Brainchild Festival 2019

When done right, festivals achieve a special kind of magic. Brainchild is a festival that’s done right. Not-for-profit, serious about social issues yet gloriously fun, and a celebration of artistic expression and personal freedom, it has that particular magic in spades.

Now into its eighth year, Brainchild has become an indelibly inked-in fixture in the summer calendar for many, and first-timers are in the minority.

Some come primarily for the talks: empowering, heart-on-sleeve discussions about topics that range from green living to grief. Others come more for the music, a delicious hotpot of crossover jazz, soul, folk, world rhythms, house and breakbeat. Yet one thing that everyone’s there for is the communal vibe and the good times. Perch on a picnic table in a quiet moment, scan the passing faces and you won’t see one wrinkle of consternation – Brainchild is cavorting grins, tender embraces and jovial chatter all the way.

For such a small festival (around 3000 people), Brainchild’s musical diversity is dizzying. Leafcutter John was emblematic of this range. Inside the darkness of the Cinematarium tent, he performed his set via a laptop, some photosensitive pads and a pair of electric torches – constructing a soundscape through a kind of mesmeric flashing semaphore dance.

For all its diversity, London’s jazz scene, with all its myriad offshoots, is undoubtedly Brainchild’s backbone. Artists like Ben Hauke and Maxwell Owin are part of the furniture. This year they were joined by Steam Down and Maisha, who brought throbbing syncopation, balls-out sax and a breathless blurring of sounds from Dakar to Deptford.

There were also new acts like Eriksson Tudie Project. With Eriksson Kaner on keys and Mom Tudie on beats, this specially assembled duo slid between lush, Rhodes-led jazz numbers and head-bopping hiphop productions, adding instrumentalists as they went. First James Mollison of Ezra Collective popped up on sax, before Project Karnak’s Alex Blake came to splash his guitar riffs into the concoction.

This cross-pollenation is one of Brainchild’s many wonderful features, with quite a few performers appearing as part of various acts over the course of the weekend. There are worthy side projects and collaborations aplenty. Not only that, but the festival’s ultra-intimate feel means that at five o’clock, you’ll be gawping at someone shredding a sax solo, and at eight, you’ll realise you’re dancing right next to them at another gig. There’s a delightful sense of oneness to the whole thing.

Speaking of oneness, tucked away in the woodland stage, São Paulo’s Tahira invoked the spirit of the surrounding forest through tribal flutes and ancestral chants laid over pulsing drums – peppered with the odd stripped-back edit of Brazilian crowd-pleasers such as Renata Rosa’s ‘Brilhantina’. Meanwhile, over on the main stage, 30/70’s Allysha Joy raised the (metaphorical) roof with her sassy, sensuous vocals, ranging from a contralto growl to all-out soul-sister stylings.

In the Lemon Lounge, a refreshing stumble-across stop-over boogie for many on their short walk between tent and festival, Romaal Kultan flowed between sumptuous RnB and vibesy broken-beat house. Footshooter then picked up the baton to blare out endorphin-heavy classics like Sean Escoffery’s ‘Days Like This’.

In the Kite Bar, the most raucous ovation of the festival went to Nihilism. Fronted by the pocket-sized, violin-wielding whirlwind that is Saskia Horton, this feel-good five-piece hopped, skipped and jumped between jazz, hiphop and soul with such infectious energy – and such juicy grooves – that at the end of the set, the collective howls for a final encore could only be heeded by the powers that be.

Lengthening shadows brought brisker BPMs. On consecutive nights in the woods, The Shack played host to Maxwell Owin, Josey Rebelle and Fauzia, who sped through sets of two-step and footwork slammers to an exultant crowd. Maxwell Owin’s rewind on Ms Dynamite’s ‘Booo!’ was testament to the intensity of the bass faces on show. But Brainchild’s hottest electronic ticket had to be SHERELLE, who had exploded into the world’s imagination via a spectacular Boiler Room set – and very much brought that rapid fire to the Sussex countryside. Her beats glistened with ultra-clean production, and her nimble mixing and breakneck basslines moved bodies, furrowed brows and burned calories – some way to close the day.

At Brainchild, the magic is real. The leafy setting, the commitment to self-expression, the calibre of music and the contagion of 3000 smiling faces make it far more than the sum of its parts. When 2020 calendars come along, I’ll have my permanent marker ready.

Alex Malin