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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Why Camberwell is the fairest of them all: sweet music and scorched grass in SE5

Dawn Penn at the Camberwell Fair, July 25 2015
My cool ruler: Dawn Penn instructs the crowd on the finer points of  deep roots reggae at the 2015 Camberwell Fair - a revival of an ancient festival that, oh now it is so obvious,  has been badly missed for 160 years
Gutted to have missed the Lambeth Country Show two weeks back, I set off on Saturday for the first Camberwell Fair for 160 years, hoping it might restore a little bit of south London summer joy to a severely depleted soul (mine).

Not many of us can remember the last fair on Camberwell Green, as it was in 1855. If it was anything like as good as today's, you wonder why the hell it didn't keep going. In fact maybe that's the reason - if it was anywhere near as much fun as this eight hour feast of music, food, arts and crafts, dance and (ok) a little bit of drinking and what not - then you can imagine only too well why the authorities of the day might have wanted to put a cap on it.

Today's event on that well-trodden wedge of grass in SE5 had a bit of a magical feel. Much as everyone loves the annual feast of reggae music, cider and farmyard attractions that the London Borough of Lambeth puts on in Brockwell Park, it has almost become a victim of its own success, with pressure each year to cut it back or charge for entry.

The moment Camberwell Green became
skank central…our lovely crowd goes
ska-crazy for the double-up-tempo beat of
ChainSka Brassica
This event in the neighbouring borough eventually had the support of Southwark council (well, it had to really, didn't it?) - but the movers behind it were not council people but local community groups, arts people, musicians.

 As a new venture it had that lovely risky feeling - and everyone there, I'm sure, felt that way, that we were all incredibly lucky to be there, and to witness for example, the reggae legend Dawn Penn singing her heart out for a crowd of a few hundred extremely happy people in the late afternoon sun.

Yes, Dawn Penn - and yes, she sang You Don't Love Me, and yes she was in great form, and backed by a great band (Black Slate International) who'd been levitating the crowd for the previous hour.

And this was just one of the stages - somehow they'd fitted two sound stages as well as dozens of craft and food and community stalls into the space as well as a big beer bar, a farmers' market and a distinctly tropical feeling rainbow forest cocktail bar, built of corrugated metal around a big old chestnut tree.

Arriving at 4pm I joined a long queue to get in. The half-hour shuffle towards the gates was fine as we could hear a high energy Balkan dance band, The Turbans, whipping up the crowd within. Sadly we'd already missed two of the early acts - the Afro-Colombian folk band, Papyera, and a Congolese band, Kasai Masai.

Walking across the Green to the toward the main Wormfood Stage, you pass a stall covered in art and fabrics, and there's a large sketch of the London skyline as seen from Peckham covering several panels of board. This is the preliminary drawing for a proposed massive mural that two artists, Georgia Bosson and Cecily Vessey, are hoping to paint in central Peckham to draw attention to the way blocks of luxury flats are ruining south London's views. This is part of the Peckham Vision campaign - something we sorely needed but did not have the community spirit to get in the Nine Elms-Vauxhall area.

Dawn was the one I came to see, along with Afrobeat master and former Egypt 80 member (and thus Fela Kuti sideman), Dele Sosimi, whose tight, fiery and yet academically precise Afrobeat show ended the day triumphantly.

In between there was a revelation for anyone who had not so far encountered a band of local boys calling themselves ChainSka Brassica.  Members of this very young-looking nine-piece band took control, ordering people to the stage from all over the Green, getting them up off their arses. Dominated by super-tight rhythm and horn sections and with a suitably belligerent lead singer (who, it turned out, was really a sensitive soul), this band clearly meant business and quickly impressed anyone doubting their credentials.

Their songs were sharp, funny and with some good hard-biting New Cross style lyrics, and whenever they shifted into ska gear, the whole crowd's knees were pumping the air - honestly! 

What a great band. Even the inter-song banter was good. "Camberwell! Am I going to get you skanking tonight!"

And oh yes they did. Just as Dele Sosimi's band got plenty of people trying to copy the great man's oh-so-fluid rump movements, so ChainSka boys got several hundred pairs of trainer-clad feet pumping into the parched turf of Camberwell Green.

For part of the show I was standing behind a group of Capoeira experts who were brilliant movers to all the different musical styles - but even they seemed to be exhausted by 60 minutes of moon stomping knees-up.

What a great event, though. It had that magical ingredient - it was an experiment, and had been put together by the sheer love, guts, energy and enthusiasm a of local artists and promoters, notably Wormfood London. It felt like a  privilege to be there. It was a privilege. By the end of the evening I was regretting that day back in 1985 when I turned down a lovely flat in Dagmar Road for the stupid place I bought in Clapham. Mind you I often regret turning down an even lovelier flat in New Cross just as badly.

ANyway, a great day, and  you can be sure there's several thousand people now hoping they can turn this into a regular annual event.

With apologies to an almost forgotten art-rock band from just up the road, where do we want to be?


 When do we want to be there?


Ska band ChainSka Brassica at the 2015 Camberwell Fair
Local band ChainSka Brassica brew up storm of ska for the nutty boys and girls and London SE5

Camberwell Fair 2015 - the Community Stage
And at this beautifully-decorated tent at the north end of the Green there was a whole alternative programme of djs, rappers, spoken-word artists, and singers and poets on the Community Stage: if only we'd had time to see them all!
Camberwell Fair 2015 - cocktail bar
Between acts, plenty of time to get refreshing cocktails at this lovely rainbow forest bar
Dele Sosimi's afrobeat band at the Camberwell Fair, London SE5, July 2015
Dele Sosimi and band get a very willing crowd into a deep Nigerian afrobeat groove

Camberwell Fair, London SE5, July 25 2015 :

Camberwell Fair, London SE5, July 25 2015 :

Camberwell Fair, London SE5, July 25 2015 : signposts

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