Monday, 2 July 2012

The Folk Ensemble - a Birmingham talent factory.

Scoot up a flight of stairs in one of central Birmingham’s least appealing 70s concrete piles, duck down a passageway, head through reception, left, right, big space, down more stairs, hang another left down a long corridor with music on all sides, follow the noise, follow the noise, follow the NOISE as it grows, and… bang! 

I’m in the New Lecture Hall, in the midst of an unholy and magnificent racket. It’s absolutely thrilling. 

There are, maybe, 45 young musicians in the room. It’s hot. In the middle, Joe Broughton of Urban Folk Quartet fame is exuberantly taking them through their paces. They rock. Hang on, there's three-quarters of UFQ in the room. And a big fat brass section, fiddles, woodwind, melodicas, cajon and percussion, proper electric bass. Way in the back, a tiny elegant harpist, dwarfed by her instrument, is dancing like a maniac while she plays. They’re all dancing, Joe included. You'll know exactly when you listen.

Damn. I wish my classes were as good as this. 

For this is a class. We’re in Birmingham Conservatoire, and I’m looking at the musical unit that has spun dozens of fantastic committed musicians out into the Birmingham music scene and beyond: Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble. Past members are now gracing The Old Dance School, the Destroyers, and TG Collective. Others closely associated include Simon Harris, Ruth Angell and Sid Peacock, and many more. Teaching staff such as Joe and Percy Pursglove are also heavily involved.

It’s rehearsal time. The Folk Ensemble were preparing for the Birmingham’s Olympic Torch shindig in Cannon Hill Park, which took place this weekend... although you won't find any sign of them - or, disgracefully, any other local performers, apart from Soweto Kinch and the CBSO, who were way down the bill - on the Birmingham 2012 page. A new number was commissioned for the event. As the choirs and other musical collaborators aren’t here today, I’m only getting a partial picture of how it will eventually sound. It’s still great. I’d hate to be the band that has to follow them on stage.

I didn’t expect to see UFQ members working with the Folk Ensemble. 
"Well, this is a different one-off show. We’ve just come off our annual spring tour, but as it’s the end of the academic year, some people have left. So Tom Chapman’s back to help – and yes, that was Paloma Trigas you saw playing there. Some people are raring to go; some are in it for the first time."
So the song for the Olympics…? 
"Birmingham City Council has commissioned it. There’s other choirs coming – who I haven’t met yet, so I don’t know how that’s going to go. I sent them the music!"
It’s a tight schedule. On Tuesday, Joe was due to meet with a group of djembe players, on Wednesday it was the turn of the choirs. This was to be followed by a dress rehearsal on Thursday, and a performance at the Adrian Boult Hall on Friday. As torch day neared, the whole troupe went out to play at several different venues across the weekend, to wrap up the year for the ensemble.
Is this going to be recorded when you do it live, after all the work you’ve put in? 
"I hope so… But I have no idea. They’ll have the facilities to do it, but that’s not my area." 

Well, one bit has been recorded, bootleg style, by me. It’s from the Ensemble’s own repertoire - and Joe has kindly allowed me to put it up in this post, as long as I make it crystal clear that this is a recording of a rehearsal. It’s not perfect, and the brass outweighs the strings. But it’s enough to give you a little taste. I think it’s a brilliant listen: it makes me want to shed forty-something years and pick up a sax or a clarinet all over again.

Fiddle Castro - CFE

A few posts back, I wrote about Mendi Singh, and his generous and deep involvement in all types of music making in the region.  I suggested, not for the first time, that there is a collaborative vibe to much of the region’s music which is enriching the city. This is driven by generosity of spirit, and a genuine musical curiosity on the part of dozens, hundreds maybe, of creative souls.

Joe’s work with the Folk Ensemble, over the past 14 years, is also key. If you wonder why there is so much adventurous jazz, folk and world music coming out of one of the UK’s most industrial cities, follow those musicians’ careers back. A staggering number of them came out of the Conservatoire.

I’ve said this before, too: this musicianship is a priceless cultural resource in our city. It’s never been better, richer, braver, more cross-cultural and more welcoming, in almost all genres. And it’s time we recognised it, at all levels, and gave it a more prominent place in the city’s creative landscape. 

We can design all the computer games we want, and that's fine, because it creates jobs and wealth...but unless they are works of towering creative genius as well as snappy pieces of tech, they won't enrich our cultural life. 

If we want to commemorate past glories, we can stick as many blue plaques up, and lay as many walk of fame stars down, as there is time and space… but all that celebrates yesterday. We also need to celebrate, right now, the vital groundwork going on, in the city and beyond.

I’d love to see the powers that be recognise this. It has been shown, time and time again, that where creativity flourishes and is cherished, jobs can follow. Check this link from the US. There's also, if you have the energy to plough through it,  a dry as dust report from 2011 from The Department of Culture. There's some local stuff too - I was going to post a link to an impressive local government study from earlier this year, 'Destination Birmingham', but it appears to have been expunged from all the websites I had hoped to find it on.  

Simply put: right now, powers that be, is the time to do something. The creative sector - according to ex-head of the Arts Council Christopher Frayling - accounts for between 8 to 9 percent of our national GDP... which, says Frayling, is a couple percentage points less that our vastly discredited financial sector. We take our creative sector for granted... and we let the financial sector walk all over our economy while trousering obscene amounts of our tax money. 

Central to our creative and media sectors, especially in the West Midlands, is the astonishing diversity and creativity of our musicians. Right now, there’s a new generation of great musicians building the region's creative and cultural reputation up all over again. And I’ve just seen some of the next batch. It's time to acknowledge this. 

Joe Broughton
Folk Ensemble

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