. But seeing preachers behaving like Casanovas, impregnating teenage children, taking bribes: I became totally disillusioned.’

For Katy Brand, it took something far smaller to call her faith into question. Being asked to sign an anti-Harry Potter petition finally pushed her over the edge. ‘It just seemed totally absurd and childish. I don’t approve of censorship (maybe if I thought Harry Potter was really shit I might have), but when they tried to pressure me into signing that, my eyes rolled into the back of my head. Since quitting, I’ve not been back.’

That said, she admits to still being fond of her unofficial uniform as a Christian radical. ‘Jeans and a fleece are still a natural choice for me.’

Katy Brand: I Was a Teenage Christian, Pleasance Courtyard, 6–29 Aug (not 15), 4.45pm, £10–£13.50 (£9–£12.50). Previews 3–5 Aug, £7.
John Pendal: International Man of Leather, The Stand 4, 5–28 Aug (not 15), 4.45pm, £8 (£7). Preview 4 Aug, £7 (£6).
Njambi McGrath: 1 Last Dance With My Father, Laughing Horse at Espionage, 1–27 Aug, 2.30pm, free.
Shazia Mirza, The Stand 5, 5–13 Aug, 6.15pm, £9 (£8). Preview 4 Aug, £8 (£7).
Ali Hassan: Man Interrupted, Gilded Balloon at the Counting House, 6–28 Aug (not 15), 9.15pm, £6–£7 in advance or Pay What You Want. Previews 3–5 Aug, £5 (or PWYW).
Tom Ward: Sex, Snails and Cassette Tapes, Pleasance Courtyard, 6–28 Aug (not 15), 9.45pm, £8–£9.50 (£7–£8.50). Previews 3–5 Aug, £6.

Read online at The List here.



Feature: Film sheds light on the many facets of poet Hamish Henderson

The Times
24 May 2016

Hamish Henderson with a dog outside the School of Scottish Studies

Hamish Henderson outside the School of Scottish Studies

The poet and music archivist Hamish Henderson was well known in Edinburgh bars and academic circles, but a documentary sheds new light on the unusually rich life of a talented, very fondly remembered polymath.

Glasgow-based film maker Robbie Fraser was hired by producer Alasdair MacCuish, and together they assembled friends, family and colleagues of Henderson to share memories of the man who created a folk revival in Scotland. Their documentary Hamish premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival in February, and will be screened across Scotland from 3rd June.

“When pitching a film, you have to boil it down into one logline,” says Fraser. “It was a real challenge for Hamish because his life had so many strands, and he meant so many things to so many people. We settled on seven incarnations of Hamish Henderson in the end – the orphan, soldier, politician, poet, drinker, lover and ‘remembrancer’.”

Born an illegitimate child in Blairgowrie, Perthshire in 1919, Henderson’s mother died when he was young. As a scholarship pupil at at the prestigious Dulwich College in London, he quickly learned how to make himself belong in many different situations, a skill that served him equally well interrogating POWs as Captain of the Intelligence Corps during World War II, as gathering folk song recordings from shepherds, “tinkers” and musicians around Scotland.

Henderson died in 2002, aged 82. “I’m one of the few people in Scotland it seems who never met him,” jokes Fraser. “And I really wish I had.”

“Making the film, I was careful only to speak with people who knew him personally. What comes across again and again was this tremendously open-hearted, magnetic man. He liked recognising talent in people, enabling them, giving a voice to the voiceless. Hamish believed in love as this primal force in the universe. That doesn’t mean he was weak or hippy dippy though; whatever he did, he went at it with vigour, with everything he had.”

As a pacifist witnessing the rise of fascism in Germany during the 30s, Henderson decided to become a fighter, and used the six European languages he spoke to gain information as a military interrogator.

“He was fluent in German and would figure out which part of Germany or Austria the prisoners were from, then often sing to them in German to get them onside,’ explains Fraser.

“He treated them very well, and found music very disarming. There are so many echoes with what he did during the War and the techniques he used later on, to gain people’s trust when collecting ballads from travellers.”

Poet Alec Finlay, who describes Henderson as his mentor, is one of several talking heads in the documentary. Finlay was Henderson’s neighbour when he lived near the Meadows in Edinburgh, and began doing odd jobs for him. Their friendship, in the last decade of Henderson’s life, led to Finlay editing and publishing Henderson’s essays and letters which at the time were, “a bunch of photocopies piled in the corner of his kitchen.”

“I was in awe of him, and felt privileged to see that quiet side of Hamish. Lots of people knew ‘Sandy Bells Hamish’; his whisky drinking, ceilidh loving, Rabelaisian side,” says Finlay, namechecking the Edinburgh pub that became a favourite of Henderson and colleagues from the nearby School of Scottish Studies.

“Most people would come to his house with a bottle, but we never drank together, I went round to listen and learn. He was giving me an education, I was helping shape his life into retrospective order.”

Finlay remembers one occasion when he helped Henderson and his “gammy hips” into the bath, then listened as he recited one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies in perfect German.

Although famously passionate about Scottish traditional and working class culture, and an outspoken advocate for Scottish home rule, Henderson was a fervent internationalist, who befriended Communist Italian partisans during the War and adapted folk songs in solidarity for South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. He was also an early campaigner for gay rights, CND and the opening of a Scottish parliament.

“Hamish would have loved 2014,” says Finlay. “He always saw Scotland as a rich, diverse country that mixes art, music, intelligence and debate – he was a foundational figure in that respect. He recognised that confidence and change in Scotland is primarily led by culture, and was a key figure in that. He loved young people, celebratory people, people with energy, and watching Scotland reach a higher level of conversation and intelligence, that’s something he’d have really enjoyed.”

Although Henderson’s life was up made of several very diverse phases, Finlay believes he made something exciting happen in all of them.

“This amazing thread ran through his life; war poet, heroic leader, folk revivalist, mentor – he somehow fulfilled an incredible potential in each of those eras. What he’s left behind now is ‘the Hamish effect’. You meet hundreds of people who were changed by him.”

Read the article online at The Times here (subscription needed.)


Review: Counterflows Festival, The Wire

The Wire
June 2016

American harpist and improviser Zeena Parkins with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen

American harpist and improviser Zeena Parkins with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen

Various venues, Glasgow
7-10 April 2016

Before the fifth Counterflows festival happened in Glasgow, its co-curators Alasdair Campbell and Fielding Hope presented a preview podcast on Resonance FM, where Hope joked that they were going “a bit trad” this time. There was never any danger of that, not in a beige and safe sense of the word anyway. Counterflows is an annual celebration of “the adventurous and the underground”, where dystopian techno sets and solo harp reveries sit quite comfortably alongside surrealist noise skits and free jazz face-offs. But the string music theme running through this year’s programme made for a weekend as obsessed with subverting the traditional as it was with pursuing the new.

The first night saw Áine O’Dwyer boom her Music for Church Cleaners eerily out of a giant church organ into the shadows of the cavernous Glasgow University Chapel. Two days later, in a discussion with Frances Morgan, she spoke about the pipe organ’s role as ‘manipulative machine’, designed to make people feel in awe of god. O’Dwyer’s daunting exploration of the organ’s low sounds, shrill shrieks and silences was a foreboding, formidable opener, followed by Laura Cannell and Angharad Davies’ Counterflows commission, Mythos of Violins, a haunting meditation for three violins, performed with Aiden O’Rourke.

Graham Lambkin, the solo artist who used to make curious, minimal, commentary-rock in the superbly odd duo The Shadow Ring paired up with Penultimate Press label boss, Mark Harwood, aka Astor, to bring a wonky, menacing set on Friday, using an Audubon bird whistle, bells, beer bottles and tape hiss to act out a dysfunctional male bonding session, with Garnethill Multicultural Centre acting as the garden shed for their performance art pathos. Later, Inga Copeland played with the tensions between soft and hard sounds that she first experimented with as half of Hype Williams, this time morphing melodic, pretty loops into dark, insistent beats from her Live in Paris album, as wobbly Handycam footage of Glasgow blurred with strobes and spoken London street names.

Counterflows’ featured artist, the American harpist and improviser Zeena Parkins delivered several equally mind-bending performances across the weekend, including a skronky, cartoony and violent attack on a harp, accompanied by Glasgow’s One Ensemble, and a furious, virtuosic duet with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen, showing off the intoxicating spectrum of noises that her homemade electric harp can make. Small busloads were also driven to a secret location, a sleek Kelvinside home, for intimate and mesmerising performances by Parkins. She confounded her tiny crowd when she passed round champagne and canapés, disarming them, before inviting listeners to stick their heads in the grand piano she’d set up with a few dozen E-Bows.

Alongside Brazilian anarchic, middle-aged disco-metal-noise trio, Chelpa Ferra, and Black Top, a British free jazz duo splicing xylo-synth odysseys with iPad meanderings, Jamaican dub and live drums, there was room in the programme for workshops in ‘Motherese’ from local music therapist Aby Vulliamy for pre-verbal babies and parents, and a last minute gig in a charity shop in Shawlands Arcade, where likeable New York bampot rapper Sensational and Newcastle father/ daughter screamo-pop duo Yeah You (they released their Air Headz tape on Psykick Dancehall Recordings last year) gave Sunday afternoon shoppers something to gawp at.

South India’s Carnatic Music Ensemble sent things off the charts for the Sunday night finale. If all the hedonism and experimentalism of the weekend still hadn’t quite sold the festival as the rare gem that it is, then the trance-inducing drones of their raga and tala-based classical, devotional music in a church hall was the last shove needed to achieve full transcendence. Sublime.

Counterflows review in the June issue of The Wire magazine

June issue of The Wire


Review: Tectonics Festival, day two

The Herald
9 May 2016

Sami Yoiker Tectonics Festival

A Sami Yoiker


Tectonics Festival 2016

City Halls and Fruitmarket, Glasgow

Four stars

Day two of Tectonics ended on a big scale, with loud bangs, a few whimpers and plenty memorable oddities. The largest, in ambition and scale, was Alvin Curran’s world premiere of Musique Sans Frontières, where bagpipers and saxophonists led the audience up the City Halls’ staircase, down to the cavernous Fruitmarket, then into the Grand Hall for a cacophonous riot of foghorns, the Kirkintilloch brass band, BBC SSO musicians and ambient crowd performances from the Glasgow Chamber Choir. In the Ben Frost vein of visceral, foreboding compositions to jolt and batter the senses, Curran’s free jazz-classical-promenade-epic was arresting and fresh, if not always cohesive. But then a blend of Scottish folk fiddle, dropped kitchen utensils, symphony strings and chairs scraped across the floor was never going to be.

Smaller scale thrills were available too, from extraordinary solo violinist John Rose, continuing to hone his radical, playful style, showing off a bottomless curiosity for sounds he can make from string, air, electricity and skin, and the incredible Ánde Somby, looking like a court jester in leather fetish gear, but actually a gatekeeper to the ancient world of Sami shamanistic music. His animal yoiks of salmon, mosquitoes and a wolf were an otherworldly wonder, and captured the attention of wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson a couple of years ago.

Labyrinthine was an evocative experiment in operatics meets aerobics, where former Conquering Animal Sound member Anneke Kampman explored breath, body and female identity with singer Lucy Duncombe, and Annea Lockwood’s Sound Map of the Housatonic River was a blissful bath of water noise. A satisfying weekend of cerebral fun came to a close with Nate Young of Wolf Eyes’ dread-drenched work for orchestra and DIY electronics, sounding like a VHS video nasty, soundtracked by Morricone at his most sinister. With it, the seismic plates between the underground and overground closed up again for another year.

Read online at The Herald here


Review: Tectonics Festival, day one

The Herald
8 May 2016


Ilan Volkov conducting the BBC SSO in the premiere of Fruitmarket. Photo: Alex Woodward

Tectonics festival 2016
Sat 7 May, City Halls and Fruitmarket, Glasgow
Four stars

‘Make some noise’, read the acid yellow tote bags spotted around the Merchant City this weekend. It’s the mission statement for the fourth Tectonics Glasgow, an unstuffy and audacious, multipolar festival of experimental music, bringing together the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and sound artists, for avant-garde adventures in noise.
Saturday’s opening concert, Jitterbug, originally written for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company by Annea Lockwood, dripped, chimed and bubbled through the auditorium, as field recordings played through suspended microphones and speakers. Lockwood’s ‘interpretation of geological time’, with its digitised cicadas and jungle exhales, saw musicians take cues from images of patterned rocks, rather than sheet music. It was a less dystopian wander around Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 wasteland in Stalker; a meditative, pindrop piece introducing a big festival theme, the soft melting of musical boundaries, and an invitation for composers, artists and the audience to play around with conventions.

Elsewhere audiences were immersed in noise, with in-the-round performances and surround sound acoustics in the Fruitmarket and City Hall, both balconies spilling out celestial choir song, booming orchestral bass drums and thunderclap percussion. Catherine Kontz’s multi-textured, surprise-loaded Fruitmarket mimicked market vendors’ calls while Laurence Crane’s Cobbled Section After Section was deceptively sparse, a beautifully ebbing ambient work, before Concealed Unity, climaxing with the astonishing, experimental vocal of Jessika Kenney, drifting down from somewhere near the Grand Hall’s ceiling.
Ethereal reveries conjured upstairs were then expertly smashed downstairs by underground guitar hero, Andy Moor of the Ex, building a muscular wall of squall behind Anne-Marie Chaton’s mesmerising monotone, reading aloud in deadpan French. Finally, the wild, joyful polyrhythms of Ollie and Laurie Pitt of Golden Teacher induced a multi-coloured high for the Saturday-night closer, using congos, deconstructed clarinets, loops and morphing beats to batter the crowd into a euphoric pulp.

Read online at The Herald here.

Review: Counterflows Festival, The Times

The Times
11 April 2016

Carnatic Music Ensemble performing at Counterflows Festival

South India’s Carnatic Music Ensemble

Weekend review

Thu 7 – Sun 9 Apr, various venues, Glasgow

There’s a busker outside Tesco on Sauchiehall Street doing his plaintive guitar cover of The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’, while one block up at the CCA, queues are snaking around the building, waiting to see Zeena Parkins, a Detroit-born harpist. She’s the featured artist in this year’s Counterflows, a festival dedicated to ‘adventurous underground music’. For dedicated, read obsessed. That is, with all that is new, experimental, improvised, weird and marginal – and the balance they hit, year on year, between mind-bendingly good and straight-up fun sounds makes it one of Glasgow’s annual music highlights.

For the festival’s fifth year, curators  Alasdair Campbell and Fielding Hope joke that they’ve “gone a bit trad”; bookending their four-day programme with string music. The opening concert is an incredible, haunting night of low light and stained glass in the grandiose Glasgow University Chapel, where Laura Cannell and Angharad Davies present their Counterflows commission, Mythos of Violins, a meditative, melodic improvisation that sits beautifully beside Áine O’Dwyer’s Music for Church Cleaners, booming eerily out of the giant church organ.

London based O’Dwyer also featured in the closing concert, duetting with Zanzibar-based multi-instrumentalist Mohamed Issa Haji Matona, before a finale by South India’s Carnatic Music Ensemble, discovered by Campbell on a British Council trip to discover new artists and build international links, something the festival has always enjoyed doing. Elsewhere there is Chelpa Ferro, an anarchic, middle-aged disco-metal-noise trio from Brazil, channelling Larry David going postal with electric guitar and shrill bleeps; Black Top, a British free jazz duo splicing together xylo-synth odysseys with iPad meanderings, Jamaican dub and live drums; and Inga Copeland, also known as Lolina, who presented a darkly magical club set under strobe lights, with spoken word, muscular beats and morphing techno. There’s room in the festival’s wide scope for them to comfortably fit in morning workshops with local music therapist Aby Vulliamy for pre-verbal babies and parents too.

The festival takes delight in picking its locations thoughtfully. Saturday saw audiences scooped up one small busload at a time and driven to a secret location, a well heeled home in the West End for an intimate concert by the immensely talented Zeena Parkins, who has worked in the past with Björk, Yoko Ono and Merce Cunningham, and teamed up this weekend with Glasgow’s One Ensemble. After serving her guests champagne and canapés, she invited them to stick their heads inside a grand piano she was creating mesmerising drones and buzzes from, then led them to the kitchen for a solo harp concert, played in a uniquely subversive, sometimes violent and gorgeous style. The Glasgow School of Art’s Vic Bar took over the night shift with pummelling, sweaty, playful sets from Hungarian DJs Evol and the mysterious snare drum and laptop duo, N.M.O. The day after, Twitter directed anyone who was interested to a free busking session between New York rapper Sensational and Newcastle father/ daughter screamo-pop duo on Sunday afternoon in the middle of the busy shopping centre, Shawlands Arcade.

A satisfying counterpoint to bland, white, twenty something, male-dominated or nostalgic music, Counterflows is more interested in drilling deeper to find non-generic, new sub-genres and shine torches on the obscure and sublime. Colourful, intelligent and hedonistic all at once, their devotion pays off every time.


Interview: Drew Wright, on the soundtrack he and Hamish Brown wrote for Lost Treasure

The Times
15 March 2016

Hamish Brown and Drew Wright in front of Lost Treasure archive footage

Hamish Brown and Drew Wright

This Glasgow Short Film Festival opens tomorrow with the premiere of a recently rediscovered documentary about the Highlands and its people. Taking raw footage of Sutherland and Glasgow from the 1950s, an updated version of the film subtly weaves in modern influences, ranging from the poetry of Norman McCaig, the ideologies of George Monbiot, the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky and the folk music archive of Alan Lomax.

The accidentally perfectly-named film Lost Treasure was recorded in 1956 by Dawn Cine Group, a socialist film-making collective from Glasgow, who disbanded during the making of the documentary, and as a result, never managed to complete or release it. Fast forward six decades, and the unfinished black and white film will finally be unearthed, with a new live score, performed by Edinburgh musicians Drew Wright and Hamish Brown.

“The original film deals with issues of rural depopulation and land ownership, a subject still very relevant today – in fact, it’s become a real hot potato in Scotland, especially over the last two or three years,” explains Wright, a Leith-based singer and experimental musician who performs under the alias, Wounded Knee. The Lost Treasure project sees Wright reunited with Matt Lloyd, director of the Glasgow Short Film Festival, who had previously commissioned him to create a live soundtrack to John Grierson’s Drifters, a silent film from 1929 about herring fishing, filmed in Shetland and the North Sea.

It was during last year’s Glasgow Short Film Festival that Lloyd stumbled on the progressive cinema of Dawn Cine Group, whose work focused on social and political issues of the time, including slum housing in Glasgow, as covered in their most successful film, Let Glasgow Flourish, also made in 1956. Lloyd commissioned Wright to team up with musician and producer, Hamish Brown (a member of experimental pop trio, Swimmer One) to write and perform a new soundtrack for the unfinished film, Lost Treasure, which has been pieced together by Finnish cinematographer Minttu Mäntynen. After premiering in Glasgow, Lost Treasure will tour Scotland in April, with Wright and Brown performing their live soundtrack.

“We were interested in taking the original raw footage from the 50s, and folding in some other texts, poetry, Gaelic song and new music to create a sort of collage of our own,” says Wright.

“Both Hamish and I had been reading stuff by Norman McCaig – a poet who adored the West Highlands, and often wrote about Achmelvich, a part of the world where he spent a lot of time, where most of this was filmed. It was a bit of a luxury to have an excuse to re-read his poem ‘A Man in Assynt’, as well as Andy Wightman and Tom Devine’s writing on land ownership in Scotland and George Monbiot’s book, Feral, raising questions about who really owns a landscape.”

Wright describes Lost Treasure’s original script as “didactic at times” and decided to approach their new soundtrack “more poetically”.

“Hamish has created a lot of electronic, instrumental stuff which works really well as a sort of sonic bed, and we’ve put some spoken word bits over the top, including some of the original directions for the film, and me performing a Gaelic song called Cailin Mo Rùin-sa (The Maid I Adore) as well as some of my own music. The result is a mixture of textural, droney sounds and more processed synth-based music.

“Hopefully this is neither a piece of agit-pop, nor an exercise in nostalgia, but a modern response to the footage. It’s a remix I suppose, where we’ve allowed the music to come to the fore in places, slowing down some of the key scenes, drawing attention to some of the imperfections and flaws in the actual film, or focussing on the magnificent landscapes or natural light in other places.”

Lost Treasure is premiered at Glasgow Short Film Festival, GFT, Glasgow, Wednesday 16 March, then will tour to Hippodrome, Bo’ness, Sat 16 Apr; Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, Sun 17 Apr; Merlin Cinema, Thurso, Thu 21 Apr; Timespan, Helmsdale; Fri 22 Apr; Eden Court, Inverness, Sat 23 Apr; Filmhouse, Edinburgh; Thu 28 Apr

The Times Lost Treasure feature March 2016

Review: Piaf! The Show

The Times

29 January 2016

Edith Piaf

Piaf! The Show

Four Stars

Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Wednesday 27 January, part of Celtic Connections

There’s a growing back catalogue of tributes to the pocket-sized chanteuse, Edith Piaf. The combination of her school of hard knocks childhood, followed by a string of turbulent love affairs, then a substance abuse problem – it’s the stuff that Hollywood biopic dreams are made of. Tragedy seemed to trail after the French cabaret singer, but like fellow divas Billie Holliday, Nina Simone and Etta James, whose personal lives were also hamstrung by addiction and heartache, Piaf wouldn’t have enduring appeal if she didn’t have the voice to back up the tabloid-pleasing headlines.

Piaf’s voice could be many things – gravelly and defiant, creamy and suave, featherlight and vulnerable – she could sound like an angry barfly on a three-day hangover, or a jilted and unhinged lover about to do herself a mischief.

Various homages have been paid to the artist formerly known as “The Sparrow”, including Marion Cotillard’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Piaf in La Vie En Rose in 2007, or Pam Gem’s regularly revisited seventies stage play, Piaf. They chose, as did various biographies, Edinburgh Fringe shows and TV documentaries, to zoom in on the grittier side of Piaf’s private life, but this French production wants to keep the focus pretty firmly on her songs.

Piaf! The Show is performed almost entirely in the singer’s native French. Besides the odd “thank you”, and a verse of Autumn Leaves in English, the jazz standard written by Johnny Mercer and based on Jacques Prévert’s original song Les Feuilles Mortes, it’s the only break from Piaf’s mother tongue. Even the interval here is the ‘entracte’, and when an audience karaoke moment is slotted in for La Vie En Rose near the end, it quickly becomes obvious who was paying attention in French lessons at school.

The audience watch various black and white film reels unfolding in the background, showing Rue Pigalle and Montmartre’s fabled cobbled streets, then a montage of Piaf’s various love interests and front page splashes as she exploded in popularity during the 1940s and fifties.  

Besides the visuals, there is no narrative per se, and for the most part, non French speakers in the crowd have to rely on the same clues as silent movie or old fashioned opera fans to follow the meaning of the songs, reading the overwrought facial expressions and stage props to get the gist. Piaf’s are some very big tiny shoes to fill, but singer Anne Carrere rises to the challenge, coming very close to nailing pretty much every aspect of the singer’s voice and mannerisms, besides maybe her trademark overly-pruned eyebrows.

If Carrere and her four-piece band (double bass, xylophone, accordion and piano) have performed this show over a hundred times in 23 countries before giving it its UK premiere in Glasgow tonight, they show no signs of wearying. Carrere’s arms slice through the air in indignation, her legs drape flirtatiously over male props in the front row, and her ballerina slip-ons pirouette her through lilting numbers about merry-go-rounds and circus acts. No r goes unrolled, no ‘bof’ is left unpouted, and every shrug, grimace and furrowed brow comes on cue, helping to tell the stories of all of Piaf’s embittered barmaids, pining lovers and doomed legionnaires (Piaf’s hit Mon Legionnaire went on to be a gay disco anthem in the eighties, after Serge Gainsbourg recorded it and added new connotations.)

Je M’En Fous Pas Mal and Mon Manège A Moi are gutsy highlights, but the show is not over until the tiny lady sings Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, and sing it Carrere does. Belting it out, tears can be seen springing involuntarily from eyes all over the crowd, and Carrere can’t resist camply hamming it up with some pained sobs of her own, before wiping her eyes on the hem of the piano player’s jacket.

Read the review online at The Times here (subscription needed).


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