The ancient ghosts of slavery and the modern abuses of human trafficking will be remembered at a special event in Belfast on April 29. The music will echo through the First Presbyterian Church, asking us to measure how far we have come as a city.
The tunes will be provided by Arborist, one of the most cultured and moving performers in the north.
The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival program the night while the cause was carried by Experience Belfast, a project which tells inspiring stories that are sometimes forgotten.
So the concert will ask us to remember Thomas McCabe, a man from Lurgan who worked in Belfast and attended First Presbyterian on Rosemary Street. He was friends with the McCracken family and other 18th century radicals and he worked hard to prevent the town from hosting a slavery business.
Before the music, there will be a summary of McCabe’s life by historian Raymond O’Regan as well as a dramatic staging, written by Cillian Lenaghan. The questioning tone will then shift to Mark McCambridge, who has new material along with his familiar songs about soul, belonging and how we could be better citizens.
Mark, from Ballymena, also records sea shanties under the guise of Ms Cambridge. But his main distinction is two albums of lyrical finesse like Arborist. He admits a debt to Seamus Heaney, particularly his interest in evocative place names and our connection to the land. Mark also writes concise and bizarre stories like Raymond Carver.
A wonderful piece called here comes the devil was ranked Best Single at the Northern Ireland Music Awards 2020. It was blessed that Arborist’s second album, A view from the north came out and filmed before the pandemic. Since then he has been writing and planning.
He was approached about the First Presbyterian Church event by Arthur Magee, who runs alternative city tours with Experience Belfast. Mark was clearly impressed by the stories of Thomas McCabe and how he protected the city from a terrible trade.
“I think I’m right to say that Belfast was the only port city in the UK that didn’t accept slave ships,” says Mark.
“It’s an amazing thing to be involved in and obviously a brilliant cause.”
He recently returned from Richmond, Virginia, where Arborist’s third album was recorded during an intense 10-day trip. Mark dreamed of classic American studios with a house band – places like Motown in Detroit and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He found his equivalent in Spacebomb.
It was an expensive trip, but Mark had been recognized by the PPL Momentum Music Fund in 2021. Only nine acts (including Yard Act) had been selected across the UK. The support gave Mark the endorsement he needed, while the extra encouragement from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland was a convincing boost.
“The price was beyond me,” he admits. “But lo and behold, I was lucky enough to get this funding, which provided the vast majority of what was needed. It certainly got me over the line for that to happen.
The visit to Spacebomb, organized by studio boss and artist Matthew E White, was extremely productive. Even the songs’ unfinished mixes have a gorgeous flow and late-night quality that’s been enhanced by the strings, brass and woodwinds. Fittingly, there’s a new track called Dream in another language.
On the last day at the studio, he could hear the project taking shape. Arranger Trey Pollard came with the extra sheet music and players. The euphoria of the moment has not yet left Mark.
“Because you work so fast, you don’t hear much. You make decisions pretty quickly as you go. I hadn’t heard much about what we had done in return. So that’s the day I got to sit in the control room.
“An element of doubt creeps in, but I was thrilled with the way things sounded and what we did. And then you get the luxury of having these supreme arrangements, played by supreme musicians on top of that. A 10 piece orchestra. It was quite surreal but incredibly fulfilling. It was all worth it.
Now Mark is swapping notes with his musician friends at home, preparing for the First Presbyterian concert. His drummer and Antrim pal Ben McAuley is now an Oscar-nominated figure, having worked on Van Morrison’s production Belfast soundtrack. Other Arborist players are less decorated but just as adept at improving Mark’s tunes. Come, James Heaney, Jonny Ashe and Richard Hill.
“They are incredibly eager to start playing again. You can feel a palpable energy to get back there. I have a lot of love for these guys and for everything we’ve done over the years.
“You might be tempted to come back and completely reinvent things, but I wanted to come back and be in a room and play some music with them again and see where that leads. It’s a big part of playing live. To give them a run-out.
The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast runs from 28 April to 8 May. For more information on the program, visit www.cqaf.com. Arborist will play First Presbyterian Church on April 29