When Manchester jazz festival was cancelled due to Covid-19, the team raced against time to create a fully online festival. From 21st to 24th May 2020 mjf2020: Jazz Unlocked went live online with Jazz North and United We Stream as producing partners. Current and past Jazz North northern line artists Nishla Smith, Ubunye featuring Thandanani Gumede and Archipelago performed socially distanced gigs as part of the festival. Here are their experiences….
Faye MacCalman – Archipelago
Archipelago were initially booked to play Manchester Jazz Festival before lockdown, but of course like most of life as we know it in 2020 it was cancelled. A few weeks of isolation later, after catching a breather from a busy time of gigging and freelance juggling I was really missing playing with other humans and connecting with audiences.
When mjf emailed us explaining they were partnering with United We Stream, offering us a socially distanced livestream gig I was excited to have the chance to play again but a little hazy on how we could work under lockdown restrictions. I decided in the end to have only one distanced rehearsal 2 nights before our gig to minimise risk, and we travelled down together in the car with key worker status which the festival arranged for us.
We were placed understandably very far apart by the crew there, with John Pope (Bass) even having to go on the audience floor which only added to the surreal-ness of the day.
My music works best when we’re close together as it is so much about our individual energies as well as the compositions, so it’s always difficult when we’re far apart. However in this case I think the intensity of the livestream and our happiness to be playing together again after so long more than made up for that!
Since lockdown there’s been a massive emphasis on artists sharing music from their homes, but I think a lot of people don’t realise how inaccessible this can be for many reasons, including costs, living circumstances and health. It was a total game changer having a film and sound crew who took care of all the technicalities so that we could just focus on the music, this was amazing! We were also paid which is vital right now for artists doing livestream gigs as it’s tempting to end up doing a lot for free.
For me, it was really mind blowing to play live again. Although I was very nervous to be streaming live for the first time, my nerves on the day were overshadowed by the feeling that during what continues to be a sad and strange time I am really lucky to be able to play music and how transformative music really is through the good, bad, and everything in between.
Instagram & Twitter – @fayemaccalman
Facebook & Instagram – @archipelagoband
Thandanani Gumede – Ubunye
I was originally asked by Steve Mead to perform at mjf earlier this year but it was cancelled (along with a string of other cancellations!) for obvious reasons. These are strange times defined by exponential uncertainties. So a glimmer of hope reemerged when I was asked to submit footage from my last year’s performance at the mjf hothouse showcase instead of a cancellation but that was eventually cancelled too. As you can see, this was already a roller coaster ride. Finally, Steve called again about the Manchester Jazz (Digital) festival in collaboration with Jazz North and United We Stream. It had to be live and I felt alive again—music is my life after all and I hadn’t had the chance to perform in a while since the lockdown was right at the heels of my trip from South Africa.
Our band consists of three singers from South Africa and four more musicians from the U.K. who make up the rhythm section; seven people in total. But there could only be a maximum of four people for my set in order to adhere to Social Distancing guidelines—this was the first of many curve balls when it came to logistics and our preparation for the gig. I had to prioritise Keys/Piano, Bass, Drums and Lead Vocals. My aim was to make the set a hybrid of my solo repertoire and Ubunye repertoire because both projects mean the world to me. It wasn’t going to be the same without everyone but we had to make it work. I would not have been able to pull it off on my own.
First things first: I upgraded to Zoom Pro.
What followed was a series of video/text/email and phone call correspondence with Dave Evans (piano/keys) to get a set together, and next to get the band together while remaining apart. Communication was everything: while we couldn’t practically rehearse, we went through the songs note for note and through the harmonies. Revisiting the songs theoretically and knowing them inside and out helped us rehearse synoptically despite the separation. I also had to use different apps to record myself singing different parts so I could listen back and gauge accuracy, blending, sound out some vocal onsets and imagine how those would sound like with a different voice and timbre.
Both our guitarist and drummer have very young children and we didn’t want to put them at risk. But Dave’s eldest son, Jonah is a fantastic drummer too. He knew most of the songs we played. Since they were self isolating in the same household it made sense to ask him to play and they could travel together without violating the Covid 19 lockdown guidelines. The entire process was centred around problem solving:
- I had to sing songs that were designed for 3-4 singers; so I had to sing lead and backing vocals. Dave harmonised with me. I also had to give him a crash course in Zulu.
- Our bass player was unable to honour the engagement due to unforeseen forces–my stress levels were off the roof but Jason Dandeno saved the day. Singing down the phone to one another was a nightmare but it was necessary.
- Finally, it was strange to arrive at the venue and not greet or hug each other…rushed sound check and had to go live in 5 mins.The hardest thing was to break formation and be so far from each other without any eye contact with most of the band. But the team from United We Stream was incredibly supporting and calming. When you’re there you realise that you do not have a trapped audience.
- I once had to perform under the watchful eye of the Queen’s guard and a security detail that was armed to the teeth with weapons I had only seen in Call of Duty. But this was by far the scariest performance to date because people do not have to be polite online. They can say whatever they want and leave the stream if they didn’t like your set. I felt vulnerable at the honesty of it all. In the end the well planned set came with the elasticity to create things in the moment so everything fell into place. There are no regrets and there was so much love from the people who watched. I am sorry I could not contract the entire experience in 400 words but I’ll leave it here: this was different but it was special.
When it was decided that the festival would go online, Steve Mead reached out to say that the mjf team were working on creative ways to include as many of the artists as possible in the new format. I had this idea for Tom Harris and I to do a socially-distanced concert filmed in my building for my neighbours. We wheeled my piano into the foyer and neighbours watched from their own balconies. It really felt like it brought the building together as a community—one person in my building is a dancer and he improvised to one of the songs Tom and I played. Unfortunately we had some technical issues, and the recording wasn’t able to be broadcast, which was a real shame, but even so, it still felt like a small act of music in a really isolating time, so I’m glad we did it!
Since we weren’t able to share that concert, Tom and I joined the amazing lineup of bands at Bury Met as part of the Sunday livestream. Archipelago were just finishing up as I arrived, and it was super weird because the first thing I wanted to do was to run over and say hi, but we instead kind of waved and kept our distance. The schedule was meticulously planned so there was minimal overlap, which meant that soon after Tom and I arrived we were sound-checking and then suddenly we were on. There’s always adrenaline and even fear for me when I perform, but this felt somehow both more and less scary than a regular show. There’s so much energy built up when you’re performing live, and without the audience there to absorb and reflect it, it has nowhere to go, so it just builds up and up— there were some songs in our set that we’ve performed together before, but that took on really different characters because of the strange cocktail of emotions in the room, and the insane power of playing together again after so much isolation. I miss performing for people, I miss my friends and colleagues and I miss after-show hugs (!) but until we can safely have all those things again, it’s important to find ways to create and disseminate art and music remotely, I think mjf did this amazingly well.
Instagram – @nishlasmith / @tomharrisisacommonname / @movementdecoded
For our staged work with artist Luca Shaw – wwww.ulita.uk
Nishla Smith is on our northern line scheme with Nishla Smith Quintet.