United Vibrations, photo by Yev Kazannik
United Vibrations: music with a message champions sustainable living
18th April, 2011
Helena Drakakis reports on the London band using music to fund projects dispelling the myth that environmentally sustainable living is synonymous with low-tech, under-developed lifestyles
Two years ago Kareem Dayes bought himself a rickshaw, an amp, some speakers and, alongside his two brothers Ahmad and Yussef and bandmate Wayne, took music to the streets.
As a four-piece called United Vibrations, their most lucrative gig was busking in front of a KFC in Brixton. 'That was magic,' Kareem enthuses. 'There were kids, drunks, poor people, posh people, the police eying us up and people on buses knocking on the windows shouting "What are you doing?" chips in Ahmad.
What they were doing was rehearsing. The band, formed in 2003, already had a small following but their unique blend of jazz, afro beat, funk, ska (the list goes on), had not had much of an outing.
'We wanted to bring the music to people who wouldn't normally hear it, because it's easy to get into your comfort zone,' says Ahmad who, at 29, is UV's oldest member.
Over two summers they fed and clothed themselves - they played four hour stretches anywhere from Brick Lane to Notting Hill, and only stopped when they got sick of being moved on or rained on.
But the practice has paid off. UV have just released their first album, Galaxies not Ghettos and - after eight years - they agree they've finally found their musical and spiritual voice.
'For us it's never been about playing music for entertainment's sake. We're playing music with a message,' explains 23-year-old bassist Kareem, adding that the band's message is as much influenced by the streets they've grown up around as the eco-friendly credentials that underpin their energetic sound.
The three brothers were born in Deptford in South London, where Ahmad recalls spending his formative years on the Crossfield Estate, just a short walk from the community recording studio they now rehearse in.
That was before his parents Dave and Barbara were given the option in 1985 to leave their council flat and take part in a home self-build project which, with hindsight, has shaped UV's ethos.
'Yussef [still only 18] and Kareem  were born in the house my parents built,' explains Ahmad, 'I was around three when they started so I remember most of my weekends on a building site watching it all come together.'
The family home was further transformed twenty years later when their father Dave installed solar panels and a ground source heat pump to turn bricks and mortar into an energy plus building fuelled solely by renewables.
By chance, when the brothers met Wayne at a party three years ago, it wasn't a shared love of jazz and afro beat that got the foursome chatting but a conversation about solar panelling.
'We did none of the party stuff,' laughs Wayne, 'but we were on a level before we'd even played. When we rehearsed for the first time it just worked. We knew we were going to communicate something together.'
Quite what the band wanted to communicate musically has been fine-tuned over those past three years.
'It was a real problem because we never knew what to put on our gig flyers - we ended up reeling off this list of genres to promoters that was a mix of every style of music out there,' says Kareem.
To encapsulate their sound, they boldly created their own term - 12 Tone - that reflects the cultural melting pot of their surroundings and their world view.
'It's a whole load of things joined together,' says Wayne who explains how the band are influenced by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone method of composition that, in the early 1920s, broke down the traditional diatonic scale to create atonal music, and back then was labelled "degenerate art".
That, combined with 1970s 2 Tone, which fused ska, punk, reggae and rocksteady have become their solid musical foundations.
And, with a fast-growing native Nigerian population in the Capital, UV wanted to tap into the resurgent interest in figures like Fela Kuti who combined music with political activism.
'I listened to Fela and thought, "oh my god, I've found a new universe". It is still relevant; still refreshing,' says Kareem.
From listening to Kuti the band have been inspired to 'dig into the African continent' and seek out musicians from Morocco and Senegal living and playing in London. Their goal is to continuously weave a sound that sits alongside their promotion of self-sufficient lifestyles. So convinced are they of their eco-vision that the proceeds from Galaxies Not Ghettos, will be channelled into a housing co-operative the foursome are busy planning.
The project, which has been established under the Rural Urban Synthesis Society, set up by the Dayes brother's parents Dave and Barbara, is rare for inner London but, through it, they want to dispel the myth that environmentally sustainable living is synonymous with a low-tech, under-developed lifestyle. The concept can exist successfully in vast urban conurbations too.
Currently they are sourcing derelict land in South London to house the project. The next step will be to identify individuals and families and provide them with the skills needed to build their own homes to eventually create a carbon negative, self-sufficient community of around 40 people.
'We're the offspring of a similar project - we were born into it and now we want to replicate it. We hope other people will want to perpetuate it too. It's an effort for us to put out money where our mouth is,' says Ahmed, 'but we reckon if people are going to take us seriously we've got to show we can sacrifice things to put our vision into practice. Through the band we feel like we've found our calling.'
Musically what began as a hobby, they hope, will become a full time career. Their eco-ambition is inextricably intertwined. 'We're on a journey,' says Kareem. 'Ten years down the line we want to have done so much.'
Ahmed cuts in. 'It's about asking ‘are you satisfied with the status quo, and, if not how are you going to make that change?' For UV, he says, it's about finding a voice through the music. He adds, 'It's about being in London in the 21st Century and being involved in something that changes our destiny.'
Galaxies not Ghettos is released on Kudos Records. For more information visit www.12tone.co.uk.
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