Following a particularly impressive few months even by its own routinely solid standards, Blahblahblah opened its doors at Bristol Old Vic on a brilliantly warm summer evening to welcome the audience in for a typically eclectic line-up.
Hosting (and indeed producing) the evening was Bristolian wordsmith and Blahblahblah regular Anna Freeman, who, following last month’s debut of her new conceptual piece ‘Work In Progress’, commenced proceedings with a recital of a piece by American poet Billy Collins, which built upon the enjoyably abstract theme she’d used before. Thoroughly dialled-up in its over-the-top content, Anna generated a raft of laughs with Collins’ poem and settled the audience ready for their first guest performer of the month.
A tall chap with a large presence, Bohdan Piasecki introduced himself warmly to the crowd, joking endearingly that there was indeed a logical reason to possess such a name; he’s Polish. Having pointed out the (genuinely) useful tip that his surname rhymes with ‘jet ski’ and is therefore instantly more memorable as a result, he explained that his personality and art is the product of the inbound flood of Western influence into his post-Communist, Polish youth. From this cultural deluge, he latched onto basketball, Dungeons & Dragons and hip-hop, which he suggests has formed the basis of his character ever since.
Perhaps not the most obvious trio of influences, it nonetheless seems to have worked well for Bohdan, whose set was an enjoyable mix of buoyant charisma, Tupac references, parallel narratives, dips into rapid-fire Polish and a peppering of “I’m stealing English jobs” jokes. In an occasion that’ll remain memorable for all, Bohdan’s first public recital of an intense, religion-orientated piece called ‘All Saints Day’ coincided serendipitously with the opening notes of a practicing choir in the adjacent theatre, who enhanced his words with a holy reverence thanks to some quite exceptional timing. Confirming with the crowd that it wasn’t just him that’d heard the unexpected biblical accompaniment, Bohdan joked that perhaps his piece was so impactful that the heavens had opened in response!
Performing a couple of pieces about his fictional creation ‘George’, Bohdan continued to entertain those present with a mixture of great wording (“glistening like a great idea”) and experimental structure, including one piece that implemented the format of a foreign language lesson to innovative effect. His captivating set ended with a poignant piece that juxtaposed the ‘drop’ of the beat within music to the drop of bombs in areas threatened by warfare, leaving the audience clapping warmly in appreciation of a well-executed set of enjoyable variety.
Next on-stage was Hannah Silva, an amiable-looking blonde lady with a gentle presence, who stepped timidly into the spotlight. Plugging in the cables of a loop pedal under the inquisitive eyes of the basement crowd, an air of intrigued expectation grew in the room. Eventually standing before the mic and taking a composed breath, Hannah prefixed her first piece by recollecting the time she’d heard Ed Milliband recite the exact same templated response to a series of different interviewers. Mouthing vague noises into her microphone, Hannah then began to ‘layer’ loops of incomprehensible tones over one-another using her specialist pedal. Though comprised of a variety of sounds, an annoyingly whining, nasal theme grew dominant as the layers stacked together, continually building towards the semblance of something more cognisant. Capping her gratingly shrill but expertly crafted cacophony with the tempo-matched quote from Mr Milliband (and therefore likening it to the repetitive ‘white noise’ she’d just been creating), it proved to be the missing piece of the sonic puzzle that drew the previous loops together into context, climaxing the piece with a surprising and enjoyably unique conclusion. A mixture of technical skill, solid rhythm and political satire, Hannah had certainly grabbed the room’s attention following an apprehensive start.
Further pieces drew upon the effortless execution of the loop pedal, the inventive use of sounds and rhythm to texture the pieces with evolving emotional context and the interweaving of stirring vocals that covered topics as striking and varied as religion, pain, Fifty Shades of Grey, prostitutes in Berlin, prosthetics and Colonel Gaddafi.
Often relayed in a devotedly unnerving fashion, the surreal performances seemed to both create and clash organic sounding elements with an almost robotic antithesis. Over a loop of butter-smooth vocals, Hannah would bark lines in a vacant, rigid manner like a machine, often ramping up their speed and complexity to dizzying heights. Deliberate ‘glitches’ would often be apparent in the recitals, like a computer stuttering under heavy load, occasionally compounding into spectacles of ‘malfunctioning’ chaos, with one instance becoming as close to hearing the scattershot internal dialogue of madness as one could imagine. Performed to an engrossed audience sat in pin-drop silence, the imaginative creations and unsettling juxtapositions crafted before the crowd were unlike little else seen before. Undoubtedly artistic, their wider reception in society is likely to be highly divisive; some may find this content laughably absurd, whereas others may find it inspiringly creative and deeply resonant. Though by the end of the set there was a growing familiarity forming with the largely one-trick format, Hannah Silva’s performance at Blahblahblah was amongst the most arrestingly unique and vividly memorable in recent months.
After a brief interval, it was the turn of Kayo Chingonyi to take to the stage. Following a glowing introduction from Anna Freeman, he stepped in front of the crowd and began his confident set with a brief homage to Bristol, highlighting a recent enjoyable visit to the Idle Hands record store in Stokes Croft (gaining a resounding hum of approval from the music-savvy room). He also playfully acknowledged his and Bohdan’s similar dress sense, having both found themselves magnetised towards the unofficial poets uniform of a Friday-night-dinner-shirt and chinos.
Following the laughter-filled opening patter, Kayo smoothly switched gears and transitioned into his poetry. His deep, calm voice cast a friendly yet authoritative hush over the room, from which he wove snapshot tales with an artistic flair. Enhanced with entertainingly unique references (including a nostalgic nod to Reusch goalie gloves) and dotted with animated strays from his sharply articulate received pronunciation into well-performed localised twangs, his work seemed to stem from broader roots than his serene, somewhat formal first impression had suggested.
Calmly confident and very much gimmick-less, Kayo’s free-flowing poetry traversed wide territory geographically, from his Zambian roots through to more recent years of his life in Newcastle, London and the dance floors of music clubs in Sheffield. Each piece offered a window into a particular world, detailed deftly with each smoothly delivered sentence. Structurally, poems seemed to ‘float’ without the formal narrative signposts of traditional beginnings, middles and ends, instead favouring instant immersion and a mature free-form that would unfold and conclude near-organically. Whilst intriguingly unusual, artistic in nature and inviting deeper interpretation from the audience, this style was perhaps overused by the end of the set. Despite the artistry of the pieces and their compellingly delivery, an undermining notion of similarity settled in over time. A little more diversity of format could’ve elevated an unquestionably strong set into a great set, but nonetheless Kayo’s Blahblahblah debut was a superb introduction to his talent for the transfixed Bristol audience.
This latest event proved to be another great evening for spoken-word fans and inquisitive newcomers alike; at only £6 per person, Blahblahblah is undoubtedly becoming one of the top tickets in the South West for those that like their entertainment both refreshingly creative and enjoyably intelligent.
Photography: George Dallimore