-reviewed by Paul Askew–
Tongue Fu‘s concept: Invite writers to perform with a live band improvising along.
I’ll admit I was somewhat dubious, as my only previous encounter of such a thing was on a late night BBC2 live jazz series in the mid 1990’s, when the presenter performed some “jazz poetry” while improvising with his piano trio. It was cringeworthy, and this is when I was a teenager, writing and enjoying cringeworthy poetry myself (come on, you all did that too, don’t pretend you didn’t), so for me to not like it then, it must’ve been REALLY bad.
And that was the image I had in my head when I tried to imagine what this gig was going to be like.
The noticeable and crucial thing though, the music worked.
(Here’s how they do it. Before each piece the performer has a brief chat with the band to tell them the themes, or what kind of thing they’d like the band to play. The musicians, clearly very competent improvisers, almost always end up playing something that fits what’s being performed.)
Tongue Fu is hosted by Chris Redmond, who started the night off with a “Prayer” poem that started in outer space and ended in the room we were in, hoping for the best from the night’s performers.
The First Half:
- Tim Clare. His first poem was about being drunk and trying to make people like you. It was a witty account of the kind of things we’ve all done when that boozed up little voice in your head says things like “Hey, you know what would be a great idea? Get your knob out and dip it in that guy’s pint. Yeah, that’ll impress them!” It was “Aren’t we all ridiculous,” rather than “Oh, woe is me,” which kept it funny.
- He followed it with a poem about how we should all be kinder to ourselves that started off sounding like the Baz Luhrmann song “Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen,” but became more unhinged as it went on. This was cleverly mirrored by the music becoming looser and less structured, which shows how good Tongue Fu’s concept is when it gets it right.
- Tongue Fu’s poet in residence, Shane Solanki was next. He did a fairly long retelling of the nativity that reminded me of John Lennon’s poetry, he took a familiar tale and replaced words for comic or political effect (the three wise men became women, Thursday became “Parklife by Blur-day,” etc.). It switched between being an amusing, modernised version of the familiar story, and an anti-war political commentary.
- I have to say, if it hadn’t been for the accompanying music, I would’ve probably found it a tad annoying and a bit too long, but as Solanki wrote it specifically for this night, with the intention of it being set to music, it worked well. Another point scored for the Tongue Fu concept.
- Malika Booker finished off the first half: her first, described as a “Homage to Brixton”, was a straightforward depiction of everyday city life with dub backing from the band. It sounded like a Linton Kwesi Johnson track, in a good way.
- The next poems were tributes to her family. The first, a dream in which she performs with some dead relatives in the audience before they all have dinner together, was a tad clichéd for my liking (a flower is used as a metaphor for love, a knife as a metaphor for pain). The second, about trying to restore the faith an aunt has lost while in hospital, was far more original and interesting.
The Second Half:
- Began with Chris Redmond doing a poem about the time he got his own poo in his eye. No, really. It was like a formal poetry version of a Judd Apatow film. It went down a storm.
- Malika Booker returned with a poem about the strength of women through the generations of her family, and was the first rare instance of the music not working.
- This was followed by a poem constructed of quotes from her mother. It did an old trick well: starting humorous before a well judged switch in tone, which led to a poignant ending.
- Tim Clare came back with a poem/rant against teenagers, both now and when he was a teen.
- Then the highlight of the night: a series of hip-hop verses as various famous women from history. It was very cleverly done and hilarious.
- Last act of the night was Martin Shaw. A storyteller, rather than a poet, he finished the night off with an extended myth-like tale, which starts as a deal-with-the-devil story before following the daughter of said deal maker in some sort of I’ve-gone-mad-because-my-Dad-cut-my-hands-off-and-I’ve-lived-in-a-forrest-for-years-and-oh-look-a-king’s-going-to-fall-in-love-with-me. Then the king goes off to war, she has a baby, Devil comes back to shake things up, they separately end going to the same pub (years apart form each other, of course). Then they get married. Then her hands grow back.
- (Then I bit my own hands off out of sheer boredom. Seriously. I’m typing this review with bleeding stumps, but it’s okay. I’ll just find a pub full of people from all the stories ever told in the world and then somehow they’ll just grow back. No biggie.)
- This story should be rewritten as a novel. Or even a novella. Then there would be enough space to properly deal with everything that comes up. As it is, Martin tries to fit too much into too short a time and it comes across as scrappy and half baked. This wasn’t helped by him stopping the band every minute or so, which just served to highlight the lack of narrative flow.
- It split opinion in the audience though. Some seemed to really enjoy it, some left while he’d been performing.
- As Chris Redmond said at the beginning, the night itself is an experiment. And sadly, that means it won’t always work. On the whole, the night really won me over: the central idea of spoken word with live improv backing gave it a unique feel, and the charisma of the other performers had made it really fun. I would definitely say that this is a night worth going to.