From Spain to Swindon via Stockholm and Saskatchewan: protest and love are the themes of Festival Finale

19 May

At around the same time that a protest song by the Ukrainian singer Jamala was winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm on Saturday night, the Spanish duo La Heidi Bèlika were performing their own protest song on the stage of Swindon Town Hall.

Booked to play the finale of the Swindon Festival of Literature by festival director Matt Holland – who had seen them play at 2am at a festival in their native Spain, and decided that Swindon needed to see and hear them – the guitar and saxophone duo got more fiery as their set went on.

Their final piece was a chaotic medley of recognisable jazz, folk, and pop tunes, the melody carried by their energetic saxophonist / cajon player Mireia Muñoz.

By way of introduction (via translator Cristina Newton, more of whom later) vocalist and guitarist Joana Villena told the audience: “This song vindicates the right of people to make music in the streets.

“The town halls across the country (Spain) are stopping it, and that’s why you don’t see flamenco in the streets any more.”

It’s hard to follow a protest song in a language you don’t understand (good job Jamala sang her Eurovision-winning anti-Russian protest song 1944 in English), but there was no mistaking the energy, passion and determination to party behind La Heidi Bèlika’s own protest.

Earlier in the evening, we were treated to another protest song, this time from Swindon-born, Bristol-based folk musician Kit Hawes.

“This is a protest song; no-one likes protest songs anymore,” he half-joked, before launching into a heartfelt plea for fairness in the housing market, and the uncertainty of life as part of Generation Rent.

In keeping with the Spanish theme, Kit was persuaded by Matt Holland to play a stunning instrumental piece he had written with a Paraguayan harpist – and not performed for three years.

Prize-winning Oxford singer-songwriter Zander Sharp also captured the mood of being young, his first song about having to get up and go to work at a job you hate, the second about the discomfort of seeing an ex at a party: “All we are is anecdotes.”

Spanish-born, Swindon-based poet (and occasional La Heidi Bèlika translator) Cristina Newton read from her anthology, Cry Wolf, in which she “tries to get out of her own skin and into another skin.”

In a poem about the Chilean miner Edison Peña, one of the 33 men trapped in the collapsed San Jose mine in 2010, she wrote of being “alone in the gut of a whale that won’t cough up,” while her Latin passion for kissing, and of the basic human right to show affection – a protest poem, if you will – began:

“Love, I’ve learned people do not kiss in Burma. There those that have been seen to kiss, are liable to come under suspicion and surveillance, leading to house-arrest or long terms in gulags.”

And then she demands of her lover: “Kiss me in public in Dubai, under jet-trees of naphtha oil, then let us spend the night in prison, in solitary confinement.”

Canadian folk musician and author Emma Hooper also spoke of love. She read from her debut novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James, in which a woman in her 80s sets off on foot from Canada’s prairie province of Saskatchewan to reach the ocean, which she has never seen.

In an excerpt, her husband Otto imagined three scenarios after a missed telephone call from an unknown number: that Etta had collapsed from hunger in a phone box and was calling for help; that Etta had been attacked by a wild animal and taken to hospital; and that Etta had been found dead in a beautiful corn field, a smile on her face and her husband’s number in her purse.

Emma’s reading stopped at a cliffhanger, when the phone rang again.

But there was no such lack of closure for festival goers. In time-honoured tradition, the Festival ended as it began: with the mournful moan of a blown watering can.

Words: Peter Davison   Images: Richard Wintle, Calyx Pictures

Jacob Hi-Ho plays the watering can

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