Music City!

November 5, 2013


Something is seriously remiss. It’s 4am and I’m trembling like the ‘scraggy wee shits’ in Seamus Heaney’s The Early Purges before Dan Taggart pitched them into a bucket. It could be the cold, the coffee or the time that has me this way, but I’m leaning towards fury, the music from a wedding in my supposed 4 star hotel keeping me conscious as the clock ticked down to my early rise. Instead of counting sheep, I’m pumping rounds of imaginary bullets into the DJ as Gangham Style morphs into The Harlem Shake, The Girls of Belfast City stomp relentlessly into the Fields of Athenry, and as Single Ladies become Baby Boys -my temper and a Beyoncé mega mix reaching their crescendo, my alarm chimes in. It’s time to rise.

It’s the Summer Solstice and I’m in Derry to review Music City! a celebration of music that takes place from dawn on Friday till dawn on Saturday as part of the cities year-long role as the UK’s City of Culture.

But as I drive through the back roads of Inis Owen I’d be happy never to hear another note again. Ditching the car at the bottom of a hill we climb in darkness to Grianán of Aileach, a ring fort in County Donegal. It used to be the seat for the High King’s O’Neill from the 5th century. This morning it’s the launch site for the day’s festivities, the Inisowen Gospel Choir providing a Dawn Chorus.

During the troubles it was a source of mystification to Gareth Steward, who had the idea for Music City! “It was one of those sorts of places that you aspired to reach,” he tells me. “During the conflict there would have been check points leading up to it and, around Solstice time, we heard stories of pagans and hippies going up and having parties. It’s a stunning place with so much history.”

He’s not wrong. The views are spectacular and as the choir give voice to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ the sun spills out over the peninsula, lighting up Loughs Swilly and Foyle. 600 people have made the early morning trek, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness among them. Tea flasks are shared, there’s an actual traffic jam in the roads surrounding the hill and stewards let the laminate on their identification go to their head (“get down of that fort or the choir will not start”). But the din is soon soused as the choral and geographic beauty takes hold.

The majesty trickles throughout the city over the course of the day. Six months after becoming the UK’s first Capitol of Culture, Derry is not so much a changed woman as more confident in her wares. Small, compact and aesthetically pleasing, its landscape- comprised of rivers, mountains and the cities imposing walls, provides the perfect platform to present the national and international talent that has descended on the city.

It’s everywhere you look. Outside Tesco I’m floored by a gorgeous rendition of ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’. Further up the hill a man in a grey suit, with a j-cloth across his face and wedges on his feet is playing an upturned bike, accompanied by a man in a cape with a midi player and a smoke machine. There’s a merging of the cities traditional Irish and Ulster Scott traditions in preparation of the Walled City Tattoo, a Derry take on the Edinboro festival celebrating martial music merging Irish and Highland dancing.

“We wanted to use all of our environment,” Steward continues. “The buildings, the walls, the mountains. So why not the sky?” To that end, next on our schedule is the Sky Chorus. A flotilla of hot air balloons, equipped with speakers, take off soon after sunrise, emitting ambient music down on the city below. They stretch like a musical bridge cross the River Foyle, connecting the two communities on opposite sides. Cars pull in on the motorway as drivers get out to get a better look, children run from their houses in their dew drenched jammies while startled cows stampede in packs whenever the balloons appear.

“What’s great about performing in the early morning is that the sound collects in the empty streets echoing the music from the sky like a cup,” says Luke Jerram, the man behind it.

Its 100 years since lyricist Frederic Weatherly added words to the ‘Derry Air’ to create ‘Danny Boy’. At midday there is a massive sing a long in Guildhall Square to mark the event where an estimated 5,000 people piped up. The wall of sound produced doesn’t just rattle eardrums but sends shivers up the spine, memory lending a touching poignancy to the novelty of the occasion, compounded by the fact the city walls and the Peace Bridge are in view.

“All you saw of Derry as a kid was car bombs or terrorism or riots,” says Neil Cowley, the cities artist in residence, best known for tickling the ivories for Adele. “But the vast majority of people just want to live a culturally rich, inspiring life. I’m in music to connect with people, to understand them and to enrich my life and my art with new cultures. If I can pull people in and help them do the same through my role in the City of Culture, that’s great.”

There are two strands to Derry being the City of Culture. The first, Joyous Celebration, is on plain view throughout Music City! From the 79 buskers playing across the city to an orchestra of sewing machines, name a music form and it has a stage, a pub, a church or a shop front dedicated to it. Bronagh Gallagher, Donal Lunny and Buena Vista Social Club are just three of the acts who’ll perform this evening.

The other strand is purposeful enquiry. “Bringing young and old people from different backgrounds together for sustained cultural projects breaks down barriers more naturally rather than traditional methods, like going away together on holidays,” says Steward. “You don’t just go home after. You build.”

A city that has exited a war, Derry has also exited the worlds past perception of her. For that reason a stage has been handed over to the organizers of Serbia’s EXIT festival, which was set up to mark the countries removal from power of Slobodan Milosevic. “It’s dedicated to acts from cities like Derry that were maybe misunderstood, that were seen as cities of conflict, “says Steward. Bands from Beirut, Belgrade, Moscow and Tbilisi rip it up alongside their Foyleside counterparts. While elsewhere an amuse-bouche of events programmed for later in the year are presented such as the Fleadh Ceol.
I wonder what happens in 2014, when the funds dry up and the crown rests on another cities head? “Its all about legacy,” says Steward. “This isn’t about one year. It’s about the next 20. Young people have to leave every year for Dublin, NY, London, Australia. If we can build momentum this year for them to hold onto maybe they’ll make this city their home in the future. People always say their hometown is crap. But all I’ve heard this year is about how deadly Derry is.”

Having spent 24 hours in Music City! it’s hard to disagree.

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