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Celebrating Black British voices in the Howard Assembly Room

Frequent Magic, an evening of spoken word and music in celebration of Leeds’ Peepal Tree Press, brings award-winning writers and poets Anthony Joseph, NickMakoha, Leone Ross and Khadijah Ibrahiim to the Howard Assembly Room stage on Wednesday 16 March.

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Founded by Jeremy Poynting in the Leeds suburb of Burley in 1986, Peepal Tree is an independent publisher specialising in the work of Caribbean and Black British writers. Although Jeremy gave up his job as a further education lecturer in 1996 to focus on the Press’s growing catalogue – and he no longer prints its books in his garage – the company still operates out of a redbrick street in the district, where, he says, “business rates are low and you can get a good massala fish across the road”.

Recent successes have included Roger Robinson’s poetry collection A Portable Paradise, winner of the RSL Ondaatje Prize and T.S. Eliot Award, and a New Statesman Book Of The Year; Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch, winner of the 2020 Costa Book of the Year award; and Anthony Joseph’s acclaimed novel The Frequency of Magic, which lends its name to the Howard Assembly Room event.

Frequent Magic is a rare chance for writers and readers to come together in person to celebrate the connections formed across the printed page. “In a city with such a strong and proud Caribbean heritage, it’s all the more pleasing to be able to once again work with Peepal Tree Press, who have championed these extraordinary creative talents for so long,” say Speaking Volumes, who support underrepresented voices in the UK through live events, and have collaborated with Opera North to bring Frequent Magic to the stage.

Its surreal narrative animated by the rhythms of Creole Trinidad and the energy of jazz, Anthony Joseph’s book will be the starting point for a live collision of spoken word, poetry and improvisation, as the author explains: “Alongside three of my closest collaborators – Jason Yarde (saxophone), Andrew John (bass) and Shaney Forbes (drums) – we’re bringing you an exceptional and unique performance of The Frequency of Magic.”

“The improvised jazz of these virtuoso musicians creates the perfect accompaniment to my magical realist tale of a rural Trinidadian butcher, Raphael, and the frustrated characters of this would-be author’s own novel”.

Nick Makoha fled Uganda’s civil war and Idi Amin’s tyranny as a boy, a trauma that he contemplates in both national and personal terms in his acclaimed first collection of poetry, Kingdom of Gravity. Having brought his reflections on exile into the realm of performance in his ‘live literature experience’ The Dark, he joins the line-up of Frequent Magic to read a selection of his work.

Completing the programme, Leone Ross was born in England and grew up in Jamaica. Her first novel, All the Blood Is Red, was longlisted for the Orange Prize, and her second, Orange Laughter, was chosen as a BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Watershed Fiction favourite. Her latest novel This One Sky Day was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction, and she is the editor of Glimpse, the first Black British anthology of speculative fiction, due from Peepal Tree Press later this year.

Having recently performed poems from her Peepal Tree collection Another Crossing in the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds-based poet, literary activist and theatre maker Khadijah Ibrahiim is looking forward to returning to compere the evening: “This stellar line-up of Peepal Tree Press poets and writers embodies the magic and beauty of poetry that sings off the page; words to ground and alter the frequency of one’s imagination”, she says.

“Peepal Tree Press is both honoured and gratified by Opera North’s production of Frequent Magic in partnership with Speaking Volumes”, says Jeremy Poynting, who continues to lead the company as Managing Editor: “Honoured because everybody likes some recognition, and gratified because it is happening in Leeds, the place where Peepal Tree has been working for the past 36 years. Opera North has recognised that our mission has always been both international and grounded in all our local relationships.”

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