Review: Alexander Abreu y Havana D’Primera

Review: Alexander Abreu y Havana D’Primera
The Electric, Brixton, Friday 12 April

Spring’s finally arrived in London. I know that not because of the weather (heck, it might as well still be winter), but because that delightfully eclectic Latin music festival, La Linea, is here once again. And it kicked off in grand style with one of Cuba’s most popular bands at the moment, Alexander Abreu y Havana D’ Primera, in their debut UK appearance.

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

I’d come to the Electric tonight mainly to discover an artist I didn’t know. As it turns out, I was already familiar with more of Alexander’s music than I realised. The song ‘Pasaporte’ is a firm favourite at the salsa dance class I frequent most Friday nights, and I had tried several times to find out who the artist responsible for it was, without success (seriously, Shazam – does every salsa track in the world have the title ‘Sorry, We Couldn’t Find a Match for This Music’? But I digress). Long before the band took to the stage, a massive poster up on the stage informed us that this gig was in fact the London leg of Alexander’s ‘Pasaporte Tour 2013’. So now I know, I can go and buy his album. But anyway, back to the gig…

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

This wasn’t so much a gig as a party – a six hour fiesta with Alexander and his band sandwiched between some of the finest salsa DJs the Big Smoke has to offer. The band took to the stage around 11.15pm. The sound seemed a bit iffy for the first number; nevertheless, the guys gave a stellar performance – tight as anything and with the larger-than-life Alexander proving to be an able ‘hype man’ as well as a good singer. The command “¡Manos pa’arriba!” (hands in the air) was never far from his lips. When they did play ‘Pasaporte’ (which they began with a cheeky nod to Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’) the whole house sang along.

The hour and a bit that Alexander and his band were on stage for came and went a bit too quickly for my liking. But suffice it to say they made a great first impression – and what a way to kick off a festival! After this gig tonight and El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico’s gig last year, the Electric is fast becoming my favourite salsa gig venue in London…

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Famous Sierra Leoneans: A*M*E*

I know I haven’t done one of these for a while. It’s not because I ran out of famous Sierra Leoneans to write about or anything like that; it’s just… [Save the explanations and get on with it, mate]

 

If you follow the UK charts, then you probably know that Duke Dumont‘s club hit ‘Need U (100%)’ unseated Ant & Dec’s ‘Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble’ from the Number One slot yesterday (7 April). Guest lead vocalist on the song is the rising singer songwriter Aminata “Amy” Kabba, aka A*M*E*. So, who exactly is this young lady who’s helped rescue the charts from the tyranny of PJ & Duncan, I hear you ask?

 

Well, she was born in Freetown in 1994 – three years after the Sierra Leone civil war started, and three years before it hit Freetown. Her mum was a hairdresser with her own salon; as the war intensified, the salon was burnt down and Amy (then only eight) moved to the safety of the UK.

 

In her new home, she joined her school choir. From there, she spread her creative wings, linking up with another singer-songwriter, MNEK. One of their collaborations (a song called City Lights) caught the attention of Gary Barlow, who ended up signing her to his label, Future Records.

   

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

 

 

Remembering Terry Callier

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

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

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

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

Greenbelt 2012

Ten days.

It finished serving its actual purpose five days ago. But it’s still here, jostling with my watch for wrist space, now serving a higher purpose of reminding me how great the August Bank Holiday weekend was.

And it appears that I’m not the only Greenbelt punter who develops this weird emotional attachment to their festival wristband and can’t bring themselves to cut it off the moment they’re off the festival site. Friends and I have joked about it on Twitter, where some crazy “let’s see who can leave theirs on the longest” contest seems to have started. Ten days is the longest time mine’s been on for. It may come off tonight – but then again it might not. And why should it? As I said before, reminding me of how great Greenbelt was is as worthy a duty as getting me in to things on the festival site – especially now that I’ve washed away all traces of the mud I brought back…

At any minute, I expected Shrek to show up and yell at us to stay off his swamp…

Greenbelt 2012 was by far my muddiest Greenbelt. But unlike Greenbelt ’92 (which held the record until this year, and which I’ve declared my worst ever, after falling into some mud on my first night and not recovering), Greenbelt ’12 was truly awesome despite the mud. Infinitely muddier than ’92, but a much more joy-filled experience.

It was also my busiest Greenbelt. When I wasn’t interviewing performers and speakers for Surefish, I was either being filmed (for a promo video that should be out soon), DJing (which I did three times over the course of the weekend) or fretting over how well my short talk for GTV (on the topic “How to be a DJ”) would go.

The talk went well, thanks for asking. It would have gone even better from my point of view if I’d stuck to the script all throughout – but that’s me being my own harshest critic. The feedback I’ve had has all been good (especially the 12-year-old girl who found it “inspiring”; I do hope I’ve inspired a future Annie Nightingale!). The scariest part of it for me was doing the live beatmatching demo – but I nailed it first time, which was good.

Of all my DJing gigs over the course of the festival, the Friday night silent disco was by far the most surreal. For a start, you were DJing with two pairs of headphones on (you can’t do the “one ear on, one ear off” thing because there’s no sound from the speakers in the room). And of course, you immediately can’t tell who’s listening to you or to the other DJ – except for those odd occasions when the ones who are start singing along to what you’re playing. I now have a video clip on my mobile phone of a tent full of people singing “Where’s Your Head At?” after one such moment.
Silent DJs
Hard at work, Silent disco DJ-ing (Photo taken by Elaine Duigenan)

While I may not have seen all the speakers and gigs I’d wanted to (Frank Skinner and Bruce Cockburn being just two of the many I wanted to see but missed), I was able to chat to a good few of them in the Press room. It was nice meeting Richard Coles in person, having become Facebook friends with him earlier this year. Bruce Cockburn, Tony Campolo and Steve Taylor were all in fine form. Abigail Washburn offered to hold my mike for me when she noticed that my energy was beginning to sap – lovely woman she is.

Other memorable moments? Simon Parke’s talk on solitude; Hope & Social in their blue blazers, running around the Mainstage (“the Hope & Social Workout”, they called it); bumping into Chris Hale from Aradhna in the beer tent on the first night, and us subsequently chatting over pints of Crazy Goat until 1am; seeing the Proclaimers from both backstage and the front; Bobby Bovell introducing me to his dad after his gig on the Canopy Stage… and the blind guy I met at Cheltenham Spa train station on Tuesday morning, who overheard Simon Cross and I talking about the festival and joined in the convo to tell us how much he’d loved Sugarfoot’s Performance Cafe gig on Friday night.

I say it every year (well, apart from 1992): Greenbelt was excellent this year. And if a little strip of grey plastic evokes all those good memories a little longer, then that’s no bad thing. Maybe I could just leave this wristband on for another ten days…

Yeah, it’ll be fine for another 10 days, I reckon…

Film review: “Nefarious – Merchant of Souls”

With a title like that, you’d be forgiven for expecting this film to be some LOTR/Game of Thrones-style fantasy flick (more so when I tell you that it’s part 1 of a trilogy). In actual fact, Nefarious is a hard-hitting documentary exposing the dark side of the sex trade.

The Nefarious film trilogy is produced by Exodus Cry – one of a number of organisations that have cropped up in recent years with the aim of tackling human trafficking and raising awareness about it. This first episode takes us to see the Eastern European gangs who shift women across the continent and into places such as Amsterdam’s red light district. From there, we head to the Far East, where we see men who travel across continents to buy girls as young as 10… and then hear the shocking news that many of the girls in the brothels have been put up for sale by their own parents.

After Eastern Europe and the Far East, our next stop is the USA itself – and it was at this point that for me the film seemed to veer off-topic – or rather, to settle in on the subject it was really interested in. The stories we heard from ex-prostitutes interviewed in the film were no less harrowing than the ones we heard from trafficked European women and Asian girls. But to describe them as being “trafficked” in the same way that the first batch of girls/women that we met had been just didn’t work for me. When we were in Eastern Europe and Cambodia/Thailand, we saw organised gangs of people making a concerted effort to round up women and girls for sale. In Las Vegas (and London), we saw a handful of individuals who had been abused earlier in life and had drifted into prostitution more or less of their own accord years later. I’m not saying that one route in is any better or worse than another, just that they’re not exactly the same.

Also, having been told that I was coming to see a film about human trafficking, it bothered me a bit that all we ever saw about trafficking was the sexual side of it. I did raise this issue with someone from Exodus Cry after the film, and her reply was that they had deliberately chosen sex trafficking as their primary focus, but were planning to expand their vision and to start looking into trafficking for labour purposes. I hope they do; it’s great that trafficking is on people’s minds, but it does sometimes feel as if all the focus is on sex and no-one is speaking up for the slaves hidden away sewing our designer clothes, assembling our electronic toys and harvesting our coffee and chocolate.

Anyway, back to Nefarious. As I said before, prostitution is where the film’s heart really is. We’re told of the psychological damage it takes to make a young woman prostitute material. The ex-prostitutes interviewed tell us of their scariest experiences “on the job” and the low spots their lives hit before a turnaround came. We go to Sweden and see how effective their policy of criminalising prostitutes’ customers has been (by this time, I’d forgotten the little Cambodian girls, and instead found myself gaining a new appreciation for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels). This being a film made by a Christian organisation, the obligatory Christian testimonies are in there, along with the equally obligatory reference to William Wilberforce in the form of a rallying call to become an “incurable fanatic” in the fight against the sex trade.

And that was Volume 1 of the Nefarious trilogy; harrowing and heartbreaking, but ultimately full of hope. Although I still think it doesn’t fully do human trafficking justice as a subject, I would happily recommend it to friends of mine who work with prostitutes.

In conversation: Wicked Aura

As promised, I’ve started packaging the artist interviews I did at Midem a couple of weeks ago into podcasty radio features for your listening enjoyment.

Here’s the first one; an interview with Budi, lead guy with the Singaporean drum ensemble Wicked Aura. He was great fun to talk to, and as for the band… well, you really have to see them play live!

Wicked Aura in action at Club Da Da Da in Cannes. Budi (centre) has his hand in the air.

Have a listen, and enjoy!

MIDEM Days 2 & 3: “just rambling…”

Easily the most random promo freebie I've ever been given at MIDEM - a little sachet of rice!

Day 3, Morning: I’m trying a couple of things differently today. First of all, I’ve decided to make the radical move of leaving my laptop at home – and so am depending entirely on my iPad for all my work today. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes…

I’ll be jotting things down more or less as they happen. First, though, a recap of yesterday…

The day went pretty well, for the most part. For some reason, all the people at this thing who are more interested in saving the planet (or just being normal) than in living the rock n roll dream seemed to gravitate towards me. I’m not complaining for one bit; it was great chatting with people who aren’t up themselves! I had a lovely lunch with Van Taylor (a jazz musician and cultural ambassador from the US; one of the Three 2 Go acts I interviewed the previous day). We talked about various humanitarian efforts we’d either been involved in or witnessed at work. Later, I caught up with Anthony Brightly again, who’s doing some big charity work in the Caribbean (more on that in future blog posts).

In fact, the closest I came to rock n roll excess yesterday was attending a press conference on board a luxury yacht (for the University of Reading’s MBA in Music course at Henley) – and the crappy weather here killed any mystique that would normally have had stone dead! Still, I got to chat to a high level banker from Coutt’s, who told me how they were giving bursaries to the most promising students on the course. 25 grand to learn how to be a manager. I’ll let those of you who are managers tell me whether that’s good value for money…

Wicked Aura, with Budi (centre) in the kilt): they hit drums, and they kick butt.

I finally got to see some live music last night. Earlier in the day, I’d interviewed a couple of acts from Singapore: singer and multi-instrumentalist Tei Kewei, and Budi, leader of the band Wicked Aura. Their showcase at Club Da Da Da – together with a few other artists from Singapore – was fantastic. Wicked Aura in particular are a spectacle to behold; ten guys playing just about every shape and size of drum imaginable, with a strong punk attitude and a charismatic front man. Bloody brilliant…

I haven’t got much on my schedule today, apart from going to hear what Mark Ronson has to say in his ‘Visionary Monday’ talk this afternoon – and of course to see how far I get using only my iPad to work today…

While I was going about my business yesterday, there was this one guy I kept bumping into outside the conference venue. He could easily have just been one of the many African guys hanging about outside, except that he wasn’t selling umbrellas. Instead, he was handing out flyers advertising his new album! His name was Prince Kestamg and he’s originally fom Cameroon. Strangely, he didn’t have a badge, and so couldn’t get in. But that didn’t stop him networking like mad outside…

Prince K: Cool character, isn't he?

The best track on his CD was a cover of San Fan Thomas’ song African Typic Collection – a classic that could be considered one of the forerunners of today’s ‘Afrobeats’ craze (I-bloody-HATE-that-word *deep breath*). When I finally did get to interview Prince this afternoon, what was supposed to be a simple mic level check turned into an acapella singing session. Have a listen… http://abfiles.s3.amazonaws.com/swf/fullsize_player.swf

Mark Ronson (left) talks Coca Cola Olympic stuff

Just after 3pm: Got mixed feelings about the ‘Visionary Monday’ session I was in. I guess I was expecting to hear Mark Ronson talk more about the creative process, rather than what was basically a long plug for Coca Cola’s involvement in the London Olympics. Even Ronson seemed to be taking his role as Coke spokesman to extremes, dressed in a red shirt with matching belt and socks. Still, the short time he spent explaining how me produced his Olympics tune (using sound samples from athletes around the world) was quite inspiring. i must admit I lost interest after that with all the marketing speak. I guess this was just another reminder that MIDEM is primarily about business, rather than music.

Just after 5pm: Just did another impromptu interview with another African artist – a Zambian singer based in Germany, who goes by the name of Mister Kibs. He has a showcase at 10pm tonight; I’m torn between staying in Cannes to see it, or going home early and spending the rest of the evening editing audio.

And how has my “leave the laptop at home and just use the iPad” experiment gone? Well, I’ve certainly had less of a load to carry about, and more space in my bag for freebies! I have had to resort to using the press room’s computers for uploading pics from my camera (and eventually for posting this blog, as it failed when I tried to do it via the WordPress iPad app). On the whole, it hasn’t been a bad experience but I think I’m still too attached to my lappy to abandon it completely!

PS. The experiment kinda went awry when the WordPress iPad app wouldn’t let me access what I’d written. Thankfully, I also had it on Evernote…