They’ve been dropping bombs on libraries, they’ve destroyed the university and many thousands of homes. The death toll in Gaza for the month is currently 15,000. Whole families have been obliterated from the civil registry. This IDF response to the Hamas killings is horrendous, vengeful and at times, gloating. We know there’s a whole other narrative, a twisted back story and there’s even nuance below the dust of those sickening craters. But in the now, the analysis is simple: this is wrong.
Part of our northern experience has been to mute and equivocate about our own bloody moments. Seamus Heaney once talked about “the tight gag of place and times”, and he often felt the shame of it. But the current mood on the island is not reticent. Media figures say that Ireland is an outlier, that it condemns Israel’s conduct when many European neighbours say nothing. That amounts to a whole other history lesson, but emphatically, Ireland’s creative people are using their voices, putting significant words, notes and art into the aether.
This week, Irish Artists for Palestine is delivering various events with Anna Burns, Blindboy, Sally Rooney, Kevin Barry, Kneecap, Stephen Rea, Wendy Erskine, Damien Dempsey, Glenn Patterson, Lisa O’Neill and scores of others. Lankum are headlining the 3Arena, less than a week after the cancellation of their Leipzig show with the TransCentury Update festival (statement: “Lankum represents a political stance that we as a venue and festival do not represent”). There are consequences and pressures, yet the artists persist.
So this event at the Black Box in Belfast is not a flip gesture. That’s why you listen intently to Ciaran Lavery singing ‘Shame’, being vulnerable and calling for solace.
“I want to live between the lie
And where the truth dies
Everything in its own time.”
Joshua Burnside picks at the banjo, Zara Fleming leans over the cello and Dan Byrne McCullough strums. This trio continues the story, notably with ‘Blood Drive’, one of the songs that Joshua fetched from a visit to Colombia, where a quarter of a million people have died in a filthy conflict. Joshua apologises that so many of his songs are about death and disorder, but we forgive the tone and roll with the heart of it. ‘Blood Drive’ has anxiety and dread, helicopters and sparks in the dead night.
Bridie Monds-Watson says that it’s intimidating to be on a class bill, but SOAK is always outstanding and this solo performance is a throwback to those early, affecting days. ‘B a noBody’ is a call to the misfits, a reassurance that it’s fine to be outside the peer pressure and grim expectations. The new songs are rough-edged and the tune about sad souvenirs from Death Valley is inspired. Likewise, the one about a fast-burning friend (“snowflakes on speed”) has that SOAK imprimatur.
Farrah Koutteineh from the Palestinan Return Centre puts the event into context. She talks of door keys and bulldozers, illegal settlements and Big Oil. It is heavy, emotional content and at times the situation feels hopeless. But her MO is about moving opinion and creating resistance. “Solidarity is freeing us,” she insists.
Tonight’s bill has been curated by Gemma Doherty from Saint Sister, alongside Brendy Loughran, a concertina player and language enthusiast who has helped to introduce the Palestinian tune, ‘Yamma Mwel el Hawa’ into the trad repertoire. Another special feature of the night is the inclusion of Rachael Lavelle. The voice is astounding and the melding of electronica and jazz is expertly done. ‘Let Me Unlock Your Full Potential’ achieves lift-off with clarinet, beats and gravity-averse melodies. Hints of Liz Frazer and Max Richter. Wonderful
Saint Sister return with so much poise and their performance of ‘Manchester Air’ surpasses the already-fine album version from 2021. They bring Dani Larkin on for a memorable whirl into Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Mandinka’ and the night is officially a great one. Gemma plays harp alongside Lisa Canny and the aforementioned Palestinian air is fetched up and Brendy joins the ensemble.
Pillow Queens seal the sentiments of the evening with ‘Suffer’, pent-up and passionate. They endorse the night’s theme and enthral the supporters with ‘Gay Girls’ and ‘Rats’. We’ve been expecting an elemental sign-off and sure enough, there is ‘Liffy’, and that immense outpouring. When we first heard that song it seemed like a movement was in process. Now here it is. That was the river, this is the sea.
Irish Artists for Palestine, Black Box Belfast, 27.11.23