“So, what do you think of the place?” It’s a question that State is posed on more than one occasion during our 36 hours in Derry. This stems, you suspect, not from concern at what you might say but a genuine pride in where the Northern Ireland’s second city is heading these days. Like Belfast before it, Derry (or Derry / Londonderry as every official communication would have it) is rebranding itself, in this case helped no end by the year’s artistic endeavours.
The status as the UK’s City of Culture 2013 came about partly as a result of the 400th anniversary of the construction of its wide, domineering city walls. Like the Olympics, the City of Culture banner will come about every four years, and with a population of less than a quarter of a million, one could argue Northern Ireland’s second city did well to swat away competition from larger finalists Birmingham, Sheffield and Norwich. The title brings with it a swashbuckling array of alluring and inventive tourism, a seemingly endless spate of festivities and a sense that “the place” is not just going through a renaissance but something of a revolution. The addition of this year’s Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in August adds an extra element.
Derry, of course, has a pointed history. It still weaves an unavoidable narrative through the city’s streets, whether staring from the city walls at the Bogside site of Bloody Sunday or stood beneath the gate where a siege on the loyalist-held hilltop extracted the never forgotten words ‘No Surrender’. Divisiveness is still prevalent, not a crisis of identity but a complex conflict, born out at the city’s rougher edges in the Union Jack markings along a protestant enclave’s city centre ‘resistance’, and in the IRA graffiti that still adorns the roof of a shabby bogside shack. There’s humour now, too, though, not least in a lock attached to the inside of a former siege gate under those city walls, labelled with white paint as ‘the seventh most important thing in the world’.
You can’t help feeling, in fact, that Derry plays off it’s history a little. Controversy or not, why wouldn’t it: the local tour guides aren’t wrong in suggesting that tourism is likely to be a major business here in future, and – as grating as the concept might be – there’s no doubting that the jarring history forms part of the present allure. It also makes its presence felt on the artistic side of things. The impressive Shirt Factory complex features the Picturing Derry exhibition of photographs from the late ‘60s / early ‘70s (with the work of Frenchman Gilles Caron the most striking), while downstairs in the Void gallery Andrei Molodkin’s Catholic Blood is an installation that sees, yes, catholic blood pumped round a replica of the Rose Window from the Houses Of Parliament. There’s a point being made we’re sure but we just find it a little too creepy.
In contrast, the rest of Derry certainly has a festive feel. It being the longest day, the Music City event kicks off with a dawn chorus and keeps going to the small hours. Even early in the day, stages are wedged into every public space, with school choirs in shopping centres, singer-songwriters in the craft village and hypnotic, cape-clad beat-weirdos aiming for a midday rave outside the local. The quality is mixed, admittedly (covers of ‘Living on a Prayer’ and tone deaf versions of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ accompany some genuinely stunning public outings), but it certainly brings the place to life. In some senses it feels like a musical festival has been layered happily over the city’s normal ebb and flow, permeating public spaces with the kind of energy we all wish could become every day; simple, joyous and easy to get sucked into.
The day’s main events takes place in a temporary hub featuring Erbington Square (the site of an old British army base – once again history rears its head) and the imaginatively branded ‘The Venue’. The unwieldy titled Sounds From This City vs Sounds From Cities On The Edge event, hosted in collaboration with Serbia’s magnificent EXIT Festival, pits local names (the much fancied Little Bear, the cool electronica of Ryan Vail and sparky indie types The Clameens amongst others) against artists from locations such as Beirut, Moscow and Havana. It’s Lisbon’s Batida (pictured) who steal the show however, offering a sunny percussion-driven world hip-hop style that oozes sunshine as the crowd shelter from the Derry weather in a tent. They insist the lighting’s turned tropical, operate a revolving door policy on vocalists and dancers, and finish with a frantic dance off in which a local lad does a great job of imitating a pro breakdancer. Encouragingly they’re immediately matched by The Wonder Villains, who may be a very different musical proposition but are equally engaging. What’s more their up and at ‘em approach to pop music has much in common with the city’s heritage. The O’Neill brothers would most definitely approve.
Round the corner, Buena Vista Social Club’s ‘Orquestra’ are also doing their best to bring a few rays to what passes for a summer’s evening. The Cuban act’s history dates back to the 50s, and they feel refreshingly like a setup that’s still determined to portray the finest in Cuban originality, rather than bend to any newer trends. The 13-piece are an aging act, but they’re certainly not living off the royalties, with the host of original members recently weaving together a spattering of solo albums. On stage, each of the jazz-based ensemble has their own built-in moment to shimmer and shine.
The orchestra are not so much an ode to modern Cuba, but a happy throwback to pre-revolutionary times that reeks of hedonism and artistic freedom. It’s that sense, perhaps, that catapulted the self-titled 1996 release to a status far beyond the scope of most albums filed lazily under the ‘world’ tag. Many of the hits from that movie are out in force, offering a smiling insight into post-war salsa culture that’s undoubtedly dated, but effortlessly charming, too. The band, of course, aren’t defined by a single person (they have something of a revolving door policy) and don’t in fact produce many of their own songs either. Cuban trad staples such as ‘Chan Chan’ and ‘Candela’ are simply polished into stage-worthy gems with a sunny disposition. While some of tonight’s members, such as Barbarito Torres (pronounced with that wonderful extended rolling R on band introductions) and Pacho Alonso are long-time participants who also featured in that mood enhancing film, others are far too young to remember pre-Castro days. Not that you’d be able to tell: they deliver all the essential vibes.
The mood, in fact, is what makes tonight’s show great. With many participants way past retirement age, they convey that hispanic romanticism so many equate with revolutionary Cuba, and bring a pulse of sunshine to a rainy day. Best of all, amongst Derry’s own edgy history, it all seems to make a whole lot of sense. What did we think of the place? We liked it just fine.