Saturday, 29 June 2013

2013 Festival Season #2. Simmer Down in Handsworth

A chat with Simmer Down co-ordinator / stage manager and all round go-to person Clare Edwards. 

On Sunday 14th July, two weeks from today, the fourth Simmer Down party takes place in Handsworth Park, Birmingham. It’s a free festival, and it runs from morning to mid-evening. The event is preented by the Drum Arts Centre, directed by Mukhtar Dar and is co-ordinated and stage-managed by the able and unflappable Clare Edwards

Every town needs a Clare Edwards. She swims in shark-infested musicbiz waters, negotiates her way through stifling and complacent bureaucracy, charms officialdom, all this spanning a ridiculously wide musical range of activities, while retaining the respect and affection of her peers. Oh, and did I mention the choirs she sings in and/or manages? Or the major London Classical music activities? Maybe another time...

Given Clare’s range of activities, nailing down a set time to sit her down to talk about her work is well, challenging. We changed times four for five times on the day itself, after weeks of to-ing and fro-ing. 
This is the fourth simmer down. No. Yes. Yes, the fourth. The reason I get confused is that in 2009, we (The Drum) did a family fun festival day that went so well. So we had to figure out where that was going to, because ‘family fun’ is a bit rubbish. And the Drum had all sorts of expertise around reggae, and enthusiasm and ambition for developing reggae in the city. 
So the idea developed of steering it in that music direction, but carrying on making it a very family-friendly event. 
What hat were you wearing then? 
I was brought in by the local Perry Barr Arts Forum. Birmingham's got lots of these, for each constituency area. But Perry Barr got off the ground first. It got this day together. So that meant the Drum, and interestingly the Birmingham Opera Company, who were the arts champions for the area, and the Hippodrome in town were all really keen to actually do something together.
 And when somebody asked who should organise all this, my name came up. Um, three times. 
Not at all surprised. This is what happens when you throw your hat into so many rings. So what is your role at Simmer Down? 
Simmer Down has always been one of the things that runs on a shoestring. And because I believe in it, I’m happy to do it. But the ability to deal with things like licensing, policing, and artists combined makes me useful. It’s only evolved in a sense because I can suggest operational ways to improve things. Instead of being someone who was employed for specific role, I’m much more involved now. It feels like a nice thing, because I feel part of it. 
Who decides on the repertoire and the artists? 
I wouldn’t pretend to even know where to start. The Drum and Mukhtar Dar take the lead. But there is a broader emphasis – because we came out of the family fun day – that we shouldn’t suddenly go just for Jamaican artists and music. But one of the riches of Handsworth and Birmingham is all the different cultural mixes. So Simmer Down prides itself on never being about just about that, even though Reggae is so much part of Birmingham.
So if you look at the bill, you’ll see we’ve got Brazilian music, Oye Batacuda a Samba band, and a wide range of other musics.… and people like Xova, who are a reggae band but have that kind of Birmingham edge. 
Lovely band and nice guys with it. 
They’re brilliant. Looking forward to that. And Sic'Nis, she’s bringing some of her female MC friends. So that’s not reggae, but it’s very influenced by it all.
 Is there any relationship between yourselves and Reggae City, who run earlier in the year? 
We talk to them. That’s where Mukhtar comes in. We keep a relationship with dates, so we’re not clashing. We try not to think of ourselves as competition, because this city’s got enough of that going on. So we do try to share ideas, share artist contacts. We do that with the One Love Festival as well. 
We’re not commercial, so we don’t need to push anyone out or compete. We just need to understand our place. Although we use reggae as a headline, that’s not the only reason we do it. There’s family workshops – Birmingham Opera Company are delivering another workshop this year – other workshops by other artists and groups. I think the Hippodrome are doing a Folk and Ska singalong. Local schools are doing drum workshops…. 
What kind of numbers are you expecting? 
Well. It’s very difficulty to tell, because we don’t count people in and out of one gate, and because it’s free. We don’t ticket it. We want people to come because it’s a nice day out not to have to worry about any kind of barrier. It’s grown from a couple of thousand in the first year though to last year, when we were hoping for about 3 to 4 thousand, and we got eight. Probably five all at once. 
This year we want hold on to that same number again. If we do that again this year, it’s one of the biggest free events in the city.
 The city supports it, but I don’t see the same presence that, say Mostly Jazz and Mosley Folk establish for themselves. I can’t move around the city without seeing posters and banners. 
Well, they do own their own printing company! We’ve just set up a CIC to support Simmer Down, and Gerv from Moseley/Mostly is chairing it. With Simmer Down, we have the ambition to have that kind of presence. But what we do extremely well is having teams of local people actively getting involved. There’s a lot of hand to hand marketing, up and down the Soho Road, lots of leafleting, people taking to other people. It’s very focussed on that area, although we do have an internet presence. 
The real energy around the marketing is local. That’s why he had out license approved without any objections. Of course we get people coming from other areas – and we were streamed live in Jamaica last year!
What about growing the whole event in the future? 
It’s still quite small. Budgets are tiny. We de everything very carefully, building up bit by but. The majority of artists involved are local artists. And there’s no shortage of good local artists. We haven’t run out yet, and we won’t.
 But there has to be pressure from people to get on the bill. 
There is. Last year we tried to give everyone a slot, and it got a bit chaotic. There isn’t enough time in one day. So that’s when I stepped in – we don’t need to do this every year and give ourselves a logistical nightmare, because there’s next year and the year after. 
I think John Fell at Moseley takes the same view. 
Isn’t that great? To be spoiled for choice! We want to evolve into having more stages, and that will allow is to bring people though in different ways. 
You mentioned streaming…. Why don’t you capture stuff, and subject to copyright clearances, use that material to warm up online for Simmer Down 2014? 
Good idea. Something we haven’t done, and it doesn’t have to cost us anything. Watch this space! 
You’ll be doing that 21 hour festival manager’s day, won’t you? 
Yeah… I’ll be there at 6 in the morning, greeting the man bringing the chemical toilets… but I actually love it. The excitement of all these things I’ve booked actually turning up, seeing it all come together – it’s tangible! And I’ll be there at the very end, when the wardens close the gate – watching the event come and go. I love it. We’ve just got to pray for weather now.
Simmer Down takes place on Sunday 14th July 
in Handsworth Park, Birmingham

Confirmed to date:
Half Pint
Stikki Tantafari, backed by the Atom Band
Black Symbol
Asha B
Divas of Soul
LB Robinson (The Voice)
Lee Alexander
Oya Batcada

Plus workshops, food, craft activities, and more...

The Drum's Simmer Down page with full lineup details

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