Welcome to our Guide to the week of music, a round-up of music news, media and releases relating to the Band on the Wall program and wider musical world. This week we explore the fifty year career of The Last Poets – who return with a new album commemorating their formation next month. We also catch up with The Young’uns to discuss their Folk Award win and recent UK tour as well as profiling new music and visuals from Bob Reynolds, Mint Field, Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin and Wilma Archer among others.
On 19th May 1968, at an event commemorating the birthday of then recently deceased activist Malcolm X, The Last Poets formed. Initially consisting of Abiodun Oyewole, David Nelson and Gylan Kain (three who read poetry at the May event) their line-up evolved before solidifying in 1969, with the arrival of Umar Bin Hassan and Jalal Mansur Nurriddin (known to explorers of Boogie Down’s lineage as Lightnin’ Rod).
Several groups have taken the Last Poets name, inspired by the poetry of South African revolutionary Keorapetse Kgositsile, but the group that today consists of Abiodun, Umar and percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde is the continuation of the most recognised and some would say definitive, group. It’s 20 years since they recorded their last studio album, which makes the arrival of Understand What Black Is, all the more exciting. Produced by Ben Lamdin aka. Nostaglia 77 and Brighton’s Prince Fatty – it is described as ‘a ten-track album which speaks of a revolutionary struggle defined by both race and identity’.
‘Out of this blackness, passion flows like a river’ Oyewole states on the album’s reggae-infused title track. Seeking a definition beyond accepted definitions, he lays out his thoughts on the meaning of ‘Black’ with poetic poise and hard-earned conviction. The rhythm track hears Babatunde’s percussion locking arms with a section of horns and woodwind, drums and electric bass, in what must the most instrumentally lush production of the Last Poets career.
UK label Studio Rockers are to release the double LP and CD on 18th May, with artwork designed by New Analog, who have created beautiful posters for Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Band on the Wall shows down the years. As always, such announcements encourage one to look back over past work, return to the source and appreciate the artistic progression. Check out amazing tracks from founder Kain, The Last Poets’ incredible This is Madness LP and Lightnin’ Rod’s proto-hip-hop classic Hustlers Convention via the respective links. Check out footage from the Last Poets’ Band on the Wall show in 2015 below.
The experience and accolades of Teesside trio The Young’uns belie their name, but they are indeed still relatively young! In securing ‘Best Album’ for their 2017 LP Strangers, the group picked up what was their third BBC Radio 2 Folk Award, having been ‘Best Group’ for two consecutive years in 2015 and 2016. It came midway through their Johnny Longstaff tour, which concluded in Barrow-in-Furness yesterday after a sell out night at Band on the Wall. We caught up with David Eagle, accordion player with the group, to congratulate them on their award win and see what future plans might entail.
Congratulations on winning the folk award for Best album! What did you have in mind when selecting material and recording the album and how did it feel to receive the award from Maddy, a venerable folk artist, at the ceremony in Belfast?
DE: ‘The theme of our album, Strangers, is to celebrate the stories of inspiring people who have achieved positive things in the face of overwhelming negativity. We sing of the Pakistani born Teesside Mechanic Ghafoor Hussain. He was so affected by the constant scenes of malnourished refugees on the daily news that he decided to do something about it, bought a bus, kitted it out as a kitchen, and drove into refugee camps to feed thousands of displaced people. We sing of Matthew Ogston, whose fiance took his own life due to his family’s refusal to accept that he was gay. This tragedy led Matthew to start up a foundation to tackle homophobia, a foundation that is doing great work saving and rebuilding lives. We sing of Hesham Modamani, who, desperate to flee Syria, but without the money to pay the smugglers’ fairs, made a perilous swim for safety. He is now settled in Germany, studying politics, and one day hopes to be able to return to his home country and create positive change.
One of the things that drew us to folk music was how it told stories of real people. A song can connect us to people in a very personal way, and can highly move us. The news is a constant conveyor belt of tragedy, and we can become desensitised to what’s happening. The news chiefly focuses on the bigger picture, unimaginable statistics of casualties and “collateral,” and scenes involving masses of people, tiny boats crammed with refugees, that we don’t see the individual people in those situations. A failure to connect with a person’s individual story can lead to a lack of compassion, and even bigotry.
The people we sing about in Strangers were strangers to us before we knew their stories, but through this album we have gone on to meet many of the people in the songs, including Hesham, Matthew and Ghafoor. We have become really good friends with these people. In fact, I am writing this just a couple of hours after the three of us enjoyed the most delicious home cooked curry at Ghafoor’s house. He and his wife are coming to our Stockton gig tonight. A couple of days earlier, Matthew Ogston came to see our London gig, and the day before that, we were all at the Folk Awards together, along with Matthew’s family.
Having Matthew and his family present made the award win extra special for us. Matthew’s eight-year-old Niece was there, who has learnt all the words to all our songs; in fact, she probably knows them better than we do. It was also an honour to be given the award by Maddy Prior. We’ve never chatted with her before that point, but we knew that she’d been to a couple of our gigs in the past.
It’s quite surreal to be in a situation where we’re chatting to Maddy Prior, Nick Drake’s sister Gabrielle, and Ralph McTell. I remember being at University and hearing various music students obsessively extolling Nick Drake, and consequently falling in love with his music. And now here I am, having a chat with his sister, as if it’s all perfectly normal. I recall my dad playing me Steeleye Span records when I was a kid. And now here I am, chatting with her and being handed an award by her, with my dad looking on.’
Cable Street is the song which links Strangers to your current tour, The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff. How was it to play a sold out show in Manchester and how have crowds been responding to the songs and stories this tour has revolved around?
DE: ‘It’s been an incredible journey for us since Duncan Longstaff, Johnny’s son, nervously approached us at a gig four years ago, suggested we might like to write a song about his dad, and pressed a piece of paper into our hands which outlined Johnny’s inspiring story. There are six hours of Johnny talking to the Imperial war Museum, reminiscing about his life, and his account of his presence at the battle of Cable Street led us to write the song Cable Street, told from Johnny’s perspective. But it soon became clear that there was more than one song to be written about Johnny, and before we knew it, we had an entire suite of songs.
This show is unlike anything we’ve done before. Usually there is a lot of chat and joking in between the songs and our performances are very spontaneous and informal, whereas this is a structured piece with little room for improvisation. But it’s been immensely enjoyable and gratifying to do for a number of reasons.
It’s been great working with our friend Cally who designed all the visuals, which adds another different dimension to the show. It’s also been a privilege to get to know Johnny so intimately. He died in 2000, before I’d even met fellow Young’uns Sean and Michael, but over the last year we have become so acquainted with his voice and his words through the six hour Imperial War Museum recording. We can effortlessly recite entire passages of it. We have developed our own Johnny Longstaff parlance, as we frequently find ourselves spontaneously coming out with lines of speech from the recording, much to the confusion of people around us who aren’t able to appreciate these Johnny Longstaff based catchphrases and in-jokes. It’s also been wonderful to hear how different audiences respond to what Johnny says: hearing people laughing, crying, gasping at the various stories he tells.
It was rather scary for us on the first night that we presented the Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff to an audience. We had no idea whether anyone would really get it. We had immersed ourselves in Johnny’s voice and his story, so it was difficult for us to imagine how someone who has never heard of Johnny before would relate to the story, and whether they’d connect with the way that we’d chosen to present it. But the audiences’ responses have been wonderful. We did a sold out Manchester gig at Band on the Wall, then a sold out London gig, and then we took the show to a sold out theatre in Stockton, which was especially amazing as Stockton is the home of Johnny Longstaff, and it’s also where we come from. There were three generations of the Longstaff family present, including Duncan, Johnny’s son who first introduced us to Johnny’s story all those years ago.’
Has the success of the tour and album begun shaping your future plans? Do you envisage yourself further exploring history pertinent to Teesside and have you any imminent recording, writing or research plans?
DE: ‘Well, we shall see. At the moment we’re embroiled in this tour. A lot of people have been asking for an album of the Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff, and we’d like to record the show in some form at some point. We’re also looking forward to the festival season this summer, and getting back in to our normal style of performing. Well perhaps “normal” is the wrong word.’
Having shared the first video from his forthcoming quartet project last week, Bob Reynolds shared the excellent Down South video on his YouTube channel earlier this week. Mint Field worked with acclaimed director and film editor Laura Lynn Petrick on a video to accompany their grungy rock cut Cambios del Pasar and Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin returned with a tour diary/studio diary styled video for Awase, an energetic cut from the ECM album of the same name. German producer Luca Musto also dropped an atmospheric new visual for his track Parabel, having joined The Magic Movement to release his excellent, trip-hop-infused EP of the same name.
Tenderlonious, the in-demand producer and 22a records founder, premiered a cut centred around a Yussef Dayes groove via Vinyl Factory this week, while talented rapper SABA – who hails from the same Illinois county as Chance the Rapper and sibling Taylor Bennett – dropped his exceptional sophomore album CARE FOR ME.
Wilmer Archer’s beautiful 12” B-side was published by Domino Recordings for YouTube streaming this week, while Moodymann and Mr Fingers each unleashed elements of their new projects recently too. Trappist Aftermath release hard copies of their freak-folk gem Se(VII)en – a must-hear for Richard Dawson fans.