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INTERVIEW: Nabihah Iqbal On Brighton Festival Directorship
Jonathan Wright , May 5th, 2023 13:43

The artist tells tQ about her role as guest director of Brighton Festival and about the genesis of her remarkable new album, Dreamer

Photo by Shahir Iqbal

This weekend sees the opening of one of Europe’s major multi-arts events, Brighton Festival. Since 2009, a cultural figure has been invited to guest-curate the programme and this year that honour falls to Nabihah Iqbal, the musician, DJ and broadcaster. She follows in the footsteps of the likes of Anish Kapoor, Vanessa Redgrave, Kae Tempest, David Shrigley and Lemn Sissay.

Her overarching idea for the festival is summed up by the slogan “Gather ’Round”, seen on artwork commissioned from Sofia Niazi, a tapestry displaying a cooking pot. “She said for her that was a symbol of bringing people together,” Iqbal tells tQ. “And for me, this festival is all about bringing people together – shared experiences and exchange.” These experiences and exchanges cut across disciplines, an approach that draws on Iqbal’s experiences as an artist in residence at Somerset House.

It’s a festival that encompasses a huge range of work. To take just a few musical highlights Different Folks (20 and 21 May), celebrates folk’s diverse history, and features Martin and Eliza Carthy, Shirley Collins and her Lodestar Band, and Angeline Morrison. The All Sounds At All Saints strand (9 to 12 May) explores “music without boundaries” and features, among others, Shabaka Hutchings, playing the Japanese shakuhachi (a flute), and emerging electronic artist t l k. On 15 May, Iqbal herself will perform as part of Suroor, her experimental collaboration with sound artist/musicians Raheel Khan and Paul Purgas and multi-disciplinary artist Imran Perretta.

For the full programme for this year’s Brighton Festival, click here.

“I’m humbled by how open everyone’s been when I’ve approached them to be involved,” says Iqbal. “The festival only works when all the individual efforts come together, whether it’s from the artists or the production teams. I want people to come and have a good time – and also maybe to attend events that feel out of their comfort zone, to learn about new things and have new experiences.”

How did you approach putting together a lineup for the festival? You must start out facing a huge empty space.

Nabihah Iqbal: It is overwhelming. I thought the best approach would be just to start making a list of people whose work I really love and who I’d want to be a part of it, so that’s what I did. There’s a strong music focus because that’s my forte – different types of artists and people at different stages in their career. So we’ve got really big stars like Anoushka Shankar and Talvin Singh, but then there’s a lot of emerging artists, people that I’ve come across, or I’ve worked with before, and who’ve blown me away with their music and their talent.


You used to organise DIY shows. Are there similarities doing this, even if the scale is different?

NI: The ethos for me is exactly the same. Ever since I’ve been involved in music, organising events and parties has been a really big part of what I do. Laundrette parties were the beginning of my DJ life. When my first record came out in October 2013, we did the launch party for it inside Westminster Reference Library. I like the idea of taking over different kinds of spaces and reappropriating and redefining them, and there’s definitely going to be a bit of that going on at the festival.

One of the most important things about music is sharing. I mean, it’s the reason it exists. So I always want to approach my projects with a willingness to share – to be with people and make everyone feel included, whether it’s the musicians or the audience. This is the same thing, but on a really big scale.

You’re hosting two of your Glory To Sound interview events at the festival. How do these work?

NI: The Glory To Sound project is basically a blueprint for how I’m approaching Brighton Festival. It’s about thinking about music from different perspectives, not just concerts or club nights, but also talks and discussions, and just listening to recorded music together. I’ll be interviewing Linton Kwesi Johnson and Anita Rani, and asking them about the 10 most important pieces of music to them. We’ll listen to each one and there’ll be audience questions. When you think about your life punctuated by music, a lot of different stories come up. Obviously, it’s a bit like Desert Island Discs but with a live audience, and we don’t have to fade the music. Having an audience takes things into another dimension.

You’re also performing on the opening weekend (7 May), inside art studio Invisible Flock’s installation The Sleeping Tree.

NI: The director of Brighton Festival, Andrew Comben, put us in touch because he knew that I’m interested in field recordings and music from different parts of the world. The Sleeping Tree was born out of Victoria Pratt [creative director] and Ben Eaton [technical director] spending three months in the Indonesian rainforest, making field recordings. It’s really noisy. They found out about these special monkeys, siamang gibbons, that every night go to specific trees to sleep. The gibbons have this beautiful call they do in the mornings and it’s a duet between male and female. For the festival at Brighton Dome, they’ve created created this amazing installation working with a spatial sound system, maybe 50 or 60 speakers. It sounds like the different sounds are coming from all around you. There’s an amazing lighting installation as well. I’ll be joining them for a live performance. It’s my musical response to those field recordings and they’re also doing a lot of work on the stage manipulating these field recordings through different synthesisers.

You’re also DJ-ing with Dennis Bovell and Notting Hill Carnival mainstay Aba Shanti-I. That sounds daunting.

NI: In the conversations about events, I mentioned I would love to play alongside them because they’re two legends. And then it actually happened. I saw the lineup and I definitely felt out of my depth, but I’ll just be doing the warmup. I’ve got loads of reggae and dub records. Dennis Bovell actually DJ’d at my wedding. When you’re in front of those massive dub sound systems and you get all that bass inside your body, it does something to you, it’s really spiritual.

Turning to your work outside the festival, your new album, Dreamer has just been released. But you effectively lost an LP, is that correct?

NI: At the beginning of 2020, my music studio got burgled and I lost all my work. I learned the hard way about backing up.

Shortly after this, you went to Pakistan, which I find intriguing because in subtle ways Dreamer doesn’t sound like an album born in Europe.

NI: That’s an interesting observation, but it makes sense. After the burglary, the next day, my grandma FaceTimed me, and I was literally in my studio with the forensic police officers taking prints. She was crying, and told me that my granddad had had a brain hemorrhage and was in hospital. My mum and I booked a flight, and we left the next day. That situation eclipsed my music-loss situation because I wasn’t thinking about it anymore.

Luckily, my grandfather recovered but then, the day we were supposed to fly back, the Pakistan government announced a strict lockdown. Everything stopped. No flights, no trains, they closed the motorways. So we ended up being in Pakistan for two months. It was a strange feeling to be away from home and have no idea when you could go back.

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I was really ill, burnout from too much touring. That stay in Pakistan fixed me. What I needed was rest and sunshine and good food. My granddad was like, ’Look, stop talking about the burglary, you need to start again, to start music. It’s done now. Come on, get on with it!’ So I bought an acoustic guitar from a local music shop and made recordings on my phone, guitar ideas and voice ideas. And on my next trip to Pakistan a few months later, I bought a harmonium. That really was the genesis of the album. It was basically me just getting back to basics because I was so traumatised by losing my work.

There’s a strong sense of the pastoral on the album. You’ve talked about “herbalist sessions” and reading Thomas Hardy. Are a fascination with the pastoral and a need to simplify related?

NI: It’s good to hear you say these things because it’s making me connect the dots in my mind. Most of the album was made in the countryside. I left my studio in London because I felt like I couldn’t concentrate. Everything was so busy. I went to Scotland to a place called Cove Park. It was really remote. I went there twice and I went to Suffolk twice. That’s where I did most of the album – being in the countryside, reading Thomas Hardy, thinking about his evocative descriptions of nature.

Then other person I was reading a lot was Keats. He had writer’s block and went to Scotland to try to unlock his creativity. I was also listening to Jeff Buckley. They’re both people who died young and left this beautiful art behind them. And then one of my best friends died, the music producer Sophie. She also made a huge mark in a short time. I was thinking about what does it mean when you just die all of a sudden and you leave this art behind you? You think about what else that person could have done.

Photo by Shahir Iqbal

It sounds like you’ve been through an intense time.

NI: It’s been very hard. The burglary wasn’t even the first obstacle. I thought I was going to finish my album, but I broke my hand and I couldn’t do any work. And then, obviously, there’s the burglary, and then being in Pakistan, although that wasn’t an obstacle in the end. And then I got the sickest I’ve ever been, with Covid. And then my friend dies, it’s just been a lot.

I was in hospital for a week. And I’ve never been in that situation, being so weak and so vulnerable. You’re literally just relying on all the people around you to look after you. If you experience that, it changes the way that you think about things.

More happily, you got married last year, to menswear designer Nicholas Daley. Is that reflected on the album too?

NI: There’s only one loved-up song really, and that’s ‘Dreamer’. That actually is about Nicholas. I only told him that [for the first time] in front of the audience at a listening party. I’ve gone through things where it’s the saddest and most down and the most ill that I’ve ever been, but then with getting married, it’s also the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m quite independent, we don’t live together, but when we decided to get married it unlocked this whole different level of love and happiness.

Nabihah Iqbal’s new album Dreamer is out now via Ninja Tune. For full details about this year’s Brighton Festival, click here.