FIESTA! a fantastic tune by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan, based on a fairground melody from Almeria, Southern Spain and made big by The Pogues. Dirty, scummy, fag in the mouth, bad teeth, eyelids half shut, with anarchic leaping, yelling and bawling to drive the crowd wild.
We’ve played FIESTA! in sunny carnival parades from Manchester to small market towns, played it after dark through cobbled streets for Lantern Parades up and down Cumbria, indoors on a late night in full spotlight, on top of the Pennines, by the lake for 5000 sweating marathon runners, in aristocratic castle grounds with eagles flying overhead, in a 14th century graveyard over afternoon tea, in Merchant City Glasgow and at village fetes.
Blast Furness street band played FIESTA! This summer at Solfest, a small festival in NW Cumbria. 12 women and 6 men [ including half a dozen grandparents ], in our black and red costumes. No band uniform – every outfit different. Some immaculately tailored, sexy tutus in black and red net, outrageous tights, fabulous hats, sparkles, glitter, elegant and CLEAN. Clean hair, clean shaven, bright eyes and smiles. Such smiles. Brass and percussion shoaling through the crowd, making contact. We always get people dancing the moment we play FIESTA! They love it. But there’s always a tiny regret. We don’t quite exhume the disgusting anarchy of The Pogues.
But for 6 unforgettable minutes, we did!
After our good set to an energetic crowd, playing on the broad and breezy hilltop of the Festival site with its huge skies and mountains in the distance, we depart. Still playing, we funnel towards the exit leading back to our camp site. It’s down a dip and up the other side. Thousands of campers have trodden grass so flat it vanishes into the mud. It smells dank and the shadowy bushes to each side have an unmistakeable odour.
Our fans don’t want it to finish. They follow, dancing behind us, cans of lager in hand. We turn and face them and play Homecoming, our last tune. There are small cheap tents pitched unwisely each side of the path. It’s 3 in the afternoon and young people start to emerge, stretch, scratch and wonder what tonight will bring. A lanky pale youth is standing, brushing his teeth and spitting onto the grass.
We finish our tune, take a comic bow and make to leave.
“One more song, one more song …”
They won’t let us leave.
Rose is a genius, She calls FIESTA! and – knackered as we are – we hit it. Tent zips rip open, sleepy faces appear and within seconds, scruffy campers leap up to dance – the mud squishing between their bare toes. The energy builds, the crowd builds and we are cooking. Transported.
This is it – in pongy mud, joyous, abandoned, released.
This is why we do it.
THIS IS FIESTA!
Where might you find a welder, a physiotherapist, a former jumbo jet pilot and a funeral officiant all in close harmony? Or a guest house proprietor, mental health professional, gun designer, microbiologist[retired] and a complementary therapist together in strict tempo?
The answer is Blast Furness, Ulverston’s community street band. Welfare State International started it around 1996 or 7 –no-one can quite remember – and it has survived and grown over the years without interruption. These days it is completely independent.
Now with 25 members, the band boasts both brass and percussion sections which together offer carnival melodies and rhythms for the crowd to dance to; performing on the move, in street parades as well as static sets at festivals. From Tango to Township music, Balkan to Blues Brothers, our repertoire is varied. New Orleans, Reggae beats, Ska and Soul. Blast Furness will suddenly pause the instruments and launch into vigorous street singing. Annie Lennox’s ‘Sweet Dreams are Made of This’ gets everyone joining in, also Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ does the trick.
These days, as its reputation grows, Blast Furness is booked out 9 months of the year, appearing at events and festivals from Oxford to West Yorkshire, Manchester to Glasgow as well as at countless Cumbrian gatherings and celebrations. It has thus become a huge part of everyone’s life. We are delighted to play at 6 or 7 regular Ulverston Festivals and Celebrations – Feast of St George, Another Fine Mess, Ulverston Carnival, Lantern Parade, Ford Park’s Apple Day, Dickensian Festival and the Canal Regeneration Illuminated Umbrella Procession along the towpath in the pitch dark !!
Blast Furness is an extraordinary and loyal bunch of strong individuals from diverse walks of life who might never have met or become friends except for their shared love of playing this sort of music and playing it together. The majority of members work full time, many have families – children and grandchildren. Each player acknowledges the huge support from partners and family members who agree to hold the fort while they are away on tour.
No uniforms, no dress codes except for colour. Red and black, hats essential. Whatever fashion statement each player cares to make is fine as long as it is in black and red. Satin, organza, leather, fishnet, sequins, braces, feathers, frocks, pants, shorts, tailcoats, waistcoats, off the shoulder, on the shoulder, slinky or frilly. Outfits for all weathers, constantly changing yet coherent and recognizable. Surprising really when you consider people’s serious day jobs: project manager, health and safety consultant, property professionals, accountant and those working in the major industries in West Cumbria and Barrow.
There is lots to learn apart from rehearsing and learning the music. Effective formations for street parades, group choreography to add interest, singing, tour management, transport planning. Currently the band comprises 1 trombone, 2 trumpets, 2 sousaphones, 5 drummers, 6 percussionists and 9 saxophones.
Blast Furness charges fees to perform, yet no member receives any payment. Income covers expenses of rehearsal rooms, transport costs, publicity and insurance, plus annual master classes when the band invites one or two of the country’s best experts to come in for a weekend to introduce new repertoire and improve skills.