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There's a potent sense of voyage and discovery about the Musicport Festival, which sets sail from Whitby every October. Indeed, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Pavilion, with its tall windows and invigorating view of the North Sea, had unmoored itself from the West Pier in search of a world of diverse rhythms, melodies, food, dances and poems. In truth, the festival, complete with its six stages and impressive line-up of global performers, needn't go anywhere. Every autumn, the delightful northern seaside town of Whitby provides the only destination for which you'd need to steer to sample an exciting variety of world-class world acts.
The Festival Hub is central to most Musicport activity, a place that serves a variety of purposes including a space for relaxation, where cool jazz can be heard over morning coffee, a bustling reception area where helpful stewards signpost you in the right direction, a general meeting place between concerts, where friends can discuss the music they've just heard, a location for buying festival merchandise, books, second hand LPs and importantly, information about your favourite World Music magazine Songlines, yet also later in the evening, it provides a perfect DJ area for discerning music fans intent on dancing the night away. Throughout the weekend, whether you're going to or coming from any of the various stages, the Hub is the place where all points diverge.
Excluding the Rusty Shears Tea Room, which provided the festival with an off-site fringe venue this year, all the stages are within a few steps of one another. Indeed, the Shears, which hosted such artists as Marry Waterson and David A. Jaycock, Attila the Stockbroker and O'Hooley & Tidow at this year's festival, is only really a salty pebble's throw away. This is the kind of festival which, thanks to some nifty programming, allows you to see a bit of everything without tying yourself in a knot and with a beautifully presented pocket-sized programme in hand, it's easy to carve a personalised path through the festival to ensure that you're suitably fulfilled when you make the journey home across the purple moors.
We begin our festival walkabout on Friday evening, just as distant drums sounded off up by the Whalebones, courtesy of Runaway Samba, with members of the West Cliff Primary School Samba group, effectively waking the town from its afternoon slumber. It has to be said that the town is pretty much used to hosting vibrant weekends of this nature by now, with the sound of folk music during the annual folk week, then something a little heavier during the now legendary Goth and Steam Punk weekends and then again something more along the lines of the Big Dance Bands of the 1940s as Whitby is transformed into a wartime seaport, where you're likely to bump into a middle aged couple from Milton Keynes dressed as a WWII fighter pilot and a Bletchley Park code breaker respectively.
The weekend actually started with some choral singing a little earlier on Friday afternoon, followed by a healthy mix of Samba drums and fire juggling out on the street. The opening procession made its way along the cliff side path, from the lofty statue of Captain Cook down to the Pavilion below, the band reaching its climax in front of the main stage as the audience settled for the evening concert.
After a brief introduction from festival director Jim McLaughlin, the music started with a specially commissioned set featuring the collaborative efforts of kora player Sura Susso, pianist Jessica Wright doing a bit of Philip Glass, together with the five-piece Project Jam Sandwich, a band that speedily re-positioned themselves moments later over in the Theatre in order to perform their own festival set.
Familiarity intervened shortly afterwards as Terry Hall, formerly of The Specials, lined up some of his favourite reggae records in preparation for his DJ set on the main stage, whilst the local Waterson dynasty was represented by Marry Waterson and David A Jaycock, making their live debut together down the road at Rusty Shears, performing some of the songs from the singer-songwriter's soon to be released Two Wolves album before a packed room.
Friday night also saw the eagerly anticipated return of the highly engaging Världens Band, who's highly charged 2014 set earned them a re-booking at this year's festival. Headlining the main stage, with the ever smiling and infectiously animated melodeon player Dave Gray to the front, the 13-piece orchestra fused the sounds of East Africa, India and Scandinavia, with a fair dose of English and Scottish influences thrown in for good measure. If their debut appearance created a buzz at Musicport last year, then Friday night's performance confirmed them as the band to watch out for in the future.
If Friday night went out with a blast, then Saturday morning arrived as gently as the morning dew, with performances by Frances Watt and Jo May, otherwise known as Windbeaten, whose mixture of flute and percussion provided a flavour of world rhythms to get the morning off to a good start. The Dutch quartet Maalstrom invited festival MC and sax player Jo Freya up on stage with them in order to gently ease the audience into the swing of things, providing some fine musicianship and equally fine harmony singing throughout the set. Meanwhile over on the Main Stage, The Kora Band provided some highly organised jazz, albeit with an African flavour as the kora conducted some intricate and complex conversations with the piano.
On a more grass roots level, the Canadian troubadour Ben Rogers appeared on the Theatre stage in cowboy hat and boots for his afternoon set, delivering some fine songs with a Townes Van Zandt sensibility and a Woody Guthrie attitude. Rogers held his audience captivated with his Dylanesque songs of and for the people.
If the seats in the darkened Theatre were comfortable, they could not be at all compared with the luxury of the much sought after giant cushions in front of the main stage as Najma Akhtar took to the stage for her afternoon set. Singing in both Urdu and English, the singer explored the relationship between spiritual Asian music and Western Country, with a band that featured a prominent telecaster and fiddle, together with Najma's almost ethereal Indian harmonium.
No stranger to Musicport, writer and broadcaster Ian Clayton held a workshop in the Blundabus, a double decker bus parked just outside the entrance of the Pavilion. Ian explored his love of music and poetry in an hour-long workshop, where the writer invited his audience to experiment with memories of their own particular musical awakening after reading sections from his book Bringing it All Back Home. Ian's session was preceded by a performance courtesy of the Frumptarn Guggenband, all squashed in as tightly as possible on the lower deck with little room left for conductor or indeed driver. Judging by the yellow and black polythene pocket stuck to the windscreen, the inspector had already been around and wasn't best pleased.
The music continued throughout the afternoon with fine sets courtesy of The Cajun Roosters, bringing a flavour of Louisiana to the festival, together with the highly popular Scandinavian band Frigg, whose fiddle-led dance tunes based on the traditional music of Finland and Norway, aroused the audience's collective dancing feet once again. Meanwhile for those seeking the mellow atmosphere of just six strings, Will McNicol demonstrated his credentials as one of the most accomplished acoustic guitarists on the music scene today, assisted by drummer Luke Selby.
Making room as always for a prominent English voice on the British folk scene, the festival welcomed Naomi Bedford onto the Theatre stage in order for her to showcase her own very distinctive voice, assisted by her partner Paul Simmonds. Rounding off proceedings on Saturday night in the Theatre was the highly entertaining and original set by Duke Special, whose almost burlesque two man show featured the highly animated Chip Bailey, his speciality being to hammer a cheese grater with a stainless steel piano whisk, amongst other things. At the core of the set though were the songs, delivered in the Duke's confident and assured voice. Certainly a set to remember.
On Saturday evening, it was a pleasure to see renowned poet, musician and cultural activist Yussef Ahmed. The British-born poet of Trinidadian descent brought his distinct brand of warmly delivered, empowering poetry to the Theatre stage, much of it set to the music of guitarist Mel Jones and vocalist Shaz Akira. His captivating performance of poems such as Yes You Can Can and Occupy the Airwaves, which inspired his audience to contemplate cultural harmony and the simple joy of peaceful living, never departed from a tenderly optimistic delivery. As a cultural voice for us all, Ahmed sits comfortably amongst such peers as Benjamin Zephaniah, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Lemn Sissay, but it's his meditative and cordial manner than sets him apart; the very same approach to his art that made him a must-see at this year's Musicport.
Saturday night really belonged to the main stage though with three choice sets back to back starting with Afrikan Boy who was determined from the start to get people on their feet. Dub Colossus followed with their own sultry brand of dance before Fanfara Tirana met up with Transglobal Underground for an exciting finale to what was essentially a superb day of music, dance and spoken word.
With a like-minded message to Yussef Ahmed but more caustic delivery, Attila the Stockbroker made the crockery rattle over at the Rusty Shears on Sunday morning, along with musical support act Joe Solo. Like Yussef Ahmed, Attila is a performance poet with harmony and peace at the heart of his message, but with a great leather-booted leap to the political left and a machine of a mouth that, like Guthrie's guitar, is eager to kill fascists, this poet's show is pitched from a very different soapbox indeed. And yet, despite the rally-call of his opening poem My Poetic License, an affirmation of Attila's persona as "MC of ranting rebel poetry", Attila is quite capable of pitching his spirited protest in such a way that the more gentle and emotional moments, such as looking after his mum when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and forging a close relationship in recent years with the step-dad he once despised, are elevated to instances of acute tenderness. It's this Attila that I like best. Whilst his air-punching socialism seemed to be preaching to the choir at what is, naturally, a left-wing event, the moments of genuine and universally shared emotion sprang from the poems of unadorned, indiscriminate human experience. Perhaps these moments make for the most absorbing chapters in Attila's autobiography Arguments Yard, which was launched in Whitby during the weekend.
Sunday also saw two performances of a similar nature, each accompanied by a slide show presentation to illustrate the songs being performed. The first was at midday on the North Sea Stage, when singer-songwriter Paul Armfield presented his Found show, which featured songs written around a series of photographs gathered from the flea markets of Berlin. Accompanied by multi-instrumentalist JC Grimshaw, Paul's engaging show demonstrated a connection with the past through music, song and pictures. Equally engaging but for entirely different reasons was Ribbon Road's show based on the No Redemption Songs project, which looks at the 1984-85 Miner's Strike, again in words and pictures.
After Scatch Choir's workshop in the Theatre on Sunday morning, Sam Pirt and Gary Hammond of The Hut People brought to Musicport once again some of their highly entertaining tunes, this time interspersed with songs by Norwich-born singer-songwriter Jess Morgan, whose songs and highly individual vocal prowess, perfectly complemented the Hut People's antics, which at one point during the set, featured dancing pigs. Later in the afternoon, two important things appeared to be missing from the Emily Portman Trio; Rachel Newton and Emily's voice. It's always one of the major fears of a performer when the voice goes. No matter, Lucy Farrell stepped up to the mark and took the lion's share of the singing with Emily filling in where possible, whilst Sam Sweeney's celebrated violin provided an admirable replacement for Rachel's harp.
Probably one of the best timed sets of the afternoon, if not the entire weekend, was that of the Demon Barbers XL show, which was once again fiercely entertaining, highly energetic and wonderfully received. The stars of the show were the dancers, who incorporated into the set such diverse styles as Morris, Rapper, Clog and Hip Hop, with dazzling effect. This takes nothing away from the core band, who provided the soundtrack for some of the most entertaining moves of the weekend.
Poetry was also given a deserved spotlight on Sunday afternoon when spoken word outfit Firm of Poets were promoted to the Main Stage after their "a few feet in front of the Main Stage" performance went down a storm last year. Once again, Ralph Dartford, Matt Abbott, John Darwin and Geneviève L. Walsh each took turns in stepping forward to present their distinctive poetic style, delivering a highlight performance of the festival. Self-proclaimed Goth and lifelong Depeche Mode fan Walsh gave an enigmatic performance, packing as much emotional punch as spit-your-Merlot-out humour into her outstanding poems whilst Ralph Dartford showed just how effective a few choice words can be, especially when they're palindromes. John Darwin's Buster Keaton-esque deadpan delivery delighted the ever-growing crowd whilst Matt Abbott's good looks, confident stage swagger and politically-fuelled, fast-paced poems prompted one nearby audience member to remark, with more than a little surprise at his presumably new found love for poetry, "this is utterly, utterly brilliant!" As they have done at all shows on their current tour, the Firm of Poets invited a group of amateur wordsmiths who had joined the group for a poetry writing workshop earlier in the day to perform their work on stage and, thanks to the good sense of the Musicport organisers, the power of poetry held the attention of hundreds of festival-goers for forty-five very memorable minutes.
Throughout the weekend, poetry wasn't confined to spoken word performances. Some of the finest and diverse lyrical lines made their way to Whitby courtesy of a selection of fine musicians. Keith James gave an affectionate and absorbing hour-long recital of songs by Nick Drake on the Theatre stage on Sunday afternoon. Reminding us of such classic Drake compositions as Fruit Tree and River Man, James ran a distinct thread of technical appreciation through his performance, noting the influence of William Blake on the young Nick Drake, as well as Nick's ingenuity when it came to chord structures.
Ngwang Lodup ushered in Sunday morning with a satisfyingly meditative performance of Tibetan folk songs and original compositions. Accompanied by his electric mandolin and Dramnyen lute, Ngwang sang of his native snow-capped Himalayan mountains as well as his homesickness at having to live so far from his parents and homeland with a warmth that captivated the crowd in its entirety.
Gareth Bonello, better known as The Gentle Good, mingled Welsh-language songs with the story of a Tang Dynasty poet during his performance in the Theatre on Sunday evening. The thoughtfully dexterous guitarist intermingled his delivery of heartfelt Welsh and English self-penned songs with absorbing tales of their inception, many of them recalling the exploits of the poem-scribbling, wine drinking Chinese poet Li Bai, who is the subject of The Gentle Good's latest album release, Y Bardd Anfarwol. And although Gareth was extremely apologetic that his Musicport performance was greatly stripped down in comparison with the album, which features string quartets and Chinese ensembles, there was something distinctly enchanting about the simplicity of this fine artist's festival show.
Whilst the taste of assorted words on the tongue might be enough to whet anyone's appetite, the festival also offered a string of culinary performances throughout the weekend. Having strutted their stuff on the bigger stages, a selection of artists made their way to the Galley stage for cooking demonstrations and food tasting. Sheema Mukherjee was one such artist who managed to entertain with both sitar and frying pan alike, thankfully refraining from getting the two mixed up. On Saturday afternoon, I watched as Sheema cooked up a traditional North Indian treat, which was then devoured by a very appreciative audience. Later that evening, whilst watching Sheema perform as part of Transglobal Underground, it was disarming to see the same great care with which she handled her grandmother's recipe going into the delicious melodies of her sitar playing. It's this multifaceted aspect of Musicport that allows the festival-goer a chance to get to know their favourite performers and catch a glimpse of more than just their stage personas.
Looking back over the weekend, it's difficult to identify a single aspect that might have been missed. There was plenty of music, dance, poetry and food from literally all over the world, far too many names to be mentioned here and equally far too much to see absolutely everything. A special mention though must go to Sunday's finale concert on the main stage, which was really second to none. After Grupo Lokito's highly infectious set of Congolese and Latin American rhythms, just the thing to get feet moving on a Sunday evening, the final concert was handed over to local lass made good Eliza Carthy who brought with her the extraordinarily adventurous Wayward Band. It seemed only fitting to end such a festival with a musician so inextricably linked to the area and one equally loved and appreciated for simply being Eliza Carthy.
Having taken risks from the start, Musicport is a festival that doesn't shy away from giving its punters what they didn't know they wanted. The heady mix of musical, culinary and spoken word performances has a re-energising effect that manages to give your mind a good scrubbing before you return to the daily grind. Because of this, Musicport is not just a festival to which we look forward, it's one that's become an annual necessity.
Words and Pictures:
Allan Wilkinson and