“#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.

NEWSFLASH: God tells music award nominees, “Leave me out of it.”

HEAVEN, 6 December, 2009: With the Brits and Grammies just a couple of months away (and a handful of even more insignificant awards ceremonies due to follow), the music awards industry has been shaken to its core by an enormous snub from the Almighty himself.

Yesterday God took the unconventional move of calling a press conference to disassociate himself from every mediocre musician who has ever thanked him on receiving an award, and formally asked all present and future music award nominees not to mention him in their acceptance speeches, should they win.

“For decades, I have wondered why the myth that the devil has all the good music  persists,” God said. “I have now come to the realisation that constantly being associated with naff music the way I am at music awards ceremonies has done my brand image a great deal of harm.

“It’s not just the fact that terrible musicians blame me for their lack of imagination that hurts. There’s also the fact that members of the public validate this by voting for their music to win awards. I suppose they blame me for their lack of good taste too. As the Almighty, I simply cannot have that.

“Besides, as a God of truth and honesty, I cannot take credit that’s not due to me. We all know the real person most of these artists should be thanking is (AutoTune inventor) Andy Hildebrand.”

God added: “I don’t normally deliver personal messages. But Michael says that’s enough tributes, thank you very much.”

News of the divine diss sent shockwaves through the music community. Hip Hop artists in particular were uncharacteristically speechless. MC Kill Murder Dawg is expected to win several awards next year with his hit single ‘Bitch Slap’. “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve seen all my heroes at the Source Awards or the Grammies, or the MTV Awards, up there with their champagne and their hoes, thanking God for it all,” he said. “That’s all I ever wanted to do – and now I can’t! I’ve got to thank somebody! Maybe I’ll join the Scientologists and thank Xenu.”

The snub has created a big dilemma for the organisers of Gospel music awards, as God’s statement says “all music awards ceremonies” and he has refused to make any exceptions. “This is just going to kick up that old debate about whether old hymns are better than modern ones,” said a gospel music spokesperson.

However, there is one group of people for whom the snub from God is good news.

“For my industry, it’s a godsend – if you’ll excuse the pun,” said a representative of the Association of American Advertisers. “Those thank-you prayers used to take up a lot of time – which can now be freed up for us to fill with more adverts when the ceremonies are televised. Maybe I should be thanking God for that! Ker-ching!”

‘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)…

10 Reasons Why Urban is the New MOR

Its mostly young audience likes to think that ‘Urban’ music – in its various forms – is cutting-edge, cool, even dangerous. But scratch the surface, and in many ways ‘Urban’ music is every bit as safe, as conservative and as middle-of-the-road as its fans misguidedly think Easy Listening is – perhaps even more so. Here are my ten reasons why Urban is the new MOR:

1. The Cowell factor. Leona Lewis, JLS, Fantasia, Alexandra Burke, Jennifer Hudson… I’m not here to argue over whether they’re ‘soulful’ or not (Jennifer and Fantasia certainly are; the rest – well, that’s up for debate). But the sole purpose of X-Idoltalentfactor telly shows is to find the most saleable artist possible – and nothing sells as much as the stuff aimed at the middle. So be big enough to admit it: if your favourite R&B singer came up through one of these shows, there’s no difference between him/her and Susan Boyle (and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that).

2. Ice Cube’s film career. For the most part, I preferred the comic strip version of The Boondocks to the telly version. But one scene in one episode of the show stands out for me. Wannabe thug Riley and his favourite rapper Gangstalicious were on the run from some thugs; they got caught and were tied up and locked in a car’s boot. As they lay in the boot awaiting certain death, Gangstalicious said to Riley, “When I was your age, my favourite rapper was Ice Cube,” to which Riley replied, “That guy who makes family movies?” It’s a brief scene, but it speaks volumes of how one of hip hop’s legendary tough guys has mellowed – and in the process, become middle-of-the-road. It seems to happen to a lot of rappers who go into acting (Will Smith doesn’t count because his music was never that ‘threatening’ to begin with). I’m not sure whether it’s because they’ve grown up, started having kids and now feel some responsibility for what they put out, or because they’ve realised that there’s more money to be made in doing more family oriented stuff. Still, it can’t hurt…

PS. It’s been pointed out to me that this doesn’t just affect rappers, and that Eddie Murphy’s career has taken a similar path. That’s true – but Eddie recorded ‘Party All the Time’ while Ice Cube gave us ‘F*** Tha Police’.

3. Flavor Flav’s TV career. From prancing about on The Farm to going all Ozzy on us with Flavor of Love, Flav’s career trajectory from Public Enemy’s time keeper to serial reality TV clown has to be the biggest blow ever to hip hop’s street cred. Just the thought of him in that barn dancing to ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ gives me shivers.

4. The Obama effect. Like Spike Lee, I’m not drinking the “post-racial Kool-Aid” either. But there’s no escaping the fact that America now having a black president (all right, you pedants – a half-black President) has had the knock-on effect of making large chunks of black culture – music in particular – more mainstream. It’s also indirectly responsible for the next item on this list:

5. Dizzee Rascal’s Newsnight appearance. Sorry – this is supposed to be the things that made urban music MOR. Dizzee’s interview with Paxo just made it comical. My bad – but the next Dizzee-related thing on this list definitely belongs here…

6. Dizzee on the Electric Proms. I know the ‘Electric’ prefix is supposed to make them sound youthful, or less formal (or something) but ‘electric’ or not, the Proms are still the Proms – and you can’t get any more Middle England than that.

7. Timbaland wins Eurovision for the Russians. Here’s Russia’s first ever Eurovision Song Contest winner from 2008: Dima Bilan singing ‘Believe’ – produced by (whisper it) Timbaland! That victory puts one of the coolest producers in urban music in the same class as Abba and Celine Dion. I’ll say no more…

8. Dancin’ Alesha. I do love Alesha Dixon. The only time I’ve ever voted in a TV poll was for her to win Strictly Come Dancing. But when I remember Mis-Teeq’s “ragga gyal” and then hear that “does he wash up?” song, I can’t help but wonder if the price for mass appeal hasn’t been a bit too high…

9. 50 Cent is now a self-help guru. Personal development is the new religion of our time. And with his new opus The 50th Law, our man Fiddy can now be found in the ‘self-help’ selection in your local bookshop, stuck between Your Best Life Now and Screw It, Let’s Do It. Think about it: that annoying bloke who phones you up trying to sell you double glazing gets his motivation fix from a book Fiddy wrote! I wonder what his success seminars are like? Or his infomercials?

10. Dr Dre collaborates with Burt Bacharach. Actually, I’m changing my mind on this one too. It hasn’t made urban music MOR. But it did temporarily turn Mr. Bacharach into Burt Badass. And for that, Dre, I salute you.

Hanging Out With the Apples

If I were to pick the ideal venue to record interviews in, the EAT café in Notting Hill wouldn’t be my first choice. It’s tiny and extremely noisy (and I’m sure their staff don’t appreciate random people walking in and sitting down for 15 minutes without ordering anything either, so the feeling’s probably mutual). At the moment, however, it’ll have to do. It’s certainly a lot quieter than the nearby Notting Hill Arts club, where a handful of bands are busy soundchecking ahead of performing later today.

Two members of one of those bands – Israeli funk outfit The Apples – are huddled round a table with me: trombonist Yaron Ouzana, and DJ/turntablist Todres. A week ago, I’d met them for the first time at the Greenbelt festival, where I’d had the job of hosting two workshops they’d led there: one introducing themselves and their music, and one titled Tracing the History of Funk.

The rest of the nine-piece band’s line-up are: Arthur Krasnobaev (trumpet), Oleg Nayman (tenor & soprano saxophones), Yakir Sasson (baritone sax), Yonadav Halevy (drums), Alon Carmelly (double bass), Schoolmaster (turntables) and MixMonster (sound & live effects guy). Most of them are from Haifa in the north of Israel; Yaron is from Jerusalem. “A few of us studied together at the musical academy of Jerusalem,” explains Todres. “Some of us studied together at the musical faculty in Haifa’s university. We played together in some small groups, then Yoni (Yonadav, the drummer) had the idea to form this supergroup which would contain two djs and a really good four-piece horn section.”

And where did the name come from? “Our drummer loves apple juice,” says Todres. “He had to decide on a name just before our first gig, for the flyers and PR. And he just thought ‘Okay – let’s call ourselves the Apples.’ It was a last-minute decision. But it’s stuck. And there it is!”

“Most of us come from jazz music,” says Yaron, explaining how they gravitated towards funk. “Somehow, we went ‘way left’ to James Brown and all the funk around the JBs, Curtis Mayfield… all the good guys. We really got inspired by them. We have a lot of inspiration from other genres as well, such as reggae, dub, electronic music, classic rock, psychedelia and Latin music.”

In the seven years that they’ve been going, the Apples have shared the stage with some of the giants who’ve influenced them. Yaron, for one, is still awestruck from their collaborations with Fred Wesley of the JBs. “For me specifically as a trombonist,” he says, “meeting Fred was a dream come true; the highest point of my career. I never could have wished for more. He’s a huge man, an amazing musician, and I know all his licks and phrases! We’ve also had the privilege of working with Shlomo Bar who’s a legendary Israeli singer; he’s the founder of ethnic music in Israel. He’s amazing; he sings in gibberish! In some way, he fitted in with us.” One of Todres’ highlights was performing with Indian drummer Johnny Kalsi at WOMAD. “It was a last-minute idea,” he recalls. “Yoni knows him and so he asked him if he’d play with us, and he said ‘Yeah – of course!’ He heard the track once, then came on stage. It was crazy!”

If the audiences at their Greenbelt seminars are anything to judge by, the Apples are one band that can truly claim to reach all ages. During their ‘history of funk’ Q&A session, the people asking questions ranged from about 11 to 50-plus. “In Israel,” says Todres, “it’s kinda natural for us to see kids – or parents with kids – coming to see us.”

Yaron concurs. “There’s no age limit to the Apples’ audience. Anyone who can enjoy the music enjoys the music. We don’t aim our music at a specific age group or audience. We just enjoy playing.”

About three years ago, the band’s manager Zack Bar started working on a strategy to take their music overseas. He wrote letters and sent their music off to 200 record labels. London-based indie Freestyle Records warmed to two tracks: the title track of their second album, ATTENTION!, and their cover of the Rage Against the Machine song “Killing in the Name”.

“Freestyle released ‘Attention!’ on a compilation,” says Todres. “People began to ask who the Apples were. They then signed us up.” As a consequence, the Apples have spent a lot of time performing in and around Europe. “English audiences are good,” says Yaron approvingly. “We’ve been to Germany and Belgium and also Spain. But the UK is really like our second home now.”

Nevertheless, the Apples are still very committed to the Tel Aviv underground scene they consider themselves part of. At Greenbelt, their first seminar was meant to be an introduction to themselves as a band. They covered that in half an hour, then spent the remaining half hour talking about (and playing us music by) other Israeli artists, introducing us to the likes of Digital Me, UBK and the Ramirez Brothers (they’re not brothers, and their name’s not Ramirez).

Todres waxed lyrical on the band’s philosophy of sharing (he did tell me the Hebrew word for it, but I haven’t a clue how you spell it): “If you give away, you always get back. At Greenbelt it was kind of like, we’ve finished talking about ourselves; now we have time to give to our friends who are really good musicians, to give them some space so that other people around the world can know about their music because we think it’s good.

“All the things you heard – the Ramirez Brothers, Digital Me, UBK, the reggae stuff – all came from close friends of ours; people who are like family round us in Tel Aviv.”

“There are many, many musicians in Israel,” Yaron adds. “There are many bands and many new styles. And some of them are really successful around the world; Balkan Beat Box, for instance.”

But the challenges facing musicians are as real in Israel as they are anywhere else in the world. “People in Israel download music too,” says Todres. “But I don’t think this is the main issue. The important thing is that the underground scene has grown intensively in Israel over the past 10 years – especially in Tel Aviv.

“I think the minute you understand that you’re not going to become wealthy from music, this is the exact moment that all your attention goes on to the music itself.”

The Apples are touring the UK from the 30th of October to the 7th of November. If they’re playing a venue near you, make sure you see them; they’re well worth it.

Songs Every Dad Should Play for Their Sons

I’m not a dad myself (at least, not yet), but I like to think that when I do have kids, my taste in music will rub off on them. And while it’s not a good idea to live your life by everything pop stars say in their songs (come on – does anybody really want their ‘baby’ to hit them one more time? Or to dance into the fire?), every now and then you do come across one with some sage advice worth passing on to your offspring.

I was thinking about this the other day (as you do), and thought it would be fun to see how many songs I could come up with that either have some brilliant advice in for a dad to pass on to his boy, or songs a dad would want to play to his son because he wanted to school him in great music.

The most obvious song that comes to mind when you think of songs that have good fatherly advice in them is “Father & Son”. It’s not on my list because playing it means exposing your kids to Boyzone – which is tantamount to child abuse, in my opinion (besides, we all know that Boyzone is a gateway drug that could lead to full-blown Westlife addiction – or even worse, developing a liking for those twins on the X Factor).*

So here’s my shortlist of half a dozen songs I believe every dad should play to their sons. It’s a work in progress, so feel free to add your own, argue with my choices, etc. Just be sure to say why you’ve gone for the songs you’ve chosen.

• Real Man – Electric Church (because being a ‘playa’ is just stupid)
• Boys (Lesson One) – Jars of Clay (touching – in a good way)
• Try A Little Tenderness – Otis Redding (because every kid should hear at least one Otis song in their lifetime)
• Mr. Follow Follow – Fela Kuti (teach ‘em to think for themselves and not become lemmings)
• Gold Digger – Kanye West
• The Drugs Don’t Work – The Verve

Over to you, dads…

* Yes, I know Cat Stevens sang it originally. But whose version is better known these days?

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?