This year’s August Bank Holiday carnival weekend was stripped of its usual freedom, colour and movement. With a handful of live events filling the void in Liverpool, Mary Olive explores the essence of dancing and communality, an integral aspect of our lives which is yet to return.
Fairy lights dance along wooden beams hanging overhead. Green plants and hand gel fill tables as bar staff begin to vogue while they serve drinks. Laughter bubbles as friends rekindle, catching up after quarantine in the fading summer sun. On the decks, current selector PapuRaf plays a euphoric mix of Afrobeat and dancehall for the early birds bouncing steadily to the beat. All sat socially distanced and six to a table, we are all so close yet so far from the separation that’s punctuated much of 2020.
24 Kitchen Street has changed since I was last here back in February. The days of strangers’ sweaty bodies dancing together, packed beneath an enormous disco ball, feel a lifetime ago. And yet, the sparkling excitement of a Kitchen Street gig feels as bright as ever. Maybe even more so now, given the long separation between live audience and live music. Anticipation crackles in the spaces between separated people and bottles of anti-bac. Tonight, the outdoor garden terrace at the Baltic Tringle venue is hosting dancehall and hip-hop collective Nutribe, back for their first live performance since March.
The love and joy within the audience is palpable. It feels like remembering something I’d forgotten to miss. The feeling is not easily defined. It lies somewhere between grounding and flying. Strangers smiling, sharing singing, slightly swaying. Live music feels sacred. The performance from Nutribe is rooted in collective harmony. It is a work of art; an explosion of energy and light. Speaking to one third of Nutribe, Sticky Dub, just after he steps off stage, he reflects on the humbling satisfaction of performing again. “The view from up [on stage],” he says, beaming with happiness, “it was beautiful, man.”
A room filled with people dancing together is a special thing to be a part of. Impossible to replicate, each music event is distinctly unique. It is a collision of causes and effects which lead every single person to that exact moment. Decisions both unconscious and conscious bring a collection of strangers together to share in the healing that is experiencing live music together. Tonight may have seen more controlled loss of inhibitions, people keeping their distance and retaining space, but it was an alluring refraction of spirit raising compulsion we’re drawn to. But what exactly is it about music, particularly sharing music with people, that makes us crave shared movement so intensely? Is it simply the social pleasure of seeing friends and moving to melodies, or do we share a deeper connection to it?
(Photo: Nutribe at 24 Kitchen Street)
Music and dance is embedded within us, laced within our DNA, no less than breathing or smiling. We just feel music, and there is no training or education needed to simply understand it. People have been dancing in groups since humanity began, and still to this day music and dance remain spiritually healing. Perhaps this is why we have been missing it so intensely, and why we will continue to crave it until it is safe once again to freely dance together.
Live music crystallises so much of this feeling for people. It’s the instigator, the dynamic force. The energy that exists between performer and audience makes the music shared attain a new level of power. It’s living. Tonight’s performers are well versed in both roles as dancer and orchestrators of the dance. “Whatever you’re feeling, whatever you’re thinking, you just have to surrender to it in that moment in time,” Nutribe’s Onyx shares. “I feel like freestyling [rapping] is very healing because of that.” When freestyling, all three members are at one with the music, allowing lyrics and movement to flow out of them as they perform. This is a spiritually healing process for not only them performing, but for the audience, too, who are sharing this moment of vulnerability and openness with them.
While in conversation with the trio, they bounce off one another yet remain grounded in their originality as individuals. “What we are in the moment is what we reflect in our music,” Doopsman shares. Remaining in constant motion means that Nutribe are ever-changing, flowing and growing as musicians and as people. As a result, every performance is a new experience for both performer and audience member.
Influenced by Caribbean dancehall, throughout their performance Nutribe celebrate sharing culture, music and art with an entire room, something their manager Tekla tells me about. “The interactions [they] have on stage, and the content of the music, is all Caribbean.”
Dancehall was born in Jamaica during the late 70s, famous for its reggae influence, the genre is built upon fast rhythms and regarded as one of the most versatile genres today. “You can’t understand [dancehall] just through observation. You have to engage in it and feel the energy of it,” says Tekla. Dance is an incredibly important aspect of dancehall, and it is through the celebration of dance where this music comes to life.
Nutribe not only have a flow to their words, but also their bodies. Movement and dance is threaded within their music. All three members of Nutribe, are trained contemporary and ballet dancers and use dance as a means to express themselves. “It’s a slice of freedom,” Stickydub says talking about performing on stage. “You share that with the crowd. All the experiences are just slices of freedom that you all feel together.” Onyx adds: “When you’re in that dance with just those people, you’re locked in. You’re not thinking about anything else.”
Sharing music and dancing with others helps us to understand ourselves deeply, passionately and openly. Music physically stimulates our brain’s reward centres creating a euphoric feeling. Dance improves our intuition with our bodies, it reduces our dementia risk and improves self-esteem and sexual health.
The relationship between bodily understanding and music is shared by Go Off, Sis podcast host and model, Rachel Duncan. She explains her relationship between the self and dancing, specifically celebrating dancehall music. “Because I grew up in Trinidad, dancehall and owning your sexuality has always been something quite close to my heart,” she tells me. “But beyond sexuality and feeling sexual, listening to music makes me feel in charge and empowered. Especially when I’m listening to a woman playing dancehall.”
Duncan is an ambassador for self-love, self-care and self-expression. She lifts others through her example of lifting herself. “It’s like being in a euphoric state,” she illustrates. Duncan outlines how so much of her confidence stems from her experiences with Caribbean carnival. “I feel like I’m in an out of body experience. The music makes me feel like I can do whatever I want. I just don’t care. Everybody is just having so much fun dancing together,” she says. Dancing places us in a state of transcendence, as we let go of control and let our bodies just flow with a rhythm.
There is no such thing as a bad dancer, only people too in control to let go. Dancing is for us all, it is pure, and it is instinctual. “I love dancing in front of the mirror,” Duncan laughs freely, “that is my vibe!” Duncan shares how self-loving dancing can be, as well as a shared experience, something we can practice as a means to care for ourselves. Although we crave collectively sharing music, perhaps there are other ways we can access this feeling of euphoria. Perhaps dancing on our own, for ourselves, for the enjoyment, is the balm for this itch.
A few days prior to Nutribe’s performance, a slice of Carnival arrived in Liverpool over August bank holiday weekend in a sea of colours and music, with LIME scheduling two consecutive parties in two local venues. The promoters and party starters of LIME collective bring dancehall and afrobeat to the city, quite literally handing out fresh limes and tropical rhythms in unison. Although the crowd are wrapped in jackets and hoodies, LIME brings the Caribbean sunshine to the north. Here, a celebration of music, dance and people takes place. A place where all bodies and beings are accepted and welcomed.
Catching up with radio host and co-founder of LIME Babylon Fox, she reinforces the value of dance and self-expression through the carnival and dancehall events. “[Lime] is about sharing a part of me with other people,” she explains. “I like to give a bit of myself to the space.” There is a specific beauty in creating a space where in which people come together and dance. “Dancehall is never aggressive,” Babylon tells me. “[LIME] brings in such a nice mix of people. It takes us back to that primal movement and rhythm; it engages all of your senses.”
(Photo: Nutribe at 24 Kitchen Street)
LIME empowers, celebrating sexuality, self-expression and connection to others. It is a space where in which everyone has room to move freely, with respect and community woven into its foundations. “I like looking after people,” Babylon smiles, “I like making sure everyone has a good time when they come to our events.”
As people, we are universally bonded through our need to love, to be free and to connect. Music and dance is our vehicle to do this. Whether it’s accessed through organising events, performing or simply just being a part of the dance, music is a magic within humanity. Dancing reminds us we’re here to enjoy life, reconnecting us to our inner child and living presently. We are born understanding music, and when we dance, our bodies, spirit and self align in a way which can never be exactly replicated. It is a fleeting, swelling moment of complete joy to fully allow us to let go of ego and surrender to the music.
The craving for live music and dancing is understandably deep in the current moment. We have a primal need to share music and to physically express our relationship with it. It is written within us. The impact on our mental health can be detrimental without it. Currently, we are living during a time where we are told to fear strangers, to keep distance and reduce human connection as much as possible. Ironically, now is when we emotionally need each other the most. How do we ensure we are connecting as people, sharing love and engaging in a shared understanding of one existence, while simultaneously abiding by strict social distancing regulations? Perhaps music is the answer. We must embrace our instinctual want for music, whether that be supporting local artists at socially distanced events, dancing in our bedrooms or filling our days with uplifting, euphoric symphonies.
Tonight’s performance at Kitchen Street, as well as LIME’s colourful festival of rhythms and dancehall, gives us hope. It gives us something to hold on to, while we continue to reach out for one another. Hope that we will dance together again one day. That we will experience those “slices of freedom” again. And in the meantime, although the world may feel unfair, unstable and even painful some days, we still have so much to smile about. Listen to the musicians. Listen to the events organisers, the radio hosts, and live-streaming DJs. Let their music soothe you. Let it uplift you. For now, just let the music play.