Host Spotlight: Laura Brown (Liverpool Arab Arts Festival)

Host Spotlight: an opportunity to shine a light on our wonderful radio hosts and wider community, be it a new music release, a brand new music residency or simply to champion them as an individual. This time, we catch up with Creative Producer of Liverpool Arab Arts Festival and Arab Music Masterclass host, Laura Brown! From her Palestinian heritage to her past and present projects with the likes of Homotopia and BBC, we dive into Laura’s musical journey so far… 

Hey Laura! How did you first get into music?

There was always music playing somewhere in the house when I was growing up and we didn’t have lots of space! My dad played classical guitar and both my brother and I played instruments (guitar, piano and cello). When I was at school there was still a recognition of the importance of music education – you were expected to play an instrument and I played in two school orchestras. In fact, the first time I set foot in the Philharmonic Hall was to play as part of a concert of school orchestras. So there was a lot of different music and there was always a sense that it was for everyone, no matter the sound, instrument or inspiration. 

I was incredibly lucky to grow up in the 90s when music culture was front and centre everywhere and was in a big gig-going group of friends. Everyone was in a band, everyone was creating music and everyone was setting up music venues. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure how safe some of those venues were but they formed this backbone of music appreciation and live music that was central to Liverpool culture. Music didn’t feel like something you passively engaged with, but it felt like a scene you were part of. In Liverpool especially, there was a vibrant music scene that was as much about creating icons of local bands as it was bringing massive bands to the city. It felt quite self contained, confident and not looking to anywhere else for validation. 

About 100 years ago when I first became a journalist, music was the first thing I wrote about. I interviewed and reviewed bands and created what were probably early podcasts on the BBC website, with snippets of interviews with bands. My partner also wrote about music at the start of his career (before we met) so music is now a major aspect of our life together, discovering new bands and celebrating the ones we love. 

I had an early (thankfully short-lived) career taking photographs of bands, but decided to stick to writing and interviewing. For me, it became more about championing bands and that has somehow evolved into producing music concerts and events and creating music programmes. I absolutely recognise how lucky I am. 

How did you first get involved with Liverpool Arab Arts Festival? Why do you think it’s important for a platform like LAAF to exist in Liverpool?

I was an attendee at Liverpool Arab Arts Festival before I worked for them. My dad was born in Palestine and I lost him and my nan in quite a short space of time. The childhood stories I’d had from them about how they fled Palestine, in what we call the Nakba, were a huge part of how I first understood the Middle East and what had happened there. They didn’t think of themselves as immigrants as they just had to get on with it, but the culture shock cut quite deep. When they both died, I realised I had to find out how to navigate my relationship with my Arab heritage through my own eyes and experience. I discovered the festival and found this group of people talking about art and music that I knew about and felt a kinship to. 

LAAF advertised for a Marketing Coordinator and I had been freelance for several years by then and was looking for a new challenge. When the pandemic hit and we pivoted to a digital festival, I think my broadcast experience from my BBC days helped in terms of planning and platforming artists. My role developed into Creative Producer so now I look after the music, film and digital programming. 

A festival like LAAF is so important. It’s difficult to articulate how you feel when your culture, the culture you experience with those you love, doesn’t feel like it runs in tandem with the mainstream culture outside. It can feel alienating and disorientating. LAAF is a platform for Arab art and culture; to illustrate how creative, engaging, passionate, mind-blowing, talented, diverse and inspiring Arab artists are. It’s about changing perceptions and providing a different perspective, so that the jarr you feel when you live between two cultures isn’t quite so rattling. 

After an amazing 2022 edition, where do you hope to see the festival, and the Liverpool Arab music scene, in five years’ time?

We have so many plans. The arts are, of course, in a weird place so you hope that there is still a recognition of a need for a celebration of different artists, cultures and artforms. I want more people to know us and more people to love us. I want younger Arab artists to see us as the place they can get their first step into their glittering cultural career and where they can come to with their ideas. 

I am intensely passionate about how people get into the arts, particularly now when so many of the old paths have been dismantled. I bang on about a thing called threshold phobia all the time – that sense of how you feel something on the other side of a door might not be for you. Accessibility and inclusivity are, quite rightly, central to a lot of arts activity now. Culture never stays in one place and it’s only by having an open door that we stay relevant. 

In terms of music I’m building connections across the Arab world, so hopefully that can help to connect Liverpool Arab artists. I’m spending so much of my time listening to new music that I’m a pig in muck. Everyone send me their Spotify and bandcamps, basically!

As well as being a creative producer and radio host, what else keeps you busy? Do you have any tips for keeping a clear mind whilst spinning many plates?

Oh my days. Well, as well as being Creative Producer I still work freelance. Mainly in PR, audio production and marketing. I work with the majestic Homotopia and various other arts organisations. I’m also passionate about cities, so I do a bit of work in accessibility and creating sustainable and happy cities. It all fits together in my mind! 

Tips for keeping a clear mind are, for me, all about making lists and making time for planning. I’m a huge believer in both positivity journals and bullet journaling. It’s not just about keeping organised but keeping focused, and knowing when to switch off. I have a very patient partner who not only comes to listen to random Arab acts at festivals that I want to see, but also reminds me to turn off my phone, close my laptop and be present. When your work dovetails with what you love you need someone to remind you not to burn yourself out! You can always go hell for leather and throw yourself into what you’re doing, but you also have to know that that pace isn’t always healthy. Balance changes depending on time of year, how busy you are, how much energy you have, what else is going on. Being kinder to yourself always helps! 

Who would be your dream artist to book for a festival? 

It’s not a dream artist but a dream gig. I want a night of female Arab DJs that can fill dancefloors that we can then tour around the North of England. It’d be the best tour bus in the world. Have you heard Bklava? Honestly, brilliant. 

What was the last record/tune you bought?

Intifida on the Dance Floor’ by Bashar Murad. Absolute banger. 

What else do you have planned for 2022?

I’ve got two arts projects in London (yes, I do occasionally work outside Liverpool!) Homotopia returns in November and it is going to be epic. It’s been such a glorious summer this year as we’ve started being around each other again, but I am looking forward to the leaves falling and a chill coming into the air. 

Listen to Laura’s latest Arab Music Masterclass on MDR below, which focusses on Somalian Disco!