Things haven’t always been easy for Alasdair Campbell while putting together this year’s Counterflows festival. This weekend’s four-day Glasgow-wide shindig of underground, experimental and international music begins at teatime tonight at Maryhill Community Central Hall. The programme features Persian percussion by Mohammed Reza Mortazavi, a German yodelling duet from Doreen Kutzke and Myriam Van Imschoot and piped drones from Scotland’s Sholto Dobie.
Such an expansive bill by itself is indicative of the artistic and international reach of Counterflows over the last eight years since it was set up by Campbell following his tenure running The Tolbooth in Stirling, where he oversaw the similarly styled annual Le Weekend festival. Campbell co-curates Counterflows with Fielding Hope, formerly behind the Glasgow-based Cry Parrot leftfield music promotions before moving to east London-based venue Café Oto.
This year’s festival line-up also features contributions from jazz pianist Alexander Hawkins playing with his trio, and Brazilian Baile-funk queen MC Carol. A special Counterflows commission, meanwhile, brings together the Viaduct Tuba Trio and The Gorbals Youth Brass Band to play new work by Falkirk’s iconic composer and pianist, Bill Wells.
Sadly missing from the programme in the flesh at least is Aklama Makumba and the Ghana Footsteps, a unique cultural exchange between Ghanaian musicians and Glasgow-based artists. This is down to the Ghanaian contingent having their visa applications turned down at the last minute. Given that the planned exchange was supported by The British Council West African Festival Fund, the decision seems doubly absurd.
“It’s ridiculous,” says Campbell. “For a British Council backed project to get turned down doesn’t really compute, and is embarrassing for everyone. We’re not alone in this sort of thing happening. It’s already affected WOMAD, and I don’t think it’s going to get better.”
In response to this, Campbell, Hope and the Counterflows team have on the one hand filled the sudden gap with Michael Labour, the Houston-based one-man noise-punk-rap artist, who visits Scotland for the first time. More significantly, perhaps, Aklama Makumba and the Ghana Steps will perform at the British Council offices in Accra, Ghana, where they will also deliver a series of workshops. From this, a short film will be made and shown as part of Counterflows.
“The main thing for me was that the guys in Ghana were going to benefit from the project,” says Campbell, “and the film is obviously a very different way of doing things, but we’ll try again next year and see what happens in terms of getting them over. One of the things that’s happened is that they’re going to work more together, and that’s a positive to come out of a really bad situation. My take on all this is that it’s not going to get any easier to bring people over from some of the poorer regions in the world in particular, but we’re going to keep on trying.”
This attitude is part of a community-based ethos which has developed over the eight years of Counterflows’ existence, which in part reflects what is happening in the world around it.
“When we started,” says Campbell, “we just picked a lot of names and put them on. But what’s developed has much more of a focus on gender and race. We don’t like to talk about it too much, but it’s there if you look for it.”
A sense of grassroots involvement is here too in the choice of venues used by the festival, which, as well as Maryhill Community Halls, hosts shows in Anderston and Kelvingrove Community Church and The Mackintosh Church as well as more regular spaces such as the CCA and The Art School.
“That goes back to wanting to bring the social aspects of the festival more to the fore,” says Campbell, “and have the audience integrated into things more. That brings its own problems sometimes, as we don’t want the sound to be any less good. This year as well we’ve drawn a line under venues that aren’t accessible for everyone. In the past we’ve apologised for that, but some venues are impossible in terms of access, and we’re limited financially in how to deal with that.”
This focus on making Counterflows about community engagement in intimate spaces ties in with a recognition of music’s roots beyond any notion of year zero experimentalism.
“I’m really interested in what is or isn’t considered to be traditional music,” Campbell says. “I’ve been involved in traditional music in Scotland for years, and I’m really interested in what that might mean in a contemporary setting. There are links there I think with what the Colombian guys playing at Counterflows do, which, according to what I’ve read, saw them become obsessed with African high life, and used that in samples for their sound system. So you’ve got different traditions being used together in a contemporary way, and it ends up becoming part of what we call experimental music. Going round the world and haring all this, I wonder what those terms mean anymore.”
This year’s Counterflows arrives hard on the heels of the BBC’s announcement that Late Junction, Radio 3’s Sony award winning small-hours smorgasbord of the sort of musical eclectica over the last two decades is scheduled to be cut from three two-hour shows a week to a solitary Friday night show. Given that the show’s content is probably the closest thing to Counterflows on public service broadcasting, this is not a good look. Especially as the station’s contemporary jazz strand, Jazz Now, is being ‘rested’. This isn’t the first time the BBC has made cuts in more leftfield programming, having similarly axed the long-running Mixing It programme in 2007.
“I despair,” is Campbell’s response. “Everything is becoming so mainstream, but platforms like Late Junction are a chance to show the range and diversity of things that are going on. Late junction is one of the oases of interesting things, and surely that’s what the BBC is for.”
The irony here is that BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now programme will be visiting Counterflows to record the concerts in Maryhill Community Central Hall for broadcast at a later date. In the meantime, in the spirit of Mixing It, whose presenters moved operations to online radio station Resonance FM, Counterflows looks set to receive extensive coverage from the Glasgow-based Subcity Radio. Whatever happens next for Counterflows in terms of bringing international artists to Glasgow, Campbell intends to carry on regardless.
We keep challenging and developing idea we’ve been developing over the last three years, ideas about gender, diversity and community. It feels like we’re getting there, but there’s lots more to do.”
Campbell cites a trip to Melbourne in Australia as opening his eyes to concerns that go beyond the concert hall.
“There are a huge amount of people trying to ask questions,” he says. “In New South wales, there are festivals happening in farming communities, where there are huge environmental issues to do with land and heat, and the farming community has started this dialogue about that, and I found myself speaking with sheep farmers about all this. Pure music is great, but I think we have a responsibility beyond that.”
Counterflows runs at various venues in Glasgow from today-Sunday. Full details can be found at www.counterflows.com.
The Herald, April 4th 2019