Folk, Fantasy and Freedom

Lyn Acton and The Dyr Sister – “dear” not “dire” – are two women who have had long, illustrious careers in the music scene. They’ve seen the turning tide of musical genre, economical and gender equality and survived where others would fall.

Acton is a living melting pot, from Hessle Road, with a family history that stretches from India to Yorkshire, she was brought up in a house of music, especially jazz.  Having been involved in music from a young age – she performed on stage at 12, was in a band by the time she was 14 and unable to join them on their road to success due to school – it isn’t a surprise that she would stay in the music world for her whole life, exploring other musical styles and enhancing her repertoire and reputation.

Sally, better known as The Dyr Sister, was also brought around music and was previously known as (or still is, depending on how well you know her) Salbo Baggins.  With a wonderfully disarming aura of eccentricity that weaves its way through her music.  She is, however, a realist, point out that, when it came to marketing Salbo Baggins, “I didn’t want to be a psychedelic wizard… With hairy feet on a quest to find the one ring.”

Both rebellious in their youth, they were both drawn back to music for their love of music, covering many genres and styles, finding the draw of the unfamiliar more interesting than the humdrum of routine.

Acton, covering bossa nova and jazz, hasn’t stayed with the traditions of genre, having worked with local electronic sound wizard Drartz and with plans to work with the legendary boss of bassline, endoflevelbaddie, whilst The Dyr Sister, despite her earlier protests, brings magic to music with everything from computer generated loops to pans!  She also wants an alphasphere… imagine a modern day theremin and you’ve somewhere in the vicinity.

Pearls Cab Ride will take to the stage for Trinity Musical Festival, already having performed on the Yellow Bus Stage at Freedom Festival.  Pearls Cab Ride reformed recently, after twenty years apart, to much acclaim.  “When we first did Pearls Cab Ride, we were out everyday. (today) people have lives, bills and mortgages to pay. It’s a passion thing.”

The Dyr Sister will perform at Hull Folk Festival, along with many other engagements across the city.  She reflects that music offers an escape from her day job, in finance, and it seems to be that she can find the wonders in the mundane, crafting music from seemingly ordinary occurrences and making them magical

Acton and Sally are powerhouses of the Hull music scene, they are dreamers who have embraced the opportunity.  They have incredible knowledge of many genres, stitching a multicoloured dreamcoat of delight.


Give Folk A Chance

Working with local artists, Sowden & Sowden have brought the concept of the Hull Folk Festival to life.

They describe themselves as “festival organisers” who are “passionate about their events” wanting to realise the ideal of Hull as “a destination city.”

Hull, which its rich maritime history, a port town and of global significance, has, arguably, lost its past and often forgets its contribution to the world.

“We shouldn’t deny our heritage,” Polly Sowden warns, bringing together the threads that will form Hull Folk Festival – Heritage, World Music, Inclusiveness and Community. They aren’t making it a learning experience, but education is definitely at the heart of Sowden & Sowdens work.

This isn’t to say that Hull Folk Festival is a classroom, it’s an opportunity to expose people to one of the most niche of genres.

With a mix of musical styles, all under the folk banner, they implore the people of Hull to “give folk a chance.”

Work in Progress: Banana Loaves, Blank Canvases and Being a Musical Bulldog

This is an unpolished article, for which I apologise.

Cobby is a producer, musician and half of the critically acclaimed Fila Brazilia. Fila Brazilia? Sound familiar? Fila Brasileiro is an American bulldog that was at risk of being banned; animal rights aside, it was this misheard breed name that led to the creation of Fila Brazilia.

When he’s not making music, Cobby is a family man, with an understanding wife who has a love-hate relationship with her husband’s musical endeavours. Fila Brazilia royalties have paid the mortgage and Cobby is a contented man with a passion for baking.

Music and baking have a lot in common, reflects Steve Cobby. Putting together commonly available ingredients in interesting ways is Cobby’s love. Instinctual, improvisational and creative. He’s experimental when it comes to music.  The ingredients, he feels, should be available to everyone, however it’s what you do with them that counts – very much like cooking, if you follow a recipe to the letter, you’ll end up with a dish that tastes good but is, ultimately, lacking in creativity and originality.  At best, whether it’s music or cooking, you’ll produce the same thing over and over, unable to deviate, until you, and your audience, are sick of it.

Being “sick of it” seems to be a recurring theme of Cobby’s musical career.  Whether it’s the machinations of the record industry, his on-off love of the varied instruments of which he is master, collaborators or sounds, Cobby doesn’t rest on the familiar, or easy, always out to try something new.

The first label that signed him, Big Life Records, was a production line – with an eye on the clock and the process of factory line music that, ultimately, strangled Cobby’s creative productivity.  A throw away comment, slating the label, saw him dropped, back on the dole and absolutely gutted. His forthright approach has been a curse and a blessing, leading to international exposure and a recognised career, whilst robbing him of the financial security that a record deal inevitably brings.

Hearing Cobby speak, it’s clear in his machine gun delivery that he is a truly creative entity.  One moment, he’s using cooking as an analogy for music, then it becomes art as he discusses his dislike of the blank canvas and how that can be a destructive presence for any artist.  He does anything he can to break the malaise – a tune in a day, developing a beat, throwing tangents in like paint onto the canvas, seeing art burst forward in new and interesting ways. He doesn’t stick to the confines of genre, mixing, as a good chef would, the most diverse ingredients into and creatively nourishing dish, a tonic for the fast food, convenience meal pop has become.

Cobby and Sim Lister, after ten years, found that they were walking different paths, splitting, leaving Cobby shopping around for a label to publish his album. His last chance saloon within view, he placed his name on the album and released it in March 2013 to acclaim and missing the middle-man, self-publishing as a digital download, ensuring that he is in control and bringing him more money than the last five physical releases!

He’s definitely not a man obsessed with money, it’s a secondary concern for a man who exudes creativity. He creates music in the same way Banksy creates art -unexpected moments of springing up, seemingly from nowhere, and open to interpretation.

The true sign of an artist, Cobby is aware the listeners project their own meaning on what they hear.  He describes himself as an iconoclast, eschewing the meat grinder of music production, preferring true love of music over the “pearls before swine” relationship artists have with the record companies. Music-by-numbers, songs-by-committee, he deplores the homogeneity of creativity, strangled of the breath of freedom. To him, this process turns the studio into a morgue and he has worked to ensure that his studio, and the artists he works with, are able to breathe, grow and, most importantly, live as artists.

Bribed into going back to school at 14 by his parents, he was bought a guitar in the hope he’d engage with authority. “You was that bored, you took music up,” Cobby reflects on his teenage years. He taught himself guitar, fearing he’d sound like everybody else. He’s added keyboard, drums, samplers and electronic instrumentation to his repertoire, describing himself as a “jack of all trades.” The studio is his writing tool and his first studio, bought with the advance from his first label, would unleash the creative freedom that he still embraces today. He deplores the attempt to mix art and commerce and doesn’t want to think of his music as work.

“You never hear of a plumber saying he’s got plumber’s block,” Cobby says of the bohemian approach to music writing that many artists suffer. By the same token, he doesn’t think musical creativity should ever be work. Unlike Kraftwerk, he doesn’t want to take a “clock on and off” approach to creativity.  Even reflecting on the changes that vainly life have brought, he has never stopped producing music.

His last five releases, on Steel Tiger, saw the commercial side of music drain the money from the river, so moving to a digital model has meant he made more money in his last album than the previous five. He has to sell less to earn more, probably the only nod Cobby will make to commercial importance. He plans to release an album a year, using the digital model. Royalties from iTunes pay his mortgage, all this off the back of Fila and decade old music. He’s looking to the future, talking to the other Fila guys and looking to ensure that, through Blue Squared, his finances are looked after – he’s got a nest egg and he wants to see it grow.

With the possibility that, after a decade, Fila Brazilia could reform to create the closing ceremony for the Hull City of Culture closing ceremony, Cobby is driven and focused like never before.

Cobby is straight talking, no nonsense speaker with the tenacity of a bulldog, locking onto his belief with the strength of a Fila Brasilia.

Freedom – What is it good for?

Freedom Festival started as a celebration of the abolition of slavery in Hull, embracing the Love Music, Hate Racism ideal and bringing together some of Hull and the surrounding areas best musicians, working alongside The Warren and giving opportunities to many of the young musicians of Hull for their first real taste of festival life.

In 2008, The Magic Numbers were the big name. The crowd, arguably discerning music fans, was enthusiastic and their love of music brought everyone together. There was a sense of community, little trouble and a true celebratory feel.

A year later, the festival morphed into something else. Tying in with the Clipper Race, 2009 saw Peter Andre and JLS perform near the Marina. Teenagers flooded to watch the names de joeur perform. Too much alcohol in the summer heat led to an increase in police activity, harming the community spirit that had gone before.

That’s not to say that the spirit wasn’t there. Florence and the Machine topped off a fantastic day that countered the factory-line pop heard in the Marina.

The following years saw more change. The event had to reign in the excess – there had to be a way to prevent what had happened in 2009
McFly and Alesha Dixon may have been on the cards, but the Freedom Festival would feature more arty performances, still embracing independent music and seeing charges for some events. It may be about ‘freedom’, but it was a slave to money – if it can’t sustain itself, why should anyone else help fund it?

For the next few years, the Freedom Festival seemed to recognise it had lost its vision. Fewer big acts, more local acts, more artistic performances and more culture, all made possible with £100,000 of funding from the Arts Council.

With risks of cuts, and a hostile public angry that front line services would be cut yet a ‘frivolous’ festival would be saved, the Arts Council funding gave the Freedom Festival a lifeline, relieving the council of the need to plough quite as much into the venture.

With the City of Culture bid in contention, 2013 was the city’s biggest opportunity. Its torchlight procession was a spectacle, the “I have a dream” speech harked back to the original idea of Freedom. It was a celebration of world culture, yet it felt like art designed committee. A supermarket interpretation of creativity – homogeneous and cynically created.

The 2014 Freedom Festival will be scrutinised as Hull’s place as 2017 City of Culture stands over us like the sword of Damocles. Will the city new strong enough to deliver using its own talent, the talent that could be as vibrant and inspirational in 2017 as it is today, or will it, and the Freedom Festivals of tomorrow, be controlled by money men, more interested in pounds and pence than sounds and senses?

Cash for Commitment – How to Make Money from Music

Image (c) Ryan Wilson Used under licence -
Image (c) Ryan Wilson
Used under licence –

For the right people, there is money to be made in music.  There are opportunities for talented musicians who are willing to do what’s needed whilst others sit around bewailing the lack of work.

Darren Bunting, John McGrath and Rob Marley are examples of musicians who grasped the opportunities.  From a discussion that ranged from the importance of jazz to pay-to-play, there were ten key points that bubbled to the surface.



McGrath started playing the saxophone and clarinet.  He reads music and taught himself to improvise.  He also learnt to play the flute.  Three instruments and the ability to play on- and off-book, equally at home in an orchestra or a jazz band, it’s the variety that means he’s in demand.


Bunting and Marley both highlight the fact that “the better the musician, the better the person”, arguing that emotional stamina, endurance and patience are key factors in their ongoing success.  The ability to play with anyone, regardless of their background, and often without rehearsal time or even knowing what songs they’re going to play is part of their success.

Work Hard

Six gigs a week, the length and breadth of the country – it’s this that keeps McGrath in work.  The message is the same from all three – if you want to work, you’ve got to work.  There’s no point cherry picking gigs if you’re not able to live on your income, but don’t accept gigs that don’t benefit you and the organiser – you need paying and its up to you to ensure that you get a fair deal!

Look at the Bigger Picture

A low paying gig in miles away may lead to more opportunities, suggests Marley.  However, he warns, don’t be fooled by the whole “if you do this, there’s more coming” line that many promoters may use.  There’s also the possibility that, if you’re appearing miles away from home and having to travel, you could secure gigs elsewhere! Check out the music scene, are there any nights that need an artist like you?

Don’t Expect Praise

McGrath recalls not knowing whether he’d done a good job at an early gig.  He didn’t receive feedback and was taken aback by this, until the phone rang asking him to do more.  Outside of applause – and this depends on the type of gig – most paid musicians don’t hear whether they’ve done a good job or not… “people just expect you to do it”, reflects McGrath, and this is true – if you’ve been booked to sing or play, people expect you to sing or play in the same way you would expect water when you turn the tap on!


Promoters speak to each other.  Artists discuss other artists.  This exchange of information leads to promoters and artists knowing who they can rely upon and who they would be better off avoiding.  By building bridges, instead of burning them, talent will become apparent.

If you didn’t know, Jazz is your friend

Jazz, as a musical form, isn’t seen in the same light as being classically trained.  Some musicians, the ones who are hiding their shortcomings, Marley and Bunting suggested, look down on Jazz, but the truth is that it is incredibly versatile.  Jazz helps you fit your style into any other style, it teaches you to improvise and play without a score.  Learn jazz and you can put away the music stand.

Use your talent to help others

Most musicians won’t make millions.  Good musicians will earn a living, but there’s always more money to be made.  Bunting is a promoter, McGrath and Marley teach music; all three have additional streams of income and all three are, in some way, encouraging the next generation of musics.  The journey never stops!

Embrace tomorrow

“I feel sorry for you young ‘uns” a musician once warned McGrath, moaning that there were fewer live music opportunities compared to yesteryear.  It’s easy to complain that things were better in the past, but complaining doesn’t sort it out.  Marley notes that there’s been a rise in musicians doing online teaching sessions, or performing gigs online, with the potential to monetise these opportunities, as well as expand their audience.

Do It Because You love It!

It was clear that, despite the fact they are paid, McGrath, Marley and Bunting all love music.  They’ve parlayed their talent into a successful way of making a living and continue to perform wherever the opportunity arises, whether it’s jam sessions, music festivals, corporate events, weddings or anything in between.  They’re aware that musicians are in demand and they are the ones filling that demand.

The Battles of Barmmy Boy

Lansana Mansaray is a product of a war torn nation ravaged by hatred and acts of inhumanity that would have destroyed most people. Better known as Barmmy Boy, he survived through tenacity and grit – fishing, petty trading and avoiding many trappings of society in regression.  Though his country has worked towards recovery, the scars of the conflict are still raw and drive Barmmy Boy to deliver his message.

Named after the tiny fish he caught, Barmmy Boy was supported in his musical endeavours by the Hull-based NGO Cafe Society and, thanks to Hull’s close relationship with Sierra Leone, continues to enjoy a strong bond with the city, telling his story through music to many schools and exposing the adults of tomorrow to a world that they may, otherwise, not encounter.

He first came to Hull on 2007, being the first time he had left Freetown, and was surprised by the lifestyle in England. He would tell the Hull Daily Mail that “everything is more organised, and the schools are funded by the government.” What we take for granted, he finds remarkable.

An unassuming individual, Barmmy Boy brims with nervous energy and speaks of his life in Sierra Leone with pride, reflecting that “music is the driving force behind young people” and that it allows them to express the opinion of his generation in a society that was in fear of free speech. His affiliation with War Child Canada saw him work with many young people about issues that wouldn’t be a concern in a fair world – violence, corruption and HIV – with communities who condemned him and his peers for their opinion.  He is knowledgeable, well educated and speaks with a clarity of thought that is touching.

A musician and a producer, he nurtures talent around him. He is complimentary of the way that, in contrast with the much stricter school system in Sierra Leone, children in British schools have freedom to express themselves. Having been a regular visitor to Hull schools, he is hopeful that the participatory nature of schools in Britain could be reflected in schools in Freetown.

With plans to work with Steve Cobby to bring the dangers of Ebola into the mainstream, he’s hopeful that this will deliver a message of the severity of a disease that isn’t taken seriously in Sierra Leone. Cobby’s body of work includes the music for inspirational Hull City of Culture campaign, entitled “This City Belongs to Us”, as well as Radiohead and seeing his music feature in cult films such as Riding Giants and Dogtown and Z-Boys.  It’s a huge opportunity for Barmmy Boy to spread his message to as wide an audience as possible, mirroring the potential way in which, unabated, Ebola could spread.

From Sierra Leone to Hull, he’s aware of the importance of the opportunity that he has been offered.  He treats this as an unparalleled learning opportunity, an exchange of ideas and ideals.  Sierra Leone may be a country in slow recovery, still wracked with corruption, questionable education and poverty, but with voices like Barmmy Boy there is hope.