Supported by Arts Council England’s ‘Artist’s International Development Fund’, I travelled to Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s oil capital, to launch Sessions in the Shed, a music-making and movement-building project in Port Harcourt’s waterfront slums. I worked with over 45 artists over a two-week intensive project, which included poetry workshops, song composition, music production training, tree planting, radio shows and live performances.
The project culminated in the writing and production of a re-working of a classic Fela Kuti tune, No Agreement, this time imagined from a feminist perspective, in the global drive towards gender equality. The track will be released at a future date, but lyrics to the song, and how it came about, can be found by clicking the below links – I highly recommend you dip into the below documents, for a window into my remarkable time with the brilliant people of Chicoco Radio!
Click the following link to see a summary of the project, accompanied by some great images: Chicoco_SiS-Shane_Solanki-AIDF-Image_Report-270217-MedRes
If you like what you see and would like to explore a more in-depth analysis of my trip, have a look at this! Chicoco_SiS-Shane_Solanki-AIDF-Report-270217-MedRes
We recently performed a preview of our new show ‘Songs of Immigrants and Experience’ at Rich Mix, generously supported by development funding from Southbank Centre and Arts Council England. Here’s a little trailer we’ve cut together from the show.
Although a massive team contributed to our recent Rich Mix performance, the stars of the show were the musicians on stage. Arthur Lea and Camilo Menjura, two excellent musicians and long-time collaborators provided the musical backing for two amazing singers to flex their mad skills. Catch a snippet of Junior Williams and Fola Philip dueting on a track called ‘Inbetween’ here. I’m so proud of this track – I adore the fact that I can now compose lyrics and melodies, and then give the whole tune over to professionals who can take it to the next level.
I really like the lyrics to this tune:
She set a course
and climbed aboard
She rigged the sail
and sailed abroad
And then a storm -
call it a gift -
It set her flimsy boat adrift
Directionless and rudderless
And now she’s got no anchor. Bless!
And though its hard to drift without
A mast to pin her tattered sighs
And though she feels bereft; alone
In endless, unforgiving skies
She understands we all climb rocks
In search of lies we’ll label home
She’s living more courageously
Than most of us have ever known
At our recent London preview of our new show, we gave out a free pamphlet. Designed by Kevin Foakes, long-time visionary and graphic designer at my old stable mate’s record label Ninja Tune, the pamphlet allowed me to explore my intentions to publish the project as a graphic novel. The images featured Tanzila Ishrath and Mariam Shokeye, two women I met through doing participatory workshops with the excellent charity You Make It.
Click on the image to get a closer peek at Kev’s design skills. You can read the text from the image below.
EXTRACT FROM BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER
Cher Khan’s motherly love towards her daughter emerged like the flash of a fish’s tail. She inflicted harsh forms of discipline on her child; Her parenting style often involved some tried and tested techniques, for she’d been shaped, in her turn by her dad’s heart beats. Luna took refuge in her best friend Ruksana, who lived on the block. Ruksana was Silheti Bangladeshi. They’d giggle and laugh on Ruksana’s bed whilst surfing on the interweb, a portal into other worlds, where all of life slowly unfurled before the eyes of these two girls.
Whilst Luna often found herself eating alone in her unhappy home, at Ruksana’s, every meal was eaten together; eight, ten people, young and old, scooping up rice with hands whilst the tv blared in the background. Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that Luna decided to wear the veil that Ruksana wore; it made her feel as though she always carried a part of that laughing family with her; like she belonged to something bigger than herself. ma’ashallah, inshallah, al ham du lillah; simple phrases, which rolled off the tongue, and made her feel like she belonged. But the look of horror on her parent’s face, when she returned home wearing hijab!
Luna’s life changed the day she found a wounded bird on her balcony. She nursed it back to health. The day it flew from her hands and took flight, she knew that she too wanted to fly away. From that day on, she paid attention to the birds; murmurs of starlings which swirled around her like clouds echoed the crowds of people who danced below her balcony; kaleidoscopic maelstroms, born of tired and troubled masses, who rotated round the centrifugal forces of the pound, amidst those deals and acquisitions of the moneyed and ambitious who, propelled by motivation, helped to turn that city round.
Ruksana, fluent in the Silheti language of her family, laughed at her lack of Urdu (her father’s mother tongue), or Hindi (her mother’s). Luna snorted, and retorted, “The only language I want to learn how to speak is birdsong.”
EXTRACT FROM THE RUBY YACHT OF AMIRA KHAYYAM
Forests are remarkable places. In the dark of the night, darkness screams loudly; but Luna, who slept soundly, woke to her very first dawn chorus. It was a glorious morning. Like fluffed chollah bread, cloudy cream clots dotted across the sky’s tabletop. A truly glorious spread! All traces of the fear which had gripped her throat that previous night dissipated in dawn’s first light, transposed with wonder; wide-eyed awe at all she saw, and all she heard; birds! As sunlight ruffled its dappled fingers through scruffy crowns of mottled leaves, hundreds of birds, singing at the top of their voices. Such a glorious symphony, for one whose heart birdsong had set free! And through the bottle necks of ancient trees, she saw something she had never seen before; a blue-green and expansive sea…
Luna started when behind her, she heard a melodious voice singing. Behind her sat a sight for sore eyes; a raggle-taggle gypsy, dressed in a sari, holding a skull. “The funny thing about death is that we fear it so,” said Amira Khayyam, shaman, temptress, queen of the dance. “But all of us gotsta go.”
“Who are you?” stammered Luna.
“Oh, I’ve been called many names over the years. But you can call me Amira Khayyam.”
Check out this new promo for the show we’re performing at Rich Mix on Sept 30th!
I’ll be working in Nigeria this November, cooking up some music with this excellent project. My trip is funded by the British Council.
I”m developing a project called Songs of Immigrants and Experience. Eventually it will be a novel, but first will come a live show and an album, which I hope to finish in 2017. There’s a great team behind the project, which is currently supported by Arts Council England. This year, supporting partners include Southbank Centre and Rich Mix, both in London. I delivered a work-in-progress of the show at Southbank Centre last month; here’s a nice review. I’ll be performing the next version at Rich Mix on Sept 30th, and releasing an EP on the same day. One track’s finished; my old mucker, Bobby Friction, was kind enough to play it when he sat in on Jarvis Cocker’s BBC Radio 6 show recently. Listen to the track here.
Shuffle is right up my street; a community-led festival which bridges arts and sciences to reflect upon cohesion and integration, in the heart of one of the most diverse communities on the face of the planet. This year’s festival is held in a cemetery and reflects upon migration; what better place to do so than a graveyard, that bony departure lounge to unknown pastures?
At the base of a staircase, experimental psychologist Charles Michel introduces me to the Feelies, an audio visual experience which takes its name from Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Donning Oculus Rift headphones, I am led through doors which radically alter my perception. One is marked New York, the other Za’atari.
Both show films directed by Chris Milk.
In New York I meet award winning artist JR. This is my first experience of Oculus Rift, and it’s breathtaking. as JR speaks, it’s as if he’s in front of me. The ten minute film sees him and a team paste one of JR’s trademark pictures in front of the Flatiron building in Manhattan. As the camera films JR leaning over the side of a helicopter, I feel like I’m with him, experiencing vertigo and adrenalin simultaneously.
Chris Milk has delivered a TED talk about the possibilities of virtual reality helping to create more empathy. The second room in the Feelies underlines this; I spend the majority of the film in tears as I am transported to a Jordanian refugee camp, through the eyes of a Syrian teenage girl who lives in it. This time, the experience is enhanced by the smells of a Syrian home; aromatic spices, baking bread. When it rains in the film, I feel water on my hands; a breeze ripples across my skin. The film underlines realities of the camp; we visit the girl’s home, her school, where she plays. I meet her family. Whilst documentaries and news reports offer us a lens on the plight and experience of others, this virtual reality film places me in her world; I am not just viewing it, I feel like I am in it. Perhaps this is why I cry throughout the film; or perhaps it is because I am a big baby, and a sucker for good storytelling.
“Welcome back to London”, my assigned technician whispers to me. My migration to other worlds is complete. I spend an hour wandering around the cemetery to process my experience. There’s no better place than a decaying English cemetery to do this, as tombstones crumble into the dust amidst overgrown tangles of bushes, wild flowers and trees in bloom, sunlight whispering gently through foliage.
I bump into a bunch of people diagnosing a bench. This is a roving diagnostic unit, the brainchild of artist Bobby Baker; a team of doctors in white lab coats and clip boards walk around the cemetery, assessing the mental health of trees, ponds and inanimate objects around the cemetery.
The cordial, intimate atmosphere created by Baker and her team allow participants to reflect, with humour and informality, on the ironies of the world of psychiatry, where patients can often feel dehumanised; poured over, poked, prodded, provoked and diagnosed by those responsible for their welfare.
Baker’s roving diagnostic unit and the Feelies are two of a number of events in a ten day programme spanning film, performance, storytelling, art, comedy, cooking. The festival stands in marked contrast to events like the Venice Biennale. This is a future-proofing festival; an experiment in creating the kind of world we want to live in, where the more positive aspects of human nature begin to blossom.
From dirt, flowers grow; from crapitalism, may empathy flourish. Have a read of this brilliant article by the celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood, which hints at the obvious, at least to an increasing minority; we are blindly walking our way into decimation of the human species, and we’ll probably wipe out a few hundred thousand species as we descend into a post-oil civilisation. Even the most positive scenarios – one of which Atwood paints a picture of – are pretty bleak; the sad truth is that it’s only when the shit hits the fan that we’ll wake up to our collective responsibility to change. Until then, mine’s a vodka cocktail. On a beach, far away in time.
The 2015 Venice Biennale was a circus whose chief clowns were called exclusivity, power, status and wealth, all of whom ran amok in the world’s most beautiful city.
As ever, with any biennale, there were gems – considered thinking, socially engaged practise, playful responses – to be found in the melee. My favourite was the controversial, but considered, Iceland pavilion – a working mosque built by Christoph Büchel. At the time of writing, the political import of this piece sees it closed to the public.
One moment I keep harking back to is a brief conversation with Peter Bazalgette, chair of Arts Council England. I was lucky enough to bump into Peter at Doug Fishbone’s crazy golf course. During our chat – which lasted no more than two minutes – Peter and I discussed the role of art in creating more empathy in the world at large. More than anything else, this is my driving motive, and I often struggle with how to use my skills as a creative to do so. How can art create a world where we are more empathetic – not only to each other, but to the other species we co-exist with? Despite the appointment of Okwui Enwezor as director of this year’s biennale, and a theme grandiosely titled All The World’s Futures, it seemed to me as though this mainstay of the global arts calendar is more concerned with the sustainability of the bubble of the art world, than it is in considering the fragility of the bubble we call Planet Earth, and the part we all play in ensuring the sustainability of other species upon it.
Here’s a snapshot taken by Louise Clements at the rather excellently curated Iranian pavilion. It was taken with a phone which was made by exploiting cheap labour, and plundering swindling natural resources. All of our choices and actions are laced with paradox and complexity; a fact which artist Lindsey Seers reflects upon, as she considers her participation in the Biennale in this enjoyable and reflective blog post.
My trip to India was momentous. I love that country so much that I have decided to try and live there for a bit. It’s something to do with every day living; in India, one’s day to day is replete with nature, in all of its aspects – including human nature. Mumbai’s streets are teaming with life. I am surrounded by animals of all sorts (including manimals), all of whom are learning to co-exist. This inter-species relationship is sorely lacking in cities the West, where we are currently sacrificing our relationship to nature in the name of development.
Besides, India seems to create all manner of adventures and coincidences for me, and I adore a life filled with adventures and coincidences! This trip saw chance encounters and subsequent adventures with the Philadelphia rapper Spank Rock, and the film director Q – both of whose creative legacies I am in awe of. I also lived barefoot on a beach in Kerala for a week, helping a beautiful dog to give birth to six puppies.
The majority of my trip was spent in Mumbai. I made amazing music (as ever) with long term collaborator Bandish Projekt, and also made music with Mawali and Torfor, two brilliant young rappers with whom I look forward to developing collaborations with in the future. But the main purpose of my visit was to work as an artist on the Dharavi Biennale.
Biennales can be mixed bags. On this trip, I had the privilege of visiting India’s second major biennale at Kochi in Kerala. I was pleasantly surprised; the excellent curatorial vision of Jitish Kallat was deeply considered, and – in my opinion – far removed from the circus of wealth, status and exclusion that arts institutions can often promote. As we move into a time where we consider our relationship to the systems which sustain us, I am hoping biennales of the future focus on social responsibility, rather than art which exists to serve a self-elected elite.
As such, the Dharavi Biennale is a two week festival of arts and culture in the heart of one of the biggest informal settlements in the world (I’ve recently learnt that the word ‘slum’ is not politically correct; the people in the know – the people that care – call these areas informal settlements).
The Dharavi Biennale is an initiative spearheaded by an NGO called Sneha. Their mission is to use arts and culture to promote the work of Sneha, which is concerned with public health. How do we make our environment cleaner, safer and happier, without sacrificing the kind of community cohesion that often loses its way in urban environments filled with skyscrapers and shopping malls?
I work in a sector which believes arts and culture can be used to help create healthier, happier societies. This is a world far removed from wealth, status and exclusion; on the contrary, it’s about inclusion. Artists invited into this year’s projects conducted workshops with local residents, which led to the creation of a hundreds of pieces of art, and events which showcased this work. The festival brought together thousands of people, uniting local residents with international visitors; and though – like any festival – it was a party, it was a party which educated all about gender equality, domestic violence, clean air, clean toilets, recycling, and the redeeming power of both art and empathy, amongst many other things.
My work centred around workshops with a group of fifteen incredible ladies, and their children. Ably assisted by Nikita Wadhia (acting as translator) and Aklesh Sutar (aka MC Mawali), my workshops encouraged the ladies to speak about their experiences of gender. What did they like about men? What didn’t they like? Were genders in their society equal? How could it be improved, if not?
(Pictures by Benita Fernando)
Over the course of three days, we produced spoken word, and movement – dance, gesture and mime. We designed a performance which included all of these, which we delivered at the final event of the biennale. The ladies came out strutting their stuff to Kool & The Gang’s ‘Ladies Night’; after sashaying down a catwalk with grace, they held poses which mocked the actions of less responsible Dharavi men. The event was a great success, with an audience of around 600 people. I hosted the evening, dressed as a secular avatar, my back painted with the biennale’s logo.
(Pictures by Ilana Millner)