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It’s a scorching Friday afternoon. Squinting through sunshine which seems far too bright to belong in England I make my way to the nearest shade: a haphazard sprawl of squashy armchairs surrounding a tree which is bedecked in oversized rubber ducks and pink loofahs. I climb into a bath tub brimming with silver streamers. Gentle reggae tunes waft from the Steez Cafe next door. A couple of people are gathered in the small puddle of shade cast by a solitary pineapple gazebo, a few more kick a football around the grassy field.
This is Brainchild Festival: an independent foundation with a handful of twenty-somethings at the helm and a whole lot of volunteers at their backs. Their first instalment took place five years ago and sold 150 tickets. This year they’ve capped attendance at 2000 – and sold out.
This festival is the land of the hipsters and the hippies alike: the home of septum piercings, bare feet and fervent feminism. These are the millennial philosophers and creatives – over-abundantly talented and often underemployed. But that’s okay for now because look at what they’ve created. The young artist movement has taken over a little corner of south England and it’s a sight to behold.
Millennial interest is, naturally, at the epicentre of the festival. The Steez Cafe, run by the south London music collective, hosts lazy jam sessions, vibrant DJ sets and growling drum and bass dance-offs late into the night. Various audience members hop on and off the stage, trading the microphone with ease.
Adjacent to the campsite a tiny wooden structure, filled with freshly planted mint, forms the Minty Cabin upon which spontaneous performance is urged. Hands of the Heron, a folk trio armed with an accordion, silver flute and mandolin chime their way through an intimate set on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday morning we stumble upon a talk by a linguistics student on the parallels between metaphors and arguments. There are about ten people listening and their attention couldn’t be more rapt.
A brisk walk across the little festival and a geo-dome erupts from the ground like a bizarre bubble. This is The Forum. Home to poetry workshops, comedy showcases and philosophical debates, this is an area which draws almost as big a crowd as the main stage at times. I poke my nose in on a welcoming spoken word session. The participants spit poetry like conversation. As they effortlessly tackle everything from patriarchy to the classic ode to falling in love to quips born from adverts on London street corners, we inch deeper into the tent with every passing phrase. Come Saturday evening and the venue is packed to the rafters as Pecs, an all-female drag king collective, take to the stage a deliver a searing show. Embracing their masculinity, the collection of comedians, actors, singers and dancers generously unpack and undermine the patriarchy in a display of uproarious wit and vigour. They’re gritty and grinding and the crowd is roaring for more.
Over at the Brain Stage, charmingly bedecked in block colour and tinsel, lilting saxphone washes over the little crowd as Laura Misch opens the stage for the festival. Quietly arresting and sweetly powerful all at once, she and her backing band The Amphibians, meander through their set, jazzy infusions rubbing shoulders with deeply grooving bass tones.
And the musical standard does not falter once throughout the festival. It’s Saturday night and Andrew Ashong, dreads piled upon his head and simply oozing soul, has taken to the stage. The British-Ghanaian musician, DJ and producer, is the crown jewel of the line up this year and you can see why. His sound is multi-textured and gently grooving, steeped in the sort of dub-esque flavour in which the entire festival is lavishly dipped.
South Africa’s own Alice Phoebe Lou brings on the Sunday sunset. With Laura Misch and her two-man band at her side she steps into a performance rivalled by few. Warbling vocals, heaving melody and deeply poignant lyrics are married with tactical grace. This is a musician who has paved her way by busking on the streets of Berlin and she possesses enormous power in her small, velvet clad frame. “Oh my days.” A guy beside me catches my eye as he mouths the words in the late sunlight and her set draws to a close.
The sun has set and Afro-beats take to the fore as Kokoroko brings the crowd to their feet; followed by the South East London Dub Collective, who tie the closing ribbon on the Brain stage with a hypnotising, solid set of pure reggae-dancehall craftsmanship. Cruising beats are backed by ringing brass rhythms and classic Caribbean vocals and we’re caught firmly in their musical net – bring us the sun, the sea and the reggae man.
Now how do you spend your last night at Brainchild festival? Getting down to some more dub classics being belted out on vinyl in the Steez Cafe – or quietly dancing the night away at the Silent Disco? Or perhaps you venture into the backlit forest, which houses The Shack; where easy beats are wafting through the trees, and you can sit in a UV-lit pod and marvel with strangers at how the light turns red lipstick nude and cigarette coals green. I did all of those.
This festival smashes stigmas attached to the youth today. A gathering which is testimony to the thriving underground industry so utterly true to itself that it can’t be tainted or contained.
Well done Brainchild. Let’s bring this to the rest of the world now.
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