Life begins…

My home during Greenbelt. A man's got to camp in some style...
My home during Greenbelt. A man’s got to camp in some style…

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).

Extra Curricular doing their 'thang' on Mainstage.
Extra Curricular doing their ‘thang’ on Mainstage.

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 LCGC 'bring it' on Mainstage, Saturday evening.
The LCGC ‘bring it’ on Mainstage, Saturday evening.

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.

The Austin Francis Connection: One Last Chat by George Luke on Mixcloud

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…

Tools of the DJ trade: my IDJ deck on the side of the Mainstage.
Tools of the DJ trade: my IDJ deck on the side of the Mainstage.
...and of course, one must always be prepared.
…and of course, one must always be prepared.
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“Too many Latinos”

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…

Salvador at their press conference. Nic Gonzales is second left (in the blue shirt); Craig is on the left. Alejandro is at the other end; on the right.
Salvador at their press conference. Nic Gonzales is second left (in the blue shirt); Craig is on the left. Alejandro is at the other end; on the right.

Review: Alexander Abreu y Havana D’Primera

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.

Manos pa'arriba, CUBA!!!
Manos pa’arriba, CUBA!!!

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…

Alexander and his backing dancer "throw down".
Alexander and his backing dancer “throw down”.

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…

Famous Sierra Leoneans: A*M*E*

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.

   

What else has she done? She’s co-written a K-Pop hit (no, not that one!), toured with Jesse J and the Wanted, and has been longlisted for the BBC’s Sound of 2013 poll. AND she publishes her own magazine. No, I am not jealous at all… 

 

 

In a taxi with Baloji

balojialbumcoverLast 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.

In a cab with Baloji by George Luke on Mixcloud

Remembering Terry Callier

On Sunday 28 October (the day after my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary), I received the news that the singer Terry Callier had passed away the previous day.

I first discovered the folkie soul legend through an old college mate who was on the same access course as me, back in 1997. Shortly after, I saw Terry play live at the Forum, and then had the privilege of interviewing him for an entertainment listings magazine (the article was never published, as the magazine ceased publication shortly after we did the interview). I saw him in concert a second time a few years after that when he played Greenbelt (I forget which year, but he closed with ‘Occasional Rain’ – and the song proved to be a weather forecast for the entire festival!).

After Terry died, I decided to dig out the cassette on which I’d recorded the interview we did – but after a week of searching I couldn’t find it. Eventually I did – the thing was right under my nose the whole time; it was on the same cassette as my Ladysmith Black Mambazo interview was – which means I must have done both those interviews within a week or two of each other.

The half-hour long interview has now been transferred from cassette to computer, cleaned up and posted onto Mixcloud for your delectation. Have a listen to it here:

One night, two gigs

hate it when things clash.
Back in the summer, I went to the launch of Andy Flannagan‘s new album, Drowning in the Shallow, and it was great. Great enough for me to say “Of course I’ll go!” when I received a Facebook invitation to a special radio/press launch for the album. But then bad news: salsa “leg ends” El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico were playing the Electric in Brixton on the same night – Thursday 18 October – and I’d already bought a fairly pricey ticket for it.
My first thought was, “Seems I’ll have to miss out on Andy’s gig this time.” But then I noticed that Andy’s gig started at 6.30pm and was due to finish at 8pm, while the ‘doors open’ time for the Gran Combo gig was 7.30pm. Guessing that they would take the stage sometime around 9pm, I figured I could safely go to both – so that’s what I did. My first stop was a little side road off Tottenham Court Road, where Andy had booked a nice Spanish bar/restaurant called Nuevo Costa Dorada for his gig. I started bumping into old mates almost as soon as I set foot in the place (always a good thing).
The gig was a warm, intimate affair; two short sets with a complementary tapas buffet in between. Accompanied by Lucy Payne on cello, Yves Fernandez on bass and Phil Jack on percussion, Andy went from profound and serious (songs about people he’d met in India and Egypt and during the time he lived in Luton) to romantic (a couple of songs from different periods in his relationship with his then girlfriend, now wife Jen) to endearingly silly (a medley of songs that included LMFAO’s ‘Party Rock Anthem’ and Flight of the Conchords’ ‘Business Time’). Lucy the cellist’s husband acted as MC for the evening, and I found myself sharing a table with Alan Branch, who produced the album.
The bonhomie continued after the band had packed their gear away, but I had my appointment with El Gran Combo to head off to and couldn’t hang around. “They’re like the Rolling Stones of Latin music,” I offered by way of an explanation when a mate asked where I was off to (well, it is their 50th anniversary this year too). I hummed my favourite Gran Combo song, ‘Azuquita pal Café’, as I walked to Tottenham Court Road Station.
Turns out I’d called it absolutely right. When I arrived at the Electric just after 9pm, I breezed through security without having to queue up. The MC and house DJ were still keeping the crowd warmed up in anticipation when I walked into the auditorium.
About another 15 minutes later, El Gran Combo took the stage in their trademark blue and green striped shirts. They opened with their classic ‘Me Libere’ and rolled out the pick of their arsenal of hits: ‘Brujeria’, ‘Verano en Nueva York’, plus a few tunes that were favourites of mine but which I hadn’t realised that they were responsible for. They didn’t sing ‘Azuquita pal Café’ – but it kinda didn’t matter; all the other stuff was so good. Halfway through the gig, Charlie Aponte (one of the band’s three lead singers) gave a special ‘shout out’ to all the people in the audience who weren’t Latino but had come because they were interested in Latin culture or just loved the music. “Muchisima thank you,” he said.
The audience participation was an event all on its own. One guy in the audience had brought a cowbell with him and played it all throughout the show. Despite us being packed pretty tight, a few couples managed to find enough floor space to execute a setenta or two. I even got to do a spot of bailando con una Hermosa Latina myself. As El Gran Combo sang and played their hearts out, a string of smartphones  – obviously attached to some extremely sturdy arms – hovered in the air for the duration, capturing every sidesteppy move. I did take a few pictures myself; in fact I did at both gigs. But if I were to post them online, HTC would probably sue me for bringing their smartphones into disrepute. (or maybe give me one that does take decent pictures. You never know…)

Sod it – they can sue me if they like…
¡Señores y señoras – El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, en vivo!

I got home just after midnight, tired but immensely fired up, and grateful that I’d been able to pack two inspiring gigs into one evening. Cheers, Andy – and “Muchisima thank you” a ustedes tambien, Gran Combo.