My Mate, Your Mate…

This time last week, I was holed up in the Midlands; at the Pioneer Centre in Kidderminster – venue for Inspire!, Latin Link’s annual conference.

I’ve been to Inspire! a few times before, and it’s always great fun. It’s just a fantastic atmosphere, full of stories of the mountains and the first time someone had cuy to eat (don’t ask if you’re fond of fluffy animals), or of the market traders with their bamba (pirate) Salsa and Reggaeton CDs.

16112008001 At any Latin Link event, the Argentineans are always easy to spot – both them and the Brits who’ve spent some time there. What gives them away is the intriguing little globe-like object they all hold in their hands and taking occasional pulls on through a shiny metal straw thing. Some will have a small flask of hot water, from which they’ll occasionally give the little globes a top-up. Get too close, and they’ll offer you a sip – your initiation into the world of Mate (pronounced “matay”).

Mate is a drink intended to be shared with people. It’s a huge part of Argentinean culture. “It’s what makes Argentina special,” I’ve been told by one avid drinker. “You do have to develop a taste for it,” advises another.

I’m still some way from developing my taste for it. My sweet tooth is legendary, and Mate isn’t the sweetest thing I’ve ever drunk by any means. But when it comes to those little containers it’s served in… I was sold on those ages ago.

161120080041 My fascination with mate might have something to do with me sort of having a thing for pipes. I’ve never smoked in my life and don’t intend to start anytime soon. But there’s just something special about pipe smokers. Without his pipe, Sherlock Holmes would just be a pompous nerd with a daft hat saying patronising things to his sidekick Watson. Likewise, without mate, Argentineans are just Latinos who pronounce some of their words funny – saying “sh” where other Spanish speakers say “y”, and where English speakers would say ‘l” (that’s your Spanish pronunciation lesson for today, folks).

I’ve never seen two identical ones. I’ve seen some that looked really plain, and others that could pass for priceless works of art. I’ve even seen one made out of a horn (Argentina consumes more beef per person than any other nation on earth. I guess someone’s got to find a use for all those leftover cow parts). But I have never seen two that looked exactly the same.

16112008002 If I ever go to Argentina, I’ll buy the most arty-looking mate container I can find. I’ll be the most sociable guy around, sharing it with everyone in sight. I’d let everyone else drink while I just held that round bowl in my hand, looking and feeling cool.

Pase el mate a la izquierda (pass the mate ‘pon the left hand side), and hand me that bamba Daddy Yankee CD, please…


Brian was one of my lecturers at uni; an author, documentary maker and Emmy-winning television producer. He taught Media Technology and Documentary Theory.

I used to love Brian’s Media Technology lectures because he had no time for technology which didn’t perform as it should. He particularly had a bee in his bonnet about word processing software packages.

“The trouble with them,” he’d say, “is that they’re not made by writers; they’re made by computer programmers.”

Every now and then when I’m writing something with Microsoft Word (like right now, for instance), I’ll be reminded of Brian’s frustrations in an unintentionally funny way. Word’s spelling and grammar check is, for the most part, pretty helpful. But occasionally it does throw some absolute howlers at you, as it deems the perfectly okay thing you’ve written to be wrong and offers some terrible alternative in its place.

I’ve collected several of these ‘Wordisms’, as I call them, over the years. Here are some of my favourites.

What I wrote What Word said I should have written instead

  • “We were finished by 5pm.” 5pm finished us.
  • “Many of those friends committed suicide, and the thought of ending it all crossed Juan’s mind several times.” Many of those friends committed suicide, and the thought of ending it Juan’s entire crossed mind several times.
  • “… how to defend ourselves.” … how to defend we.
  • “… if there are issues that impact on the local community.” Either “… if there is issues that impact on the local community” or “… if there are issues those impacts on the local community.”
  • “I loved my time in Ecuador, especially Atacames beach.” I loved my time in Ecuador, especially Teacakes beach. (it also suggested Oatcakes beach)
  • “’Boom’ and ‘I’m Running’ could have come off a Jackson Five album.” ‘Boom’ and ‘I’m Running’ could have come off a Jackson Five albums.
  • “Everything seemed so bad.” Everything seemed so badly.

So, how will Jesus vote?

Well, Indecision 2008 (or whatever nickname Jon Stewart and his Daily Show chums have given it this time) is nearly here.

Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t be paying any attention to an election taking place in a country I don’t live in (yes, I know: a black man is running. Big woop). But when writing about Christian music is part of your job, you’re kind of forced to take an interest. You see, politics is a biiiig part of American Christianity, and a lot of the art, media and teaching that come from there are heavily coloured by the partisan stance of whoever produced them – a point many of us non-American Christians who feed voraciously on the Christian culture industry’s output often fail to realise.

Every April, I take a trip to Nashville to attend the Gospel Music Association’s annual GMA Week. I remember turning up at GMA 2004, and being greeted by a giant banner covered in signatures, proclaiming “The Christian music community supports our troops in Iraq” (this was the same GMA at which my friend Mike Rimmer went about wearing a T-shirt with WWJB? (Who Would Jesus Bomb?) written on it). As one of the millions who’d marched the streets of London in protest against the war, you can imagine how that made me feel…

I’d kind of resigned myself to accepting that Christian music = rightwing politics. But in recent years, I’ve seen quite a few of those fiercely conservative Gospel/ccm people become less so. You still have guys like Redeem the Vote (ostensibly non-partisan, but in reality very pro-Republican) rallying young Christians’ support – first for Mike Huckabee, then for McCain once Huckabee was out of the race. But it appears that this time round, Christian voters are looking at other options beside the GOP – and are being helped to do so by some of their favourite gospel/ccm acts. The Democrats – famous for not ‘doing God’ – have even enlisted gospel singers such as Donnie McClurkin and the Mighty Clouds of Joy to help bring folk round.

I met Frank Schaeffer (author of the book Crazy For God) at Greenbelt this summer. Not only did he openly pledge his support for Obama several times during the festival; he also had a lot to say about how Christian voters’ moods were changing.

“A lot of Evangelicals now realise that they were sold a bill of goods by the Republican leadership,” he told me. “The one stick in the mud that won’t go away is abortion. But that said, most Evangelicals – with that as a caveat – are becoming more comfortable with voting for a Democrat, because they see the absolute failure of not only the Bush administration, but also this idea that you have to pass a sort of theological test in order to be President. That’s insane; you’re not hiring the guy as Pastor-In-Chief.”

As I’ve spoken to American Christians (musical and non-musical alike) over the last couple of years, many have cited one guy as being the catalyst for so many of them re-examining their political views: Jim Wallis, the Vicar of Dibley’s husband (no, seriously!) and author of books such as The Soul of Politics and God’s Politics: How the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.

“People like Jim Wallis have taken a lead in getting people involved in a larger conversation than abortion and homosexuality as the touchstones,” said Jars of Clay’s keyboardist Charlie Lowell, when I interviewed him before the band’s last UK gig. “He’s got us looking at issues such as taking care of the poor and ultimately what we’re building as a future, rather than what we’re against.”

I’ve met Jim Wallis several times over the years – usually at Greenbelt, where he’s a regular speaker, as well as at events organised by Faithworks and Make Poverty History. He’s told me more than once that “the monologue of the Religious Right is over,” but I’d always had a hard time believing that when TBN – along with the other Christian satellite channels – shouted the opposite so loudly. Brian McLaren, another speaker at this year’s Greenbelt, had an explanation for that.

“Something people outside the US just don’t understand is the degree to which religious broadcasting has enormous power,” he said. “I sometimes – being very tongue in cheek – refer to it as ‘Radio Orthodoxy’. The most powerful denomination in the USA is actually not Baptists or Pentecostals; it’s the people who control the Christian broadcasting networks!”

Brian longs for more Christian musicians to be more questioning of the political process, and cites the singer Derek Webb as one bright spark in the ccm pool. Having heard Derek’s The Ringing Bell album and seen the hilarious video for his song “Saviour on Capitol Hill”, I have to agree with Brian. When I actually got to interview Derek, I wasn’t disappointed – nor was I too surprised to learn that some of his more edgy songs haven’t gone down too well within the Christian music scene.

“The Christian music market is traditionally a fairly conservative one,” Derek said. “So when you as a Christian artist start looking at the more social implications of following Jesus, it does kind of concern people. I’ve always found that ironic, because looking at just the simplest teachings of Jesus, he clearly puts a high priority on caring for the poor. When you start to look at the social implications of what Jesus said, applying it socially is not only inevitable; it’s commanded. And when you look at the social implications, it inevitably becomes political.”

As you would expect, Derek’s been observing Indecision 2008 with interest. “So far, I think it’s better now than it’s been in a long time,” he said enthusiastically. “There does seem to be a heightened interest in having a more nuanced political conversation. I’ve been surprised by some of my friends and people I know, who four or eight years ago would simply have looked for the conservative candidate and blindly pledged their allegiance to him. Now I’m seeing some of those people are more interested in a whole discussion.

“I’ve been hoping that over time, Christians would begin to realise that politicians are primarily in the election and re-election business; willing to go to any group of people whose language they can decipher, and say to them whatever they need to say in order to get their votes. That’s just how it works. As you look over the history of the last 20 or so years of Evangelicalism and how it touches elections, people are bound to start realising, ‘these guys aren’t necessarily on my side!’

“Whoever you discern as the ‘Christian’ candidate – the guy who seems to have all his spiritual ducks in a row – has more likely deciphered the Christian language and is able to get in front of Christians and make himself seem appealing and electable. That’s not to say that some of these men aren’t whom they say they are, but Christians have to be a little more savvy about the game that’s being played. The politicians understand what they’re doing, but unfortunately, the public – and most often, these Christians – hear the politicians talk about the few issues that those politicians know are the only issues that are important to them, and they’re just swayed really easily. We should be a little more careful.”

Derek has some valid points, IMHO. And I’m all for Christians getting involved in the political process, whatever side of the fence they’re on or whatever country they’re in – just as long as they don’t try to claim God as a member of their party of choice (which is why I agree 1,000,000 percent with the line in one of Derek’s songs that one of the two great lies he’s heard is that Jesus was a white middle-class Republican). But is this “more nuanced political conversation” going to have any real effect on the poll results? Well, they’re nearly in; lets see for ourselves, shall we?

From the Y Crate: Asia Blue

From the Y Crate, #6:

“Escaping” by ASIA BLUE (Atomic)

This song actually had a reprieve. Dina Carroll scored a Top Three hit with her cover of it in 1996 –  four years after Asia Blue’s version flopped (insert “Atomic bomb” joke here). The original’s still the better version as far as I’m concerned. I wonder what these ladies are up to now?

Facebook status updates I thought of using, but didn’t (very wisely, you might say)

George Luke is…

  • … therefore he thinks.
  • … a concept by which we can measure our pain.
  • … the Strongest Link. Hello!
  • … sad to announce that the wedding’s off. B says she’s now in love with some J-something bloke. If I ever catch him, he’s toast.
  • … Big in Japan.
  • … Lost in Music.
  • … [insert title of 70s or 80s pop hit here]
  • … equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
  • … making tonight a wonderful thing with some Cuervo Gold and a fine Colombian.
  • … pleading with you: PLEASE log off Facebook NOW – and get some work done! That is what your boss pays you for, after all…

Dead Set & Match

Halloween’s nearly here – and as is their custom, all our telly channels have dusted off their old horror movies to ‘entertain’ those of us too old for trick-or-treating.

Well, all but one. E4 have actually gone to the trouble of creating an original gore-filled miniseries for our delectation. Dead Set is a five-parter in which zombies attack the Big Brother house. In a way, it’s the sort of programme that could only have come from the Channel 4 family.

Not being a big fan of mindless bloody violence perpetrated by (or on) the undead, I’ll be giving Dead Set a miss. The closest I’ve come to watching this sort of thing is Shaun of the Dead – and that’s as far as I wish to go (yep, I’m a wuss. A big girl’s blouse. I don’t care; nightmares are no fun).

But there’s one reason I do find Dead Set of interest: it’s on our screens just two weeks after Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got the… (you know the rest). In the space of a fortnight, two channels who’ve made a considerable fortune from ‘reality’ TV formats will have put on shows mocking those very programmes (or in the case of Dead Set, brutally murdering them). You can’t help but wonder if this is a sign that the often-predicted reality TV backlash has started for real. Somehow, I think not.

Natural World: Club Edition

I love a good nature programme. Watching different species interact on Blue Planet, Natural World or Wildlife on One is simply exhilarating.

But I’ve always felt that there’s one habitat Sir Richard Attenborough and his fellow naturalists haven’t examined yet. Rather than wait any longer, I’ve decided to do my own wildlife-watching documentary (in the form of a blog, naturellement) in this as yet unexplored region. So join me, if you will, observing two of the many life forms that inhabit your local nightclub.

Pick any generic nightclub in any generic town, and you’re bound to find loads of interesting species. For the purposes of this study, I’m going to focus on the sub-genus Slavius Impoveridus (underpaid employees), from which come the two species I find most interesting. Let’s start by finding somewhere nice to sit, from where we can observe Species #1: Bandida Vendida Alcoholica, the Tequila Bandit.

Slender and statuesque, Tequila Bandit is a wonder to behold at work. Clothed (to use that word very loosely) in black, bottles dangling from the leather holsters slung across each shoulder, Tequila Bandit stalks the room like an alcohol-dispensing Lara Croft, the total absence of goose bumps on her shapely legs a glowing testimony to how well the club’s central heating works (or how full it is – take your pick). You’ll never see a finer example of misplaced infatuation emptying a man’s pockets than you will when Tequila Bandit is in her element.

But as much as we’d like to sit and admire Tequila Bandit, we have to move on to the next species in our study. For this, we leave the salubrious décor of the bar area and head for the conveniences.

In bygone times, you could tell how classy such an establishment was – or thought it was – by whatever euphemism for the male and female gender they’d have displayed on the toilet doors (if you ever find yourself in a club that has a ‘Dudes’ room and a ‘Broads’ room, watch your back – and catch the first time machine home). But today, club toilets have something else to designate the club’s imagined classiness. Walk into the Gents just after midnight and you will find the second species we’re here to study. No fake Latin names could ever do this species justice, so I’ll just call him Toilet Man.

Armed with an arsenal of perfumes and hand lotions, Toilet Man stands strategically positioned between you and the automatic hand dryers (which by this time usually aren’t working anyway). This Guardian of the Disposable Paper Towels brandishes his handwash dispenser with the same cool demeanour with which Tequila Bandit handles her bottles – but with exactly the opposite effect. A glass ashtray made redundant by the smoking ban now serves a new purpose: as a begging bowl.

This has got to be the club manager’s punishment job for the guy who’s last to turn up for work, or who lost £10 the last time he helped cash up the tills. And anyway, the whole notion of tipping in club toilets is just plain wrong. Nightclubs’ drinks are overpriced as it is; now they expect us to pay wee tax as well? The day I need help washing my hands after I’ve ‘been’, I’ll know I’m the wrong age to be in a nightclub in the first place.

You’ve got to feel for Toilet Man, though – or at least give him a dose of tough love. TM, me ol’ mucka, you seriously need to reappraise your life. You know that yours is not a job worth having when the Wandsworth Hand Dryer Company can’t even be arsed to invent a Toilet Robot to replace you. If there’s a training course you can take to get to Hand Stamper level, take it – keeping your eyes on the ultimate prize: the Cashmere Coat of Bouncer. Just remember: no Toilet Man has ever pulled a Tequila Bandit.

Still Human, Still Here…

Like most other people I know, I care about stuff. Unlike a hardcore few of them, there are limits as to how far I’m prepared to go in support of my causes of choice. So I’ve always had a grudging respect for the guys I see camped opposite the Houses of Parliament, whether I agree with their stances or not. I’ve had my moments on that big patch of grass myself – the last time being in support of Burma’s human rights campaigners – but I’ve always come home to my warm bed afterwards.

A couple of weeks ago, someone I know set up camp there. I first met Ben Gilchrist when he was leading SPEAK, the Christian organisation that encourages students and young people to get involved in social justice issues. Last month, Ben spent over a fortnight camped on Parliament Square as part of a campaign on behalf of asylum seekers, together with another Ben – Ben Gibbs – as part of the ongoing Still Human, Still Here campaign. During their time camped on Parliament Square, the two Bens had meetings with a number of MPs. They also had a pattern of prayer built into their routine, praying at 8am, noon and 7pm each day.

I did a lengthy interview with the other Ben outside Parliament Square during their stay there, which you can hear here. You can also check out the blog the guys kept during their outdoor vigil here.

Bens, thanks for being a lot more committed (and less attached to your comfy beds) than I am. You’re an inspiration, guys.

From the Y Crate: vintage ccm

From the Y Crate, #4&5:

“My Friend (So Long)” by DC TALK (Virgin)

“But dc Talk were huge!” I can hear their fans protest. Yes, they were – in the Christian market. But when Virgin picked them up for mainstream release in the UK, this single flopped like the proverbial lead baloon. They had a big page feature in The Independent; GLR’s breakfast DJs raved about it and gave it lots of play (and years before all this, they’d even had a mention in Touch magazine, courtesy of you-know-who)… but none of that translated into chart success. A shame, because I’d have loved to have seen Toby, Mike & Kev on TOTP. But as those protesting fans have pointed out, aside from doing nada in the UK singles charts, dc Talk were big business elsewhere. So somehow, I don’t think they’re that bothered.

“Wonder Why” by PFR (EMI)

Around the same time that Virgin were failing to chart with dc Talk, EMI were having an equally unsuccesful shot at pitching PFR to unchurched Brits. I didn’t even know this had been released as a single until I came across it in the “cheap to a good home” box at my local record shop. Another great tune the British public missed out on…

From the Y Crate: This Way Up

From the Y Crate, #3:

“Tell Me Why” by THIS WAY UP (Virgin)

After Culture Club imploded in the late 80s, their guitarist Roy Hay teamed up with a singer by the name of Robinson Reid to form the duo This Way Up. They released a few singles, but had nowhere near the success of Roy’s old band. This was the first of theirs that I heard; I happened to see the video for it whilst watching The Chart Show one Saturday morning (ironically, several songs in the Y Crate had their videos featured on The Chart Show; you’d have thought that with a name like that, they’d only show videos of songs that had actually charted). I have a soft spot for any song that drives me to pick up one of my three massively under-played guitars – and for this song in particular, because its simple guitar riff is the first one I taught myself to play.