Sunday, 22 September 2013

Eight musicians, eight different cultures. Five days to write, rehearse and prepare for one live gig.

A Birmingham story: Culture Shock
The inaugural Culture Shock in 2012
The day after this blog post is published, a clutch of musicians from across Birmingham will meet up for five days of intensive creation and experimentation, culminating in an evening of live music on Saturday 28th September, at St Annes Church, Park Hill in Moseley, Birmingham. 

This is Culture Shock, now in its second year. It’s a free event, supported by a range of institutions, and powered by the adventurous collaborative spirit of the participants - a leap of faith in many ways.

Keyboardist Pete Nickless holds this project together, working from a multi-purpose music studio at the seriously industrial top end of Digbeth, Birmingham. It bristles with instruments, including – oh joy – a Hammond organ complete with Leslie cabinet. And Pete's boundless enthusiasm. It's one hell of a brave project; yet another reason for us to have such fierce pride in our musicians.

Pete Nickless:  So the long story is that I used to work for a big youth advocacy charity called NYAS. The guy I worked with has been championing local talent in the area. We both jumped ship at the same time, but we kept in touch and kept exchanging ideas. And it turned out that there were some small grants available – from the Church of England - to bring people of different cultures and faiths together to share ideas and create new collaborations. Coming from a musician’s background, it was obvious to me how all this could fit together. One of things that people miss about Birmingham is one of the best things about it! We have crazy amounts of different food, crazy amounts of different music, all from crazy places across the world. And I don’t think we make the most of this. So we put in a bid for a music project, and it was accepted. It’s worth saying that the whole idea was probably founded in a project that Nitin Sawney did a couple of years back, called Aftershock. Hence the name. 
It’s one thing getting the go ahead for a project like this, but then you have to find a place to display the fruits of everyone’s collaboration…? 
Well, we were chatting to the Vicar who handles two churches in Moseley. They had this underused space - St Annes - only used for half an hour a week, and they were keen for people to use it. So he handed us the keys to his church. 
Very generous. How did you then find the people to collaborate with? 
I searched around. The whole project is about getting artists together, writing new material. Last year we had tabla, gospel guitar, and everything in between. We had a klezmer violin player, a jazz trumpeter, a Sufi singer. A really big wide-ranging group of musicians who came together.
But you do need to mix in some sort of structure along with the freewheeling experimentation, don’t you? Does that call for some kind of music director person? 
Yes. Steve Moult was our music director last year, and he made everyone feel at ease, straight away. He’s not back this year, because the conditions of the funding are that we foster new enduring relationships each year. So I don’t use any of the same musicians.  
Is that a limitation? 
No, it’s great, and it’s the right thing to do. It means that I can start again each year. 
You need a new MD, though? 
I do, and I’ve got a great one in James Covell. He’s only recently moved down to Birmingham. One of the best musicians I’ve ever met – he oozes music from every pore. Amazing. 
So the challenge is to walk in to a room with no preconceptions, bringing their ideas and their craft…
 ….and see what happens. Day one last year, we sat down and had a little chat – where we come from what we do, what our faiths mean. 
How does that play, when it’s linked to the Church of England, which has fostered very specifically English styles of music down the years? 
They are very specific about being open to new things. Nothing is excluded; there is no mandate. 
How is this going to work in practise, starting from Monday? 
It’s like a 9 to 5. Very foreign to me. It’s really nice to have the musicians during the day, when they’re fresh and free to pour themselves into the project. Because it’s four days of solid workshops back to back, they’re absolutely immersed in the music they are creating.
One of the most beautiful things about this project… as a musician I’m really into making things quickly, because I really struggle with the idea of spending six months in a band room with the idea of creating music to go out and do one gig. 
This is so interesting. If you rehearse for six months, you’re preparing a show. If you do the work you’re doing, it’s the other end of the spectrum. Creativity versus showmanship. But the two can’t be completely disconnected, can they? 
No they can’t. But if you have the best musicians involved, their showmanship will come out in the way they comport themselves on stage. A lot of showmanship is over-planned in the rehearsal room. Last year, the connection between the band and the audience was wonderful. The band was scared, because they’d only played the songs once in rehearsal. It was structured, but there was a lot improvisation. Very much off the cuff. I think fear is really good on stage – if you stay within your comfort zone, it spoils music sometimes. 
Le’s talk about the audience – live, it’s the performer talking to the audience, normally with a flow from the stage to the crowd. But you’ve just hinted that the audience was willing the band along. And you’re not going to go to gig like this without that sort of goodwill and open mindedness. 
The audience weren’t shy! They were shouting out and encouraging the band. You can hear from the recordings. There was that energy. It’s rare that a crowd goes to a gig now knowing exactly what they were going to hear.  
A lot of our musicians were used to playing behind the beat – they played a lot of reggae, a lot of funk and soul, all in that some pocket. There was a strange tension to get everyone in the same place on the beat. Klezmer music is very much upfront, pushing all the time. Trying to make that fit with people who were working behind the beat… 
I can’t imagine Klezmer with a laid-back groove… 
Check out the Soundcloud! Fiddle over smooth tabla…

What about this year’s musicians? 
There's some overspill from last year in a few cases. Sanyogita Kumari was recommended by Sampad. Layla Tutt – she’s been developing really strongly over the past few years. A really different sound. Didier Kisala is Senegalese – he’s got a beautiful voice. Damo Bongo will be known from Friendly FireJam Jah, and ADO. He’s my wildcard - he loves sitting behind the beat. He’s very very good. Colin Peters is a really great bass player who’s come up through the gospel scene. He’s one of those guys who picks it up immediately. 
Belinda Hutchings? 
Belinda Hutchings  is a great pennywhistle player. See what I mean – all angles this year! 
And a skilful PA guy with so many different audio requirements?
Peter Maxwell-Dixon will be taking care of things. Couldn’t ask for better than that. 
The coming week must be wide open...  
Yes. There may be others joining during the week because word gets out as the project develops…. It’s a great process.
Culture Shock is at St Annes, Park Hill, Moseley, Birmingham, on Saturday 28th September, from 8.00pm. Admission is free, and there's free food too. 

This kind of activity takes place, I am quite sure, in many towns and cities across the UK. But Birmingham has such a rich jumble of cultures bumping up and into each other, and it makes me proud to know that Culture Shock is continuing this year, and that inspiring venues such as Musikstan in Balsall Heath bring musicians together to play and share on a regular basis. Yet another reason to feel good about your town, right?


Culture Shock's Facebook page 
Culture Shock's Soundcloud page - recordings from 2012
Belinda Hutchings
Sanyogita Kumari
Layla Tutt
Pete Nickless

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Sophie Handy said...

With such an eclectic mix of brilliant musicians, I can't wait to hear the fruits of this collaboration. This should happen more often, thank you Pete for taking the lead.

Unknown said...

Really looking forward to this! musical unity.. just what we need!