In Conversation: To’Mezclao

DJ Lyng Chang on the "unos y doses" with To'Mezclao at Africa Oye

I’ve already talked about my time at this year’s Africa Oye festival in my last blog post. I’ve been beavering away with the audio I recorded there… and now, for your listening pleasure, here’s the interview I did with Lyng Chang, DJ with the Cuban band To’Mezclao.

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.

On Movies, Hoodies, Slums & Messages – Knowotimean, Harry?

The other day, I went – somewhat reluctantly – to a film screening at the Albany theatre in Deptford.

The main feature was Michael Caine’s London-set vigilante thriller Harry Brown. The support act (sorry – music reviewer’s habit) was English, the debut of Tarun Thind, a young British Asian with no formal training in filmmaking. Both Tarun Thind and Gary Young (the screenwriter who wrote Harry Brown) took part in a Q&A session afterwards.

Gary Young describes Harry Brown as “a British Death Wish” and he isn’t far wrong. It’s extremely dark, depressing and very, very violent. Michael Caine turns in a flawless performance as the ailing ex-marine whose life revolves around visiting his terminally ill wife in hospital and having a pint and a game of chess with his old mate Len. The only characters you feel anything for are Harry and Len, whose brutal murder is the tipping point that turns Harry into the Equalizer of Elephant & Castle. The various hoodies, pimps, drug & arms dealers and low-lifes of some description are either so grotesque or so irredeemably evil, they might as well just have giant multicoloured neon signs saying “HATE ME” stuck on them.

As you can probably guess from what I’ve just said, Harry Brown wasn’t my cup of tea (hence my initial reluctance to go to the screening). On the other hand, I cannot recommend English highly enough. The last time I’ve seen such a non-patronising portrayal of deaf characters in a film was in Four Weddings & a Funeral. And that was some time ago…

I found the Q&A session quite insightful. I’ve spoken to a few filmmakers and writers in my time, and as I grow older, I find myself believing in hard-and-fast rules less and less. This Q&A session just reinforced that further. Gary’s viewpoint is that people don’t go to films to ‘learn’ stuff, and he seemingly has no time for any of that “a film must have a message” nonsense. He also didn’t seem to care much for issues such as whether a filmmaker has a responsibility in how they portray certain groups of people. In this regard, he was the polar opposite of Tarun Thind, who set out to make his film with the intention of countering the negative image of ‘hoodies’ so prevalent in the media today. While I can see both their points (and I’m not just saying that to sit on the fence), the difference in the characters in both films is enormous; Tarun’s ‘hoodies’ are a lot more human than Gary’s.

But Gary is right, up to a point. A writer works best when s/he writes what’s on his or her mind – not when trying to “write to order” or deliberately trying to shoehorn a moral into their work. “Write what’s on your heart” is the best advice you can give any writer. And I suppose it is possible to make a film and not have some sort of agenda beyond wanting to create something you find entertaining. I’ve seen some of the work done by filmmakers who claim that “all films have agendas” (especially some of the new breed of Christian filmmakers), and a lot of the films they make do end up being very preachy.

But when it comes to the issue of responsibility in how you portray people on film, there are personal reasons why I can’t see Harry Brown in such an objective manner as Gary suggests: The Heygate Estate where it was shot is literally five minutes’ walk from my home (in fact, I can remember walking through it while it was being prepped for shooting this very film, and wondering if it was 1Xtra shooting another of their “music for the sink hole estate massive” trailers). My brother and sister-in-law had their first home (and first child) there. A cousin of mine lived there for many years with her husband and baby daughter before eventually emigrating to the USA. It might be a dump, but Harry Brown made it look like the tenth circle of Hell (and trust me, if it really was that bad, I wouldn’t walk through it as casually as I do on a very regular basis). I know it’s fiction, yada yada yada – but I bet if someone shot a film somewhere in Newcastle that Gary had fond memories of growing up, and made it look that nasty, a small part of him would go “Hey – that’s out of order!”

The film opened in the US this week, and I’ve already read one review from there saying it was set in a “slum”. That reviewer really ought to see the ‘slum’ being built on the other side of the road…

My Mad Novel-writing Experiment

April has been a mental month. But it’s over now – and with it, so is my first attempt at writing a novel.

It kind of helps to know your strengths. However, knowing them too well can sometimes be a pain in the butt. And so it’s been with me where writing is concerned. Doing the non-fiction side of things: no problem. Writing reviews, biogs, reports and other journo-type stuff, I do that in my sleep. Don’t even need editing sometimes.

Writing fiction, however… hmm, now we have a problem. How do you go about devising plots? Giving names to characters? Putting words in other people’s mouths? Making stuff up generally? (and the first smartarse to say “isn’t that what journalists do anyway?” gets a slap) Have I really got it in me? Basically, I would love to write a novel or two (dozen), but just don’t know if I have that many ideas in my head!

And then I stumbled upon NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month): an absolutely mental competition held every November, in which the aim is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. A friend, Steve Lawson, entered it last year, keeping us all informed of his progress via multiple Tweets and Facebook status updates. I checked out the NaNoWriMo website and discovered a book whose very title spoke volumes to me: No Plot? No Problem! (a “low-stress, high velocity” guide to writing a novel in 30 days, written by Chris Baty – the guy who came up with the idea of NaNoWriMo). I promptly put in an order on Amazon; the book arrived three months later (That’s a story in itself. At least I got 3 quid off my next Amazon purchase because of the delay).

The month itself happens in November. I couldn’t be arsed to wait that long, so I went for the first 30-day month in the new year (that’s not to say I won’t do it again in November; in fact, this was a trial run for when the real NaNoWriMo happens). This was going to be my experiment; my ‘one crazy thing’ for the month (one of my new year ‘suggestions’ for 2009 was ‘do one crazy thing each month’). It was me daring myself. If I pulled it off, then at least I knew that the voice in my head saying ‘novel writing’s not for you’ was fibbing. And if not? Well, at least I’d have solid proof that I couldn’t, rather than just the thought that I couldn’t…

Chris Baty’s madcap approach to novel-writing helped in some major ways – the biggest of all being that it completely de-mystified the whole thing. You need that sometimes; you’ll never really master something if you’re totally in awe of it. It also stressed that the object is to write something regardless of how many mistakes you make, or how crap you think it is. Get it down and then after it’s written it can be re-written; advice which was reinforced by another novel-writing buddy, Mags Storey, whom I emailed for advice, saying I was attempting to write a novel in “the daftest way possible” (to which her response was: “What’s the daftest way possible? There’s no right or wrong way to write a novel!” Ta, Mags!).

So how did the month pan out? Kinda like this:

Day 1: Manage to write 27 words. Threw two street kids in a river and let them splash about. Came up with a derogatory name for petrol addicts.
Day 2: Crossed the 1,000-word mark and made a priest swear. More than once.

End of week 1: Word count hovering around the 2,000-word mark. But at least I now have some sort of plot in mind (it came to me as I was walking to the local Chinese buffet to have lunch with some mates from church).

End of week 2: Story’s still floundering. Haven’t really embraced the ‘just let go and write’ concept, methinks. Have overall plot, but not that many sub-plots and little episodes. And still not really sure how to push the characters out there. And I still only really have four characters. Could use a few more. Word count: 4,000-ish (according to the book, I should be in the 20,000 region by now).

Middle of week 3: A couple of crucial things happen that really kick-start the writing process. First I receive an email from Dieon (another writer friend), asking how one deals with writer’s block and such like when attempting to write a book. I have a good, long think and reply with some tips I believe will help her – then kick myself for not having taken my own advice much earlier!

Next, I have a “Sod it; if they say ‘just write’, then just flippin’ write” moment. I start just writing: chunks of dialogue (will assign them to characters later), describing parts of the unspecified town the action’s meant to be taking place in; describing random people who populate the place; giving the few characters I do have long internal monologues in which they just rant (a good way of exploring your own dark side, if you’re that way inclined). I try out the “jet pack” method of writing Chris Baty mentions in the book. Word count doubles in a day.

Day 19: I adopt the desperate (and rather naughty) tactic of sneaking in some novel-writing on the job. I open up a Word doc on my computer, into which I type a couple of paragraphs whenever I have a free moment (tea breaks, lunch, etc.). By the end of the working day, I have added 1,000 words to the novel. Even more shockingly, some of them actually move the plot along.

I also deploy a few more “time-buying” tactics; starting work an hour early, and taking the Tube home instead of the bus. Working from home tomorrow, so I will “jet pack” again…

Day 20: Never really got to do the “jet pack” thing properly, but still added a thousand-plus words to the word count – including a few bits written on the train to Cambridge, on my way to interview someone for the Latin Link CD. What with this, work and Latin Link’s CD to produce this week, I might as well be back at uni during one of those times when I’d have four essay deadlines at once.

Day 21: At work again today. I try a different tactic this time: coming in an hour early, but this time using the extra hour to work on the novel before starting work officially at nine. Again I add a few more words during breaks and other free moments. Add another 2,000 words to the word count – including a big EastEnders-style ‘duf-duf’ moment.

I take the lappy with me when I go PRS-ing in a pub in New Cross Gate later in the evening. It’s an all-metal Battle of the Bands show – and it. Is. LOUD. Strangely, the headbangy music doesn’t inspire me to write a brutal murder scene into the novel. Neither do I feel the urge to include a satanic sacrifice. I’ve already made a priest swear and knock a gangster’s gold tooth down his throat; that’s about as sacrilegious as I’m prepared to get, thanks very much.

Day 23: Decide I’ve sacrificed way too many items in my social calendar in the name of novel-writing. Today, my good friend Candy is having a little drink-up to celebrate leaving her job. No way am I missing that. So I go along to the Jugged Hare pub in the Victoria/Vauxhall area and have a good time.

I’m also supposed to be PRS-ing in the Ministry of Sound tonight, so I leave Candy’s do just before 10 and head to the Elephant & Castle. I arrive at MoS and discover that Miikz (another good friend) is running security. The DJs kick off at 10.30pm, and I haven’t got a clue what any of them are playing. But I do have an Access All Areas wristband, so I spend the duration of my visit sitting in the VIP lounge (or as I found myself calling it, the “Bloody hell, girl; did your Mum see you leaving home dressed like that? OMG, I’ve just turned into my Mum!” lounge), where I write another crucial scene, do major development on a new character I’ve recently added to the story, and beef up some of the other characters’ back-stories. I even tap out a couple of paragraphs on my Blackberry before packing it in as I have no means of transferring notes from my BB to my lappy (a download is in order methinks). When I eventually add the new material to the book, word count exceeds 17k. Good, but still needs a boost – and I still have Latin Link’s CD (and a radio show) to complete this weekend…

Still not happy about the fact that I find writing about writing the novel easier than writing the novel (if that makes any sense).

Day 25: I cross the 20,000 word mark. I have now written more than double my uni dissertation in less than half the time that took me. What does that say about me as a writer? Or, for that matter, about my degree? I may be reading way too much into this…

I’m still nowhere near on target, but I still believe this is possible. I just need to ‘jet pack’ every day this week to pull it off! But even if I do pack it in now, I think I’ve still proved to myself that novel-writing isn’t an impossibility for me (Pack it in? Where did that come from?). Bring on the self-imposed literary torture…

Day 26: Yesterday was long. What with Latin Link’s CD to finish, I ended up going to bed rather late. As a result, my body seems to have gone on strike (and my brain too). Manage to crib 1,000-plus words together in the office, between work work (did the same ‘come in early’ tactic I used last week). Brain absolutely refuses to do anything novel-related when I get home; in fact, I get an extremely severe case of the I-do-not-want-to-do-this-any-mores. I go to bed at 8pm. Wake up around 2-ish, and suddenly cannot stop writing. All sorts of stuff comes to me. If this keeps up today, it will be fantastic. I guess the moral here is that rest is as important a part of the process as work is.

I went for an early morning swim in the pool round the corner from home. One of the things I like about going swimming is that a lot of times when I’ve been writing something, it’s when I’m in the pool that it all falls into place in my head (back in the days before I took up swimming – when I had a gym membership – the steam room was where this would happen. Which is why I dubbed the steam room “the incubator”). That is when I’m writing non-fiction stuff: articles, blog posts, etc. It has never happened the whole time I’ve been writing this novel – until today. Suddenly, ideas start to flow. Random bits of dialogue I’d written to fill space have speakers and situations to go with them. People have back stories. I can see the order in which events are meant to happen. Major breakthrough for me.

Day 27: Apparently struggling again. Not feeling 100% physically. But struggle along and add a few things to a couple of bits I’d already written. Crossed the halfway mark. Finding time to write over the next couple of days is going to be really tough; what with presentations and other work commitments I had kind of forgotten about looming…

Day 28: Will have to do some major workload reshuffling if I am to get more writing in today. Got up relatively early (6am) and wrote for about 90 minutes.

Day 30: Final day of the experiment. Nowhere near the 50k target word count – but that really wasn’t the primary point of this exercise for me. Anyway, let’s see how much we can add on today, eh? I have reshuffled my workload so that I can devote the whole day to this (will do all the Meth House writing I was supposed to do today on Monday. There – that’s my Bank Holiday up the spout. I hate writing…)

The writing binge starts at 6am – even though I woke up at five. Spend more time tweeting than writing that first two hours (bad boy, bad, bad boy). After breakfast, I de-camp to Starbucks at 10am and settle down to write some more. Wi-fi in Starbucks not working. I take this as a sign that there is a God, and that he wants me to write this thing without any distractions. I’ve left the cheap headphones at home and brought out the noise-cancelling cans instead (special day, innit?). I stick some Paul Ewing on the iPod and get stuck in. About three hours (and two big-ass coffees) later, I have the book’s closing chapter and “Yoda moment” written (I have decided that all my novels will have what I call a “Yoda moment” – mostly because I find I enjoy writing “philosophical, worldly-wise old man dispenses wisdom to young Grasshopper” dialogues).

I get home from Starbucks, check up on email, do a little more writing and then go for a swim. Then write (almost) continuously from 8pm until midnight. Have vowed not to check the word count until midnight strikes. Feel myself flagging physically the closer midnight gets. I’ve been writing non-sequentially, so the novel’s beginning and end are already done. The middle, however, is all over the place. But that can be sorted out in the re-writing process, so no worries.

Final word count at midnight on Day 30: 29,231 words.

So, what have I learnt about novel-writing (and, more importantly, about myself) this mad month?

  • Well, I know now that I definitely can write a novel. That’s one voice in my head I won’t be hearing anymore…
  • I’m definitely a “morning person” when it comes to writing stuff like this. The earlier, the better.
  • Contrary to what girls say when they’re being sexist, us blokes can multitask – just as long as it’s doing more than one thing we actually want to do!
  • If you are going to write with a glass of wine in your hand (that nice, romantic picture people have the moment you say “I’m a writer”), then remember: the ‘drink in moderation’ thing still applies. Especially if you’re writing after a busy day at work, whatever your job is. People talk rubbish when they’re plastered – and guess what? They also WRITE rubbish when they’re plastered!
  • You probably know this already, but reading does wonders for your writing. I joined a book group at work, and we started reading David Nicholls‘ novel One Day. I’ve only read the first two chapters so far, but I have already picked up some brilliant ideas on how to get a story moving from it.
  • Also, we do like to keep our work in progress ‘under wraps’ and then make a big public announcement once it’s done. But occasionally throwing bits out while you’re working on it can be a good way of testing how it’s going, or even for picking up ideas. I posted a couple of quotes from the novel as Facebook status updates. They started some fun conversations, and even added a comic twist to one minor sub-plot (ta for that one, Sara-Jane!)
  • Daring yourself to try something new is a good (if absolutely mental) way of learning how to do it. The opening line of the book was “Here goes nothing!” because when I was learning to swim (something else I only learnt to do much later in life than usual) that’s what I would say whenever I decided to just jump into the pool and get on with it. “Just write” sounds like terrible advice – especially if you’re used to more methodic, factual writing. But it does work! Certainly in my case, the day I had my “Sod it; just write” moment in Week 3 was the point at which the book really started coming together. Sometimes just the act of writing opens up the mind. Ideas start flowing. So yes – one good way of fighting writer’s block is just to write! Dare yourself!

Well, the experiment’s over now. So what next? The book’s far from finished, but I am going to let it rest for a bit; a couple of months, at least. I already have another book-writing project that’s going to keep me occupied for the next couple of months (a ghost-writing gig – with a proper contract and for real money. Wahey!). I’ll come back to this once that is done, arrange it in some proper order, and see what I can do with it.

Yep – that was my April. How was yours?

From the Y Crate: Bill Wolfer

From the Y Crate, #16:
“Wolf” by BILL WOLFER (Solar/Constellation)

Yet another lost ‘blue-eyed soul’ offering. Wolf is one of my favourite 80s soul albums – which is ironic, because I only discovered it in the 90s. I came to Bill Wolfer via the singer Jon Gibson (yep – more blue-eyed soul) and I can still remember the look of absolute shock on Jon’s face when I interviewed him and mentioned to him that I owned a copy of Wolf.

The story behind the album goes something like this. It was the early 80s, and Solar Records (the label that gave us Shalamar) had high hopes for two white acts they’d signed. In the red corner was Jon Gibson – a very soulful singer whose voice bore an eerie resemblance to that of Stevie Wonder (whom he had worked with on and off). In the blue corner was our man Bill – a master session keyboardist whose work could be heard on some of Motown’s best albums. Hall and Oates were making a killing on the charts around this time, and someone at Solar had a bright idea: why not put these two guys together and we can have our own Hall & Oates? (Stop laughing. This is the music industry we’re talking about, and you want original ideas?).

Thankfully, that idea got vetoed, and the two acts released solo albums instead. Bill produced Jon Gibson’s Standing on the One; Jon did lead vocals on a few tracks on Bill’s Wolf. Bill was able to pull in a few stellar names to appear on Wolf. Stevie Wonder‘s harmonica playing on “Soaring” is simply awesome (as is Crystal Blake’s vocal). And if you listen very closely to “So Shy”, you just might be able to pick out Michael Jackson‘s voice in the chorus (the album was recorded at around the same time Michael was working on Thriller, and Bill had previously toured with the Jacksons and played on their Triumph album). You can also just about hear him on “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” – one of two tracks on which Bill does lead vocal in a Herbie Hancock vocoder stylee (another case of “shy keyboardist syndrome”, I wonder?).

Bill went on to produce Shalamar’s hit “Dancing in the Sheets”. He also worked with Vanity and produced some of Jon Gibson’s Christian music offerings. I’m told that he’s making Latin jazz these days. That I must investigate…

Making History (and Other Rock n Roll Myths)

Well, they nearly did it…

Inspired by last year’s campaign to stop Joe McElderry getting the Christmas Number 1, a Facebook group has hyped Delirious?‘s song ‘History Maker’ into the charts, making it Number 4 this Easter weekend (although surely that makes Rage Against the Machine the real ‘history makers’ here, since they were the first to do this?).

I’ve had mixed feelings about the campaign myself. Not about Delirious?, I hasten to add. I love those guys. I’ve interviewed Martin Smith and Stu G more than once over the 15 or so years that Delirious? was a going concern, and they’ve always been top blokes.

When it comes to their fans, however… well, that’s a different story altogether.

Delirious? fans (some of them, at any rate) have always seen themselves as victims of one of the world’s greatest injustices. Being fans of a band that can sell out the Brixton Academy and outsell Robbie Williams in America yet not get airplay on Radio 1 will do that to you, I guess. It led to a militant tendency developing within the band’s fan base; one that took it upon itself to get the D-Boys’ music played on The Nation’s Favourite by any means necessary – regardless of how badly thought out their strategies were.

Each time Delirious? released a single, anyone who’d been stupid enough to let these guys get hold of their email address would receive an email bemoaning the fact that the new song had been overlooked by Radio 1 yet again. You would then be supplied with the email addresses of every single Radio 1 DJ, and ordered (oops, I mean urged) to write to them demanding that they play the single. And I do mean every Radio 1 DJ. Never mind the fact that Chris Goldfinger, Tim Westwood and Danny Rampling couldn’t play the track even if they wanted to (what with them being the station’s specialist reggae, hip hop and dance DJs respectively), you had your orders and had to carry them out. Try to point out to whoever was behind the campaign that they hadn’t thought it through properly and you would normally get some rude, bolshie response. And why not? After all, they were trying to do “the Lord’s work” and you weren’t cooperating.

I had flashbacks to those dark days every time I logged on to Facebook these past few weeks. There were days when my news feed would be full of nothing but reminders to become a fan of “Christian music topping the charts!” and to download not one but two versions of ‘History Maker’. Clearly, these people have never heard the word ‘overkill’.

But the thing that bothered me the most was the pseudo-spiritualising of what was basically an exercise in hyping a single into the pop charts. You weren’t hyping a single, you were “making a statement for Christ”, “taking over the airwaves for God” or some other bogus God-speak. Even the simple claim of “getting Christian music into the charts” was redundant; after all, in the same week’s chart we had songs by Owl City, Paramore and Mumford & Sons. No particular shortage of Christians in the charts there, as far as I can see…

Funnily enough, I don’t even think the band themselves were that fussed about being heard on Radio 1. Martin certainly wasn’t when I interviewed him around the time their Mission Bell album was released (“We’re a bit long in the tooth for all that now,” he said to me).

Anyway, it’s all done now. Delirious? have their hit and their fans have their wish. It’s a pity TOTP isn’t on anymore, because seeing them on that would’ve been fun. To the former D-Boys: congrats on finally breaking into the Top Five and getting that long overdue play on R1. And to the people behind the campaign: congrats too – but next time you do something like this, could you please be less annoying with it? “Pester power” is so called for a reason, you know…

My first premiere (and Happy New Year?)

It’s been a while, I know, since my last blog post. A whole three months, in fact. And I’m not even sure why I never got round to posting anything during the first quarter of 2010 – but the longer it got, the more I felt pressured to make my first blog post of the year a really good one. Pressure can do bad things to creativity (yeah, I know – sometimes it can do good things to it too). And then the first time I tried to write this particular post, Micro$oft Word decided that it would be really fun to kill it on my first save and leave no trace of its existence (I’m rewriting it with Open Office now, if you’re interested).

Anyway, I’m back now – and I’d like to use my first blog post of the year to congratulate an old friend on two major milestones.

I’ve known Shabazz Graham for over a decade. A friend introduced me to him years ago when he was a comic illustrator and I was just starting out in this writing game. The first time I realised that important people read the stuff I wrote was when I did a piece about Shabazz’s comics for the now defunct Christian Herald newspaper – and received a phone call from Radio 4, asking me to put them in touch with him (even before I’d seen the piece in print myself!). When he had a go at being a rapper, I wrote about his music for some music mag (can’t remember which; there’ve been a few in my career). And when he started to work on his dream of being a filmmaker, I wrote about that a couple of times too.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in BAFTA for the premiere of Malachi – Shabazz’s directorial debut. It was my first premiere (I’ve done loads of previews; that’s part of the job. Premieres – that’s the pretty people’s department). I absolutely loved the short film about a young Sickle Cell Anaemia sufferer who gets a bit more than he bargained for when he uses his camcorder to capture the good things in life.

Malachi was shot very close to where I live, so it felt familiar in a way films don’t normally do. The daughter of an old friend of mine has a small role in it. Luke Carradine’s score was excellent. And in the film says more about love and relationships in half an hour than your average telly soap does in years.

Master storyteller that Shabazz is, even his film premiere had an unexpected twist. We saw the film, the cast and crew came up onstage and talked about the experience, and then Shabazz called out a few people he wanted to thank and give small gifts to in appreciation for their work on the film. Last on the list was Oliveene Whittaker, who had taken photographs on set – and who also just happens to be Shabazz’s girlfriend. She went up to collect her gift and next thing we know, our man’s on one knee in front of her! Yes – he went there… and she said yes!

There’s not much more I can say, really. Shabazz, my boy, I wish you Palme d’Ors, Oscars, BAFTAs, and Golden Globes by the shedload. But above all, I wish you and Oliveene an extremely joy-filled marriage.

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).