On Saturday 4 August in the heart of South Kensington’s museum district, the Exhibition Road Show, a three-week arts festival of theatre, music, dance and fashion, was in full swing. On this particular night sporting history was made as Team GB achieved a gold medal hat-trick, while on stage Open Souls, an innovative experimental group that mixes beat-boxing, ambient sounds and rhyming, had their own reason to celebrate: merging Indian classical and contemporary vibes.
A Noah’s Ark of humanity seemed to have gathered to see what the Exhibition Road Show had to offer and it didn’t disappoint. North of the V&A, in the shadow of the United Church of the Kingdom of God and the stylish facade of Imperial College, we found Sound Stage 3: a 25-metre flatbed truck, an open-air stage for Open Souls. A giant LCD to the rear, projected fractals and abstract visuals, while drummer Seb Rochford, beat-boxer Jason Singh and classical vocalist Ranjana Ghatak took up station to the fore.
What the Christians would have made of Open Souls, amplifying their range of drums, chants and funky stuff into the night sky, presumably God only knows. The denizens of the United Church, lining the balcony, kept their counsel. Open Souls was that kind of show. A lot of polite “Excuse me, can I get by?” No strong opinions, or displays of public opinion.
On stage, Singh and Ghatak combined with the spectacularly-coiffured Rochford to create a soundscape of improvised rhythms and electronic effects of both classical and contemporary music traditions, breakbeats and chill-out fare. Rochford’s drumming was calm and cool, rarely rising to fortissimo. The percussionist has performed with the likes of Yoko Ono, Patti Smith and Paolo Nutini, and also leads the jazz band Polar Bears, whose atonal madness partly informs Open Souls’ performance.
An intimate crowd of a hundred or so backpackers, pleasure-trippers and culturalists huddled around the open-sided trailer as the band worked their instruments. A percussive romance developed in the exchange between Singh’s human-beatbox/synthesiser voice and Rochford’s complementary jazz drumming; adding an element of humour that beautifully contrasted with Ghatak’s vocals, dominated by taans, notation movements between raags. The minor key and lack of chordal progression which is synonymous with Indian classical adds a haunting melody and hypnotic experience.
It is left to the audience to introduce the animation. A 50-something lager-drinker (Foster’s Export) gives it up large in front of the stage. A two-footed shuffle, middle-distance gaze. Presently he is joined by a barefoot woman, with a couple of bells. Together they dance a slow, separate fandango. On-stage Singh responds: “Bring it back!” We bring it back. Way back.
Wh-whee-whoo-ah! On the decks. Eee-ee-eah. Whooh! That’s what Singh said. Sang. Beatboxed. Those words exactly. On stage his body-popping manoeuvres were starting to feature the imaginary scratched record, the dancing robot. Rochford remained unmoved, gazing some 10 miles off, while Ranjana held her hands in her pockets: their nonchalant, disinterested stance says “take it or leave it” to the gathered onlookers.
The final item is announced, to a polite chorus of disappointed groans and light applause, and the sitar presages what is Open Souls’ most memorable number. Ghatak’s haunting vocals, and Singh’s skatting to a twelve-beat cycle, galvanise the audience. Bespectacled Bez dancing at the front is joined by a middle-aged woman with a dog, in a flamenco trance. Even as the sounds gently fade away, some street performers springing on Oscar Pistorius-type blades start attention-seeking to the right of the stage. The children are immediately drawn; cameras come out. The Exhibition Road Show moves on.