REVIEW: Alya Al-Sultani’s Collective X — debut performance at Out-Spoken at the Roundhouse Studio Theatre

Generation X
Photo credit: Cleveland Watkiss


Alya Al-Sultani’s Collective X
(Out-Spoken — Roundhouse Sackler Studio Theatre. 27 June 2017. Review by AJ Dehany)

“This is the sexiest venue I’ve ever read at,” says poet Mona Arshi, performing at the Out-Spoken night of music and spoken word. As a professional theatre setup the Sackler Studio at the Roundhouse is sexy in a candlelit dinner sense, removed from the sweaty basements we usually cram into to hear people talk about their pain in rhyme.

Sex and pain, they’re the big ones. Mona Arshi’s poems Hummingbird and Taster, from her first book Small Hands, hum with ripe sexual jouissance. A new poem about her late brother documents the darker side of life: death. Four years ago she got the phone call we all dread, from the coroner while she was on a train.

Ben Norris, hosting the evening, reads from a long poem The Liquid U about his grandmother’s dementia and decline, remembering and even celebrating those black comic moments of joy and forgetting. It’s not a maudlin evening, in spite of the rain outside and world gone mad, but this edition of Out-Spoken as ever commits to a deep journey. Jolade Olusanya, taking a night out from film-making confesses he’s learned that as a writer “pain is my thing”, explaining that his is a philosophy encapsulated by Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet: “Pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”

Pain is also real, though the pain of others is hard to imagine. If I cut my finger on a £20 note it’s definitely more painful than you getting knocked off Westminster Bridge by a Routemaster. But when the bandages come off, that’s when poets and musicians come in. To mangle Auden a bit, we must understand one another or die.

These themes converge in the darkest way in Banaz a song written for Banaz Mahmod, an Iraqi Kurdish woman who was raped, tortured and murdered by her own family in an ‘honour killing’ in 2007 in London. Alya Al-Sultani wrote this haunting piece, “to pay tribute to one of my sisters who is victim to a sexually moralising patriarchy… As an Iraqi woman who can raise my voice I’m going to raise my voice to her.”

It’s one of five hard-hitting, well-crafted, intently delivered songs by the singer, composer and producer for her new venture Collective X. Their debut at Out-Spoken is driven by the junkyard stomp of Mark Sanders on drums and Jay Darwish on bass, with skronky keyboard inventions from Clemens C. Poetzsch and Pat Thomas (of uncategorisable noise-groove machine Albert Newton) and the outside tenor sax of Robert Menzel.

Alya Al-Sultani conducts the group with authority, her rich voice uniquely steeped in British-Iraqi inflections and influences from soulful pop to hard reggae. Contributions from voice artist Cleveland Watkiss and poet Joshua Idehen add to the vital sense of a discussion happening. The songs range from 'Tinder shitfuckery’ and the fetishisation of the black body to “taking a moment” to find our love and understanding of each other.

Alya Al-Sultani wrote the material for the forthcoming album in the 24 hours following last year’s EU referendum, as a response to the rise of racism and the seeming loss of our collective reason. The album includes cover art of President Trump being bound and gagged by Alya herself. Hold that thought.

Out-Spoken  (website) returns on 19 July at the 100 Club.

Collective X’s album Love And Protest comes out in autumn.

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