INTERVIEW: Hannabiell Sanders & Yilis del Carmen Suriel | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image by Amelia Read

You’d be hard pressed to find people more generous of spirit and filled with as much relentless optimism as Hannabiell Sanders and Yilis del Carmen Suriel. The duo perform under various guises, including Ladies of Midnight Blue and Hannabiell & The Midnight Blue Collective, and their work doesn’t stop at being highly talented musicians – Hannabiell is a bass trombonist, they’re both African hand percussionists and Yilis also plays mbira – they are educators, artists, activists and inspirational and passionate speakers. In short, I’m a fan.

June is a busy month for them both, as Hannabiell embarks on the final stages of her Sage Gateshead residency, which came at an important moment in the musician’s career. “The residency enabled me the space to experiment with new ideas, research and develop new work.” Further explaining she was able to explore narrative within her work, experiment with electronics and expand her skills as a soloist, she also worked with West African dance teacher Aida Diop to incorporating dance into their larger productions.

Yilis, both as band member and visual director, plays an equally important role. “The bigger vision was inspired by Hannabiell, she was looking to create a larger production that allowed her to explore storytelling through music, dance and an element of theatre.” For the Sage Gateshead show on Thursday 16th June, where all of Hannabiell and Yilis’ various guises come together on one stage, Yilis utilises projections and lightboxes with images inspired by West African and Taíno symbols to enhance the narrative of the compositions.

Hannabiell and Yilis’ sound is an embodiment of the women themselves; full of joy and power, their music stems from Afro-Latin rhythms and melodic percussion, brass and vocal chants. Their work is inextricably linked with their experiences as Black and LatinX women. Having both moved to the North East to study in 2009 – Hannabiell is New Jersey-born, while Yilis moved to the US aged nine from Santo Domingo – their work as musicians and creatives is intertwined with their shared history and experiences. “When applied to my visual work I like to explore the intersectionalities of my experience as a Dominican who migrated to the United States and now lives in the North East of England, and how my unique perspective as a Black female migrant translates and is shared with other communities that have a similar experience to my own.” Yilis comments.

My performances and composition reflect the aesthetic of the Black radical tradition of freedom.” Hannabiell says, explaining that while improvisation is at the core of all her music, the input and experiences of other musicians are intrinsic to its sound – particularly with Midnight Blue Collective. “Within each piece I allow players to be featured and develop their voice. Each composition is developed from a melody, bassline, rhythm or a combination of two of these elements. I explain the larger context, social and political meaning, and feeling I want each composition and/or solo to invoke through analogies and visual description. The songs carry characteristics that are particular to the line-up and the individual performer and their personal take on my explanation.”

As women of colour we can’t choose just to fight for Black rights, or LatinX rights, or women’s rights. It is in our best interest to work with everyone because we are part of a legacy of Black and LatinX feminist super-heroines, who understand the importance of thinking and doing

Hannabiell speaks passionately about her belief that music and art is rooted in empowerment, collaboration and inclusivity. “We describe ourselves as activists, and see protest as something that we do in our everyday life. It’s what we do on a daily basis to make our communities better but it’s also taking the time to feel at ease in our own skin. As women of colour we can’t choose just to fight for Black rights, or LatinX rights, or women’s rights. It is in our best interest to work with everyone because we are part of a legacy of Black and LatinX feminist super-heroines, who understand the importance of thinking and doing. Our theory and practice must coexist in our performances, events and our festival.”

Which brings us to Harambee Pasadia – Harambee meaning ‘let’s get together’ in Swahili, and Pasadia ‘to spend the day’ in Spanish – an Afro-fusion music and arts festival created in 2013 which brings together the disparate cultures and diverse fusions of the African diaspora in a miscellany of sights, sounds and tastes. Hannabiell explains about the genesis of the festival: “When Yilis and I first moved to Newcastle there weren’t many performance opportunities or artists that looked like us in the region. It was difficult to get gigs so we started organising our own events hosting double bills and film screenings as a strategy to showcase our ensembles, share audiences, to build our following, and to create a platform for other ensembles like ours.”

Harambee Pasadia has since evolved into a welcoming and supportive organisation which is dedicated to promoting the arts as a means for social change and civic engagement in the North East, and runs programmes, workshops, residencies and music events.

Now a four-day festival, taking place at TCR The Hub in Barnard Castle from Thursday 23rd-Sunday 26th June, the event features a line-up of world-renowned musicians, arts practitioners and DJs playing an eclectic mix of Afrobeat, jazz, reggae, funk, Latin, traditional music and all the fusions in between, with a firm ethos of inclusivity. “The festival is committed to engage attendees through a wide range of arts and learning activities representative of the scope of everyday cultural influences and references of the African homeland in a fun, family-friendly celebration of African philosophies in the 2020s.” Hannabiell expands.

Alongside Hannabiell and Yilis’ own bands, performances come from contemporary jazz artist Kevin Haynes and Grupo Elegua, Yorkshire rapper Chiedu Oraka, the North East’s own Voices of Virtue Gospel Choir, Newcastle jazz quartet Knats, neo-soul artist Georgia May, dance theatre company Ella Mesma, Afro-Latin group Colectiva and many more. Attendees can join a multitude of workshops and activities including body percussion and drumming, a variety of dance classes, life drawing and gong bathing, plus enjoy canoeing, SUP, wood carving, nature walks and much more. Talks and presentations will include discussions around leadership, confidence, healthy eating, race and identity, cultural activism and poetry.

The Thursday night is dedicated to the collective wisdom, experience and energy of inspirational women of all ages and backgrounds, and perhaps sums up Hannabiell and Yilis’ incredible spirit best. “This day will amplify our vision: to create a community and network of artists, thinkers, activists, community leaders and volunteers of all ages who can come together, inspire one another, and work together in a sustainable way.

I challenge anyone to spend even a few moments in Hannabiell and Yilis’ company and not come away feeling inspired and uplifted. The collective power of their music on a stage, or their ideologies embodied in a festival, is surely the best way to get a dose of this powerhouse duo.

Hannabiell Sanders performs solo, as Ladies of Midnight Blue and Hannabiell & The Midnight Blue Collective – both with Yilis del Carmen Suriel – at Sage Gateshead on Thursday 16th June. Harambee Pasadia takes place at TCR The Hub, Barnard Castle from Thursday 23rd-Sunday 26th June.


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