The Spinning Wheel is a beast of a piece. Incorporating spoken word, hip hop, rap, song and chanting, the basis of the performance is the father-son relationship between the late musician, comic and poet: Steve Ben Israel and his son, Baba Israel who takes to the stage to paint a rich and varied canvas of life in 1980’s New York City. This charts the highs of the jazz scene, as well as the police brutality, struggles and poverty. However the focus on The Spinning Wheel overall is to explore what came out from such a diverse area: the abundance of art and the fusion of the soul into song along with dance and music.
Baba Israel, along with his musical collaborator, Yako 440 combine fast flowing rap rhythms with steady beats to create impromptu performances. Israel, following in his father’s footsteps, centres the performance around kindness, as well as professing strong cases against capitalism and the way it has, in his eyes, ruined New York. There are certainly very admirable parts of this performance. The story Israel tells about his father entering a subway cart with $1 dollar bills in a bid to make people engage with each other and accept ‘weirdness’ resonated with an audience living in the age of technology and the increasing influence it has on our lives collectively to take us away from real life engagement.
Israel and Yako 440 also fuse recorded sounds, vintage video clips and projected images into the performance. This was a spectacle. The old images of New York and the positivity of the 70s, mixed with the liberal, free-love hippy movements hark back to a time in which generosity and kindness were above all what mattered.
Baba Israel’s skill in free styling rap is impressive. There is a focus on audience participation as individual members are encouraged to contribute ideas to things they would like to change in the world: anti-capitalism, eradication of cultural barriers, oppression towards refugees were but a few of the notions circulated around. After all, this is what the venue, the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, does best: the circulation and sharing of ideas in a fair, equal and non-imposing space. If this was not enough, Baba offers vegetable soup to the audience at the beginning of the production, establishing a warm welcome from the outset.
This is such a dynamic piece of theatre and live music. The overall message is clear from the outset and reiterated powerfully throughout: one must embrace weirdness and the subtle differences that make each individual unique, for the future of art and counterculture depends on this.
The Spinning Wheel played at the Roundhouse until 5 June for more information, see The Roundhouse website.
Photo: David Andrako