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Karawane park their world beats at the Ironworks

By Kyle Walker

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Eclectic world music club collective Karawane have made a name for themselves since starting up earlier this year. As they prepare for their biggest show yet at Inverness’s Ironworks, Kyle Walker caught up with its co-founder, Black Isle-based Mark Thomson

Hi Mark, thanks for answering these! Whereabouts are you reading these just now?

Very happy to! Currently chilling in Fortrose cafe IV10 and stoked that they are playing a nice tune by Waldeck called memories which is keeping my head nodding.

So, for the uninitiated – what is Karawane? How did it start off? And what inspired you to start it up here in the Highlands?

Wow...where to begin. Karawane (/kaavan/ ) is a space for people from all walks of life to come together over the shared bonds of food and music.

The long and short of it is that, even though I am from Fife, I’ve always felt very connected to the Highlands. I’ve been away for 20 years, living in Sweden, Ecuador, Mexico and Barcelona, thinking I’d always live abroad. We came over here on holiday just over a year ago and I felt a very powerful pull to come here, which was unexpected. My partner (from Canada) felt the same! So a few months later, we got rid of everything we had in Barcelona, jumped in the car, and just moved here to see what would unfold.

Karawane really began here, but is a product of the musical journey I have been on for many years, and that of some close friends who form the collective alongside me. There are 4 DJs and a chef in the collective and we all know each other through travelling, music and skateboarding. It was also a way for my partner (Ella) and I do to something together and combine our passions, so it all made sense.

I’ve heard so many people say they want something new in the highlands and the response to our night seems to back that up. Something new is exactly what we bring. People here are amazing; such a strong sense of community and it’s really the core of what makes the whole thing work.

What’s the ethos behind the club night? What can folk showing up at the Ironworks expect from yourself and Ali A on the evening?

Karawane is a shifting thing, as caravans tend to be, and you can expect a rich diversity of sound that takes you someplace else. I have no idea what vinyl Ali is bringing to the Ironworks and he has no idea about my selection, so we are looking forward to hearing what the other brings. That’s how we likes it. We really feed off each other when playing and try not to plan things out.

We see people of all ages coming to our nights and just cutting loose on the dancefloor...this music is quite new to many people so there’s no way for it to really exclude anyone. Nobody can write it off as being “just for older folk”, “just for younger people”, “cheesy”, “too hard” or whatever. Our only guideline is that we don’t play any commercial or electronic music; even house versions of afrobeat tunes, as there’s more than enough of that in every other place you look.

The rhythms are primal, running right through the beat of hip hop into cumbia, jazz into afrobeat, salsa into ska and all the brassy bits and crossovers in the middle. We’ll drop from a pulsing afrobeat tune from Ghana into an Icelandic ska number and then fuse it right into a tropical Brazilian beat, and you’ll never want to sit down.

There’s the whole food aspect to it too (not for the Ironworks night, I don’t think – but more generally) – how did plant-based food become part of Karawane as well? It’s something a bit unique to the Highlands at the moment with only a few vegan eateries dotted about – how have you found folk have responded to the food?


Yes, well the other universal way to come together is by breaking bread with others, and that’s the ethos behind our Savour & Sound nights. My partner, Ella at left coast Kitchen is an amazing chef with plant-based food (we are both vegan), and she is on a mission to bring delicious, health-promoting food that is hearty and bursting with flavour.

We just did a three-course set meal for 25 guests in the Old Brewery in Cromarty, followed by a DJ set and a lot of dancing! It was an intimate experience that brought lots of people together to try something new, and meet new people, and it was a great night that we will soon repeat! People are becoming more conscious of health and environment and we find most people really receptive to plant-based food. Things really are changing fast. We have big plans on this front, so watch this space!

Karawane only began life this year – it’s grown arms and legs awfully quickly over the last six months with this upcoming Ironworks show already! What do you think it is that has had folk come on board with what Karawane is offering?

It’s simply different and totally unpretentious. It’s all about the music and it’s not about us at all. We almost never get requests as DJs at this night because people are just loving the constant surprises that are around the corner with each song. The atmosphere is always just amazingly friendly and positive, and there’s a real energy from people as the night builds. It really is such a unique night. I heard a girl leaving our gig at the tooth and claw telling someone on the way in “I can’t describe the music but it’s amazing!” and that really made me smile.

So tell me about yourself Mark – what’s your history? How did you get started with DJing and what are your influences?

I started DJing about 25 years ago in Edinburgh, playing hip hop. I started to investigate the samples used by groups like A Tribe called Quest and De La Soul and that lead me to James Brown, Roy Ayers and a whole world of funk and soul. Messenger sound system in Edinburgh blew my mind wide open with the roots dub reggae culture, and I played many reggae nights all over the world for a lot of years. I work in education, so I travelled a lot with that, and spent a lot of time around central and south America. Listening to cumbia and salsa on the local buses there.. I just couldn’t get enough of it, and starting piling up the vinyl in those genres. You then realise that lots of african music is pretty much the same roots and that you can play music from Colombia and Kenya that sound pretty much the same, except the language, and that’s when I stopped being the kind of DJ that would play genres in sections, as I started to see all the links between it all. Djs like Mr Scruff really influence me there...the way that guy can just drop Culture’s “two sevens clash” after a Drum and bass tune and it just works.

What’s been the best gig you’ve played throughout your years on the decks? And what’s been the weirdest?

I have to say the best gigs are when the audience interact. I played a gig in “mama afrika” in Cuzo, Peru, and half the audience had their own percussion. The same happened at “cuba libre” in Poznan, Poland, and in the back room of a Senegalese restaurant in Barcelona. We’re talking to people about bringing percussion into the night, and there is talk of brass accompaniment as well, so we will get there.

The weirdest gig...wow...so many surreal memories crop up. Being held by the throat against the wall because the guy didn’t believe I didn’t have any Status Quo records, playing at a youth hostel in Barcelona when half the audience were in pyjamas and slippers eating their pizzas and pot noodles....so many weird ones and thankful for every one of them!

What’s the best advice you’ve been given about music, and why?

I was getting so caught up in cutting and scratching over a hip hop track at a gig in Edinburgh last year, and Ali walked past me and whispered “less is more, Mark”. That was good advice, and still rings in my ears when I am getting carried away!

This Ironworks date is a big deal! What’s next for Karawane after this – any more plans or events on the horizon?

So many plans. Playing world music sets at with the Highland Migrant and Refugee Advocacy at their “Stories of movement” tour, fundraisers for the WEA, outdoor events with firepits and tasty food, incorporating spoken word into Savour and Sound, bringing instruments along and encouraging the audience to bring shakers and rattles, more of a visual experience at the night and lots of other stuff. Just check our facebook or website to see what the latest is.

We also plan to do some “Karawane presents” nights which will veer away from our core night. We plan a full roots reggae night in Inverness with the Step it Up Soundsystem in February to celebrate Bob Marley’s birthday, and also a block party soul and hip hop night with a very special celebrity MC from a famous 90s hip hop group. I can’t say more yet, but we really are at the beginning and we want to set the scene alight with new energy and to do it all together. We can’t do that without the amazing support and passion for everyone who contributes, spreads the word, and gets down on the dancefloor at every single event.

Oh, and starting in a week or so, I’ll be doing a weekly radio show on Thursdays from 6-8pm on North Highland Radio. I’ll be chatting to guests who have come to the Highlands from elsewhere, about their own story of movement, and playing the music that’s moving the crowd at Karawane. We don’t plan to slow down any time soon.

Karawane's next night is at the Ironworks on Saturday, November 24. For more information, go to www.karawane.co.uk

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