Live Review: Tamikrest & Dirtmusic

Tamikrest & Dirtmusic
The Borderline, London, 18 May

I’d been sold on the idea of seeing Tamikrest and Dirtmusic perform together ever since the moment I first popped the DVD that came with Dirtmusic’s BKO album into my DVD player and got to see some of their Malian odyssey.

On paper it looks like a mix that shouldn’t work. Here we have a band made up of one Australian and two Americans teaming up with a band of Tuareg musicians – a minority in their home country of Mali. But somehow Dirtmusic and Tamikrest have found a kindred spirit in each other – one that has produced some awesomely beautiful music.

Dirtmusic’s new album takes its name from the airport code for Bamako airport in Mali, where it was recorded. The gig itself was kind of a musical game of tag. Dirtmusic would play a few songs, then Tamikrest would play a few, and then the two bands would either jam en masse or in some permutation or other. Tamikrest’s percussionist, Aghaly Ag Mohamedine, provided a solid groove on his djembe all throughout. Fatma Walett Cheikh (Tamikrest’s backing vocalist, and the only female on stage) added haunting melodies to some of the songs. Hugo Race (Dirtmusic’s lead vocalist) MC-ed the whole glorious mess with style.

It was an amazing gig – and apparently I’m not the only person who found the combination of acts intriguing. The Borderline was packed. A handful of young Tuareg men stood right in front row of the audience waving flags. ‘Black Gravity’ (from Dirtmusic’s album) received a particularly warm reception from the crowd. So too did ‘Ready for the Sign’ and their Velvet Underground cover ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’. The music was raw, earthy, gutsy… and simply beautiful.

As I write this, both bands are together on a ‘night liner’ bus, touring Europe via road. Here’s hoping the bus swings round this way again soon.

Set list:

  • Other side (Dirtmusic + Aghaly)
  • Collisions (Dirtmusic+ Aghaly)
  • Still running (Dirtmusic+ Aghaly+ Ousmane)
  • Amiditin (Tamikrest)
  • Alhorya (Tamikrest)
  • Adounia (Tamikrest)
  • Outamachek (Tamikrest + Hugo)
  • Black gravity (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest)
  • Ready for the sign (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest)
  • All tomorrows parties (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest)
  • Desert wind (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest)
  • Unknowable (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest/Mossa)
  • Toumastin (Ousmane, Chris Eckman & Chris Brokaw)
  • Aicha (Tamikrest/Dirtmusic)
  • Tidite Tille (Tamikrest/Dirtmusic)
  • Tamiditin (Tamikrest/Dirtmusic)
  • Lives we live (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest)
  • Adagh (Tamikrest/Dirtmusic)
  • Smoking bowl (Dirtmusic/Tamikrest)
  • Tahoult (Tamikrest/Dirtmusic)

Tamikrest:
Ousmane Ag Mossa – lead vocals , lead guitar
Aghaly Ag Mohamedine – Djembe
Cheikh Ag Tiglia  – bass, vocals
Fatma Walett Cheikh   –  backing vocals
Mossa Ag Borreiba – rhythm guitar,  vocals

Dirtmusic:
Chris Eckman – vocals, organ
Chris Brokaw – vocals, guitar, drums, slide banjo, maracas
Hugo Race – vocals, guitar

Live Review: The Creole Choir of Cuba

The Creole Choir of Cuba
Monday 17 May
Wilton’s Music Hall, London E1

While introducing the choir, our MC John Simpson remarked that the venue we were in had a ‘Cuban’ feel to it. He wasn’t wrong; Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s East End is the oldest surviving Music Hall in the world, and it does give the impression that it could fall down at any time (“carefully neglected”, as one audience member put it). Looking as old as it did, you were reminded of those crumbling concert halls and old nightclubs that always crop up in films set in Cuba. The choir fitted in perfectly.

The machinery working to bring the Creole Choir of Cuba to an international audience has been grinding away for over a year now – ever since Simpson and his production team discovered them singing during a trip to Havana, and got them booked for last year’s WOMAD and Edinburgh festivals. The choir’s real name is ‘Desandann’ (descendants) and it’s made up of the descendants of Haitians who have emigrated to Cuba over centuries. Through song, they have preserved aspects of Haitian culture that are hard to come by these days – even in Haiti itself. The choir are now as identified with Haiti as they are with Cuba – which has resulted in their being at the forefront of Cuba’s contribution to the ongoing disaster relief effort in Haiti. Call it divine providence or just being in the right place at the right time; either way you can’t deny how very timely it is.

Armed with just their voices, two congas and a variety of shakey things, Desandann had us all in their grip for the best part of an hour. In that time, we scanned the emotional spectrum – all the way from pathos and melancholy through to elation and sheer joy. They treated us to laments, upbeat merengues and Haitian folk songs, all with a heavy dose of Africa running through. We clapped; some of us even danced. As the choir sang their last song, they walked down the aisle, dispensing hugs and handshakes to the audience as they disappeared one by one into a door in the back of the auditorium, leaving us clamouring for more.

After their WOMAD appearance last year, the choir recorded an album at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios. It’s due for release in four months’ time and I’ve heard some of the tracks. Get it – that’s all I’m saying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Y Crate: Bill Wolfer

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

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

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

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

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

Making History (and Other Rock n Roll Myths)

Well, they nearly did it…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first premiere (and Happy New Year?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009: My Year in Music

And what a year it’s been!

My gigs of the year:

Delirious’ last ever gig (HMV Apollo, Hammersmith, November)
Staff Benda Bilili (Barbican, October)
Chic (HMV Forum, September)
Daby Touré at Africa Oyé (Sefton Park, Liverpool, June)
Shlomo and the Vocal Orchestra (Greenbelt Festival Mainstage, August)
Monica Giraldo (Magic Mirrors, Cannes, January)
Speed Caravan (Jongleurs, Camden, October)
Afrobeat Vibration with Dele Sosimi & friends (Empowering Church, London, several months in the year)

My favourite new discoveries of the year:

Sonnyboy: An unassuming, multi-talented soul singer I met in Cannes. His song ‘Josephine Brown’ has kind of been played to death at my home since then – both the mellow soul original and the housey ‘Psycho remix’.
Ndidi Onlukwulu: Another Cannes discovery; a Canadian singer who sits somewhere between Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey-Rae.
Charlie Winston: Met him in Cannes too. He’s English, but has been a lot bigger over in France this past couple of years. Landed himself a deal with RealWorld after babysitting for Peter Gabriel (true story!).
The Apples: I met this lot at Greenbelt, where I was their host for a couple of seminars they did. An awesome nine-piece funk band from Israel with no guitars or keyboards, just two turntables and loads of horns.
Muntu Valdo: This Cameroonian singer-songwriter is a great example of how digital looping technology has revolutionised live acoustic music. Shut your eyes, and you’d think he had a 10-piece band (and at least five backing singers) on stage with him!
Freshly Ground: I was introduced to this lot by friends who’d either been to South Africa and seen them, or had discovered them via Youtube. Brilliantly quirky; great fun; all-round brilliant band.

My favourite albums of the year:

MaxwellBLACKsummer’snight: Yay! Maxwell’s back! He may have lost his trademark Afro, but the angelic voice is still there – and that’s what counts. ‘Pretty Wings’ is soul at its finest.
PortlandThese Broken Hands: Soothing, thoughtful, sublime… just a few of the nice adjectives I’ve thrown at this album since I first heard it. Ideal late-night listening from the Midlands-based band.
Staff Benda BililiTres Tres Fort: From living rough on the streets of Kinshasa to capturing the hearts of World Music fans everywhere, 2009 has been a fantastic year for “Africa’s #1 disabled band”, and 2010 is set to be even bigger. Wait till the film’s released; the whole world will be chanting “Giruppa! Giruppa! Giruppa! Sexamachine!”
Jars of Claythe Long Fall Back to Earth: This is fast becoming my all-time favourite Jars album – especially the tracks ‘Scenic Route’, ‘Weapons’ and ‘Boys (Lesson One)’.
Van HuntUse in Case of Emergency: Seriously classy soul from the über-talented (and still criminally underrated) American singer.
And a special mention for: DJ Because’s Audio Sensei (not so much a ‘mixtape’ compilation as a compelling audio collage) and Sara Watkins’ self-tiled album (‘alt-country’ set, produced by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones). Poles apart musically, but both absolutely brilliant.

Tragedy of the Year: Losing Michael Jackson. End of.

My “sometimes I’m just too sarcastic for my own good” moment of 2009: The time I posted a daft comment on Facebook, insinuating that Mika had had a sex change and was now Lady Gaga… only to receive several shocked emails asking if it was true.

‘Twas the Year of the Skank: It seemed as if everybody was inventing daft dances and making songs up to go with them. My personal favourites (including a couple from 2008) were: the oh-so-ironic ‘Stupid Skank’, Skepta’s ‘Rolex Sweep’, ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees & Toes’, and Guvna B’s ‘Kingdom Skank’.

Most Pointless Musical Campaign of the Year: The anti-Cowell “RATM for Christmas number 1” thing. Yeah, let’s show that Sony executive how much we hate him… by buying a Sony song! If this is what passes for “revolution” in the 21st Century, God help us…

… and in the “If I never hear this crap again, it will be too soon” category:

Jazmine Sullivan’s ‘I’m in love with another man’: Yes, I know I’m not in the target audience for this song. But imagine the uproar if some man had sung a song that basically said, “Look, girl – we’ve been together for a while and you’ve never been unfaithful to me. But here’s the thing: I’m dumping you for someone else. No reason; I just am.” Sick, isn’t it? (and not in the way ‘da kidz’ use the word ‘sick’ these days). It made me long for Eamon’s charm and subtlety (now there’s something I never thought I’d hear myself say).

“#09 Memories”

About a week ago, “#09memories” was a ‘trending’ topic on Twitter. I’ve never really done the ‘recap of the year’ thing that much in the past (as much as I do like reading other people’s), but found myself spending the best part of an evening sharing my memories and reading those of others. It seemed a bit of a shame just to let one audience see them in short bursts, so I compiled them into a list to post here – expanding on a few where I felt the 140-character limit didn’t really let me say what I wanted to.

So in no particular order (well, maybe slightly chronological, but only just; actually more emotional than chronological), here are some of my standout memories – both great and not-so-great – from 2009:

• Meeting the adopted little sister I never knew I had for the first time.

• The whole Celebration fam going to Hereford and spending a day with Cynthia, barely three months before she passed away.

• Doing the last DJ slot in the Blue Nun wine bar at the Greenbelt festival.

• Going to MIDEM for the first time in 14 years, and discovering great music from Sonnyboy, Ndidi Onukwulu, Yom, Monica Giraldo & Charlie Winston. Also seeing Duke Special in concert, and celebrating Barack Obama’s inauguration with members of the American Association of Independent Music. MIDEM has a reputation for being all about the business and not so much about the music. But it is possible to find decent music there, if you look hard enough.

• Discovering London’s coolestest venue, the Shunt Lounge… only for it to close 10 months later.

• The Operation Christmas Child trip to Swaziland – and the delighted screams of the kids as they opened their shoeboxes.

• Arriving in Jo’burg airport en route to Swaziland; hearing ‘Viva la Vida’ on the PA system and thinking, “Coldplay? This can’t be Africa.”

• Giving career advice to the Swazi schoolgirl who told me she wanted to be a journalist when she grew up.

• The loud cheer that erupted in our minibus as we drove into Mbabne (the Swazi capital) and saw a branch of Nandos.

• My first lunch in India: Domino’s Pizza!

• Painting and decorating the community centre in a Delhi slum; logging on to the internet and wondering who this Susan Boyle woman was, and why so many of my Facebook friends had become fans of hers.

• Riding an elephant up to the Amber Palace in Jaipur.

• Visiting the Taj Mahal – and not really believing our tour guide’s story about how he’d told Danny Boyle off because “that scene in Slumdog Millionaire made Indian tour guides look bad.”

• Being mistaken for Ice Cube by some of the kids in the slum where we were working.

• A pimp in Nashville offering me girls an’ ting. That’s the last time I stay in a Motel 6!

• Driving a van in Atlanta with no satnav, and introducing my passenger (my 11-yr-old niece) to the world of Bill & Ted and their “be excellent to each other” philosophy.

• Lou at the Bridge Bar in Beckenham.

• Several trips to Paris, during which the Starbucks on Boulevard St Germain became my office away from home.

• Curling up in bed ready for a good night’s kip, then receiving a txt msg saying Michael Jackson had just died…

• … and then receiving another text from the same person two hours later, informing me that Farrah Fawcett had also died (at which point, I responded with “You’re really the herald of good tidings tonight, aren’t you?”).

• Being asked to talk about MJ on Radio 4…

• … then receiving another phone call from Radio 4 a few hours later (after I’d prepared what I was going to say), saying they’d found someone else to do it.

• Discovering a new way to watch TV: reading your friends’ sarky status updates and/or tweets about the show while it’s on. Sometimes you didn’t even need to watch the show in question; the running commentary told you everything you needed to know!

• Jedward, Kandy Rain, Mr. “I don’t know how to spell Daniel properly”, Afro Boy and La Gordita in Miss Frank.

• Cave Austin Girl.

• One of the deepest films ever (Downfall) being turned into a series of often sick “Hitler reacts to…” jokes on Youtube.

• Dizzee Rascal losing what little respect I had left for him with asinine comments about the preparations for the 2012 Olympics.

• The realisation that people actually read my blog!

• My big ‘fanboy’ moment: shaking Nile Rodgers’ hand at Chic’s gig at the Forum (I now use his plectrums to play my guitars – when I can be bothered, that is. I must do more of that – and more seriously – in 2010).

• Watching Baaba Maal, Kano & Bashy soundcheck from side stage at the Royal Festival Hall.

Daby, the 'vibe man'

• Africa Oyé in Liverpool. Meeting and working with Maya; ‘vibing’ with Daby Touré (pictured) and doing the most hilarious interview I’ve ever done (with an extremely well-dressed artist who will remain nameless).

• The last ever Delirious? gig – and meeting Mr. Tommy Sims at the after-party.

• “What would we do? Usually drink; usually dance; usually bubble.” (Yeah, I know; I discovered it in ’09).

• Seeing people’s nastier sides come out after certain celebrity deaths. Not nice at all.

• Vampires. Vampires everywhere.

• My first ever purchase of a Hed Kandi CD… oh, wait – that was in ’08. In a Zavvi shop, just before they all closed. My last ever purchase from a Woolworth’s, and my last ever visit to a Border’s bookshop.

• Shelley Ryan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Happy Thingymas’

Since I’m writing about a religious topic here, I think I ought to start with a confession.

I may be a God-botherer, but I’m also a pragmatist. If I’m miles away from home and it’s cold, wet and dark outside, I don’t care what’s written on the side of the first bus that comes along; I’m taking it. And that’s exactly what I did one Saturday night/Sunday morning last winter, after an awesome Dele Sosimi gig in east London: I (whisper it) rode home on one of those ‘atheist’ buses several Christian Facebook groups were urging me to boycott at the time.

The “there’s probably no God; now go and get plastered” (or whatever it said) bus ad campaign is now just a vague memory for most of us. But a follow-up to it has been launched to coincide with the festive season… and so it was that a few days ago, I found myself in Foyle’s bookshop in central London, for the launch of a book titled the Atheist’s Guide to Christmas.

Ariane Sherine (the journalist/comedy writer who devised the bus ad and edited the book) was host for the event, along with guests Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, David Baddiel and Derren Brown – four of the book’s 42 co-authors – who read the essays they’d contributed to it. Apart from acquiring a new spiritual dilemma for myself (will I go to hell because I think Ariane Sherine is hot? I’m sure me fancying her is what my team calls “being unequally yoked”), I found the evening simultaneously thought provoking, amusing, and in places deeply tragic.

The thing that stuck out most for me was how similar atheism is to the religions it is so opposed to. Guess what? Atheists argue over dogma and doctrine just like Catholics and Protestants, Sunnis and Ahmadis, or Orthodox and Reform Jews do. Boy, do they! During the Q&A session that followed the readings; in the lift; on the street walking to the Tube station… Even more interestingly, even in a roomful of people generally disposed to believing that faith is irrational, there were a fewwho were brave enough to admit that there were some mysteries cold, rational thinking could not sufficiently explain.

It’s been said that the ‘New Atheists’ (is that the same as ‘New Labour’ or “new Windows operating system”?) are every bit as intolerant in their atheism as religious fundies are in whatever religion they subscribe to. They certainly have an equal amount of smugness about it, that’s for sure. I mean, what’s the difference between David Baddiel’s blanket statement that people who profess a faith are “all wrong” and the ranty Imam who labels all non-Muslims “infidels”?

Derren Brown made a passionate argument for people to be kind to those around them – not just at Christmas, but all year round. The advantage atheists had over religious people, he said, is that religious people did good deeds because they expected a “reward from God” whereas atheists didn’t have any such carrots to motivate them, and so had purer motives for the acts of kindness they did. Sounded good at first – but then he had to go and spoil it by mentioning the “benefits of kindness”… and it was then that you realised that he was basically preaching Karma without the Buddhism. Derren, you say “benefits” and I say “rewards from God”. Tomayto, tomato…

Having said that, some of the contributions made me wonder whether religion (Christianity in my case) wasn’t partly to blame for people’s unbelief – and no, I’m not referring to that lame joke about Dawkins being the second biggest cause of atheism in Britain after Cliff Richard (and on the subject of lame jokes: Richard Dawkins, stick to science and leave comedy writing to the experts. That Jeeves & Wooster skit was terrible). I found myself feeling for Derren Brown when he said he’d been a Christian for many years, but had packed it in because he’d found himself unable to defend his faith intellectually as he had wanted to. The un-intellectual (sometimes anti-intellectual) streak I find in some Christian circles bothers me too, but I’ve stuck with it. I even found myself agreeing with something Richard Dawkins said: that Jesus taking the punishment for sins he hadn’t committed himself “just doesn’t add up.” It doesn’t – but then, forgiveness and love (and the things people do for them) have never “added up”.

On the other hand, I found AC Grayling’s claim that “once you’ve achieved a few major things in your life, you have less of a need for a God figure” seriously lacking. Four years ago, I met Dr Charles H Townes. For anyone who doesn’t know who he is, Charles Townes is a Nobel Prize-winning American scientist, credited with the discovery and development of the laser. In the 80s (at the height of that USA vs. Russia who-can-wee-the-highest contest we called the Cold War), he helped persuade then President Ronald Reagan not to flood the planet with strategic nuclear weapons, as he was being advised to. Those are pretty big achievements by anyone’s standards, yet Dr Townes had an active Christian faith – a faith he still holds on to now, well into his 90s. And let’s not forget Desmond Tutu, who’s still a bishop in spite of his Nobel Peace Prize and other accolades. Maybe “achievement” is just relative…

I received quite a few responses when I reviewed the launch for a Christian magazine. Many of them were positive (and that’s always good to have), but a lot of them simply parroted the usual cliché responses Christians come out with whenever stuff of this nature is discussed: “They would never say things like this about Mohammed”, “Why do they hate Christianity so much?” – you know, the usual…

Here’s the thing (at least, “the thing” as I see it). This martyr mentality isn’t doing Christianity any good, and statements like that only serve to prove that we’re a bit too self-absorbed and not really listening to what’s going on around us. The so-called ‘militant atheists’ aren’t singling Christianity out; they’re opposed to ALL religions. So yes, they do say ‘things like this’ about Mohammed. And about Vishnu. And G_d. And Shiva, The Force and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Enough with the whining already – and can we please have one Christmas without any complaints about shopping malls not having Christmas trees, or someone resurrecting that urban myth about some council somewhere trying to change the holiday’s name to ‘Winterval’? (It’s not true. I’ve checked). This whiny victim mentality does nobody any good; it just trivialises the very real persecution Christians face in places such as Sudan, Eritrea, Burma, North Korea and Turkmenistan.

Happy Christmas, whoever you believe in (or don’t)…