Friday, March 28, 2008

The Imagined Village: a Review

I don’t normally do culture on here, but I have been recently listening to The Imagined Village and as some of the themes lying behind its creation tie in with some of the ideas I’m trying to push on the blog, I thought it might be interesting to cobble together a review and put up some of the songs over the next couple of days.

So, what exactly is “The Imagined Village”?
This is from their website:
There is a lot of discussion in the media at present about what constitutes the English identity, we hope to use this web site and our first record as a contribution to this discussion. We are not trying to re-invent the wheel or for that matter re-invent the English folk tradition. What we are interested in is building an inclusive, creative community were we can engage in the debate passed down to us by the late Victorian collectors of English song, dance and stories spearheaded by Cecil Sharpe and his contemporaries and brought into contemporary resonance by Georgina Boyes in her book 'The Imagined Village', Billy Braggs recent works 'The Progressive Patriot', academics such as Paul Gilroys in 'After Empire Melancholia or Convivial Culture' and the commentaries of musicians such as Chris Wood, Eliza and Martin Carthy amongst others.

Ah, my old mate Billy Bragg, Chekov will be most surprised to see he’s involved!
That’s the theory, in practice what they’ve done is brought together musicians from every aspect of modern English music and reworked classic (I can remember butchering at least two of them during primary school recorder lessons) English folk tunes. I’ve got to admit when I first heard of the concept, I had a nightmare vision of drum ‘n’ bass versions of Scarborough Fair and Jerusalem being given a Radiohead makeover (jeez imagine how sloooow and miseraaable a tune that would be); but no, by and large the idea works.

The tunes have been reworked for modern times and the juxtaposition of instruments like the fiddle, dhol drum, and the sitar brings a strange, almost ethereal quality to numbers like “Cold Haily Rainy Night”(see the You Tube video below). The other weird thing for me is that although the two main female vocalists (Eliza Carthy and Sheila Chandra) are from obviously different cultural and music backgrounds, it was sometimes impossible for me to tell who was singing exactly which vocal part; similarly, unless you were to look at the credits for each song you’d be hard pressed to guess which instruments are contributing- all down to some very good arrangement and mixing on the part of Simon Emmerson and the Trans-Global Underground.

It’s hard to pin down my favourite tracks; easier to say which ones didn’t really do a great lot for me- the middle two, “Acres of Ground”, “Pilsdon Pen” just kind of glided by, a bit wallpapery music-wise. As for the rest, whether it be the enchanting West-country burr on “’Ouses, ‘ouses, ‘ouses”, Paul Weller’s contribution to “John Barleycorn”, the seriously “different” interpretation by Benjamin Zephaniah of “Tam Lyn” or the good oul ceilidh (whaddya mean those are only reserved for the Celts!) “Worms meet moths”, there’s something in every song to leave an imprint or at least provoke a momentary thought.

The politics are left to (surprise, surprise) Mr Bragg and Benjamin Zephaniah’s numbers which I’ll review separately over the next couple of days...although in connection with "Englishness" there is an interesting paragraph on the website which reads:
Folk has also become an inevitable part of the current search for English identity. That's English as opposed to British, for once Wales and Scotland had reclaimed their flags and history - a process accelerated by an Eighties government largely elected by England that rode roughshod across the lands across the border - it was only a matter of time before the St. George's flag superseded the Union Jack.

Or was it "a process accelerated" by a Labour Party when it, for pure party advantage, decided over ten years ago to carry out the constitutional destruction of the United Kingdom?

Anyway, leaving that slight quibble aside, the basic principle that I take from Imagined Village is that national identity (like national folk music) is perfectly capable of adapting to changing situations and conditions- inn order for it to survive, it's actually imperative that it must do so. It’s not written down in stone somewhere a definition of what should constitute Englishness, Irishness, Scottishness, Welshness or Britishness- it’s up to the individual him or herself to decide what he or she is content to call herself...and despite what the ethno-nationalists on Slugger and elsewhere have been telling me this week in the wake of Brown’s article, no national identity worth having is ever dependent on race, religion, political affiliation or indeed, location.

OK, finally, this is probably my favourite track The Imagined Village perform Cold Haily Rainy Night on Later...With Jools Holland


Chekov said...

Heartening to hear that Billy was let out of the basement long enough to record some songs. ;-) An interesting project. Shaping a "national culture" is a perfectly understandable aim unless until it becomes tied up in the political ordering of a state. It certainly is preferable to attempt to shape an inclusive national identity as this project seems to promote. Keeping this type of cultural nationalism separate from political nationalism can be a tricky thing though.

Toque said...

"the enchanting West-country burr on “’Ouses, ‘ouses, ‘ouses”"

Errr...That's a Sussex accent - just below London. Part of what's now referred to as the 'South East'. It's John Cooper of Rottingdean, just down the road from me.

Don't worry about it, I'm not much cop on Irish accents ;-)