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Lizzie Emeh and Mat Fraser sing together on stage at the Liberty Festival.

Lizzie Emeh and Mat Fraser performing at the Liberty Festival. Photograph by Tony Oudot.

For the third year running the Liberty Festival took over London's Trafalgar Square to showcase the work of disabled artists and performers. Joe McConnell gives his thoughts on this year's offering

Destiny and bad planning conspired so that I missed the first two acts of this year's Liberty Festival on 3 September. Huge apologies to both Minika Green and Sign Dance Collective. Everyone I spoke to in the audience agreed that both acts were strong and well worth catching.

The festival began for me with the third act: Touch/Don't Touch, performed by Claire Cunningham and Jami Quarrell of Blue Eyed Soul. This was an evocative acrobatic dance work skilfully executed by both artists and set to an effective sound collage of the performers' own speech. It was a shame that the visibility of the staging meant that the performance - repeated three times in the programme - ended up being lost to many audience members. This should have been worked out better at the planning stage.

Caroline Parker delivered her usual funky celebration of British Sign Language through sign song interpretations of '80s pop anthems. This act could really do with a bit of an update, but is really great when you catch it for the first time.

Fronting the Heart N Soul Club Posse, the wonderful Lizzie Emeh opened with a powerful ska ballad to motherhood. Her subsequent rap-based duets with Minika Green and Mat Fraser were high points of the festival. Hopefully these collaborations are not a one-off - they really worked well together. Totlyn Jackson followed with interpretations of r 'n' b standards, really taking flight with the beautifully-timed Banana Boat Song and Guantanamera.

Then for something completely new and show-stopping: jazz singer Maggie Nichols and psychedelic violinist Chas de Swiet joined a powerful cluster of musicians in a jazz-impro-fusion-flavoured performance, which unfolded in a dizzying rotation of combos delivering a set of powerful numbers raging against toxic psychiatry. Lloyd Lindsay's rap fusion number Statute of Liberty was particularly memorable and the performance culminated with a fusion of samba, rock and rap. This whole sequence of short sets was under the banner of Deadbeat International, organised by newly formed user-led group Creative Routes. This is definitely an experience to watch out for. Screened footage of Aidan Shingler's Kiss it campaign provided a poignant backdrop.

Neville Murray's Besta Vista Social Club, complete with horn session, gave an exuberantly sexy percussion-driven performance, setting a seriously impressive standard for a part-time community-based project.

Unity in Devision performed three well-crafted original numbers with a folk-punk feel. Susan Hedges closed the festival, showcasing newly written hard rock-inspired material.

From my vantage point looking down at the stage from the National Gallery, the audience seemed a bit thin on the ground - possibly connected with the aftermath of the recent London bombings? But it was wonderful to see so many wheelchair-users together sharing the same space, which really brings home how rare a sight this is except at special venues and events. This is what makes Liberty's tagline The UK's most accessible outdoor festival a tad irritating. Why aren't all publicly-funded festivals such as the Greater London Authority's own Rise Festival just as proud to be just as accessible? And why aren't they just as accessible?

The festival was deftly compered by comedians Steve Day and Liz Carr, recently returned from Edinburgh, where they performed together in Abnormally Funny People. It's important to remember that this is not a disability arts festival but a celebration of the achievements of the disabled people's movement featuring disabled artists. Liz Carr repeatedly struck a brilliantly sardonic note by celebrating what has been achieved in the past two decades, but constantly reminding us how far we have still to travel towards a time when the 'most accessible' festivals are not confined to an over-hyped annual circus for cripples.


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3 November 2010

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