Naked City Festival
(Beckenham Place Park, 27 July 2019. Round-up by Rachel Coombes)
The Bunker Stage at Naked City Festival (Photo courtesy: NCF)
Undeterred by the intermittent downpours, hundreds of Londoners flocked to Beckenham Place Park on Saturday for the inaugural Naked City Festival, hosted by the team behind Krankbrother, famed for their legendary street parties. Billed as ‘the sound of London laid bare’, this one-dayer has capitalised on the meteoric rise in popularity of the city’s jazz scene over the past couple of years: Ezra Collective, Kamaal Williams and Moses Boyd were among the well-established names on the line-up – and they certainly brought in the crowds. But the musical gamut was extensive, ranging from soul to drum’n’bass and dub, all drawn, in the words of the promoters, from ‘the central nervous system’ of the city’s musical influences.
The first act I caught on the Main Stage was the East London-born singer Yazmin Lacey, whose rounded, soulful vocals and punchy melodic statements paid clear homage to Erykah Badu. The songs ‘Marie’ and ‘A Mother Lost’ were particular highlights, both bearing a fragile mournfulness underscored by a festival-friendly driving groove.
Tucked away in the leafy corner of the Park was ‘The Bunker’ stage, home for the day to a roster of DJs; second on the line-up was Mafalda, a Portuguese DJ who gravitated towards London’s lively and open-minded jazz scene and its insatiable record collectors. This fearsome crate-digger wasn’t afraid to fuse all manner of styles, segueing smoothly from Brazilian beats into disco; we joined her at the moment when her audience were going wild for breezy jazz flute descants soaring over a jagged bassline. Later on in the day Henry Wu (the DJ moniker of Kamaal Williams) gave us a set of soulful house, and LTJ Bukem rounded off proceedings at The Bunker with some fiery drum’n’bass, the ambience of which bore the hallmarks of the producer’s long-standing interest in the 1970s jazz fusion sounds of Lonnie Liston Smith and Roy Ayers.
The third stage hosted the multi-instrumentalist and producer Leifur James, who released his debut album ‘A Louder Silence’ on Late Night Tales last October – a labour of love that helped him carve out a sound somewhere between jazz, classical and ambient electronica. Showcasing songs from this record, James’s Naked City set included moody piano-driven harmonies, vaporous synths and his own soulful vocals on the ballad ‘Mumma Don’t Tell’. He was joined by vocalist and kora player Jali Bakary Konteh on the highly rhythmical ‘Salaninam’.
A quick stop to see the techno innovator Mark Ernestus’s project Ndagga Rhythm Force on the Main Stage served up complex polyrhythms, swaying dub and deliciously energetic moves from dancer Fatou Wore Mboup: a far cry from Ernestus’s 4/4-beat musical grounding. London favourites Blue Lab Beats, aka ‘jazztronica’ duo NK-OK and Mr DM, rivalled this energy on the neighbouring stage. They welcomed guest performer Kaidi Akinnibi on sax for a melting pot of nu-jazz sounds which included crowd favourites ‘Oooo Lala’, ‘Blue Skies’ and ‘Pineapple’, all drawn from their 2018 album ‘Xover’.
Signs at Naked City Festival (Photo courtesy: NCF)
Continuing the London urban jazz theme on the Main Stage were the South London drummer and band-leader Moses Boyd with his collective the Exodus, credited as a driving force behind the reintroduction of jazz back to the masses. His frenzied solos were balanced by the dynamic musical partnership between trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi and trombone player Nathaniel Cross. The three-note bass riff and busy melodic punches of ‘Rye Lane Shuffle’ brought the set to an invigorating close. Ogunjobi was back on stage with the next act, Ezra Collective, whose drummer Femi Koleoso clearly has a real gift for hyping the crowds (“Is this not the best week to be having just this kind of thing?!” he commiserated). In a nod to this sentiment, the quintet launched into a rendition of the joyous ‘You Can’t Steal My Joy’, a composition which perfectly demonstrated their infectious Afrobeat-infused sound. Throughout the set Joe Armon-Jones shone with his thoughtful keyboard improvisations, proving why he is in continuous demand on the jazz circuit. The band rounded off with a celebration of a distinctly Latin-jazz sound in ‘São Paulo’ (a piece the group developed while partying in Brazil) and ‘Juan Pablo’, both of which gave Ogunjobi an opportunity to demonstrate his virtuosic improv skills.
Meanwhile on the stage next door the South London-based supergroup Afriquoi brought strong Afro-Carribean influences to UK electronica; they were followed by the kaleidoscopic musical palette of Nubiyan Twist, whose lead vocalist Nubyia Brandon proved she had a gift for rapping as well as singing. Last on this stage was Ata Kak’s uplifting blend of Ghanaian highlife and electronic dance. By this point, I admit to finding myself somewhat aurally saturated and even a little musically discombobulated.
Neneh Cherry (Photo: courtesy NCF)
Dashing back to the Main Stage between these acts, I caught some of Kamaal Williams’s set – fresh from his stint at the Bunker as Henry Wu. Hunched over the keyboard, hoodie up, he and his small musical coterie (sax, electric bass, drums) delivered hard-hitting funky grooves reminiscent of Herbie Hancock in ‘Headhunter’ mode. Closing the festival was the indomitable Neneh Cherry, performing a number of tracks from her 2018 album ‘Broken Politics’, including the protest song ‘Kong’, perhaps the standout song of the set. The punky ‘Black Project’ fired up the crowd, but it was a high-octane reworking of the classic ‘Buffalo Stance’ that gave the audience a real high.
The intimate size of the location, a converted golf course which had never previously been used to host a music festival, was an ideal size for this family-friendly event, although there were a couple of moments of troublesome sound bleed between stages. The huge food queues and lack of vegetarian options come the evening were my only real gripe in terms of the overall festival experience. Musically, however, Krankbrother certainly succeeded in carving out a niche in the festival market, and I can only hope that this is the first of many Naked Cities to come.