Returning Spirits

This week, my partner and I made an all-too-rare trip to the cinema. Not to a popcorn-carpeted theatre the size of a small city, but to our local, volunteer-run Cube Microplex, to see Atlantics. We go to see a different view of the world we live in, or to visit an imagined world, and like the best films, this one satisfies both longings. It’s a story of economic migrants in Senegal; it’s a story of young love and arranged marriage; it’s supernatural, comments on society and is beautifully filmed. Watching its camera pass over out-of-place skyscrapers, hypnotic nightclub lights and a blank but malevolently Solaris-reminiscent ocean, was surely better than doing so via Netflix, which Atlantics is also showing on at the moment.

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Lights in Dakar: a still from Atlantics (Les Film du Bal – Cinekap – Frakas – Arte France Cinema- Canal Plus Int’l)

I’m probably all-too-happy to watch films that satisfy my taste for artiness, but score low in the “did that have a point?” stakes. This one scored high on both, which probably helped writer-director Mati Diop win the Grand Prix at Cannes this year. (She also became the first woman of African descent to be shortlisted for its main prize, the Palme d’Or. Just a reminder, this is 2019.) Interestingly, a caption in the magic-realist Atlantics‘ trailer snappily declares that ‘Every love story is a ghost story’. Novelist Barry Hannah went further, as a pupil of his has quoted – “All stories, he’d say, are ghost stories. Something haunts the work and the reader turns the pages to find out what it is”.

I guess my work is haunted too. As a songwriter, you generally have more limited narrative scope than a filmmaker: each song a message or a potted story; at most, each album an exercise in world-building. So if you were to ask me about the album I’m in the early/mid stages of creating, how would I describe its hauntedness? One angle I’d take, as the record is about living creatively, is that it’s haunted by my past self and what I’d always imagined to be my future self. My past self is present as the 15-year-old songwriter whose works are repurposed by a 33-year-old with a different perspective. Also, as I listened with my friend and former bandmate Simon T this week to recordings of the ruckus we used to make in public, I heard a 24-year-old version of myself. This one was yelling, wearing ridiculous trousers and trying to communicate through harmonically complex songs that also sounded a bit like Alice-in-Wonderland video games or a fairground ride gone wrong. Out of tune, maybe, but what an admirable lack of fear.

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A more significant ‘haunting’ in the world of the album, I hope – actually, ‘spiritual presence’ is probably closer to the mark – is the one we encounter when we discover or rediscover how magical the world around us is. A re-enchantment. I’m pretty sure life is at least as magical as Atlantics is. Writers may use their magic-realist tropes to stand in for the ‘things we can’t explain’ category of phenomena. I think those phenomena are so woven into reality that we encounter magic on a daily basis – that the natural and supernatural are forever coexisting. Now, is my work going to be strong enough to embody that conception of the world? Who knows. I’ll make my best efforts and see what magic happens.

Best efforts: I’ve been working on tracks (of which, here are some embarrassing in-progress glimpses); trying to inveigle my way into an ensemble of 10 cellists who, unbeknownst to me, had been meeting in the flat downstairs; putting myself forward for another Bristol music team, while we’re still in town; scoring the afore-shared St Cecilia Dream for string quartet; having a session of new music-listening and -feedback with Simon T. This art stuff needs the oxygen of community to be of value.

As if seeing a cracking film wasn’t enough, at the Cube last week Senegalese musician Batch Gueye opened the event with a set of original songs in Wolof, the language spoken in Atlantics. Batch is a griot, a musical storyteller found across West African cultures (I wrote of another griot here, evidently before I knew how the word was pronounced). And I must admit, I had a hard time choosing which of Batch’s songs to share with you – I could literally listen to his music all day.


A reasonable choice would be to head over to Bandcamp, listen to his back catalogue and get some respite from the ubiquitous Slade/Jona Lewie playlist. On which topic, Christmas: a supernatural festival commemorating a woman gladly becoming pregnant by a powerful spirit. Thus the figure at the centre of a creation myth enters into that creation, the author becoming a character in their own novel. Hope you’ll join me in downing an inadvisable quantity of Quality Street and considering that this ruckus started off, in its own way, as a Festival of Re-enchantment.

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