Stephen Pennell talks about a few of his favourite subjects.
Saturday 19th October.
Before I started pontificating on music, I was a football writer. Not so much about the game itself, more the consumption of it. When my work/life balance (ie two new babies) got in the way of the fixture list, I lost interest in football and had to find inspiration elsewhere.
The Brexit referendum was approaching but only inspired anger and negativity and I wanted to write about something beautiful and joyous. I didn’t know where to look until around the same time, four women from my city were establishing themselves on the local music scene. Call Me Unique released her Urban Gypsy EP and it blew me away; Lady Sanity’s Summer In September collection changed the weather in my world; and AffieJam’s music on Soundcloud was amongst the most achingly beautiful I’d ever heard.
Completing this quality quartet of second city songstresses was Namiwa Jazz and her Garden of Eden EP – full of forthright opinions, clever lyrics, and mesmerising melodies. I started to think of them as a collective, and in my imagination one of my favourite songs became a tribute to them – Nina Simone’s Four Women. I listened to their songs, bought their CDs, went to their shows and reviewed each of them several times. They inspired me t o write and continue to do so, and I sincerely thank all o f them for being so welcoming and pleasant to that geezer who started off standing at the back taking notes on his phone, and ended up at the front singing along.
The women in my family are the only ones who mean more to me, and one in particular, but more about her later. Anyway, if you’ve paid attention up to now, I’m sure you’ll understand why I say there are few menus in music more appetising to me than Namiwa Jazz playing at Mama Roux’s while Digbeth Dining Club is in full swing outside, and it’s a prospect that me, two of my kids and a couple of my wife Kerri’s cousins, who came up from London especially, couldn’t resist.
I arrived early because I didn’t want to miss a beat, and it wasn’t difficult to spot Namiwa in the crowded venue, looking fabulous in a jump-suit of sequins and sparkles as she chatted to fans. Her shows come with a cast-iron guarantee of quality, and any surprises arise from the fact that one can never be sure exactly how she’ll choose to deliver on that promise. Sometimes backed by a nine-piece band, as was the case last time I saw her at the Hare and Hounds, sometimes, like tonight, a more intimate affair, comprising Rachel and Sadie on backing vocals, Ian Silk on acoustic guitar and the irrepressible and stylish Glyn Phillips on percussion.
Namiwa opens with the funky groove of Wound Up, one of my wife’s favourite tunes, so she’ll be gutted that she’s… erm… “stranded” in a swanky cocktail bar across town, celebrating landing a new job. First world problems or what?
The strident Let Me Treat You Right is next, before Namiwa offers a rare glimpse of touching vulnerability on Stupid Me, a moving account of falling in love with a friend. She dedicates joyful love-song Only The Sweetest to a happy couple in front of the stage celebrating their wedding anniversary, and the show couldn’t have been going any better. Then things got messy.
During the quiet introduction to F*** The Media (a calm before the storm if ever there was one), a stunningly attractive young woman tottered up to the front of the stage, obviously as well-refreshed as anybody else on a Saturday night in Digbeth, and loudly expressed her pleasure at seeing her cousins, her step-sons and her husband – me. Over an hour before, she had vaguely promised that she was just finishing her current drink and making her way over, but due to an incredible stroke of bad luck, had managed to find the only taxi driver in the city who didn’t know where Digbeth Dining Club was.
You know what incredible means, right? the intro another twice – and she must have been wondering how many times has this girl got to say hello? Displaying admirable professionalism, Namiwa held off on the vocals until Kerri had finished her salutations – I think Ian played the intro another twice – and she must have been wondering how many times has this girl got to say hello?
About a minute later, calm was finally restored and Namiwa let rip with the scorching lyrics, eviscerating branches of the media that frequently exploit women in their portrayal of them. Kerri would have been raising her fist in solidarity had she known what day it was.
Now I had an unruly spouse to look after, I’m afraid my set-list notes went for a burton, but I’m pretty sure Namiwa treated us to the gorgeous Summer’s Night In June and the uncompromising Get To Know Me Again before the interval, perfectly timed for those who wanted to partake in the delights of the street food on offer or maybe, hopefully, just sober up a bit for pity’s sake.
Namiwa returned to stage with a storming cover of Eminem’s Lose Yourself, Afrotwang banger Namaste, and the full-fat funk of Matter of Fact to finish. I had taken a seat next to my wife after the interval, and experimented with taking on the role of an impartial observer instead of a fan. As such, it was fascinating to watch an audience who had previously been unfamiliar with her work gradually but fully won over. Infectious tunes, evocative words and melodies, and the sheer vibrancy of Namiwa’s voice and personality will do that to an audience.
The people I know in the Birmingham music industry have started to sit up and take notice in the same way, and if what I hear about the new songs a Namiwa is ready to unleash, they won’t be the only ones. Expect to see, hear and read a lot more about her in 2020. It was quite a while ago that she promised me a seat at her table at the MOBO awards if she gets there – she can say ‘if’, but I’m saying ‘when’.