Saxy sound of the flyover with Soweto Kinch
Jazz man Soweto Kinch tells Terry Grimley about bringing music to Birmingham’s heart.
When Soweto Kinch first came up with the idea of putting on a community festival under the Hockley flyover, it’s fair to say that not everyone got it.
In fact, the project was stuck in limbo for a long time as the Birmingham jazz and hip hop star was batted backwards and forwards between different city council departments.
But eventually the bureaucratic inertia was overcome and the event duly took place on May 31 last year, with 1,500 people choosing to spend all or part of the day in a bleak 1960s traffic roundabout. They were rewarded with a programme of black urban music ranging from veteran saxophonist Andy Hamilton to rap artists Bashy and Ty, with participation by young people, graffiti artists and Caribbean food.
So this weekend they’re going to do it all again.
“We’ve made a case for it happening in an area that’s only really associated with crime and not much else,” Soweto, just back from playing festivals in Denmark, told me last week.
“Now there’s so much goodwill, people really wanted it to happen. It’s about building cultural capital.
“We really want to make a statement about how much is created by people in the area. Ladywood as a ward has the highest unemployment rate in the country, so it’s timely.”
However, there’s an additional dimension this year in that the event is tied in with the campaign to save the Muhammad Ali Centre, in Icknield Street, only yards away from the flyover.
Once a vibrant cultural and community centre which Muhammad Ali himself visited on no fewer than three occasions, it is now a burnt-out shell, and a haven for drug misuse.
The city council is ready to bulldoze it, and a local campaign group was given eight weeks to come up with a business plan and enough capital to save it. The deadline was last Friday.
“Birmingham City Council doesn’t want to have a building on its books that’s not doing anything,” says Soweto.
“Someone said in one of our meetings that the condition of the building reflects the condition of the Afro-Caribbean community.”
A revived centre could play an important role in helping young people in the area find a positive orientation, he argues.
“After last year’s Flyover Show people said ‘that thing with the saxophone band you did – how can we get our kids involved in some creativity?’ , or ‘I want to be a rapper – where do I go?’
“There are all sorts of cultural pioneers in the area, but how do you know how to find them? The role models are ever more remote.”
But Kinch’s commitment to the area remains undimmed, even though he was surprised to find that friends who mysteriously failed to show up last year had been put off by the possibility of trouble.
In fact there was none at all, though there was certainly a very visible police presence.
Apart from Kinch, in his various guises as jazz saxophonist, rapper and theatre artist, Saturday’s line-up again includes the redoubtable Andy Hamilton and Steel Pulse’s Basil Gabbidon, hip hop stars Bashy and Ty, plus pioneering performance poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.
There is an international dimension with Spokinn Movement from New York and Tumi and Audio Visuals from Johannesburg.
Meanwhile Soweto’s own career is forging ahead with dates coming up in Norway, France and Ghana, despite the setback of a record company fall-out which means that Basement Fables, the second instalment of his two-part concept album following 2006’s Tales From the Tower Block has never been released. Though he is not giving too much away, future recordings could be released on the legendary jazz label Blue Note.
* The Flyover Show takes place at Hockley Flyover from 12.30pm to 9pm next Saturday, admission free. For details see www.myspace.com/flyovershow. The final episode of Harlem Timeline, Soweto Kinch’s four-part documentary series on the musical history of Harlem, is on Radio 2 tomorrow night at 10.30pm.