Yesterday was St Swithuns Day, one of the few days of the year my hometown makes the headlines. Apparently if it rains in Winchester on St Swithuns Day it will rain for the following 40 days and nights. With the recent rainfall of the past few months, that could be Biblically bad. Last night I was at the Southbank Centre, watching a live stream of Baaba Maal, the Senegalese musician playing a set from a boat perched high above the south bank of the River Thames on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Though this was perhaps a smart meteorological decision, it was also an event for Africa Utopia by the Southbank Centre and A Room For London.
Africa Utopia is a month long festival of events at the Southbank Centre, celebrating Africa today in film, music, dance, literature, spoken word, theatre, fashion, talks and debates. The festival running throughout July is a cultural summit lead by Baaba Maal to show what Africa has to offer the world, and this week, we’ll be joining them on the Southbank for a daily post.
A Room for London, a project by Living Architecture and Artangel in association with the Southbank Centre Photograph by Charles Hosea © Courtesy Living Architecture
The venue itself for last night’s event is worthy of a post in itself. A one-bedroomed boat perched on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall during 2012, there can be few more intriguing and unusual spaces to watch the city go by. Made available to rent (and sadly long-over-booked) as a hotel room, the views are extraordinary – St Paul’s, Big Ben, and the panorama of the Thames. But it’s so much more than the most enviable hotel room in the capital, it’s an observatory, a retreat and a studio, with an Octagonal library and decks stretching out across the river. Every month a writer is invited in for a few days to create a piece that is recorded and then broadcast to the capital, similarly a different musician is invited to spend a day in residence and give a live performance, streamed online. Baaba Maal was the seventh of such residents.
In the intimate space Maal and his band created a stunning West African soundtrack as the sun set on a mercifully dryish day. He looked perfectly at home in his surroundings, his voice sailing above us. Though as a musician Maal may be nomadic, he could have the pick of world’s cities to base himself from, but Maal chooses to return to the same town in Senegal where he was born.
“When I go back I disappear into my community and I become just one of them, and that makes me feel good.”
The interior of A Room For London Photograph by Charles Hosea © Courtesy Living Architecture
In our experiences of putting together the Sarajevo, Detroit and London Issues of Boat Magazine, the individuals who made the biggest impressions, had more often than not, made a name for themselves outside of their communities, but chosen to stay in their hometown – from the Oscar-winning film director Danis Tanovic, who returned to Sarajevo as a city councilor, to Olympic hopeful Conrad Williams in Lewisham, who as a part-time youth worker sees his role as being a role model, a big brother. Similar to Danis and Conrad, Baaba Maal is as much a social force as a musician, his dream is to see Africa as a healthy continent. And a healthy Africa is as much as how Africa is seen as how it sees itself. Hence the Africa Utopia festival, and the audience in the Clore Ballroom last night, swept up by the live stream from Baaba Maal somewhere up above us. For sixty minutes, we left our seats and boarded the boat with him on a musical journey back to his hometown in Senegal.
Though we’re midway through Africa Utopia, there are still opportunities to catch Baaba Maal:
Sunday 22nd July, 2012 at 5pm, Music, Art and Social Change, The Front Room at QEH. Tickets are free.
Saturday 28th July 2012, Baaba Maal and Friends,Yela Yela, A night from the Wild West of Africa Royal Festival Hall. Tickets from £15.
Click here to see the rest of the events at Africa Utopia.
By Davey Spens