Kayus Bankole was never taught about Edinburgh’s role in the slave trade when he went to Boroughmuir High School, where he met Alloysious Massaquoi. The pair would go on to form Young Fathers with Graham ‘G’ Hastings, with the band going on to win both the Scottish Album of the Year and the Mercury Music Prize with a multi-cultural mash-up of righteous bombast on their albums, Tape Two and Dead, respectively. The trio followed up with White Men Are Black Men, Too and Cocoa Sugar, and featured extensively on the soundtrack for Danny Boyle’s Irvine Welsh adaptation, T2 Trainspotting.
Now, Bankole is seeing in the new year with his contribution to this year’s edition of Message from the Skies. Edinburgh’s Hogmanay’s city-wide series of site-specific installations combines newly commissioned texts by five writers with brand new visual projections and sound scores. The event is run in partnership by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay producers, Underbelly in association with Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust, with City of Edinburgh Council and Edinburgh International Book Festival.
It follows on from last year’s Love Letters to Europe-themed compendium of works, and opened yesterday to usher in Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters under the banner of Shorelines, with work that focus on Edinburgh’s maritime history in radically different ways.
Bankole’s piece, Sugar for Your Tea, takes place at the City Chambers on High Street, and sees its author reflect on the darker side of Scotland’s sea-faring past. Using video and projections, Bankole focuses on the seemingly respectable Scottish merchants and businessmen whose names remain familiar from streets and statues across the country, but who made their fortunes on the back of the slave trade.
Filmed by Rianne White, who has previously made videos for Young Fathers, The Proclaimers and Kate Tempest, Sugar for Your Tea also sees Bankole perform his text onscreen through a backdrop of light and water to reflect on his own identity as a Scot, as well as honouring his Nigerian ancestors. With the words themselves projected onto the City Chambers by high-tech projection mapping company, Double Take Projections, Bankole has also provided a new soundscape for the event.
“I didn’t know about Scotland’s role in the slave trade,” says Bankole. “Things like that are always buried under the crypt, so this piece actually came from being a human making new discoveries. I’m not pointing the finger. I’m wanting to make people consider how we have appropriate discussions about identity and move forward.”
As those who have already trawled across the city yesterday will know, as well as Bankole’s work, the Shorelines edition of Message from the Skies will feature new writing by Kathleen Jamie, Robin Robertson, Charlotte Runcie and Irvine Welsh. These map the city from the Union Canal in Fountainbridge to the Malmaison hotel on the Shore in Leith, taking in the Northern Lighthouse Board on George Street and the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill en route.
Jamie’s piece, Seascape with WEC, is a poem that captures her experience of witnessing new wave energy converters being tested on the Orkney islands. Graphic designer and animator Thomas Moulson brings the poem to life using vibrant colours inspired by ideas of symmetry and kinetic energy. These are subsequently animated by Susanna Murphy and Cristina Spiteri, the duo behind Bright Side Studios, who worked on last year’s Message from the Skies alongside composer Pippa Murphy on Kapka Kassabova’s love letter to Europe projected onto the National Monument of Scotland on Calton Hill. This time out, Bright Side create a playful reflection of Moulson’s visual interpretation of Jamie’s words on the water above the Union Canal in Fountainbridge.
Bright Side also take part in Ten Thousand Miles of Edge, Robin Robertson’s personal reflection of the significance of Scotland’s seaside landscape in Scotland’s identity as an island nation, and takes the audience on a vast nationwide journey across the country’s coastal geography. With Robertson narrating, Ten Thousand Miles of Edge is augmented by a new musical score by neo-trad troubadour Alasdair Roberts, who looks to Hebridean psalmody and piobiareachd to create something both sacred and elegiac. This is illuminated by Bright Side to create an immersive fusion of elements beamed onto the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill.
As another Message from the Skies veteran, Pippa Murphy, provides a new score to accompany Lightkeepers, Charlotte Runcie’s meditation on lighthouses real and fictional, including those built by pioneering engineer Robert Stevenson, grand-father of fiction author extraordinaire, Robert Louise Stevenson. Utilising the Northern Lighthouse Board on George Street as a backdrop, the piece features animations by Kate Charter to shine fresh light on such iconic myth-making structures. There is input here too from singer Karine Polwart, who narrates and sings as part of the piece.
Finally, down by The Shore in Leith, local hero Irvine Welsh presents The Sea, which promises a mash-up of Welsh’s words, film cut-ups by Norman Harman and industrial beats by DJ Steve Mac to illustrate Welsh’s memoir of the influence of a sailor he met while growing up in Leith. Projections again come care of Double Take Projections, who take over the façade of the Malmaison hotel, formerly the site of a sailor’s mission.
With a downloadable app developed by Odd Panda Design accompanying the event, Message from the Skies is an immersive experience in every way.
“Water is such a rich theme,” says Amanda Rogers, producer of this year’s Message from the Skies event, “and each piece sits in its own world, but if you walk to all five pieces, with the sound and visuals you get a full experience. It’s not just words on a wall.”
Beyond Sugar for Your Tea, Bankole is back in the studio with Massaquoi and Hastings working on new Young Fathers material.
“That’s where I’m happiest,’ says Bankole, “collaborating with my brothers, experimenting. Having two other individuals pushing me gives me a different perspective, and doesn’t feel like you’re in an echo chamber. It feels like my happy place.”
Message from the Skies runs as part of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay until January 25 from 5pm to 10pm each night.
The Herald, January 2nd 2020