Archive for November 2013

“The Hunger Games”, a poem

I only just watched The Hunger Games (the first film, not the sequel) this evening, and was blown away.  Where do I start? Jennifer Lawrence playing a majestic role as lead?  Lenny Kravitz as a revelation?  One of the best representations of a dystopia I’ve so far seen in art?  Genuinely terrifying fight scenes, punctuated by appalling levels of tension?  The fact that this film is practically a vision of a futuristic feminist revolution?

That’s a lot of questions, I’d better calm down.  The point is that a lot of this ground has been covered already by those who watched the film many months ago, and so I thought I’d try and pen a different reaction to it.  I looked at the parallels with how young people were treated in that film and in real life – rising costs of living, of student debt; fewer jobs, workfare, crackdowns on protests; and I realised that, in some ways, the Hunger Games are already here, with young people increasingly pitted against each other.  So I wrote this short piece (below), which sums up how I’ve been feeling about these issues for some time now. I hope you find it of interest; if so, please share.

“The Hunger Games”

Truth is,
Our youth are already playing Hunger Games:
We’ve lowered them into the pit,
Then pulled the ropes away:
We have made them work for painful hours without payment
And view their plight as casually
As online entertainment.
We promise them a harsh future of infinite constraints
And then we make examples of those who would raise complaints.
We show them that, so they’ll survive,
They must be selfish brutes,
That they must spurn compassion, and all other such untruths.
Our youth are playing Hunger Games already, that’s for sure:
We teach them to greet backs with knives,
Each other’s eyes with claws –
But thankfully,
There are still those young people resolute
To use their kindness to tear our whole world up by its roots.

The future’s bright, the future’s jazz

In a year which has seen releases from some of the most innovative names in music, it’s two jazz albums that find themselves among the very best. Both acts, moreover, can be found at the London Jazz Festival – Sons of Kemet on Saturday, and Arun Ghosh on Sunday – and so it’s as good a time as any to draw attention to their superb new work.

Arun Ghosh, a British-Asian clarinettist, composer and music educator, has offered up an expert blend of cultures on his third studio album, “A South Asian Suite”. Here, as the LP’s title and his track record suggests, he brings together traditional South Asian instruments (tabla, dholak) with Western lilt and swing. There’s so much to adore here. There’s the brassy swagger of Sufi Stomp (Soul of Sindh), which sends a mesmerising horn line out over a wave of head-shuddering drum-and-bass. There’s the forlorn call of “Mountain Song” and “Ode to Martyrs”, side-by side tracks which resound as longing nods to absent and departed friends, and which ascend into the triumphal blasts of “Journey South”, which ends the LP as a thrilling six-minute call to arms.

Perhaps the finest of all the offerings on display, though, is “After The Monsoon”, where Ghosh is joined by Zoe Rahman on piano, and whose elegiac majesty is reminiscent of that finest of film scores; the reflective and melancholic “The Last Seduction”, by Joseph Vitarelli. Given Ghosh’s successful exploration of soundscapes prior to this album – his live score of animated fairytale “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” was a rare delight – it would be exciting to see him work with a film director, as the outcome could be truly compelling. On this album, Ghosh and his eight collaborators have provided that rare treat: an album which feels like a carefully-paced path through the widest range of your emotions. I would recommend that you get your ears on this as soon as you can.

Sons of Kemet, with “Burn”, have produced a work of extraordinary force. Clarinettist and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, joined by Oren Marshall on tuba and Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford on double percussion, serve up a debut which, as the band’s name suggests, is shot through with ancient African pomp. The opener, “All Will Surely Burn”, is a tune that recalls both the urgency of Wildbirds and Peacedrums at their most intense, mighty horns rising over clattering anguish, and the moral fury of Antibalas’ “Beaten Metal”. The album has a keenly political thrust, evidenced further by the names of some of the tracks – Fernando Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet” is given a fittingly contemplative tribute here – and the arrangements are elegantly woven, with surprising and joyful twists of electronica throughout; almost as if TV on the Radio had popped into the studio to add the finishing touches. “Going Home” has the bustle of the Budos Band, and “Beware” could comfortably go toe-to-toe in a soundclash with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Yet, in a testament to this band’s exquisite control of their sound, the standout track on here – like that on Ghosh’s “A South Asian Suite” – is one where restraint is everything. “Rivers of Babylon”, clocking in at eight and a half minutes, is as beautifully mournful a record as you could imagine. As the tragic soundtrack to the slave trade, it is the most satisfying of climaxes to this album. Rarely has a MOBO award, which this album has gone on to claim, been so fully deserved.


UK poetry scene produces a very special Sunday night in Stratford

Something very special happened last Sunday night. Kat Francois, an excellent poet in her own right – she can point to a BBC world slam championship, as well as several headline slots at leading events and festivals – hosted the tenth anniversary celebration of her celebrated weekly poetry night, Word4Word, at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. The longevity of the night, which is free to all-comers, is remarkable enough in London’s fickle entertainment landscape. Its success is a tribute to Kat’s endless efforts and the steadfast support of her partner, the poet, photographer and DJ Rob ‘Sloetry’ Covell. Despite an evening of bracing cold, the event was welcomed by a full house, with something like a hundred people clustered around a series of tables.

The greatest beauty of Word4Word, I think, is that the poetry here is utterly unrestrained: its performers aren’t just gifted writers, but they have perhaps the greatest attribute of any artist, which is the bravery to express that which is most personal. There was no subject deemed too taboo; each topic, be it quiet heartbreak or the anger left by generations of slavery, was raised and powerfully examined, the house falling silent with shock or falling about with laughter. Francois, whose skills as a stand-up comedienne came to the fore, stitched the night together with warm, engaging and occasionally waspish asides, whilst Covell’s playlist had several people swaying in their seats, then sprinting to his DJ booth to see which sublime tune he’d just rolled out.

The format of the celebration was straightforward: each artist, be they poet, singer or rapper, was given a slot of five to ten minutes to stand up and do their thing. It was all here: from a young drama group mentored by Francois who formed a three-man spoken word chorus, telling a tale of the bitterest loss; to the souful storytelling of songwriters El Crisis, OneNess, and Dionne Reid; and the magnificent vocals of Delicia, whose imperious tones would put many an X-Factor finalist to shame.

Star poetic turns also came from the outstanding newcomer Kareem Brown, Word4Word stalwart Justice Lyric, Tshaka Campbell, Kemi Taiwo, Deanna Rodger, Lyric L (whose hilarious dramatisation of a Kat Francois poem was comedy platinum) and Mark Thompson, whose address to his wife, on the seventh anniversary of her diagnosis with cancer, was one of the night’s most moving moments. My personal highlight of the night was an astonishing piece by Yomi “G.R.E.Ed.S” Sode, an open letter to the President of Nigeria’s wife in criticism of that nation’s proposal to legalise child marriage. After his performance, which moved several to tears, Sode was himself overcome with emotion; in those few minutes, he produced as compelling a piece of live artistry as I have seen in several years.

The night was fittingly closed by AmeN Noir, whose new documentary on the UK spoken word scene is already attracting excellent reviews: it was only right that someone who has taken such care to document the genre’s past should end a night of rare commemoration and celebration. Kat Francois and her friends have created something truly special with Word4Word, and it will rightly be regarded as a cornerstone of this scene for many years to come.

You are not a slave.

Stop it. Just stop it. You are not a slave. You are not being trussed up in a ship and shipped across an ocean. You are not being thrown overboard that ship if you feel sick. You are not facing endless days filled with exhaustion or dumb terror. You are not being force-fed your own faeces for the amusement of your master. You are not being castrated or chopped open for medical experimentation. You are an educated middle-class person in a Western nation who could do something else for living.
We talk of new slaves. But there are no new slaves and there are no old slaves. There are just slaves, then as now.  Slavery never left us. It is still here. It is in Asia and it is in the Middle East and it is in America and it is right here in Britain. And unless you are being heavily drugged so dozens of punters can fuck you without complaint, unless you have been reduced to nothing more than a number or the butt of someone’s most brutal contempt, unless someone has taken you and tried to crush you and mould you into a vehicle for their own profit, then please find another metaphor or simile to describe your state of exploitation or discomfort. Anything else is disrespectful.
UPDATE: a link to the news that three women have just been rescued from “decades of slavery” right here in London, including a report by the Centre for Social Justice on slavery in the UK today.  I wonder whether, as suggested in these links, a to use the word “slavery in the the title of a new piece of legislation – i.e. “The Slavery and Human Trafficking Act” – might be a usefully symbolic step, in showing that this issue is still very much with us.