Folk singer Sam Lee has been living and singing in Hackney since 2004. Sam is an active participant in the age-old tradition of British folk, immersing himself in traveller communities to collect rebel and romantic songs. His own interpretations move beyond anthropology and are profoundly felt, expressed in his rich, resonant voice. Sam spent childhood holidays surrounded by the natural world thanks to the Forest School Camps charity, and he has worked in nature conservation and experienced wilderness survival. We talked to Sam in the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, Hackney’s favourite wild place, where he has run events for the Nest Collective, his acoustic folk club.
‘Hackney provides so many opportunities for what the Nest Collective want to do – we organise concerts in the Woodberry Wetlands and we’re planning to do breakfast campfire sessions in the Bee Garden behind the Bootstrap building. We’ve called this ‘porridge and knowledge’ and we’ll feature speakers, change-makers and singers. We’re interested in promoting projects that make social change, enhance social consiousness, reclaim spaces and address environmental concerns.
Singing around a campfire has always been the happiest of times for me. The Campfire Club strand of the Nest Collective aims to evoke that experience, with unamplified music and outdoor gatherings. Artists contribute, but the fire is the star.
I live just off Ridley Road so I don’t have to travel far to find local folk – I chat to the Irish travellers there and listen to their music. There are some classic east London folk tunes like the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green and the Fair Maid of Islington, but the nature of folk song is that it translocates; it moves as people move.
Hackney has lots of wonderful venues such as the Vortex, Café OTO and Servant Jazz Quarters. And there’s an amazing music community here – you can smell the creativity. Just on my street I’m surrounded by musicians. I live in an old caretaker’s flat in a church in Dalston, and it’s good to see the different groups there and how they connect and have always connected. Caribbean people were looked after by Jewish people when they arrived here, and they were looked after in their turn.
My favourite place to eat in Hackney is Kaffa Coffee on Gillett Square where you can get great Ethiopian food on Thursdays and Fridays. And I love the Hackney Carnival because it’s chaotic and untamed: it reimagines what streets and community gatherings are about. It’s not my music or community but I feel very included, and people really come together to party.
In Hackney there’s an understanding that community doesn’t just happen – you have to contribute to it. It’s so open and inclusive here. I think that will last and will outlive any changes – we have to hold on to each other.’