Unbound 2017: An introduction
As day becomes night, Unbound opens for free literary events in the Spiegeltent during Edinburgh International Book Festival – 16 nights of music and performance, viewing the festival's grand themes through the looking glass
Darkness falls over Charlotte Square Gardens. Day turns into night. And while the Book Festival proper tucks itself into bed, in the Spiegeltent they are stirring: setting up mics, running soundchecks, testing voices and instruments (and beer taps). Jekyll feels that initial twitch before transforming into Hyde. And for all his faults, Hyde would surely show you a better night on the tiles than the staid, respectable Doctor.
Those in the know, who fully understand that, are already gathering outside. They need no ticket, these shows are all absolutely free, open and unreserved. These punters don’t even need a single penny in their pocket, unless they want to buy a beer of course – unfortunately we have still to arrive at that particular utopia.
Unbound is now in its eighth year, born in 2009 as a reaction to many things: “Responding to the feeling that Book Festival events are all an hour-long, very passive, no latecomers. Very formal, very traditional,” explains Roland Gulliver, in many ways the parent to this wayward after-dark child of the literary institution that is Edinburgh International Book Festival. It was also responding at the time to the rennaissance of live literature, so over the years the programme has reflected Scotland’s heritage in this respect – from past treasures DiScOmBoBuLaTe and the Golden Hour, through to the current cream of the crop, Neu! Reekie! and Flint & Pitch (both part of the 2017 programme). Both of these nights pull in an audience beyond those deemed the standard for literary events.
“At literary festivals people get stuck in stereotypes and preconceptions,” Gulliver says, but Unbound lives to subvert these preconceptions. "Oh that’s a children’s author, I’m not interested, that’s science fiction I’m not interested in that, or that’s an international literary 'with a capital L' author, so I don’t do that – that general feeling of ‘I want to go out and have fun, I don’t want to go to a book event’.” Those same people who would be delighted to stumble in unexpected upon a Nile Rodgers acoustic set, or top poets squaring up verbally in a wrestling ring, or Scottish rap band Hector Bizerk basically blowing the roof off the Spiegeltent.
But Unbound is about far more than just showcasing the finest performers in their everyday guise. It is not about simple replication of what you can see year-round. Unbound is about magical, unique moments, spun from the best literary names and musical performers, then twisted into something unusual and beautiful and new. Combinations of performers you may never see again, sharing a stage with each other and their stories with us, the audience – because in the end, storytelling is what it’s all truly about. “There is a sense of trying to push back a bit so that people don’t get too comfortable,” Gulliver suggests.
So, in 2017 you have six of the UK’s best known crime writers holding instruments in place of pens to become the The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. We have literary superstar and Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson and her husband Malcolm, performing a really quite adult musical set. “With people like Julia you’re putting someone in a context that is surprising,” says Gulliver, “both to the artist, and in creating situations when audiences will think, ‘that’s the woman who created the Gruffalo and that’s her husband who sings songs to kids… what the???’ Essentially messing with people’s heads a bit.”
Despite its wayward ways, Unbound is still intrinsically connected to the hugely important themes of the Book Festival proper, "making the full festival programme relative and cohesive." So while the main programme offers authors such as Roxane Gay and Juno Dawson, Unbound features the raucous and riotous club night that is Dive Queer Party. “It’s a really fun and exciting way to respond to that whole conversation and debate around gender roles and identity and representation… bringing someone like Dive in, we can have the serious conversation but we can also have fun around it… it’s about having that intellectual discussion but also a celebration at the same time.”
The issue of race and America also features heavily in the main programme, so is refracted through Unbound’s particular prism by bringing the Last Poets into the fold. Gulliver says: "They’re coined as being the godfathers of hip-hop. Having had acts like Hector Bizerk and Stanley Odd in previous years and having brought in that hip-hop and spoken word audience, we’re internationalising that element by bringing in the Last Poets.”
Internationalism is key for Unbound. It has always combined more local talents with those from around the globe. In 2017 two of the most exciting literary voices in the world – Argentinian horror writers Mariana Enriquez and Samanta Schweblin – grace the stage while Paul Muldoon brings his music and literature extravaganza Muldoon’s Picnic over from the New York City Irish Arts Centre, featuring musicians from The Pogues and some very special guests. We visit our own Scottish islands with The Island Getaway, then much further afield to India with Yatra (Journey) – fusing Asian blues with both Anglo Celtic and Indian folk traditions, played by world class performers.
Unbound has a malleable personality. It offers time for reflection on the big issues facing the world alongside an all out party, acting as both oasis and arena. And it does this all for free. These artists are willing to step out of their comfort zones, are you?