Birmingham, Saturday 21 September, 8.10pm: My train home leaves in an hour, and I’ve decided to spend my last few minutes in our second city doing a brief review of the film I’ve just been to see in the Midlands Arts Centre. I find myself fired up, having spent an afternoon in a cinema full of very talented, slightly Bohemian people. They included Joel Wilson, director of the short film The Quickener (whose premiere is taking place here) and various members of the cast and crew.
The Quickener is one of those films that would leave people scratching their heads and muttering “Yeah… right” if you tried to explain it to them. It’s set in Medieval times, but the entire dialogue is done in a hip hop style. That’s right – Medieval hip hop. With a poor artisan couple on the run from a loan shark who speaks something akin to Parseltongue (for which he needs one of his heavies to act as his translator), corrupt officials, a power-hungry gangster and a friendly hermit, this is really an urban street movie with chain mail. And bubonic plague…
Joel got the idea for the film from another project he’d been
asked to work on. He’d written an epic poem about a gargoyle being decommissioned, so to speak, having lived on a church wall for about 600 years. Writing about the gargoyle’s last day on the wall, he wondered, What would its first day have been like? Cue a fantasy tale about a poor sculptor and his wife – who, having been commissioned to make the gargoyle, then being told on completion of the job (and a huge debt incurred in the process) their services were no longer required, and that they wouldn’t be getting paid for the job they’d done. It’s only half an hour long, but it’s a very fascinating half hour, full of passion, tension and quite a few dead bodies.
This time last week, I was at Cheltenham Racecourse with a few thousand other folk, taking in (and contributing to) the 40th annual Greenbelt festival. The first one since 1995 or thereabouts that I haven’t attended as a member of the Press (although I was on reporter duty for Surefish and did do some festival coverage for them). This was my fourth year of being involved with Greenbelt as a volunteer, and I’m still learning a lot about the inner workings of this crazy festival I’ve been a devoted fan of since 1990 (as those who’ve seen the interview with me in this year’s festival programme will tell you).
In some ways, ‘#GB40’ (as it’s known on Twitter) was a smaller Greenbelt than usual. Cheltenham Racecourse is in the early stages of major renovation work and parts of it are yet to recover from the almighty flooding that made last year’s Greenbelt so ‘memorable’. As a result, the festival site was shrunk a bit. That, coupled with the fact that some of the regular traders had either gone out of business or stopped doing festivals, meant that a few regulars from previous years – Nuts Cafe, for example – weren’t around this year (it probably also explains why Higgledy Pies ran out of my favourite mash so quickly – but let’s not dwell on that).
But ‘smaller’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘of lesser quality’. And as far as the programme went, Greenbelt delivered goodies a-plenty. Both Extra Curricular and the London Community Gospel Choir were a joy to watch on Mainstage on Saturday (and as the DJ between the Mainstage bands that evening, I was privileged to see both gigs from side stage). Amadou & Miriam were great too – as were those mad folksters Folk On, the Austin Francis Connection (of whom, more later) and the ‘oldies’ who played each afternoon: the Fat Band, Fat & Frantic and Why? (I’m actually wearing my XL dark blue “Giggle, ‘cos it’s fun” T-shirt as I write this; a T-shirt that got completely soaked in cider on Sunday afternoon).
The line-up in the newly relocated Performance Cafe was just as great (not that I’m biased or anything) and included stellar sets from Eska, Eliza Carty, Jacob Lloyd, Daughters of Davis and a poetry showcase curated by Harry Baker.
As far as talks go, I found the short talks in GTV easier to get in to see than some of the others (I took one look at the queue for Vicky Beeching’s talk and knew I wasn’t getting in). I was able to see Sami Awad speak, and enjoyed a talk Catherine Fox gave offering an insight into the novelist’s craft – plus short talks from Andrew Howie, Sara Batts, Cieran O’Reilly, Steve Lawson, Vicky Walker, Jonty Langley and Jim Wallis.
I mentioned the AFC earlier. Their Sunday afternoon Mainstage gig was also their swansong, the band members having decided earlier in the year to disband. I interviewed founder and front man Edi Johnston for Surefish; you can hear an edited audio version of that interview – plus a few of their most popular songs – here.
My other jobs over the weekend included co-hosting a GTV talk show with Chine Mbubeagu, interviewing a few of the Israeli and Palestinian speakers at the festival. I also had another stint DJing at the silent disco in the Big Top on Monday night. I did record the set (mostly world music for the first two hours, plus some soul, some more Latin music, and a couple of what my rival DJ on the night described as “low blows”). The plan was to put that out on Mixcloud, but it appears that the audio file needs some work before I can do that.
Greenbelt, it was a pleasure celebrating your 40th. Life begins; let’s see what life has in store…
I’ve been on the road this past couple of weeks (in fact, I’m in a coach somewhere in Israel as I write this). I don’t get to do as much travel writing as I would like to, so I’m really enjoying this time – and there’ll be a few articles appearing in different places at some point in the near future. This short blog post sprang from an outtake from the diary I’ve been keeping whilst on the road. it’s about something I sometimes find myself having to do from time to time whilst travelling; something I call my ‘black traveller duty’. Let me explain…
Back at home, whenever I meet a Spanish or Latino person, I use the opportunity to practise my Spanish. Something similar happens to me when I travel to certain countries – and judging by stories I’ve heard, a lot of black people have had similar experiences.
‘Urban’ culture is a global phenomenon; no-one can deny that. One side effect of this is that as a black person trekking through foreign climes (especially countries not known for having large black communities), you will, sooner or later, meet a local who wants to ‘practise their Urban’ on you.
I normally don’t get offended when this happens; the people involved mean well and it’s usually light-hearted and certainly not mean-spirited. And anyway it usually amounts to nothing more than a daft handshake – like yesterday in Shef’amer, when I had to fist-bump a young Palestinian man who works in the restaurant I had dinner in. Sometimes, though, it does get a bit weird. In Turkey last week, a market trader in Turgetreis introduced himself to me as AJ – “A to the mother____ing J”.
Ah, well – it’s all good (strangely, no-one’s said that to me yet). And I should remind myself of this next time I meet Alvaro from Cali and want to launch into “Oye, hermano – como te gusta Londres?”
Yesterday I attended Day 1 of the Big Church Day Out – a two-day Christian music festival on the grounds of a stately home situated at the foot of the South Downs, on England’s South Coast.
One of my reasons for going was that Salvador were playing. I’ve interviewed their lead singer Nic Gonzales several times in the past (and also his wife, the singer Jaci Velasquez) and a follow-up interview was, in my mind, long overdue – especially since I’ve now kind of started playing in a Latin band myself…
A few days before I was due to see Salvador, the Internet threw me another good reason to want to speak to them. A certain right-wing commentator had decided to spew some bile on immigrants (again), and had written a column basically claiming that there were “too many Latinos” in the USA (I’m not even going to dignify such nonsense by naming the person or posting links to their writing; I suggest you google ‘too many Latinos’ yourself if you want to know who it is and what he/she/it wrote). And so when it came to my turn to fire a question at Salvador during their press conference, I knew exactly what I was going to ask.
“As a multi-cultural Christian band that plays Latin music, how do you respond when someone says ‘there are too many Latinos in America’?”
Step forward Nic Gonzales and saxophonist Craig Swift:
NIC: “I think that any time people talk about there being ‘too many’ of something, it’s spoken out of frustration. We certainly give grace where we believe grace would be given. People who speak that way have obviously come into a bad encounter with a person of Hispanic culture, or maybe they’re frustrated by something. Any time you’re overwhelmed, or feel like you have a lack of something, you’re looking for someone to blame.
“Being Hispanic is one thing. But being Christians overall, we certainly feel that grace needs to be given. Maybe they just don’t understand. Personally, those comments don’t hurt my feelings because I probably don’t dig into them as much; I kind of live in a bliss that I’m working as hard as I can, and I’m going to do the best that I can by my family and my bandmates. And I think that as long as I do that, I can certainly feel good about who I am and the colour of my skin.”
CRAIG: “As a white person, I think it probably offends me more than it would offend them [cue laughter from the Hispanic band members]. I think Chris (Bevins, the band’s keyboardist) would probably feel the same way. It kinda baffles my mind, the small thinking of some people.
“Being around Latin culture, as a white person I’ve gained a lot. I love how Latin people place such a high priority on family. It’s beautiful to me to see that. Loyalty is another thing I see throguhout the Latin culture. I think that’s something that we all gain a lot from. We all need to put more emphasis on our families. And we all should be loyal friends and loyal husbands and wives and churchgoers. So as a white person, I probably shoulder more offence and am in more of a ‘fight’ mood than these guys.” [cue more laughter]
Oh yeah – I also mentioned to the guys that I’d started playing in a salsa band, and asked if they could offer me some survival tips. Percussionist Alejandro Santoyo offered this advice:
“I would go back and listen to Santana. Listen to the rhythm section that’s going on; it’s very simple. as you start to listen to more salsa music, the montunos get more and more difficult. As far as percussion goes: if you have the rhythm here, and you learn the two different claves, you’re on your way.”
Muchisimas gracias, hermanos. And now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time I got some montuno practise in…
Review: Alexander Abreu y Havana D’Primera
The Electric, Brixton, Friday 12 April
Spring’s finally arrived in London. I know that not because of the weather (heck, it might as well still be winter), but because that delightfully eclectic Latin music festival, La Linea, is here once again. And it kicked off in grand style with one of Cuba’s most popular bands at the moment, Alexander Abreu y Havana D’ Primera, in their debut UK appearance.
I’d come to the Electric tonight mainly to discover an artist I didn’t know. As it turns out, I was already familiar with more of Alexander’s music than I realised. The song ‘Pasaporte’ is a firm favourite at the salsa dance class I frequent most Friday nights, and I had tried several times to find out who the artist responsible for it was, without success (seriously, Shazam – does every salsa track in the world have the title ‘Sorry, We Couldn’t Find a Match for This Music’? But I digress). Long before the band took to the stage, a massive poster up on the stage informed us that this gig was in fact the London leg of Alexander’s ‘Pasaporte Tour 2013’. So now I know, I can go and buy his album. But anyway, back to the gig…
This wasn’t so much a gig as a party – a six hour fiesta with Alexander and his band sandwiched between some of the finest salsa DJs the Big Smoke has to offer. The band took to the stage around 11.15pm. The sound seemed a bit iffy for the first number; nevertheless, the guys gave a stellar performance – tight as anything and with the larger-than-life Alexander proving to be an able ‘hype man’ as well as a good singer. The command “¡Manos pa’arriba!” (hands in the air) was never far from his lips. When they did play ‘Pasaporte’ (which they began with a cheeky nod to Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’) the whole house sang along.
The hour and a bit that Alexander and his band were on stage for came and went a bit too quickly for my liking. But suffice it to say they made a great first impression – and what a way to kick off a festival! After this gig tonight and El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico’s gig last year, the Electric is fast becoming my favourite salsa gig venue in London…
I know I haven’t done one of these for a while. It’s not because I ran out of famous Sierra Leoneans to write about or anything like that; it’s just… [Save the explanations and get on with it, mate]
If you follow the UK charts, then you probably know that Duke Dumont‘s club hit ‘Need U (100%)’ unseated Ant & Dec’s ‘Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble’ from the Number One slot yesterday (7 April). Guest lead vocalist on the song is the rising singer songwriter Aminata “Amy” Kabba, aka A*M*E*. So, who exactly is this young lady who’s helped rescue the charts from the tyranny of PJ & Duncan, I hear you ask?
Well, she was born in Freetown in 1994 – three years after the Sierra Leone civil war started, and three years before it hit Freetown. Her mum was a hairdresser with her own salon; as the war intensified, the salon was burnt down and Amy (then only eight) moved to the safety of the UK.
In her new home, she joined her school choir. From there, she spread her creative wings, linking up with another singer-songwriter, MNEK. One of their collaborations (a song called City Lights) caught the attention of Gary Barlow, who ended up signing her to his label, Future Records.
Last November, the Congolese rapper Baloji paid London a flying visit for a gig at the Village Underground in Shoreditch.
It was a hip hop gig, all right; the swagger and all the other elements that make up a good hip hop act were all present and correct. But it was so much more besides. It was oldies night for African music fans of a certain age; it was a political rally… and it a good old party, with a charismatic host and a very tight band.
I was due to interview Baloji the next day, just before he hopped on a Eurostar train back to Belgium where he lives. Unfortunately, certain wires got crossed somewhere along the line in the booking process, and I ended up having to do the interview in the taxi that took him from his hotel in Whitechapel to St Pancras station where he was catching the train. With London lunchtime traffic, the ride took just under 20 minutes – just about enough time for him to give me the run-down on his music, his acting aspirations, his concerns about his country and his hopes for the future.
Here, for your listening pleasure, are some edited highlights of that interview – plus snippets of tracks from Baloji’s album Kinshasa Succursale. Enjoy.