NewMusicMondays – 21 December 2020

Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook has been a regular touring feature of the Scottish music scene in December for fifteen years now – and there’s a CD out, too, just celebrating its fifth birthday. Under lockdown, no show was planned for this year but all the regular crew – that’s Karen Matheson, Eddi Reader, Kris Drever, Ian Carr, Kevin McGuire, John McCusker and the essential brass section, alongside ‘Mr. Accordeon’ Phil Cunningham himself – got together in a socially-distanced way earlier this year for a session with the aim of keeping the festive cheer alive. A live audience with whom to bounce off, with camaraderie and interaction to drive the musicians along, is sorely missed (and Aly and Phil’s appearance at our local hall was indeed the last gig I went to pre-lockdown) – but, in compensation, at least you don’t now have to be in Scotland to catch the shows.

From six hours of material, including traditional Christmas carols and religious hymns to their more modern secular and popular variants, they’ve pulled together two one-hour gigs – the first out last Saturday; the second this forthcoming Wednesday – and, at this point, you can watch the second from the comfort of your own living room (front row seat guaranteed, domestic animals permitting) and at the convenience of your own five minute bell for the princely sum of £15 (or £25 for both) – tickets available here. Once you’re in, you can watch either or both as many times as you like up until 27 December (when the mince pies are but a distant memory, the remains of the turkey is destined for curry and the freezer, and the mulled wine is alcoholic only by the faintest of associations).

There’s a songsheet out for you to sing along at home – and you can also practise your Gàidhlig since ‘Silent Night’ is sung in Gàidhlig – as well as a few video teasers and there is also the promise of a new CD, signed copies of which are now available on pre-order. As a wee taster: here is Silent Night from the 2015 album, sung in Gàidhlig, of course:

My second pick this week is Oxford’s Abi Farrell, whose ‘I Will See You Through’ has been out for download/streaming since 23 November ahead of a vinyl release ‘landing early in 2021’. Abi is brand new but solidly in the tradition of soulful voices, while citing influences as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Eva Cassidy and Chaka Khan, and released her debut EP in November 2019. This track was written under lockdown following a chance meeting immediately prior with Nick Corbin, a more established songwriter who’s worked with soul giant producer/remixer/arranger Lack of Afro among others.

‘I Will See You Through’ is a modern Northern Soul mid-tempo classic – think that skipping drum fill (that I am reliably informed is a ‘six-stroke roll (RllrrL) for the sextuplet‘) from the star drummers of Motown’s Funk (or Soul) Brothers (Uriel Jones, I think – though indeed it could be either of Benny Benjamin or Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen); allied to plucked strings recalling the Pointer Sisters (‘Send My Baby Back’), a propulsive beat and psychedelic guitar chords. Layered above all this is Abi’s controlled, but pure and crystal clear, vocal and – inevitably and completely in-style – a lovelorn lyric with a gorgeously tuned middle eight linking back to a theme whose catchiness means that you’ll be humming it for days.

Here, at least, is the good side of streaming in that it does allow up-and-coming musicians to demonstrate that there is an audience for their work as well as to build a following: Abi’s debut EP has amassed 50,000 plays to date although ‘I Will See You Through’ currently needs a bit of help from you. Now to turn that into something which helps to pay the bills – you know what to do, dear reader! – and, in the meantime, it remains a priority task to #Fixstreaming. In addition, Abi has a bandcamp where you can pick up ‘I Will See You Through’ as well as her debut release – and don’t forget the physical product when it comes out, either direct from the artist or via your local record shop.

This is probably the last in the regular #NewMusicMondays posts for a while – though I will be trying to post more often on music in 2021. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of what is now eighteen posts going back to 24 August; and it’s certainly helped keep ‘The Back Room’ going during what has been a busy, and intense, period of work during which I’ve also been working on language editing four books at once (an edited collection on the integration of asylum seekers and refugees into the labour market, out soon at the European Trade Union Institute; a new volume in Christophe Solioz and Wolfgang Petritsch’s ‘Southeast European Integration Perspectives’ series; no. 2 of the 2020 volume of the SEER Journal for Labour and Social Affairs in Eastern Europe in which, uniquely, yours truly also has an article; and a further edited collection for the ETUI, this time on workers and organisation in the platform economy and on which work remains ongoing). And, as always, the end of the year anyway provides a good opportunity to reflect and consider before going afresh into what the New Year might bring.

Lockdown – the spark for this series looking at what musicians are doing to keep music and entertainment going in career-blocking circumstances – will be continuing for a while yet; and for many of us it’s been toughened. For all that this is necessary to keep people safe, the responsibility for having failed to do so thus far, as well as for the raised and then dashed hopes for a ‘normal’ Christmas, remains squarely at the door of this elitist, incompetent and eternally dithering government of clowns. Pictures of lorry queues on the M20, while there is crisis at home, will be this government’s ‘Winter of Discontent’. Vote them out, as soon as we can.

Pending that thought, in the meantime – merry Christmas and happy holidays: and here’s to a better 2021 for all of us, together.

24 hours in Brussels

I had a quick trip to Brussels last week immediately ahead of the European Council which offered a ‘flextension’ get-out-of-jail card on Brexit (much to the amused interest of people who I’d told where I’d been). (And which, of course, we’ve used immediately for parliament to go on recess.)

Brussels is a place I’ve been going to more or less annually for trips, conferences and seminars, and other events, since about 1994 and I both know it reasonably well (as far as anyone can ‘know’ any city), and like it: it can hide its charms, to some degree, and these might also be somewhat idiosyncratic and easy to mock, as Channel 4’s Travel Man (coincidentally on a repeated showing on C4 Sunday afternoon) clearly uncovered without a great deal of effort. Walking down on arrival at the Gare du Nord to my hotel (yes, I know…), I met the sight of a young man openly making good, if unofficial, use of a street planter in performance art tribute to one of Brussels’s statues (maybe this one, or perhaps this one).

But the airport is well located, just fifteen minutes by train (of which there are five or six an hour) from the centre of Brussels, and without charging rip-off fares; and even the automated passport barriers work without supercilious staff suggesting I take off my glasses like I’m intentionally using them as some sort of disguise (BA/Heathrow Airport seriously take note). And how you can not like a place whose baggage hall has a jukebox:

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Unusually, I managed to get from these islands to where I wanted to be the same day (morning flight from Benbecula-Glasgow; a short wait for a flight from Glasgow-Heathrow T5; and then a slightly longer wait than flight from T5-Brussels), though the downside was that this meant this trip was one of the shortest I have ever made (little more than the aforementioned 24 hours, from late afternoon one day to just before dinner the next). I was there for the annual meeting of the Editorial Board of the SEER Journal, with discussion of many interesting ideas, articles and innovations coming the way of our subscribers in 2019/20, but no visit to Brussels would be complete without a meal at Bij den Boer or without sampling a few beers.

24 hours either side of a busy and important meeting didn’t deliver too much opportunity for the latter. (And gentle rain in the evening, persisting more heavily right throughout the next day, didn’t encourage much in the way of trekking or, indeed, of photos.) However, I did manage to make Brasserie Omnibus, a cafe bar  with a train theme, my local for the duration, serving a rather good, if sweet, Tripel Le Fort (plus a welcome little dish of bar snacks); while a nearby hotel bar delivered a proper temperature Rochefort Trappist 8 (which currently makes Belgium’s top 50 beers on Rate Beer), offering plenty of chocolatey goodness; while a wander around the corner from Bij den Boer to Cafe Merlo offered some new-style small-batch craft beer via Brasserie de la Senne, whose Zinnebir (a Belgian blonde) provided citrusy dryness to the post-dinner chat with colleagues wondering what the heck was happening with Brexit (my only new observation being that the UK is – or at least was, last week – a country in a state of open revolt in search of a revolution). All beers from bottles, by the way.

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So, with a tinge of sadness – this being (possibly, who knows?) my last trip to Brussels as a ‘free’ citizen, it was a farewell to the city of Brussels with at least a hopeful au revoir/tot ziens. ‘Til next time then, comrades (if the creek don’t rise).

Integration of the western Balkans – Sofia 2018

Just back from Sofia, where I was attending a symposium for the 20th Anniversary of the SEER Journal, which I founded along with my good friend and colleague, Peter Scherrer, and which I still help to edit alongside Bela Galgoczi, Senior Researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (and who has capably edited the Journal for three-quarters of its life). If Peter and I were the parents then Sofia was the maternity hospital, so Sofia as a location for the 20th Anniversary symposium was well-chosen – and those invited, including some who contributed articles to the very first number, as well as the SEER’s welfare guardians (its Editorial Board, and researchers and leaders of trade unions from the western Balkans) – meant that the birthday celebrations were attended by many friends and supporters.

Back in 1998, we reckoned we could pull together enough interesting material to fill one volume, so to be still going 19 years later, 70 regular issues and nearly 800 articles on from our first number, plus several special issues and two paperbacks, including in the language of the ‘western Balkans’ as well as in German and in French, represents a pretty good achievement for which we are very grateful to our sponsors: in the first place the Hans-Bockler-Stiftung, and latterly the ETUI, as well as Nomos Verlag, our publishers. Pleasingly, we have also now completed a full 76cms of SEER – the internal width of one of my bookshelves. Vol. 21 will start bookshelf no. 2.

Our keynote was given by Christophe Solioz, whose formal symposium paper ‘Europe from the post-Wall era to post-crisis future’ can be found in .pdf form on his website and which we’ll be carrying in edited form in a future issue. Other colleagues, including KNSB President, Plamen Dimitrov, and Luben Tomev, the Director of ITUSR, KNSB’s research institute, also brought welcome comradely greetings.

For me, apart from looking back over our history, I also focused a few remarks on the impact of Brexit on EU integration, especially as regards the potential loss of budget finance within the EU’s post-Brexit multi-annual financial framework for projects like integration of the western Balkans post-Brexit (e.g. here); as well as on the shadowy figures behind Brexit and the increasing organisation of extremist nationalists amidst not only the current ‘rogue’ regimes in Hungary and Poland, as well as in Austria where they form part of the government, with key ministries, but also given the tensions within Bosnia and Herzegovina concerning the increasing militarisation of Republika Srpska and the explicit support being given by the government of Croatia – a member of the EU, let’s not forget – to nationalists in the Croat-dominant cantons in the south. It is no surprise that extremist nationalists – some having been ejected from Hungary – see the western Balkans as fertile territory (here and also here).

Here’s Cde. Scherrer and myself at the symposium:

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(Thanks to Bruno S. Sergi for the photo.)

The book that Peter is presenting me with, by the way, is Paul Strand’s Tir A’Mhurain: a typically thoughtful gift being not only about South Uist – The Land of the Bent Grass (or marram) – but also a book which has a complex and quite astonishing political history, according to the introduction by Fraser MacDonald (linking to his Twitter since his blog is, unfortunately, quite literally unreadable) in The Guardian to this, 50th anniversary, collection of photos documenting life in South Uist at the time of the installation of the MoD rocket range. Indeed, many islanders were fearful that the range would bring immense changes to their lives and so a documentation of exactly what that was, both in photographs and in text, is extraordinarily useful. I was aware of the book – a regular visitor to bookshops in Scotland, I could not possibly be unaware of it – but I had no knowledge of its fascinating origins. Following up, it is interesting to note that prints of some of Strand’s photos – authorised in their production by Strand himself, and thus as rare as hen’s teeth – have quite recently been bought by Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery.

We timed the symposium to coincide with the summit for trade union leaders from the region organised by the Bulgarian trade unions KNSB and ‘Podkrepa’, and in conjunction with the ETUC and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, with the intention of drawing up a statement to go to Thursday’s EU-Balkans summit, also being held in Sofia under the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU for which integration of the region with the EU has been a priority. You can read the trade union summit declaration here at the ETUC website (in English) or here at the KNSB website, if your Bulgarian is good enough (along with the following two entries for 9 May further down the page). Like a lot of these things, the words of the statement need to be turned into a practical, workable agenda for action – noting that wage convergence is an achievable target, in the context of the region’s productivity reserve, as well as a principle – but these things are not easy to co-ordinate and produce, and it is good to see the many trade unions of the region come together in support of a common goal.

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Hands clasped in friendship and in solidarity outside the headquarters of KNSB, in one of the perhaps lesser-photographed examples of this style of architecture still prevalent around Sofia (though its history is actually a lot more modern, dating from 2004, I think).

I’ve argued before that what we need is a bold vision of integration from the EU, not more warm words, progress reports and initiatives. Not least in the face of the problems that the western Balkans faces outlined above, the need for concrete proposals, investment and a clear prospect of integration continues to be clear – as does the path of continued destabilisation where these things continue to be lacking. Thursday’s summit needs to deliver on an agenda targeted towards solid progress on accession, a prime requirement for which is that the EU lifts its head from its own problems – of the divisions of the sort which marked drafting discussions over the summit declaration – towards a contemplation of the problems to which inaction will surely lead.

These are troubling times but the SEER Journal will, in its next period, strive to carry on providing a platform for discussion on the western Balkans’s path to the EU. In the meantime – happy birthday, zhiveli and, of course: solidarnost!