Nadine Shah – Holiday Destination

How much of our culture is in our souls?

This bold question is at the heart of Nadine Shah’s rallying third album Holiday Destination, which through its story of tensions between colliding cultures, dares to speak for the voices we rarely hear loudly and clearly enough.

Shah, from England’s North East, rightly prefers comparisons with Stevie Wonder’s spiritualistic over Billy Bragg performative campaigning style (although she loves him too!), and the one the only the wonderful Nina Simone continues to tonally and qualitatively characterise her work. She writes to a marching rhythm: minimum words with maximum impact, delivered with a repetition that becomes an instrument. When you start work like this, your feelings come out and your work becomes a campaign.

‘Place Like This’ demands empathy, humanising three-years old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, whose nation this collection frames. Its “Refugees Welcome!” refrain actively says, while Edwin Starr’s little-bit-similar “War, What is it good for?” passively asks, because passivity is ”good for absolutely nothing”. The title track casts a side eye (“Empty gestures in disguise,”) it’s increasingly seething, accusing holiday makers on the Greek island of Kos, furious at refugees, even in death, for “really running our holiday.” Soothing vocals externalise, but jabbing guitars internalise, worries that jab inside her head. A more conciliatory but rhetorical saxophone interrogates “How you gonna sleep tonight?”

There’s deeper, cultural, lack of empathy. Germany’s activity and Sweden’s passivity in the Second World War encourages their tolerance (cf. acceptance) of refugees, which ‘Mother Fighter’ points out isn’t much compared to non-Europeans, addressing the exceptionalism that assumes others share their home by choice (“When you're grown, You'll no longer have to ask why, Just come back home, When land is as calm as the sky.”) Does Britain and France’s post-First World War carving up the Middle East along the refugee crisis’s lines of transmission encourage their tolerance? Not much. The European Union is Europe’s self-serving post-war settlement, and it’d be nice if it also served the rest of the world. Europe has committed its, the world’s worst, crimes not only on itself.

Eritrea and Yemen, and Gaza on the sleeve, are referenced, but Shah knows her country is too in a neck-deep, although fortunately not life-and-death, situation with fault lines of its own. We need to talk about Britain and the European Union!

England’s North is stereotypically known for its big warm hugs but stereotypes can also be mean and nasty, and just plain wrong. The deepest fault line created by Britain’s tantrum to culturally excuse itself from Europe cuts through England’s subtly manufactured geographic halves. Zadie Smith writes how her hometown London proudly speaks across cultures but not across classes, and there’s a wider speaking down to people of different cultures and classes, even when the spoken down to are the ones with the lived experience. Although a small phenomenon – most people of colour voted for Remain’s inclusivity while most white people voted for Leave’s nationalism (the same reason for the United States’ also shitty 2016) – a small number of British Asian and Black British people supported Leave in hope of a level playing field: the heartbreak of spending their lives apart from their family, gnawing against European Union migrants’ automatic right of residency. Was this reflexive? Perhaps. But those from England’s South calling those from its North racist for this, and other more widespread reasons, is some bold speaking down to, even with so-called anti-racism’s rubbishly low entry requirement. Linking Shah’s album’s two halves, anti-racists who passionately support European Union migrants but remain violently silent about non-European Union migrants (including those indefinitely imprisoned at Yarl's Wood Immigration Centre) are not anti-racist. In her words, “I know my friends and I know they’re smarter than this and the song ‘Yes Men’ is about all of that.” (Full disclosure: like Shah, this reviewer is a British Asian from England’s North.)

Shah wants her nieces to have the British Pakistani role models she lacked growing up, a reminder that second-generation migrants’ work is an ongoing process, and her campaigns – different-but-similar to novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi’s – are dearly worth campaigning for. ‘Out of the Way’ compassionately answers the racist insult “But where are you really from?” (“Where would you have them go, A generation searching for a home, Count up the things you own and aspire to that you have been shown.”) ‘Jolly Sailor’ is a home-is-where-the-heart-is song defending her home, skittishly discordant like John AdamsHarmonium, which is also about the humility of love. One stretchingly wonders what it may too sound like with a choral cast of hundreds, one for 2117’s BBC Proms (please). ‘2016’ is increasingly palliative, her now heightened regional accent gives that big warm hug (“Come over here I’ll hold you tight,”), exposing its honesty in the way regional accents do. Inclusively recognising we all have problems, and that’s OK.

Music has often been at the leading edge of revolt against the mainstream. Music doesn’t change the world (it’s not that easy guys), but it’s through musical innovation that marginalised people have found moments of escape, and even transcendence. Nadine Shah’s Holiday Destination is a wise album in its way, both aesthetically and didactically. And there’s something gutsy, a little nervous even, in its unselfish plea for help and respect, and its optimism of a better life for those who need it the most. A nagging concern is its preaching to the converted, or worse, validating those fortunate enough for whom opinion is a lifestyle choice and believe they don’t need converting. A parable with no lessons. But this is outside Shah’s control and she’s doing the best she can, which is better than – almost to a person – any of us. A humbling and bothering, comfortable in its skin, while bravely getting under others' skins, masterpiece.

Please buy Holiday Destination.

Nadine’s supporting Amnesty’s Give a Home initiative.

The British Red Cross maintain a list of refugee support services.

Album cover and press photo credit: Christian Stephen.

Jonathan Tranter

Updated: Sep 11, 2017

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