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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
31st January 2010

The reviled leader of the equally reviled British National Party (BNP) recently made it known that Eliza Carthy was one of his favourite singers.  Indeed this fascist group have been trying to take some degree of ownership of English (and for that matter, Scottish and Welsh) folk music for some time, presumably to try to grab some cultural richness for their perverted view of patriotism. 


It’s sad (and not a little ironic) to see great compilations of folk music for sale on their website, which must infuriate the artists featured.  Certainly Griffin’s claim infuriated Carthy, who was provoked to write a pretty stiff letter to the Guardian (which had reported the fact) repudiating Griffin’s alleged liking of her work, and clearly restating her own anti-racist credentials (not that it  was really necessary).  And it is ironic that while the BNP might like to conjure up Maypoles and Morris Men as symbols of a golden age of a pure English past, the fact of the matter is that folk music, despite its rustic charms, has always leant towards radicalism and socialism.  Now I don’t want to start sounding like boring old Billy Bragg, who has his own rose-tinted spectacles which give him a rather myopic view of the realties of the past, but I will concede that ‘the tradition’ and ‘the struggle’ are as closely linked as the arms of the protestors who famously manned the barricades against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in Cable Street in 1936Not that that doesn’t stop the folk movement from worrying, if not obsessing, about nationality, and the concept of Englishness.  Which is where The Imagined Village comes from; a collective of musicians put together in 2004 by Simon Emmerson of the Afro Celt Sound System “as a way of exploring our musical roots and identity as English musicians and music makers”, at a time when “it is more relevant now than ever to question who decides what it is to be authentic and English and more importantly what it is that makes us proud to be English musicians”.

The first incarnation of the Imagined Village boasted participants such as Billy Bragg, Benjamin Zephaniah and Paul Weller.  This more recent incarnation, touring to promote the new album Empire and Love, is a scaled-down version, but still has the feel of a folk super group, featuring as it does both Eliza and Martin Carthy, and Chris Wood.  Wood is another one who can’t seem to get ‘Englishness’ out of his system.  He’s the founder of the English Acoustic Collective, a group “grounded in a love for their common cultural inheritance…” seeking “to articulate and amplify the case for authentic and meaningful indigenous forms of cultural expression”. 

Imagined Village

An anthology of his earlier work goes under the name of Albion, and in his half-hour warm-up set, he sings some very well-crafted songs from his new album Handmade Life, where songs such as ‘Spitfire’ (“there goes the sound of another England”) return to his favourite theme.  ‘My darling’s downsized’ and his musings on allotments began to sound a little like painfully contrived variety show songs, more Victoria Wood than Chris Wood.  But ‘Hollow point’, which slowly revealed itself as a narrative of Jean Charles de Menezes’ fateful last walk to work was a really masterful composition, making it clear why Wood (currently touring the UK for anyone who is interested) has earned so many awards and plaudits.

When Imagined Village take the stage the centre is dominated by the two Carthys, but what makes their performance so captivating is the contribution of the other musicians, drawn in from a variety of different cultural and musical backgrounds.  To be honest, there’s nothing strikingly remarkable or innovative about what they’re doing, and I don’t really buy all of the sham pseudo-intellectual nonsense about national identity.  What’s really different here is that an outstanding dollop of indigenous talent has been brought together to produce fine reinterpretations of some ‘classic’ English tunes. Sheema Mukherjee’s droning sitar adds a haunting presence to songs like ‘Scarborough Fair’ (“here’s one that Martin taught to Paul Simon”) and ‘Sweet Jane’, and it’s matched by Wood’s voice, transformed from the cheeky-chappie of his solo set into a pained and mournful drone, perfectly matching the sitar.  Mukherjee’s voice is also a crucial part of the complex vocal arrangements on ‘The handweaver and the factory girl’.  This song was also interesting because a careful study of Emmerson’s cittern playing revealed what a difference he did make to the structure of the songs: it was too easy, but simply not true to think that he was a redundant member of the band.  At the back, Andy Gangadeen played drums and Johnny Kalsi several varieties of percussion and a very theatrical Dhol, which got the Sunday night (predominantly white and Observer-hugging) audience very excited in a way that frankly I found somewhat patronising.  But Kalsi and Gangadeen, along with bassist Ali Friend, gave provided spine for songs like ‘My son John’, as did the updated lyrics which brought in the current conflict in Afghanistan.  And something totally unexpected was Simon Richmond’s keyboards, samples and wonderfully played Theremin, which shone on songs like ’Space girl’, and provided yet more haunting atmosphere (how much haunting do you want in one night?) on ‘Lark in the morning’.  It goes without saying that both generations of the Carthy family on stage were superb. The Village were joined by younger members of the Copper family, who provided a ensemble finale of ‘The hard times of old England’, as good a tune as I can think of for England in 2010.

Imagined Village

And apart from Eliza Carthy’s understandable fury at being associated with the BNP, what else did we learn from the evening?  Well, according to Martin Carthy, the song ‘My son John’ was apparently collected from a family in Bedford.  We then learnt that the couple next to us came from Bedford (“yeah, Bedford”).  We also pretty soon learnt that one of them was an enthusiastic but hopelessly tuneless non-stop singalong artist.  And I discovered from the Photographer, at length, that even if you are the grand old man of English folk, you don’t fuck around with songs by Slade, which Carthy and the ensemble did as they performed ‘Cum on feel the noize’ as an encore. 

“Like a lot of folk music, it’s one in the eye for the moralising middle classes’ said Emmerson in an interview.  Hmmmmm.  Jozzer said later “It’s a pop song.  It should be played loud.  In two minutes”.  Especially when the Photographer’s got a tuneless Bedfordshire warbler warbling in her ear.  Ouch! - Nick Morgan


Listen: The Imagined Village on Myspace

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