Good Vibes Only: Herbert Meets Unit 31 

Unit 31 is a collective founded by two musicians and a filmmaker that connects artists across London's creative community.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Raffy Bushman and Julian Prentis - two core members of the team - to find out the story behind the space, their exhibition, which celebrates the last 5 years at Unit 31 and that culminates in their final installment of chamber music on 15th December.

Photo by Karolina Wielocha 

So guys, what is the story behind Unit 31?
 

Raffy-  Well, originally this space was a load of studios with a living room space that was this section of the house (gestures to a small square in the room) -
 
Julian-  there were a lot more walls back then - what you see now was divided up into smaller rooms
 
Raffy – but it was still big enough to handle little jam sessions –
 
Julian – It really started with Sam (above), who is our drummer. He had just moved to London and was looking to jam with people, so he would invite other musicians he met at gigs to come and play here, it was always random, improvised and casual. And then it slowly got a reputation and grew and grew and now we’re here 5 years later!
 
So where did the name – Salt Peanuts come from?

Raffy -  Karol, who is one of the founding members of Unit 31 and a videographer came up with it – it’s a tune by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, which we are hoping to play at our last gig
 
Julian – that would be sick

Photo by Karolina Wielocha 
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So after Sam –

 
Raffy – I moved into another studio and was just practicing there
 
What do you play?
 

Raffy – Piano and Cello. We then started trying to put on something every month- and bear in mind it was just in this section (points to a very small slice of the room)
 
Julian – Imagine, we would have 100 people just standing here all the way back to the kitchen. It was tight, but it worked. But then about a year and a half ago, we had a huge flood in the building -  
 
Raffy – As result of the flood, we decided to tear down the walls and make a bigger space/venue. Some people had to move out and it was then just the four of us left –  the core team that was running Unit 31.
 
Julian – At this time Karolina got more involved and she was instrumental in helping us expand the programme of events. It used to be just Salt Peanuts and then we developed Portrait Jazz and Unit31 Presents  – Chamber Music is probably the most recent addition.
 
Raffy – And Karol does film screenings –
 
Julian – He’ll get aspiring film makers to screen their films with a panel discussion and a Q&A.
 
So it was you that brought in the chamber music?
 
Raffy – Yeah, last Christmas I came back here and my sister (who I had grown up playing chamber music  with) suggested that we should do it.  I thought– we have this space, why not use it? More than anything it got me back into listening and playing classical music.
 

Photo by Karolina Wielocha 
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Julian – You should take about Nu shape as well Raff …
 
Raffy – Sure, well I’d already built up a community of classical players because I had started an orchestral project about 2 years ago called Nu Shape Orchestra.
 
Julian – Which originally was created because of the Ruff Sqwad –  an original grime production crew who wanted to perform an orchestral version of all their grime classics and they commissioned Raff to do that project, which they eventually performed it at the Jazz Café -

Well, it’s interesting because as you’ll know a lot of people try and make classical accessible through mixing genres – do you think this works?
 
Raffy - I actually think that’s a big mistake – to me the piece I did for the Ruff Squad is an orchestral realization of grime, not a piece of classical music.
 
Julian – But this is still new territory, because the production sounds of grime are really dependent on electronic sounds -it’s really difficult to do a live instrumental version of grime

Photo by Karolina Wielocha 
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Have you performed anything else with the Nu Shape orchestra?
 
Raffy - After I did Ruff Sqwad, I wanted to expand on the project so I looked into the history of grime and I learnt about the Windrush and Lord Kitchener who was a  calypso singer. When he arrived in London on the HMS Windrush, he sang this tune called ‘London is the place for me’ so I decided to arrange that piece of music for the orchestra as well as some compositions that played on trap grime sounds.  By coincidence, The National Theatre were working on ‘Small Island’ – which is a show that talks about the Windrush and the West Indian community in London and I worked with them to create a piece of music called ‘All Kinds of Limbo.’ I collaborated with my friend Nubiya Brandon on this and it also explores her ideas on racial identity. 

Julian – It was actually part of a VR experience that The National Theatre put on last summer. They filmed members of the orchestra against a green screen and you could put on a VR headset and enter a space where could watch the orchestra play Raff’s music.
 
So while all of this was happening, when did you start bringing classical music into Unit 31?
 
Raffy – Well... our last chamber music gig which will be Tchaikovsky's String Sextet in D minor is on the 15th December, which will be our seventh and our first (looking through phone)  - Mendelssohn Octet was on the 14th March.
 
Do you find it more difficult to get people to come to chamber music as opposed to your other nights?
 
Raffy - Definitely, it was the same when we started Portrait Jazz. We used to sometimes just have very quiet nights, but now we can rely on fuller audiences -
 
Julian – Also, we sometimes combine the chamber music with an exhibition-

Raffy-  We had a collaboration with two street artists and they brought their friends down to see the show who were not expecting a chamber music gig … but I felt like there was a great reaction
 
Julian – There were actually a lot of people that hadn’t ever seen classical music live before and it was great to see it in this kind of setting. What I like about it most is the intimacy of it, you can sit on that sofa and hear all the little moments. That’s what’s so nice about the Salt Peanuts nights as well - you feel like you’re on stage with everyone – there’s no separation between the performers and artist.

Photo by Karolina Wielocha
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What I found so amazing when I came to Salt Peanuts was how respectful everyone was in this space and there’s no space for anything but good vibes - 
 
Raffy – YeahTy (the host) does everything to create that supportive energy.

Am I right in thinking you are just about to kick off an exhibition?
 
Julian – Yes - this is actually the end of the 5 years of Unit 31 and we always wanted to mark what it had become. The exhibition is a retrospective - if you like - of the last 5 years but it’s also a celebration of everybody that makes up our community. There are so many different people in the room with different backgrounds so it’s a chance to get to get to know them and their stories and also an opportunity for them to share their memories of Unit 31.
 
Karolina has been interviewing about 100 people from the community and all their stories will be displayed in different ways throughout the exhibition.  

Unit 31 has been a very meaningful place to me, but I know it also has been to a lot of people so finding out what it means to them has been a very special experience.
 
As we closed the interview, Julian and Raffy remarked how this might be the end of an era but definitely not the end of Unit31 - the community and energy that has built over the last 5 years. Their exhibition Unit 31 Unfolded Kicks off on Friday 6th December and if you want to experience the magic in person – head through to  Salt Peanuts on 14th December and/ or Chamber Music on 15th December.
 
https://unit31.com

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