Sunday, 17 February 2008

Autumn and Josephine Baker

Each summer, the population of the small town in which I live rises well above two thousand, as the coastline and beaches, cafés and restaurants, accommodate the seasonal influx of holiday-makers. People move constantly in and out of Josephine_baker_in_porttown, unloading and re-packing luggage, unrolling beach towels and dragging out surfboards and packing them all away again, with the same rhythm of the tide rising and falling, flowing in and out. When December 1st heralds summer, we always know the holiday-makers won’t be far away.

Similarly, we chart the onset of autumn not so much by the arrival of March and cooler weather, occasional showers, mellow evenings, but by the influx of twenty-eight thousand people across the long ‘Labour Day’ weekend, pouring in for ‘The Folkie’. For three days, our seaside town swells to breaking point and, from Friday noon to Monday noon, cross-currents of music flood from a dozen or more venues, drawing everyone in to drift from one to the other to the other. Here are bass lines to pound against your chest and push you backwards, the roar of drums beating rhythm into rhythm, a medley of vocals in a world of tongues to suck you forward, siren-like. It becomes a carnival town of machete jugglers and flame throwers, market stalls and buskers, street cuisine and gutter drunks, acrobats and dancers, and is one last fling before conceding that summer has truly waned.

Although tagged as a folk festival (with a leaning towards world, roots and acoustic music), it’s much, much more than this, and you certainly don’t have to be a fan (I’m not) of nasally folk songs or mournful ballads to enjoy it. These can be found if you want them, but the music and the entertainment is considerably more eclectic than even its broad tag suggests.

Forget Ralph McTell, the highlights of 2007 for me were Eric Bibb (US), Banditaliana (Italy), Habib Koité & Bamada (Mali) and Kelly Auty (Australia). Kelly Auty’s show, Wild Women, paid a dynamic tribute to some of the “greatest female singers of the 20th century”, such as Bessie Smith, Edith Piaf, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and the like.

With the shortest of stories and briefest of costume adjustments (the addition of a hat here, the removal of a feather boa there), Kelly Auty sang and danced through the life and times of ten stunning performers in one stunning performance. And, along the way, she introduced me to Josephine Baker, who, somehow, I’d never heard of until that night.

I came across Josephine Baker again recently, but on YouTube this time, and found a whole gallery of clips recording her life, her voice and her dance. The first, whilst dubbed to a different but strangely appropriate track, captures her vibrancy (and check out the costume headgear of the extras). The second paints a portrait of her as a singer. I love the theatre of both these excerpts.

It’s timely I found these clips and reminded myself about that evening for two reasons. Firstly, because the more I find out about her, and want to find out about her, the more I suspect that the qualities I admire in people like Josephine Baker are qualities I'd like to explore in some future piece of writing: the ability and determination to defy convention, and to shape one's own success from this. Maybe a character or two will one day germinate from her likeness and from this seed of an idea. Maybe.

And secondly, because in less than two weeks autumn will be here, and our small town will, once again, become happily caught in the rip of several strong currents and a carnival atmosphere, and there'll be machete jugglers and flame throwers, market stalls and buskers, street cuisine and gutter drunks, acrobats and dancers ...

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