September 26, 2020

“We still need the Cayman Islands”


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In the Caribbean, says Claire Whit­aker, “we’re down to the last six islands.” David Jones concurs: “Still need the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands and (not to be confused) the Virgin Islands. Funny how we can sort the most remote countries in the world, but the tax havens are giving us trouble.”

It might sound like a conversation between stamp collectors – but Whitaker and Jones are in fact directors of London-based music production and promotion group Serious, and their task is to bring the musicians of the world to the city for the Olympic festival River of Music.

There are 204 countries competing in the Olympics, and Serious’s aim is to include, as Whitaker puts it, “an artist representing each culture on a stage”. The six stages, strung along the Thames, are roughly divided by continent, but can be allocated subversively. “It’s been a quiet pleasure to stand expectations on their head,” says Jones. “We thought it would be fun to build the biggest stages around Africa, Asia and Oceania.” Africa has London Pleasure Gardens in Docklands, a new urban festival site that can accommodate about 25,000.

Jones treads tactfully round the complications. “That doesn’t necessarily mean all Asian artists are on the Asian stage, for example. Ego Lemos, the East Timorese freedom fighter, wouldn’t have thanked us for reuniting him with the Indonesians.” Lemos won a transfer to Oceania.

Over soup in a bistro near their offices in Clerkenwell, the pair break off from their last few searches and take stock of the mammoth undertaking. “We’re 22 people year-round,” says Whitaker. “For this, we’ll peak at 350 working directly for us – and hundreds more when you count security guards and so on.” This, Jones notes, is “the single most expensive thing we’ve done”, simply in terms of paperwork.

Tickets are free, however, thanks to sponsorship from BT, the Arts Council, the Olympic Lottery and from charitable trusts. “Free entry is very important,” Whitaker insists. “It means a different relationship with the artists; it means that we don’t have to have headliners. It means that we don’t have fans of just one artist packing a whole stage.”

The sponsorship also means that River of Music can include musicians who would otherwise stand little chance of appearing in London. For example, Staff Benda Bilili, the paraplegic Kinshasa street musicians, can comfortably fill the Barbican in their own right; for River of Music, they are playing with Zao, a popular veteran from neighbouring Brazzaville who is practically unknown in the west.

On the Africa stage are London-based band Noisettes, fronted by Shingai Shoniwa, joined by Grace and Madalo Million, from an orphanage in Malawi’s capital Blantyre. Shoniwa, of Zimbabwean heritage, spent a year in Malawi aged 11 with her grandmother, and was always keen to take her music back there.

Baaba Maal, one of the biggest names on the Africa stage, alongside Hugh Masekela and Angelique Kidjo, is enthusiastic about Serious’s policy. “They did good! The Africa stage is very exciting. I need a wide stage. Everything has to be big – choreography, costumes, ballet, all of it. This is just what Africa needs.”

One collaboration that might serve as a model for how things might develop is that between the Welsh folk band 9Bach and Aboriginal campaigners the Black Arm Band. The Australian and the Welsh groups are fighting similar battles to preserve their endangered cultures and languages. With support from the British Council, 9Bach’s leaders travelled to Australia. Lisa Jên, 9Bach’s singer, found the Black Arm Band show at Papunya, in the Northern Territory, “a hell of a journey both creatively and emotionally”.

When Lou Bennett and Shellie Morris from Black Arm Band made a return visit to 9Bach in Caernarfon, “it was fantastic for them to be in Wales and hear me ordering my meal in Welsh, to hear Welsh TV and radio. They asked, ‘How the hell have you done this when our languages are dying every day?’ ”

Black Arm Band and 9Bach will perform four songs written collaboratively during these sessions, variously in the Welsh, Yorta Yorta and Yanyuwa languages. Most heartbreaking is “Plentyn”, a song inspired by the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children. “I wrote it in the back of the 4×4”, Jên remembers, “after hearing real-life stories of children being snatched from their mothers’ arms – this was still happening in the 1970s. I have two daughters, and I still keep the tears in when I think about it.”

In its sparsely instrumented demo form, the song starts with a plain lament from Jên before Morris and Bennett break in with an angry chant; Jên keeps the melody going and draws the Australian women in to it. “In performance there’ll be five-part harmonies; we’ll have the harp, they’ll have the didgeridoo. Something magical happens when we’re in the same place.”

Each of the other stages also has a collaboration midwifed by the British Council. For Joel Mills, the council’s senior music adviser, this is a rare home showcase. “Most of our work is overseas and people rarely get to see what we do.”

British artists Transglobal Underground have enlisted musicians from across the Gulf states, while Matthew Herbert has formed a “participatory but challenging” Russian Big Band and Quantic has teamed up with the Colombians.

There are other, more sensitive areas of co-operation. “We drew together the Balkans,” says Jones. “We talked to Amira [the Bosnian singer] and she chose a Serb musical director, she chose Greek musicians, she chose Turkish musicians.” Further east, China is represented by rising star Gong Linna. “[There are] issues – Tibet, for example … We’ve tried not to stomp over them crassly.”

With a capacity of more than 80,000 each day, River of Music will be the summer’s biggest world music festival – about twice the size of the bumper 30th-anniversary Womad the following weekend. No one can see the whole show live and the concerts present an embarrassment of riches – should so much energy and attention go into something so ephemeral? Coincidentally or not, the UK’s world music calendar has been uncharacteristically empty for the first half of this year: the suspicion must be that many acts have been holding back for River of Music (and Womad a week later). Is this hubris on an Olympian scale?

Yet in other ways, River of Music is an exemplary event. Competitive international sport hardens boundaries; River of Music aims for the opposite: a celebration of global co-operation that blurs boundaries and overturns rigid classifications.

BT River of Music, July 21 and 22. Tickets for the Europe stages are released on 19 June.

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