Brighton Festival

REVIEW: Celestial Voices @ The Old Market (Brighton Festival)

June 1, 2023

Words by Eric Page

Celestial Voices {Swargiya Awaz} is a concert from BISHI with solo material for voice and electric sitar from their most recent album Let My Country Awake. Their introduction takes in the richness of their diverse cultural and ethnic heritage, deftly highlighting the commonalities that inspire and thread through their complex and clear music.

Photo credit Claire Leach

We have layered sounds – the voice of BISHI has real tone and giddy range; the harmonies as tight as the latex outfit, which amplifies the sumptuous curves as the voice is amplified and arcs around it. All is soft, bound – movement, flesh, sensuality, vocality, thought. This is not a music concert but an experience, an invitation (and invocation?) to sing of the body electric with a person whose cultural currents are strong. We plug in and are powered up.

BISHI is empowerment and graciousness defined, it’s been a while since I’ve seen such an evidently talented person be so humble on stage. It’s a beautiful pose, drawing in and acknowledging the various people and influences that have helped build the music, focused on dual identities, anti-racism, and a call to find empathy in a divided world.

We are introduced to their novel experience of the pandemic and how lockdown led to a new way of being and producing music and a meeting of minds, music, voices and intent.

A British Bengali vocalist and composer, BISHI’s writing style was built around experimentation and improvisation. They impress with a four octave vocal range, inspired by plaintive chant, pastoral folk, Meredith Monk, Bulgarian music, and Indian Classical music.

BISHI starts to sing again, voice layered on voice, this is a loop pedal masterclass. There’s a madrigal element to the music, the electric sitar weaving, the dissonance hovers on dragonfly wings before diving in and out of harmonies, behind the undulating person singing on stage. Simple reductive, repetitive visuals are projected, their looped unfolding adding a visually compelling background to the enveloping music. From the crepuscular wings the choir Trans Voices joins us: six beautiful, modulated voices step in from each side of the stage, adding their own song and harmonies to the whole. It’s beautiful, the sound empowers, the voices own each octave and harmonic frequency, all together they sing of humanity. I’m touched, surprised by how moved I am. I look around, I’m not the only one being affected. It’s joyful.

Learn more about Trans Voices here

One of my favourite folk songs, The Three Ravens, is sung, again the voices swoop, merge and meet again, the melancholic melodies sliding past each other, catching on memories of joy, dissecting musical privilege and finding it wanting, creating a new space of vocal interaction, reminding us of the diversity of voice and the deeply personal embodiment of ourselves in our voices. The singers of Trans Voices look enchanted, literally possessed by the music, they rock, smile, gesticulate, the whole emulating the rhythms of the music. They sing of the fragility of life, their voices pound out the vitality of living fully, tight harmonies concur with being fully present. They slide into a delicious witchy vocal folk from The Wicker Man, it’s wonderful, fun, dangerous, beguiling.

The final piece, a choral pieces arranged especially for Trans Voices, Of Herculine, leads us again into the high ethereal vaults of polished culture served up as a simple melodic interaction, but this is fierce, complex and liberating. The lyrics lead us off into a space of redemption, where just by being there we have arrived. The song hints at resolve, but leaps again, harmonies feel for each other, nod, then shift, it’s chromatic but feels so simple. It calls to us, something inside of us, the largely queer audience felt that pull strong. After they finish, there’s a hushed silence before rapturous applause thunders across the Old Market. This new choral piece is inspired by the life of Herculine Barbin, whose birth date globally marks Intersex Day of Remembrance, raising awareness of the violence inherent in the binary sex and gender system.

A super night from Brighton Festival, possibly the most interesting intersectional cultural evening I’ve attended in a long time, full of beauty, cultural fertilisation, invocation, innovation and pure raw beauty. There’s always ‘that experience’ at the Festival where you leave thinking, ‘now that’s what a Festival should be’. Tonight’s performance of Celestial Voices is THE performance of the Festival for me. One I’m so very glad I had the opportunity to witness and be part of.

Thank you Trans Voices, thanks you BISHI, now please book yourselves another gig down here ASAP.

The gig was opened and closed by experimental and pretty darn cool DJ I Am Fyr, founding member of DJ collective Sista Selecta and of the afro-futurist collective, Brownton Abbey, leaving us in the best possible mood for the rest of our weekend. We wander out into the warm spring evening with a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

More info on this event here