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on Tue, 21 Feb 2017
Once a year for one day only, a spectacular celebration of vintage culture descends onto the streets of Digbeth in a riot of sound and colour. Set against the fading Victorian grandeur of Birmingham's industrial heartland, Swingamajig may well be the Midlands' most distinctive music festival, where the fin de siècle collides head-on with the fabulous ’50s and futuristic electronic sounds. Amid old factories, warehouses and railway arches, you'll find swing bands and strobe lights, burlesque and drum’n’bass, frock coats and funky beats, gypsy jazz and jungle DJs, spread out across seven different stages all decked out in deliciously decadent style.
From the outside, this curious fusion of musical sounds and styles might seem mysterious - it's not immediately obvious how all these different ingredients ended up in a pot together. So how can Swingamajig best be described? With seven wildly contrasting stages and more than seventy acts from across the spectrum of music and performance, it's not easy - even for founders, curators and Birmingham-based music sensation Electric Swing Circus.
“It's something we've been talking about quite a lot as a team,” says ESC's effusive guitarist Tom Hyland. “There isn't really a single word that can link a 16-piece swing band to a jungle DJ, yet the people that go to Swingamajig definitely get the connection. The festival is a mixture of vintage and remix, but it's also cabaret - I think that's the important thing. It's the big colours and the performance and the extravagance that are really important to us.”
This unique showbiz aesthetic and attitude of hedonistic decadence define Swingamajig, and thanks in part to the physical accessibility of its central location, the variety, eclecticism and eccentricity of the event is mirrored in the composition of its audience.
“It's a very broad demographic,” he continues. “Maybe on first glance you might think you have to be part of a 'scene' to come, but you don't at all - you just have to enjoy doing something a little bit different. I think of all the events we play, Swingamajig has got the friendliest crowd, and I'm not just saying that because it's our event! Everyone's so lovely that if you lose your friends you'll have five more within seconds. My parents come and have a great time and they're well into their 60s, but you'll also get 18-year-olds coming straight out of college. It’s inclusive - as long as you come to have a good time, you’re in safe hands.”
Launched in 2013, the festival was originally born out of ESC's speakeasy-inspired Hot Club de Swing nights at The Hare & Hounds in King's Heath. As those regular events increasingly sold out, Hyland and his bandmates soon realised there was scope to scale the idea up considerably.
“It started as an electro-swing street party, but it's much broader than that now. It's a chance for people to dress up, go wild and do all sorts of things, whether it's music or dance classes or cabaret.”
Four years after making its debut, Swingamajig continues to expand, with the latest changes including the relocation and rather intriguing transformation of the ‘rough and ready’ Arch Stage into the Cave Of Curiosities (at the moment, details of this transformation are still ‘top secret’). There's also the brand new Swingamajig Bazaar, an eclectic 'market meets funfair' which is accessible separately from the festival site, meaning you won't need to buy a ticket to pop down and do some shopping before the show begins mid-afternoon.
“The Swingamajig Bazaar is a combined craft vintage market, and that will open in the morning. We've also got Digbeth Dining Club doing the food. I'm a bit of a foodie myself, so we do take food very seriously - it's all locally sourced, ethically produced, pretty top-notch quality. In the afternoon, we've got Circus MASH coming down to do some aerial games, there'll be balloon modelling for the kids, and we may even be organising a Scalextric race. I think often when I've had the most fun at events, it's been thanks to the stuff in between the main performances, so we like to have treasure hunts and lots of little silly things and extras to help to animate the space.”
There’s also the addition of an afterparty in the nearby Spotlight Venues to keep things moving until the early hours.
“Swingamajig has stayed open until 6am in the past, but this year we’ve decided to change things up a bit and instead host an afterparty from 2am down the road at Spotlight. If you’re the type who likes to party till the sun comes up, that’s definitely gonna be the place to be! Birmingham’s own City Of Colours will be curating one of the stages, we’ll be curating another and we might even have a third.”
The music is just another reason to want to experience the event in all its off-the-wall, colourfully chaotic glory. This year's headline acts include genre-blending dance duo and returning Swingamajig favourites The Correspondents, as well as festival newcomers Sam And The Womp, whose single Bom Bom topped the UK charts in 2012.
“We've only just announced the first part of the line-up. The Correspondents are one of my favourite acts - they put on a great stage show with fantastic energy. It's also a really big thing for us to have an act like Sam And The Womp, who’ve had a UK Number One. And then there's loads of very strong cabaret this year - we've got Joe Black, Betsy Rose, Vicky Butterfly, Missy Malone. These are all top-level, international performers.”
Other music acts confirmed so far include electronic DJ duo The Freestylers, ‘cheeky gypsy party’ group Mr Tea And The Minions, jazz-bass fusion act C@ in the H@, rockabilly band Sharna Mae And The Mayhems, the Jim Wynn Swing Orchestra, and of course Electric Swing Circus themselves.
“It helps being in a live touring band when programming the festival because as a starting point we often pick the acts that we've seen out and about on the road. There's a strong community of musicians, DJs and performers, and it’s great to be able to get together every year for Swingamajig Festival. We also get sent tons of demos and videos throughout the year; we listen to them all - we’re always on the lookout for fresh new talent.”
Tempted yet? If you’re planning on heading over to enjoy some music and soak up the atmosphere, you’re advised to book ahead. The festival often sells out, with its continued success being a testament to the commitment of Hyland and his team.
Swingamajig isn’t the only thing Hyland has kept busy with - Electric Swing Circus are known for their hectic live schedule and are just coming off the heels of their sophomore release, It Flew By.
“We've spent two years writing and recording it, so it's been a bit of a labour of love. We're predominantly a live band, but when you take the same songs you've been performing and record them in a studio, they can often sound a bit lifeless. That's the problem we've been up against, so we've been experimenting with lots of different techniques to try to work out how to translate that energy we have on stage onto a recording. I think we recorded our single Empires about four times in the end, but we're really happy with the results now. I think it's been a big step forward for us, and it's been very well received so far.”
In addition to managing the festival, writing their own material and touring as a band, the group also somehow find time to produce music on their own Ragtime record label.
“It’s really difficult, but we keep working very hard. I don't take time off - I'm in the office during the week and then out on the road at the weekend, and there are rehearsals as well. But if you're doing what you love, you don't mind. And it's amazing, it really is - I get to run a festival, and when you see three or four thousand people all having fun and exploring, that's brilliant!”
Swingamajig takes place in Digbeth Triangle, Birmingham, on Sunday 30 April from 2pm