Sunday, 11 May 2014

Layla, Surinder and Sharnita: Shaanti is back all month long.

Eastern Electronic logo/artwork    
A few days ago, I heard a hugely enjoyable radio interview. The guest was old and seriously articulate, and he reeled out appealing chat and interesting folk-oriented music. I wanted to hear more - quite unusual for me with today's risk-averse radio. It turns out I'd heard Seth Lakeman's dad, telling stories and playing songs. Ah, that explains it. 

A gentle reminder of what radio can still do: make you sit up, smile, and enjoy something new and different. Sadly, that's not what we generally get. And that leads me to the musicians in today's post, part of Shaanti Eastern Electronic Festival, running in Birmingham this month. One is starting out, the other is hugely involved in projects around the world. Both are at the top of their game, and both are from the West Midlands. Boy, are they ever inspiring. Boy, do they ever deserve airplay.... and do they get it? 

I'll give you one guess.

Layla Tutt

Photo Bernard Davis      
I first caught Layla Tutt at a 2011 Christmas gig at the Prince of Wales in Moseley, Birmingham. She was supporting the Destroyers, leading a power trio, Layla and The Good Lads. I say 'power': she was thrashing the daylights out of an acoustic six-string. But the band kicked like a mule, and they had all the pieces in place.

Time passed. The Good Lads came and went; Phlox of Pink too. Layla went solo, and featured strongly in the second Culture Shock event - a massive cross-cultural collaboration. Gigs, gigs, lots of gigs. And she was a featured artist this past week at Symphony Hall for the festival. This is a Thursday early evening slot running throughout the month showcasing up and coming talent. It's one of those gigs where artists must work to grab your attention in a very shiny and formal space. Details for the rest of the month are below.

Layla rocked hard, as usual. She is a slip of thing, tall, elegant and slightly diffident. Then she slams, no other word for it, into her songs. Terrific guitar work, solid structure and powerful passionate vocals.
Layla: “I'm investigating new things like looping and sampling – a pal of mine called it Strum and Bass. But I'd like to loop like Pink Floyd did. I want to make as full a sound as I can. People think I'm going to sing acoustic, la la la, lady songs. They don't know what a big sound I've got. But I get booked back!”
You're doing all this on your own at the moment
“Yes. It's hard. I get told I should be coming through an agent... I need to get some YouTube videos, all that media stuff. But it's exciting: I've got someone working on my photography, an artist working on my logo, a fashion designer designing clothes, a video guy filming me, and an animator who is working on a new project. All these people are doing it because they like the music.”
Layla live, a couple of years back at Ort Cafe Balsall Heath Birmingham

Surinder Sandhu

Across town, Surinder Sandhu is prepping for a Saturday 17th gig as part of Arun Gosh's Sonic Boom premi̬re, with beatboxer Jason Singh and bassist Abrar Hafiz Рdiving into a ridiculous range of music, samples, beats and textures.

Surinder plays and produces... everything.... but perhaps he's best known for his Sarangi chops. I first listened to Surinder when he popped up in 2003 with an outrageous crossover album – Saurang Orchestra – which I couldn't stop listening to for months. Ten years on, it's still fresh as a daisy. And it's one of those east-west collaborations which is, genuinely, a proper collaboration: Sarangi, Tabla, an array of other eastern instruments, a full orchestra, a full horn section and a western rhythm section and even heroic guitar ace Steve Vai. It worked; it really worked. It still does - here's a clip, with Vai. 

The album hardly dented the charts, but it had an explosive impact world wide across a range of music areas, and Surinder hasn't stopped since. There's a new project delving into 70s funk, which I want to come back to closer to album release time. But this Saturday has lots of promise, and it's wildly different from the Sand Divers clip above. 
Surinder: “We did a concert,. Myself, Jason Singh, Arun Ghosh and a couple of other guys. It was a completely improvised set. We walked on, and the set was really monstrous, fantastic."

"Jason builds these huge textures. He's not just a beatboxer, he kind of layers stuff. Incredible. He's got a live feed of what I'm playing, takes it, builds it up, distorts it, does things with it, as well as building these fantastic sonic textures and beats. It was thunderous."

"I've done free improvisation concerts in the past – they could be a bit random, and sometimes really hard work for the listener – sometimes it's more fun for the musicians than the listener – but this stuff, because there's grooves, because there's melodies, it's very modern sounding.“

But Jason is capturing you while you're playing....
“Yeah. I'm actually playing as well. I'm not necessarily noodling, I'm creating melodies where I can make some nice melodic and harmonic textures. And Arun's playing clarinet and keys as well... The chance to play with these guys as always good fun.”

I love it. It's inspirational. Huge, blazing talents, grabbing everything they can from cultures world wide and presenting sharp, intelligent, warm and demanding music. It's yet another step in post war music cultural development, with generation upon generation passing it on, and the new generations diving into everything they possibly can.


Holding all this together, working thirty hour days for the duration, is festival director Sharnita Athwal.
Sharnita: "The festival is designed to support contemporary British Asian artists. We're from Birmingham, and we think that a lot of genres have been marginalised. This is an attempt to broaden out into mainstream platforms. It's a music development project first and foremost." 
OK – that's the why. Tell me how you got to this position?
“Shaanti, my company, started off as a club night twelve years ago at the Medicine Bar. We brought acts like Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawney and the Asian Dub Foundation to Birmingham. We ran it on the last Friday of each month and we ended up taking over the whole of the Custard Factory. Huge, eclectic.... we had a classical room, that's how we know Surinder and Arun... a cinema room.”

But the whole nature of those scenes is that they blossom and grow... and then there comes a point when they don't...
“Yes, After eleven years, we didn't want to repeat ourselves. So we did individual projects. And when I came back after two years, I wanted to see if anyone would carry on what we did. Right now, there's no platform, no development. So the festival has a lot of slots to showcase new artists – including our online player. Click on a track and that lets you see and hear new artists. And we'll see who goes down best.”

So let me ask you. Over forty years we've gone in Birmingham from metal to massively cross-cultural, and that's great. Dub isn't anyone's exclusive speciality any more. I think that's brilliant; I love that everything is bleeding into everything else, with lots of cross-pollination. But are there people who are struggling with that?
“Not a struggle. But in Birmingham we're celebrating a very strong identity for the Bhangra community. And the Midlands community - I'm not saying South Asian, I'm saying Midlands - also celebrates Bollywood. But when you say 'Asian', people instantly think Bhangra and Bollywood. And that is a frustration because there's so much more. And we're proving that, at the festival: we have folk, indie, jazz, dance, electronic." 
"The discussion should not be about how we should be in the mainstream. The discussion should be how we as British born Asians are influenced by our heritage and the uniqueness of our region, and how our community can understand that we do other stuff, outside of the traditional elements.”

Spot on. There's a boiling pot of new ideas and talents. Riches coming down the pipeline. Coming back to the start of this post, this makes me wish, yet again, that we still had a form of mainstream radio in our town with the space, the time and the will to properly celebrate Birmingham and the West Midlands' creativity.

Because our region is nurturing an explosion of cross-cultural talent, but our media do virtually nothing about it. Our new music is, tragically, bypassing the medium that could treat it most sympathetically. It is emphatically radio's loss. Meantime, all this blazing talent does not go unnoticed – but you have to track it down. It's online, of course. You could start with Shaanti's own TV channel. Here's some links.... 

Eastern Electronic Festival website and full programme details
Shaanti TV
Discover new artists on EEF's online player 
Layla Tutt Music page on facebook

Surinder Sandhu at Sonic Boom: Oobleck, Custard Factory Birmingham, Saturday 17th
Layla Tutt is now confirmed for both the Lunar Festival and Moseley Folk

What's a Sarangi? Here's the Wikipedia page

More music posts on Radio To Go


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