Poejazzi at E4’s Udderbelly | Event Review

For the second year running, E4’s Udderbelly entertainment season at the Southbank Centre played host to London’s exclusive spoken word/music night Poejazzi on July 1st, which featured a band with lead vocalists that change costume six times in a set of just seven tracks, a young reincarnation of Joni Mitchell with in song jokes that induce both giggles and sadness and a Nigerian poet whose transcendental play on words play out like spells found in cosmic dustbins.

First up after an introduction by folk guitarist and singer/songwriter Lail Arad [pictured top] was Benin City [above], an eight piece band whose speedy Jazz sound is comparable to an army of brass instruments always on the verge of breaking into raging fits of laughter. The group is headed by two vocalists: Joshua Idehen and Musa Okwonga. The former constantly sounding as if in a special police interrogation in which the only way to prove his innocence is to say things that rhyme in the most inventive manner possible, while the latter – a former attendee of Eton College and author of the acclaimed book A Cultured Left Foot: The Eleven Elements of Football Greatness – claims to be ‘so old school he’s prehistoric’.

Whether or not the two of them were really trying to rap in an uber mechanical style from the 1980’s or just representing a parody of the same is something I couldn’t quite figure out, although after those six costume changes they seemed to be evolving more and more into parodies of themselves. As a whole the band maintained momentum throughout their short set and kept the audience gagging for more. Theo Buckingham’s drums added extra flair to the brass while Belinda Zhawi’s rapturous backing vocals filled in for Joshua’s whimsical attempts at singing. Overall an adventurous and generally fun set.

Just as Benin City left Lail Arad re-emerged on the stage and presented the crowd with another portion of her sweet, seductive and chilling voice, along with more giddy guitar licks. Her rendition of ‘Lets Talk about Sex’ by Salt and Pepper was just as off beat as one might expect. Yet Arad continued to surprise her audience, with the ability to turn the least emotive lyrics into a spectacle of melancholy and wit.

Next up was the only artist of the night who wasn’t backed by live music; poet, actor, graphic designer and all round literary joker Inua Ellams [pictured above]. Born in Nigeria raised in Dublin, Ellams crash landed on the London poetry scene in the early 2000’s and has been regarded as a phenomenon ever since. For a poet usually accustomed to bouts of theatrical excitement on stage, Ellams was fairly calm, though carefully charismatic in his delivery.

The highlight of the performance was perhaps his recitation of ‘Dustbin Diaries’ taken from his collection ‘Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales’ – a book which is covered with his own designs and contains numerous mind altering scenarios, such as when the protagonist in the above poem sits by a dustbin that ‘wears the ghost formation of a throne cast in light shown only if you squint with your third eye and let ether-light loan itself to the moment’.

It was lines such as this that seemed to work both for and against the success of the performance. I generally wanted to swim in the wild linguistic flavours that span out Ellams’s mouth but instead found myself drowning because of the richness of his vocabulary and the lengths of the poems. Either my attention span needed to be longer or the recitations needed to be shorter. Or perhaps I just needed to learn to swim. A thrilling, if not, jaw dropping journey through a jungle of delicious metaphors nonetheless.

After what had generally been a copious helping of both talent and eccentricity I quietly despaired for Yungun [pictured above], the closing artist for the night. Not only was it a necessity for him to be a little bit brilliant just to leave the slightest mark on the minds of the audience, but he also needed to feed energy to a crowd who had, by then, already clapped, smiled and laughed as hard as they could. A good thing then that Yungun has been on the underground UK Hip Hop scene since the mid ’90s and has worked with the likes of Lewis Parker and Jehst and is in other words highly experienced in his role as master of ceremonies. A good thing also that he was dressed in the whitest linen and came with the most earnest intention of representing the purist Hip Hop; which is no easy feat in this age of dilution, but one that Yungun managed quite eagerly and without effort.

Just as soon as he had animated the audience with two uplifting introductory songs, Yungun slowed things down for a cover of Roy Ayer’s ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’, which he ‘dedicated to those people who wait all year for the sun to shine’ and which included numerous stories about how Londoners transform into different people during the summer. Just when it seemed as if he couldn’t get anymore introspective Yungun invited long time affiliate Devise on stage for a track titled ‘Still Life’ in which both rappers discuss existence from the perspective of ‘the cycle of creation’.

The band remained efficiently fluid throughout the set, moving quite easily from funk-Fusion to Smooth Jazz and eventually to some Rare Groove with Reggae vocals. Yungun’s final instalment was the title track from his upcoming album Middle Man and was by far his most personal effort. In this the rapper wrestles with the confusion of being mixed race in a society that pretends to accept multiculturalism and what it means to be a ‘black man who loves his white mother’. In the same vein as the rest of his set the recital was both jovial and thought provoking at the same time and ended a night filled with imagination, comedy and verve on an enthralling note.

–Review and photography by David Mensah

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