Arika 13: 18 & 19 Apr, Tramway

Review by Jean-Xavier Boucherat | 09 May 2013
  • Wadada Leo Smith

It’s Thursday evening, and upstairs in Tramway, M. NourbeSe Philip is laying down the groundwork for what will prove to be one of the festival’s standout moments – a collective reading of her 2008 poem Zong!, an extensively fragmented work constructed out of legal documents relating to an 18th century massacre, in which 130-150 enslaved Africans were thrown overboard into the Atlantic. Laws in place at the time would allow for insurance monies to be collected for the loss of the ship’s ‘cargo.’

It’s not until Sunday that Philip runs one of Arika Episode 4’s more playful ideas past everyone – ‘Freedom Is a Constant Struggle’ may well be read vocally as ‘Freedom Is a Constant – Struggle.’ While this particular wordplay is never explicitly evoked, the idea of an ongoing process becomes central to Thursday’s discussion – to quote from Zong! 4, ‘this is / not was / or / should be / this be.’ The poem is engaged in opening up an imperfect channel of communion with the dead, encouraging the group to ask difficult questions of Glasgow’s role in the slave trade.

It’s a perfect introduction to the festival. Few if any could argue that the fundamental attitudes of the mainstream press towards the concepts of black radicalism that underline the festival have changed much since the 70s. Such concepts are often approached as foreign, or relegated to history by self-perpetuating myths of progression. Tonight’s discussion with Philip, alongside her American contemporary Fred Moten, demolishes these misconceptions by localising the concepts, calling attention to the ongoing struggle, and introducing a decidedly humanist dimension – one that remembers a Black Panther party who, for example, ensured that every man, woman and child in their community owned a decent pair of shoes.

Moten himself performs the next evening, a reading of a new work that speaks of warmth, delicacy, detail. Delivered in a dry, knowing monotone, Moten might be describing a landscape whose shifts draw more attention to the painful grind of the daily struggle, as opposed to any grand narratives – ‘You can work here but you can’t live here / You can live here but you can’t buy shit.’

Friday builds towards a duet between Mississippi-born free jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, and pianist John Tilbury, a mainstay of the European avant-garde. Prior to Moten’s reading, both performers take to the stage individually for a solo improvisation.

It’s a brilliant format – the contrast between the separate solos sets up tensions that will define the main event. Smith’s performance is visceral, guttural, bordering on painful. The sheer force of his playing, combined with his varied use of mutes, wrenches open the space between notes, and transforms the performance into something altogether physical – an assault one may happily withstand.

By contrast, Tilbury levels a more measured attack on the sonic boundaries under scrutiny, with returning themes and clear progressions (albeit unpredictable ones). Tilbury is a man who, as revealed by himself on the Thursday, has spent "72 years of [his] life avoiding composition," only to have recently taken the idea to heart. The resulting performance is an explosive yet nuanced one, reflective of not just both performers’ immeasurable talent, but their incredible aptitude for listening – potentially an appropriate metaphor for a festival that could be viewed as a study of the relationships between theory and practice, and how one cannot make sense without the other.

We also reviewed Arika 13: Episode 4 -  20 & 21 April.

Preview: Arika 13  Episode 5:Hidden in Plain Sight.