Review: Namiwa Jazz and friends

Stephen Pennell goes on a musical mission in Digbeth.

Love Music Hate Racism,
The Crossing,

I love music, and I really, REALLY hate racism, so when I clocked this event on Twitter the other week I thought it might be right up my street. Love Music Hate Racism is a fledgling (for now) movement, run along similar lines as its predecessor Rock Against Racism, which itself peaked in the late seventies when Steel Pulse and the Clash played to 80,000 people under the RAR banner at Victoria Park in London. Call me a snowflake if you want but as the far-right rears its ugly head yet again, a grass-roots anti-racism movement is something I’m more than happy to support. And what do a lot of snowflakes make? An avalanche hopefully.

Rather ironically I arranged to meet my posse in the Big Bull’s Head, where I myself suffered a bit of nationalist prejudice many moons ago, when I was asked by an angry bigot what I was doing in an Irish pub. I advised him in rather less polite terms than I’m using here that were he to get a shovel and dig a hole in the floor he would find Brummagem, not Ireland, and I’ll drink wherever I like in this city, thanks very much. Times must have changed in the intervening years because on this occasion the only time I got picked on for my ethnicity was when a couple of Welsh tourists got me and my mate to say “By order of the Peaky Blinders” while they filmed us on their phones.

As warm and welcoming as the Bull’s Head was – and the beer’s excellent too by the way – the TV was showing some terrible repeat called ‘Man Utd are on telly again’ so we headed for the gig, handily located about thirty yards down the road. The Crossing is one of Digbeth’s hidden gems, a 600-capacity venue within the confines of South and City College on the high street. There was a good crowd in there, including luminaries of the local music scene like AffieJam and Lady Sanity, and numbers were further boosted by some old comrades from a political party that I used to be a member of in my radical younger days. (I’ll give you a clue which one in a minute).

Local rapper Kurly got the (Socialist Workers) Party started and he was followed by Wolverhampton’s Vital, joined on one track by B-Nice. Zara Sykes got a great reaction from the crowd and Kofi Stone, having impressed at the Night Owl last month, was again in sparkling form. The performances were interspersed with impressive speeches from the likes of Eleanor Smith, the new black MP for Enoch Powell’s former constituency (BOOM!) and a deeply moving call for justice from Kadisha Brown-Burrell, sister of Kingsley Burrell, who was killed in police custody after calling them himself for help.

Top of the bill were Kioko, a multi-racial reggae band who come with a copper-bottomed guarantee that you’ll have Good Times, which is also the title of one of their songs. Other highlights of their set include the wistful Let’s Be Frank, a great version of Drake’s Hotline Bling and show closer Deadly Roots, all of which went down a storm. Oh, and Queen of the Dancehall – just, WOW! Their best yet. I challenge anyone to go and see them and leave without a smile on your face.

Kioko are a great band, but for me the show was stolen by the act that preceded them, the incredible Namiwa Jazz and her brilliant band. Even though they were limited by time constraints to four numbers, quality counts, and her tunes certainly have an abundance of that. It’s no exaggeration for me to say that hers would account for about half of my favourite dozen songs released over the last two years, and played live they go to another level.

She opens with a breathless version of Wound Up, built on the funky riffing of guitarist Ben Jones and embellished magnificently by Madi Saskia on backing vocals. This is followed with two new songs, Everything You Do & Matter of Fact (Bruk Up) and that she performs unreleased tracks in such a big show says everything about the belief she must have in them.

Such confidence is justified – I was completely blown away by the new stuff. In-between songs Namiwa tries to list the genres touched upon in her music, but to do it justice she’d be talking all night. Her sound incorporates many aspects of black music – reggae, neo-soul, funk, RnB, gospel – you name it, it’s in there somewhere.

She gives it the all-encompassing title of Afro-twang, which I suppose is as good a word as any, but that’s just the musical styles. When you move onto the lyrics and general mood of the songs you need a whole new set of adjectives. Melancholy, joyous, celebratory, profound, to name but a few. Militant, poetic, heartbreaking, defiant, to name a few more. Live with her full band, powered by a hench rhythm section and Ro-chae deadly as ever on the bongos as well as contributing vocals, Namiwa is quite simply a force of nature.

Seemingly possessed by the music, at one point a pony-tail about as long as she is almost decapitates Madi as it whirls around behind her. She closes the set with Jungle, which morphs into Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and Madi singing Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems without missing a beat. I felt deflated when they left the stage quicker than I anticipated but apparently there’s a headline show coming up so I’ll just have to console myself with that. In the meantime I’m hoping nearly as hard as she is for one track to go viral, or one appearance on something like Jools Holland, which I’m convinced would be the making of her and give her the audience she deserves. As I left I worried about writing a review because I couldn’t think past one word – phenomenal.

To complete the story of the night, I was waiting for the last 97 on Digbeth High Street when a girl approached me and asked very politely for a cigarette. I obliged, and she said “Do you want business?” I politely declined and feeling sorry for her, gave her the rest of my fags hoping she might be tempted to just go home and have a cup of tea and a smoke. She walked off and I watched as she leaned into a few car windows – she didn’t seem to get any takers, bless her. Then a beggar came up to me and asked if I had 80p so he could get chicken & chips. Sadly, all I had was my daysaver bus ticket. “80p for chicken & chips!” I said. “Have you got 80p for me fam?”

I love Digbeth. It’s such an adventure if you know where to look.

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