Monday, 21 May 2012

Reggae City: This year, they got the Beat

UPDATE: A revised and expanded version of this post 
is included in the new Radio To Go ebook Survivors 

It’s year 2 for Reggae City: a festival – an all-night festival, but a festival nonetheless – that explicitly showcases what Reggae means in Birmingham. It means a lot to a lot of people. The long term plan is to mean a lot more, as it grows into a big, yearly, urban
 festival. But, as always, there are obstacles. 

Reggae City showcases music – the core of which is British Reggae – that is both diverse geographically and chronologically. Alongside the cream of new and local 21st century reggae crews, there’s a slot for Ranking Roger’s Beat, and visiting acts from Jamaica, Brazil and Poland, as well as other UK based acts. 

The event is managed by Kambe events, who also handle Shambala and some other fine events. John Walsh from Kambe was, as usual, impressively calm and relaxed when I talked to him. 

Sunday, 13 May 2012

35 years of snapping: Pogus Caesar

Photo by Dee Johnson, 2011

Take a shot of something that interests you; a subject that you care about; something that matters. Hold on to it. Then, come back to it in ten, twenty, or thirty years. It's amazing what perspective that can bring.  

That's what Pogus Caesar does. I’ve known Pogus for ages. Lots of people around music in Brum have. He’s done lots - radio, television, painting, documentation, books, multimedia projects - across tons of areas. 

In  April of this year, the British Museum acquired four of his photos of the 1985 Handsworth Riots for their permanent collection. If you want the full details, check him out on Wikipedia. It’s a long entry.

We’re talking photography, and for this blog especially, photography that deals with the musicians in this town. You've built up a huge body of work going back well over thirty years. Was that planned in any way?
"I started off as a pointillist painter, making images with tiny dots, my major influence was the French painter Georges Seurat… and I wound up taking photographs without any real view of how these might become relevant in years to come. It was important to just document."

What sort of kit did you start out with?
"My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic, a very basic film camera, where the 110 film was loaded into cartridges which made it easier to handle." 
Youthful digital-only snappers can read up about this archaic system here
"Later on I upgraded to 35mm; I got a Canon Autofocus, which I still use today. And this is it: this is the camera used for all the images that you’re using here. "3

So we’re not talking about ten grands’ worth of kit, are we?
"No, the Canon is small, fast and effective and suits my way of working – and when one breaks, I go on eBay and get another – usually for under six pounds. I call it my poor man’s Leica. On my travels, people have tried to snatch it, because they think it’s digital. I’ve said ‘give me the film first, and you can have the camera’. The film is more expensive than the camera! So I don't really want to know about  hi-tech digital systems…"
You’re not that guy
"No. And I use film, so I only have 36 shots, I really love the grainy quality of black and white print. The downside is I can’t instantly view what I've shot -  then I have to wait for the film to be developed…but that's the magic and the mystery of film."
Pauline Black, Selecter, 2011
I often think photographers who work with huge memory chips in their cameras can afford to wait that extra moment, and squeeze off hundreds of shots, to push a few more seconds, just to get that extra moment. You can’t do that. So do you have a mindset when you’re working?
"Funny you should say that. There are times when I'm approaching a situation and I'll already have a tiny idea of what the image will be, formed in my mind. But life is funny and sometimes it doesn’t work out. I’ve only got a limited amount of people’s time, and I can only afford to take a couple of photographs and then move on. But because the camera’s so noisy and small, a lot of people don’t take it seriously, which is fine by me."
Mykaell Riley, Steel Pulse founder member, 1987
"The film that I use gives the photographs texture and grain, which I’ve always enjoyed. When you look at the work of photographers who influenced me, Dianne Arbus, Gordon Parks and Cartier-Bresson – under the conditions that they had to work under – the huge distances they had to travel, using the most basic of equipment, and their legacy - the work you can now find on the internet and marvel at … so it helps with my mindset. I can’t waste any shots, and I can’t delete. With digital, you can throw shots away instantly."
Sometimes, in retrospect, for the wrong reasons?
"Yes. I just don’t enjoy that element… yet."
Ruby Turner, Reggae Sunsplash, London, 1987
Many digital photographers do a lot of post-production work, treating the shots by softening the focus, or darkening the background, or tweaking the colour balance. All you can do - if you want to – is do a bit of analogue tweaking in the darkroom. I seem to remember the expression of dodging something out when enlarging a shot…
"Actually, that’s where Photoshop can come in useful! With film, you can get scratches on your negatives. So you can use it to take scratches out and highlight when needed." 
Andy Hamilton, 1987
So all you would do is to restore?
"What you see is what you’ve got. You can darken or lighten, but you’re dealing with images, vintage negatives. There are people I work with who demand that archival element that’s embedded in 35mm negatives."
Most of the photos – not all - in this blog post are about music: Birmingham musicians, and huge musicians, and major black artists, the big names who visited to our town. 
"They were in an exhibition mounted at the O2 in London last year - 2"Muzik Kinda Sweet2". I was pleased with the exhibition, to see photos of Lee 'Scratch" Perry, Stevie Wonder, Burning Spear, Grace Jones and Augustus Pablo all in one space was uplifting."
Lee 'Scratch' Perry,  London, 1987
 " Everybody loves iconography, we are fascinated by celebrity to some degree. For me to pretend that’s not part of what I do is wrong. And of course, if you happen to be in the company of a well-known musician, you take the shot, because that’s what you do!"
Dinner Ladies, Holyhead Road School, Handsworth, 1984
"...but the ordinary person in the street has just as much value - it's also very important to capture everything that you see. Whether it be from the 1985 Handsworth Riots, the Birmingham Tornado or the regeneration of the Bullring in Birmingham. Whether in Britain or travelling to Albania, India or South Africa, documenting communities is what really interests me."
Mighty Diamonds, Soho Road, Handsworth, 1986
 With your shots, you’re looking – we’re looking with you – at the subject, you’re engaging.
"It’s very important to get that ‘contract’ with those people that I photograph. There are times when you have to take shots surreptitiously, of course. But the reason why I use this camera is it's really small. I have to get in close and personal!"
Selwyn Brown, Steel Pulse, Birmingham 2006
Favourite shots?
"Very difficult. It has to be the ordinary person in the street. For whatever reason you decide they’re going to be IT for that second, ad then life goes on as normal. You take a millisecond of that person’s life, which can go on to become iconic."
In some cultures, taking photos of people is not acceptable at all; it’s seen as stealing part of their souls. Not a western concept, not a 21st century concept in these days of instant downloads…
"Yes. I’ve come across that. Last year, I published a book (Sparkbrook Pride - here's the flickr link) with Benjamin Zephaniah, about Sparkbrook, which is where I grew up. So I went back to photograph the community – and the amount of people wouldn’t let me take a photograph because I would own part of their soul! So for every one image, there were about fifteen who said ‘no’."
Soweto Kinch, Birmingham 2010
You mentioned surreptitious shots. The first photographer I profiled on this blog – Richard Shakespeare – makes no bones whatsoever being upfront and visible.
"Exactly. You can’t hide. That’s the thing. You have to get in close because the lens defines. I like working with available light.  I’m clicking away with this noisy old thing friend of mine called Canon and everyone else’s digital camera is playing shutter sound effects, phut! phut! phut!....Muzik Kinda Sweet!" 
All images © Pogus Caesar / OOM Gallery Archive. All Rights Reserved.

Pogus Caesar's website
Sparbrook Pride

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Sunday, 6 May 2012

Micro-festivals and New Folk. The Old Dance School and Goodnight Lenin: lots on their plates

Goodnight Lenin on a jetty; Old Dance School on the run
The web has rewritten the way we hunt out new music, not always for the better. For a start, there's no road-map. Of course, that could be a good thing.

Old-school record shops have been crushed and swept away; their online replacements throw 'priority' acts at you. You have to step past that, and that is where I particularly miss the old way of doing things. 

But instead we now have the power to endorse and recommend, and this works in a lot of different ways. It’s changed things. Online momentum can build worldwide for any act that is able to reach an audience. Ironically, one of the music genres that have gained most from this is one of the oldest: folk music. There’s been a huge resurgence in folk and folk-associated forms in the past ten years. Singer-songwriters are coming to the fore again; new bands are enjoying success to rival the 70s veterans.

And this is, I think, down to three factors.

Bands build great, direct, online relationships with their followers through the web. It’s powerful and personal, and especially suits music people can get passionate about.

Equipment has never been cheaper, and, especially with acoustic instruments, musicians have far more scope to record and distribute their own music in their own way. So, creatively, that frees musicians to do what they feel is right, rather than what a record company exec thinks is right.

The electronic oral tradition: 
Folk and world music has always spread by the passing on of songs from person to person, down the generations and across borders. That process used to take years; now it happens in a heartbeat.

Robin Beatty and Laura Carter are founder members of the Old Dance School, who mix things up with a vengeance. The new album, their third, 'Chasing the Light', is just out. The first album worked in some distinctly non-trade grooves in with the guitars, fiddles, recorders and percussion. 
Laura: "The first album ('Based on a True Story', 2008) had one piece we called the drum and bass section. We’ve moved away from that. Now we’re focussing on all the instruments, rather than the rhythm section. "

From The Air by The Old Dance School

You seem to be using textures a lot more 
Robin: "All folk music is very modal – it’s all open positions of the fiddle, whistles in D. But we’ve got a trumpet in B flat, and a bagful of whistles and recorders. We’ve had loads of fun moving through different keys in different sections of a song. It’s been really interesting."  
Three albums in, where you find yourselves? Is it progressing the way you think it should be progressing? 
Laura: "In some ways it’s been a lot harder for us, because we’ve come from nothing. You start off doing gigs for not much money, and then you have to work on your own profile. Maybe it’s gone a bit slower than I anticipated. We’ve been together for five years now. But in the last two years we’ve been pushing ahead. "
One of the reasons we’re talking is to follow up on a post from the beginning of April, which noted how much radio play West Midlands bands were getting, especially on Radio 2. 
Laura: "We’re doing really well with radio plays on the new album. We’ve gotten a lot more interest from festivals… "
Robin: "We seem to have a good loyal fan base now, which is nice. But we may even have missed out on one or two things this year because we’ve been so – focussed – on our music and the album."
Ras al-Maa by The Old Dance School

Discussion shifts to the web, the power of the Facebook share, and on Spotify and Last-FM, the user playlists and the prompts from the programmes themselves. 
Robin:" Having all this stuff recommended to you… the discoveries that are fed to you on the internet… You do come across some great things. I just hope that it doesn’t extinguish that hunger for exploration that you have for music. That is one of the biggest joys on music. Being oversaturated and overfed with all these recommendations – I wonder if it extinguishes your desire to explore.  "
 That’s more than fair, and something I hope to dig in to in a later post. But back in the present, Old Dance School have further fish to fry. Now, they’re also doing a festival. Robin Beatty comes from high in the peak district, where the Edale Festival will take place. Delivering this has meant years of discussions with the council, clearance for campsites, staging, power and more, wrangling for support funding and so on. But, weather permitting – Robin admits to being a bit ‘gripped’ by all this – Edale gets underway halfway through the month (18th to 20th May), with a very strong West Midlands presence, including the Destroyers, Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk EnsembleAbie's Miracle Tonicand of course the Old Dance School.

Across town, Moseley Folk are also lining up their first Camping weekend festival too. This one’s called the Lunar Festival, and it takes place in Tanworth in Arden, two weeks later, over the first weekend in June. Old Dance School are also on this bill, along with Scott Matthews, Boat To Row, Ben Calvert, the Young Runways, James Summerfield, Friends of the Stars (recently blogged about here), Bonfire Radicals, ChrisTye… all of whom are local to the West Midlands.

Setting this up is the indefatigable John Fell from Goodnight Lenin, who also play.

Why is Moseley Folk doing this, given that the organisation already has two very successful but labour-intensive operations going in the city already? 
John Fell: The only thing that Moseley Folk doesn’t have is camping! Obviously we don’t want to make it exactly the same as Moseley Folk, but we do want to keep the same sort of friendly vibe, but to bring that camping element in as well, so it becomes a little bit more of a holiday, than just a day-by day set of shows. 
But it’s tiny this first year, right? 
"It would be interesting to find out if it is the smallest festival in the UK! It’s got a capacity of 500 each day. So yes, it is minute. We wanted to start in a small way, and grow from there." 
But you’ve got room to expand? 
"Oh yes. The fields round the site are vast… "
If I wanted to run a festival, I think I’d be declared insane. You’re already in the business, so that doesn’t apply. But how, exactly, do you go about it? Where do find a friendly farmer, for a start? 
"You need the right venue. That’s key. You need a reason to do it. You can’t just say ‘I’m going to run a festival to make money’… "
Because several festivals have cancelled this year already… 
"You can understand it. There are so many festivals that are the same, that offer the same, on the same weekends. "
And prices aren’t going down. 
"No, they’re not. That’s one of the issues we want to address. With Moseley, we try to keep it at around £79 for three days, which is fair. Tanworth is going to cost £65 for four days music – you can camp for five days if you want! "
But with only 500 paying customers a day, you’ll be very lucky to break even… 
"We’ve worked it to break even. This is to try running a new event. We got offered a nice venue, which was perfect for our interests, where we could try something new. "
For our interests…? 
"It’s where Nick Drake spent most of his life, and where he is buried, two minutes down the road from the festival site. This is what I mean about not doing a festival for money, but doing it for an idea. A beautiful plot of land, and the associations with Nick Drake – and it all clicked. Over the last twenty years or so, he’s become more and more iconic." 
Now that’s interesting. Back in the day, Nick Drake was not exactly a huge commercial success. Island Records certainly believed in him. Old hippies like me have memories of rootling around in the bins in record shops – remember them? – and coming across Bryter Later and Five Leaves Left. But, to me, the buzz wasn’t – really - there at the time. Now, it certainly is. And I think that credit has to go to the Moseley Folk organisers for riskily putting their money where their personal interests lie.  The bill is pretty impressive too, and most of the acts will be performing at least one Nick Drake song.
So give me a quick update on Goodnight Lenin? 
"We’re still recording, at Highbury Studio, where we were always meant to be. It’s great. To record analogue tape live is fantastic. I’m a song writer – I’m not technical. I write the song, bang it out, it’s done. So the delicate intricacies of digital – it’s very unreal for me. To just walk in the room, crank up the amp and play the song… it’s the way I want to record.  We’re never going to go back (to digital). You lose a lot of warmth. You lose a performance." 
Hmm. Now there’s an idea for a future blog piece…. But that sort of brings me, full circle, back to the start of this post. It’s ironic that folk, the most basic and direct form of music has flourished because of digital and web technologies. The Goodnight Lenin video above has jumped into people’s awareness… and that could not have happened ten years ago. But they still want to record their music the old way.

Band Links
Old Dance School
Goodnight Lenin

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Birmingham Reggae production houses and the third generation. Friendly Fire, The Elephant House and more

They say Birmingham exports more reggae and sends more bands and sound systems out on tour than Jamaica. That's a hell of a statistic.

True or not, 21st century Birmingham reggae is still huge. It's still at the heart of music making in the city: a continuing hotbed for reggae, dancehall and old-school/new-school mash-ups. Sympathetic promoters and enthusiastic audiences abound. There are (at least) two production houses, both in Balsall Heath, pretty much a stones’ throw apart. There's way more to talk about than one blog post can cover. 

If you trace 70s and 80s Birmingham music, the emphasis eventually lands squarely on reggae and cross-cultural mixes. Much of this came from Handsworth and Balsall Heath: tough, inner city areas with overlapping cultures - always promising from a musical perspective. Handsworth had the edge, with Steel Pulse, Ruby Turner, Cornerstone, Beshara and Apache Indian, and many others. But Balsall Heath can lay a powerful claim, being home to most of UB40 for many years. 

With Andy Hamilton’s generation as a starting point, all of the above are second generation reggae/soul artists. British by birth, and from a bewildering range of backgrounds, all of them happily worked, and mostly still work, across a whole pile of musical genres. 

Robin Giorno’s Friendly Fire operation has been up and running for around ten years. He takes an old-school view, working with a core set of musicians  - Friendly Fire Music - who back up both local artists and visiting stars from the old country. Most of Robin’s work sees the light of day on his own label, and he also backs his music and label work up with regular JamJah Sound DJ sets, setting himself a ferocious schedule. If you check out the PST and  Reggae City Festival sites, he's there - with his band or as a DJ.

Friendly Fire Music with Lionart - Badness

Friendly Fire HQ is an unconventional but effective studio and production centre, spread across several rooms, and leveraging both old-school techniques and web-powered tools. It can be a one-stop shop, with a production chain marked out by a mic and shield rig and decks at one end, and a CD duplicating machine at the other.

Robin Giorno is French; he came to the UK at 18 to study electronic engineering. It’s a complicated story. 
"Studying in England is different. In England it’s much more along personal development lines, whereas in France it’s much more rigorous. If I’d stayed in France I’d have only met other engineers; in England I got fully involved in…. all sorts of areas." 
Including Reggae? 
"I started listening to Reggae a couple of years before I left France; all the old-school guys like Marley, Toots, Gladiators, all the roots 70s guys."
So were you aware of the second-generation Birmingham reggae tradition?
"I don’t think I was! But I wound up going to Summit Records in the Bullring… and all these songs I could only hear on the radio, on Friday nights from 10.30 till 11.30 …they were all there! I could get the whole album! So Winston, who runs Summit, he guided me a little bit."
"Now those Indie shops are disappearing, the guys like Winston who fulfilled that role – the benevolent guy behind the counter who turns you on to this or that sound – are getting rarer and rarer. We’re going to pay for that in the end."
Robin's exactly right there. Losing the bricks and mortar stores is a 21st century tragedy. Record shopping online works fine, but there's no soul or passion, and it's driven most old-school stores to the wall.. 

Robin had already cut his teeth on guitar as a teenager in France, into Kiss and Glam rock, but his first UK band is still the band he plays in now. It emerged from some looped experimental work, to which local rapper Paradox added a vocal track. That found its way to a local studio which gave Robin some free time to develop some ideas… and the band came into being.

Check the Friendly Fire site for more - there's a lot more - as well as the gigs list at the bottom of the post.

Nip down the road from Friendly Fire, take a right at the crossroads, and then right again up the next alleyway, and you’ll find yourself at Elephant House, home of Overproof Sound System, who happily overlap with G-Corp and others. You’ll often find the same musicians working in both Friendly Fire and Elephant House; relationships are cordial and mutually supportive. Brian Nordhoff and Robert Cimarosti run Elephant House. If you want to read about their studio setup, there’s a post here. 

Nordhoff has been working in and around Reggae since the late 70s. 
"Cornerstone was one of the seminal Birmingham roots bands. They were one of the few reggae bands to get a Peel session... I started working with them, then I worked with a crew called African Star, I ended up producing because I was unimpressed with the live sound we were getting. One night I was standing by a desk, moaning, and someone said ‘Well, You do it then!’. So I jumped on, that led onto studio work, started getting more and more involved." 
Nordhoff was jumping back and forth between music areas. 
"The Elephant House started because we had a band called Electribe101, which we thought was dubby electronic stuff. But we were hailed as the forerunners of British House. So we had front pages on the NME and Top Of The Pops… which gave us enough money to build this place."
After major and repeated record company shenanigans (detailed here, and well worth a read if you're about to sign a record deal) the production team that grew out of Electribe 101 walked away to work independently, and have stayed independent ever since. 
"We were very fortunate, because we had built a bit of reputation. We were asked to produce a few of our heroes, like Dillinger, Big Youth, Ennio Morricone, Kruder and Dorfmeister, Sly and Robbie… and I got to mix UB40’s Labour Of Love."
 You’ve kept all that pretty quiet… 
"We’ve never been big fans of that side of things. We just want to make the music we want to make, and we can pay the rent, great."
Overproof Sound System Commander and Chief

So, like Robin Giorno, The Elephant House team spread themselves pretty far and wide, touring with Overproof Sound System, issuing material as G-Corp, and producing or mixing a surprisingly wide range of material - including Sly and Robbie, Dillinger, Big Youth, Luciano, Dubmatix, Adrian Sherwood / Dub syndicate, and a lot more.  
"I do find the way new musicians are using older music very inspiring. They aren’t restricted – they’re delving into all sorts of music. I think that’s fantastic. It’s much less tribal. The whole dubstep thing – somebody popped in earlier who’s connected through Jimmy Brown’s and Earl Falconer’s label – and we produced their Dub Specimen album. I thought it was fantastic. But I don’t know if anyone has heard it – it was a labour of love for them.. But I thought it was well worth the effort. It’s going to become a rare groove CD… "
When G Corp aren't busy touring Overproof, their studio is home to a wide range of bands (covered on this blog in a previous post).

Here's one of the latest productions, with Xova, who embody yet another facet of Birmingham's 3rd Reggae Generation; their management are currently working on a documentary covering the Birmingham reggae tradition.

 Knife Crime City - XOVA (G-Corp Album Edit)

Chatting with Brian about music in general and Birmingham in particular can take you all over the place. We eventually wound up taking about Country Music in Reggae, and in Old-school Soul.  
"I can reel off so many Country songs that were done in the Reggae format. There was a period in Reggae when it was so linked to Country. I spent the 70s in Handsworth, and everybody’s mum and dad were listening to Jim Reeves and all the big Country artists of the time. It’s always had a black/white connection.  Bob Marley and Black Uhuru was produced by Alex Sadkin, and that and Chris Blackwell crossed him over to the world."
‘Toots In Memphis’, Muscle Shoals, the Stax and Motown House bands… 
"We went over to the Cayman islands to produce an album, and what struck me was how all the cultures – Black Chinese, Asian, White - all speak either Jamaican Patois or with a Bajan or a Cayman accent. And everyone is actually seen as a Jamaican. It’s not what we see from here! The biggest reggae label in the world, VP, which is now run from Queens in New York, is run by the Chin brothers, who are Chinese Jamaicans! I grew up with Stax, Motown and Reggae, and that’s led us to where we are now."
It’s an odd but lovely thing to see the Stax-Volt house band concept being carried on in a highly individual reggae-oriented way by Robin Giorno, while Brian Nordhoff and Rob Cimarosti happily skate across a whole range of genres, while still centering on reggae, sound systems and dancehall. Just part of the grass roots in this town: the creative foundation from which all sorts of brilliant new work can grow. And while we listen to the current generation, be sure that there's a fourth generation getting ready. Some of them might be trying some moves out at Reggaebaby Lounge.

Friendly Fire website and 
JamJah Mondays
G-Corp website