Greenbelt ’09: Day 2

Today was a very busy, full day – and for the first half of it, I pretty much managed to miss everyone I wanted to see!

I listened to Rob Bell speak for about half an hour, having pulled rank and used my press pass (and Rachel’s Access All Areas pass) to blag my way to the front of the 8 mile-long queue. Sadly, I didn’t get to hear everything Rob said; I had to leave at 11.00am for my first big interview of the day, with Tom Yendall and Ian Parker – two Mouth & Foot painters. I was busy chatting with Ian when I caught sight of an old mate, Dan Cunningham (Dapper Dan to his friends). Dan lives in Stoke, and as Ian had just mentioned to me that he lived in Stoke, I thought I’d introduce the two ‘Stokies’ to each other. Whenever I meet Dan at this festival, we invariably end up in the Beer Tent. This time was no exception…

We arrived at the beer tent just as Beer & Hymns was about to start. It’s pretty much become a Greenbelt tradition, but I’d never actually been to it before. The MC was clearly channelling Al Murray. I was halfway through my pint of cider when my mobile rang. Time to leave again…

In the afternoon, I joined the rest of the guys from Restore (my church) who’d come up for the day to celebrate Asha’s birthday. We had a lovely picnic on the lawn in the arena area. Nice cake… then it was time to get back to work. Had another failed attempt at adding pics to yesterday’s blog. More and more people are having problems with the wi-fi, so at least I now know it’s not just my computer. Anyway, I was needed to do an on-camera interview with Stu G, ahead of his gig in the Performance Café. Turned out to be just Stu on camera, for which I was immensely relieved; I’m not a telly person! We filmed the four-minute interview in one take. I might not be a telly person, but I’m still a pro…

As the evening progressed, I embarked on a ‘see as many gigs as possible’ blitz. I caught the Treehorns, Quench, Royksopp, Stu G covering Kanye West’s ‘Heartless – all with notebook in hand, as I was meant to be reviewing them (thankfully not full reviews – that would’ve been mental). Sadly, I missed Sway and the MPs he was with promoting Platform 2. I also missed Vula – two days, two Basement Jaxx lady singers gigs missed by me (I’d also missed Sharlene Hector’s the night before).

Carl (the guy looking after the DJs) is away at a wedding, so I’m still at a loose end as regards where and when I’ll be doing my DJ set. The Blue Nun wine bar looks cool…

Greenbelt ’09: Day 1

I’m finally here – at one of my most anticipated Greenbelts in my 19-year history of going to the festival. Here with even more hats on than usual. Here for the first time as a volunteer involved in the organising of the festival.

I arrived on site just after 1pm; picked up my volunteer’s wristband, then set about finding a space to pitch my tent. I found a prime location in the Volunteers’ camping area, just behind the Big Top (thankfully, all the gigs in there will be over long before my bedtime!).

Even though I’d packed meticulously in advance, I still managed to leave a couple of non-essentials behind – the worst omission of all being the tracksuit bottoms I was meant to wear to sleep (that place gets seriously cold at night. You want to be wrapped up as much as possible!). I’d also forgotten to bring a pot with me! Still I’ve got cereal for breakfast, and with the food vouchers I get for working here, I probably don’t need to cook! I’ll just donate the cans I brought with me at the end of the weekend…

Having done the volunteer check-in, I went and did all the Press formalities (told you I was wearing more hats than usual). My interview and press conference schedule got off to a good start with Bluetree. Not the quietest interview I’ve ever recorded (it took place backstage just as the festival was about to kick off), but the guys themselves were brilliant. In 40 minutes, they talked about everything from singing worship songs in a Thai brothel (and how that inspired them to start a movement against child sex trafficking), to tattoos (those guys have some of the most decorated arms in rock!), to the quirkiness involved in trying to make it in America (having to re-record their song ‘God of This City’ as ‘God of These Cities’ specifically for Minneapolis & St. Paul) – and a few tips for getting out of talking to your partner on the phone – but we won’t go into those…

Didn’t see too many gigs tonight; spent most of the time catching up with the many friends I’ve made coming here over the years. But I did want to see a little stand-up comedy. Now, in years past, comedy gigs at Greenbelt have always been over-subscribed. The Festival Bowl (Cheltenham Racecourse’s newest venue) seemed large enough to address that problem. Well, that’s what I thought – until I turned up after 8pm to see Andy Kind, and couldn’t get in because… yeah, you guessed it!

Later on, I had a look in the Blue Nun – the wine bar where I’m meant to do a DJ set at some point during the festival. Some young lad who was barely over 11 was playing some vintage 2-Tone stuff – well, mostly The Specials. The atmosphere there seemed pretty laid back, so I reckon some of my stuff will work in there… hold on, they’ve changed to drum n’ bass! Mental!

Sixpence None the Richer closed the first night’s mainstage line-up. They opened with ‘Kiss Me’ – which sparked off a conversation amongst some in the audience as to how they’d finish the set, given that they’d opened with their biggest ever hit. The gig seemed to be a sounding board for their new album, which they’re currently working on and is due in the shops next April. After Sixpence, I caught a bit of Last Orders, then retired to bed – where I had to sleep in my jeans. Still, better to be scruffy than freeze to death…

Baaba Maal: the Man on the Telly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another blog about Michael Jackson…

The past 72 hours have been rather surreal, I don’t mind telling you.

For me, it started with a text message late Thursday night. I was in bed with a glass of wine, alternating between Question Time and My Name is Earl on telly when I received it.

“Switch on the news,” it shrieked. “MJ is dead according to reports!”

So I did. Sky News had already pronounced him dead by then; other news channels seemed to be trying to have their cake and eat it, saying that the LA Times had reported him dead but they couldn’t confirm it. And that was it. What was meant to have been an early night (by my standards) turned into a news marathon.

Figuring that the most reliable news source would be the one closest to the subject, I turned over to CNN and stayed there until midnight, when it abruptly turned into a gambling channel (yes, I’m one of those cheapskates who has Freeview instead of paying for Virgin or Sky). I then turned over to BBC News and stayed there for another hour or so before deciding that my need for sleep was greater than my need to know every detail of how it had happened.

The craziness continued after I woke up on Friday morning and settled down to do some work. After reading one Facebook status update too many quoting the “what does it profit a man if he lose his soul?” scripture (and even a few which very authoritatively claimed that Michael was now in Hell), I’d had enough. I’m not the rabid sort of MJ fan who thought he could never do any wrong, but the insensitivity was too much. So I fired back, saying, “Allow people some time to mourn before throwing all your ‘sound doctrine’ at us!” That in turn led to some interesting private conversations and a few very touching personal emails.

And then the big one happened. A producer for Radio 4’s Sunday morning programme rang me up and said they were looking for a music journalist who had knowledge of religious issues to talk about whatever faith Michael Jackson may have had, and how that faith was reflected in his music.

The call wasn’t totally unexpected; my friend Bernard who also works for the BBC had pre-warned me that it was coming. I had a few initial apprehensions; what made me qualified enough to talk about such a subject? Yes, I had looked into some of those issues when I wrote the chapter on Michael in the Rough Guide to Rock book – but that was years ago. But when the call finally came, all those fears disappeared.

The producer fired questions at me; I answered. We discussed all sorts of things: Michael’s upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness; how he’d put a disclaimer at the start of the Thriller video when its horror movie theme upset the JW leadership; other religious figures who’d influenced him; the various (and in my opinion, ludicrous) Internet rumours linking him with everything from radical Islam to devil worship… Eventually, the producer made arrangements for me to come in to Radio 4 to be interviewed for the show.

Now I had to do my homework. I’m usually the person doing the interviewing and I’m fine with that. Being interviewed, on the other hand, still makes me nervous. I went for a swim and used the time in the pool to do some more thinking about how Michael “did God” in his music.

There’s no doubt that some of Michael’s work had an element to it that could be considered spiritual, or at the very least ‘positive’ (if he was a reggae singer, I’d say ‘conscious’). The most obvious example would be ‘Man in the Mirror’. So yes, there was a spiritual side to some of MJ’s music.

What Michael didn’t do, though, was anchor the message in his songs to one specific faith. Whereas you’d have Prince sing “Don’t die without knowing the cross” (an obvious reference to Christianity), Michael on the other hand would sing “Keep the faith” but leave it up to you to decide which faith it was you were meant to be keeping. And the “be the change you want to see” message in ‘Man in the Mirror’ is one that is embraced by people of all faiths – and even by a few of us who claim not to have any.

That’s not to say that people with a specific faith didn’t influence Michael’s music. Various Christians in particular made a huge contribution. Seawind, the horn section on the Quincy Jones-produced albums, were a gospel group in their own right. Scan the credits on the albums, and you’ll find several others. The most notable is the legendary gospel singer Andrae Crouch, who did the vocal arrangements on ‘Man in the Mirror’ and on ‘Will You Be There’ and ‘Keep the Faith’ on the Dangerous album (in the last couple of days, Andrae has had to refute rumours now doing the rounds in some Evangelical circles, claiming that he and his twin sister Sandra converted Michael to Christianity a week or two before he died).

In the end, I never got to share any of this on air. A few hours after the first phone call, the producer called again to say they’d found someone in America who had been in the same JW fellowship as Michael, and would be having him on the show instead. A pity; I was really looking forward to having a go at being a Nelson George or even a Stuart Maconie.

Rest easy, Jacko. And thanks for all the tunes (though I’m not so sure I want to thank you for my mid-80s Jehri curl phase)…

Africa Oyé ‘09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GMA: Is This the End?

Another GMA week ended for me about an hour ago. As I sit here in the Panera Bread restaurant in downtown Nashville that has been my satellite office this week (the day these guys set up shop in the UK, my days of using Starbucks as my ‘office away from home’ are over – or at least numbered), I can’t help but wonder where it all went wrong.

I’d already written my post-GMA blog/note in my head months ago, back when I had the initial signs that this GMA was going to be a bit of a problem. It was to be an open letter to John W. Styll, the President of the Gospel Music Association. I was going to ask him if he remembered me, the British reporter who’d interviewed him the previous year – an interview that was heard across London and the rest of the UK on Premier Radio.

Then I’d point out to him that I’d been unable to do the same thing this year because he and his crew had come to the conclusion that us reporters weren’t covering their precious convention and so were now charging us something in the region of $200 for the privilege of doing our jobs (jobs which don’t pay a great deal, to be honest). By charging us to work (in the midst of a credit crunch), the GMA were, in my mind, cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

Well, there’s no need to publish that letter now. Turns out us journo scum weren’t the only people getting short shrift from the Association – or the only people voting with our feet/wallets. Attendance figures here were down to about a third of the usual figure. Only 40 media outlets paid for press passes (I’m told). There were journalists here – but like myself, they’d all refused to buy passes, and simply contacted publicists directly and set up their own interviews, completely bypassing GMA in the process.

Independent labels turned up, found an empty space in the lobby at either the Renaissance or the Hilton, and networked as usual. Like us journalists, the other industry people discovered that they could make things happen for themselves without GMA’s help. In trying to milk us for money, GMA just showed us that we really didn’t need them in order to do business. On the “Disastrous Own Goal” scale, only Andres Escobar at the 1994 World Cup could possibly rank higher. And like Escobar’s, this own goal has probably cost the GMA its life.

But I don’t want to bury the GMA just yet. All week, there have been rumours flying around that this is going to be the last GMA ever. It would be a shame if that were the case. Yes, we all now know we can do business with or without them (in an age where just about every contact or business tip you need is freely available on the Internet, how did it take us this long to figure that out?), but one thing GMA has consistently done is provide a space where we can all meet. Not via email, Skype, phone or video conferencing (or whatever), but in person. And it would be a shame if we lost that.

Call me old-fashioned if you must, but I still believe there’s a place for in-person, face-to-face, smell-the-other-guy’s-breath-on-your-face meetings; for human contact. As someone who could easily do most of his work without ever setting foot outside his flat, I for one do appreciate those times when I can combine work with a little socialising. If that’s the only function GMA ends up serving, then so be it. But the organisation definitely needs a re-think of its purpose. If it doesn’t learn that from this year’s abysmal turnout, then maybe it does deserve to die.

India: last week’s news

Media junkie that I am, I couldn’t spend ten days in a media-heavy country like India and not sample the local press, telly and radio. Here are a few of the stories that caught my eye while I was out there.

On the day we arrived, the Hindustan Times had a story on its front page which seemed to disprove the old saying that beggars can’t be choosers. “Playing God in caste-crazy Bihar” said the headline to a piece telling how many childless couples in Bihar are demanding to know what caste their potential sperm donors come from. Sad…

The story that dominated the week’s news agenda happened on Wednesday, when Jarnail Singh (a Sikh journalist) threw a shoe at India’s Home Minister during a press conference.

The incident was another chapter in a story that goes back all the way to 1984 when Indira Gandhi’s assassination sparked off anti-Sikh riots which left over 3,000 Sikhs dead. Jagdish Tytler – a former minister and member of India’s Congress Party – had been accused of being involved in those riots, but had been cleared in 2007… and again last week. But this was all too much for Jarnail Singh, who decided on hurling footwear at the Home Minister as an effective means of protest.

Tytler had been running as a candidate in the elections currently taking place in India. But by the end of the week, he’d announced his decision to withdraw from the race. He said he didn’t think he should fight as “a lot of embarrassment has been caused to the (Congress) party.” I’m thinking the Congress top brass figured it was more expedient to lose one troublesome candidate, rather than millions of Sikh voters…

Bollywood shuffle #1. An almighty row is brewing between India’s filmmakers and the owners of the multiplexes that screen their films, over how big a share of the takings the film producers should receive.

The producers asked for 50% of all ticket sales from multiplexes. Predictably, the multiplex owners told them to get lost. The producers responded to that by refusing to release any new films after the 4th of April. And so Bollywood is now locked in its own equivalent of the writers’ strike that hit Hollywood last year. Two top Bollywood stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, have tried to mediate between the two sides – so far with not much success.

Bollywood shuffle #2. Meanwhile, there’s been a less-than-warm response to a new reality TV show featuring Bollywood actress Rakhi Sawant. Rakhi ka Swayamvar follows Ms. Sawant as she searches for a husband.

As you may guess, this hasn’t gone down too well in a society which still values the institution of marriage very highly. But I have another reason for not liking it. Anyone who’s seen a few Bollywood movies knows that they occasionally “borrow” ideas from Western films, telly shows, etc. (just go to Youtube and type the words “Indian thriller” into the search engine. You’ll soon see what I mean). We know that and accept it as part of the charm of Bollywood. However, you have to be seriously desperate to nick programme ideas from Jodie Marsh!

Real Girl Power. My favourite story of the week appeared in the Hindustan Times on Sunday; the story of Rekha Kalindi. 12-year-old Rekha lives in a small village in West Bengal – a village with the lowest female literacy rate in India. Amongst her tribe, girls traditionally get married at the age of 12. However, when Rekha turned 12 last November, she put her foot down and refused to be hitched – standing firm even when her dad cut off her supply of food, water and soap.

Rekha’s act of rebellion inspired other girls in her village to do the same, and there haven’t been any child marriages there ever since – something the Indian Government had been trying to achieve for years without much success.

According to Rekha, she decided not to get married so young because she wanted to go to school and get an education. Seeing her older sister Jyotsna must have helped too. Jyotsna did get married at 12; by the time she’d turned 15, she’d already lost four babies.

Rekha was in the papers again yesterday. The president of India heard her story and has now invited her over to visit the Rashtrapati Bhawan (the Presidential palace). Not bad for a young bidi-roller…

Sadly, the expression “You go, girl!” hasn’t been translated in my English-to-Hindi phrasebook. Neither have “Gwaan!”, “Respect!”, “Brap brap!”, “Way to go!” or “Booyaka!” So I guess I’ll just have to settle for “Congratulations!” and throw in a “Namaste” for good measure. Here’s to Rekha – proof that it just takes one individual to start a revolution.

Swaziland: Days 7 & 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swaziland: Day 6

Saturday, sometime…

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

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

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

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

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

Swaziland: Day 1

Well, it’s now close to two weeks since I flew off to Johannesburg en route to Swaziland, on a work trip covering the activities of Samaritan’s Purse/Operation Christmas Child in Africa.

Every year, thousands of schoolkids across the UK fill shoeboxes up with toys and various other bits and bobs. OCC distributes those shoeboxes to needy children in parts of Africa and Eastern Europe.  I was asked to go along with this team (made up of 12 people from over here who are usually involved in getting the shoeboxes together), and report on what happened as they saw the gifts being distributed in Swaziland.

I’ve now been through the photographs I took (all 724 of them), downloaded over six hours of interviews and actuality I recorded, and made some attempt at getting my thoughts together. I’m in the process of writing articles about the trip for a couple of magazines. Here, though, is the diary I kept on the road – starting the day we arrived…

Monday 16 Feb, 5pm-ish: Boy, I’s shattered. We landed in Jo’burg just after seven this morning, having endured a 10-hour plane ride in sardine class (Virgin, what the heck?). That was followed by a seven-hour bus ride… and we crossed the border sometime around 3pm-ish. Must. Have. Sleep…

Now for a brief diversion as George reviews his in-flight movies:

BURN AFTER READING: John Malkovich says the F-word repeatedly and Brad Pitt behaves like an ass. And just when you thought Batman & Robin was the low point of George Clooney’s acting career…

ROCKNROLLA: I’ve come to the conclusion that Guy Ritchie has only got one script. He just changes the valuable thing that goes missing and everybody wants to get their hands on. In Lock, Stock… it was dope; in Snatch it was a diamond; this time round, it’s a painting. I’m guessing it’s not ‘The Fallen Madonna With the Big Boobies’.

GET SMART:Loved the 60s sitcom and was hoping they hadn’t messed up on the film version. Can’t tell you how good a job they did, because I fell asleep shortly after it started and woke up just before the closing credits. But before I dozed off, I saw a scene that was exactly the same as a key event in Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. A very, very bad omen…

Anyway, back to what I’m meant to be telling you about…

We landed just after seven, and breezed through Immigration and Customs with all our baggage intact. Clement (one of our translators) was waiting in Arrivals, having stayed overnight in Jo’burg (the border closes at 7pm, so you have to stay in SA overnight if you’re going to meet someone that early in the morning).

From what little I saw of Johannesburg, it appears that South Africa has got a bit of a combined UK/USA thing going for it. We went into a Spar supermarket in Bethel (a ‘Superspar’, as it was called), which looked just like a Wal-Mart or some other American supermarket. The shopping precincts also reminded me of America – but they drive on the left hand side of the road, which is where the US similarities end. Seeing Tom Jones Street raised a few smiles on board our minibus – as did the ‘Beware of Hippos and Crocs’ sign that greeted us when we finally arrived at the Maguga Lodge, our home for the first part of our trip to Swaziland.

Our base for the first five days is the Hhohho region in the north of the country. The team will be visiting schools and a hospital in the town of Pigg’s Peak. We’re staying close to the Maguga Dam, one of this area’s main tourist spots. The dam looks really spectacular, like a water slide for mental extreme sports fans (you’d probably break your neck if you tried sliding down it though, I reckon).

The Maguga Lodge is beautiful – but then, from what little I’ve seen so far, so is Swaziland. We had some serious African rain for much of the bus ride. I mean serious African rain. The kind of warm downpour we used to have in my schooldays back in Freetown. Boy, that brings back memories…

Today’s mostly the chill-to-get-your-bodies-back-in-sync day. The team hits the ground running tomorrow with a big distribution at Pigg’s Peak. They’re expecting around a thousand kids – plus the Mayor and a couple of Swazi Government representatives. Also looking forward to chatting some more with Clement and the rest of our translators, Blessing, Tiny and Sosanda (I think that’s how she spells it). And of course there’s Bishop Zakes Nxumalo, our host here in Swaziland. He’s already given us a comprehensive intro to Swazi culture, of which the only thing I can remember right now is that when you offer to shake someone’s hand, you give them one hand supported by the other; kind of what The Todd in Scrubs would call an “assisted five!” And “yebo” means “yes”. Apparently that word crops up a lot in interactions with people here…

Anyway, it’s time for a rest. Big day ahead…

THE TEAM
Team Leader              Trevor Hammond
Assistant Team Leader        Roger Fenton
Team Pastor            Mike Wildsmith
Team Host            Bishop Zakes Nxumalo
Team Photographer        me

Rest of the team: Fiona Baxter, Andrea Clews, Margaret Griffin, Val Loach, Joan Pygott, Rob Stacey, Heather Young