Manchester international festival 2021: the best music, from Damon Albarn to Arlo Parks

Manchester international festival 2021: the best music, from Damon Albarn to Arlo Parks

It’s time to welcome back live performance – from sizzling Afrorave to chart-topping pop and soothing neoclassical sounds

Arlo Parks. Photograph: Alexandra Waespi/Reuters

Music – and specifically the one-off, live extravaganza – has defined Manchester international festival since its inception, from Rufus Wainwright’s debut opera (2009) to Bjork’s Biophilia live debut (2011) and Massive Attack’s collaboration with Adam Curtis (2013). This year’s lineup is similarly impressive, with a multi-genre lineup that offers something for everyone; a sonic balm after a year without live music.

Arlo Parks

As big a star of British music as she is becoming – bagging the Brit award this year for best new artist, not to mention winning praise from Billie Eilish, Michelle Obama and Phoebe Bridgers – the 20-year old London singer-songwriter Arlo Parks expresses herself with a rare lightness of touch on her remarkable debut album, this January’s Collapsed in Sunbeams.

Parks is a self-described empath, and her softly reflective, confessional songs – often written on her phone – find an intimate setting at these one-off shows for MIF, which feature a string section from the Royal Northern College of Music backing up the sweet-voiced singer.

Damon Albarn. Photograph: Linda Brownlee

Damon Albarn

Musical polymath Damon Albarn is a long-term friend of MIF, whose diverse contributions have included a star-studded Gorillaz show and two operas. This year, Albarn brings new life to songs from across his extraordinary, three decade-long songbook, from Blur and Gorillaz to the Good, the Bad & the Queen and his solo work, accompanied by a band and string quartet.

Expect to hear from his new album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, which takes its title from John Clare’s poem Love and Memory. Inspired by the landscapes of Iceland, these new songs deftly navigate notions of fragility, emergence and rebirth.

Muneera Williams.

MIF x Salaam

Simultaneously stirring and uplifting, the sounds of west African griot music and south Asian qawwali offer a true tonic for frazzled souls. What’s so special about this showcase, launching a new festival of Islamic culture, is that these male-dominated traditions are being reimagined by young women: exquisite fusion singer and veena player Abi Sampa first rose to international recognition after appearing on The Voice in 2013 and now performs as part of Orchestral Qawwali; pioneering Gambian musician Sona Jobarteh is the first female kora master to come from the ancient griot tradition, and is cousin to Toumani Diabaté.

Hosting and performing is poet and musician Muneera Williams, co-founder of female Muslim spoken word duo Poetic Pilgrimage. A dazzling gem of an offering.

Dobrinka Tabakova. Photograph: Candide/Candide Rietdijk

The Patience of Trees

The perfect soundtrack to our collective re-emergence from a year of isolation, this new contemporary concerto by garlanded young composer Dobrinka Tabakova takes its cues from the natural world, from the delicate opening threads of its opening violin melody to the great swells of strings that follow.

Performed by the Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra, the programme has been devised by violinist Hugo Ticciati and features other works exploring nature and the city. These include Tabakova’s meditative piece Frozen River Flows, Steve Reich’s mesmerising New York Counterpoint, with its dawn chorus evocation, plus Vulpes Vulpes, a new commission by Paul Saggers, the winner of the O/Modernt composition award.

Homecoming Live

Anz. Photograph: Joseph Burton

Ready to dance? Established in Lagos, Nigeria in 2017 by Skepta’s manager Grace Ladoja, Homecoming is among the world’s most electrifying music festivals, operating as a true creative exchange between Nigeria, the African diaspora and beyond.

Now, Homecoming lands in Manchester, with live performances from Nigerian Afrorave hitmaker Rema, alongside eclectic Manchester-based DJ and producer Anz, plus London’s balaclava-toting Afrobeat star – “the joker herself” – Midas the Jagaban. Homecoming Live is hosted by Julie Adenuga and promises to be a tantalising taster for a new partnership with MIF, set to culminate with a full-on Homecoming takeover of MIF’s future permanent home, The Factory. Should be quite the warm-up.

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