Monday, 15 August 2016

Book review: Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari (2014)

Sapiens is the book to end all books. Literally. Well, almost.

It tells you everything you need to know about the history of human culture and thought, and then asks where we might be going as a species.

In the process it undermines consumerism, nationalism, the pursuit of individual happiness and the idea that mankind is shaping the planet in a positive way. Having done so, it leaves us with one question for our future: what do we want to want?

It's a question that we might well try to answer by writing books, and once we've settled on some answers we might well try to track our progress towards those answers by writing more books. Hence that "almost" earlier on. But most books have just been rendered pointless. Along with most of everything else.

I've spent my adult life looking for the answers to life's questions in books. How did we get here? Why are things the way they are? Is that how they ought to be? What kind of life should I lead? How can I do that better? Thanks to Sapiens, I now feel like I know most of the answers.

The past 500 years of unprecedented human productivity have given us Shakespeare's sonnets, Mozart's requiems, Leonardo's portraits, Manolo's Blahniks and Gangnam Style. Are we any happier or more satisfied as a result? Nope. Should I bother with them? Eh.

Only two things seem important now: community and the future of human activity. I've long struggled to foment ambitions, and now I think it's because I haven't been focusing on those two issues.

Am I focused enough to do so from now on? I guess I'll find out.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Gaika live at the Roundhouse

A photo posted by Gabby cooke (@gabrielle_cooke) on

Gaika delivered a confident and powerful performance of his 2016 album Security at the Roundhouse on 11 August, overcoming but not quite compensating for the over-hyping of a sparse bill.

The Brixton-raised self-defined Afrofuturist, whose music combines R&B, rap, grime and dancehall, was one of several musicians invited over different nights to make use of Ron Arad's Curtain Call installation at the Roundhouse - a "floor-to-ceiling artwork made of 5,600 silicon rods suspended from an 18-metre diameter ring [that] provides a canvas for films, live performance and audience interaction".

The Roundhouse billed Curtain Call as "incredible" and "epic", but on the basis of Gaika's show, a visual display encircling the audience is a backwards step from the more typical audience-facing live music array, which through multi-sourcing and layering offers far more opportunities to dazzle.

Gaika's show itself was billed by the Roundhouse as an "imaginary club experience" inspired by Security and its "dancehall-tinged songs for the city" but that too proved to be hype: four dancers on podiums were positioned around the Curtained space, and early on in the evening the "club" was guarded by "bouncers", but that was the sum total of the "immersion".

Doors opened at 21.00 and the venue closed at 23.00, already making for a painfully short facsimile of an actual club night, and to add insult to injury the first hour of the evening proved to be nothing but the chance to mill around the performance space while minimal use was made of Curtain Call to some vague musical accompaniment from the VIP bar area. There was no support, and nothing to see. It was a scandalous waste of people's time and ears.

Thankfully Gaika's performance itself, when it finally came, rose magnificently above the inauspicious start to proceedings. Either Curtain Call, the shape of the Roundhouse or Gaika's own proclivities meant that he delivered his performance from a small circular stage in the centre of the space, allowing the crowd of "clubbers" to push up close and move around freely.

It was an inspired choice that made the show much more intimate than most at the Roundhouse, which is a monumental building but, with a maximum capacity of 1,700, not a place where most of the crowd can normally get near the performers.

Gaika kicked things off by exhorting the crowd to rotate around him, which they briefly did before settling down again and remaining mostly static for the rest of the night, bar some self-conscious shuffling. It was possibly an acknowledgement on Gaika's part that he knew he was going to have to single-handedly deliver the 'epic immersion' people had been led to expect.

If so, he delivered. Security is strange beast of an album, claustrophobic and threatening but also heartfelt and at times uplifting and energising, and Gaika managed to translate all of that into the live show with an intense and physical performance. The crowd was an uncommon mix of achingly trendy arty types, tracksuited youths, bespectacled nerds and rather bewildered-looking middle-aged culture vultures, with most of the dancing taking place among those belonging to the first two categories, but those who looked like they'd actually known what to expect, rather than being enticed in by the Roundhouse's hype, appeared to greatly enjoy themselves.

I was one of those, and it was just a shame that the "club" of the billing was indeed imaginary: had Gaika's performance been the centrepiece of a real club night, or even of a properly organised gig schedule, the evening would have been a resounding success. As it was, only Gaika emerged with credibility intact.