Claire Sawers

Freelance Writer

Review: Shirley Collins

The Times
7 February 2017

Folk singer Shirley Collins

Shirley Collins

Shirley Collins
Sat 4 Feb
City Halls, Glasgow
5 stars

Not many would have predicted having such a beatific Saturday night, being snake-charmed into blissed out raptures, with help from a lone Morris dancer and a parade of horse skulls. Maybe least of all, the folk singer Shirley Collins, who spent almost four decades laying low, not performing after a painful marriage breakdown led to dysphonia, curiously the same condition that stopped Linda Thompson from singing after her husband Richard left.

But thanks to prolonged cajoling from a new wave of fans, including Current 93’s founder and one-time member of Psychic TV David Tibet, and comedian and music obsessive Stewart Lee, Collins was lured back from obscurity, and released Lodestar in November, her first album in 38 years.

The dictionary definition of a lodestar is “a star that leads or guides” or “an inspiration, model or guide”, which neatly sums up both what music has always meant to Collins — even during the years when she quietly ran an Oxfam shop in Brighton, presuming she’d been forgotten — and what Collins means to folk music.

Now 81 years old, against a video backdrop of pagan rituals, stellar constellations and Deep South swamps, she sagely revisits madrigals she sang at home with her mum and older sister, Dolly; ‘The Silver Swan’ is a featherlight yet devastating closer to both the album and tonight’s show, and she’s been singing it since a teenager; and Cajun gems from a 1950s folk song collecting trip to America with her friend Alan Lomax. Sipping from a mug of tea in between ballads of pregnant girls being pushed overboard, or gin remedies for injured legs, Collins beams a sort of serene radiance from the stage, where she’s accompanied by musicians on sublime hurdy gurdy, mandolin, fiddle and drums. Her stories are every bit as good as her songs, and the crowd would have definitely stuck around to hear more moonshine-soaked tales of a mean man who “put out his wife’s eyes” or the time she swapped “ugly songs” with a banjo plucking woman from Arkansas, if she didn’t gently evict her fans with the soft order, “It’s time for you to go home now.” When the applause won’t stop, the twinkle in her eyes only glows brighter. “I’m not kidding,” she deadpans, in a Sussex whisper. Maybe it’s because it was the first night of a long-awaited comeback tour, or maybe there were deeper forces of magick at work tonight, but watching Shirley Collins’ dimmed star take on an even stronger brightness is a glorious thing.

Read the review in The Times here (subscription needed).



Review: Martha Wainwright

The Times 
6 February 2017

O2 ABC, Glasgow
3 February 2017
4 stars

After performing at Celtic Connections as The Wainwright Sisters last year, at first it feels like there’s a big, sister-shaped hole on the stage tonight when Martha shyly moseys over to the mic.  She’s not joined by Lucy Wainwright Roche, the other half of her folk song and country double act, their voices dorkily dovetailing around one another’s in ink black harmonies. But then, she’s also not joined onstage by her mother, enigmatic, melancholy folk singer, Kate McGarrigle, or father, roguishly charming folk singer, Loudon Wainwright III, or brother, baroque pop, turned opera composer, Rufus Wainwright. Still, the entire family gets summoned at one point or another, as if magicked up by some time travelling, sonic satellite link to perform as invisible backing band with her; Rufus wrote ‘Francis’ on her album Goodnight City, released late last year, and his theatrical phrasings and louche, late-night cabaret drama come through on her spotlit, torch song delivery. Her son, Francis, gets a second mention in ‘Franci’, written by herself, although she drily deadpans that she had to ask other people to write the other half of the album as she “was busy procreating.”

Her performance is an amalgam of things that her genes and upbringing have gifted her with; French language choruses, wistful sarcastic asides, flashes of sassy magnetism, moments of sadder reflection – but despite the family influences, her unhinged skill is still all her own. Dressed in a baggy boiler suit, decorated with a tasselled necklace of a uterus and fallopian tubes, she likes to lift her knee high for emphasis on certain songs, and rolls her torso and hips slowly around a cosmic, synth-pop number written by her mum and aunt, Anna McGarrigle. Her own songwriting lets her voice rollercoaster through crazed, clear and keening styles; scratchy and squeaky one minute, bluesy and syrupy the next. ‘Traveller’ is her take on Nina Simone’s excellent ‘Baltimore’, a raspy, rock lament, written for a friend of Wainwright’s who died young, and the bassy funk of ‘Take the Reins’, written especially for Wainwright by Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus, gives a burst of mid-set energy (it’s the last night of Wainwright’s tour, and she’s burning a bit dimmer than usual). Although it feels like something’s missing for some of tonight’s show – maybe it’s the dopamine hits she seems to take from performing with her actual family onstage – her acoustic cover of her mother’s last song, ‘Proserpina’, about the Greek goddess Persephone, is the highlight, an otherworldly group harmony summoned up from the underworld and the afterlife.

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

Interview: DJ Lag

The Wire
January 2016

Gqom With Me

Gqom purveyor DJ Lag is helping to take the caffeinated rush of Durban’s dance style worldwide

Partyheads in Durban, South Africa have been not so quietly losing their minds over gqom music for the past few years. It’s pretty hard to stay in a relaxed state faced with gqom’s rush of uppers, the drama of its relentless kicks, its balls-out urgency to go higher and get hyper.

“GQOM music makes you think of fun, nothing else but fun,” says DJ Lag, real name Lwazi Asanda Gwala, a key player in the gqom scene, currently doing his bit to spread the brutal, bubbling dance sound around the world.

He’s just finished a tour of Asia and Europe, with stops in Berlin’s Panorama bar, Krakow’s Unsound festival and London’s Stour Space in Tower Hamlets. The Gqom Oh! Showcase tour came about after London imprint Goon Club Allstars released his self-titled four-track EP in November, a big, rushy, unapologetic, caps-lock permanently on, caffeine slap of beats.

“We were introduced to Kasimp3, the site that a lot of Durban artist upload their tunes to, about three and a half years ago,” says Ed from Goon Club Allstars, “and were just listening to loads of tracks on there. We were all drawn to Lag’s productions and so reached out to him via Facebook.

Lag’s tunes stood out because of the atmosphere he creates. His tracks are fierce. The reaction [to the EP] has been great. Lag’s tracks crossover a whole range of dancefloors so we’ve had positive reactions from lots of different scenes.”

Like a lot of gqom, Lag’s EP was made with a lo-fi set-up using FruityLoops software at his house.

“Ghost on the Loose” is a driving, pummeling opener to set the pace, “16th Step” introduces more colour and bounce to the cold, raw beats and “Umlila” features a metallic clang, building into a more forceful industrial battering, chaotically unravelling in various directions of chirping birdsong and chanted vocals.

The word ‘gqom’ is pronounced with a click consonant and comes from the Zulu word for ‘hit’ or ‘drum’ – something there is never a shortage of in gqom sets.

The word is taken from drama used in our traditional music,” explains Lag, who lives in a rural township of Durban called Clermont. Getting in contact with him isn’t easy – patchy wifi snags several attempts at a WhatsApp call, then he has to go offline while he’s round visiting his mum who has no internet, then he loses his phone charger and runs out of data allowance, so we chat mostly over texts, spaced out over a week.

Gqom first got played a lot on mobile phones in Durban as the microscene grew, and taxi drivers cashed in, blasting gqom DJs out their car windows to pick up people on their way to and from parties. The Wire reviewed the first big compilation of the genre, Gqom Oh! The Sound of Durban Vol 1 back in January featuring other gqom big hitters like Emo Kid and Citizen Boy, and by July the documentary Woza Taxi was screened on The Fader’s website. The short film, directed by Tommaso Cassinis, homed in on the link between gqom and ecstasy, as the two often go hand in hand. Is gqom better enjoyed on pills?

“No, in my view I wouldn’t say that, because when it comes to dancing and fun you don’t really need a certain boost. Gqom is vibey, fun, dance music. The best reaction from a crowd is non stop dance.”

Gqom’s association with illegal drugs, including a powerful upper called mkwini, and other amphetamine cocktails also popular in Europe, with names like Superman, La Costa and Mercedes, are why some people reckon the music isn’t as popular in its native South Africa as it might be. Big name, better paid and promoted DJs often rip off the township music and pass it off as their own, but class prejudices mean the original producers won’t always get airplay.

Lag says he first got into DJing as a way of getting his music played out. “It was a motive coming from production as I kept on asking other DJs to please play my music. DJs who believed did agree, of which there were few. Most did not believe in this kind of music I was bringing to them so I decided to learn how to play because I had so much belief in myself and this kind of music, and I could see the vision.”

The international club scene has embraced it pretty quickly though, reacting to the infectious, percussion-heavy excitement of gqom, which steamrolls over grime, afro-house, hard electro and hip hop styles with uncompromising screams, yells and drumrolls.

The EP is currently going down well, and Lag is riding the high. Just after his overseas tour finished, he went straight back out to play dates in Durban and Johannesburg clubs. “I just had my new best memory in a Durban club, whereby on my comeback event I had a crowd of 3000 and I gave them my best set. I would like for [the EP] to be enjoyed and played worldwide.”

This interview appeared in the January issue of The Wire.

Listen to an exclusive mix from South African DJ Lwazi Asanda Gwala for The Wire here.



Album review: Demdike Stare – Wonderland

The Wire
January 2017

Demdike Stare
(Modern Love)

Manchester electronic duo Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker return four years after their last album Elemental with Wonderland, a skittish, angsty record of their trademark ADHD IDM. In between times, they’ve been keeping up the momentum for their mutant crossbreeds of dance music through their Testpressing series, two-track releases they’ve been bringing out since 2013 on Modern Love, the label home of Vatican Shadow, Andy Stott and others.

Demdike Stare’s approach to the dancefloor is always a complex one, made up of cerebral, tightly knotted references to Detroit techno, British industrial, ravey jungle, jittery dancehall, weirdo noise and malevolent horror soundtracks, with uphill climbs into more gratifying kicks and doomy, but danceable drops.

The ten-minute long “Hardnoise” is probably the standout, beginning with innocuous sounding steps, like footsteps crunching into snow, then short circuiting into splutters of static and beat-driven bursts of anxiety. Tropical birdsong chirps through the tapping rhythms, sounding increasingly panicked before a payoff arrives for those itching by this point for a hook to dance or nod along to. A minute or so later the beats have been replaced by a Heatsick-esque synth melody-line, simple and repetitive, and rounding off the track with some gleaming, glowing house.

“Curzon” is the claustrophobic album opener, speeding up into something that might be about to go fullblown Giallo horror with its ominous churchy synths before it collapses abruptly into a garbled computer-generated voice; “Animal Style” is a seizure of drum and bass, pocked with creepy whispered bits and mutated vocals in the distance; and Fridge Challenge is a squeaky, bright muckabout with bleeps and recordings of an airport tannoy.

Dense, frustrating, perplex and fun on record, having seen them live several times, their sound works best when it bleeds osmotically into strange visuals. Their longterm obsession with crate digging is still audible on Wonderland, but a symbiosis of their love of both weird sounds and visions hammers their unsettling dance music home with greater impact.


Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty of Demdike Stare

Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty of Demdike Stare


Album review: Brian Eno – Reflection

The Wire
January 2017

Brian Eno

In a blurb about his upcoming ambient album, Brian Eno says: ‘Reflection is so called because I find it makes me think back. It makes me think things over. It seems to create a psychological space that encourages internal conversation.’

Who knows just what internal conversations Reflection will encourage, and that’s kind of the point. Maybe the listener’s mind will wander back to guiding Ecco the Dolphin past coral reefs and crystal glyphs on a Sega Megadrive. Or watching in stoned fascination as a lump of glowing neon prepares to slide into the cosmic liquid in a lava lamp, or witnessing a glacier calving in a nature documentary, gracefully crumbling in silence, because it’s filmed far enough away to cut out the thunder as it breaks.

Reflection is Eno’s return to the kind of headphone music he made a name for himself with in the early seventies. It’s minimal, incrementally changing, state-altering ambient music, this time made from underwatery textures and calm phrases. Soft bells, low chimes, muffled extraterrestrial wooshes and wooden glockenspiel are layered up in slow motion, then given micro-adjustments through a set of rules programmed in by Eno. “One rule might say ‘raise 1 out of every 100 notes by 5 semitones’ and another might say ‘raise one out of every 50 notes by 7 semitones’,” Eno explains, in full ambient-boffin mode, reminding us of his apparently undying love of nerdy experimentations, which first made him a pioneer in the field.

Reflection is one continuous piece, just over 50 minutes long, and a return to Eno’s unstructured, non song-based music, with no vocals, unlike his recent album, The Ship. He might have lost credibility for many when he jumped on the payroll of Nick Clegg, Apple, Coldplay and U2, but Eno’s striving nature, and his ability to morph sounds, alter moods and conduct psychoacoustic experiments still yields weird and enjoyable fruits here.

Eno once said that ambient music should be “as ignorable as it is interesting”, and Reflection glows understatedly around that sweet spot of background noise; neither bilge or beige. It’s far more meditative and infinitely less trippy than something like “Swastika Girls” from the early Fripp-Eno days, but the suck downwards into the soothing murk of what he calls ‘the internal conversation’ is strong.

Review: Arika Episode 8

The Wire
January 2017

Boychild at the Art School, Glasgow, part of Arika's Episode 8

Boychild at the Art School, Glasgow PHOTO: Alex Woodward

21-23 October 2016
Tramway & the Art School, Glasgow

Just over a fortnight before the doomy confirmation of President Trump, Seattle activist and lawyer Dean Spade is on stage at Tramway, talking on a panel about his feelings of “cumulative grief” and a shared “loss of optimism”. The antidote to such bleak times, he suggests, must be getting organised in a joyful way. Connecting with friends, fleeing prisons of race, class and gender on a daily basis, constantly learning, practising healing – and he points out he’s not talking in the “rich white yoga lady” sense of the word either – are necessary resistance tactics. It’s a theme central to Arika’s Episode 8, three days of performances, screenings and discussions under the banner, Refuse Powers’ Grasp.

Audre Lorde’s 1980s notion of self-care as an act of political warfare still reverberates – from defiant life advice dished out by the mischievous and militant Miss Major, a Stonewall activist and trans icon now in her 70s, to discussions of sex workers’ safety with Anastacia Ryan from Scottish charity, SCOT-PEP. Edinburgh-based arts pioneers, Arika have gone to plenty trouble to embed radical care deep in their right-on programme – events are BSL-interpreted and captioned, toilets are gender-neutral and wheelchair accessible, and in keeping with their pragmatic, warm take on revolution, bus fares home and drinks tokens are supplied for anyone in the asylum system who is strapped for cash.

Miss Major in conversation with Eric A Stanley PHOTO: Alex Woodward

Miss Major in conversation with Eric A Stanley PHOTO: Alex Woodward

The weekend is bookended by a Friday club night at Glasgow School of Art and a Sunday multimedia performance – both overlorded by the queer New York DJ, artist and face of Kenzo x H&M, Juliana Huxtable. Her trappy, R&B set chops up Livin’ Joy and Britney Spears with jerking bangers from the likes of Gangsta Boo and La Chat over live drums. A histrionic, mesmerising blast of Japanese butoh from performance artist boychild beforehand sees her writhing and lip-syncing to distorted Beyoncé and Kelela tracks, covered in gold bodypaint, teeth clamped tensely around a strobe light.

Video artist Sondra Perry PHOTO: Alex Woodward

PHOTO: Alex Woodward

A Saturday highlight comes from the whipsmart New Jersey video artist, Sondra Perry (pictured above), whose site-specific piece Resident Evil draws out colonial themes from her beloved Alien films and wraps it sinisterly around US news footage and karaoke versions of Steely Dan’s ‘Peg’ and Nina Simone’s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’. As disturbing as it is sweetly affecting, even when Perry loses the link on her live Periscope feed, it seems to segue in weirdly well with her themes of surveillance and technology.

Over a dense and intense three days, problem topics of biological essentialism, carceral feminism, prison abolition and state-supported pinkwashing are unpacked and cross-examined through workshops and round-table chats, but the organisers haven’t forgotten to counterbalance the political theory with lighter moments, including a screening of the excellent Criminal Queers, San Francisco filmmaker Eric Stanley’s camp, lo-fi, lo-budget, John Waters-y take on the radical trans struggle against the prison industrial complex.  

Enjoyably heavy on the American performers and speakers, Episode 8’s programme also included local activists and campaigners, with money made at the club night going to Glasgow migrant support group, We Will Rise, and New Orleans community group, Gallery of the Streets collaborating with Glasgow Open Dance School for a black queer retelling of Marge Piercy’s feminist utopian novel, Woman on the Edge of Time.

Arika have been doing an excellent job of staging nourishing and entertaining Episodes for years, but there’s something about the current creep and not so subtle rise of bigotry and barriers that makes this most recent update seem all the more vital.

'[b]reach: the fugitive chronicles - an open rehearsal' by Gallery of the Streets and Glasgow Open Dance School PHOTO: Alex Woodward

An open rehearsal by Gallery of the Streets and Glasgow Open Dance School PHOTO: Alex Woodward

This review appeared in the January issue of The Wire.


Interview: Kill Alters

The Wire
December 2016

Kill Alters Bonnie Baxter

Bonnie Baxter of Kill Alters

Memory Holes

The cathartic racket of Kill Alters uses home recordings of a dysfunctional childhood as raw material

“I didn’t even know I lived above a porn video store at that time. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve stuffed down and forgotten,” says Kill Alters’ Bonnie Baxter casually, leaning down to plug the phone she’s Skyping from into a charger. Three years ago she discovered a box of cassettes, recorded by her mum between the 1970s and 90s, and memories started resurfacing from her childhood. Baxter’s mum, who has lived with OCD and Tourette’s Syndrome since her own childhood, constantly taped her daily life; singing, family arguments, crying, phone calls, whatever. The tapes filled in blanks for Baxter, a New York artist based in Brooklyn,  who was releasing dark, solo synth pop as Shadowbox at the time, but she decided to work the recordings into a debut LP from Kill Alters, her project with bandmates Hisham Akira Bharoocha and her husband Nico Kennedy.

Released in a limited run of 100 yellow cassettes, their debut was an unsettling, nightmarish blur of whispered malice, little girl chatter, industrial drones and lo-fi noise. It accessed memories from a chaotic phase in Baxter’s life, when she was being sexually abused by a neighbour, and living with her alcohol mum and coke-taking dad.

“I was pretty surprised when I heard people’s reactions, they thought it was pretty fucked up, I guess to me it all just seemed normal. Some of the bits with my mum doing voices, telling jokes, wanting to be a star, I think it’s kind of funny.”

kill-alters-no-self-harmsThis year’s follow-up EP No Self Helps is way lighter in comparison, with each track intro’d by a clip of three year old Baxter and her mum singing, at first cutely, then maniacally, over Casio keyboard sample tracks. A secret track turns out to be a mother-daughter skit recorded on an iPhone, where Baxter pretends to have a genital wart, and her mum, in a gruff voice not unlike her comedy hero, George Carlin, offers hypnosis as therapy for it.  

“Growing up, my mum was very lonely so she talked to me more like a friend,” Baxter explains. “She’d show me how to puff a cigarette, or tell me she was going to some guy’s house to ask him for money, but she definitely wasn’t going to suck his dick, stuff like that.”

Although Baxter describes her childhood as dysfunctional, and her relationship with her mum remains complicated, she speaks sympathetically about her mum’s own traumatic upbringing, where she was labelled as possessed by her family because of her Tourette’s.

“I just couldn’t imagine ever cutting her off. Some of the stuff I’m unravelling now is pretty messed up – but I also think I’m pretty healthy and normal,” she adds with an awkward laugh, as her husband potters about in the background, popping in and out the webcam frame. “I guess making the music is part of my self-healing – expelling those things or something. I also hope some of it sounds fun, or playful.”

The new EP was recorded in Baxter and Kennedy’s apartment, but designed to be played live on “a really big soundsystem”. Kennedy describes it as ‘dark, mutated, heavy, weird shit’, also drawing heavily from their drummer Bharoocha’s past – he’s played with Lightning Bolt, Pixeltan and Black Dice, still tours with Boredoms, and has a solo project called Soft Circle.

The first album had a crackly, lo-fi texture which got them lumped in with the rest of Brooklyn’s noise scene, but they’ve invested in new equipment for a clearer, stripped down sound now, and are trying to shake off the ‘noise’ tag. “Don’t say it was expensive – we’re gonna get robbed!”, Baxter jokes.

“The noise scene here is very healthy, and also very cool,” says Kennedy. “But what we’re doing is actually a lot more melodic than noise, and Bonnie writes song-based music, so that label would probably mislead people now.”

Kill Alters’ visual side is also very strong – Baxter chops up Snapchat images with fuzzy VHS home movies and shaky iPhone footage to create DIY videos – a sickly, moreish blur of Miss Piggy masks, old Polaroids, her mum dancing in her bra and disembodied legs writhing around in red lace tights. The creepy aesthetic and theme of suffering sits them somewhere between Aphex Twin and Gazelle Twin, with some of The Julie Ruin’s twitchy energy or Moor Mother’s troubled and traumatised vibes.

As those names indicate, the couple’s musical influences are extensive. They enjoy listening to everyone from the Beastie Boys, BEAK>, Elliott Smith and Nine Inch Nails to Solange and Illum Sphere, and find it hard to guess who their own music will go down well with.

“What we do is pretty fragmented – there’s not one emotion. Some of it’s us hanging out and cranking out stoner jams, other stuff’s more fun, or dark. I guess if there are kids out there who listen to Kill Alters, and are maybe going through some weird shit of their own, feeling alone or anxious, and this helps them feel empowered, then I’ve done my job,” says Baxter.

Kill Alters’ No Self Helps is released via Bandcamp.

This interview was in the December issue of The Wire.


Review: Seymour Mace – Shit Title

Comedian Seymour Mace

Seymour Mace

The List
7 August 2016
4 stars

For anyone wondering whether Seymour Mace will ever run out of crap glove puppet routines, shonky cardboard props and flimsy game-show spin-offs, the answer is no, apparently he never will. It’s a question he asked himself quite obsessively, he confesses, agonising through the pressure of the 12-month build-up to another Fringe, where he’d have to deliver a hit show after all the inconveniently gushing praise he received for last year’s Edinburgh Comedy Award-nominated Niche as Fuck! He can relax though, Shit Title (he settled on that one after binning several other options including Dark Whimsy and Lonely Joking) is just as magnificently off as his growing legions of fan would hope it to be.

From his tuneless karaoke intro to ‘I Wanna Know What Love Is’ as the crowd shuffle into their seats, through his sensual, partially undressed mannequin hand dance, and an illustrated guide to famous Garys he admires or strongly disapproves of, Mace can’t seem to switch off once he’s up and running. And it’s a pleasure to behold.

Ridiculous, mildly abusive whimsy, with references to suicide, depression, mortality and self-harm are cheerfully slotted in among ‘Cuddly Toy’ lip syncing, prosthetic chins and inflatable props. Another sublimely daft show from an outsider grandmaster at work.

The Stand 2, until 28 Aug (not 15), 2.30pm, £9 (£8).

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


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