From politics to performance: a well-known commentator is making waves on the music scene
Politics and music often go hand-in-hand. Although usually, a person doesn’t make the leap from one profession to the other. But that is exactly what one well-known political commentator has done. And his band is already making a name for itself. Hoping for a ‘New Tomorrow’.
When The Canary met Mo
Mo Ansar is a well-known political and social commentator. His face may be familiar to people from the BBC One documentary Quitting the English Defence League: when Tommy met Mo, and numerous appearances on TV and radio. Including heated debates with the likes of Katie Hopkins. But during the filming of the BBC One documentary, Ansar had a heart attack. And it made him reconsider his whole outlook on life, and the direction it was taking him. Speaking to The Canary, he said:
I had spent years trying to save the world. And evidently doing a p*ss-poor job seeing as Trump has got in and the far right has risen across Europe. I’d help set up anti-racism groups, and worked in diversity, education and interfaith, but civil rights and social justice had always been my greatest passions. I have to say, and it pains me to do it, but politics has clearly failed the people. Organised religion from what we see as a corruption of spiritual enlightenment, the departure from the manifestation of the prophetic teachings, arguably has also failed us.
Ansar believes that our politics and media have become places where it’s hard to create real change. “We still don’t have enough support for representative voices,” he says, “and both systems are rife with prejudice.” Believing the system to be broken, he realised what many probably do. That life is short. Desperately short. So he thought: “Why not music?” And it was this reckoning which led Ansar to the formation of The Solomon Band.
Laying the foundations
He had been writing music for over 15 years. But he only started playing publicly in February 2016, at open mic nights in Winchester and around Southampton. Over time, a group of attendees from the Railway Inn in Winchester got together to play regularly as a collective. And this group eventually, after some line-up changes, became The Solomon Band. It features:
- Ansar (singer/songwriter, guitar).
- Karan Master (vocals, lead guitar).
- Sam West (drums).
- Sian Unwin (bass).
- David Martin (blues harmonica, keys).
Ansar met Martin doing gigs in the south. He says of the other members:
I met Sam West drumming downstairs at Mango 3 in Southampton at a Thursday night jam session. He’s a very talented guy who teaches, gigs locally, and does sessions. He joined Solomon after we spent an evening in music and just chatting about life and the world. That week, I happened to do a gig at Orange Rooms in Southampton with Karan Master, who played lead on stage with me that night. Sian Unwin came at the top of a list of local bass players recommended to me.
The inspiration for the name ‘Solomon’ was very personal to Ansar. He said he used the name at a time:
…when I put politics and journalism on the back burner, I wanted to go incognito. Mainly to avoid the trolls and drawing attention to myself on SoundCloud. Not that anyone cares now as it’s all out in the open. But for a time it created a safe space of sorts where I could just hide out, do my music, perform, and enjoy myself. I liked the sound of ‘Solomon’, it’s a prophetic name in the Abrahamic traditions carrying a sense of history, maybe even wisdom, and it says something about the fact that people can be higher beings. A greater self. There are also wider references to the songs and stories of Solomon, even in Kabbalah and mysticism. Aside from that, it sounds reasonably cool.
Back to the nineties? Or the sixties?
The Solomon Band describes its music as a hybrid of blues/rock and folk. As a listener, the group’s sound takes you back to the middle nineties, and the sound of prog/alt/folk rock. Bands such as The Stereophonics, Counting Crows, and The Cranberries all spring to mind. Ansar says the band’s writing and style is an “extension of my views on the world and politics”. But the group still draws inspiration from others:
I love the sound of the ’60s chroniclers from Dylan to Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens, or even Donovan. There’s some of my writing influences from the ’90s when I first really started to play guitar with covers of music that was around. From Noel Gallagher, Kelly and the Phonics, Richard Ashcroft and others. Woven among all of this is the idea of telling stories. Like the early Muslim troubadours who had put six strings on the guitar travelling and reflecting on the world around us to unite people and inspire change. While a lot of the earlier Solomon material is based around a folk-blues style, our most recent work is heavier, with Karan’s guitar, Sian on bass and Sam on drums. We have an evolving sound which cuts across genres.
The Solomon Band’s river
On two tracks in particular, you can clearly see the band “cutting across genres”.
The band’s debut track is called The River. An unrefined, almost folk-pop sound dominates the track. Ansar says it was recorded pretty much live in four takes. The group chose to leave some of the imperfections in, for authenticity. The production is sparse, with the dominant forces being Ansar’s lilting vocal and Martin’s amplified harmonica. Overall, The River is very palatable. But this does not mean boring, as the song has some unexpected key changes. The Canary asked Ansar about these:
Ah the key changes. Yes. I used to get stick from the band about that. As someone not conventionally trained, I’m not entirely sure how other people write but I try to do what I think sounds good. That sometimes means in two or even three keys. If I ever get better at this stuff, hopefully the writing will become more disciplined. At the moment, I’m a kid in a musical candy store.
A new tomorrow
Its follow-up track, New Tomorrow, has a different feel. In a minor key, beginning with a guitar solo from Ansar and a haunting refrain on the harmonica, it feels almost Celtic in its roots. But then the production picks up, the track flits from a 2/2 to a 4/4 time signature. And it then becomes something more bluesy, with a stuttering, staccato electric guitar solo. But it ends, once again, back somewhere in Ireland, and in 2/2. The song is more challenging for the listener, but makes for a fascinating listen. Ansar says:
New Tomorrow was probably inadvertently channeling something like Ride On by Christy Moore, with his tones of windswept tumult and far away storytelling. I used to perform New Tomorrow at open mics. Just plucking, singing and whistling in the breaks. But in a twist of fate, at the Railway Inn, one Monday night I met touring Canadian violinist, Miranda Mulholland. She was hanging around with my friend, and Hip Hop Farmer, Tali Trow, and playing a few UK dates. I, of course, ran straight over and professed my undying love for her, her violin and asked if she could join Solomon. Miranda was just passing through but she agreed to join me on stage to perform New Tomorrow, impromptu. It’s a very simple structure and was always written with strings in mind. I probably still do yearn for it. Stripped back, it’s still one of my favourite songs.
Both tracks are very traditional folk, in the sense you feel you are being told a story. The River could be talking about a person’s soul or their spirituality; New Tomorrow could almost be a ballad about the political turmoil of 2016. But both leave you with a feeling you have learned something from the experience. Ansar believes music has a unique ability to reach out to people and touch “hearts, minds and souls”. And that the message behind a piece is all important. “Plato feared the power of music,” Ansar muses. “Without a message that moves us to change the world for the better, music fails to fulfil its divine potential.”
And it’s the “message” which is key to The Solomon Band. The group describes its ideals as being “peace, hope and revolution”, and that they may be “outdated” in “Trump’s world”. And while the band itself isn’t overly political, when asked about the future of politically-driven music, Ansar is hopeful:
Away from corporate voices and political interests, there’s a real thirst for hope and change but a lack of belief that their message can get out and heard. But we have a real problem with supporting grass roots music in the UK. It’s incredibly hard for musicians to break through in the UK market. There’s a lot of great music that gets compromised in the effort to sound like existing acts. People have a message, a real voice, but that rawness and integrity rarely survives the process. I wish it could be heard. British music is the best in the world, bar none.
The Solomon Band is already making waves internationally. In 2016, the group was a finalist in the World Citizen Artist Awards. Ansar says they were all “really honoured”, but that it was also “somewhat surreal – it was just a real pleasure to be recognised for songwriting”.
And in 2017, the band looks set to build on 2016’s success. They will go into what Ansar calls a “period of seclusion” to work on new material. The Solomon Band also wants to refine and redefine its sound. There are some community projects the group would also like to lead: helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds use music and film to express themselves positively, rather than, as Ansar puts it, “face the margins of society”. There is also a documentary about the group being aired on television in the spring. “Other than that,” Ansar says, “it would be great to play more gigs, support some great acts, record material and maybe take our music to festivals and a wider audience.”
A passenger on a journey
But it’s the message that The Solomon Band delivers which remains at the forefront of his mind. Ansar says that:
My politics is pretty heavily weighted towards the ‘can’t we just f*cking well get along’ end of the spectrum and what’s going on in the world is pretty evident for all to see. Music can have a message and arguably at it’s best, it does. Solomon isn’t partisan on matters of belief or conscience and being inclusive is important to us. It’s about being part of something bigger than us and being together on a journey to speak up. To be a reminder. Or chroniclers. There’s a world in desperate need of change and I don’t believe for a second people have lost hope. We just need to be inspired, reminded and to look beyond that which divides us. Or to overcome that which is being used to divide us.
The Solomon Band is a breath of fresh air. In a world where politics have become acidic, divisive and fearful, the group’s mellow, thoughtful slant and almost whimsical approach are delightful. This does not detract from the music’s power, though. Ansar says: “My life has sometimes taken on something of a surreal narrative. Where at times I’ve felt like a passenger.” The Solomon Band is a group that takes you on an inspiring, reflective and thoughtful journey. One which everyone should hop on board of.
This article was updated at 4pm on Friday 13 January, to reflect that Ansar met Martin in the south of the country, not Winchester.
– Find out more about The Solomon Band.
– Read more from The Canary on the arts.
Featured image via The Solomon Band
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