Richard Downes takes imagined journeys from a front room, that is a boat on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, at the Southbank Centre, where Amadou and Mariam appeared in a live, screened performance on 23 May.
A boat balances precariously on the roof of Queen Elizabeth Hall. Except this boat is not a boat. This boat is A Room For London, created by Artangel and Living Architecture. It looks interesting. I want to stay there. I can’t find tickets. Presume it’s sold out. It has a boats log. Residents record what they see, how they feel, what happened to them. It’s living art!
However, I see Amadou and Mariam in A Room For London. Except they are not there at all. If the boat is a life boat perched on the good ship QE I am below decks. I am in the front room. A friend sits a few bunks ahead of me. I am abaft, in the asylum harbour, sheltering from the sun. I am a land lubber. I know not the ropes.
I have to find a hammock and swing.
From the crews point of view there is a screen showing Amadou and Mariam performing. I imagine the architecture of the building. This building is not a ship. I find myself looking through the deckhead, hoping to find Amadou and Mariam.
I can see from the film that the boat room looks out to the river. I imagine Amadou and Mariam arrived sailing up the Thames; that they had travelled all the way from Mali. But Mali is landlocked so how could they do that? River systems and canals? I am disorientated. This gig is not a gig.
Arriving a late I miss the queues. Queues can be a pain… but they can be a thrill. Hanging with like-minded people; excited to be doing what you all are doing. Anticipation, adrenaline… there are many doors, so many entrances. I doubt if I missed a queue.
Amadou’s guitar sounds like ‘Ruby Tuesday’ or another baroque Stones number. Later it’s like ‘19th Nervous Breakdown.’ This excites me. When I first encountered Amadou and Mariam they were labelled the Stones of Africa. Later, they had a massive hit with ‘Dimanche a Bamako’. Produced by Manu Chao this sounded more like Manu than themselves. They lost something.
I am yet to catch up on later albums but fame has its costs. There is no sign from reviews that Amadou and Mariam have reverted to type, kept it simple, gone back to being real… so this is special for me. Considering the journeys music takes. The Stones got the blues from America. And America got the blues from slavery imported from Africa. Africa increasingly says it listens to America, London, the West Indies, Cuba, Funk, Rock and Rumba.
I’m not fully attentive. No-one is! Mariam’s attempts at audience participation doesn’t come off. Would you clap your television? What is going on in the interface? Do they know we are here?
I look behind the performers. The bulwarks look like bulwarks. The windows, the furniture, it all looks real. Like this boat might be a boat! But this boat is not a boat and the distance betwixt artist and audience deflates, disenfranchises.
Meeting my friend later we discuss what we saw, experienced. We agree on the word ‘weird’. It is the only word that fits the experience… but on reflection, how many thoughts have I described above, how many journeys did I take. The ship did not float. I travelled. Art lived for a short time.
Sounds from a Room: live streams from above the river.
Coming up! Go to the Southbank Centre website for details of the following performances:
22 June - Imogen Heap
15 July - Baaba Mal
18 July - Merrill Garbus's tUnE-yArDs