Obituary: Robert Atkins
THERE are times when the style of a death seems peculiarly suited to the life that preceded it. Robert Atkins's sudden death, at the age of 54, was one of those.
The same evening had seen the triumphal start of a tour of Moroccan folk performers brought over by Atkins's organisation, Cultural Co-Operation. The post-show meal for the 50-strong ensemble had been a convivial occasion, turning into an impromptu concert in the Bradford restaurant. Afterwards they had all spilled out singing on to the pavement, and Atkins had gone into the road to shepherd them back to safety. It was then that a speeding car ploughed into the cheerful crowd. Atkins and Ahmed El Azouan, a musician, were killed outright.
Robert Atkins's many friends have taken some comfort from the fact that his last evening was generous and expansive and buoyed up by the direct and natural creativity he had worked all his life to foster. All were trademarks of Cultural Co-operation, the organisation he and Prakash Daswani founded in 1987.
This could - too glibly - be seen as one of the clutch of world music groupings set up in the wake of the questing, optimistic 1970s. In fact it had a very precise philosophy. Growing out of the Music Villages which Atkins and Daswani had pioneered as employees of the Commonwealth Institute, it sought for a format in which artists from other cultures - particularly the developing world - could present their work in Britain without the patina of exoticism. Cultural Co-Operation dancers, musicians and craftspeople found themselves involved with workshops, skills-sharing exercises, demonstrations and exchanges as much as with performance. People who visited these latter-day Music Villages - always based in the open air in parks and spaces from Gunnersbury to Glasgow - had an experience that was sometimes confusing and unfocused but sometimes electrifying and wonderful.
Atkins and Daswani regularly dealt with the art of the impossible, persuading governments more attuned to conventional promotion to send large troupes of folk- based performers of their popular cultures - Brazilian marching bands, Rajasthani folk musicians and storytellers, Trinidadian steel- drum masters.
Precisely because they ploughed their own furrow, life was not easy. The absence of salary and career structure enjoyed by Atkins previously - as director of the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, the Midlands Arts Centre and Arts Director of the Commonwealth Institute - was alarming as well as exhilarating. His insistence on open-air performance ran counter at times to the realities of British weather, and the organisation's principled stand on free events raised eyebrows with funding bodies looking for financial returns rather than - as Atkins hoped - evidence of eyes being opened and lives changed. The sudden death of his student son Tom, from unsuspected viral pneumonia, two years ago, was a deep trauma.
There were times when Robert Atkins was weary of the annual struggle to find new funding for the extraordinary events he wanted to lay before the public. But his innate optimism and the stubbornness often possessed by good men held him on course. At the time of his death he was due to retire from Cultural Co-Operation and turn his attention to European traditions. As things turned out, Cultural Co-Operation will be his memorial, but it is a worthy one.
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