Words by Olivia Haughton
I had no idea what to expect when I made my way to Rich Mix last Thursday. Tongue Fu, the venue’s poetry performance event, had in store a line-up dedicated to the topic of the moment: International Women’s Day. OK, so poetry isn’t strictly Songlines territory, but the event is well worth a mention.
Each poet or storyteller onstage is accompanied by a trio of talented musicians who take the performer’s (often bizarre) guidance on style and subject matter and provide an improvised and unrehearsed musical backdrop to the spoken word. “Play the track you’d find on an album called Ten Greatest Love Songs, the one for putting on during dinner – not while you’re shagging,” came the musical direction from poet Anna Freeman.
After a brief stumble where the jazz was “too sexy”, the band found the blend of cheesy jazz Freeman was after; she got into her groove. And what a groove it was. I’ve got little to go on when it comes to performance poetry, not having seen any before, but I’m pretty sure Freeman was the business. She was captivating, funny, intense. Working with the rhythm of the music, shifting pace and teasing the beat, she gave us a hit after hit of her achingly funny brand of ‘love’ poetry.
The musicians, Riaan Vosloo on bass, Rob Updegraff with guitar and drum player Patrick Davey, had far more to offer though than just smooth jazz. Alongside young poet Bridget Minamore, they provided the driving pulse to her powerful monologue, ‘Hypocrites and Double Ds’, which brings sexist inequalities, still rife in our time, to the forefront of our consciousness.
The musicians worked with the poets to find a common ground, establishing the mood and giving dramatic effect. Their mimicry of distinctive pitch patterns in the voice, or types of musical sounds alluded to in the words, showed off their skill and adaptability. Shane Solanki, with his poem ‘Dust’, was another highlight for me. Accompanying him was Sarah Johns who’s sweetly wistful sung refrain brought the piece together.
Chris Redmond, host and founder of the event, tied the evening together with a story about a King and Queen and their girl who is born riding a goat. This peculiar tale didn’t quite set the tone for the talent and message of the poets who followed him, and neither, I have to admit, did the audience-hounding he opened the evening with. Being asked to “practice applause” is not my idea of “warming up,” but thankfully things improved as we welcomed the evening’s guests onstage (“like you’d applause James Brown live at the Apollo”).
Although the musicians are a background part of the evening, they are core to the ethos of Tongue Fu and part of what brings the event alive. Their versatility and quick thinking is impressive, and if you can tear your ears away from the engaging words falling from the poets’ mouths, then you’ll notice how easily they slip from subtlety to sassy panache, as the message calls for. As I left, my mind was filled with word soup; I think I like performance poetry!