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Saturday at Surge in Spring V, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, 23/04/2022.

by Ian Mann

April 27, 2022

Ian Mann welcomes the return of the Surge in Spring Festival to Birmingham as Sid Peacock and Surge present a programme of "Exceptional Music From Around The Globe".

Saturday at Surge in Spring V, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, 23/04/2022.

The Surge in Spring Festival is the brainchild of Sid Peacock, the Northern Ireland born, Birmingham based musician, composer, poet, bandleader and educator Sid Peacock.

The Festival was first established in 2017 and the first and third editions of this annual event have been reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann.

Despite the title Surge in Spring V was actually the fourth Festival in the series. Surge in Spring IV had been ready and waiting to go in April 2020, the flyers all printed, but we all know what happened. The 2021 event never even got to the drawing board, but in 2022 Surge in Spring was back and even bigger than before.

Traditionally Surge in Spring has been an all day event with a variety of performances across a wide range of musical genres taking place in the numerous performance spaces around the mac. This time round the Festival had been expanded to two days with a concert having been held in the Main Theatre on Friday night (April 22nd) featuring composer, accordionist, multi-instrumentalist and sound artist Mario Batkovic, supported by Hyelim Kim, a virtuoso of the taegum, or Korean flute. Unfortunately I was only able to attend on the Saturday and therefore missed this event, although by all accounts it was pretty amazing. I did console myself by remembering that I had enjoyed seeing Kim performing on the taegum at the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival when she was part of the ‘house band’ at one of the Expect the Unexpected events at Club Inegales at Euston.

Surge in Spring V promised us “exceptional music from around the globe” and this was exactly what the Festival delivered, a kind of mini-WOMAD rather than a conventional jazz festival.

Surge In Spring is named after one of Peacock’s primary creative outlets, his unique jazz/folk large ensemble Surge Orchestra. Two of the Orchestra’s albums “La Fête” (2011) and “Valley of Angels” (2019) have been reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann with the excellent “La Fête” remaining something of a personal favourite. There are also reviews of a number of Surge Orchestra live performances including a memorable 2011 show at the mac that featured Django Bates, one of Peacock’s primary compositional influences, as a guest soloist.

A particularly open minded musician Peacock is dismissive of musical genre boundaries and this was reflected in the Festival’s eclectic programming. Saturday’s events included two ticketed shows in the Main Theatre by Krar Collective and Surge Orchestra plus nine other free to view performances in the mac’s other performance spaces, the Hexagon Theatre, Foyle Studio and Main Foyer. In the main these ran concurrently and it was impossible for me to cover everything fully. However I was able to dip into all of them, albeit briefly in some cases, in order to be able to provide an overview of the Festival as a whole. Several of the musicians who appeared as solo artists during the day were later to appear as guest soloists among the ranks of Surge Orchestra as Peacock’s band closed the Festival in the evening.

The Surge organisation works closely with the Birmingham based charity Celebrating Sanctuary which describes its mission thus;


Promote and empower local artists in exile
Seek to raise awareness of the refugee experience
Celebrate and support refugee talent in the city
Build connections with local communities
Facilitate artistic development and community outreach projects.

Several of the artists that appeared today are associated with Celebrating Sanctuary and the organisation is to be praised for the contribution it makes to the cultural life of Birmingham.


Turning now to today’s musical performances which began in the Hexagon Theatre with Syrian born, London based oud player Rihab Azar. In recent years I have grown to love the sound of the oud, a lute like instrument that is played throughout North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Players such as the Tunisian Anouar Brahem, the Greek Stefanos Tsourelis and the Algerian Yazid Fentazi have encouraged my appreciation of the instrument and I was therefore very much looking forward to seeing and hearing Azar.

For her short half hour set Azar promised a programme of oud music from Syria and the wider Middle East and once she had negotiated a feedback problem stemming from the mic attached to her oud her performance was genuinely beautiful.

Azar has been playing the instrument since the age of seven and her technique involved the shape of a distinctive pencil shaped pick, a device that I don’t recall Tsourelis or Fentazi using when I saw them play live.

Azar’s programme of solo oud pieces included pieces from Syria and Iraq, some of them written by senior musicians generally considered to be masters of the oud. Others were based on traditional vocal melodies, here played entirely instrumentally.
It wasn’t easy for an English speaker to catch either the titles of the tunes or the names of the composers, and given the ‘wall to wall’ nature of the Festival there was no chance of making any enquiries afterwards. It was perhaps best to forget about the details and just concentrate on the beauty of the music and the skill of the playing.

For the last two numbers Azar was joined by clarinettist Katie Stevens as they performed two pieces by the Syrian oudist Mohamad Osman, one of Azar’s mentors,  thrilling the audience with their dazzling unison melody lines.  Stevens helped to bring additional depth and colour to the music and her introduction also infused the music with an energy that helped to generate a highly enthusiastic reaction from the audience.

Both musicians were to appear again later in the day, Stevens as part of a duo with multi-instrumentalist Aaron Olwell and Azar as a guest with the Surge Orchestra, but more on that later.


Out in the Foyer the performance by the Congolese duo of Niwel Tsumbu and Didier Kisala was already under way.

Tsumbu is a virtuoso guitarist who migrated to Ireland in 2004. Also a vocalist, composer and educator he too was to appear with Surge Orchestra later in the day.

Kisala is a singer and songwriter who fronts the Birmingham based Congolese band The Redeemed.

As the Foyer does not represent the best environment for serious listening I only saw a little of this performance. Nevertheless there was time enough for me to appreciate Tsumbu’s virtuosity on the six string guitar and the power and soulfulness of Kisala’s vocals as he accompanied himself on twelve string acoustic guitar in the manner of a Congolese Leadbelly.

I was to hear much more from Tsumbu later on, but I would also welcome the opportunity of hearing more from Kisala or from The Redeemed should the opportunity ever present itself.


The comfortable Foyle Studio played host to Switch Ensemble, a group of young musicians, some of them with disabilities, whose creativity has been nurtured by the Midlands Arts Centre’s ‘Mac Makes Music”  scheme.

The group’s members, some of them very young, write their own music and I was to enjoy three songs from the band, “Road Trip”, “Love Is Great” and the pandemic inspired “Feelings”.

Clad in rather cool band uniform T-Shirts they played with great enthusiasm and an impressive level of musical skill. Their lyrics combined political and social awareness with humour and a real sense of fun.

Switch Ensemble is described as “an inclusive band for ages 9 to 25” and meets weekly at mac, effectively making it the ‘mac house band’. The line up varies but today included Nashita (vocals, drums, keyboard), Stephen (bass, harmonica, guitar) and young James (I-pad, vocals) plus music leader Alex Lowe (drums).  There was also an unnamed wheelchair using guitarist who played a key role in the music, playing guitar with great skill and also seeming to function in the role of a music leader.

Switch Ensemble has been functioning for seven years and has made numerous concert appearances in Birmingham and London as well as releasing two albums.
I thoroughly enjoyed their performance. More power to their collective elbows.


The second performance at the Hexagon presented the duo of Cheng Yu (pipa) and Liu Qing (erhu), two Chinese musicians now based in the UK.

As well as performing Cheng Yu teaches pipa and qin at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.  Liu Qing is a professional erhu player. Both musicians are members of the UK Chinese Ensemble.

Today’s programme of traditional Chinese music featured the pipa, a four stringed Chinese lute with thirty frets and the erhu, a two stringed bowed instrument sometimes known as the Chinese violin.

Cheng Yu helpfully translated the tune titles into English which made things easier to understand and certainly aided this reviewer!

First up was the energetic and aptly titled “Full of Joy” which quickly established the duo as virtuosi of their respective instruments. Written as a celebration of the Chinese New Year the combination of the bowed erhu and the plucked pipa plus the sheer energy of the piece sometimes reminded me of traditional Irish music as played on fiddle on guitar.

The slower, more gentle pieces such as the 17th century “Flute and Drum at Sunset” sounded more obviously ‘Chinese’ as Cheng Yu and Liu Qing exchanged beguiling melody lines. This piece also featured Cheng Yu as a soloist.

Written in the early 20th century “Peaceful Evening” was a feature for Liu Qing on unaccompanied erhu and was a haunting and beautiful solo performance.

Dating from the Ming Dynasty “White Snow In Sunny Spring” was a solo performance from Cheng Yu on the pipa. I remember thinking at the time that pipa players must have incredibly strong finger nails. I later read that they sometimes wear false nails, specifically designed for playing the instrument.

“Three Variations” saw a return to duo performance and featured Cheng Yu’s vocals alongside her pipa playing. She later admitted that this was the first time she had sung in public performance. A very creditable vocal début I’d say.

“Jasmine Flower” combined two different melodies from southern Chinese provinces and was as delightful as its title suggests.

The closing item was a short Cantonese piece which translated, I think, as “Warming Up”. In any event it marked a return to more energetic performance as the duo took things blazing out, again reminding me of Irish music.

The largest Hexagon audience of the day gave the duo a terrific reception, and rightly so. This was music that was often beautiful and compelling, but at other times was joyful and invigorating. This combination enabled this event to be considered as one of the best performances of the day.

Both Cheng Yu and Liu Qing were to return later as guests of the Surge Orchestra.


I’ll admit to hearing little of the performance by the Birmingham Schools Recorder Ensemble in the main foyer.

Presented in association with the Services for Education Music Service this featured the Ensemble under the baton of Michelle Holloway. The Ensemble’s repertoire ranges from the 16th century to the contemporary avant garde and includes specially commissioned works. The Ensemble has performed as part of the Youth Schools Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London and at the Music For Youth National Festival.

I really only caught this in passing, but my eyes couldn’t help being drawn to the presence of the enormous bass recorders in the back row. We certainly didn’t have those when I was in school!


In search of something more conventionally jazz-like I found my way to the Foyle Studio where the young members of the Jazzlines ensemble were being put through their paces by their tutor, baritone saxophonist Alicia Gardener-Trejo.

The ensemble takes its name from Birmingham Town Hall / Symphony Hall’s jazz arm Jazzlines, now re-christened B: Music. It supports young musicians between eleven and nineteen years and encourages them to develop their jazz and improvisation skills.

Today’s ensemble featured tenor sax, alto sax, trumpet,  electric bass, drums and keyboards with Gardener-Trejo leading on baritone sax. Dubbing themselves ‘Channel Vibe’ I caught the ensemble playing two numbers, an arrangement of Miles Davis’ “Jean-Pierre” and their own “Anxious”, aka “Ozzy’s Groove”, a piece inspired by the riff from Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” - well we were in Birmingham after all. It was just a shame that the group’s guitarist was unavailable to fill the Tony Iommi role.

Gardener-Trejo was highly supportive of her young charges, encouraging them to demonstrate their soloing skills. Her enthusiasm was infectious and she is obviously a highly accomplished teacher.

The names I managed to catch were Georgia (tenor sax), Niall (alto), Noah (trumpet), Amy (bass), Phil and Tilly (both drums). Well done everybody.


The first ticketed event of the day featured Krar Collective, a London based quintet of Ethiopian musicians who present music synonymous with the various tribes of Ethiopia. This was another show that had been postponed from 2020 and the Collective were clearly ready to make up for lost time.

The band takes its name from the traditional instrument the krar lyre, the instrument played by group leader Temesgen Zeleke, a former student of Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke.

The Collective also features the singing and dancing of Genet Assefa and the playing of Baby Masinko on the single string Ethiopian masinko fiddle. A powerful and flexible rhythm section features Dawit Seyoum on the four stringed bass krar and Amare Mulugeta on traditional kebero drums, his kit eschewing such familiar elements as cymbals and bass drum but still more than capable of generating an extraordinary range of sounds and rhythms. Krar Collective presented a vibrant, energetic and colourful show with Assefa making a number of costume changes during the course of the set, but as often as not I found my eyes and ears drawn to the remarkable playing of Mulugeta at his distinctive and colourful drum kit.

Zeleke’s amplified six string krar variously sounded like an electric guitar or even an electric keyboard as the Collective opened the show in a quartet format, delivering a powerful instrument featuring the beguiling melodic blend of krar and masinko fiddle powered by the propulsive, energetic rhythms of bass krar and kebero drums.

Assefa’s powerful vocals were added on the second tune as she made a grand entrance, also bewitching the crowd with her dancing skills as the pace of the music accelerated.

The third number found Zeleke sharing the vocals with Assefa as Seyoum doubled on percussion. The combination of bass krar and kebero drums also imparted the music with a uniquely Ethiopian funkiness. Audience participation was actively encouraged with Zeleke and Assefa inviting members of the audience on to the stage to dance alongside Assefa. A few brave souls gamely took up the challenge with the encouragement of a highly supportive crowd.

A more reflective song with a title translating as “A Memory” was essentially a Zeleke solo performance, his lead krar and emotive vocal subtly underscored by the drone of the masinko fiddle and the soft patter of Mulugeta’s hands on the kebero drums.

This interlude provided Assefa with the opportunity to make a costume change and her return saw the Collective upping the energy levels again as Assefa and Zeleke traded call and response vocal lines over the driving rhythms laid down by Seyoum and Mulugeta. The drummer was also to enjoy his own feature, a flamboyant solo that demonstrated the full range of the kebero kit’s sonic possibilities.

Mulugeta’s extended percussive excursion allowed Assefa to make her final costume change and with the crowd now wholly on their side the Collective had no difficulty in getting the entire audience on its feet for the frenetic and celebratory final number. Some audience members joined Assefa on stage again and the singer was also joined by her young daughter, who charmed the crowd with her own dance moves.

Krar Collective represent a highly exciting live music experience, even at four o’ clock in the afternoon in Birmingham. One suspects that their natural home is the late night ‘party slot’ at WOMAD and similar festivals, where they could whip up the crowd even further. I’m not sure whether their music would transmit quite as well to the home listening environment, although more concentrated listening might well reveal hidden depths, particularly in the rhythmic department. I doubt if most of today’s ecstatic audience were asking themselves such questions. They were just enjoying listening and dancing to the music of this energetic, vibrant and colourful band.


The Foyle Studio was hosting a performance by Nifeco Costa, a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter from Guinea-Bissau, a Portuguese speaking country in West Africa.

For this appearance he was working alongside a new trio featuring the Birmingham based musicians David Austin-Grey (keyboards) and Johnno Gaze (drums).

I managed to catch a couple of songs featuring Costa’s gentle but soulful vocals, his lyrics delivered in Portuguese. Austin-Grey and Gaze provided subtle, understated support with the drummer mainly deploying brushes.

At times I was reminded a little of the Cameroonian artist Muntu Valdo. It’s unfortunate that my time in Costa’s company had to be so brief. On the evidence of this fleeting exposure to his music he’s certainly an artist I’d welcome hearing again.


Back out in the Foyer Katie Stevens, previously seen with Rihab Azar, and her duo partner Aaron Olwell had drawn a large and appreciative crowd.

“Prepare to hear Appalachian fiddling, Irish fluting, Balkan clarinetting and melodies from around the world in between” promised the Festival programme and from the little I saw this is precisely what Stevens and multi-instrumentalist Olwell (fiddle, banjo, flute and more) served up.

I couldn’t get close enough to catch much detail but a crowd already energised by the Krar Collective was giving them enthusiastic support and dancing was once again in evidence. A highly successful performance from this energetic and versatile duo.


In the Hexagon Theatre trombonist Richard Foote was leading a quintet in a performance co-promoted by Tony Dudley-Evans of TDE Promotions.

This has originally been billed as a ‘double trombone quintet’, but as Tony explained Foote’s partner in slide, Kieran McLeod, had been forced to withdraw due to illness.

Into the breach stepped saxophonist Paul Dunmall for a set of wholly improvised music performed as a single piece. Completing the quintet were Andrew Woodhead on an upright acoustic piano, Olie Brice on double bass and Andrew Bain at the drums.

Anybody who had been expecting a J.J. Johnson / Kai Winding style twin trombone performance was probably left feeling disaffected by fifty minutes on no holds barred improv.

Of course The Hexagon is well suited to this type of performance and as this is a style of music that I have learned to appreciate more and more in recent years I found myself rather enjoying this set. However it was all a little intense for some and there was a considerable amount of audience coming and going – that said this is the nature of the Surge in Spring Festival.

An introductory bout of full on improvising featuring trombone, tenor sax, piano, bass and drums set the bar in terms of intensity with the interplay between the horns of Foote and Dunmall a particularly engrossing component of this opening passage.

A more reflective interlude featured a thoughtful dialogue between Foote and trombone and Woodhead at the piano, the pair later joined by Brice on double bass.

A passage of unaccompanied double bass, later joined by brushed drums ushered in the next section as Woodhead utilised the piano’s innards and Foote deployed a plunger mute to create a vocalised trombone sound. With the addition of Dunmall on tenor the music gathered momentum, the squalls of trombone and tenor sax now backed by some suitably forceful and vigorous playing from the rhythm section.

It’s the sense of ebb and flow that makes fully improvised music so compelling as musicians step in and out of the stream. Woodhead and Dunmall sat out as the ensemble briefly became a ‘trombone trio’. Later we were to enjoy a similar ‘tenor sax’ trio episode. Elsewhere Woodhead was to deploy prepared piano techniques to dampen the sound of the strings while Dunmall was to make a brief sortie on soprano sax, wailing like a muezzin.

A further ‘trio episode’ was led by Woodhead at the piano and at one point the group devolved to just trombone and double bass. Dunmall eventually returned to the tenor and was to feature strongly in the closing stages of this improvisation as the quintet returned to full strength in the powerful final section.

This was a challenging but rewarding set, and while the intensity of much fully improvised music isn’t for everybody I thoroughly enjoyed it. Dunmall and Brice are acknowledged masters of the art and Woodhead is also establishing a reputation in this sphere of music. It’s not a strand of jazz that I’ve previously associated with Foote or Bain but both acquitted themselves admirably, particularly the trombonist in his role as leader.


The second ticketed event and the final performance of the day came from Peacock’s own ensemble, the mighty Surge Orchestra.

The band entered the stage to the strains of Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster”, a reference to Peacock’s origins in Bangor, Northern Ireland.

Surge had commissioned a number of today’s performers to write for the Orchestra and many of the musicians that we had seen earlier in the day were to join the band on stage to perform their own pieces. The repertoire also included a number of Peacock’s compositions from the Orchestra’s previous albums.

With Peacock handling the announcements and conducting the Orchestra in his own unique and energetic way things kicked off with “Pixel Carnage”, the opening track from the “La Fête” album. Tonight’s version included a vocal from the Birmingham based rapper Juice Aleem, a regular guest with the band.  Guitarist Niwel Tsumbu was on stage with the band throughout and added an instrumental solo, as did the excellent Steve Tromans at the keyboards.

Tsumbu was one of the artists who had been commissioned to write for the Orchestra and his own “New Well” featured an introduction from guest flautist Eimear McGeown plus the composer’s own unaccompanied guitar solo. Tromans, an essential part of the Orchestra’s sound was featured on keyboards once more.

Irish flautist McGeown worked with Peacock in 2019 on “When Traditions Meet”,  a project based around traditional Irish music. She was the featured soloist in two infectiously energetic arrangements of the traditional Irish tunes “The New Policeman” and “Kiss The Maid Behind The Barrel”, which were performed as a medley. First we were to enjoy McGeown’s virtuoso playing on the penny whistle and then on the flute as the audience clapped along joyously. Tymek Jozwiak’s drums approximated the sound of the bodhran and David Sears was also to feature as a soloist on trombone.

Peacock has described his piece “The Contemporary Craic” as “Henry Mancini meets Schoenberg”, which I’ve always considered to be a pretty fair summation of Surge Orchestra as a whole. Peacock also cites the influence of such mavericks as Frank Zappa, Carla Bley and, of course, Django Bates.
Tonight’s arrangement of “Contemporary Craic” featured a propulsive electric bass groove courtesy of Chris Mapp, ‘cop show theme’ style string and horn arrangements and a flute solo from McGeown. There was also an exciting percussion feature with Jozwiak on kit drums duelling with the versatile Tsumbu on djembe.

Aleem returned for “Sit The Vampire In The Sun”, the opening piece from the “Valley of Angels” album and a track upon which Aleem originally appeared. The lyrics express a righteous anger as they tackle social injustice and inner city racism, taking aim at various ‘vampires’. Aleem’s furious rap was balanced by Ruth Angell’s ethereal, soaring wordless vocals. The instrumental honours went to rising sax star Xhosa Cole who added a succinct tenor solo.

Oudist Rihab Azar, who had kick-started the day at The Hexagon returned to play her commissioned piece, the beautiful and highly melodic “Indulgence”. This teamed her delightful oud playing with the sounds of the Orchestra’s string quartet, led by Angell on violin. Guitar, bass, drums and bass clarinet were eventually added as the majority of the horn section took a break.

Arguably the centre-piece of tonight’s concert was the Orchestra’s collaboration with the Chinese musicians Cheng Yu and Liu Qing as part of a commission postponed from 2020. A performance of the pieces “Chinese Flowers” and “Open Little Door” concluded tonight’s performance with Cheng Yu playing pipa and Liu Qing erhu with Surge’s own Max Gittings playing various types of Chinese flute, including the dizi. Segued together to create a kind of mini-suite the pieces featured the beguiling sounds of the pipa and erhu alongside Gittings’ flutes plus Angell’s wordless vocals, Tsumbu’s guitar and Cole’s tenor sax. Lush ensemble writing contrasted with earthy baritone sax (Gardener-Trejo),  electric bass and drum grooves as both the concert and the day as a whole ended on a memorable note.

After a three year hiatus it was great to have Surge in Spring back on the calendar and kicking off my Festival year. All the performances were interesting and enjoyable but it was the final show by Surge Orchestra and their guests that must rank as the ultimate highlight.

The full Surge Orchestra line up was;

Conductor - Sid Peacock

flute & whistle Eimear McGeown
vln and vocal Ruth Angell
vln Sarah Farmer
vla - Anna Barsegjana
cllo Emma Capp

tpt Alex Astbury
tbn David Sears
ten sax Xhosa Cole
bari sax, bass clarinet Alicia Gardener-Trejo

guitar Niwel Tsumbu
keys Steve Tromans
bass Chris Mapp
drums Tymek Jozwiak

pipa Cheng Yu
erhu Liu Qing
dizi Max Gittings
oud Rihab Azar

mc Juice Aleem

Sid Peacock, assisted by life partner Ruth Angell and Surge’s administrator Becky Woodcock continue to do great work and to make a great contribution to the musical and cultural life of Birmingham. Hopefully Surge in Spring VI will be able to happen in 2023.


Sid Peacock









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