Brighton Festival Guest Director Nabihah Iqbal shares her fascination with sound

“It’s the biggest curatorial task that I’ve been offered,” Nabihah Iqbal tells me. “So, it’s been a real pleasure to be involved. They said they were already fans of my work and everything I do.” When Brighton Dome approached the DJ, broadcaster and multi-disciplinary musician about being the Guest Director of England’s largest curated arts festival it was a genuine, and lovely, surprise.

The programme she’s helped assemble reflects her eclectic tastes and the zeal which has resonated throughout her career.

She’s a familiar voice to millions, with unbridled music shows on Radio 1, 1Xtra, Asian Network, World Service and 6Music, along with a hugely popular residency on global radio platform NTS. She brings together sounds from across the globe, thrown in with a good helping of perspective and history. She’s also created the Glory To Sound project as Somerset House’s resident artist, curating live talks, music and club nights which brought together historian David Olusoga, DJ Gilles Peterson and pioneering electronic artist SOPHIE.

Her own consolidation as a recording artist arrived in 2017 with the release of her Weighing of the Heart album. It generated considerable critical acclaim, with its finely tuned collection of electronic pop. Touring the world extensively, both as a live act and DJ, she’s played ground-breaking shows at venues as varied as the V&A Museum, MoMA, Warehouse Project and Glastonbury Festival. There’s also been collaborations with Chinese artist Zhang Ding and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, along with composing music for the Turner Prize and performing at the London Barbican’s Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective. 

Now, Iqbal serves as Brighton Festival’s 14th Guest Director.

She is following luminaries like Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, Kae Tempest, Lemn Sissay OBE and Anish Kapoor. “They’ve said I’m probably one of the most involved guest directors they’ve ever had. Especially with the music programme, because that’s my focus area.” As soon as she received the brief, work started on building wish-lists of artists and contributors. These comprised of people whose work she believed in and wanted to platform under the festival’s umbrella. 

“Everybody basically said yes,” she tells me. “Which was a really nice feeling. I’m really excited to see what Brighton is like during the festival.” Running on Sat 6 – Sun 28 May, Brighton Festival 2023 offers a large-scale celebration of music, theatre, dance, art, film, literature, debate, outdoor and community events in venues and locations across Brighton, Hove and Sussex. 

Photo credit Shahir Iqbal

Iqbal’s own contributions are uncompromising and at times awe-inspiring.

Running inside Brighton Dome for the festival’s opening weekend, The Sleeping Tree is an immersive sound installation which surrounds visitors with the captivating and microscopically accurate noises of the jungle. It’s been created by Invisible Flock, an award-winning interactive arts practice which occupy the intersection of art and technology. 

“I wasn’t in touch with them before, and it was Andrew from Brighton Festival that put us in touch. I’m so glad that he did because I’m so excited to work with them.” Using field recordings made during three months in Indonesia, audiences are able to follow a family of endangered Siamang Gibbons who wake, roam across the jungle and dutifully return to the majestic trees that they’ve lived around for generations.  On the Sunday evening, Iqbal and Invisible Flock are creating a unique sound performance in response to the work. Using extra rainforest recordings and original text it will highlight the myriad connections between humans and the forest ecosystem’s living, breathing, changing entities. 

Nabihah Iqbal welcomes some special guests to her Glory to Sound events, offering evenings of music, discussion and joy. Award winning broadcaster Anita Rani and acclaimed poet Linton Kwesi Johnson will be joining the Festival Guest Director at Theatre Royal Brighton to explore the power of music and the ways in which it connects us.

Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts welcomes SUROOR on Sat 15 May.

This offers the more shape-shifting side of Iqbal’s musical output. “My performance in there is going to be really bassy. It’s a kind of shapeshifting improvised live show.” This evolving collaboration with sound artists Raheel Khan, who works around heritage and society, Paul Purgas, who works with sound, performance and installation and Imran Perretta, who addresses themes like oppression and alienation, has previously performed at Glasgow’s Tramway and London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery. 

It’s the first time all four project members have appeared onstage together.  This is an exercise in uninhibited creativity, with plenty of droning synths and interesting textures. While it contrasts with most of Iqbal’s solo work, she says she loves it just as much. “I was really into a lot of experimental music, and still am. It’s nice to be up there with fellow Asian artist, because you don’t really see a lot of brown and black people perform this kind of Avant Garde music.”

In a celebration of bass culture, Iqbal performs with one of the original British reggae sound systems on Sun 7 May. Up front is a compelling message of integration and good times from Aba Shanti-I, who has been making walls and floors shake around Europe for three decades and is a mainstay of Notting Hill Carnival. They’ll be joined by industry veteran heavyweight Dennis Bovell MBE, who has been instrumental in the careers of the scene’s most important pioneers as well as being a renowned artist in his own right.

We’re talking just days out from the release of Iqbal’s second album, Dreamer.

She’s been diligently working on this glorious slab of dreamy, multi-dimensional electronica and indie pop for almost five years. “It’s going to be amazing. It’s emotional because it’s taken me so long to make it.” The writing process was born in the face of almost overwhelming circumstances. Her studio was burgled in 2020, resulting in the loss of all her work. She was already suffering from burnout and a broken hand. Almost straightaway she had to travel to Karachi for a family emergency. Then, the pandemic struck. What came out of all the adversity was a sense of strength. Iqbal started writing songs again, but in a more stripped-back aesthetic freedom from the restrictions of her familiar studio set-up.

The result was a selection of songs which are both intimate and playful. Dreamer explores personal identity and sees Iqbal uncover new dimensions to her work. Now she’s in a whirlwind of rehearsals, preparing for a series of live shows which will see her playing her solo work with a full band for the first time. “I’m really looking forwards to performing it live. I can’t wait.”

Brighton Dome and Brighton Festival’s Chief Executive, Andrew Comben, recently described Iqbal as being “intellectually curious,” which is a lovely thing to say about someone. “Isn’t that another way of saying geek?” she says with a chuckle. “I’m just a big nerd, I think. I love learning about things and sharing information, and that’s always been there.” Even at school she was a bit of a geek. Music has always been her favourite thing.  Her parents weren’t particularly musical but really pushed all their daughters to learn instruments.

As with so many kids, she started off with the humble recorder. “I took it quite seriously. I played descant and treble… and played in a recorder ensemble.” Branching out into flute, piano and guitar, she’d attended music school every Saturday. Studying ethnomusicology at university, sitar became her main performance medium, along with an electric range of Asian traditional instruments and a brief foray into the Nay – a Turkish reed flute. This fascination with how music theory varies across the world has echoed throughout her career.

Nabihah Iqbal Photo credit Shahir Iqbal

Iqbal is part of a new breed of British broadcasters. The way we consume music has changed in response to an explosion of different outlets.

But those wanting to be freed from the algorithmic tyranny of streaming platforms or the sluggish response of the traditional music press are increasingly turning to curators and tastemakers of broadcast media. Iqbal’s own shows, particularly on NTS, broaden horizons and throw open their arms to mysterious and compelling sounds from around the world. 

I suggest that the internet has liberated music in some ways, but she’s more reserved about the progress being made. “It’s become democratic for consumption, in the way that anyone can access any kind of music, anywhere and at any time. So, that’s amazing. You can also share your music anywhere. Those are all things I feel grateful for. But at the same time, streaming is not very democratic at all, when it comes to the people making the music and being paid for it.” It’s little surprise that she buys a lot of albums, rather than streaming music. “I know what it feels like where you go on Spotify, and there’s two million streams of your song and you’ve not seen anything from it.”

This month sees the tenth anniversary of her show. And the zeal with which she seeks out new music has not dimished.

“I still feel like things feel harder now, because I’m more busy with everything and when you’re younger you just don’t worry as much about things… Life’s changed, obviously, but I still love it.” It gives her the opportunity to communicate her fascination with sounds in all their forms. “The whole point of music is sharing. That’s why it exists. The radio is an amazing outlet because there’s a freedom to play anything I want. It’s not like when you’re DJing in a club, where the aim is to make people dance and feel good.”

There’s every chance that her tenure at Brighton Festival will impact subsequent work. Everything she does relates in some way to her life’s experience. But, for this month, she’s concentrating on spending  plenty of time in Brighton and soaking up as much of the Festival programme as possible. “There are a few things which I haven’t chosen because they’re leftovers from lockdown which got postponed, but I’m just as excited about seeing those things as well. And hopefully getting more inspiration for what comes next, whether that’s collaborations, more curation or more festivals. You just never know what might happen.”

Brighton Festival comes to Brighton & Hove and across Sussex on Sat 6 – Sun 28 May. Nabihah Iqbal’s new album, DREAMER, is available now. She also plays Brighton’s Concorde 2 on Sun 7 May.

You might also be interested in our conversation with Emma Frankland on Galatea coming to Adur Recreation Ground in Shoreham-By-Sea on Fri 5 – Sun 21 May (Weds–Sun), as part of Brighton Festival.

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