Claire Sawers

Freelance Writer

Category: Features (page 1 of 10)

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.

 

 

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

arika.org.uk

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.

wire-dec-cover

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). edfringe.com


Read online and view a photo gallery at The Herald here

 

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

 

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
www.glasgowfilm.org/gsff

The Times Lost Treasure feature March 2016

Interview: Maurice Louca

The Herald
9 October 2015

Maurice Louca playing live

Maurice Louca

Cairo’s challenge to Glasgow audiences

“Crowds at gigs in Cairo are loud and intrusive – in a good way, it’s like the city,” Maurice Louca is explaining down Skype as, bang on cue, a loud motorbike zooms past with a high buzz. “If they like something, they’ll show it. There isn’t that kind of highbrow thing here; it’s quite the opposite actually. They’re very appreciative.”

Louca, an experimental musician born and based in Cairo, talks about a Danish DJ friend who played a club in his hometown not long ago. “The crowd had no alcohol, it was a Saturday about 7pm, and they listened! They went crazy. He couldn’t believe it. Not even drunk, not 4am, just really into it.”

It’s fairly easy to imagine a Glasgow crowd, maybe not 100% sober, but definitely losing their cool for Louca’s upcoming live set at the CCA. His music, and in particular his latest album, Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot), is by turns a multi-coloured, caffeinated, polyrhythmic frenzy, or a droning, rolling, hypnotic daze. He bends looping Middle Eastern percussion and psychedelic samples around addictive Egyptian shaabi melodies and metallic Arabic vocals, creating an exhilarating blur. Just please, don’t call it “fusion”.

“I hate that term – I don’t want to be associated with it, and always try to steer away from it!” he protests, laughing. “Often it just means, ‘Take metal music, then add some tabla’. I hope that’s not how I approach music. I’m not conscious or calculated about combining styles, it’s much more natural than that.”

Louca’s music mixes shaabi (an Egyptian genre of street, working class, wedding and political music that’s so broad, he says, the umbrella label pins down the style about as well as the term “world” music does) with the myriad musical influences he’s grown up around. He’s played in various bands (Bikya, and Dwarves of East Agouza with Alan Bishop and Sam Shalabi) dabbling in psych-rock covers, free jazz, techno, drum and bass, and this month [September 2015] released an exhilarating debut album of cosmic-Arabic sounds with Alif, an alternative Iraqi-Palestinian-Lebanese-Egyptian ensemble.

Although he’s been composing and performing music for years, the timing is perfect for Louca’s first Scottish appearance, and he’s glad to see a growing Western interest in Arabic music. Artists like Syrian wedding-rave wizard Omar Souleyman, hyperactive Egyptian DJ Islam Chipsy and high-energy Dutch collective Cairo Liberation Front have paved the way for him, taking the sounds of shaabi, and it’s dancier “electro-shaabi” offshoot mahraganat, into the crossover territory of European clubs and festivals.

“Those signature sounds – the polyrhythms, the scales, the textures and instrumentation – probably stand out more for Western audiences, which I am pleased about, but for me they’re just part of my musical make-up.”

Some have made a connection between the Arab Spring uprisings which began in 2010 and a gradual galvanisation of the Arabic underground music scene, but as far as Louca is concerned, the energy and creativity was there long before.

“For sure there’s a growing momentum. But things started getting interesting in Egypt back around 2005. There was definitely this feeling like, ‘we own the streets’, and it affected music, with people putting on shows and loud music in cafes, the streets and their homes. There was a bit more freedom of speech, and things got politically very interesting.”

Although he describes the current mood in Egypt as, “like living under a dark cloud”, with several of his friends in jail, and increased attempts to crackdown on youth culture and suppress artistic expression through censorship, the grim backdrop doesn’t affect him, or his music.

“No-one is stopping me on a day to day basis from making music. I don’t ever set out to make uplifting or sad music anyway. That’s not how I work. I’ve always just written music that sounds good to me.”

Although his album title, Salute the Parrot might conjure up tropical, exotic images, and he’s excited at the idea that it does, that wasn’t necessarily what Louca was aiming for.

“My intention was to leave it very open. I suppose it sounds a bit surreal, which I like, plus there are political connotations. In Cairo, a parrot is someone who repeats something that he doesn’t understand. A parrot is also the master of ceremonies at weddings who shouts out names, and that ties in with the shaabi music, so I like all the interpretations.”

As for his live show in Glasgow, he hopes the crowd get into it. “A great audience is one that likes to clap and dance, and doesn’t stay cold. I’ve heard Glasgow has a very vibrant scene, and audiences are already pretty aware of the Arab music scene over there. I don’t expect them to be as chaotic and insane as a crowd in Cairo, but it’ll be looking forward to see how carried away we get.”

Maurice Louca plays the CCA, Glasgow, tomorrow.

Read online at The Herald here.

Interview: Doug Stanhope – ‘I’m part Scottish and some English, with German rising’

The List
8 September 2015

Doug Stanhope

Doug Stanhope

It’s around 11.30am, Arizona time. Doug Stanhope is at home, dealing with another fresh hangover in his own special way. He’s applied eye drops, he’s on his second cigarette, and he’s explaining a new coping mechanism he’s developed: an evolved version of hair of the dog.

Tonight, the stand-up comedian will head to Tucson airport, so he’s in position when the airport bar opens at 6am. From there he’ll begin an #airportpubcrawl (it’s a thing, apparently). He’ll board a plane to Tokyo (with stops at Salt Lake City and Portland), drinking vodka grapefruit juices and Manhattans in the airports along the way, not venturing outside until he gets to Honolulu, where he’ll use the 12-hour layover to visit one of his favourite Tiki bars, and maybe read a book. ‘I’ll be back home in 48 hours,’ he mumbles.

It could seem like an elaborate way to unwind, but as with so many things, the logic, when explained by Stanhope, makes astonishingly good sense. ‘As soon as I’m onboard, I’ll take a Xanax, maybe have a couple of cocktails. I get the best sleep when I’m flying, I absolutely love it. I think it’s because you’re moving, going forward or something. Plus at home you’re surrounded by your shit; the dog wants fed and the cats are crying. Fuck that. This is the kind of thing you can do when you live below your means, and you don’t have kids. I live in a town where you can buy a house for $60,000. So I have a disposable income, and a bunch of air miles. Plus my wife is away so I’d probably just be bored if I hung around here; I’d rather be in motion.’

Stanhope’s #airportpubcrawl will also provide a breather from writing his upcoming book, focussing on his life with his mother, Bonnie, who committed suicide at age 63. ‘She was the one who told me to do stand-up. She was this angry, crazy, miserable, awful person, with a truck-driver mouth,’ he says, with a wheezy laugh that belies his obvious affection. ‘Writing this book makes every day feel like the day after taking ecstasy. Plus my memory is such dogshit that I have to call up friends I’ve not spoken to in years to check the facts.’

Besides looking at their relationship and casting a backwards glance over his days as a Las Vegas stand-up and then a Los Angeles barfly, the now 48-year-old Arizonian will presumably get a chance to expand on some of his libertarian views too. He’s rattled a few cages in the past with his right-to-die opinions, an issue that’s understandably close to his heart after being present at his mum’s death when she chose to overdose on morphine, while suffering from emphysema.

A quick Google search for ‘Allison Pearson’ should cover the key points to Stanhope’s argument on end-of-life care. But he recaps today, calling the Daily Telegraph journalist with whom he had an online spat in 2012, ‘ruthlessly crass, uneducated, with a poorly thought-out op ed piece.’ He still feels just as strongly. In fact, this morning’s hangover is from last night’s city council meeting, where they were discussing right-to-die legislation, and Stanhope was speaking. ‘I happen to live in a very progressive town [Bisbee, Arizona] in a state with a lot of redneck retards. Elsewhere they dress it up; they’ll do anything to avoid buzzwords like “mercy killings” or “euthanasia”. But some people require physician-assisted suicide, or maybe even farmer-assisted suicide; maybe they just want to be taken out back and put down like Old Yeller.’

While Stanhope is candid and willing to air his anarchist, libertarian views (his regular podcasts,Twitter and Facebook posts are full of them), he says his upcoming UK tour won’t focus on politics. ‘Fuck, no. Who cares? It’s so boring. It’s this circular argument. Talking about Donald Trump: what does that do? It’s the Kardashian effect, talking about them just makes the problem worse.’

He’s deliberately not revealing what the content will be for his UK shows, but claims material-wise, ‘I have a loaded gun. Usually before I do dates in the UK, I have ulcers and worry that this shit won’t work for British audiences.’

This time, three years after his last UK visit, he’s had time to accumulate plenty new material, and doesn’t have the usual panic. He even confesses to having a soft spot for Scotland, owning up, slightly shamefully, that he recently discovered his great-grandmother was born there.

‘I know, I know, American douchebags talking about their family history in the same way people talk about their astrological sign . . . But apparently I’m part Scottish and some English, with German rising, or something. I really do enjoy being in Scotland. I’m sure it’s psychological; like, maybe if you told me I was in Scotland when I was really some place in England, I’d just feel better. I don’t know why I like it; you guys still don’t have proper condiments and everything’s made of that ugly stone everywhere. But I usually have a good time there.’

www.dougstanhope.com@DougStanhopeFacebook.com/officialstanhope

Review: Sufjan Steven’s Round-Up

The Herald
31 August 2015


Round Up
Sat 29 Aug
The Hub, Edinburgh
4 stars

In Sufjan Steven’s Round-Up, we’re taken to the rodeo, where cheerleaders strut in John Deere bodywarmers, Marlboro Men swagger in Stetsons and audiences roar in a sea of denim and check shirts. His soundtracked documentary premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this year, and is given an Edinburgh outing, performed by the excellent New York piano and percussion quartet Yarn/Wire in front of a huge video screen.

The footage of calves being lassooed, men and women being bucked off their broncos, hula hoopers twirling in sparkly wigs, and Native American children parading proudly in glitter and beads takes on a chilling beauty when slowed down, making the 80-minute film a glacial-paced orgy of strange pageantry.

Stevens’ score is mesmerising, but the visuals (filmed in Pendleton, Oregon by brothers Aaron and Alex Craig) can’t help but draw audible winces from the crowd; at the second the neck of a young cow snaps back against a rope, or watching the panicked back legs of a horse struggling to throw off their rider. The music seems somehow sympathetic, pianists Laura Barger and Ning Yu come close to a straight-backed trot as they slow from the frenzied fairground gallop of the opening section, then sit silently as the film takes a couple of minutes to watch clumsy and carefree cow muscles running through a field.

Composer Stevens has proved his versatility, not to mention curiosity, in the past – with twee folk-pop, Christmas boxsets, electronic song cycles about the Chinese zodiac and his “Fifty States Project” about the American states. By turning his wonder now to the rituals of the all-American rodeo, he’s created something reverent, nightmarish and glorious, all at once.

 

Read the original review in the Herald here.

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