Commencing Damian Beeson Bullen’s retrospective adventure through the journey that made him a poet…
It is 20 years ago this week that I returned from the Continent as a poet. I had just been deported from Switzerland for apparent vagrancy, but unbeknownst to the Swiss I was trying to get home anyway. I have always put my lucky break down to the ways of the Muses, who had recently taken me under their wing. Landing safely at Heathrow, in my possession was what I call my first proper poem, 100 stanzas of Ottava Rima upon the Death of Shelley. After two weeks of touring Europe as far as Hungary, I then headed to Italy, Shelley’s own ‘Paradise of Exiles’ where I began my composition period in Pisa on the 16th April; concluding the poem by Shelley’s tomb a month later, at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. In between was the the great moment of validation in my life, sat on a clifftop over Portovenere, composing to the gulls & the sunset. Like a young Wordsworth over Helvellyn, I too knew I was a poet & parley to the especial feelings of universal inclusiveness which being a true poet entails.
Those six & a half weeks of travel was my very own Grand Tour. I was no aristocrat, far from it, a little half-caste drop-out from the back streets of Burnley with sudden pretensions of poethood. I should have been better off in a factory like the one in Rawtenstall I’d worked at for 3 months or so in 1996 – the shoemakers Lambert Howarths. But I was, of course, a poet, for a poet is born… & then made of course. Having realized this was my fate in early 1997, a year later I embarked for Europe where I hoped to experience for myself just a sliver of the literary domicile in Italy which Byron & Shelley had set up in exile. Just what kind of poet I would turn out to be would be heavily influenced and nourished by the experience. My only source of income, however, would be the rent money I neglected to pay in London, & whatever I could whip together in the Italian streets thro’ my guitar.
Tis the end of March & my rent is due,
But two life options lie open to me;
Break with a lover, lose friendship, split thro
Or chain myself to the servility
Of capitalism; a poet true
I yearn to be, so young, so sure, so free –
Romancing my mind with poetry’s flow,
So be it, with sure brave heart, I shall go.
“What the fuck am I doing in Hungary!?”
Think I as I search for somewhere to rest
In the dirty, bustling, car-choked, friendly
Bullet-hole-wall-lined streets of Budapest;
Architecture touched clearly by Turkey,
But laced with the consumeristic West;
I find the Mellow Mood Hostel – what luck!
For four pounds a night it’s as cheap as fuck.
My retrospective adventure begins on the 11th April 1998. I awoke in a hostel upon my last morning in Budapest, set later that day to attempt to evade fares, or trainjump, to Slovenia, from where I would head for Venice. To tell the story I shall be recreating my journal from the period day-by-day & placing this alongside any actual compositions of the Shelley poem on those corresponding days. The latter have gone through a revision process over the years, & I hope to administer them through the powers of the 41 year old poet. Pictorially, I have included a smattering of sketches from my notebook made during my time in Italy, plus a number of photographs taken in my visits to the scenes of my youthful endeavor in the two decades since. My final piece of ‘evidence’ comes from 1999, & another poem in more precise Ottava Rima concerning my trip to Europe, entitled The Grand Tour. Despite misplacing the original manuscript, this poem too has undergone several revisions & now takes pride of place at the commencement of my Silver Rose sequence.
Saturday 11th April 1998
My last day in Hungary began quite pedestrian paced, then ended in the most bizarre circumstances.
I cooked up a few eggs, mushrooms & a bit of bacon for brekky, then began to meander. I changed some money, bought a load of fags & food for my journey (I’d better watch my cash now, only got £90 left), then found some Hungarians playing chess in a square. I had a few games with a big fella who fluster’d me into losing!! I lost 400 florins altogether, but had a grand time in the sunshine.
Then I met Megan one last time & we had a few beers through the afternoon til my 5.30 train to Slovenia. After donning my electric blue sunglasses I gave an impromptu performance of songs; Hymn to Apollo, Tumbleweed & Groovy Little Sunshine – laid back in the sun at the top of an international hostel, kinda tunes – with Fools Gold as an encore.
I then packed & headed for the station. Now Geminis are known for their indecisiveness & sudden changes of plan, & as soon as I saw the ‘Orient Express’ to Paris listed, I had to get on it. That train is second only to the Trans-Siberian railway for legendary routes, & if I jumped it I would be very happy indeed. But a big conductor actually opened the toilet door, took my passport & kicked me off at Gyor (giving my passport back).
But this wasn’t too bad – I quickly got on a slower Hungarian train to the border town of Hegyeshalom. Although the toilets (& the graffiti-splattered, full of weird Hungarians carriage) were disgusting, the bay-like window was wide open & I had a wonderful, snail-paced view of the Hungarian plains, which were pretty dull, but the evenly spaced houses & churches were quite pretty.
So I arrive in the border town (its too long a word to write out every time, accurately) & lo & behold, who’s waiting but the conductor from the Orient Express. He waves his arms for a bit, gets a bit kerfuffled, so I slip the station, having two hours to wait for the next train outta Hungary.
I bought a soft drink & sat outside a mad Hungarian pub, their weird babble drifting to my ears & adding to the surreality of the situation.
Here I planned ahead! I will travel to Italy & Ravenna to see Dante’s grave, then over to Le Spazia to write poetry & chill by the beach for a couple of weeks. Then I’ll hit the Riviera, do some busking & slowly make my way up through France – walking, busking – to arrive home for my birthday (June 11th). Perhaps I can get a ferry ticket for my present!
I returned to the station, but that same conductor (& the one from the other) accosted me, demanded money & took my passport. They sat me down & waited for the Vienna train to come. Two of their cronies arrived & they began making fun of me, pretending to be soldiers & going ‘English very bad, rat-a-tat-a-tat’ Nobs! The Vienna train came & as it pulled away they all began to laugh. So I slipped on my shades, whistled Rule Britannia & high-tailed it on outta town.
I was like a soldier marching along the road to the border, my backpack heavy & my guitar like a gun. I felt so funky, tho,’ that I decided to strum by the roadside, only a few hundred metres from the border. After a while I saw a car coming & thought I might hitch outta Hungary. So I leapt to the road, stuck out my thumb, & to my surprise the car screeched to a halt & two guys in camouflage & holstered revolvers quickly leapt out. I thought at first I was gonna be mugged, but was quite relieved to be in the company of some border patrollers. They had a quick look at my passport, then bundled me into the car & drove me back to the fucking train station again.
There were about ten guards in all, proper dumb-looking & pretending to be hard, so I made the chambers feel like home. I ate, had a fag, then bought out mah geetah, & whistled & played til they gave me back my passport. I played some weird shit & spooked them – & they wouldn’t even give me a stamp as a souvenir.
I gaze on familiar boyhood star
While I walk a few K to the border,
As just by the line I thumb a police car,
They bundle me in, “Silence!” the order,
So as they check the passport my guitar
Rings out in bizarre tuning & coda,
Bemused they release me at the train station
“Gizza lift” “No!” my tour’s first frustration!
So I had to retrace my steps, & soon was making my way though the border zone. The Hungarians guards were asleep so I had to wake them! I passed some lads younger than me, wielding rifles & a big Austrian at customs. The actual area had a real sort of abandoned feel. The legacy of the Cold War – it was the East-West border – where only kids & old men inhabit. It was quite eerie walking through it into Austria.
In Austria I was manhandled by some guys who thought we were still in the war, then another guy on a bike, but all-in-all it wasnt too bad… just 7 passport checks & ten or so kilometres of hiking.
I found the station at Nicklesdorf & bedded down behind it. Luckily it was a very pleasant night & I fell asleep to birdsong…
THE BIRTH OF A POET
Scottish Storytelling Centre
May 4th, 2018
Four diversely different characters, each with an important story to tell. Maybe too many are recaptured in the 90 minute performance; blink once and you might miss something. One has to keep in mind just how far these guys have traveled to bring such magical words to our attention, with the show taking shape at a residency in Mumbai earlier this year. Each of the stories could have been a full performance, especially the conversation between Sheena Khalid and Eilidh Firth, about the similarities between the industrial nature of both Mumbai and Dundee – in itself was a very interesting history lesson. One has to remember that this performance of stories is still in its conception stage, a work in progress. Four performance artists all with something valid to say.
Jumping from story to story was a bit like a mental dream after a weekend on Magick Mushrooms. Mohammad Muneem Nazir was spectacular, a very confident man, full of grace and musical sparkle. With a genuine spirituality and deep wisdom. A True Sufi. Eilidh is a quiet genius who came across as being more comfortable as a violinist. In a recent interview with the Mumble, she gave an excellent account of the essence of the piece;
A New Conversation has brought together two artists from Scotland and two from India to create new work based through storytelling and music. I didn’t have any experience of storytelling before this residency, so it’s been fantastic to push the boundaries of what I do. I’m particularly excited about part of the show that looks at the links between mill workers in Mumbai and Dundee. The stories from the other artists have been really inspiring and I’ve loved experimenting with music for the show. We decided to call the piece ‘Where I Stand’ and it looks at our connection to our land and place through ancient myths and a reimagining of contemporary stories.
Sometimes during the performance, it felt like I was eavesdropping. It was very captivating & the night flew by. I have known Daniel Allison for several years having shared the performance stage with him at prominent Scottish festivals. He’s one of the best didge players in Scotland and he has already built a solid reputation as a raconteur with a deep wisdom and understanding of Celtic mythology. Like I said, each of these performers was infinitely interesting. Sheena Khalid is a natural actress who delivered quite beautifully, so much so this beautiful Indian mystic has inspired poetry within my soul. Possibilities and ideas became inspired within me. But still it was too much take in. Like a collection of ideas waiting to unfold to their potential.
Brilliant art always works me, and this has not been an exception; it has taken a weekend to process everything that I bared witness to. I think it will work me for a bit longer. The conception of the collective and the merging of culture, the Pagan roots of both Mumbai and Celtic Britain brought to life.
Indeed, my performance poet has been inspired.
Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert
This Friday sees Edinburgh-based storyteller Daniel Allison, Dundonian fiddle-player and composer Eilidh Firth, Mumbai actor, writer and director Sheena Khalid, and Kashmiri poet and songwriter Mohammad Muneem Nazir begin A New Conversation. The Mumble managed to catch a wee blether with the Scottish contingent
Hello Eilidh, so when did you realise you were musical?
EILIDH: I started getting violin lessons at the age of five, but I definitely wasn’t up for practicing! When I was ten I joined a local group called the ‘Tayside Young Fiddlers’ when I began to enjoy playing and after that my playing improved more and more.
Hello Daniel. You are a true international troubadour. What is it about travelling that thrills you the most?
DANIEL: It’s very easy for us to get stuck in habitual ways of doing things, seeing things. Going to a place where nothing and no one is familiar frees you from outdated routines and perceptions, giving you the chance to experience the world and yourself anew. Unless you bring your phone…
You have worked as a chimpanzee tracker. What does that entail?
DANIEL: I worked on a chimpanzee habituation project in a developing nature reserve in Uganda. The job was to habituate chimps to human presence so that eventually tourists could come along and see them. So, we would walk through the forests listening and looking for chimps, in silence, all day, every day.
So Eilidh, you are a relatively recent graduate of the RCS; how did you find your studies there?
EILIDH: I loved my time at the RCS. It was great to be surrounded by people who were so passionate about traditional music. It gave me a grounding in the context around the music – the history, folklore and language – and they encouraged me to start writing my own tunes as well.
Back to Daniel. Creative Scotland have funded you to give four Scottish tours to date, visiting schools as if they were Dark Age courts & you were the travelling bard. Can you tell us a little about the experiences?
DANIEL: I love working as a modern-day bard, but I wanted to have a go at being a ye olden day bard, so I organised tours in which I would walk coast to coast across the country, wild camping and stopping to tell stories at schools along the way. The first one was very hard as I made my schedule too tight, so at one point I walked 28 miles in a day, slept and then got up at 5am to run for miles across the hills in the rain – with horrendous blisters – to get to my next gig. But I learnt from my mistakes and had wonderful experiences, like telling stories outside a chambered cairn on a hilltop on North Uist at sunset, and dancing Strip the Willow down Stornoway harbour at sunrise.
How does travel inspire your creativity & can you give us examples?
DANIEL: I love how people often begin creative practices while travelling, even if it’s just writing down what they’ve seen. I think somehow you can leave self-limiting beliefs at home. For me, I see or do things that stir my imagination, and then at some point they come out in a story. Based on that period in the forest, I wrote a story years later about a Tanzanian boy who is possessed by a chimpanzee, and a novella about an English girl encountering a local shaman while living in a Kenyan nature reserve.
Eilidh, you are in integral member of the Scottish folk band ‘Barluath.’ Can you tell us about the experience?
EILIDH: We formed ‘Barluath’ while we were still at university and I feel like we’ve really grown up together. It’s been wonderful to travel and perform and I love making new music with them.
What is it about traditional Scottish music that makes you tick?
EILIDH: I love traditional music because every player can put their personal stamp on the music. No two performers will play a tune in the same way. I also think it’s great that the music has so much history surrounding it but it’s still as vibrant and relevant today.
…& Daniel, which instruments do you use when you add music to your storytelling?
DANIEL: My main instrument is the didgeridoo, which I play in traditional and contemporary styles, but I also use Tibetan singing bowls, rattles, chimes, drums, jaw harp and a few other bits and bobs to give texture to stories.
What does Eilidh Firth like to do when she’s not being musical?
EILIDH: I love getting out into the countryside with the dog or up a hill – he keeps me fit! I’ve also recently taught myself how to knit so you’ll usually find me cursing under a pile of yarn!
Can you tell us about A New Conversation?
EILIDH: A New Conversation has brought together two artists from Scotland and two from India to create new work based through storytelling and music. I didn’t have any experience of storytelling before this residency, so it’s been fantastic to push the boundaries of what I do. I’m particularly excited about part of the show that looks at the links between mill workers in Mumbai and Dundee. The stories from the other artists have been really inspiring and I’ve loved experimenting with music for the show. We decided to call the piece ‘Where I Stand’ and it looks at our connection to our land and place through ancient myths and a reimagining of contemporary stories.
What will be your contribution to A New Conversation?
DANIEL: The meeting of the mythic and contemporary is a strong current in our piece; I think my job has been to hold the place of the mythic, choosing the right stories and presenting them in a way that shows their relevance to Scotland and India now, and to our own lives as individuals. One story I tell is the legend of a poet who went to live in the otherworld but returned because he missed th madness and sadness of this world. Mohammad and I worked together to explore how his own story of a growing up in and later escaping a conflict zone reflects this tale.
Are you finding connections between European music and stories & that of India?
EILIDH: I knew there would be links between our two countries and cultures, but I couldn’t have imagined how many similarities there would be. I think both countries are going through periods of change and in some ways uncertainties and it’s been fascinating to see the parallels reflected in the stories brought together in ‘Where I Stand’.
To which places will an audience member’s imagination be taken through the event?
DANIEL: A lot of places! Audiences will experience the murder of a giant, Iron Age warfare, industrial Mumbai, cosmic turtles, Urdu poetry, soul-stirring music and an erotic proposition from the goddess of war. I think that’s plenty to go on.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for Daniel Allison?
DANIEL: This year I’m going to be working hard to get my novel ready to send out into the world. It’s a dark and bloody adventure story for younger teenagers set in prehistoric Orkney.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for Eilidh Firth?
EILIDH: I’m really passionate about music education and when I’m not performing or composing I love to teach. Over the next few months I’m going to be taking some courses to give me some new approaches to working with young people and taking on some outreach projects to widen access to music. I also have a few jumpers I want to finish knitting and a couple of Munros to ‘bag’!
WHERE I STAND: A NEW CONVERSATION
Scottish Storytelling Centre
April 30th, 2018
The situation of the Scottish Storytelling Centre; half-way up the Royal Mile by the old Tolbooth where John Knox used to preach to the passing public, & the World’s End pub, which marked the edge of the medieval city walls; is one of the most historical places in Scotland. No better site, then, for the modern dionysia that is Tradfest, thrust annually upon a receptive public by the TRACS organisation, with TRACS standing for – Traditional Arts & Culture, Scotland. A Monday is as good a day as any for culture, & so I headed into Edinburgh for a double helping of story-hearing.
The occasion was to be two hour-long sessions, divided only by a quick dash of time between performing areas in the Centre. On arrival I noticed that one of Edinburgh’s finest storytellers would be in the audience, the irrepressible David Campbell. He had surrounded himself with a bevvy of intelligent, bonnie ladies, who spontaneously burst out into a rendition of que sera sera in the cafe. ‘Only at the Tradfest,’ I thought to myself, sipping on one of the rather especial speciality beers they have in stock.
The first session was called MARY RUSHIECOATS AND THE WEE BLACK BULL, which turned out to be a celebration of Bulls, Beltane & the Buddha’s birthday performed with highly praisable panache by American storyteller, Linda Williamson, & Japanese harpist Mio Shapley. Linda opened with a tale recorded in 1985 by her husband, Duncan, who sadly died a decade ago. He did leave behind some remarkable works in the passing, including a classically nerve-wracking, mind-bending starburst of fairy tale, the Mary Rushiecoats, all in iambic pentameter with the odd rhyme thrown in too.
Following the charming wicked ogre ending, Mio also told a tale, the Bamboo Cutter, a tenth century story full of treasures & human change, & the oldest survivor in the Japanese tradition. The third tale thrust us straight into the Buffalo Nation of America, a remarkable cross-species flourish of glorious storytelling. Throughout, the ladies made us feel extremely comfortable, & the harp was so hypnotic & that it projected into my mind the harp-use of the Celtic bards in the mead halls of ancient days. In thus mind, I was perfectly set up for the second half of my Tradfest outing.
The second part of my outing was downstairs in the Centre’s main theatre, & went by the rather elongated title that is A FLAME OF WRATH FOR SQUINTING PATRICK. The soul of this story is a Weegieland modernisation of a bardic tale, recited quite engagingly by snow-haired David Frances & accompanied through a theatrical splinter of the Pìobaireachd tradititon with the curiouser & curiouser music of Calum MacCrimmon, a direct descendant of the famous pipers to the Dunvegan MacLeods, & John Mulhearn of the ineffable Big Music Society. When Mulhearn said of the story that, ‘the underlying narrative is easily brought into the twenty-first century,’ he was completely accurate in his sentiment; & as I heard the madcap jauntings of Skelly Pat, Big Donnie, Devil MacKay and Mad Dog Mackenzie, I did rather take joy in the timelessness of a good story well told.
Damian Beeson Bullen
This Friday, Leyla Josephine will be returning to Edinburgh with her highly-acclaimed show, Hopeless. The Mumble managed to catch her for a wee blether & to see some of her poems
Hello Leyla, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
I am originally from Glasgow spent most of my life there. I lived in Japan for a while and now I’m in Prestwick. I moved to be near the coast for some peace and quiet but it’s been a lot of commuting. I spend most of my time on the M77.
When did you first realise you were a poet?
I don’t know if I’ve ever really felt like a poet. There’s certainly not been a moment I can specifically think of. I think my work has always sat on the margins of performance, storytelling and poetry. I sometimes feel like a bit of a fraud when I call myself a poet. But I also believe that anything can be poetry, so when someone gave me the title I took it and ran with it.
Which poets inspired you at the beginning & who today?
I think in the beginning of liking words and rhythm I was more focussed on music and looking back some of my favourite musicians could definitely be considered poets like Jamie T, Ghostpoet and Alex Turner. At school I was obsessed with Liz Lockhead’s Medea. I try to look around me in the UK Spoken Word community for inspiration, Iona Lee, Sam Small, Liam McCormick and Lisa Luxx are some of my favourites. I have always been a fan of Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish. I love reading Ocean Vuong and David Ross Linklater. But I definitely look to people like Taylor Mac, Kieran Hurley, Julia Taudevin and Third Angel and who manage to so beautifully tie theatre and spoken word together. I think I’ve always been really lucky to have one foot in the door of both Spoken Word and Contemporary Theatre. I have seen so many brilliant performers and poets and I try to take inspiration from everywhere.
You’re quite the creative polymath; teaching drama, making theatre & writing poetry. Do all these artistic endeavors bleed into each other?
Definitely, usually I can’t really tell the difference between any of them. It’s just the framing of what you’re doing, all the creative processes are very similar. The blurring of the lines is what makes it the most interesting. My pamphlet isn’t a poetry book, it’s documentation of a theatre show which has poetry in it but does that make it a poetry book or maybe is it a script or because it’s true story is it a memoir? I find it fascinating when people try to name it because really I’m not sure either. I don’t know even if drama teacher is right because I’m encouraging people to write their own stories and perform them which is maybe more like poetry. I’m not sure what I am in any of it, but I’m happy to just cruise along and be whatever people want me to be.
You first rose to public prominence when in 2014 you won The UK Poetry Slam at The Royal Albert Hall. Can you tell us about the experience, & what was the prize?
There was no prize but it has definitely helped me get exposure and book gigs. I came joint first with Vanessa Kissule – another brilliant poet. It was a long day, I think about 100 poets taking part. I really liked being one of the only Scottish people there, I think it gave me a bit of an edge. Slams are fun as long as you don’t take them too seriously. The best poet never wins, it’s all about manipulating the audience, it’s a performance, it’s a show but it’s so entertaining and such a buzz! That day was great because it was only my second slam and to come out top was really exciting.
You have performed all over Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and as far as Prague, New York, Victoria and Vancouver. Which are your three best gigs (in no particular order)?
That’s such a hard question! I’d say my favourite ever was at The Wickerman 2014, it was the first time I came off stage and I was like this is what I want to do. I love this feeling, I’m in control, I’m with my friends, I’m good at this, it’s sunny, the audience are enjoying it. This is it, I’m going to do whatever this is now. The BBC Stage at The Fringe with The Social’s Rappers Vs Poets is always great. There’s an audience of about 300 and it’s always absolutely terrifying cause it’s all filmed live, but I live for the pressure!! My pamphlet launch felt like another real moment – I packed out Inn Deep which was the first place I ever performed, people couldn’t get in and everyone was standing. I felt like a rockstar for about 10 mins. I had invited all my favourite musicians and poets to perform. The mic wasn’t working and my performance wasn’t perfect but it felt special and a milestone. I never thought anyone would ever want to publish me and I was so overwhelmed with the support.
What does Leyla Josephine like to do when she’s not writing?
I like to read, I drink a lot of tea, I like going for walks, seeing theatre – the madder the better. I was a ski instructor for a while so when I get to ski I absolutely love that. I used to party all the time but that’s slowly starting to fade out, I do love to dance and drink beer with my friends when I can but not I’m not as hardcore as I used to me.
The road stretches ahead much like life does.
Mount Errigal, purple in the morning light,
greets me generously.
One foot in front of the other,
they would have walked the whole way
if it wasn’t for the water.
The smell of turf reminds me of home
but you can’t eat turf,
you can only burn it
and fire in the belly
doesn’t feed the starving.
The long grass brushes against my knees
much like grief does.
The ghosts from the Gorta Mor whisper from the ditches
‘Do not be afraid, you are not alone’
One foot in front of the other,
they would have walked the whole way
if it wasn’t for the water.
I’m trying to prove something,
anything, while the earth beneath me spins,
The rain keeps me company,
it sounds like footsteps running.
I’ve got the girls.
they’ve been with me,
staggering down streets,
on table girls,
with our tales
that we keep for take-away meals,
Hold your hand
and make you tea,
come to bed with me
Seas separate us
we come home to melt into each other
the MAC counter warriors.
Belt of lipstick
Fuck him, fuck that.
Taking our bodies back.
Bring the girls out of the dark and
try call us hysterical
Fire in our cheeks
Keys between the knuckles
When we are alone
you underestimate us.
we take up
are the greatest love stories never told,
we are bold,
and the too much
We laugh just as loud as our mothers,
feel the moon in our waters,
don’t chew when we eat,
take no breath when we speak,
don’t interrupt us
we are angry
We’re coming for you,
What are the stand-out continuous themes running through your poetry?
I always want people to feel less alone in their sadness or try to dilute shame by talking about things that are not usually talked about. I mostly write about my own experiences with the hope that they tap into the universal experience.
You are currently touring your 5 star Edinburgh Fringe show Hopeless which was nominated, I understand, for both The Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award and shortlisted for Saboteur Awards for Best Spoken Word Show? How is it going so far on the road?
Yeah it’s going really well. It’s pretty hard work, I’m currently organising everything myself, marketing, photoshop, ticket sales, performing, admin, tech – it gets really exhausting and a bit lonely. But having audiences that aren’t just friends and family is really cool and I have a lot of friends that help out when they can. I feel really lucky to be able to travel and see new cities all while doing something I love.
The pamphlet version of the Hopeless has been published by Speculative Books and is illustrated by Rosalind Shrivas. Can you describe your working relationship with Rosalind?
It was so fun working with Rosalind. She managed to do a great job without even seeing the show! I would send her photos and ideas and she would come back with such amazing pieces that just brought the pamphlet to life. She blew me away every step of the way. As I said before it’s a bit different from a normal poetry pamphlet so her drawings helped shape it into a visual of the show too and actually you get different images that you don’t get in the show.
You will be performing Hopeless at the Summerhall on the 4th May. Is it the same show, or has it been tweaked over time?
I’ve now done the show to an audience 30 times. It’s changed a little but I’ve kept the structure the same mostly. I was lucky enough to have Drew Taylor come in and direct me before the tour. He was brilliant at changing little things like my facial expression or tone just slightly. It’s been quite interesting to repeat the same thing over and over again. I need to find emotion in it every time or it comes across insincere and that’s been the biggest challenge. To still find the belief and love in all the words and actions. It changes every night but my goal is to give every audience a good experience and the attention they deserve.
To someone who has never seen Hopeless, what are they to expect?
It’s a rollercoaster! Some of it is funny and some of it is upsetting. I talk about my dad, my great-great grandfather, The Day After Tomorrow, The refugee crisis and walking 55 miles one day to try and prove a point! I always want people to leave feeling hopeful but it really depends on the person.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for Leyla Josephine?
Hopeless is on at The Brighton Fringe, The Prague Fringe and Migration Matters Festival.
I’m starting to make my new show ‘Daddy Drag’ to be performed at The Fringe 2019! Lots more workshops and writing and walks on the beach hopefully (no pun intended).
Leyla will be performing Hopeless @
Edinburgh’s Summerhall, this Friday, the 4th May
Price: £12 / £10
By Lisa Williams
Six years ago when I landed in Scotland, dragging my two reluctant children from their idyllic childhood on the white sand beaches of tiny Caribbean islands, we were hard pressed to find any community or events in Edinburgh that resembled anything they knew. Enjoying the novelty of our new community, we threw ourselves into traditional folk nights, attended ceilidhs, learned a couple of Scottish dances and even grew to appreciate bagpipes. But there was always a yearning for some Caribbean colour and vibrancy, to hear some bass played to the point where the walls shook, and to not always feel like an ‘exoticized or misunderstood minority’. We held parties where Scottish friends came, but turned the music down, or off, or put on the music that they were familiar with. There was the occasional reggae night in Edinburgh where I didn’t worry in the least about being the first or only person on the dance floor; the music was enough. Soca, the energetic, fast-paced, modern form of calypso that you hear at a Caribbean carnival, was nowhere to be heard, except for our Saturday mornings cleaning the kitchen at home. Scotland is only home to about 3,000 people of Caribbean descent. Glasgow has the lion’s share, even after the mass exodus of a Caribbean community in the late 1960’s after land was cleared for development of the railways. And yet, Scots role in the Caribbean has been huge over the centuries, ironically in this case, including a hefty contribution to the development of Scottish Rail by a Scottish plantation owner compensated for losing his ‘property’ after Emancipation. Yet, fairly rapidly, over the past five years or so, awareness of our shared cultural heritage is coming to the fore, across the spectrum of the arts.
There are some regular, well established reggae nights, mainly run by Scottish men, such as Steve Messenger with his monthly night at the Bongo Club. Reggae Got Soul is a mix of reggae and soul run by two Scottish guys, one of whom, Jeremiah, was part of the very first reggae soundsystem in Edinburgh; both sets collaborate with a Jamaican MC Ras Istallion to add some authentic Caribbean flavour. Jeremiah is a true lover of reggae, also being an artist whose work forms a tribute to reggae legends across the years. His Facebook page, Original Jeremiah, has a solid following across the world. The Gambian community in Edinburgh love their reggae too, and DJs such as DJ Gadda and DJ Jobiz are building their own following, most recently with a Thursday night at new club La Vida. Well known DJs occasionally make an appearance. Seani B, the best known dancehall DJ in the UK, with his weekly show on Radio 1 Xtra, threw the afterparty for the MOBO awards in Glasgow in 2016, hosted by Glasgow Reggae. David Rodigan, responsible for introducing reggae to a huge audience in the UK over the past few decades, is even making an appearance on November 3rd at Cabaret Voltaire.
The real power of reggae, however, is in live music shows, and the inspiration and feeling of togetherness and upliftment the singers give their followers. Glasgow, with its choice of venues and home to party lovers, at least, can pull some of the heavyweights from time to time. I’ve made pilgrimages to Glasgow to see various acts like Chronixx, Protoje, and sadly missed a few like Toots and the Maytals, Aswad, Misty in Roots and up and coming Raging Fyah. They are in small, intimate venues like the Rum Shack or the O2ABC, which means you can often get the chance to dance at the front of the stage or even go backstage and have a chat. In Edinburgh, it’s still a rare treat to get a well-known name, but the Wee Dub festival brings live acts like Macka B and soundsystems like Channel One out of London. Occasionally legends like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry drop into a sold out crowd, populated by Scottish diehards of all ages.
Soca, however, in the absence of a sizeable Caribbean community or an annual Carnival, is still very much a niche market. I stumbled across a fantastic soca fitness class in a church hall, run by Lee-I John from St.Lucia, with his carefully designed Caribbean counterpart to Zumba, that I am still koping that he will take nationwide. The Jazz and Blues Festival have brought Caribbean bands from Trinidad, the Bahamas and Martinique to take part in their street parade along Princes Street. I took great pleasure in joining in with the costume making and dance workshops, and dancing along Princes Street with the Junkanoo Commandos. It was truly a highlight of 2014! But there are few DJ’s around, like DJ Yemster of Dundee, who are masters at delivering a high-energy mix of soca, dancehall and conscious reggae in a perfect party blend. On November 2, DJ Yemster will deliver his set as part of an evening’s entertainment showcasing Grenada, with a screening of Vanishing Sail at the Granary in Leith. The crossover comes when you include arts from the Spanish Caribbean, namely Cuba and the Dominican Republic; not exactly shared heritage with Scotland, but definitely worth a mention as a growing presence of dance and music from these islands in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
However, this lack of awareness of contemporary Caribbean music and dance may be about to change. Project X is a network of dance teachers from the African-Caribbean community based in Glasgow. ‘Through workshops, performances, artistic opportunities, discussions, screenings, a symposium and more, they platform contemporary and traditional dance forms whilst broadening perceptions and representation.’ (www.projectxplatform.co.uk) Part of their work involves going into schools and working with the pupils. This autumn, as the founder of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association I was part of Claudius’ England’s Reclaimed Territory, bringing Caribbean culture into schools in Scotland with the aim of the pupils beginning to recognise the many historical links between the two regions. Claudius England, a Jamaican gospel-dancehall singer, collaborated with the rest of the Jamaican team; Heidi Bryce, an artist and dance teacher who works with Project X, and a ‘jerk specialist’ chef, Clive Birch, who, as a trio, immersed Portobello High School for two days in the sounds, scents and moves of the Caribbean’s most globally influential island. Although the S1 pupils were at first hesitant about moving to the unfamiliar rhythms of Jamaican music, by the time the two days were up, even the boys with a serious image to protect were up on stage, joyfully dancing along with their principal, in a way that the school had never seen or anticipated. Dance, music and food were used as a vehicle for the pupils to connect with Caribbean culture, and be encouraged to do their own research into the far-reaching historical links between Scotland and the Caribbean, learning about and ultimately moving past the ugly reality of centuries of slavery, of which the Scots played a huge role.
This legacy is now just coming to the forefront, as Scots acknowledge their hugely profitable role in the slave trade. The Empire Cafe, set up by Scottish writer Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber was a pop up cafe in the Briggait in Glasgow to form one of the cultural activities alongside the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Poetry, art, drama and music were all commissioned to explore the history of the Scottish role in the slave trade. One of the events that stood out was Emancipation Acts, produced by Graham Campbell (our first African-Caribbean councillor in Scotland) and his partner Anne McLaughlin, former SNP MP. Staged in four acts around Glasgow, it was a fabulous piece of theatre, staged in four areas of Glasgow connected with the slave trade, including a graveyard where many Glaswegian merchants lie, and finishing in a joyful celebration of African culture by the disaporic community in Glasgow outside the Museum of Modern Art, the former holiday residence of a wealthy plantation owner from Glasgow, tipped to be the future home of Scotland’s Museum of Slavery. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a Jamaican professor, historian and activist gives much of his time to educating the Scottish public on the history of slavery, and the response is invariably slightly shocked, but very positive. Scottish historians like Tom Devine and Stephen Mullen among others have also been doing some deep investigations over the past decade to bring this formerly hidden history to light.
As part of Africa in Motion film festival’s summer internship programme, ‘Reviving Scotland’s Black History’, I went on a Black History walk with St.Lucian historian Marenka Thompsom-Odlum https://www.africa-in-motion.org.uk/blog/from-grenada-to-glasgow-curating-with-own-experience-by-elizabeth-williams/ who shared a wealth of knowledge about where much of Glasgow’s wealthy merchant families had made their money, by showing us street names, paintings, sculptures and gravestones around the city. She has been on the lecture circuit during Black History Month, and along with other historians, is working hard for all this fascinating research to be known, and eventually be part of the school curriculum in Scotland. The undercelebrated history of soldiers from Caribbean ex-colonies who fought for Britain in both World Wars was brought to our attention by Selena Carty of Black Poppy Rose www.blackpoppyrose.org during a fundraiser I held for Haiti after hurricane Matthew in Glasgow in November 2016 with acts like Ladies of Midnight Blue, Hannabiell and Yillis, www.hannabiell.com a Jamaican-American and Dominican Afro-Latin percussion, brass and mbira duet. www.hannabiell.com Again, the members of the audience from Scotland were shocked not to know about this history, and keen for more information.
Sometimes this history has been brought to us through music and art. Brina is a world reggae artist currenly based in Stirling, who has brought the historic link with Scotland to us through her music project, Jamaica Sings Robert Burns, www.jamaicasingsburns.com. An album with covers of Robert Burns classic songs by top Jamaican artistes alongside Brina, including Ken Boothe and Addis Pablo, and she has sung several of the songs from the project at Celtic Connections and other platforms in Scotland. The project began after facts emerged about Burns trying several times to board a ship to Jamaica to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. Most Scots I talk to about this now seem to know about it, which means the formerly hidden history is starting to ripple through the national consciousness. Graham Fagen, a Scottish artist, has used both genres to explore our shared heritage. Graeme has been working with Caribbean artists for the past few years, and recently the National Portrait Gallery held a video installation of a collaborative version of the Slave’s Lament by Burns with Sally Beamish, the Scottish Ensemble and reggae singer Ghetto Priest. www.grahamfagen.com
The fine and conceptual art scene in Scotland has a variety of artists of Caribbean background working and collaborating with each other. One of these hubs for artists of colour is Transmission Gallery, www.transmissiongallery.org an artist-run space in Glasgow that hosts some very fresh and interesting work from a range of young artists. One of the committee members is Alberta Whittle is a conceptual artist and curator from Barbados, based in Glasgow, doing some groundbreaking work with creative strategies employed to question the authority of postcolonial power. www.albertawhittle.com Eddie ….
Caribbean culture is tentatively beginning to become part of the mainstream arts programming in Scotland across the genres. Theatre, film and comedy are the areas that could still do with a boost, but as interest in and understanding of the Caribbean grows among Scottish audiences it will no doubt come in time. The Edinburgh Book Festival and poetry events and festivals have a growing platform for writers of Caribbean background, no doubt partly due to the recognition given to two poets from the Caribbean, both recent winners of the Forward Prize, Kei Miller and Vahni Capildeo from Jamaica and Trinidad respectively, both of whom taught at the University of Glasgow for several years. Neu Reekie put together a Jamaica-themed evening at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015 with Brina performing alongside Selena Godden and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, and the Scottish Poetry Library www.scottishpoetrylibraryh.org.uk under the directorship of Dundonian Asif Khan has expanded its repertoire to bring Caribbean poets such as Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison. The new Outreach Coordinator Hannah Lavery is of Jamaican-Scottish background, also runs the Coastword Literary Festival in Dunbar www.coastword.co.uk and will no doubt continue to diversify the programming content. This year’s Book Festival included writer Zadie Smith, and Guyanese poets Grace Nichols and John Agard. The Edinburgh International Festival in collaboration with the British Council put on a fantastic cross-genre event called Fire Down Below which had a cross-section of academics from literature, art, poetry and publishing to discuss modern pan-Caribbean identity in a post-colonial context. The day before had a lecture by Jamaican-British artist, curator and art historian Eddie Chambers www.eddiechambers.com at the National Portrait Gallery, and who is now living part-time in Edinburgh who will doubtless be an influence on Scottish cultural policy. He’s the author of numerous books on Black British identity as it relates to music and art, such as Roots and Culture: Cultural Politics in the Making of Black Britain.
Caribbean film is beginning to have a platform this year as part of Africa in Motion Film Festival, which is a ten day festival spanning a range of venues across Edinburgh and Glasgow, including the Filmhouse. www.africa-in-motion.org.uk Two events are part of the Reviving Scottish Black History Programme. On November 1, there will be a screening of two films, as part of an event The Transatlantic Slave Trade Acknowledged at St. John’s Church in Edinburgh; 1745 (Scotland) and the Crying Conch (Haiti) which explore slavery and its enduring legacy including a debate with historians Geoffrey Palmer and Stephen Mullen. However, important as slavery is to explore, Black History needs to expand the narrative with something more positive. This is why I chose to curate a screening of Vanishing Sail on November 2 in Leith, www.vanishingsail.com a documentary about the legacy that Glaswegian shipwrights left in the tiny island of Carriacou, which forms part of Grenada. It’s a beautiful story of a dying craft, kept alive mainly by a single family in the village of Windward, known in the area for its Scottish cultural connection through fiddle music and a dominance of Scottish surnames and ancestry. We are linked in so many ways, and I hope that the arts in Scotland can continue to explore the connections with the Caribbean as time goes on.
Tickets for Vanishing Sail here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/vanishing-sail-film-dj-yemster-after-party-tickets-38382083846