A sold-out annual world music festival with 40+ bands and artists appearing
over one weekend, in its fourth year of operation, but few outside of north-east
England seem to have heard of Whitby Musicport. Why?
On England’s North Sea coast, nestled in a dramatic cleft between two high
cliffs, Whitby’s long natural harbour is watched over from the south by the
gaunt ruins of the town’s 7th century Abbey. Across in the park above West Cliff,
Captain Cook’s statue gazes seaward and grows white-haired with seagull guano.
Just below squats Whitby Spa Theatre & Pavilion, the principle venue for this
weekend’s activities. The unprepossessing red-brick and glass structure is
thoughtfully hidden away from the view of all but returning trawlermen and day-trippers.Whitby is a warm, welcoming town, jammed to the gills with tourists in high
Summer. When I last visited, to see Cuban singer Yusa, in April this year, this
quintessential fishing port was host to a different kind of festival. Every shop,
pub & restaurant carried the sign ‘Whitby welcomes goths’. Must be a Dracula
thing. Now it’s late October and the return of the dread British Winter Time,
the town draws in another group of specialist music enthusiasts, all flapping
cotton and pink extremities in the bracing onshore breeze. It’s interesting to
note that there is a coterie of festival-goers who camp for the weekend,
although with facilities away on the edge of town, and an arse-biting north-easterly,
it feels good to be ensconced in a nearby hotel.
Within the blank interior of the municipal entertainment complex, softened by
Cloudbase’s many-hued fabric surroundings and moving-image focal points, Friday
evening kicks into gear when Bombay Baja strike up with their boisterous,
swaggering, Bollywood brass band sound. All set for the weekend, then.
There’s food on sale here, too. Not your hatch-served microwave burgers, but
three fine stalls dispensing a rich variety of ethnic & veggie foods. Even the
Pavilion café, after representations from festival-goers last year, is serving
Fair Trade coffee. Supper over, and a fine & moving performance by ex-pat
Russian Gypsy outfit Talisman leads to the evening’s main course. “Hallo
Weeeetby!”. The Spanish/Argentinian band with close links to Manu Chao have just
released their debut CD ‘Viaje’. On this one-off visit from Barcelona (for the
band’s first-ever UK gig), GoLem System squeeze out a tight, springy, bouncy
sound with a dub/latin/reggae base which is just irresistible. Yummy.
Whilst The Pavilion is the main focus of Musicport, The Resolution (a fine pub
down in the old town) draws a large audience to its upstairs room with acoustic
stage. It’s one of the regular year-round venues which the Musicport team use,
and will soon become the base of their operations, thanks to a generous £26,000
Arts Council Yorkshire grant, which is to be spent on installing a state-of-the-art
sound & lighting rig. For Musicport weekend, entry to this venue is free-to-all.
Many of the visiting artists appear on the Resolution stage and also get
involved in the workshops which run throughout the day on Saturday & Sunday.
Children’s workshops abound, and a variety of activities take place in the
Pavilion as well as the neighbouring Intermission Café and Royal Hotel.
Back at The Pavilion, Saturday is in full swing. For an inveterate festival
butterfly like me the fact that Musicport has the one main stage is a godsend,
I’m not constantly flitting from one stage to another, desperately trying to
miss nothing, thereby missing much. Aside from one trip to the comfortable
little theatre stage, to see Julie Murphy perform her outstanding updated Welsh
traditional music with the help of ace acoustic guitarist Dylan Fowler & the
inimitable Danny Thompson on double bass, I’m firmly fixed in the main hall.
This years innovation of a smaller stage alongside the main stage, featuring
acoustic performers whilst the main stage changes sets, works exceedingly well.
Throughout the afternoon, from the Bosnian Gypsy group led by sisters Téa &
Mirela (formerly Szapora), to a moving & riveting acoustic performance from
American slide specialist Spencer Bohren & English blues guitar maestro Martin
Simpson, there is a sense of growing anticipation.
An atmosphere of respect and awe heralds the arrival of Ustad Mahwash and her
accompanying Ensemble Kaboul. The gentle, all-enveloping sound of their Afghan
classical music begins to build, bringing in bowed, plucked & struck strings,
harmonium, woodwind and percussion. As she sits, swathed in a heavy rug wrap,
the musicians at her feet, Mahwash looks small and unremarkable, a friendly-looking
middle-aged lady. It’s when she sings that the audience’s attention is drawn and
held by this singer’s stately and magical performance. An hour in the company of
this award-winning troupe goes by in an instant and we’re left, slack-jawed and
A brief but violent evening thunderstorm rushes past, to leave the setting sun
raking over the cliff-top, creating a warm red haze on the horizon, as a high
tide rages spectacularly against the sea wall below. In the main hall the ever-effervescent
Ali Slimani, easily the best raï singer/dj this side of the Channel, is mashing
up the dancefloor. Folk Devils record stall is doing brisk business with his
latest album, ‘Espoir’. Tonight happens to be the first time I’ve seen
Transglobal Underground, despite having been a fan for eons. Sadly, they’re here
without Natacha Atlas on vocal. But Transglobal’s stage show is legendary, with
a mélange of world music genres hurled into the band’s boiling melting pot,
bubbling over with infectious dance beats. We trip on into the early morning
with a dreamy late night session from Cloudbase. Not to worry, the clocks go
back tonight, there’s an extra hour in bed.
Sunday morning, and a wickedly persistent north-easterly sends churchgoers
scuttling. Not the sort of weather for hanging around on the streets of a
Yorkshire coastal resort. The festival shuffle stirs into life, delivering
huddled masses to the various venues for a daytime schedule of folk &
traditional music. With a multiplicity of workshops there’s plenty to see & do
and by five’o’clock it’s already dark outside. Thank goodness for Kékélé, here
to brighten one of the gloomiest days on the calendar with their effortless
Congolese acoustic sounds. This is the band’s second trip to Musicport in two
years and they’re fast becoming local favourites. The children’s Lantern Parade,
heralding long nights ahead, is an atmospheric and fitting close to the audience-participatory
activities and leads us nicely into the final session with talented new British
singer/songwriter Virginia McNaughton. Penultimate on the 2003 bill is one of
Congolese music’s brightest new stars, Robert Maseko. His Congobeat play the
best kind of classic rumba/soukous. The band know exactly how to pace their
music and they’ve immediately got a willing crowd in their collective palm. The
weekend climaxes with a memorable gig from the rip-roaring Dhol Foundation,
tonight with the added delight of dancers showing those with energy reserves how
it should be done.
Driving back across the moonless moorland it’s time to reflect on the weekend.
Although different from its summertime counterparts, Musicport has a wonderful
atmosphere and is building a great reputation which lacks media coverage mainly
because the event always coincides with the annual world music business seminar
& showcase WOMEX, which inevitably draws media & artists away. The solution? How
about a mid-late September scheduling for Musicport? It’s just that I can’t help
thinking about those poor campers.
Dave Atkin November 3rd 2003
Whitby Musicport annual world music festival is a not-for-profit volunteer-run
organisation. Thanks to the sheer hard work of a dedicated team led by Jim
McLoughlin the near impossible is pulled off with considerable aplomb. With six
stages & workshop venues, 40+ artists, a host of stewards and helpers, the
margin for error is broad. Congratulations to Jim & crew. To quote the Governor
of California: “I’ll be back….”.
Artists appearing at Whitby Musicport 2003 were as follows:
Transglobal Underground, Ustad Mahwash & Ensemble Kaboul, Kékélé, Ali Slimani
Band, Julie Murphy with Dylan Fowler & Danny Thompson, Charanga del Norte,
Talisman (formerly Loyko), SALT the band, The Dhol Foundation featuring Johnny
Kalsi, Lion Train, GoLem System, Spencer Bohren & Martin Simpson, Téa & Mirela (formerly
Szapora), Modeste Hugues, Robert Maseko & Congobeat, Davide Sanna, Bombay Baja,
Mas Y Mas, Josephine Oniyama, Eduardo Niebla, Saaz, Tuup, Martin Fletcher, Samba
do Porto, Nick Burman & Dordiseal, Encuentra Latino Salsa Workshop, Nkosana,
Mighty Zulu Nation, Mambo Jambo, Seize The Day, Shiva Nova, Ben Melo Band, Hot
Ashes, Banoffi, Virginia McNaughton, Kwame D, Streetworthy, Cal Williams, Piffko,
Nick Hall, Dark Horse, Paul Marshall, Seikou Susso, Elaine Palmer, Tuesday
Sometimes, Dan Webster Band.