The Manchester music scene is renowned the world over. There are gigs that still remain important in the fabrics of time. People still talk of the importance of Bob Dylan going electric at the Free Trade Hall in the 19860s or when the Sex Pistols rocked up in 1976 at the same venue. Everyone seems to have been at the legendary Stone Roses gig, when they announced themselves at the Hacienda in the mid 1980s. I myself know of the importance of attending gigs by Happy Mondays or Oasis before they’d woven themselves into the consciousness of fans. And then there is Nina at the NIA in 1991, which amazingly was recreated at HOME as part of the 2020 PUSH Festival.
Performing the classic repertoire is the Untold Orchestra, who take to the stage with some of the founding members of the NIA Centre for an evening of music and storytelling. Telling that story is Audrey Hall, who was part of the fabric of NIA in 1991 and was there when Nia Simone gave that iconic performance.
The NIA Centre in Hulme seems like an odd choice for a songstress of Simone’s calibre to be performing. And yet, as Hall recounts, the two were more suited to one another than you’d initially think. Simone had become renowned for campaigning during the Civil Rights movement, standing up for racial inequalities. It wasn’t just race that Nina had become infamous for, also challenging the prejudices of class and gender. Themes which Hulme itself prided on tackling as a community.
NIA has had a troublesome history. Starting out as the Playhouse, it was rebranded in 1991 as the NIA Centre, which saw the reopening of this venue in order to provide a stage for Afro-Caribbean culture and performing arts companies. Ultimately that venture failed but once again, rising like a phoenix from the ashes, there is a community driven venture. This co-op is known as NIAMOS Radical Art & Music Cultural Centre and they are looking to transform this landmark building into “co-operatively run music & arts studios, micro-bakery, brewtap and pay-as-you-feel arts venue.”
Back to the evening’s performance.
It’s an electric opening, the lights dimmed, and a solitary lone voice, that of Nina Simone, puts the hairs on the back of your neck on standby before she launches into her opening number from that iconic night.
Thereafter it is what you’d expect. Nina’s catalogue of classics is played out by Yemi Bolitawa and the Untold Orchestra with a loving homage to the original. Interspersed are retellings of pivotal moments not only from Nina’s tumultuous life but also how NIA played a pivotal part in the community of Hulme.
Unfortunately somewhere along the line this becomes a nostalgic fueled recounting of the NIA and Nina is dragged along for the ride. It’s hard not to look back on an evening when youre looking back and the principal players from that time are all in attendance. It’s like that lovable uncle at the family get together, who starts the evening lucidly full of wit and repartee and ends the night wildly proclaiming he’s loves you in the middle of the dancefloor after having one too many.
Verdict: A real entertaining evening watching the Untold Orchestra and Yemi Bolitawa pay homage to the songstress superstar that was Nina Simone. Audrey Hall provides the added context of the NIA and how Hulme’s community resonated with the much vaunted singer.