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Words by James Lear, photos courtesy of Khroma Collective and GALA festival
It’s safe to say the suspension of live music during the COVID pandemic has caused frustration for both promoters and punters alike. However, with everyone eager to get back into the swing of things, what better place to start a cultural renaissance than a small, woodland haven in the middle of Peckham?
GALA festival celebrates the history of dance music in London, so it was no surprise that this line-up boasted some of the very best names in British club culture such as, Dan Shake, Midland, Kornèl Kovàcs, Mr Scruff, Jayda G and Motor City Drum Ensemble. These heavyweights of house, techno and disco were juxtaposed with some of the best local talents in jazz, neo-soul and hip-hop. The Rye stage shone throughout the weekend and gave the festival much needed variety if you needed respite from the continuous four-on-the-floor.
Under the current circumstances, the UK governments traffic light guidelines would have surely complicated maintaining a coherent festival line-up. Leon Vynehall, Overmono and Saoirse were all brought in last minute to cover for unforeseen cancellations, but the program flowed seamlessly.
Just less than a week had passed since “freedom day”, yet the careful management of negative lateral flow test admission left festival go-ers free to forget about the pandemic and find themselves in and amongst one of the most convivial crowds I’ve seen.
Rain inevitably made an appearance, however after a long year-and-a-half of lock downs and live streams, dancing in the array of elements thrown our way brought out the “Hallelujah’s” and “Hail Mary’s” from the crowd around me.
Who we saw
Opening sets are often foolishly labelled as the dregs of the festival but by contrast, this was the perfect start to the weekend. Nabihah quickly settled into her set, that dreamy niche she has carved out for herself drawing an intimate, attentive crowd, fitting for my weekend’s opening ceremonies. She performed tracks from her 2017 album Weighing of the Heart, as well as more recent material from her 2020 album Blue Magic Gentle Magic, the heavy delay and reverb resonated sweetly through The Rye’s timber frame.
Stood front and centre behind her dazzling polka dot guitar, her signature, indie-inspired soundscapes drew up waves of nostalgia. Stepping through the front gates you were met by Nabihah’s warm vocals and swirling guitar, which drifted out from The Rye and over to the entrance – perfectly complimenting the rush of the return to live music and kicking off the weekend to a great start.
Oscar Jerome’s spellbinding performance at The Rye had the audience smiling from ear to ear, it looked like he’d finally come home. Standing at the side of the crowd, I could see the adoration they had for the young jazz musician who, likewise, disclosed his love to be back playing live music again.
The stage was packed, and the audience fed off the energy of the front man and his impeccably tight three-piece band. The set was perfectly arranged with a variety of older tracks, which you could see a handful of die-hard Jerome fans singing along to at the top of their lungs, as well as more recent material from his 2020 album, titled Breathe Deep.
My personal favourites had to be Gravitate and its upbeat grooves, as well as the golden song writing in Sun For Someone.
West-London based DJ P-rallel provided an absolute stomper of a set over at The Patio on Friday afternoon. I was eager to hear a set composed of upbeat garage grooves and snippets of the UK HipHop scene, for which P-rallel produces so frequently, and safe to say I wasn’t disappointed. High energy UKG classics such as Zed Bias’ Neighbourhood were complimented with more modern RnB Garage remixes.
P-rallel brought a set with the energy to help a simmering crowd come to the boil and when he spun IZCO’s remix of Greentea Peng’s Soulboy the young South-East London crowd could not resist. The club culture festival had now truly begun.
Gilles Peterson & Mim Suleiman
Giles Peterson and his record label Worldwide FM continued from their previous success running a stage at GALA 2019 and hosted a Worldwide takeover at The Rye throughout the whole of Saturday. With a line-up featuring some of Worldwide FM’s best DJs including Peterson himself, Mafalda, and Global Roots, I was expecting big things. Suffice it to say, each DJ absolutely smashed their respective set, playing tracks which had me constantly reaching for my shazam button.
What I didn’t expect to enjoy so much at The Rye on Saturday was the live performance of Mim Suleiman. The energy Mim gave off was both endearing and infectious and by the end, she had the crowd eating out the palm of her hand. Her Afrobeat/soul vocals combined with the elaborate percussion provided a rare opportunity to buss a move. One of my favourite sets of the weekend and definitely one to check out.
GRAMMY Nominee Jayda G was given Saturday’s closing set and came through with a selection of groovy disco classics and more modern house remixes. However, her skills to select were eclipsed by her enthralling interaction with the audience. She descended to the front of the stage to lead a clap during the euphoric breakdown in her self-produced track Both Of Us and brought a level of positivity which translated across so easily. Everywhere you looked you could see strangers turning to each other with smiles on the faces, declaring their love for Jayda and the chance to be back grooving again.
The Main Stage had been bolstered into a formidable show-stopper and the event organisers complimented Jayda’s performance with big inflatable balls that were released into the crowd mid set. This, combined with a dazzling light show made it a set to remember, and left me eager to return the next morning.
Peckham MC Pinty came to this festival with a mission to kill his set and he did just that. Playing tunes all the way through his discography from tracks off his debut EP, City Limits, to the new, intriguing steps found in tracks off his recent project such as Red Lorry (I’m Sorry). He came out supported by friend and Rhythm Section collaborator Bradley Zero and the energy on the stage was super-charged.
Having said that, he came across incredibly humble and grateful to be playing in his local park and you really got the impression he was a man of the people. His music, landing in the grey area between jazz, house, garage and hip-hop, captured exactly what the young audience was after and the energy in the crowd was probably the most electric and energetic one I saw all weekend.
Following Pinty was another member of the Rhythm Section family. Hailing from New Zealand and going by the alias Dan Kye, Jordan Rakei’s live set was possibly my most anticipated set of the weekend. He delivered hits such as his long-standing single Like You Wanna, as well as my new-found favourite Focus – SE Edit, a track taken off his most recent album.
You could tell the man is an incredible musical talent. Delivering a triple fret masterclass, Dan Kye manned the decks, a mic and processed live piano loops all at the same time. I found myself again, in awe at a performance in The Rye stage. Decorated with colourful DOJO-like panels and a tasteful amount of jungle-like greenery, this stage brought the energy out of the crowd all weekend long. It was a real joy to experience.
Motor City Drum Ensemble
The final set of the festival seemed to come all too quickly, but the atmosphere and jubilation from the crowd combined with the euphoria in Motor City Drum Ensemble’s set combined for a perfect finish. Their set had a little something for everyone, packed full of groovy bass-driven house for your die-hard raver entwined with unheard, joyful disco that would’ve left any crate digger in awe.
There was an overwhelming feeling of togetherness and community within the crowd. As the night ended, dancers gradually turned and exchanged details of their weekend highlights. I could sense a genuine feeling of relief and appreciation for the music after such a long wait. An immense golden confetti cannon topped off the set, my only complaint being that they wrapped it up all too soon at 10pm.
A success in the face of chaos
The GALA crew should be proud of their efforts this year, curating a line-up that flowed seamlessly. The focus on sound production, set design and line-up shows how staying true to your humble beginnings will often result in the perfect balance between flare and necessity.
The site was littered with thoughtfully placed decorative fixtures, such that everything fit satisfyingly together. Big shoutout to Peckham Platform’s highly talented Youth Group, who designed an interactive installation inspired by their local communities. This featured mesmerising Batik and Ankara fabrics and a wall for sharing personal messages and doodles, something perfect to bring the community back together again.
For me, the success of GALA 2021 marks the start of a cultural renaissance. With careful attention to creating a COVID-secure environment, the festival guaranteed an opportunity to break away from “the new normal” and look to the future.