“#09 Memories”

About a week ago, “#09memories” was a ‘trending’ topic on Twitter. I’ve never really done the ‘recap of the year’ thing that much in the past (as much as I do like reading other people’s), but found myself spending the best part of an evening sharing my memories and reading those of others. It seemed a bit of a shame just to let one audience see them in short bursts, so I compiled them into a list to post here – expanding on a few where I felt the 140-character limit didn’t really let me say what I wanted to.

So in no particular order (well, maybe slightly chronological, but only just; actually more emotional than chronological), here are some of my standout memories – both great and not-so-great – from 2009:

• Meeting the adopted little sister I never knew I had for the first time.

• The whole Celebration fam going to Hereford and spending a day with Cynthia, barely three months before she passed away.

• Doing the last DJ slot in the Blue Nun wine bar at the Greenbelt festival.

• Going to MIDEM for the first time in 14 years, and discovering great music from Sonnyboy, Ndidi Onukwulu, Yom, Monica Giraldo & Charlie Winston. Also seeing Duke Special in concert, and celebrating Barack Obama’s inauguration with members of the American Association of Independent Music. MIDEM has a reputation for being all about the business and not so much about the music. But it is possible to find decent music there, if you look hard enough.

• Discovering London’s coolestest venue, the Shunt Lounge… only for it to close 10 months later.

• The Operation Christmas Child trip to Swaziland – and the delighted screams of the kids as they opened their shoeboxes.

• Arriving in Jo’burg airport en route to Swaziland; hearing ‘Viva la Vida’ on the PA system and thinking, “Coldplay? This can’t be Africa.”

• Giving career advice to the Swazi schoolgirl who told me she wanted to be a journalist when she grew up.

• The loud cheer that erupted in our minibus as we drove into Mbabne (the Swazi capital) and saw a branch of Nandos.

• My first lunch in India: Domino’s Pizza!

• Painting and decorating the community centre in a Delhi slum; logging on to the internet and wondering who this Susan Boyle woman was, and why so many of my Facebook friends had become fans of hers.

• Riding an elephant up to the Amber Palace in Jaipur.

• Visiting the Taj Mahal – and not really believing our tour guide’s story about how he’d told Danny Boyle off because “that scene in Slumdog Millionaire made Indian tour guides look bad.”

• Being mistaken for Ice Cube by some of the kids in the slum where we were working.

• A pimp in Nashville offering me girls an’ ting. That’s the last time I stay in a Motel 6!

• Driving a van in Atlanta with no satnav, and introducing my passenger (my 11-yr-old niece) to the world of Bill & Ted and their “be excellent to each other” philosophy.

• Lou at the Bridge Bar in Beckenham.

• Several trips to Paris, during which the Starbucks on Boulevard St Germain became my office away from home.

• Curling up in bed ready for a good night’s kip, then receiving a txt msg saying Michael Jackson had just died…

• … and then receiving another text from the same person two hours later, informing me that Farrah Fawcett had also died (at which point, I responded with “You’re really the herald of good tidings tonight, aren’t you?”).

• Being asked to talk about MJ on Radio 4…

• … then receiving another phone call from Radio 4 a few hours later (after I’d prepared what I was going to say), saying they’d found someone else to do it.

• Discovering a new way to watch TV: reading your friends’ sarky status updates and/or tweets about the show while it’s on. Sometimes you didn’t even need to watch the show in question; the running commentary told you everything you needed to know!

• Jedward, Kandy Rain, Mr. “I don’t know how to spell Daniel properly”, Afro Boy and La Gordita in Miss Frank.

• Cave Austin Girl.

• One of the deepest films ever (Downfall) being turned into a series of often sick “Hitler reacts to…” jokes on Youtube.

• Dizzee Rascal losing what little respect I had left for him with asinine comments about the preparations for the 2012 Olympics.

• The realisation that people actually read my blog!

• My big ‘fanboy’ moment: shaking Nile Rodgers’ hand at Chic’s gig at the Forum (I now use his plectrums to play my guitars – when I can be bothered, that is. I must do more of that – and more seriously – in 2010).

• Watching Baaba Maal, Kano & Bashy soundcheck from side stage at the Royal Festival Hall.

Daby, the 'vibe man'

• Africa Oyé in Liverpool. Meeting and working with Maya; ‘vibing’ with Daby Touré (pictured) and doing the most hilarious interview I’ve ever done (with an extremely well-dressed artist who will remain nameless).

• The last ever Delirious? gig – and meeting Mr. Tommy Sims at the after-party.

• “What would we do? Usually drink; usually dance; usually bubble.” (Yeah, I know; I discovered it in ’09).

• Seeing people’s nastier sides come out after certain celebrity deaths. Not nice at all.

• Vampires. Vampires everywhere.

• My first ever purchase of a Hed Kandi CD… oh, wait – that was in ’08. In a Zavvi shop, just before they all closed. My last ever purchase from a Woolworth’s, and my last ever visit to a Border’s bookshop.

• Shelley Ryan.

‘Happy Thingymas’

Since I’m writing about a religious topic here, I think I ought to start with a confession.

I may be a God-botherer, but I’m also a pragmatist. If I’m miles away from home and it’s cold, wet and dark outside, I don’t care what’s written on the side of the first bus that comes along; I’m taking it. And that’s exactly what I did one Saturday night/Sunday morning last winter, after an awesome Dele Sosimi gig in east London: I (whisper it) rode home on one of those ‘atheist’ buses several Christian Facebook groups were urging me to boycott at the time.

The “there’s probably no God; now go and get plastered” (or whatever it said) bus ad campaign is now just a vague memory for most of us. But a follow-up to it has been launched to coincide with the festive season… and so it was that a few days ago, I found myself in Foyle’s bookshop in central London, for the launch of a book titled the Atheist’s Guide to Christmas.

Ariane Sherine (the journalist/comedy writer who devised the bus ad and edited the book) was host for the event, along with guests Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, David Baddiel and Derren Brown – four of the book’s 42 co-authors – who read the essays they’d contributed to it. Apart from acquiring a new spiritual dilemma for myself (will I go to hell because I think Ariane Sherine is hot? I’m sure me fancying her is what my team calls “being unequally yoked”), I found the evening simultaneously thought provoking, amusing, and in places deeply tragic.

The thing that stuck out most for me was how similar atheism is to the religions it is so opposed to. Guess what? Atheists argue over dogma and doctrine just like Catholics and Protestants, Sunnis and Ahmadis, or Orthodox and Reform Jews do. Boy, do they! During the Q&A session that followed the readings; in the lift; on the street walking to the Tube station… Even more interestingly, even in a roomful of people generally disposed to believing that faith is irrational, there were a fewwho were brave enough to admit that there were some mysteries cold, rational thinking could not sufficiently explain.

It’s been said that the ‘New Atheists’ (is that the same as ‘New Labour’ or “new Windows operating system”?) are every bit as intolerant in their atheism as religious fundies are in whatever religion they subscribe to. They certainly have an equal amount of smugness about it, that’s for sure. I mean, what’s the difference between David Baddiel’s blanket statement that people who profess a faith are “all wrong” and the ranty Imam who labels all non-Muslims “infidels”?

Derren Brown made a passionate argument for people to be kind to those around them – not just at Christmas, but all year round. The advantage atheists had over religious people, he said, is that religious people did good deeds because they expected a “reward from God” whereas atheists didn’t have any such carrots to motivate them, and so had purer motives for the acts of kindness they did. Sounded good at first – but then he had to go and spoil it by mentioning the “benefits of kindness”… and it was then that you realised that he was basically preaching Karma without the Buddhism. Derren, you say “benefits” and I say “rewards from God”. Tomayto, tomato…

Having said that, some of the contributions made me wonder whether religion (Christianity in my case) wasn’t partly to blame for people’s unbelief – and no, I’m not referring to that lame joke about Dawkins being the second biggest cause of atheism in Britain after Cliff Richard (and on the subject of lame jokes: Richard Dawkins, stick to science and leave comedy writing to the experts. That Jeeves & Wooster skit was terrible). I found myself feeling for Derren Brown when he said he’d been a Christian for many years, but had packed it in because he’d found himself unable to defend his faith intellectually as he had wanted to. The un-intellectual (sometimes anti-intellectual) streak I find in some Christian circles bothers me too, but I’ve stuck with it. I even found myself agreeing with something Richard Dawkins said: that Jesus taking the punishment for sins he hadn’t committed himself “just doesn’t add up.” It doesn’t – but then, forgiveness and love (and the things people do for them) have never “added up”.

On the other hand, I found AC Grayling’s claim that “once you’ve achieved a few major things in your life, you have less of a need for a God figure” seriously lacking. Four years ago, I met Dr Charles H Townes. For anyone who doesn’t know who he is, Charles Townes is a Nobel Prize-winning American scientist, credited with the discovery and development of the laser. In the 80s (at the height of that USA vs. Russia who-can-wee-the-highest contest we called the Cold War), he helped persuade then President Ronald Reagan not to flood the planet with strategic nuclear weapons, as he was being advised to. Those are pretty big achievements by anyone’s standards, yet Dr Townes had an active Christian faith – a faith he still holds on to now, well into his 90s. And let’s not forget Desmond Tutu, who’s still a bishop in spite of his Nobel Peace Prize and other accolades. Maybe “achievement” is just relative…

I received quite a few responses when I reviewed the launch for a Christian magazine. Many of them were positive (and that’s always good to have), but a lot of them simply parroted the usual cliché responses Christians come out with whenever stuff of this nature is discussed: “They would never say things like this about Mohammed”, “Why do they hate Christianity so much?” – you know, the usual…

Here’s the thing (at least, “the thing” as I see it). This martyr mentality isn’t doing Christianity any good, and statements like that only serve to prove that we’re a bit too self-absorbed and not really listening to what’s going on around us. The so-called ‘militant atheists’ aren’t singling Christianity out; they’re opposed to ALL religions. So yes, they do say ‘things like this’ about Mohammed. And about Vishnu. And G_d. And Shiva, The Force and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Enough with the whining already – and can we please have one Christmas without any complaints about shopping malls not having Christmas trees, or someone resurrecting that urban myth about some council somewhere trying to change the holiday’s name to ‘Winterval’? (It’s not true. I’ve checked). This whiny victim mentality does nobody any good; it just trivialises the very real persecution Christians face in places such as Sudan, Eritrea, Burma, North Korea and Turkmenistan.

Happy Christmas, whoever you believe in (or don’t)…

Bassekou Kouyate: Proud Fula Speaker

bassekouispeakfulaI Speak Fula is the name of the new album from Malian ngoni player and singer Bassekou Kouyate; the follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2007 debut, Segu Blue. I caught up with Bassekou while he was in London on a brief promo trip last week, and threw a few questions at him.

These days, it seems that if you’re into African music in any way, you’re inundated with artists from Mali. What is it about your country that’s made it so prominent musically overseas?

Bassekou: Well, Mali is a very rich country musically because it’s a multi-ethnic country, and every group has their own music. The Bambara, the Malinke, the Sarakole, so many others… each has their own music. It’s from that rich cultural heritage that we take our inspiration. That’s one of the factors that have made Mali such a rich country musically. And because our parents and ancestors have put in a lot of work, we haven’t even exploited everything yet.

So there’s more to come, then?

There is indeed! For example, on this album, I have called an elder musician, Dramane Ze Konate, who plays an instrument called an mpolon. He played it at Mali’s independence in 1960 for Modibo Keïta, our first president. He came and played that same instrument on the album so that people can hear it and discover it. It’s not an instrument that’s well known.

As far as your own musical journey goes, how did it all begin?

When I was young, grew up with my father, Moustapha Kouyate, who was a great ngoni player, and my mother Yakare Damba, who was a great singer. My father would give ngoni lessons to his children, and the girls would learn to sing as my mother did. There were many students in that group. I found playing the ngoni very easy, so I was easily bored because some of the other students were having a hard time learning how to repeat and repeat and repeat. So I lost interest and went off to play football.

One day at home, I was sitting in my room, just playing all the ngoni lessons we had learnt off by heart – all alone in my room. My father heard that and knocked on my door. He asked, ‘What are you playing? Are you by yourself?’ I said ‘yes.’ And he said, ‘As a child, you mustn’t sit in a dark room and play ngoni by yourself. Come outside.’ He said to my mother, ‘Don’t force him to play the ngoni anymore. There’s no point being angry; I can already tell that this child will be a great ngoni player one day.’

How do your own albums fit into this master plan to expose Mali music to the world?

I started with my debut album, Segu Blue – which I did so that people would know about the ngoni, and know about my region. Usually, when people think about the music of Africa, they associate it with the kora and the drums. I wanted to let people know that the ngoni exists, and that it was around even before the birth of Christ. It’s a very old instrument that was used in our region only, and I wanted to bring it out, so that people would know about it – and about my region… and to get to know Bassekou as well.

The story behind the title track is that in Mali, we have many ethnic groups; it’s a very multi-ethnic country. The song is the story of a young Bamana man who falls in love with a Peul (Fula) woman. One day, he called her over and said, ‘Really, I find you very beautiful.’ She said, ‘What? You find me beautiful? But you’re Bamana and I’m Peul!’ He replied, ‘But if you come with me to my room, you’ll find out that I speak Peul!’ basically, the title is a way of saying no to racism and making differences between peoples.

You also get a bit political on the album – mainly on the song ‘Jamana be Diya’…

That song isn’t really about politics in a strict sense, but it’s more about unity and peace. When there’s a war, innocents die; people get angry… it’s better to have unity and peace. We mention Barack Obama in the song, because people in the USA united behind him to let him become President – and he’s a black man as well. This song’s a way to say that democracy can be a good system.

There are also some very personal songs on the album – both very happy and very sad. On the sad end, there’s ‘Saro’…

Yes. Saro is my brother. There are five boys in my family – same mother, same father – and Saro was my youngest brother. He was always helping me a lot. When people came to record – for example, when Lucy Duran and Jerry Boys came to Mali to produce the album – he would bring them; take them to their hotel, run errands if they needed something from the market. He would drive, pick people up… he helped with so many things. And he never asked for anything in return.

One day, he was getting a camera for somebody. On the way back, he was hit by a car. He fell on his head and was bleeding, but instead of calling for an ambulance, the people who saw it went and picked his pockets, took his cell phone and left him there. It was only much later, after he’d lost a lot of blood that someone called for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. He was taken there; he had my card on him and also those of other family members, but no one called us. He died in the hospital and was taken to the morgue. Still nobody called us. All his cards were taken away and he was left there.

In the meantime, back at home everyone was wondering what had happened to him and why he hadn’t come back. He’d never done something like this before. Back at home, they’d left him some tea, some chicken… all the food was still there, untouched. Even t he television was still on. So we went looking for him. We went everywhere – the Police station, the hospital… in the hospital, some people said that he’d been there, but they couldn’t tell us anything. Maybe he wasn’t very ill; maybe he’s left – we don’t know where he is. So we continued searching until we found him at the morgue.

I just wanted to write a song – partly as a homage, and to thank him. At the same time, I wanted to use the song to let people know to wear helmets, and also to say to people that when someone has an accident, call the ambulance immediately – don’t pick the victim’s pocket! I don’t want this to happen to somebody else. I’ve also set up a foundation to let young people and children know how to act in these circumstances. It’s called the Saro foundation.

And on a happier note, there’s a song for your wife.

Yeah, Amy! (Amy Sacko) She’s a very kind, very beautiful woman. She’s supported me all this time, and has given me many children. We’ve never had any problems since we started living together. So the song is just to thank her, because she’s a kind, intelligent woman, beautiful and with a good heart.

Greenbelt ’09: Day 4

So far, I haven’t had much luck with getting to see any of the talks or workshops (with the exception of the one I hosted, of course), so my aim for today was to see at least two.

My first one was Robert Beckford’s Live Aid vs. Dead Aid session in the Centaur. A very thought-provoking presentation in which Robert compared and contrasted two opposing views on aid to Africa. On one hand, you had Dambisa Moyo – author of the book Dead Aid, who argues that all aid corrupts, and that hardcore capitalism is the real solution for Africa (because we all know the credit crunch is just a blip, right? Sorry). Then there’s Bono, putting the case forward for humanitarian help and for the aid that is given to be targeted better and with more transparency to weed out any corruption. Robert himself seemed to be looking for a third option, drawing on the strengths of both sides, rather than be polarised. A very interesting talk – that is, once I’d got over the fact that he’d cut his dreadlocks off…

My second session with the Apples was titled Tracing the History of Funk. This time round, I just introduced the band (after an impromptu jam) and they took it from there. Four band members, including Ofer (one of the DJs) and the drummer, who did most of the talking. Starting with pre-slavery West Africa, he took a sample drum rhythm from Ghana and showed how it cropped up in different forms within Salsa, Brazilian Samba and Bossa Nova, New Orleans marching band music, Bebop, Jazz, and finally funk (or to be more precise, James Brown in the late 60s). The audience was full of funk fans aged from 10 to 50-plus, all with a deep love for the music. When the session ended at 3.00pm, the band literally ordered us to go and see the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who were just about to start their Mainstage set.

I also managed to see the Women in Music panel discussion, led by Pippa Wragg – another member of Greenbelt’s music group. I even got to make a comment!

The Press Room closed at 6.00pm, and I decided that for my last few reviews, I’d just go and see stuff I wanted to see. That included Foy Vance (who’d played the Big Top earlier in the weekend, but ‘d missed it), Sister Jones and Brian Temba. And Athlete, of course (or what little would be left of their gig by the time my DJ set had finished). The Welcome Wagon seemed promising, too.

Sister Jones had started their set when I arrived at the Performance Café. Got a big hug from Brian, who was due on next. Both sets were brilliant – and then I finally got to meet Steve Campbell (their producer) for the first time, having communicated with him via email for several years.

After Brian’s & Sister Jones’ gig, I headed for the Blue Nun for my go at Djing. The delightful DJ Ayo was on before me, playing some nice House music – so for continuity’s sake, I started my set with a house tune from Ghana – an Afroganic track. Followed that with a jazz groove thing from Spha Bembe, and then with Max de Castro’s tale about a samba dancer’s wardrobe malfunction.

Predictably, there was a mass exodus around 9.25 when Athlete were due to start on mainstage, but I was determined to enjoy my time on the decks. This was also around the time that I noticed the note next to the decks with the venue’s music policy written on it: “Keep it mellow. The Blue Nun is not a banging dance venue!” Oops, too late – by then we’d already done Soca, Kuduro and Samba/D&B! Stuck with mellower stuff for the rest of the set, then caught what was left of both the Athlete and Foy Vance gigs. Caught up with Steve, Brian and the Sister Jones ladies again, and saw them off as they headed home. Then one final Last Orders (at which I did get to see Athlete) before bed.

And that was it – one of my best Greenbelts ever. Still wish I’d seen 100 Philistine Foreskins play, though…

Greenbelt ’09: My DJ Playlist

These are the tunes I played during my DJ slot in the Blue Nun wine bar on Monday night:

  1. Emagbo – Afroganic
  2. Lobhalaza – Siphamandia ‘Spha’ Bembe
  3. A Historia… – Max de Castro
  4. Adouma – Angelique Kidjo
  5. A Minha Fantasia (It Ain’t Over) – So Pra Contrariar
  6. Isto e Kuduro – Frederic Galliano Kuduro Sound System featuring Zoca Zoca
  7. Can’t Stop – Greenjade & MV
  8. I Sing – Victizzle
  9. En Mi Puertorro – Andy Montañez feat. Voltio
  10. Levanto Tu Nombre – Waldo Badel & Orquesta Horeb Internacional
  11. Josephine Brown – Sonnyboy
  12. Travelling On – Sam Payne
  13. Welcome – Isaiah Katumwa
  14. Picking Up Where We Left Off – James Taylor’s 4th Dimension
  15. Righteous – Dag
  16. Crazy – Liquid
  17. Soul Makossa – Manu Dibango
  18. Sanyu – Isaiah Katumwa
  19. Baba Rere – Kunle Ayo

Greenbelt ’09: Day 3

SUNDAY!!!

Seriously beginning to wonder if I’m not overworking myself. This is a festival, after all. A man needs to have a little fun…

During the night, I’d discovered that my tent is on a bit of a slope. Didn’t do anything about it then because I was trying to sleep, but once I got out of bed I re-positioned the airbed/sleeping bag combo so I won’t keep rolling off the thing at night.

IDMC had an early slot in Centaur venue with Christian Aid. I went along to that, then got to hang out some with John Fisher, ClauDieon and the rest of the gang before they had to dash off to the second of three gigs they’ve got on today (not to mention a ferry ride to France afterwards – and I thought I was overdoing it!).

Having alternated between “Yeah, go for it!” and “What have I let myself in for?” nearly every day last week, I did my first presenter’s slot this afternoon, introducing four members of the Apples to a laid-back crowd in the YMCA tent. In half an hour we talked about how the band got together, the cultural scene in Israel and the underground music scene that’s grown off the back of it. A couple of guys in the audience asked some questions, and then the band used the remaining half-hour to play tracks from some CDs they’d brought; recordings by other Israeli underground acts, including a side project of the soundman and one of the DJs, a reggae artist, a couple of other jazz things, and a very Rai-like party tune which went down really well with the audience. “The Israeli underground scene is like a big community,” they said. “We’re all friends, so we support each other.” I love that indie family vibe and camaraderie… and there was a bit more of it on show in the evening when Jahaziel and Karl Nova turned up for their slots on the Mainstage and Underground. Jahaziel played both. I saw all of his Mainstage set and a little bit of his Underground gig (I caught him teaching the audience the ‘Ben’ Yu Knee’ Reggae dance).

I finally caught up with Carl. My DJ slot is in the Blue Nun from 9pm to 10pm tomorrow. Hold on – isn’t that when Athlete are playing?

Baaba Maal: the Man on the Telly

baabamaal_television_211pxTelevision, Baaba Maal’s new album, has had tons of plays since I put it on my iPod a few weeks ago. I got to chat with the Senegalese singer recently (with my Sounds of Africa producer’s hat on), when he was in London performing at the Meltdown music festival. Here’s how the interview went:

Your last album came out eight years ago. Why has it taken you this long to record a follow-up?

Baaba: I had a lot of things to do back in Africa. One of them is to put on a festival called ‘the Blues of the River’. It really took a lot of my time putting it on. It’s a festival which belongs to the community I come from, and I wanted people to discover them and their culture; to show what they have to offer the world. There are a lot of musicians there; they’d like to do things but haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had.

The festival was also a platform to support my work with the UNDP; to talk about the Millennium Development Goals. It’s a music festival, but at the same time we use the days to let people who do lectures visit exhibitions, and we get together to discuss education and other issues. It was a very important festival.

At the same time, I was doing other things. I worked on a few productions that were released in Africa. Also, I was taking my time with this album. I knew that after Missing U, which was made in a very acoustic and simple way, I had to come out with something different. I didn’t want to rush it.

So tell us about Television, then; what about the telly intrigues you so much that you’ve made it the focus of your new album?

It’s all connected with new forms of communication. When you go back to Africa, you see people using television a lot. It’s not just something you sit down to watch in your front room. It’s very fascinating in Africa – especially for young people.

Since we have this fascination, I discussed it with the people I worked with in writing the album. I wanted to explore the kind of effect television has. What role can it play in the mind of a young kid from Africa? And how can this instrument be used to educate people, since we no longer have that place in the middle of the village where people go to get information. And how do governments – or individuals – who own TV channels use them to educate and influence people?

Sometimes I feel very happy, because in Senegal – the country I know most – when I see people watching TV, waiting for a programme in their native language; they see their dancing, their clothes, their culture, and they see people discussing all the issues that are important to us. But at the same time, I can see the danger if governments, say, start using television to sway public opinion, or to get people to think a certain way.

Television is a new thing and a fascinating thing for Africa. We should use it to educate people and lift them to a higher level from where they are now. Four years ago, I went to South Africa to participate in the African version of Big Brother. I know people say it’s a silly programme, but for one month, we used it to come to visit the kids in the house, and to talk to them. We talked to them about the Millennium Goals; we talked about education… all sorts of things.

I was a surprise guest for the housemates. I basically said to them, ‘When you go back to your home countries, you’ll be famous. People will want to talk to you. Use those moments to talk to them about education. Tell them how important it is.’ For the two days that I was in the Big Brother House, I saw all the text messages the show received. People were talking about how great it was that we could use the programme to educate and touch a large number of people.

There’s a track on the album titled ‘A Song for Women’. What’s that about?

For the past 10 years or so, when I look at all the elections that have taken place on the African continent, I see much more influential women are becoming. They’ve come together; some have formed parties… they’re just taking that power and bringing it into politics, and into the economy.

African women know that the place of women isn’t just in the house or the kitchen. Yes, it’s still good that someone takes care of the family; families are important in Africa. But at the same time, women are able now to go outside; to raise their voices and say ‘This is what we want’ – whether in politics – and they are sometimes at the front of the line. And we’re seeing the impact of this in politics.

We look around us and we see that women are now very powerful. Sometimes I think we forget that. But I believe that if we give them all the support they need, maybe changes will take place in Africa. I think women are sometimes more concerned about future generations, because they are close to their kids and want the best for them.

My favourite track on the album is ‘Dakar Moon’. What’s that about?

‘Dakar Moon’ has a double meaning. On the one hand, it’s just a love song. When you sit down with someone you love, and you just take the time to look at all that’s around you – especially the moon, or the sky or the ocean or nature… sometimes people forget to focus on these things. We’re all so preoccupied with looking for money or our jobs, we forget about our environment – which is meaning number two. I’m singing about the beauty of the environment. People need to be more connected with the environment and take care of it.

You’ve been in the music business now for 30 years. When you started out, did you ever imagine your career would last this long?

No, I did not [laughs]. I never imagined that I’d maybe some day travel with my voice and my music with Mansour (Seck). We were just musicians everyone knew from our home town. If you grew up there in the north of Senegal, you are a Fulani and you’re on your boat, just doing your fishing, you just sing. It could be just you, or you and some friends; you’d sit down, maybe have a little instrument, and you’d just sing. This was how we became famous – and we didn’t plan anything! It was just our community who said ‘you can entertain us’ and that became our job.

I was doing pretty well in school; I thought maybe one day I’d be a teacher, a lawyer or something else, who would always be playing music for his friends and family. That was my plan, and that was Mansour’s plan. Then we started to travel, to discover and get excited – and learnt about the business of making music. We began to see the opportunity that travelling with this kind of music could offer. But neither of us expected this when we started out.

The last time I saw you on stage, it was up in Liverpool at an Africa Express show, where you were jamming alongside Franz Ferdinand, the Magic Numbers, Hard-Fi, and of course Damon Albarn. A lot’s been said – both positive and negative – about Africa Express. But in your opinion, what good has it done for African music?

That’s a good question! And this was one of the reasons why I didn’t rush the making of the new album. The idea for Africa Express came from the fact that sometimes when people talk about Africa and use music – such as in Live Aid/Live8, for example – you don’t see many Africans taking part. And concerts like that should be used as an opportunity to showcase African musicians. Who knows; maybe if African musicians became famous as a result of being seen on such shows, they’d sell more records, bring more money back home and be able to employ more people and in so doing, fight poverty in some small way.

With Africa Express, the good thing is that musicians who come from different environments come together and just talk music. The fact that the projects take the time to travel back to Africa, meet people there and form links – I think for the business itself, it can bring forth new combinations. Audiences do get tired of the same old thing. People are waiting to see some new, fresh combinations and collaborations; different musicians working together, bringing about fresh new things, create new songs – new bands, even – and give the industry some fresh new material for the public that buys music. That’s often been missing.

I believe Africa Express gave us ideas; things we could do together. Very old musicians and very young ones; people who do hip hop and R&B… they all got together. Tony Allen teamed up with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, for example. Here at Meltdown, I’m doing something with Kano and Bashy. They come from a different environment to me. But thanks to Africa Express, we met; we appreciated each other’s work and made plans for things we could do together in the future, be that on stage or in the studio.

As African musicians, we don’t struggle to fit ourselves into what we know from the Western side. We’ve been listening to the West for centuries. Everything from the West came to us, but the West didn’t get everything we were doing. So it’s much easier for me to fit into what Franz Ferdinand do. It’s not difficult for an African musician. And I think that opens doors for African musicians; it opens a window for people to see us and see that we’re not just in so-called ‘World Music’. We are just musicians like any other musicians are. We can play any kind of music because we have those references – sometimes even in our own traditional music.

You work with the UN as an emissary for young people in West Africa. From your dealings with them, what would you say is big on the minds of young Africans today?

I think young people in Africa are more concerned about their leaders; about their parents – about the people who have power to make decisions; to take care of their issues, and their ability to do things.

People seem to forget that these young kids know exactly that they are a part of the world now. They’re not just African children; they are children of the world. Everything is global now.

I think that sometimes our leaders – parents too – don’t take time to sit down with the kids and talk to them, and to try to understand what they want to do with their lives, which is what happens in the West. You see a child going in a certain direction and you help them achieve what they want to achieve. There is a really big gap between the parents and the children, or between the leaders and the new generation. And I think something is there. The energy is there. They might be very poor sometimes, but at the same time, when they wake up in the morning, even with very small menial jobs, they try to achieve something. They run from east to west in the cities and villages; they try many, many things. So at least the energy is there. And I think it would be a waste if we don’t try to harness this energy, and to give them an opportunity to be at the front. Women and young people are the future of Africa.

Africa Oyé ‘09

oyelogoMany music fans who visit Liverpool do so on pilgrimages to the Cavern Club. My now annual pilgrimage to Scouseland is music related, but has nothing to do with the Beatles. The thing that’s brought me up here again this year is Africa Oyé – the UK’s biggest free African music event. It’s usually held (at least, since I’ve been going) over a weekend in June.

Miserable grey clouds hung over Sefton Park all weekend. Thankfully, though, the worst that happened was the odd drizzle. I turned up on Saturday afternoon and dutifully waited at the fence by the mainstage for Ali the Press office guy to give me my pass (I was there mainly with my Sounds of Africa producer’s hat on).

It was whilst waiting for Ali that I met Maya. She had come in the place of a friend of hers; an Irish radio presenter who couldn’t make it because he was ill. Throughout the weekend we worked together, pooling our equipment and oyebirdinterviewing artists (and Paul Duhaney, the festival organiser) together.

Africa Oyé aims to bring the best in African music free to the Liverpool public. That’s ‘African’ in the broadest sense of the word; this year’s two headliners were both reggae artists (Freddie McGregor on Saturday and Carol Thompson on Sunday). The lineup also usually features Latin music – though sadly there were no salsa bands there this year. Kasaï Masaï kicked off the festival with a blend of Congolese sounds and high energy dancing.

Next on were a Senegalese trio called Groupe Lolou. I managed to miss much of their set – but only because Maya and I spent so much time talking to their manager in the press/hospitality tent backstage. Turns out that back down in London (where they all live), I’d been to one of their friends’ houses to interview another Senegalese musician! I even managed a brief conversation in Wolof (well, ‘how are you?’ ‘Fine thanks.’ Counts as a conversation to me). I should meet with them again once their album’s out.

Up till this weekend, I’d never seen Daby Touré perform live – even though he’s played Greenbelt twice, and I’d interviewed him in person a couple of years ago. He recognised me the moment he saw me, and was as thought provoking, amiable and funny throughout the interview as he’d been the last time we’d chatted – in an Arabian-style parlour in Momo’s in London. He played both days, and was a monster onstage. Fantastic.

In between sets, I had a wander around and tried to set up interviews – including one with Kwame Kwei-Armah, who was there as ambassador for the Foreign Office’s Know Before You Go campaign, aimed at getting people to ensure they’re covered for every eventuality before they go off travelling.

I only stayed long enough to hear Freddie McGregor sing ‘When Push Comes to Shove’, then I set off home (tiredness had got to me, and the clouds looked threatening). Didn’t think much of Chino (Freddie’s son) who was one of his special guests. A reggae song about ganja – very original… The little I heard of Freddie sounded great, though.

The Congolese singer Gordon Masiala kicked things off on Sunday, and provided one of my most hilarious interview moments ever. Whilst onstage, Gordon had made a point of informing us that he was wearing Versace. I’d heard a lot about Congo’s Sapeurs before (and had met the king of them, Papa Wemba, once), so I asked Gordon about the significance of high fashion in Congolese music and culture. That was his cue to give Maya and me a close-up inspection of all his designer ‘garms’. He then went off on one about how he was the best-dressed Congolese musician ever. For a minute, he sounded just like the ‘Rolex Sweep’ song: “Papa Wemba can’t dress like me; Koffi Olomide can’t dress like me; Awilo Longomba can’t dress like me. One glass of champagne for me…” at least I can now say I’ve seen the inside label of a Versace jacket…

My best new discovery on Sunday (and a slightly more level-headed interviewee than Gordon) was the Cameroonian singer Muntu Valdo. With just his guitar and a harmonica, Muntu rocked. He had a Digitech Jam Man (gadget that allows musos to create loops whilst playing live, so they can make up their own accompaniment) which he used not only to create complex backing rhythms and music, but also to provide backing vocals for himself! That gizmo has really revolutionised acoustic music.

Kanda Bongo Man had a sore throat and so delegated most of the lead vocals in his set to his two backing vocalists. Despite the throat, he and his band rocked. Is it me, or are the girl dancers in Congolese bands getting really young these days?

Final act of the festival was Carol Thompson. I really hadn’t been that interested in seeing her sing, to be honest. I vaguely remembered her from back in the 80s, but thought that putting on mellow lovers rock tunes after all the bouncing about we’d done to Kanda’s soukous jamfest would be a major anticlimax. So it was rather reluctantly that I took my position by the stage.

“I’m only going to hear one song, than home,” I told myself. In the end, she won me over. A medley of her old hits morphed into a cover of the Commodores’ ‘Easy’. She followed that with a Gospel-flavoured song based largely on Psalm 23 (“In the times we’re living in, we need to be more spiritual,” she told us). Rather than do the usual ‘say goodbye, walk off the stage and do an encore’ thing, she just sang right through, ending with a medley of old ska songs that had the entire audience screaming along (I have all the screams on tape!).

“Everybody in Liverpool is a performer,” Maya informed me as we enjoyed a post-festival drink. I certainly met a few: the old bloke with no front teeth who kept rallying other people in the crowd to dance; the guy in a cowboy hat who managed to outdance Kanda Bongo Man and his entire band; and of course the women in the front row who got louder and louder whenever they saw my Zoom recording machine pointed at them!

And that was Africa Oyé 2009: a weekend in which I heard some brilliant music, made a new friend, got a few contacts and ate way too much Chinese food for one person. Looking forward to next year’s already…

Swaziland: Days 7 & 8

Monday, late-ish: it rained buckets today! Dunno whether someone is trying to get us acclimatised back into life in Blighty, or something…

Yesterday was fun. We drove to Manzini in the morning for a service at Zakes’ church. He used to pastor it until his workload became too big; his son’s now the senior pastor there.  It was a very ‘African’ service (trust me – I know what I mean by that. I just can’t explain it too well). A choir made up of young blind people sang a few songs and talked about their recent trip to the UK – then Zakes told us how the choir had recently survived an accident when their new minibus’s handbrake went kaput, sending them down a hill backwards. Scary stuff…

Zakes introduced the OCC team, jokingly referring to Clement, Tiny and the others as our “interrupters – sorry, I mean interpreters”. When it was our turn to introduce ourselves, I just said, “I’m George and I’m a writer from London and Sierra Leone,” then immediately thought to myself, “That’s a bit vague, innit? Haven’t really said much.” It turned out to be quite enough; after the service, Zakes’ son came up to me and said, “I was really blessed when you said you were a writer. Africa needs more Christian writers! Pray that we get more people like you!” Be careful what you pray for, bro…

I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon visit to the culture centre, but it made me realise I really need to get a digital camera that’s a bit more responsive than the one I’m currently using. Or at least one that doesn’t have such a long wait time between takes. It would help a lot when taking pictures in fast-moving situations. I did manage to get one or two pictures of the dancers just as they were doing their high kicks – but it was a lot of work getting them.

As for today… well, we started by going to Teen Challenge’s office in Mbabane to meet Kevin Ward (Director of Teen Challenge Swaziland) and Wandile Shongwe (SP’s Partnership Liaison Manager). Kevin’s family owns the hotel we’re currently staying in. But he’d quit the family business years ago when he felt he was meant to be working with street children. That led to him getting to see first hand the damage HIV has done to lives here, as well as the nastier side of life on the streets. He gave us a run-down of his work and hard insights into the issues the country faces (as well as illustrating how some well-meaning Westerners’ attempts to ‘help’ end up doing more harm than good). The Teen Challenge office isn’t that far from our hotel. But some things are universal – stinking Monday morning rush-hour traffic jams being one of them. It took us about an hour to get to the office!

After meeting Kevin, Wandile and the rest of the Teen Challenge staff, we were off to our big meeting for today. Luvumisa is at the southernmost point of Swaziland. It was one of the areas hardest hit by the droughts Swaziland suffered five years ago (which is why I’m convinced that the bucketing rain we had all throughout our time there was God having an ironic joke with us). Again, people with nothing welcomed us and shared what little they had with us. And I finally got to see a crocodile!

Well, this is it. Tomorrow we’re off home the same way we got here: travelling by minibus to SA, and then flying from Johannesburg Airport. I hope we drop by Bethel on the way and have lunch at the Wimpy again…

Here’s a short list of a few random things I’ve learnt as a result of going on this trip:

  1. It’s good to know your culture and where you’re from, and to be proud of it. It’s even better to be big enough to admit when certain aspects of your culture are just plain wrong.
  2. You can never have enough spares when you’re on the road – whether that’s batteries, film for your camera, or tyres for your vehicle. So always carry loads of spares!
  3. “Don’t harsh my mellow.”
  4. We’ll never solve the HIV/Aids problem simply by throwing tons of condoms at it.
  5. The true way to make friends and influence people is to give gifts. Genuinely and lovingly.
  6. No matter how great a king you are, you can’t stop birds from pooing on your statue’s head.

Swaziland: Day 6

Saturday, sometime…

We checked out of Maguga Lodge this morning and headed south to Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. Tomorrow we’ll be in Manzini, not too far away, where Zakes’ church is situated. For the rest of our stay, we’ll be based at the Emafini Conference Centre, a hotel/conference facility owned by a Christian family who’ve been in the hotel business a long time.

On the way to Mbabane, we passed by Teen Challenge’s Hawane Life Skills Centre and HIV/Aids care facility. Teen Challenge is one of SP’s partners in Swaziland; the centre has a set of homes in which children affected by HIV/Aids live in a ‘normal’ family setup (i.e. in a home with house parents). There’s a clinic and hospital and lots of other stuff.

After visiting the Teen Challenge place, we stopped in Mbabane’s town centre and had a look around two enormous malls facing each other from opposite ends of the street. The new one may have been more flash, but we reckoned the older one had more character.  I bought a few touristy things in the mall; it had a shop called African Fantasy, which sold some interesting stuff. I also located several music shops and bought a few CDs. Couldn’t find a decent Kwaito compilation, though; maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough. But I did find a CD by a South African artist I’d never heard of before with yet another cover of ‘Here I Am to Worship’ on it. I didn’t buy it. I love Tim Hughes to bits, but do we really need another cover of that song? In Africa, of all places??

After the shopping trip and lunch, we visited Swaziland’s national museum and the Memorial to King Sobhuza II. It was interesting seeing King Sobhuza’s cars: a couple of Cadillacs and a Buick. The Caddies looked really dated; thankfully, they weren’t as tastelessly ‘pimped’ as the last Caddy I saw in a museum (Isaac Hayes’ shiny blue, sheepskin-carpeted, golden-rimmed jobbie in the Stax Museum of Soul Music, that was. That car is the reason for the phrase “too bloody much!”).

I have to say I felt a bit sorry for the guard who has to spend hours in the blazing heat guarding the mausoleum the King was laid in state in when he died. He’s not there anymore (buried in the sacred mountain nearby, along with all the other previous Swazi kings), which made standing for hours in the sweltering heat seem even more pointless. It’s a culture thing, I guess…