The British Council’s 75th anniversary was celebrated in exuberantstyle tonight, in a two-part concert headlined by the The Matthew Herbert Big Band.
The evening highlighted the work of the Council’s MusicDepartment, which works with artists from the UK and internationally toimprove cultural relations and break down barriers.
Herbert has worked extensively with the British Council in thepast, and recalled playing with the Big Band in Syria, shortly afterGeorge W Bush had declared it to be part of the Axis of Evil in 2002.
Performing in a country with limits on free speech posed some challenges -in particular when performing Simple Mind, which uses the sound oftearing newspaper.
Ripping up any of the state-owned newspapers wouldn’thave gone down terribly well with the authorities, so they took copiesof the Daily Mail over with them instead. As Herbert noted: “The Mail wasmore useful to me as a musical instrument than a newspaper. It can helpmake the world a better place by being torn up.”
It certainly went down well with the sell-out audience at the Barbican, whobooed and hissed when the newspaper’s name was mentioned – and theensuing destruction brought to mind a scene from Dead Poets’Society, where Robin Williams enthusiastically shouts “I don’t hearenough RIP!” to his students.
A paper fight ensued between varioussections of the band, and the trumpet section seemed to bear the bruntof the attacks. Eska, the singer with whom Herbert has collaboratedextensively, also got in on the act and ended up with shredded newspaperpom-poms. Her dress was particularly striking, and took shoulder padsand accentuated hips to new heights.
The three collaborations which opened the evening were slightly lessdaring in their choice of attire, but showcased a broad spectrum ofmusical styles. The links between the blues and West African music werehighlighted when Justin Adams and riti player Juldeh Camara were joined on stage byngoni maestro Bassekou Kouyate, his Malian compatriot Amy Sacko, Egyptian Mohamed Medhat‘s violin and a drummer called Martyn from glamorous… Ellesmere Port.
There was a hint of Sinead O’Connor in the duetof Palestinian vocalist Kamilya Jubran and Scots singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, who sang a poem in Arabic and aresponse in Gaelic. Guillemots vs Penguins rounded thingsoff, and performed the Penguin Caf Orchestra song Telephone AndRubber Band, with some added guitar oomph from the wonderfully namedFyfe Dangerfield, a man in need of a decent haircut.
When Herbert took to the stage, he was wearing his usualmorning tails and sported an oversized bow-tie, but was bereft of a tophat. It gave him a slightly Lurch-like appearence, and coupled with hisimpressively uncoordinated dancing, made for quite a sight. As well astouring to promote the 2008 album There’s Me And There’s You, he’s bossed Accidental Records and producedalbums for The Invisible and Micachu this year.
Bold political statements were never far away during the course ofthe evening, and during Battery we saw Herbert and the 75-strongGoldsmiths Vocal Ensemble cover their heads with hoods, in reference toBush’s War On Terror and the infringements on civil liberties it heralded.
References to Iraq could be found during One Life,where he contrasted the NHS having spent 250,000 keeping his son alive- who was born two months premature – with the amount spent andresulting number of deaths since the removal of Saddam Hussein.
There was a return to levity with a great encore in the form of TheAudience, from 2001′s Bodily Functions. Herbert got the crowd to singthe note D and sampled it, and the choir proceeded to get into therhythm and dance away merrily, which was fun to watch.
It was aneffective ending which saw the choir dance out of the auditorium throughthe crowd, leaving the charismatic Zimbabwe-born diva Eska to sing the last lines, and then leave the stagecarefully in her oversized heels. This evening was another greatperformance by Herbert’s ensemble, and a testament to the power ofcollaboration, something the British Council has done so much to promote.