Kwaku, Ananse & other African folktales

Reviewer's Rating

The first thought a reviewer has as the lights dim is that it is curious musicians have not more ubiquitously exploited the sonic sublimity of drums beaten by hand: the deep, dulcet reverberation of these instruments, commonly employed in folk music through the southern hemisphere, evokes the flesh-muffled heartbeat of a living organism with a tenderness and resonant, sonorous vitality percussive sounds produced by clapping mere wood or metal to an acoustic membrane can rarely match.

The second is that it is curious we still bother with any other kind of storytelling. Jan Blake and TUUP (The Unorthodox, Unprecedented Preacher) dance onstage to the tripping, swaying beat established by JoJo with one imperative on their lips, one intention informing their interaction with and performance toward the fairly inelastic, punctilious auditorium of the Conference Centre at The British Library: pay attention and participate. They cajole, exhort, and seduce us by turns, and when Blake asks her audience a few minutes in whether we feel more awake, more alive than we did sitting down under a ceiling softly suffused with modestly tinted house-lights in the shapelessly capacious and, theatrically speaking, unsatisfactorily agora-like oddity of the space, her and TUUP’s interactive, collaborative, tenaciously convivial dramatic intensity has, already, long-since fevered the pitch of our enthusiasm: the answer is an unequivocal, exhilarated ‘yes’.

The stories themselves are delightful: subtle, strong, simple without being simplistic, steeped in satire, pickled in pungent peril, and presented by Blake and TUUP with extraordinary physical and rhetorical proficiency and commitment as that unerringly true and profoundly compelling fabric of self-fabricated human existence, perennially refreshed and infinitely familiar, exuberantly fantastic and farcical, spectacularly unsentimental and pragmatic, fabulous and fabular representation of reality saturated in sweat, soil, sex, sand and snow, of phantasmagoric devilry and phenomenal deception, which we instantly recognize as folklore, as old wives’ tales. They form a singular sequence: at once single and stupendous (“The continent of Africa is a story,” declares TUUP; Blake’s and his diegeses interweave, following each other with distinctive songs and structures, characterizations and designs, stylistic and oratorical variations, but of one pattern, crafted and chased along the same or a strikingly similar thematic lines), and a perpetually proliferating, metastasizing, manifold miscellany (the ‘set’ is a stage strewn with narrative flotsam and jetsam, a headless mannequin, scarlet silks and velvet, festoons of gorgeous gold and parrot green, saffron, turquoise, ivory, ebony, talking drums and djembe, mbira and agbe, a magnificently carved centrepiece, implements of a makeshift dramaturgy, magpie musicality, and garrulous, gossipy mythmaking).

But this is The Crick Crack Club: TUUP and Jan Blake bring together splendid wordology, sparkling wit, nuanced and thoughtful reflexivity, luxurious lashings of laughter, and delicate, intricately wrought profusions of anecdotal and descriptive assemblage, with stunningly visceral, sensual, affective evocations of material and supernatural, monstrous and animal, social human and infernal, emotional states and bodies. The performances –– so casually framed, almost appropriated, by The British Library within and for its rather inclementally titled festival on ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ (to the extent of not even advertising the event with programmes or posters, in fact, not even mentioning it in the single-page flyer for the festival) –– constitute a generous, joyous, gift; a truly gregarious, communal production.