Writer Amy Rodgers reviews the first ever We Out Here festival, a celebration of club culture, jazz and multiculturalism.
This summer’s first ever We Out Here festival saw the celebration and bolstering of many things: the melding of club culture and jazz that has been taking place in recent years; the multiculturalism that has spawned the scene and the community values that have underpinned it all. Creative, inclusive and inspiring – exactly how a festival should be. Giles Peterson & Co appear to have created something truly special. Let’s hope it returns for many years to come.
UK jazz has been a burgeoning movement for some time now and the festival brought this into sharp focus. No longer limited to those who are able to access expensive classical training, jazz has in recent decades been democratized and the scene at the moment is full of a diverse range of players. This has come about through a multitude of causes but the cultural diversity of London, community projects like Tomorrow’s Warriors (more on them later) and of course the support of people like Giles Peterson have no doubt been huge factors.
Festivals are a place where it shouldn’t matter what you look like, what age you are or where you’re from; a good groove should be enough to get everyone moving together. And this is exactly what happened. I arrived Thursday evening with a friend I hadn’t seen in three years who had travelled over from Sweden for the festival. From the first day it was clear to us that the crowd that were here were as varied as the musicians we were about to enjoy, and it was cool to see so many young kids running around.
The unifying power that ran through those in attendance was a love of the music. This is the blessing of going to a festival in its first year: it is only going to attract those that have actively sought it out and are going for the right reasons. Everyone who made the journey to the site was there to have fun and enjoy the unbelievable line-up, not just to get fucked up and wreck tents (a factor which played a part in the demise of The Secret Garden party that the location formerly played host to). When you put a bunch of people together who all love the same thing, energy is created – and the energy over the weekend was powerful. It was definitely needed on Friday night which saw a near enough constant downpour of rain. While it was tough going at points, the shite weather provided an irresistible opportunity for DJs to play songs with the word rain in them. Benji & Lefto dropped Tina Turner’s I Can’t Stand the Rain and then Grace Jones’ Walking in Rain in quick succession over at the Rhythm Stage to whoops and cheers. Turns out that listening to great songs about it pishin it down does actually make getting caught in the rain a lot more enjoyable. The crowd refused to let the weather affect the mood and those who needed a break could check out one of the many covered tents that were dotted about the site. In the end, this wet start made the rest of the weekend – where the sun shone down throughout – all the more precious. Being able to dance outside, relax on a grassy hill or swim in the lake on the Saturday and Sunday felt that bit more special.
I expected lots of jazz and soul and the main stage provided exactly that. Hailu Mergia, Lee Fields & The Expressionists, and Gary Bartz all offered a lineage that displayed where the more contemporary acts have been drawing inspiration from. Continuing the legacy, the main stage also featured Mala and the Outlook Orchestra, Moses Boyd, Kokoroko, and The Comet Is Coming. All incorporated jazz into their sound but it was alongside lots of other genres and grooves. Often I had no idea how to label what I was listening to, which is what made it so exciting. There was lots of disco, afro-beat, hip hop and absolutely everything in between. A clear highlight of the main stage was Mala & the Outlook Orchestra, a 20-piece orchestral band playing a lot of drum n bass. I have never seen or heard anything like it before; it was totally surreal to see just how energetic and rowdy a crowd can get to an orchestra. To top it off, many of the main stage acts were live-painted from the side of the stage by artist Gina Southgate who somehow managed to capture that energy of the musicians in full flow.
As Auntie Flo took to the stage on Saturday evening, Brian d’Souza (in a broad Scottish accent) promised something extra special. Recent collaborator and British-Ghanaian Soul singer Andrew Ashong joined the band on stage for an amazing set that featured many songs from last year’s album, Radio Highlife (Nobody Said It Would be Easy and Havana Rhythm Dance being two of my faves). Ashong’s stage presence is worth an article in itself. He had the audience laughing in-between songs and at one point caused a mass stage invasion when he invited “a few” folk up on stage with him. The two dancers that did remain were mesmerising – something special indeed. The sounds heard over the hour showed what is possible only when cross cultural pollination is allowed to happen. The tracks on Radio Highlife were created in the past seven years and recorded in locations around the world from Norway to Indonesia to various parts of South America and Africa. The result has been an eclectic album that is quite clearly been moulded by this geographical diversity and nuance. Sadly, this type of artistic exchange has not been easy at times: “This is the first time we have all been together as a band” d’Souza pointed out halfway through his set, as the screen behind him showed the faces and names of artists that have been denied visas to get into the UK. d’Souza’s gratitude that bandmate Mames N’diak had managed to get his visa in time for the gig was strongly felt. It is great to see artists using their platform to shine light on what is going on in the world.
Elsewhere, The Worldwide FM tent provided a more relaxing atmosphere. The crowd chilled out on giant pillows as artists took to the small stage and couch for laid-back performances and talks – all of which was broadcast live on air throughout the weekend. Saturday saw Idris Ackamoor – in what was surely the best outfit of the weekend – play an intimate afro-spiritual set with his band and about five different instrument changes. It was the perfect setting for the kind of intimate show Idris put on where he laughed and joked with the crowd before going onto pay homage to the recent victims of El Paso. I also managed to catch Colleen Cosmo Murphy and Francois K on the couch together. It was cool to see two long-time friends talk so casually about their love of music and Francois K was kind enough to treat us to some of his unreleased work.
The Lush Life stage played host to upcoming artists looking to expand their audience. The location of the tent was well thought out with punters having to pass by it to get to the main stage. Often, I would be on my way to see a big act and be drawn in by the music coming from Lush Life and end up spending a few hours there. It was in this way that I was introduced to Tomorrow’s Warriors.
Tomorrow’s Warriors is an entirely free development and training programme for young people with aspirations of becoming professional jazz musicians. Founded in 1991, it has been providing support and access into the industry for those who would otherwise have struggled. One had only to look at the main stage line-up to see the benefits of the programme. Moses Boyd, Joe Armon-Jones, Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, and Sons Of Kemet all appeared on the biggest stage at the festival – and all have passed through the doors of the agency. No doubt that many of the acts appearing at Lush Life this year will soon graduate to the main stage in future years. “See them now while you can afford them” Janine Irons (co-founder and managing director) half-joked when she was interviewed about the musicians currently on the Tomorrow Warriors roster, showing just how much belief this programme has in its students.
Days were spent wandering around the site and chilling on the hill but come nightfall many descended into the woodland forest for some more energetic dancing. I managed to catch Theo Parish, Mr Scruff, and the guys from Stamp the Wax but the stand out set for me was from Ruby Savage (who is the Brownswood label manager, amongst other things). Unaffected and filled with pure and total joy, it was the best two hours I had all weekend. The rest of the weekend was filled with lots of great little moments; musicians emerging from the crowd, instruments in hand, impromptu mini-gigs; seeing Purple Rain and Amazing Grace in the Cinema tent; swimming in the lake and checking out the Well Mint Record Store.
It was an unbelievable festival celebrating music from all corners of the world. It is obvious that Giles Peterson is somewhere at the centre of it all. Nearly every single act I saw thanked him for supporting their musical careers. As parts of Britain turn inward and seek to close themselves off from our neighbours, We Out Here represented a more global vision of what the world could be like.