My “NaNoWriMovember”

November was an interesting month, to say the least. It did seem to fly by very quickly; I’m not sure how much of that was down to what I spent the month doing. And what was that, I hear you ask? Well, I mostly spent it writing a novel and growing a moustache. Let me explain…

Back in April, I’d spent the month doing the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge. That time, I only managed just over 29, 000 words (to be honest, I only really got going on day 23). Still, I learnt a fair bit from the experience – both about the novel-writing process and about myself.

I was in two minds about doing Nanowrimo after that; squeezing out two novels in a year seemed like a big stretch. But even though I had no pre-planned story idea and never really made the decision to do it until three days before kick-off, I jumped in on the first of the month and just wrote a load of stuff. There were a couple of days in that first week when I flagged a bit, but I basically just went with the “just write” advice and just wrote.

I started with a couple of characters just talking to each other – mostly over big dinners or very short chess games (very short because one of them was rubbish at chess and they’d both had a fair bit to drink). Various elements of people I’ve met began to click together to form new characters. After ‘freestyling’ for about a week and a half with three different sets of characters, their paths began to cross and a story began to develop – a story which became a bit more exciting (and totally daft) after I took a friend’s suggestion and wrote a certain reality TV character into the book! (Before I get sued, I should point out that the character in the book is only modelled on him. It’s not him!).

Anyway, to cut a long story short (and other cliches I’ve banned myself from using), I won NaNoWriMo. My word count clocked 51,725 on Day 30 – although according to NaNoWriMo’s word count verifier, it was only 50,056. Either way, that was enough to get me past the 50,000-word target.

Around the time I was twiddling my thumbs over whether or not to join in the exercise in total madness that is Nanowrimo, someone at work suggested that the men in the office join him in participating in ‘Movember’ – where men get sponsored to grow moustaches during the month of November, to raise money for the Prostate Cancer Charity.  Though not a big fan of either beards or moustaches, I thought I’d give it a go. After all, it’s a lot easier to do than writing a novel (if you think about it, it just involves NOT doing something – shaving – and so doesn’t really require much effort). And so I ended up with one seriously itchy caterpillar under my nose… and the campaign to kick cancer’s butt became £60 richer. Thanks to all of you who gave, and didn’t tell me I looked ridiculous.

There's one serious Mo', bro...

November was also special for reasons other than novel-writing and moustache-growing. Among the month’s other highlights, my dad turned 75 and we celebrated with an enormous meal in Rodzio Rico – a Brazilian restaurant in the O2. Two friends got married in a lovely wedding service in the City Temple. On a much sadder note, another friend died after a lengthy bout with cancer (the second friend of mine to die from that vile illness in as many years).

After all that, December’s looking rather unexciting. Still there’s Christmas to look forward to (do adults really look forward to Christmas?) and a few more mundane things to take care of – last year’s tax return being top of the list. Having not done any messing about with music in November, I plan to spend a bit more time working on stuff on the DJ front (expect a mixtape or two up on here before the end of the year).

And that was my “NaNoWriMovember”. It was fun, but I’m kind of glad it’s over.

Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then I’ll begin…

I’m not a big fan of ‘reality’ TV shows, but one of them has been keeping me entertained quite a lot over the last few weekends. Not the show itself, so much as all the banter that you get on the two main social networking sites when it’s on. In fact, it’s become something of a weekend ritual for me. The show starts; I fire up my laptop and read the barrage of sarky tweets and Facebook status updates that ensue as the show unfolds. Sometimes I don’t even have to have the telly on to enjoy the fun. I’ve been on a train from Sheffield to London with nothing but my laptop and a wifi connection, and still been thoroughly entertained.

Sadly, though, the fun only lasts until Sunday evening when we get the results of the previous night’s voting. That’s when (depending on how the results have gone) the tweets and status comments go from being light-hearted and fun to whiny and vitriolic.

I know that generally we all get upset when our favourite team loses. But for some unknown reason, the people who watch this show tend to take that disappointment to infinity and beyond. Suddenly it becomes a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the UK. Every now and then, some level-headed soul will try to restore some balance by reminding us that it is, after all, just a TV karaoke show and nothing to get too steamed up about. But that usually just seems to stir up more anger (why are the people who take ‘reality TV’ so seriously always so bloody angry? I thought it was supposed to be light entertainment?). Well, I don’t care anymore. It’s time to point out one simple fact the complainers have clearly forgotten.

So far this series, the highest audience figure this show has had is 12.6 million. That’s a lot of people. But here’s the thing: the population of the UK is 61.8 million. Big though it is, 12.6 million is just a fifth of the country’s population. And that’s just the number of people who watch the thing; the number that actually votes is even lower than that.

People, please bear that figure in mind before making any sweeping value judgements about the state of Britain based on however the results turn out. If the bottom two are black, it isn’t conclusive proof that the whole of Britain is racist (especially if Wagner gets through again, what with him being Brazilian and all). And if Wagner does get through again, please don’t whine about the British public having no taste (at least big them up for having a sense of humour). Remember: it’s (less than) one in five people.

Have a “glass half full” attitude. Instead of moaning about the (less than) one in five Brits who have bad taste in music, why not commend the four who have good taste in music (and who demonstrate that good taste in the most obvious way possible: by simply choosing NOT to watch this bloody programme)?

Oh, and of you’re going to moan generally about “this not really being a singing contest” or “the judges deliberately don’t choose the best singers” – change the record, please. You’ve been watching this show now for at least five years; surely by now you know how it works? Stop making exactly the same complaint every year. You’ve seen the pattern; you know they never deviate from the script; and yet you still choose to watch – so put up or shut up.

Now grab a beer and sit down, tune in and tweet; make those sarky comments on your Facebook statuses, and let’s all have a laugh. Mock the off-key singing, the dodgy hairstyles, the “drunk uncle at a wedding” dance moves and Louis (PLEASE, do mock Louis!). By all means root for your favourite… but keep it light-hearted. Don’t get too precious about the result – or the show itself. Definitely don’t see it in any way, shape or form as an indicator of how the whole country thinks.

Remember, it’s only a TV show.

Greenbelt ’10: Looking back (sideways) with fondness…

It’s been a week since my last Greenbelt-related post; a week since that fun two hours I spent spinning tunes in the Blue Nun. The rest of the festival’s still fresh in my mind (well, it has to be; I’ve been writing reviews of it for other websites and magazines all week!), so maybe I should round up here with the rest of my personal reflections and impressions from the festival that celebrated ‘the art of looking sideways’…

The DJ set in the Blue Nun (aka “Madonna’s Bra”) went well; there were a lot of feet tapping and heads nodding as people supped their pints (always a good sign for the humble bar DJ). I even had one or two punters ask for song titles and/or a playlist. I even had a congratulatory tweet from someone in the bar as I was playing! Social media on mobiles; it’s so immediate…

As per usual, I spent more time in the press room and less going to see things. I’m not necessarily complaining, because some quality people came through and spoke to us (Clare Short, Robin Ince, Milton Jones, Richard Rohr and Roger McGough, to name a few). Earlier on on Sunday, I went along to the Medianet’s first birthday party, and ended up having tea with Nick Park (as you do).

The gigs I did see have mostly been brilliant, though. I caught much of Greenjade‘s gig in the Underground on Sunday, plus a bit of Extra-Curricular. The London Community Gospel Choir were on brilliant form on Mainstage Sunday night. So too was Beverley Knight – but there were so many photographers wanting to take pictures of her that I could barely make it into the pit. In the end, I stayed for a couple of songs.

Gil Scott-Heron was a no-show on Monday (so I took both your novels all that way with me for nothing – thanks, mate!), but judging from the audience reaction, the last minute inclusion of Foy Vance on the Mainstage lineup was a good choice (as was the King Blues‘ promotion to headliner for the night). Jars of Clay also went down well with an extended set to make up for the Scott-Heron deficit.

Away from the Mainstage, my favourite act to play on Monday was the Dodge Brothers. I actually think I like Mark Kermode more as a musician than as a film critic now! (not that I hate his film review shows and articles; I just enjoyed the vibe at their gig. They make good banter with the audience, those guys!)

Overall, I didn’t see as much of the comedy as I wanted. But the two acts I caught in the Festival Bowl on Monday night were pretty funny. And DJ Ayo‘s jazz & Bossa Nova selection in the Blue Nun was a nice way to wind down whilst looking forward to the Tuesday Morning Tent Takedown.

And that was it; another amazing Greenbelt over. Roll on, GB2011; in the meantime, I shall continue looking sideways…

Greenbelt Day #1: Some jazz, a rainbow, a fire alarm and some bunnies…

I wish the sun would make up its mind; I can’t keep putting this hoodie on and taking it off immediately afterwards…

It’s nearly noon. A shower’s been had; a toothbrush has accidentally been dropped down the gents’ loo; a replacement for said toothbrush has been found (thank God for aeroplane freebies); breakfast has been had, and there are still a couple of hours to spare before some of the items I want to see on today’s schedule begin. A good time, then, to look back on yesterday.

I arrived on site just after midday, and the happy reunions started almost immediately. I caught up with the team running the Press office (another happy reunion), and was halfway through updating this blog when the fire alarm went off. Does everyone assume it’s just a test when that happens? The whole Grandstand area was evacuated and the ringing went on for some time; thankfully there wasn’t a fire (or at least, nothing noticeable was burning) and we were eventually let back in – only for the thing to go off again a few hours later!

Friday night was hip hop & jazz night on the mainstage. thebandwithnoname kicked things off, followed by Ugly Duckling (who sadly I missed, as I was busy catching up with another friend, sorting out a few work-related things and searching for something to eat). It was while Ugly Duckling were on stage that nature decided to upstage not only them but every other band who happened to be playing on Friday. “Look!” “Up there!” “Check out that rainbow!”

"There's a ribbon in the sky..."

It was a sight. Starting not far from mainstage, the enormous Technicolour arch spanned Cheltenham Racecourse all the way past the Grandstand. Sadly, my attempt at photographing the whole rainbow (my first attempt at using the panoramic feature on my new camera) resulted in a montage of three slightly off-kilter views of the same place!

Meanwhile, back on the mainstage, Ty delivered a storming set. His audience wasn’t the biggest (even given that he was a support act, there could have been more people); nevertheless, he had a commanding stage presence and the audience lapped it up. Sharlene Hector (who played a solo set here last year) and Heidi Vogel did a sterling job on backing vocals. It was also good to see him bring on Vula (who also did a solo gig here last year) for a guest slot.

Courtney Pine rounded up the night’s mainstage programme with a high-energy set which, in true Courtney fashion, married jazz with reggae, drum & bass, South African township jive and a few other things (I’m sure I heard some salsa and even some klezmer in there somewhere!). On guitar was Cameron Pierre, whose birthday it just happened to be (I’ve got a couple of tracks from his Pad Up! album in amongst my selection of tunes for this evening’s DJ set. Who knows, I might play one!).

Later on, I enjoyed some mellow acoustic music in the Performance Cafe, where Sugarfoot (formerly Brownmusic) were playing. They were one twin short (Loretta couldn’t come, so Natasha bravely held the fort), but still sounded as beautiful as ever. I missed Zic Zazou earlier on, but they played one tune for us during Last Orders (most creative use of a pile of old bottles I’ve ever come across!), along with some comedy from the always-good-value-for-money Jude Simpson and a video report from Greenbelt’s new sister festival, Bunnybelt.

Well, that was yesterday. I have a couple of panel discussions to pop into today; Shed Seven are on later tonight – and I’ve got my DJ set to prepare for, of course…

Greenbelt 2010: Why I’m Excited…

And we’re off…

The 09:48 1st Great Western to Cheltenham Spa has just pulled out of Paddington. In about two and a half hours’ time, I should be searching for a nice accessible spot on Cheltenham Racecourse on which to pitch a tent. I’m still pondering whether to go and socialise or just lie in it and sleep once it’s up.

The tent will be home for the next few days while I’m at the Greenbelt festival. I hadn’t realised it before, but this is actually my 20th Greenbelt! All of a sudden, my DJ set tomorrow evening has a whole new meaning.

It’s been an interesting 20 years – in which I’ve gone from being the unsure rookie punter whose borrowed tent fell in on him on his first night in it, to a virtual resident of the press room. These days, I even get to inflict my choice of music on the other punters! Nice…

There’s a lot I love about Greenbelt. Back at the start of the 90s (and the start of me dabbling in this writing thingy), the writing workshops held at Greenbelt’s London HQ were key to my early development as a writer (thanks a lot to guys like Dave Roberts and Martin Wroe, who used to share their insights and expertise with us). The more I went, the more I realised there was more to Greenbelt than music. I’ve discovered an array of writers and thinkers (Caesar Molebatsi, Robert Beckford, Jim Wallis, Phillip Yancey and the late Mike Yaconelli, to name a few), and made lots of friends through my annual pilgrimage to Cheltenham (and to Castle Ashby and Deene Park before that). And of course, I’ve heard more great bands and singers than I care to remember.

On the Greenbelt blog (see my blogroll), there’s a series of “Why I’m Excited” posts, in which people associated with the festival have been talking about what (or who) they’re looking forward to the most. Here’s my “Why I’m Excited” list:

Jars of Clay are playing! So too are Brownmusic, Gil Scott-Heron, Ty, Beverley Knight, Foy Vance, Courtney Pine and Greenjade. Just a few of the acts I don’t want to miss.

They’re screening Africa United on Sunday afternoon (check back here for a review soon after).

A couple of ‘must go’ workshops and panel discussions – including one on storytelling and one on the relationship between music and activism.

The comedy line-up’s brilliant: I have to see Jude Simpson, Milton Jones and Andy Kind (he’s recently been featured on Channel 4’s 4thought.tv – top bloke).

And did I mention that I was Djing? 7Pm on Saturday in the Blue Nun wine bar. Drop by just before Shed Seven on Mainstage…

“All for one, and one for all”

As I write this, we’re just seven hours away to doors open time at the IndigO2, for one of the most eagerly anticipated gospel gigs to take place in the UK – at least as far as I can remember.

Faith Child, Guvna B and Victizzle are just three of the wave of urban acts that have injected some much needed new energy into British gospel music (more specifically, the ‘urban’ rap/grime/garage end of it) in recent years. Tonight, they’re the joint headliners at the prestigious venue, performing under the collective moniker The Three Musketeers (T3M).

The closest I’ve come to making a new year’s resolution in recent years was my decision last year to “do one crazy thing every month”. I think it’s that part of me that admires these three men the most. For three young artists known for ‘Gospel grime’ (a niche within a niche, if there ever was one) to say to themselves, “Let’s put on a gig at the O2” – that’s crazy talk right there.

Crazy it might sound, but it’s certainly not an unreasonable ambition – or even a new one. Nine years ago, I spent a weekend in Holland and met a few Dutch gospel artists. I asked them what their aspirations were, and one of them said, “I would really love to see Dutch Gospel artists put on a concert in Ahoy.” (That’s the 10,000-seater arena in Rotterdam; the venue where Destiny’s Child’s Live DVD was shot, if you’ve seen it) Simply put, the aim of any artist – Gospel or otherwise – is to sing in front of as many pairs of ears as possible. If those ears are linked to hands that are willing to pay you for your trouble, even better.

A lot has been said and written about British Gospel music – and not all of it has been good. It’s the poor relation; the kid whose best has never been good enough for an audience that willingly gobbles up anything that comes from Stateside and bears the ‘Gospel’ label – regardless of whether it’s actually any good. In such an atmosphere, any artist who ignores the naysayers and steps up in such a big way deserves all the support they can get.

The guys’ choice of name speaks volumes too. In my years covering gospel music both in and out of the UK, I’ve always found the British gospel rappers to be the most shining example of a body of brothers (and sisters) working together in unity. I read The Three Musketeers in school, and was always struck by the Musketeers’ motto: “All for one, and one for all.” In my view, these rappers have been living the Musketeers’ motto all throughout their careers.

I bought my ticket a couple of weeks ago (Victizzle sold it to me in person, in the middle of Oxford Street. That’s how dedicated these guys are!). Tonight, I’m going to be at the ringside, blowing my vuvuzela and having a good time. Why don’t you come and join me?

10 things I’d have liked to see Hitler’s reaction to

It’s been nearly four months since Constantin Films (the company behind Downfall, the Oscar nominated film about Hitler’s last days) got Youtube to take down a rash of “Hitler reacts to…” videos, made using key scenes from the film.

The first one I saw was the Fuhrer’s foul-mouthed reaction to the news of Michael Jackson’s death, barely days after watching his memorial concert. Others followed: Usain Bolt’s 100m win; Kanye West upsetting Taylor Swift; Oasis splitting up… all of varying degrees of hilarity (and tastelessness).

While I can understand why the filmmakers had the videos pulled (they did kind of trivialise what was a really deep, serious film), part of me wishes they were still around, and new ones were being made. I’d have loved to see what Hitler would have made of these news stories:

  • Rage Against the Machine getting the Christmas number 1
  • Heroes being axed
  • Britain’s hung parliament
  • Reception problems with his new iPhone 4
  • The vuvuzela
  • Delirious?’s ‘History Maker’ only getting to number 6 in the charts
  • Robbie Williams rejoining Take That
  • Google Wave not really catching on
  • Naomi Campbell giving evidence at the Charles Taylor trial
  • Usain Bolt losing to Tyson Gay

… And if possible, I’d like those videos to be in 3D.

“India on my mind…”

I’ve been thinking about India a lot lately.

It started with an invite to the premiere of the new documentary India’s Forgotten Women, just a day before hopping on a plane to Singapore for a week. Then last Friday, I spent much of the evening in Secondo (a trendy bar/clothes shop situated under a railway arch in Clapham), at a fund raising event called Tamasha, organised by a couple of young women I go to church with.

Last year, ten of us spent two weeks in Delhi, with a project we support out there called Asha (the Hindi word for “hope”). Asha operates in 35 slum areas in Delhi, providing healthcare, educating children, helping people set up businesses, and a lot of work empowering women in various aspects of life – to the point that whereas in the old days, slum dwellers were completely at the mercy of slumlords, these days it’s the women who ‘run tings’ in the slums where Asha operates. Anj (one of the two ladies who organised the event) works in London as a teacher. She’s about to head off to India to work with the Asha project again – for a year this time.

The event itself was a lot of fun. I ate some extremely sticky Indian confectionery and saw a couple of very promising new singers perform live (with real bands; none of that karaoke business). I even bought a Levi’s denim jacket really cheap! All in all, a good night – and it started me thinking about a few things.

One of the reasons I started a blog was that I was getting fed up of having stories which I felt ought to be heard, but not being able to share them because they weren’t “what editors are looking for right now.” If your work involves dealing with a gatekeeper of some sort – an editor, an interview board, Simon Cowell – you can probably relate to that feeling of your destiny being in someone else’s hands. Not nice. Well, this blog was meant to be the place where those stories found an outlet, so it’s about time I used it for that a bit more.

As I’ve already mentioned, I went to India last year and spent some time with the Asha project. I’ve got an in-depth interview with the leader of the project, which I’ve hawked around various newspapers to no avail. The commissioning editor of one very big magazine was interested in the story; we swapped emails back and forth discussing the possibility of them running it… and then the emails stopped (I discovered a while later that the mag had gone bust).

Anyway, the point of all this is to announce a mini “India Season” of blog posts. I’ll be putting up part of that interview with Dr. Kiran Martin (founder of the Asha project) soon, followed by an interview with Michael Lawson, the director of India’s Forgotten Women. In the meantime, why not recap by having a look at my blog posts from last year’s India trip?

In Conversation: To’Mezclao

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

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

AFRICA OYE 2010

Man, this year has flown past. I can’t believe it’s been a whole 12 months since I made my now annual trip up to Liverpool for the Africa Oyé festival. But it has – and I’ve just enjoyed a brilliant day in the sun with a field full of friendly Liverpudlians and some awesome music acts.

Africa Oyé’s definition of what constitutes African culture and music remains as broad as it’s always been. Not that I’m complaining; the range is great, and it gets people in. Haiti featured quite heavily this year, represented by the folkloric stylings of Ti Coca, and Saturday’s headliners, the upfront Boukman Eksperyans.

I landed at Sefton Park just before 1pm. No sooner had I introduced myself at Event Control and picked up my press pass when I bumped into Maya, the friend I’d made at last year’s festival, together with her Irish radio DJ friend and his wife. Last year, he’d been unable to come, and Maya had borrowed my equipment to record interviews for him. Friendly hugs and handshakes all round, and then we headed out into the main area to see the stalls and see the first act on the bill.

The Cuban band To’Mezclao were the opening act. Unfortunately, their set was plagued with technical hitches; they barely made it through their first song when the power cut out. And again. And again (this time, during their second song). And yet again. Still, you have to commend them on their professionalism. The hitches didn’t faze them, and when the power problem was sorted for good, they delivered a fantastic set which spanned salsa, merengue, cumbia, reggaeton and more.

I saw a good chunk of To’ Mezclao’s set before retreating to the Hospitality tent with Maya and her friends, for an in-depth interview with the lead singer of Boukman Eksperyans. He talked about everything – Haiti’s history, the sore relationship between politicians and musicians there, rebuilding after the earthquake, all the things Irish mythology and Haitian tradition have in common, and his disgust at Monsanto’s “evil seeds” being planted in his country. I left the interview feeling somewhat educated, I don’t mind saying…

The Guinean band Les Espoirs de Coronthie were on next, and gave a dazzling display of kora playing, a nice fusion of bluesy guitar and ‘Cookie Monster’ style ragga vocals. Ti Coca and his group Wanga Nègès were mellow and easy-going. I particularly enjoyed their cover of ‘Bobine’ – a song I was introduced to by Ska Cubano (now that’s a band I’d love to see play here!). Halfway through their set, I nipped back into Hospitality and interviewed To’ Mezclao’s DJ, who talked about everything from younger Cubans’ approach to their musical heritage, through to what effect Barack Obama’s easing of restrictions on Cuba has had on the music coming from there. I kind of got the impression he wasn’t in any hurry to move to Miami…

After saying goodbye to Maya and her friends (who had to leave early to meet some other people), I caught some of Victor Démé’s gig. I was completely blown away by Victor’s guitarist. He looked rather unassuming when you first saw him… and then he’d pick up his white Stratocaster and suddenly turn into Slash Clapton. The moment Victor came offstage, I made a beeline for his tent and got a copy of his latest CD off his tour manager. After he’d rested a bit, we did a press conference-style interview together with some radio people from Manchester, and their French translator.

I’d first come across Victor’s music a couple of years ago, when he’d released his debut album at the age of 46 (or 47, depending on which magazines you read). I wanted to know if other late starters saw him as an inspiration for having started recording at that age (especially given that anything over 24 is considered ancient in pop star years).

“Yes!” was his short answer. “Young people do too,” he continued. “What a lot of them say to me is, ‘If you can do it at your age, then we can do it too.’ But one thing I do tell young people is not to be fooled into thinking that they have all the time in the world to do the stuff they want to do and achieve. Imagine that you’re already late, and act with that urgency.”

With the Victor interview done, I was free to enjoy some of Boukman Eksperyans’ storming set before heading back to my B&B with one of those legendary Liverpool-sized Chinese takeaways. Sadly, I couldn’t stay for the whole weekend due to work commitments (and trust me, that is not a complaint!). But I’m more than positive that Andrew Tosh (son of Peter), the Rasites, Carlou D (whom I’ll be seeing perform live on Tuesday) and les Freres Guissé will be every bit as entertaining as the line-up I did see were… and that To’ Mezclao will make it through their set without any hiccups.

Liverpool, see you in June ’11…