by Paddy Kinsella
Gabriel Moreno is the pied piper of London’s underground folk scene – wherever he lays his hat, local acts follow – and his music treats everyone like an equal
Despite attending around two gigs a week in my hometown of Manchester since 2011, my knowledge of local acts has always been patchy. Pre-Corona, international bands descended on Manchester so regularly that I never had time to embrace the local scene. However, this year in that strange period between lockdown 1.0 and lockdown 2.0, open mic nights were the only real way of seeing music in the city. Attending them was like entering a new world where all these underground artists – many of them content with operating outside the industry – expressed their genius across three song sets simply because of their love for it. And if I had lived in London for the past nine years, I’m sure my desire to see the most exciting acts on the block would’ve seen the talents of Gibraltarian poet and singer songwriter, Gabriel Moreno, pass me by.
Moreno is the curator of acclaimed folk music and poetry nights such as The Lantern Society, Notes from Underground and The Poetry Brothel, and these nights are a counterculture of sorts, in opposition to the real world. A place where everyone is given a fair shot, everyone who gets up to express themselves is supported not shouted down, and it represents a genuine community in a neoliberal world which prioritises the individual. The anti-immigrant rhetoric that has dominated British media for the last decade couldn’t be further away here. These nights represent the true hodgepodge of nationalities dwelling in London and, quite frankly, nobody could care less where you came from. Here everyone is an equal.
The album opener is, in many ways, its centrepiece. It is a song about the toxic nationalism that has poisoned this fair land in recent times from Moreno’s unique perspective as what some would call an outsider. Speaking to us in a recent interview, he said, ‘When I came here in 1996, I found England was the melting point of music, art, culture, progress. And now I go to Spain or Germany and feel like they are hundreds of years ahead of us. I say “us” because in Gibraltar, England’s still considered as the fatherland. I’m still proud of English history and culture, English music, but I’m not proud of this debacle of human consciousness that we’re living in.’
Speaking honestly, I’ve never been more ashamed of England than I have been this year. Our government appeals daily to an infectious nationalist rhetoric – our education secretary, Gavin Williamson, crassly claimed on radio that ‘we are a better country than France, Belgium or the US’, yet we’ve cut our aid budget to help the world’s poorest despite being the world’s fifth largest economy, and we emblazoned the Union Jack flag all over the coronavirus vaccine developed at Oxford University. So much of our politics has become about insistence on separating ourselves from the rest of the world, shouting about how much better we are and, in the process, alienating so many who made their homes here. This year is the first time I’ve thought seriously about giving up and jumping ship, but Moreno’s opener contends that ‘this is just a glitch’ and rallies us to keep fighting for the England we know exists under all the hate. In the album’s catchiest chorus, he sings – ‘Girl, don’t you get tired / Don’t go away / We can write England all over again.’
His folk nights of musicians based in London, but from across the globe, represents that melting pot of cultures many of us know England to be and are proud of. As does his band on the album, made up of London, Barcelona and Gibraltar-based musicians such as Pablo Yupton, Adam Beattie, Ned Cartwright, Denis Valerga, Fiona Bevan, Pablo Campos and Ty Watling amongst others. In many ways, this album represents that voice of England which embraces collaboration and internationalism, expressed so loudly and proudly by the diversity on show at his folk nights. Poetry Mondays is a direct ode to one of those evenings – ‘Please tell me, tell me, you feel it too / the spirt of this Monday rendezvous,’ he sings misty-eyed. Before Margaret Burns – a lovely duet with esteemed songwriter Fiona Bevan (Billie Marten, Matthew E White, Lewis Capaldi) – which is another highlight.
Ibrahim Gökçek is another song that came directly as a result of the London folk community. When Moreno first heard of Gökçek’s story, Gökçek was on hunger strike in Turkish prison after his band, Grup Yorum, were jailed for their protest songs and defending their right to free speech. One member had already died as a result. A performer at one of his evenings told Moreno Gökçek’s story and asked if he’d write a song for him. Moreno hurried off upstairs to do so and thirty minutes later came down with the result. Over a chugging guitar, he recites his incredible poetry – ‘They took your holy weapon / so you weaponised your gut / now you hold your very death with your fingertips / to protest against their lies.’ Ibrahim stopped his hunger strike and there was a new ruling in court hinting that they might excuse Grup Yorum. Tragically, however, it was too late. He died two days later. He stopped the fast too late. He’d been on a hunger strike for over a year, and wasn’t strong enough to recover. Gökçek did hear Moreno’s song before his death though and, I’m sure in his final days, it gave him solace to know people across the world were fighting for him and his art.
As a whole, Whiskey With Angels is a stunning paean of hope. Some might call Moreno a dreamer, but, truthfully, he – along with the artists who play his nights – is someone who just sees every human being as exactly that – and views everyone equally no matter where they came from. So does much of England and this album gives a glimpse into the country we once were, and can become again.
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