After a couple of years based in Bandra, I’m back in my hometown London finishing a film. (Don’t worry dear Firstpost reader, I’ll send postcards.) I got back to Blighty just weeks before the Brexit referendum vote to leave the EU, which is a bit like walking in on your parents whipping each other with leather-and-metal straps. (There’s no pleasure quite like self-harm, not in England anyway.) After long summer months of an endless flood of unsavoury newspaper stories about attacks on Polish/Muslim/disabled people, fortunately, this past Friday night gave some respite from the Rise of the Dickhead Brigade. This relief came in the form of a preview show of Shane Solanki’s new performance piece Songs of Immigrants and Experience: A Musical about a Muslim Girl’s Adventures on the Wheels of Steel.
First the show. Very much a friends and family preview (with an atmosphere so laid back people were lying on bean bags on the floor in front of the main stage at Rich Mix), this performance nonetheless blew the proverbial roof off. All the musicians and technicians and video-magicians involved came together brilliantly to create a deeply moving and enjoyable imaginative delve into the experience of a teenage Muslim girl in the UK, and lots beside. Conceived to eventually be a book, and album and a live show, the work is — in Solanki’s own words — “a contemporary fairy tale which reflects upon identity, sustainability, and our relationship to loss and grief.”
In post-Brexit Britain these are deeply relevant themes, not only because of the general air of loss and grief among the liberal classes that is combining with a cultural backlash against multiculturalism to create an increasingly parochial cultural climate. This context makes this work even more relevant and important than its quality and depth already do, bucking as it does the trend. In making this kind of work effective however the key, of course, is to avoid getting hung up on being Morally Good, and focus on being Artistically Great, and this show, devised and performed by such deft and distinguished artists as assembled by Solanki, achieves precisely that.
All this is deeply satisfying for those such as me who have had the pleasure of watching Solanki’s 20-year career. Long an interesting fixture in the mixture, he is now an artist approaching the height of his powers and, on the evidence of this show, deserves to be widely recognised as a glittering light of the British and South Asian cultural scenes. Since way back in the days before South Asians in the West were considered in any shape or form Cool or Hip (as, of course, all of us of sub-continental origin now effortlessly are), Shane was in the vanguard, tearing down the walls that separated Brown from Cool. He now transcends those old and rather tired categories, and is simply Bloody Brilliant.
It has been a suitably epic and winding journey to the heights Solanki is now reaching. These days he goes by the moniker Last Mango in Paris, but in the Nineties Solanki was known, respectively, as the 'Milky Bar Kid’ on the Anokha scene centred around Talvin Singh in Brick Lane and the Blue Note club in Hoxton Square, and 'Mr Shonuff' in his capacity as Wordsmith for the seminal hip-hop label Ninja Tune. Poet, comedian, producer, writer, musician, The Mango is a man for all seasons, one who never fails to charm but also challenge his audiences and participants, combining lick-spitting lyrical prowess with biting social critique and activism. Race, class, gender, mango growing strategies - there is no subject too tough or too taboo for Solanki not to find a way to drip his beat-driven, love-filled, deeply spiritual creativity over it, like so much maple syrup on the fresh warm waffle of our lives.
Solanki has also often ventured beyond the borders of this Green and increasingly Nasty Land, most recently at the 2015 Dharavi Biennale where he worked with a group of local ladies — and local Mumbai rapper Alkesh Sutar — facilitating a public dance performance based around their experience of gender in their lives in Dharavi. While he was in Mumbai he also continued his collaboration with Mumbai-based electronic music producer Bandish Projekt. There is also talk of a forthcoming project in China, as well as a musical collaboration that in 2017 will take The Mango to Port Harcourt in Nigeria, where one hopes the mangoes will be suitably abundant.
Friday night’s performance was an early preview of the new show which is due to roll out across 2017. Even if Britain has Brexited by then, don’t worry, the Last Mango will still be in Paris (and Mumbai and London and a whole bunch of other places too we’re sure) and I’ll still be here to let you know about it.
The writer is a filmmaker and gonzo correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @opencircuit