In Conversation: Watcha Clan

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of hanging out with Sista K, Supreme Clem and Nassim – three members of the Marseille based ‘global fusion’ band Watcha Clan. Their fifth album, Radio Babel, comes out in April and it’s simply the most awesome take-everything-you-can-get-hold-of-and-shake-it-all-about concoction I’ve ever heard; a mix that includes dubstep, drum & bass, rai, and folk music from Europe and the Middle East, underpinned by a strong sense of social justice. The band were as much fun to talk to as their album was to listen to. But don’t just take my word for it; have a listen for yourself…

 

Live review: Baaba Maal presents “In Praise of the Female Voice”

Baaba Maal presents “In Praise of the Female Voice”
Royal Festival Hall, 12 March

The last few Baaba Maal gigs I’ve seen were all collaborative efforts. There was the marathon Africa Express show up in Liverpool, where he rocked out with the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Hard Fi – and following that, a Meltdown show at the Royal festival Hall, at which he shared the stage with long-time collaborator Mansoor Seck and Brit rappers Kano and Bashy. Tonight’s gig was a similar joint effort; this time round Baaba played host to a string of female vocalists from Africa and the UK: Eska, Krystle Warren, Annie Flore Batchiellilys, Speech Debelle and VV Brown.

Baaba has been singing the praises of African women in an honorary feminist style for some time now (as he was the last time I spoke to him), and this gig was, in effect, him taking that further. Sure enough, the track ‘A Song for Women’ (from his last album, Television) had an airing – done as a beautiful duet with VV Brown. But I’m running ahead of myself…

Eska was the first lady to take the stage after Baaba and his band had got things started (actually, the first lady to take the stage was host Andrea Oliver, larger than life and rocking a ‘baldhead’ look as only she can). I’m one person for whom Eska can do no wrong, and she was on brilliant form – both as a vocalist and as a multi-instrumentalist. The first of Eska’s two songs was a reworking of Odyssey’s ‘Inside Out’ (of late, she’s been taking old 70s and 80s disco-pop tunes and reinterpreting them in a quirky jazz style). For her second song, ‘Rock of Ages’, Eska emerged from behind the keyboards and accompanied herself on a violin.

Annie Flore Batchielys was definitely the surprise act of the night – or at least the one with the most unusual entrance. Having been led onstage arm in arm by Baaba, she proceeded to back-track her way out of the band’s little circle, and stayed out of it for nearly all of the song she was supposed to be accompanying Baaba on. When she did start singing, however, she was electrifying. She did a couple of songs on her own while the band took a short break. I didn’t catch all of what she said while she was talking to us (Note to self: might be time to start listening to those French podcasts again), but everyone caught the profuse thanks to Baaba Maal in the closing lines of her last song.

For my money, Krystle Warren was the most intriguing of the other guests, but you kind of got the impression that she’d been added on to the bill at the last minute (especially when she didn’t appear in the grand finale). VV Brown was dignified and elegant while Speech tried to play up to the “rappers are rebellious” stereotype by declaring that she was going to take up more time than she’d been allocated for her set. But there was plenty of love in the house – as the founder of the South Bank’s Women of the World season (of which this gig was a part) discovered when she chatted to Andrea about the advances that have been made by women in the 100 years since the first International Women’s Day was observed. It was only at that point that I realised there was supposed to be a feminist angle to the whole event – but I’m sure I speak for all the blokes in the house when I say that it never felt exclusive or “girls only.”

I left the RFH nodding my head along to the opening track of Annie Nightingale‘s post-gig DJ set. As I stepped out of the venue, I wondered what Kwame Kwei Armah and Paul Gambaccini had to say about their feminist sides, and contemplated coming along on Sunday to hear them speak. In the end, I didn’t.


Famous Sierra Leoneans, #2: Ryan Giggs

The most decorated player in English football history makes it onto our list by virtue of the fact that his paternal grandfather is from Sierra Leone.

Not being a footy expert, I can’t waffle on for hours about Ryan Giggs’ dexterity on the pitch, the mastery of his corner kick, and such like. Fortunately, I do know a few people whose knowledge of football is better than mine. So I’ll let one of them tell you why, in his humble opinion, Giggsy rocks…

http://boos.audioboo.fm/swf/fullsize_player.swf

And there you have it.

Famous Sierra Leoneans, #1: Idris Elba

Known to millions of telly viewers as Stringer Bell in the crime series The Wire, London boy Idris is one of the finest British actors in recent years to find success stateside.

Idrissa Akuna Elba was born in 1972 to a Ghanaian mother and a Sierra Leonean father. His journey from Hackney to Hollywood has seen him appear in Absolutely Fabulous, Family Affairs, Luther, The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the US version of The Office on telly, and a long string of films that includes 28 Weeks Later, American Gangster and Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla. Off screen, he’s also a pretty nifty DJ. spinning tunes under the nom de turntable DJ Big Driis.

Look out for Idris this summer, playing the role of Heimdal in the film version of Marvel Comics’ Thor.

Famous Sierra Leoneans: Intro

Sierra Leone – my tiny corner of the west coast of Africa – celebrates 50 years of independence on the 27th of April this year.

It’s been a not uneventful half-century; there have been some bad times and some truly horrendous times. But Sierra Leoneans are survivors if nothing else – and as my way of celebrating all of us, I’m going to attempt to chronicle the contribution that Sierra Leonean people have made to the world around us. Trust me, we’ve given more to the world than just dodgy diamonds…

Perhaps I should qualify how I define ‘Sierra Leonean’ in this series of blog posts. It’s anyone who has at least one parent (or grandparent) who’s Sierra Leonean. Some may have been born there; some may have lived there for a while (many of them probably haven’t), but as long as they can legitimately claim Sierra Leonean descent, they’re in (we’re a very welcoming and inclusive bunch, us Sierra Leoneans).

So join me as I pay tribute to some fine upstanding people of the past and present – a few of the many bright sparks that hail from this great land (Well, maybe not great in size. But you get what I mean).

This series of blog posts was partly inspired by this website.

Greenbelt 2010: Why I’m Excited…

And we’re off…

The 09:48 1st Great Western to Cheltenham Spa has just pulled out of Paddington. In about two and a half hours’ time, I should be searching for a nice accessible spot on Cheltenham Racecourse on which to pitch a tent. I’m still pondering whether to go and socialise or just lie in it and sleep once it’s up.

The tent will be home for the next few days while I’m at the Greenbelt festival. I hadn’t realised it before, but this is actually my 20th Greenbelt! All of a sudden, my DJ set tomorrow evening has a whole new meaning.

It’s been an interesting 20 years – in which I’ve gone from being the unsure rookie punter whose borrowed tent fell in on him on his first night in it, to a virtual resident of the press room. These days, I even get to inflict my choice of music on the other punters! Nice…

There’s a lot I love about Greenbelt. Back at the start of the 90s (and the start of me dabbling in this writing thingy), the writing workshops held at Greenbelt’s London HQ were key to my early development as a writer (thanks a lot to guys like Dave Roberts and Martin Wroe, who used to share their insights and expertise with us). The more I went, the more I realised there was more to Greenbelt than music. I’ve discovered an array of writers and thinkers (Caesar Molebatsi, Robert Beckford, Jim Wallis, Phillip Yancey and the late Mike Yaconelli, to name a few), and made lots of friends through my annual pilgrimage to Cheltenham (and to Castle Ashby and Deene Park before that). And of course, I’ve heard more great bands and singers than I care to remember.

On the Greenbelt blog (see my blogroll), there’s a series of “Why I’m Excited” posts, in which people associated with the festival have been talking about what (or who) they’re looking forward to the most. Here’s my “Why I’m Excited” list:

Jars of Clay are playing! So too are Brownmusic, Gil Scott-Heron, Ty, Beverley Knight, Foy Vance, Courtney Pine and Greenjade. Just a few of the acts I don’t want to miss.

They’re screening Africa United on Sunday afternoon (check back here for a review soon after).

A couple of ‘must go’ workshops and panel discussions – including one on storytelling and one on the relationship between music and activism.

The comedy line-up’s brilliant: I have to see Jude Simpson, Milton Jones and Andy Kind (he’s recently been featured on Channel 4’s 4thought.tv – top bloke).

And did I mention that I was Djing? 7Pm on Saturday in the Blue Nun wine bar. Drop by just before Shed Seven on Mainstage…

AFRICA OYE 2010

Man, this year has flown past. I can’t believe it’s been a whole 12 months since I made my now annual trip up to Liverpool for the Africa Oyé festival. But it has – and I’ve just enjoyed a brilliant day in the sun with a field full of friendly Liverpudlians and some awesome music acts.

Africa Oyé’s definition of what constitutes African culture and music remains as broad as it’s always been. Not that I’m complaining; the range is great, and it gets people in. Haiti featured quite heavily this year, represented by the folkloric stylings of Ti Coca, and Saturday’s headliners, the upfront Boukman Eksperyans.

I landed at Sefton Park just before 1pm. No sooner had I introduced myself at Event Control and picked up my press pass when I bumped into Maya, the friend I’d made at last year’s festival, together with her Irish radio DJ friend and his wife. Last year, he’d been unable to come, and Maya had borrowed my equipment to record interviews for him. Friendly hugs and handshakes all round, and then we headed out into the main area to see the stalls and see the first act on the bill.

The Cuban band To’Mezclao were the opening act. Unfortunately, their set was plagued with technical hitches; they barely made it through their first song when the power cut out. And again. And again (this time, during their second song). And yet again. Still, you have to commend them on their professionalism. The hitches didn’t faze them, and when the power problem was sorted for good, they delivered a fantastic set which spanned salsa, merengue, cumbia, reggaeton and more.

I saw a good chunk of To’ Mezclao’s set before retreating to the Hospitality tent with Maya and her friends, for an in-depth interview with the lead singer of Boukman Eksperyans. He talked about everything – Haiti’s history, the sore relationship between politicians and musicians there, rebuilding after the earthquake, all the things Irish mythology and Haitian tradition have in common, and his disgust at Monsanto’s “evil seeds” being planted in his country. I left the interview feeling somewhat educated, I don’t mind saying…

The Guinean band Les Espoirs de Coronthie were on next, and gave a dazzling display of kora playing, a nice fusion of bluesy guitar and ‘Cookie Monster’ style ragga vocals. Ti Coca and his group Wanga Nègès were mellow and easy-going. I particularly enjoyed their cover of ‘Bobine’ – a song I was introduced to by Ska Cubano (now that’s a band I’d love to see play here!). Halfway through their set, I nipped back into Hospitality and interviewed To’ Mezclao’s DJ, who talked about everything from younger Cubans’ approach to their musical heritage, through to what effect Barack Obama’s easing of restrictions on Cuba has had on the music coming from there. I kind of got the impression he wasn’t in any hurry to move to Miami…

After saying goodbye to Maya and her friends (who had to leave early to meet some other people), I caught some of Victor Démé’s gig. I was completely blown away by Victor’s guitarist. He looked rather unassuming when you first saw him… and then he’d pick up his white Stratocaster and suddenly turn into Slash Clapton. The moment Victor came offstage, I made a beeline for his tent and got a copy of his latest CD off his tour manager. After he’d rested a bit, we did a press conference-style interview together with some radio people from Manchester, and their French translator.

I’d first come across Victor’s music a couple of years ago, when he’d released his debut album at the age of 46 (or 47, depending on which magazines you read). I wanted to know if other late starters saw him as an inspiration for having started recording at that age (especially given that anything over 24 is considered ancient in pop star years).

“Yes!” was his short answer. “Young people do too,” he continued. “What a lot of them say to me is, ‘If you can do it at your age, then we can do it too.’ But one thing I do tell young people is not to be fooled into thinking that they have all the time in the world to do the stuff they want to do and achieve. Imagine that you’re already late, and act with that urgency.”

With the Victor interview done, I was free to enjoy some of Boukman Eksperyans’ storming set before heading back to my B&B with one of those legendary Liverpool-sized Chinese takeaways. Sadly, I couldn’t stay for the whole weekend due to work commitments (and trust me, that is not a complaint!). But I’m more than positive that Andrew Tosh (son of Peter), the Rasites, Carlou D (whom I’ll be seeing perform live on Tuesday) and les Freres Guissé will be every bit as entertaining as the line-up I did see were… and that To’ Mezclao will make it through their set without any hiccups.

Liverpool, see you in June ’11…

Live Review: Tamikrest & Dirtmusic

Tamikrest & Dirtmusic
The Borderline, London, 18 May

I’d been sold on the idea of seeing Tamikrest and Dirtmusic perform together ever since the moment I first popped the DVD that came with Dirtmusic’s BKO album into my DVD player and got to see some of their Malian odyssey.

On paper it looks like a mix that shouldn’t work. Here we have a band made up of one Australian and two Americans teaming up with a band of Tuareg musicians – a minority in their home country of Mali. But somehow Dirtmusic and Tamikrest have found a kindred spirit in each other – one that has produced some awesomely beautiful music.

Dirtmusic’s new album takes its name from the airport code for Bamako airport in Mali, where it was recorded. The gig itself was kind of a musical game of tag. Dirtmusic would play a few songs, then Tamikrest would play a few, and then the two bands would either jam en masse or in some permutation or other. Tamikrest’s percussionist, Aghaly Ag Mohamedine, provided a solid groove on his djembe all throughout. Fatma Walett Cheikh (Tamikrest’s backing vocalist, and the only female on stage) added haunting melodies to some of the songs. Hugo Race (Dirtmusic’s lead vocalist) MC-ed the whole glorious mess with style.

It was an amazing gig – and apparently I’m not the only person who found the combination of acts intriguing. The Borderline was packed. A handful of young Tuareg men stood right in front row of the audience waving flags. ‘Black Gravity’ (from Dirtmusic’s album) received a particularly warm reception from the crowd. So too did ‘Ready for the Sign’ and their Velvet Underground cover ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’. The music was raw, earthy, gutsy… and simply beautiful.

As I write this, both bands are together on a ‘night liner’ bus, touring Europe via road. Here’s hoping the bus swings round this way again soon.

Set list:

  • Other side (Dirtmusic + Aghaly)
  • Collisions (Dirtmusic+ Aghaly)
  • Still running (Dirtmusic+ Aghaly+ Ousmane)
  • Amiditin (Tamikrest)
  • Alhorya (Tamikrest)
  • Adounia (Tamikrest)
  • Outamachek (Tamikrest + Hugo)
  • Black gravity (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest)
  • Ready for the sign (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest)
  • All tomorrows parties (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest)
  • Desert wind (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest)
  • Unknowable (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest/Mossa)
  • Toumastin (Ousmane, Chris Eckman & Chris Brokaw)
  • Aicha (Tamikrest/Dirtmusic)
  • Tidite Tille (Tamikrest/Dirtmusic)
  • Tamiditin (Tamikrest/Dirtmusic)
  • Lives we live (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest)
  • Adagh (Tamikrest/Dirtmusic)
  • Smoking bowl (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest)
  • Tahoult (Tamikrest/Dirtmusic)

Tamikrest:
Ousmane Ag Mossa – lead vocals , lead guitar
Aghaly Ag Mohamedine – Djembe
Cheikh Ag Tiglia  – bass, vocals
Fatma Walett Cheikh   –  backing vocals
Mossa Ag Borreiba – rhythm guitar,  vocals

Dirtmusic:
Chris Eckman – vocals, organ
Chris Brokaw – vocals, guitar, drums, slide banjo, maracas
Hugo Race – vocals, guitar

Live Review: The Creole Choir of Cuba

The Creole Choir of Cuba
Monday 17 May
Wilton’s Music Hall, London E1

While introducing the choir, our MC John Simpson remarked that the venue we were in had a ‘Cuban’ feel to it. He wasn’t wrong; Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s East End is the oldest surviving Music Hall in the world, and it does give the impression that it could fall down at any time (“carefully neglected”, as one audience member put it). Looking as old as it did, you were reminded of those crumbling concert halls and old nightclubs that always crop up in films set in Cuba. The choir fitted in perfectly.

The machinery working to bring the Creole Choir of Cuba to an international audience has been grinding away for over a year now – ever since Simpson and his production team discovered them singing during a trip to Havana, and got them booked for last year’s WOMAD and Edinburgh festivals. The choir’s real name is ‘Desandann’ (descendants) and it’s made up of the descendants of Haitians who have emigrated to Cuba over centuries. Through song, they have preserved aspects of Haitian culture that are hard to come by these days – even in Haiti itself. The choir are now as identified with Haiti as they are with Cuba – which has resulted in their being at the forefront of Cuba’s contribution to the ongoing disaster relief effort in Haiti. Call it divine providence or just being in the right place at the right time; either way you can’t deny how very timely it is.

Armed with just their voices, two congas and a variety of shakey things, Desandann had us all in their grip for the best part of an hour. In that time, we scanned the emotional spectrum – all the way from pathos and melancholy through to elation and sheer joy. They treated us to laments, upbeat merengues and Haitian folk songs, all with a heavy dose of Africa running through. We clapped; some of us even danced. As the choir sang their last song, they walked down the aisle, dispensing hugs and handshakes to the audience as they disappeared one by one into a door in the back of the auditorium, leaving us clamouring for more.

After their WOMAD appearance last year, the choir recorded an album at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios. It’s due for release in four months’ time and I’ve heard some of the tracks. Get it – that’s all I’m saying.

2009: My Year in Music

And what a year it’s been!

My gigs of the year:

Delirious’ last ever gig (HMV Apollo, Hammersmith, November)
Staff Benda Bilili (Barbican, October)
Chic (HMV Forum, September)
Daby Touré at Africa Oyé (Sefton Park, Liverpool, June)
Shlomo and the Vocal Orchestra (Greenbelt Festival Mainstage, August)
Monica Giraldo (Magic Mirrors, Cannes, January)
Speed Caravan (Jongleurs, Camden, October)
Afrobeat Vibration with Dele Sosimi & friends (Empowering Church, London, several months in the year)

My favourite new discoveries of the year:

Sonnyboy: An unassuming, multi-talented soul singer I met in Cannes. His song ‘Josephine Brown’ has kind of been played to death at my home since then – both the mellow soul original and the housey ‘Psycho remix’.
Ndidi Onlukwulu: Another Cannes discovery; a Canadian singer who sits somewhere between Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey-Rae.
Charlie Winston: Met him in Cannes too. He’s English, but has been a lot bigger over in France this past couple of years. Landed himself a deal with RealWorld after babysitting for Peter Gabriel (true story!).
The Apples: I met this lot at Greenbelt, where I was their host for a couple of seminars they did. An awesome nine-piece funk band from Israel with no guitars or keyboards, just two turntables and loads of horns.
Muntu Valdo: This Cameroonian singer-songwriter is a great example of how digital looping technology has revolutionised live acoustic music. Shut your eyes, and you’d think he had a 10-piece band (and at least five backing singers) on stage with him!
Freshly Ground: I was introduced to this lot by friends who’d either been to South Africa and seen them, or had discovered them via Youtube. Brilliantly quirky; great fun; all-round brilliant band.

My favourite albums of the year:

MaxwellBLACKsummer’snight: Yay! Maxwell’s back! He may have lost his trademark Afro, but the angelic voice is still there – and that’s what counts. ‘Pretty Wings’ is soul at its finest.
PortlandThese Broken Hands: Soothing, thoughtful, sublime… just a few of the nice adjectives I’ve thrown at this album since I first heard it. Ideal late-night listening from the Midlands-based band.
Staff Benda BililiTres Tres Fort: From living rough on the streets of Kinshasa to capturing the hearts of World Music fans everywhere, 2009 has been a fantastic year for “Africa’s #1 disabled band”, and 2010 is set to be even bigger. Wait till the film’s released; the whole world will be chanting “Giruppa! Giruppa! Giruppa! Sexamachine!”
Jars of Claythe Long Fall Back to Earth: This is fast becoming my all-time favourite Jars album – especially the tracks ‘Scenic Route’, ‘Weapons’ and ‘Boys (Lesson One)’.
Van HuntUse in Case of Emergency: Seriously classy soul from the über-talented (and still criminally underrated) American singer.
And a special mention for: DJ Because’s Audio Sensei (not so much a ‘mixtape’ compilation as a compelling audio collage) and Sara Watkins’ self-tiled album (‘alt-country’ set, produced by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones). Poles apart musically, but both absolutely brilliant.

Tragedy of the Year: Losing Michael Jackson. End of.

My “sometimes I’m just too sarcastic for my own good” moment of 2009: The time I posted a daft comment on Facebook, insinuating that Mika had had a sex change and was now Lady Gaga… only to receive several shocked emails asking if it was true.

‘Twas the Year of the Skank: It seemed as if everybody was inventing daft dances and making songs up to go with them. My personal favourites (including a couple from 2008) were: the oh-so-ironic ‘Stupid Skank’, Skepta’s ‘Rolex Sweep’, ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees & Toes’, and Guvna B’s ‘Kingdom Skank’.

Most Pointless Musical Campaign of the Year: The anti-Cowell “RATM for Christmas number 1” thing. Yeah, let’s show that Sony executive how much we hate him… by buying a Sony song! If this is what passes for “revolution” in the 21st Century, God help us…

… and in the “If I never hear this crap again, it will be too soon” category:

Jazmine Sullivan’s ‘I’m in love with another man’: Yes, I know I’m not in the target audience for this song. But imagine the uproar if some man had sung a song that basically said, “Look, girl – we’ve been together for a while and you’ve never been unfaithful to me. But here’s the thing: I’m dumping you for someone else. No reason; I just am.” Sick, isn’t it? (and not in the way ‘da kidz’ use the word ‘sick’ these days). It made me long for Eamon’s charm and subtlety (now there’s something I never thought I’d hear myself say).