Words by Lucy Mounfield / Pics stolen from the corners of t’interweb… apologies
From the first look at Club Integral’s poster, I was a bit unsure of what tonight was all about. From the first step into the small warehouse in Digbeth, home to The Edge/Friction Arts, I begin to understand: eclectic furniture scattered around the space, extra-terrestrial drawings on the wall, neon lighting draped over every surface, this space felt more like a relaxed community-centre-cum-wonder-emporium. This evening is certainly going to be different.
The atmosphere is friendly; The Edge has a community feel and this is at the very heart of their manifesto – according to which Friction Arts have been working within the community for 23 years, helping people and translate their thoughts and ideas into artworks. And as I walk into the venue (being greeted by two alien murals on the wall, with flying saucers in vibrant neon glowing colours surrounding them) I immediately relax; there are definitely no stuffy artists in residence here and I need not worry about my lack of knowledge of contemporary art, or indeed of left-field music.
The Edge is home to the unusual, and it is therefore fitting that Club Integral take over the space for the debut of their Midlands ‘branch’ – an evening of niche sounds, bands who might struggle to be heard outside of London. Interestingly though tonight two of the artists playing are local to the Midlands, whilst the others have roots from outside England.
Seikou Susso, a traditional Kora player from Gambia in North West Africa billed as the first act, unfortunately had to pull out at the last minute due to a family death. Dan Wilkins, his student (and the first Birmingham name) instead treats us to some of Susso’s work on the Kora. The stage is a makeshift raised platform at one end of the warehouse; this is not a night to marvel at the technical prowess of the venue, but instead we, the audience, are treated to pared down, intimate moments of musical and emotional expression. Dan Wilkins sits alone, centre-stage, with the Kora.
The first three songs are in the Gambian style of Kora music, the first two being Susso’s and the third a composition of Dan Wilkins’ own. The Kora is a plucked string instrument which I had not heard of before, but it reminds me of Nitin Sawhney’s work with delicate Indian string instruments. I particularly like Wilkins’ composition; his face showing an emotional investment. The sound produced is rich, layered and textured, filling the warehouse and captivating the audience. The fourth and fifth songs depart from the previous three in their style; looser and slower than the previous two, which creates an earthy feel to them. It’s worth noting that there is some constant low level ambient noise, such as the kettle going off, throughout the set. For me this wasn’t a problem, it was all part of the atmosphere and to be expected given the nature of the venue, but others might find it an issue. Symphony Hall it is not.
Next to perform are Kamura Obscura, a three-piece band comprising a violinist (Natalie Mason, who is part of the team who run Club Integral), a guitarist (Robert Story) and a singer (Atsuko Kamura) who also plays keyboard. The first played, ‘Chapel of Atheist’, is a traditional Japanese song with haunting falsetto, both guitarist and violinist picking at their strings to create a stark background to the singing. The second song, ‘Melting’, takes on a political edge, dealing with the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor in 2011; the band donning headlights and sparkly comic glasses, declaring “we are safe now!” The song mirrors the outfits, comic yet dark, lyrics searing with intent, “The leader said we won’t be affected, the TV said the same”, the instruments scream with anger whilst the singing’s high pitch brakes down back into deep growls.
Each band tonight play for about 30 minutes, and we’re encouraged to drink and eat food from the Ubuntu van outside which sold homemade South African curries. Club Integral seems to be not just about the music but the spirit of trying something different – a culture and style which completely resonates with the locale of Digbeth. Digbeth is an in-between place: abandoned warehouses and patches of wasteland stand next to ‘luxury’ flats, industrial units are next door to independent restaurants, streets lined with pubs and shisha lounges, creative spaces dotted around car parks where buildings used to be, an air of slow dereliction and shadiness yet at the same time a sense of constantly being ‘on the verge’ of redevelopment. Club Integral taps into everything that is weird and wonderful about this fringe of Birmingham; it’s DIY and not shiny or new, but it certainly is expressive.
The next act definitely encompasses this vibe. All the way from Glasgow, Howie Reeve and his bass guitar tell modern day ditties about “Superdrug and children”. Reeve’s bass playing goes from one extreme to another, banging, picking and pulling at the strings. His audience interaction soon becomes part of his act and in a way detracts from his music, as we are sometimes laughing too much at Reeve’s stories to fully listen to his songs.
The dynamics and organisation of a traditional song disappear; Howie Reeve, instead, plays a continuous stream until it abruptly stops; only when he says “done” do we know the song has finally finished. His second to last song about children is my favourite, the quiet glockenspiel keeping the beat whilst Reeve tells the furtive imaginings of three children, with the bass guitar bursting into life when the children get excited or angry. Howie Reeve feels like an overactive mind unable to sleep, one minute he is whispering and the next he is shouting.
The last act to play are Birmingham’s own, Dorcha – normally a five piece band but reduced to three for tonight’s Club Integral. Traditionally Dorcha are loud, a wall of noise, but here they became intimate and inclusive. The paired down band became folkesque – a violin reed organ, a piano, and singer/guitarist; Dorcha sit on a sofa whilst the audience huddle around them.
‘Space Age’ has a rhythm drum beat that runs through the piece like a military parade, but it is the reed organ that acts as the backbone to the song. For me, the best of Dorcha’s songs are the ones the band admits they played the least, ‘Crimson’ being a good example. The guitar gives a darker tone and at times straddles psychedelia, with the reed organ hovering and twisting throughout.
But their last song best epitomises the evening, a cover of Ane Brun’s ‘Do You Remember’. Dorcha tell us they haven’t rehearsed this until today, the day they perform it live for us, but the song is a work in progress – a sharing of influences and ideas in a safe space.
That, for me, is what Club Integral delivers: an exciting and eclectic mix of music for which there needs to be a space. And I think, after tonight, the Midlands have just found another one.
For more on Club Integral, visit www.clubintegral.wordpress.com
For more from The Edge/Friction Arts, visit www.frictionarts.com
For more on Digbeth First Friday, visit www.digbethfirstfriday.com