Poplarism! Digital Arts Festival: My Experience

Shkembe Soup, Poplarism, Poplar uNION, fINBOROUGH tHEATRE
Shkembe Soup, Poplarism, Poplar uNION, fINBOROUGH tHEATRE

Shkembe Soup is a troupe of musicians, singers and dancers who perform songs from around the world. As a Tower Hamlets community group, they made a perfect fit for Poplarism!, a digital arts festival we held this May in collaboration with Finborough Theatre. Shkembe Soup submitted 1 of 10 proposals chosen to be commissioned as part of the 2-day festival which celebrated the centenary of the Poplar Rates Rebellion of 1921. Here, troupe member, Sally Sigmund tells us more about her experience.

‘Call to artists’ from Poplar Union, sounds interesting, never done that before, shall we go for it? We’re Shkembe Soup, an East End band (a magic one) who love getting together to play, dance, sing, improvise, make costumes, perform, learn languages, paint… don’t follow genres, don’t have a plan. Yes … let’s go for it.

We discussed it over a couple of Zoom sessions where we shared our ideas, knowledge and research and decided to put a music video together that linked past and present local activism, showing our love and concern for our local area and the wider world around us. We saw it as an uplifting piece, reflecting, seeing and looking forward.

The fact that we hadn’t done anything like this before was liberating – there were no rules. So, we submitted our proposal and, much to our delight, it was accepted. Now it was real and was the perfect vehicle for a much needed creative adventure together as lockdowns were lifting. With a budget of £300, a short timeframe, 11 fantastic band members and friends, free apps and mobile phones we plunged in.

After the initial joy, we suddenly realised we only had 14 days left to do all the recording, filming and editing before the deadline and Linda (starring as our gypsy woman and devil) was unavailable on the one weekend when everyone else was free. We worked out a timetable, divvied out tasks and then – lights, camera, action. Tasks included location setting, writing a storyboard, composing new lyrics, poetic words and narrative, painting banners, recording the soundtrack, filming, editing and submitting. Every bit of this process was new and we learnt many things along the way. Our shared purpose and individual contributions made everything flow in a joyful, organic way. The shortness of time added to our focus and meant we didn’t dither.

We had fun filming the gypsy woman, the suffragette wielding her wooden clubs and the magical musicians and dancers amongst the graves and vines in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. Strollers in Victoria Park were astonished as they came across a dapper man getting his boots polished by the devil and some colourful characters strumming, dancing, skipping and twirling around a mulberry tree. Lastly, to the Canal Club Community Garden with our banners and tarot cards set amongst the canal boats, beautiful plants, birds, butterflies and a gardener.

Cut to the editing suite (well, bedroom/office) and lots of hours of creative sifting, matching and animated discussion. Enter, Charlie, our film expert friend, who advised us with patient skill and artistry. This stage felt like we were final (something) year students submitting our project. We wanted to create something with a ‘Black Cat, White Cat’, ‘Cinema Paradiso’ silent movie, magical realism feel and so much more. If only we had more time, but if we had more time, we’d want more time. The adrenaline flowed, it was creative and all-consuming. We heard our soundtrack, Ciganka Stara, 5,000+times. Tom mixed and added to the track with extra input at the 12th hour from Caroline as she improvised new violin music and Mardi who created and recorded the wise, rhythmical voice of the Bethnal Green Mulberry Tree in double-quick time.

The day of the Poplarism! Festival felt very exciting. Each of us readied in our bubbles and gathered in front of an assortment of screens for the ‘premiere’ of our film. We enjoyed the excitement as the countdown began and the viewing figures went up. After the warm glow of watching our film it was fascinating seeing how others had creatively responded to the brief and what they had produced. In the evening we participated in the online Q&A and learnt even more about how people had come up with their pieces. The responses were often humbling and thought-provoking as they showed brave people standing up for their beliefs. After the event, it was great to share, re-watch and discuss the YouTube recording of the entire Festival. This experience has inspired us to create more and has opened our eyes to more things around us. As the ancient 500-year-old Bethnal Green Mulberry Tree said ‘I hope generations after me, will be inspired by the stories I can tell and see the continuity and beauty of life that I stand for.’

Thank you Poplar Union and Finborough Theatre for holding this rich and rewarding Poplarism! Digital Arts Festival.

Shkembe Soup, Poplarism, Poplar uNION, fINBOROUGH tHEATRE

Watch A Love Letter to Tower Hamlets by Shkembe Soup above! 

We heard excellent news when readying this post for the blog – the Bethnal Green mulberry mentioned in the piece has been saved! The mulberry is the oldest tree in the East End, surviving plague, fire and blitz. Campaigners won a High Court battle over plans to remove it after 17,000 people signed the petition to save the tree. You can learn more about Shkembe Soup here.