Review: Deblozay, LIFT/Greenwich & Docklands Festival
They’re dotted around a park: sitting on the swings and tracing the tramlines of a tennis court; walking on walls and lolling on gravestones and lurking in bushes. All of them are dressed in the same, gothic Victoriana: lopsided top hats and moth-eaten tails, bunched black skirts and lacey black veils. Their faces are egg-white white, detailed with crisp black doodles: cobwebs and scales, puckered lips and smokey eyes. They look a bit like Rocky Horror fans, done up as Riff Raff and, of course, they make perfect cameraphone fodder.
Then they start singing: deep throaty bass notes, thick with reverb. Some foreign language: tribal, earthy, possibly primitive. Instruments join in, a lone drum first of all, then more of them, and before long, these rudimentary horns – elongated metal vuvuzelas – pipe up in a resonant hum. The effect, is like an accordion gasping into life. Or a wheezing lung with a death rattle. Or a rudimentary police siren. Weeeee-wawww. Weeeee-wawww. And then, ladies and gentlemen, we’re off.
Deblozay, which translates from Creole as ‘chaos,’ is rooted in the Haitian festival of the dead, Guédé, and its rara music, which is repetitive, atonal and slowly works its way inside your bones until you become locked in its beat. We’re not in Haiti, of course. We’re in Greenwich. Even before we start, there are big questions of appropriation and exoticism at play. What does it mean for French performers to enact a Haitian ritual as art in London?
Deblozay isn’t really a show you watch, per se. There’s not much to see: the initial oddity of these deathly figures, and later others dotted around Greenwich in tableau, in the flicker of paraffin lamps. Instead, it’s something you’re part of. You experience it from within, as part of a crowd, processing through the streets. It’s composed out of pace and rhythm, out of space and proximity. Of people and power. Of people power.
A funereal march through a squeeze alleyway is noticeably different from a giddy samba-style carnival down an empty A-road. It’s one thing to follow the leaders and another to rush out of the way as they charge through us. When they stop playing, lurching to a gradual, woozy halt, you feel a potent sense of rudderlessness. Someone shouts, “Come on lads, one more tune.” You want – crave for – the party to restart. Sometimes, when it’s motoring along, you feel your chest start to swell. You feel your feet start to skip and fizz, almost tap-dancing. You feel a shout, a laugh, rising up and you just want to tear off, ricocheting through the streets like a rogue firework.
It’s the summer solstice, too, and, with the sun refusing to go down, there’s a charge in the air. The electricity of midsummer; that itchiness, that restlessness, that edge. There is a flicker of the London riots at play. We’re heading through big council estates and these bellowing horns seem to be a rallying cry. Come join us, they say. Bring out your dead. Bring out your grievances. When we get to smarter, more expensive flats, the noise seems confrontational. It disrupts the area, with its manicured calm. I remember, too, that Deblozay stems from Marseilles, another place ripped up by rioting not so long ago. The same feeling’s present, the same power and excitement and possibility, especially as our numbers swell with local residents and passers-by joining in. Only this time, it’s contained – controlled chaos, not a destructive rampage. It’s almost memorialising that night, raising its spirit(s) and reclaiming the streets once again. This time, though, it’s a creative, communal, hopeful act. We end in an urban clearing, festooned with fairground lightbulbs. An organ toots up and suddenly we’re dancing. All of us together.
Photograph: Sylvian Betrand