Monday, October 31, 2011

Sondryfolk Autumn Jamboree

Where to begin? Such a joyful, inspiring and multifaceted week led up to this remarkable event that I'm almost at a loss to know how to describe it...

Elise, Sophie and Laurie, the Sondryfolk collective who I'd helped out with their previous two events (the Canterbury Arts Trail back in April, and the arts forest at Smugglers Festival in early September) had proposed an autumnul gathering/convergence/celebration at the beautiful wooded location near Canterbury where my 40th birthday celebrations took place, so I was more than happy to offer my assistance in helping them realise their vision. The idea was to bring together like-minded, creative and motivated people from East Kent, London and Bristol (their other two centres of operation) in a carefully crafted, beautiful, magical environment and then just see what happened.

The ingredients were: a series of 20 minute talks/discussions in a strawbale mini-half-amphitheatre semi-encircling a bonfire, music, aerialists in trees, storytelling, soup for donations, affordale local ale and spiced cider, beautiful decor, illluminated trees and a LOT of twinkly lights. This took some organising, and so Elise, Sophie, plus E's circus friends Maddie and Lynn (met on a sailing ship in the Mediterranean this summer) and another friend, Alex, from London, took up residence at the site and we spent an industrious and generally hilarious week getting it all together. Lewis, an old friend of Elise who came up through the free party/psytrance scene (which was quite strong in East Kent some years ago) put in a lot of time and effort with lighting and wiring, assisted by me (I was doing my best to be helpful, cooking, washing up, sawing wood, carrying stuff around, making the occasional useful suggestion — always happy to wire up sockets and plugs...).

Sven and Katrijn came over from Gent for the week too, which added nicely to the atmosphere. We had a couple of saz/darbouka sessions, and Sven brought his guitar along too. At one point, with about eight of us squashed in a tiny caravan, Elise asked to borrow it and surprised me with a really fresh, original guitar style (I had no idea she played — she also came out with some excellent rhythms on the darbouka, despite claiming not to be able to drum, and entertained us on the donated piano (from La Trappiste bar in town), as it was being driven onto the site, strapped onto a trailer). The immediate point of reference for her guitar style was Liam's (Syd Arthur), but she pointed out that this was less to do with imitation than the fact that they'd listened to a lot of the same music when they were part of the same crew of teenage Canterbury skateboarders (Zappa, Bassekou Kouyate, Mahavishnu, Caravan, Pentangle...)

The music which got organised for the Friday night event:

Will Varley playing songs from his new album Advert Soundtracks (he handed me a copy as he was leaving later that night, so I'll blog something about that soon) after the first round of talks in the amphitheatre. Several nearby owls decided to get involved in backing vocals, much to everyone's delight. Everyone was listening. It seemed like everyone was experiencing the whole event as a gift, and there was a tangibly happy, respectful atmosphere the whole time, between everyone, which included actually listening to music that was being played. Will's whimsical newish "A Monkey on a Rock" went down a storm (he'll be fielding requests for that one for the rest of his musical life now), and as he was finishing his last song, "This is an Advert Soundtrack", the inadequate lighting from the bonfire meant he couldn't see his frets properly, so he went for a faux-avant-jazz freakout ending, very amusing...

Christine Finn addresses the fireside strawbale amphitheatre
artist, journalist and archaeologist Christine Finn addresses the fireside strawbale amphitheatre about her Leave Home Stay art project (photo by Ed Q)

A bit later, it was time for the candlelit woodland walkabout — the first stop involved the assembled lantern bearing peoples stopping beneath a mighty Monterey pine to listen to me delivering 319 million years of local history (drawing on some evolutionary biology) from its lower branches, culminating in the here and now. I'd been asked to speak for a few minutes about "where we were", and this is how it came out. I ended by "getting out of my tree" and leading the audience further into the woods where the Ladies of the Lake (Nicola and Natasha from Cocos Lovers, plus Deal friend Jo) were seated on a large rope swing, surrounded by candles. They sang half a dozen unaccompanied songs (a sea shanty, "My Husband's Got No Courage in Him", "What Shall We Do With the Baby", and "Four Loom Weaver", a song about the Lancashire cotton famine, among others). Everyone, as they had been during my talk, was totally silent — enraptured in this case, as opposed to bewildered, in mine : ) . Even the littlest kids who'd come along sat quietly with their parents, seemingly transported into fairyland.

Next stop was the circus performance: I led the people over to another massive conifer where a halogen-illuminated Maddie was suspended from a rope, about 8 metres up. Accompanied by Owen (Zoo For You, Arlet) playing a beautifully flowing clarinet improvisation, she amazed everyone with her grace, skill and strength, tumbling down the rope and re-ascending it, seemingly effortlessly, as if tree, rope and Maddie were one entity. Only a few minutes, but time was suspended, and, again (apart from the music and the unfortunate drone of the struggling generator) all was silent. As she settled into her final descent to the base of the rope, Owen wandered into the darkness, trailing clarinet notes. The audience turned to follow him, and then BING! the light switched from Maddie's tree to the space between two sequoias, between which Swedish slack-rope artist Lynn was poised in mid-air, and (collective gasp!) Owen was suddenly standing alongside the full six-piece Arlet lineup (including Cameron from The Boot Lagoon and Lapis Lazuli on double bass), who then launched into their gorgeously melodic "Summertimes" as Lynn skipped, rolled, tumbled and swung in various directions on her slack-rope. The tree trunks themselves were illuminated in a pinky-orange light, more of Lewis's creative lighting work. The atmosphere was just electric... I couldn't imagine a more enraptured, attentive audience. Suddenly the two aerialists were standing, on the edge of the darkness, hand-in-hand, staring back at us like two alarmed wood sprites who'd just realised that they were being watched...and just as everyone was about to burst into applause, they turned and ran off into the woods together, leaving behind a hovering sense of wonder and enchantment.

video by Rosie P

I then led everyone back to the main gathering area, where Cocos Lovers (the full current six-piece) played a near-acoustic set at the front of the bar tent, where real ale, cider, soup and bread was being dispensed beneath faerie lights and autumnul foliage. (They had a couple of small busking amps which helped to keep Nicola's flute at a sensible level, etc.). I was very happy to hear them starting off with the underplayed "Van Rogue", quite a weird spacey intro (more of that, please!), then a new one (always a treat) which Phil tells me is currently known as "The New One", then "Elephant Lands" (title track of the new album, which I will review very soon) followed by all the old favourites. The version of "Moonlit Sky" was especially wonderful (I immediately declared it "best version ever!"...not sure if that would stand up, but I think they've played it at just about every one of the (many) gigs I've seen them that I just don't tire of, and this version had so much space in it, the band responding to their environment, as they do so well).

Half of Burning Glass were up next (Edwin plus the double bass/harmonium player), but in the interim I wandered back over to the strawbale amphitheatre to see what was happening. What was happening was pretty wild! Triskele, the local Irish/Breton folk trio were, entirely unplanned, playing a kicking set (Ben the guitarist had come as part of Arlet and brought Andy the bhodran player and Fred the fiddler) to a delighted fireside audience. At one point, a kind of vaguely Breton-style chain of dancers encircled the fire and spun the energies in a wild pyro-musical vortex. You can't plan these things, and it was hugely satisfying to see this space we'd created being used like this.

Scurrying around sorting out various lighting issues, etc. I unfortunately missed a lot of the Burning Glass set, but was happy to see them surrounded by a delighted semicircle of listeners singing along (I joined in for "Ten Long Years of No Women and No Wine", and then got to hear the poignant one about the old lady and her harmonium).

Leonie Evans from Rae was meant to be next, playing semi-amplified outside the bar tent, but things had over-run somewhat and it was time to switch off the generator. So, a much better idea, she (with guitar borrowed from Ben) set up on the strawbale amphitheatre (not playing at us, but playing amongst us) and worked her vocal wonders, an unforgettable set, wherein she took numerous requests, as well as playing some of the current Rae material. I suggested Jolie Holland's "Littlest Birds", which she seemed very happy to be reminded of (sitting listening to that was one of the highlights of the evening, if not the year, for me). We also got Nina Simone and Billie Holiday songs, and (quite a surprise), after a quick retuning, a version of the Incredible String Band's "First Girl I Loved". I can't remember all the songs, just a feeling of incredible ease, warmth, communion, seeing people stretched out, blissed out beside the fire.

a quiet spell outside the bar
a quiet spell outside the bar (photo by Ed Q)

After that, things started to thin out gradually, and the music was provided by whoever wanted to play. Sven and I got some trancey saz/darbouka jams going, a Lori/Laurie (not Sondryfolk's Ms. L. Lax, tho') rather shly played some sweet songs on her ukelele, Luisa who'd come down from London (a friend of Theo Bard, who didn't make it) played some quirky material on her accordion, accompanied by her quirky voice, Barney Pigeon (minimalist Afro/art-funk guitarist from Zoo For You) surprised us with a bit of late-night boozy blues, and on it went...

The feedback since has been most encouraging: "felt like the beginning of a renaissance", reported one attendee; "best f***ing party in living memory" reported another (who'd brought his entire family along); "everyone seemed so HAPPY", pointed out Gwen from the healthfood shop (who I'd seen in there for years but never properly spoken to before); "raised the bar for cultural events in Canterbury" opined local artist Tom Langley.

Many more ideas in the pipeline. Long live Sondryfolk!


Anonymous Silke said...

hey matthew,
wasn't on your blog for a while and now i discovered this entry. sounds amazing! i'd love to be around and see the place being transformed into a magic art space with all those peaceful people enjoying themselves. must have been a very special event by the way you describe it.
lots of love from silke

11:27 PM  

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