In a sun-drenched Sussex field, adorned with a transformative array of art and curiosities, Brainchild festival convenes for its fifth year on a weekend in July. From humble beginnings as little more than a group of friends in a field, the festival has slowly grown with each successive edition. However, it’s clear to any returnee that this upscaling hasn’t been purchased at the expense of any of its magic. If anything, it’s enhanced it. The very stages now double as works of art: the Brain Stage on which we catch Laura Misch’s festival opening set is framed by vivid sketches; in the woods, beams of light penetrate the trees and refract off the silver surface of The Shack, Brainchild’s arboreal dance hall.
Moreover, it is clear that Brainchild remains true to its ideals. Bigger name additions to the line-up such as Kojey Radical and Dego (2000black) perfectly fit the festival’s foundational ethos of sponsoring both creativity and inclusivity. The former delivers a fierce first night headline set which is as notable for its political punch as its poetic agility, while Dego complements his Sunday evening sojourn at The Shack with a talk at The Forum, providing invaluable insights to any aspiring artist.
Indeed, these ideals are absolutely pervasive, implicit in most every facet of the festival. For instance, in the context of a music industry which is notorious for its gender imbalances, it’s absolutely refreshing to see the sheer number of female singers, instrumentalists and DJs filling the line-up.
But to mention these performers solely with reference to the progressive politics they represent would be to do them a serious disservice. I feel I could write an entire review waxing lyrical about their contributions alone, but, for the sake of concision I’ll name but one group. Boko! Boko! are a trio of first-class selectas, capable of rivalling any of their peers regardless of gender. They deftly weave together genres as ostensibly diverse as Caribbean dancehall, South African afro-house, Angolan kuduro and US trap, each of them functioning less as strictly defined genre boundaries than as colours in an aural palette, permitting of diverse applications.
This kind of irreverence towards genre distinctions pervades the festival and, to my mind, speaks volumes about the performers. With hardly anyone breaking the thirty year threshold, this is a generation of artists raised firmly within the internet-age, the space between places and the music indigenous to them collapsed in the cybersphere’s elision of distance and instigation of instant connectivity. Sun Ra rubs shoulders with Fela Kuti in a riotous Saturday evening set from Ezra Collective, while later on the beguiling Horsey showcase an outlandish combination of punk and jazz, all of it refracted through a Broadway lens à la Bernstein. Eccentric to say the least, any scepticism the formula might have inspired was surely assuaged with the two-punch knock out of a set opener, the crooning ‘Close to Me’, giving way to the carnage of ‘Arms and Legs’.
But while restless genre-bending abounded, some of the most affecting moments were the most understated. Enter Woom, a quartet of vocalists, birthed from associations made in the festival and the surrounding scene it taps. Over sweet seventh-chords, angelic cadences cascade over one another, each individual voice still asserting its identity from amidst the lush harmonies. It’s their first ever performance, but they play to a captivated audience in a full tent.
And this speaks to another integral point which sets Brainchild apart from its contemporaries: while most festivals demand hit-heavy sets of crowd-pleasers, with perhaps the indulgence of a new song or two, Brainchild is a place where experimentation and new ideas are not only accepted, but actively encouraged. No better is this exemplified than in the prominence with which jam sessions and other forms of impromptu collaboration feature at the festival. Across the weekend I witness group drawing sessions, a story workshop, poetry slams and numerous instances of live composition. Such is the confidence invested in spontaneous artistry that the Steez Tent gives the Saturday night headline slot over to a jam session. It is clear that artists are held in high estimation here.
And they’ve certainly earned it. The journey from humble beginnings is not just the festival’s, but also shared by the artists who play here. Many of the performers gracing the stages over the weekend are old childhood friends, the assuredness with which they play together painstakingly fostered over innumerable jam sessions in bands forged and dissolved over the years. Each year they return, a little older and a little more accomplished at their craft, the reception they receive a little more rapturous.
gal-dem hosting a drawing session
On the train home I reminisce with Horsey front-man Jacob Read about a weekend music school we had both attended as children. Looking back over photos from that time on his phone I’m astounded at the amount of familiar faces which gaze back at us, many of them seen mere hours ago on the Brainchild stages, still others in previous years of the festival. Barely even teenagers at the time, those budding musicians sit in classrooms, fingers fumbling across the oversized fret-boards of their first guitars, aspirations towards mastery evidenced by furrowed brows.
From those initial stumbling steps to the virtuosic confidence displayed by those same kids –now young adults– on stage over the weekend, the journey is nothing short of remarkable. However, reflecting on the festival, I’m reminded of the fact that it was not a journey taken alone, but rather, one supported each step of the way by mentors, institutions and communities.
Not least among these was Brainchild, a place which has, and continues to bring artists of all stripes and backgrounds together with a singular energy and determination, forging partnerships, both personal and creative as it goes. And it is this which pertains to the true brilliance of Brainchild: it is less a festival in the standard sense than it is a community of likeminded people, engaged in a common artistic endeavour and united by a shared ethos. Moreover, like all good communities, it isn’t a closed one, but rather one which grows organically, permitting membership to anyone who shares those same vision and ideals.
So, to all those reading this, I’ll close with a message: next year, when the festival rolls around again, I urge you to head down and join the Brainchild family; I’m sure they will welcome you with open arms.