Sunday, 5 August 2012

The impossible is possible. Soweto Kinch talks about The Flyover Show

Why does a double MOBO winner, known and respected the world over, come back to work on a day of music activities in a grotty underpass in an unpreposessing part of town, hauling some extremely major names in to play… five years in a row?

The Flyover Show is the most unlikely success story. Birmingham offers several festivals where the music and culture centres around reggae and the music that has grown from reggae – Reggae City, Simmer Down… and The Flyover Show. All of them are open, welcoming and friendly; none of them get the press coverage they deserve; all of them pull typically mixed Birmingham reggae crowds. But The Flyover Show has been going the longest. It’s even travelled abroad to South Africa, with a Flyover Show held this year in Soweto itself.

Soweto Kinch lives in Hockley, Birmingham. Feet squarely on the ground, informed, self-aware, articulate, open and positive, he sees The Flyover Show’s location in Hockley as an essential part of the whole exercise. And to achieve that end, he gives of himself to an extraordinary degree. 
“We get so much bad press.  The only time these areas get spoken about is as ‘high centres of unemployment, race riots, knife crime, gun crime… I really want to do a re-branding exercise, not just for the outside world, but for ourselves.”
Last year, at The 2011  Flyover Show, I watched him work HARD, in the middle of the afternoon, operating without a PA, while the generator was repaired. He was compere,  cheerleader and animateur, bigging up, encouraging, cajoling and celebrating, right in the thick of it down among the crowd. Then when the stage PA crackled into life, just in time for some of the name acts, he was up, jamming, supporting, gliding though music styles with grace and ease. It was deeply impressive stuff.  

This isn’t your regular music get together. It belongs to, and is explicitly part of, Hockley. So it’s a bit more of a community fete, only with added megastars. This year, Maxi Priest, Janet Kay, Julian Joseph, joining with Basil Gabbidon, Soweto himself, Lady Leshurr, Dec14Life, RTKal and more.

There’s, of course, a clear Jamaican flavour to The Flyover Show this year. Monday 6th August marked the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence, and celebrations are taking place across the country. Given that the West Midlands has the second highest concentration of UK Jamaicans, and that Hockley sits squarely between Aston, Lozells and Handsworth, that’s a further reason to continue to develop and promote the show in its very specific location. 
And given the passing of time, it’s now a generational thing. A couple of years ago, I put together an affectionate if slightly rose-tinted radio documentary, Handsworth Evolution, in which I talked with at the generations of Jamaican and Jamaican-inspired musicians who have lived and worked in Birmingham since the end of the war. Taking the late Andy Hamilton as the first generation, Steel Pulse, Ruby Turner and UB40 as the second generation, that places Soweto as part of the 3rd generation. And it’s clear he wants to encourage that same pride and creativity shown by the first three generations in the fourth generation. But of course it’s a long way from Calypso, Rock Steady, Blue Beat and Ska, to the present day, and as always happens, a whole host of other music influences and directions have added to the mix. 

A People With No Past From Soweto Kinch's 2011 New Emancipation album

So of course things have changed and developed. But do you feel that over the past nearly seventy years, that there has been a dilution in Jamaican music and culture?
“No, I wouldn’t describe it as dilution at all. It’s an evolution. Identity and culture are not static concepts. We’re all dealing with what globalisation means to us; all reassessing what ideas like ‘Britishness’ are like – are they redundant as terms when we’ve got such a heterogeneous population? For me, consistently, Jamaica has provided more than just a place to associate with… but a kind of attitude that’s embodied in the people.  As Usain Bolt says (as he beats his chest crossing the finishing line), we’re a small island with a big heart.”
“There are so many islands across the West Indies, but for some reason, Jamaica seems to shout loudest above the rest. That may be criticised by the other islands, but it’s something to be commended in this country, when we’ve had to deal with so much virulent racism. That fighting spirit has left an indelible mark on this country, and certainly on me.”
OK, evolution it is. But where does, say Wordsworth MC – he’s from Brooklyn – place himself? 
“It would be impossible for Wordsworth to do what he does with the influence of Jamaica and Jamaican culture. As a Brooklyner, as that kind of MC – it’s completely flavoured with West Indian inflections and Sound system culture. As an MC, growing up in New York, you have to be aware of that tradition. That morphs, wherever you go in the world.” 
Pogus Caesar's shot of Soweto Kinch, 2010
 “That’s a great thing – it gets you thinking about the tendrils of Jamaican culture. Not just some jerk chicken on the beach. Escaping some of those stereotypes, you realise it’s had a far more profound influence on the way we all think, the way we all approach music now. So it’s a great time for us to consider how that culture has changed, how is it different from, you know, after the Empire Windrush to now.”

Given that huge span of culture and interactions, how easy is it to put a bill together?
“It’s great having these themes to tie things down to. To be able to have jazz alongside hip-hop, alongside spoken word, alongside dance (there’s a specially commissioned dance from Birmingham Royal Ballet), alongside an out and out reggae artist… there is a common thread tying them all together.”
You’re growing all the time. Will you come back to Hockley Flyover next year? There’s only so much space there…
“Yeah. Absolutely. I would love to. I think what’s really symbolic and important about this show is that it has a grass-roots identity. The work and the stories from that community that never get celebrated, that never really earn the same respect – it’s always ‘community arts’, the poor cousin of high art – that work still needs to go on. And if it just gets too big, we’ll build a bigger flyover!”
The Flyover Show site
The Flyover Show South Africa site

Soweto Kinch's site
Hockley Circus Birmingham on Google maps 

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