Rowdy Superstar is a force of nature. Most artists when asked to perform a live session grab their band, rather than assembling Eska and a small choir to perform an acappella version of their single. In a week. I love this version of “Breathe”, one of the real stand out tracks from Rowdy’s debut album “Battery”. The layers of voices punctuate the underlying emotion the original production doesn’t make so immediately obvious, Rowdy sounds heartfelt and passionate yet plaintive, and the body percussion really drives the intensity of the situation home. Beautiful.
What do Tupac’s hologram, Grace Jones and Eska have in common? They’re the three things that kept me awake after Eska’s live performance at The Queen Elizabeth Hall on 7th May.
Before I say anything else, please only watch the video above up until the performance ends at 7.41 mins. It’s taken from a funding showcase where a first draft of the show was essentially pitched in order to be developed further. There is a certain way things are done in the world of fundraising, so it was necessary for Eska and her collaborators to politely discuss their plans and ideas for the work. In the real world she would have gotten up at the end and said “after that performance do you need any more proof this show will be amazing?? No, thought not. Pow!”, slammed the piano shut and sashayed off stage. Struan and Simon would have walked on with two large leather briefcases and whispered “you heard her, now make it rain”, whereupon the funders would have sprayed them with £50s. Well, at least that’s how it would work if someone died and left me in charge of the Arts Council.
So back to Tupac’s hologram. What the version in the video above lacked was the amazing 80 piece Goldsmith’s Vocal Ensemble in attendance at the QEH. “Vocal Ensemble” sounds like a fancy way of saying “choir”, however the word choir for many of us evokes freezing cold school halls at lunch time, droning along (what’s a harmony?), wishing Whoopie Goldberg would burst in dressed as a nun and sort it out. Or something. In fact GVE is much like my childhood fantasy version of a choir, but with added choreography, acting, really interesting songs and vocal arrangements, and Tom Herbert from The Invisible. Vocal Ensemble it is then. The overwhelming response at the end of the show (through stifled sobs) was “OMG Eska should always have a choir, why doesn’t she?!” from very enthusiastic people who have clearly not thought through the logistics of taking 80+ people anywhere. Do you see where I’m going with the hologram yet? 80 power cables rather than 80 people – make it rain Arts Council, make it rain.
Being an icon in the making must be a terrible burden. You can’t just show up to performances in a nice dress with a backing track and a line check, hoping for the best. You have a legacy to create and protect, and whilst Eska is a lovely person, she has done more than her fair share of paying dues. The atmosphere before the show began was buzzing, electric and hungry – hundreds of die hard fans praying that Eska was finally about to step on to the big stage her star deserves. I looked around and did the head count before the lights went down, not a spare seat, and a good percentage of the audience were well known musicians. There was also a woman who had the audacity to dress up like Grace Jones just because she looked like her. (Turns out it was Grace Jones, and yes I am going for an eye test). Perhaps icons recognise each other.
The music that night was beyond my descriptive abilities. Flawless is an over used word but there were none. It was beautiful, classy, and emotional in the extreme. There were so many occasions I was totally overwhelmed I couldn’t pick one, all I can say is that I was very grateful to be there. A teary-eyed Mara Caryle clasped my arm on the way out, asked if I was OK and suggested we set up a support group for “survivors of Eska at the QEH”. I think perhaps we might be better off setting up a group for those who weren’t there that night. If you are one of those people, I strongly suggest you add “seeing Eska’s English Skies Song Cycle live” to your bucket list.
Last week I stumbled across (OK obsessively hunted down) a grainy VHS rip of “The Rise of Neneh Cherry” (link to pt.1-3). Visually it could have been 2010, a beautiful young mixed race woman walking down the street in a pair of Nike Delta Force Highs, a skin-tight black lycra dress you would be forgiven for assuming came from American Apparel, and huge *gold* Ridley Road Market special door knocker earrings. Almost 20 years later Neneh Cherry’s signature look became more of a uniform than a blue print in East London, but it’s perhaps not so much what she was wearing as much as what she was doing whilst wearing it that lead to her status as team mascot for my generation. If you don’t read the rest of this article please watch part 3 of the “documentary” to see Neneh recording vocals and shadow boxing whilst heavily pregnant, then handling her biz on an 80s brick mobile in the car and doing the running man with a newborn strapped to her chest. Talk about a role model.
The 1988 hit Buffalo Stance (where has the time gone??!) will probably always be Cherry’s best known track, and from what I can see online (yes, more stalking) she’s still really proud of it, however I wonder if it may have partially obscured who she really was as an artist at that point. The daughter of jazz musician Don Cherry, the young Neneh had already lived in Sweden, New York and London, dropped out of school age 14, been in post punk and dub bands, and was itching to work with Ornette Coleman to “push herself musically”. She must have scared the life out of label execs at the height of the Kylie/ Bros/ Bananarama Smash Hits late 80s. I was very young back then so it’s unlikely I thought of Neneh as a trailblazer, a pioneer or a renegade, but I can distinctly remember thinking she was somehow different to the other pop stars – and that I wanted to be her.
More music followed in the 90s, and plenty of collaborations unbefitting a beautiful brown girl who’s meant to be jumping up and down in cycling shorts on Top of The Pops. Pregnant. With some weird dancing cowboy clown people. And a cameraman on stage… sorry, I digress. To pick a few from the enormous list, Neneh went on to work with Gang Starr, Michael Stipe (REM), Geoff Barrow (Portishead), Bernard Butler (Suede), Tricky, Pulp, Gorillaz, Groove Armada and a Grammy nominated song with Youssou N’Dour “7 Seconds” (her second Grammy nom, she lost best new artist to fraudulent front act Milli Vanilli in 1990, which must have been galling). Today she would probably have been signed to XL, curating the Meltdown Festival and with a pedigree like that be in some sense on par with Damon Albarn (for better or worse). Yet when you bring up the name Neneh Cherry today most people still say “ahh, I loved Buffalo Stance!”.
Which brings us on to today, and a brand new collaboration with Swedish jazz trio The Thing, covering music by Suicide, Martina Topley-Bird, Mats Gustaffson, The Stooges, MF Doom, Ornette Coleman and of course Don Cherry (the group took their name The Thing from the title of a Don Cherry song). In 2012 covering a track outside of your usual musical sphere is an affordable and pretty standard marketing tool (a collaboration is even better), but it is pretty much mandatory for the current generation of young black women terrified of being labelled as “soul” (which for some in the music press is apparently a black hole of boring from which ye shall never escape). Actually to be on the safe side you’d better get some tattoos, shave at least part of your head and say you’re really in to minimal techno and K-pop for good measure.
So Neneh Cherry’s return as a veteran experimental pop star may not be greeted with full recognition for all of the doors her Nike high tops helped kick down, but the after effects have contributed to a rich and diverse musical community awaiting her return as a beloved and respected monarch.
Neneh Cherry & The Thing “The Cherry Thing” will be released on 18th June 2012.
There was a lot of sleeping on sofas, last minute line ups and minor emergencies, and we ended up giving the artists every penny we made on the door, but it was more than worth it.
I was surfing Myspace one night (it was October 2007), and one of my favorite rapper/ producers Kev Brown sent out an update saying that he was in London. It turned out his show had been cancelled and he and half the Low Budget crew were sleeping on Tranqill‘s floor. Virtually hyperventilating I called some friends with a live night called Lookout! and demanded they change the line up at the last minute. Two days later and Low Budget were rapping and making beats live on stage at Favela Chic. (Read more)
“BLACK CULTURE IN THIS COUNTRY HAS HAD A HUGE CONTRIBUTION, ON OUR MUSIC AND, A WHOLE RANGE OF CULTURAL WAYS…”
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