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…

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


Things I’ve learnt from watching ‘American Idol’ auditions

1. No matter how rubbish a human being you are, your mama will always love you. Which makes her the wrong person to go to for a brutally honest appraisal of your abilities…

2. Science and music don’t mix – unless you’re Brian May.

3. No-one with a normal family life (parents stayed married and are still alive with no terminal illnesses) ever made it in the music business.

4. Obama may be President, but if you’re slightly ‘ethnic’ your chances of making it as a pop idol are still very slim…unless you decide to become a Hung – I mean a clown.

5. One of these two statements has some truth to it:
i) “Women love men who are mean to them.”
ii) “American women love guys with British accents.”
I’m just not sure which one it is…

6. Only Janis Joplin can sing a Janis Joplin song. The same goes for Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin… and nobody should ever attempt the high note in Minnie Riperton’s ‘Loving You’.

7. There is a strange sort of pleasure to be derived from watching other people make fools of themselves (please note – I’m not saying that this is a good thing!).

MIDEM ’09: Day 4 – final thoughts…

Wednesday, Nice Cote d’Azur airport terminal; just past 7pm:

Well, that’s it for my second MIDEM. A very intense, very interesting four days. Before I go into summing up my last bits of business, a recap of yesterday – which was, for the most part, a fun day. Busy, but fun.

On the concert front, my two highlights of the day were Ndidi Onukwulu and Duke Special. Ndidi played at Magic Mirrors in the afternoon; a lovely, slightly quirky, very uplifting set. If I were going to do the lazy comparison thing, I’d call her a Corinne Bailey Rae with a little country music and Negro spiritual thrown in. At the press conference after her gig, Ndidi admitted that her musical influences were primarily North American, having been born and raised in British Columbia. But then when she and I had a little chat afterwards, she explained how a little Nigerian-ness does work its way into her music… but I’m saving that for when I write a proper interview piece on her.

Duke Special played the Méditeranée in the early evening, as part of the ‘New Music from Northern Ireland’ programme. Before I go on, am I allowed to make fun of the Irish? It’s just that I overheard this really funny conversation between a few Irish blokes on my way to see Duke Special. Here’s what happened: I’m walking towards the venue when the guy walking behind me sees two friends of his coming out of the venue and heading towards us. So he says to them, “Hasn’t it started yet?”
They reply, “It has. We’ve just popped out for a fag.”
He replies, “But there’s a smoking area up there! You didn’t need to come down all this way just to smoke.”
To which they reply: “Yeah, we know. But we wanted some fresh air!”

Maybe it’s just me. But wanting to smoke and have fresh air at the same time just sounds like a very “Irish” thing to say (look – I know I’m in trouble already, so I might as well just say what I thought and wait bravely for the ‘Paddy-slap’ I’m going to get for this).

Where was I? Yeah, Duke Special gig. Only half an hour long, but fantastic – that combination of mad theatrics and heartfelt, touching songs that shouldn’t work together but do. It ended with just enough time for me to go back to the exhibition area and do a quick set of voxpops amongst the American delegates (and hangers-on) who had congregated around the A2IM (American Association of Independent Music) stand for their Obama inauguration party.

That was yesterday. The only real bit of work I did today was attend the Press Breakfast with Dominique Leguern, the Director of MIDEM. Dominique’s overview of the event confirmed a lot of what people had suspected… and displayed a rather interesting take on the industry’s challenges.

First, the figures. A total of 8,000 people from 23 different countries attended MIDEM this year. That’s 1,000 less than last year’s attendance was. There were 250 exhibitors and 300 artists performing at various showcases. When asked what she felt the reasons for the declining attendance were, Dominique gave a quote from Chuck D of Public Enemy: “This is not a music industry crisis; it’s a CD crisis.”

According to her, the biggest fall in attendance was amongst people who deal in more ‘physical’ forms of music production – CD manufacturers, for example. In fact, of all the industry heads who spoke throughout the conference, Dominique came the closest to saying that the CD was on its way out. “The industry has turned a page,” she said. “Here in France, physical music sales have dropped by 60% over the last six years. What’s happening here at MIDEM is just mirroring that.”

Other reasons for the fall in attendance were companies sending fewer staff members, and record companies with no new releases simply opting to stay at home until they had something to sell. And while attendance might be down amongst those selling music the old-school way, those involved in digital distribution were going from strength to strength. Dominique had glowing words for the new acts showcased via MIDEM Talent – especially Charlie Winston. I met Charlie yesterday, and can confirm that he’s a cool bloke – and I have an exclusive CD of his!

Yes, it’s definitely been worth my while coming out here. Numbers may be falling, but MIDEM is still an overwhelming event in terms of its size and scope. And according to Harvey Goldsmith, the falling numbers aren’t necessarily bad news. “I don’t worry if there are 8,000 or 8,000,000 people at MIDEM,” he said. “It’s the quality of the attendance that interests me.”

I can kind of see Harvey’s point. I’m certainly taking less unwanted rubbish home with me this time round than I did the last time I was here! And it would also explain why I didn’t see any of the thing that bothered me the most about my last MIDEM: the Bio In The Bog.

Last time I was at MIDEM, I noticed that whenever I visited the Gents’ loo, I was always finding someone’s bio or demo that had just been discarded there. Some even had hand-written covering letters addressed to specific people! I spend a fair bit of my time telling would-be artists to put real effort into the bios and demo material they pass on to people. And to see someone go through all that hard work, then pay the ridiculous amount it costs to come to an event like this, give their hard work to someone, only for that person to dump it in the loo (no pun intended)… it just seemed wrong. Still, when I ran out of cassettes to record press conferences and interviews on, I knew where I could find some spares! So that’s been one big change between my last MIDEM experience and this one. Also, at my last MIDEM (1995, if I haven’t already said when it was), Jonathan King was one of the guest speakers, and he really seemed to enjoy his role as the major labels’ Rottweiler. There’s no chance of that happening again…

Of course, now that I’m sitting here typing this, I’m wishing I’d interviewed the bloke who came up to me in the Press Club this afternoon as I was trying to stick my MIDEM photos onto Facebook, and introduced himself as a representative of the Pan-African Film Festival taking place in Cannes in April. Still, I’ve got his email address.

Home, here I come…

MIDEM ’09: Day 3 – morning…

Tuesday morning, 10.15-ish:

It’s still looking dreary in Cannes this morning – but at least it’s not raining. I have at least two and a half hours before my first big appointment for today, so I’ll recap on the rest of yesterday – starting with the gigs I saw.

Best of the evening had to be Monica Giraldo’s MIDEM Talent showcase at Magic Mirrors. Monica’s from Colombia; a new act and a recent Latin Grammy winner who sings, plays guitar and can handle traditional Colombian (read “African”) drums very well indeed. She sang with a three-piece band and was absolutely fantastic. Estoy totalmente enamorado – with her music, that is… Earlier in the day, I’d met a guy from her record label and he’d given me a copy of her debut CD. I will be playing that quite a lot, I reckon…

About eight or so British acts played as part of the ‘British at MIDEM’ line-up in the Ambassadeurs and Méditerranée venues in the Palais des Festivals. In the end, Paolo Nutini didn’t make it to Cannes, but Seth Lakeman was blazing! Pity I had to leave early to catch the last train home – only to discover there were no trains going my way anyway! So since I would have to take a taxi home (and therefore it didn’t matter when I left) I headed back to the Palais to see Jamie Cullum, who was headlining the British line-up. Halfway through his “swingified” version of Rihanna’s Don’t Stop the Music, I began to think that my more hardcore jazz-loving friends might have a point when they say he’s a one-trick pony. I stayed for a couple more songs, then left. Prior to arriving at MIDEM, I’d been all stoked up to see the Bomb Squad. But there was no way I was going to hang around here until 3am, or whatever unearthly hour the Electronica night was scheduled to finish.

I met a few more interesting people yesterday (the cocktail parties different exhibitors put on are great for that). Hanging around the Norway stand, eating chorizos and having my first taste of Linie (how does anybody drink that stuff and stand upright afterwards?), I met Jan – a friendly Canadian who runs a record label, an online radio/TV channel, and also works as a voice coach to singers. This is his 19th MIDEM; his first one coincided with the Gulf war kicking off (“Our plane in to Nice had a military escort,” he recalls). Jan confirmed yet again that MIDEM has scaled down this year – and that it’s not just a new thing because of the world’s economy, but that it has shrunk steadily over the years. And speaking of money – or more precisely, the lack of it – the issue of who gets how much was a big talking point here yesterday.

The first thing you see as you walk in to the Palais des Festivals is the enormous Napster banner draped across the front. It’s even bigger than the “Welcome to MIDEM” signs next to it. Many of us can remember the days when the music industry regarded Napster as Public Enemy No. 1. They may have gone legit (and, let’s be honest, totally overshadowed by the monster that is iTunes), but the file-sharing that made Napster’s name is still regarded as a problem by many in the industry. But the industry has had to learn to live with it. Which brings a new problem: How does the industry make money if they’ve accepted that people want free music, and more and more platforms are opening up to provide them music for (apparently) nothing? That was the issue under discussion at the Mobile Entertainment Forum’s workshop titled Music That Feels Like It’s Free – But What Does It Actually Cost?

Eric Nicoli, a former EMI boss, summed the industry’s predicament up pretty well. “Any company that relies on music sales will be exceedingly challenged,” he said. But Tim Clark (Robbie Williams’ manager) didn’t have much sympathy for record companies. “How can the major record companies justify taking 90% of the revenue and leaving the artist with less than 10%?” he asked. Then he had a go at the guys who provide the technology that helps people get free music, pointing out that the richest man in the record industry today is Steve Jobs (of Apple/iPod/iTunes fame).
Away from the heated debate, there are some people here with a more hands-on approach to helping both artists and their supporters gain from making music. Yesterday I had a chat with the CEO of Sellaband; today there’s the launch of NoMajorMusik – a new company with similar to Sellaband and with a ‘fairtrade’ approach to what they do. More on those later… but I will just throw in my own 2p on the “free music” thing. Music can’t totally be free. It takes a lot of hard work to make good music, and the guys who put in those long hours should have some reward for their efforts. Making music costs money, too. A couple of years ago, I met the guitar maker Matt McPherson. He let me hold and play one of his creations… and then he told me how much the guitar cost, and I nearly dropped the thing in shock! A decent guitar can easily set you back a grand or two – so how can music be free?

Anyway, that was most of yesterday’s goings-on here in Cannes. Along with all that, I also met a guy representing Chile’s number 1 hip hop act, who gave me the guy’s CD and some of his merchandise – which included a handful of condoms in packets with the guy’s picture and branding on. I had a chat with a friendly Norwegian singer – then lost the note with the venue of her gig on it, so couldn’t see her sing! I’ve had breakfast courtesy of the press club; I’ll post this, then head down to the exhibit area and hand out a few more CDs before the showcases and press conferences start.

MIDEM ’09: Day 2 – afternoon

Monday again – later in the afternoon:

It’s been a good day so far. I went back to the South Africa stand, and had a more fruitful time meeting people. The American guy’s “just go up and talk to ‘em” advice from this morning clearly worked! I visited a stand where a new French rapper called Poison was being plugged. I had a chat with his producer and gave him one of the Ground Level mixtape CDs I’d been asked to give to people. As we spoke, his producer explained that Poison was originally Congolese, and played me a track he’d done rapping in Lingala as well as French. A possible Sounds of Africa candidate, I thought.

I’ve also managed to make a lot of Latin/Spanish music contacts. Ferran Perez is from Spain, staying in the same hotel as me. He used to play accordion in a Mediterranean Celtic band called Dealan; now he’s gone into management and is representing them at MIDEM (which, he tells me, he’d never heard about until a couple of months ago). We both took the bus in to Cannes this morning, and he gave me an invite for a cocktail party organised by the Catalan music contingent. We chatted over drinks and Catalan food (various types of sausage/ham/chorizo thingies, cheese and ‘pan tomate’ – bread with tomato – really nice!). He said going into management and even coming to MIDEM were all risks for him, but he’d learned in life that you need to take risks – otherwise “you just stay at home and end up doing nothing.” Life is like standing on a travolator that’s moving in the opposite direction, he reckons. “You might think you’re standing still, but you’re actually going backwards and being left behind.”

The unexpected fun bit of today was when I was walking up to the Press Club and passed by a bloke walking in the opposite direction. I glimpsed his badge very briefly and thought I saw the name Oliver Cheatham. Was it? I went back to get another look… and it was! He was a brilliant sport. He agreed to an impromptu interview (which needed two takes, thanks to you-know-who forgetting to release the pause on the recording machine), and then took a picture with me. For the rest of today, I’ll be singing “I like to party, everybody does…”

MIDEM ’09: Day 2 – morning…

Monday, just after 10.30am:

Had an interesting bus ride in this morning. I bumped into a few other MIDEM attendees who happen to be staying in the same hotel as me. We talked about all sorts of stuff on the way in: how overwhelming MIDEM can be for a first-timer; the weird Russian acts who’d showcased the night before; what a great bargain we’d got on the hotel, and the best way to make MIDEM work for you. “Forget setting up meetings via email. Just go up to people and talk to them.” Good advice from an American dude who’s over from Ireland and hasn’t met the rest of his team yet! I’ve already been doing that; I think I’ll do a bit more after this…

Okay – I’ve just checked my programme and it seems I’m late for the “Music that feels like it’s free” seminar I’d wanted to attend. I think I ought to go and see what’s left of it and pick this up again later…

MIDEM ’09: Day 1, Part 2

Sunday night

Well, Day One wasn’t a bad start. Johnny turned up right on time and we chatted for about an hour. Things haven’t gone as well for him, though; Delta Airlines seem to have sent his luggage to some other country, so he’s having to conduct his business meetings with no product to give to people. He’s only got one day left, so we’re praying his bags do turn up…

Johnny confirmed what I’d been thinking about this year’s MIDEM and have overheard a few other people say about it; it’s a lot less busy than usual. It’s been scaled down (four days instead of a week) and fewer people have come. Just as long as we’ve got the quality, I’ll be happy, I think. Had my first look round the exhibition area after my chat with Johnny. As far as picking up contacts for the radio show goes, it was a bit disappointing. I did meet one guy at the South Africa stand who gave me his card and a few CDs. Now I’m listening to the CDs and not liking them at all. They’re all house music… and they’re terrible! Don’t get me wrong; I’ve got nothing against house music from Africa when it’s done right (the Martin Solveig remix of “Madan” by Salif Keita is absolutely brilliant – as is just about every track on Afroganic’s album). This just sounded very badly made. On the other hand, the Vallenato and Reggaeton tracks on the Urban sampler I got from one of the American companies exhibitingg were so good, I’m tempted to go back there tomorrow and grab a few more copies. Good music needs to be shared! Oh, never mind; I’m sure there’ll be more people (and better music) tomorrow.

I wasn’t in the mood to learn a new route home tonight, so I spent about 40 minutes at the PRS For Music cocktail party in the Martinez Hotel and then headed for Rue de Serbes to get the bus home. The train runs a lot later than 8pm or whenever the last bus is – but I just wanted an early night. I was beginning to feel really tired.

I’ve now had a proper look at the contents of my MIDEM bag and am holding in my hands a pre-release copy of Hello Kitty’s debut album (that’s right – Hello Kitty, the Japanese cartoony thingy loved by girls all over the world). I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry. But one thing’s for certain: I’m not listening to it right now. I’ve had more than enough sugar for one day.

Bizarre/mildly amusing (in a “so-wrong” way) sight of the night: a couple looking the other way as their beautiful white poodle had a wee on the Louis Vuitton shop window. I’m sure there’s some deep anti-materialism message being made there somewhere…

MIDEM ’09: Day 1 – arrival in Cannes

I’m in Cannes for a few days, attending MIDEM – the international music industry conference. In between working, schmoozing, blagging and all the other stuff people do at this thing, I’ll be reproting here on whatever catches my attention. Just arrived, so let’s begin…

Sunday, 2.45pm(ish): Ah, well – I’m here. Sat in the Press Club in the Palais des Festivals, and it’s strangely overcast outside. This weather had better improve; I know I’m only here three days, but I’d expected it to be warmer and packed accordingly. Right now I’m wearing the hoodie I flew from London in – the warmest item of clothing I’ve brought!

I’m staying in an apartment in the Eden Paradise Hotel in Golf Juan, a few miles away from Cannes. Actually, it’s a hostel and I’ve booked a private room. It’s cheap and cheerful; concierge/manager guy’s extremely helpful, and the bus into Cannes and to the airport only costs one Euro (having said that, the last bus is at 8pm, so I reckon it’ll be 20 Euro taxis home each night, or maybe the train).

As usual with these things, the networking started back home on the way to France. It’s funny how you can just tell by looking at the other passengers who’s going and who isn’t. There’s the usual mixture of seasoned old grey blokes (the managers, CEOs etc who are making the real money in the music biz) and excited young guys (aspiring new artists about to be thrown to the wolves). I love watching the wildlife…

I’ve got about three different hats on this MIDEM. Apart from keeping you all informed via this blog/these notes (depending on where you’re reading this), I’ve got a couple of articles I’m writing – for UB1 and UKG Presents. Also looking for acts to interview for some other magazines (still waiting to hear whether The Bomb Squad are doing interviews or not). And then I’ve got my radio producer’s hat on, and will be scouring the place for all the African/World Music contacts and material I can find for the in-flight programme.

My first appointment’s in an hour’s time with Johnny Mendola – a guy Larissa Lam put me in touch with. This is his 15th MIDEM (it’s only my second; my first was in 1995). After we’re done, I’ll hit the exhibition area and do some networking, then at 6pm I’m off to the PRS/MCPS cocktail party. There aren’t any concerts on tonight that I’m particularly interested in, so I might just go home after that.

I’ve been looking at the bags we’ve all been given, and wondering what it tells us about the music industry. It’s got the MIDEM logo in a corner on the front, but then it’s got a great big Napster logo right in the middle. Then when you open it up, there are two labels. One’s the Fairtrade logo; the other one tells me that the bag’s made from “certified 100% organic cotton.” Hmm, let me see… “Hi! We’re the music industry! We’ve finally caught up with new technology – and we’re ethical too!”

Maybe I should just stop being so cynical…

My Mate, Your Mate…

This time last week, I was holed up in the Midlands; at the Pioneer Centre in Kidderminster – venue for Inspire!, Latin Link’s annual conference.

I’ve been to Inspire! a few times before, and it’s always great fun. It’s just a fantastic atmosphere, full of stories of the mountains and the first time someone had cuy to eat (don’t ask if you’re fond of fluffy animals), or of the market traders with their bamba (pirate) Salsa and Reggaeton CDs.

16112008001 At any Latin Link event, the Argentineans are always easy to spot – both them and the Brits who’ve spent some time there. What gives them away is the intriguing little globe-like object they all hold in their hands and taking occasional pulls on through a shiny metal straw thing. Some will have a small flask of hot water, from which they’ll occasionally give the little globes a top-up. Get too close, and they’ll offer you a sip – your initiation into the world of Mate (pronounced “matay”).

Mate is a drink intended to be shared with people. It’s a huge part of Argentinean culture. “It’s what makes Argentina special,” I’ve been told by one avid drinker. “You do have to develop a taste for it,” advises another.

I’m still some way from developing my taste for it. My sweet tooth is legendary, and Mate isn’t the sweetest thing I’ve ever drunk by any means. But when it comes to those little containers it’s served in… I was sold on those ages ago.

161120080041 My fascination with mate might have something to do with me sort of having a thing for pipes. I’ve never smoked in my life and don’t intend to start anytime soon. But there’s just something special about pipe smokers. Without his pipe, Sherlock Holmes would just be a pompous nerd with a daft hat saying patronising things to his sidekick Watson. Likewise, without mate, Argentineans are just Latinos who pronounce some of their words funny – saying “sh” where other Spanish speakers say “y”, and where English speakers would say ‘l” (that’s your Spanish pronunciation lesson for today, folks).

I’ve never seen two identical ones. I’ve seen some that looked really plain, and others that could pass for priceless works of art. I’ve even seen one made out of a horn (Argentina consumes more beef per person than any other nation on earth. I guess someone’s got to find a use for all those leftover cow parts). But I have never seen two that looked exactly the same.

16112008002 If I ever go to Argentina, I’ll buy the most arty-looking mate container I can find. I’ll be the most sociable guy around, sharing it with everyone in sight. I’d let everyone else drink while I just held that round bowl in my hand, looking and feeling cool.

Pase el mate a la izquierda (pass the mate ‘pon the left hand side), and hand me that bamba Daddy Yankee CD, please…

So, how will Jesus vote?

Well, Indecision 2008 (or whatever nickname Jon Stewart and his Daily Show chums have given it this time) is nearly here.

Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t be paying any attention to an election taking place in a country I don’t live in (yes, I know: a black man is running. Big woop). But when writing about Christian music is part of your job, you’re kind of forced to take an interest. You see, politics is a biiiig part of American Christianity, and a lot of the art, media and teaching that come from there are heavily coloured by the partisan stance of whoever produced them – a point many of us non-American Christians who feed voraciously on the Christian culture industry’s output often fail to realise.

Every April, I take a trip to Nashville to attend the Gospel Music Association’s annual GMA Week. I remember turning up at GMA 2004, and being greeted by a giant banner covered in signatures, proclaiming “The Christian music community supports our troops in Iraq” (this was the same GMA at which my friend Mike Rimmer went about wearing a T-shirt with WWJB? (Who Would Jesus Bomb?) written on it). As one of the millions who’d marched the streets of London in protest against the war, you can imagine how that made me feel…

I’d kind of resigned myself to accepting that Christian music = rightwing politics. But in recent years, I’ve seen quite a few of those fiercely conservative Gospel/ccm people become less so. You still have guys like Redeem the Vote (ostensibly non-partisan, but in reality very pro-Republican) rallying young Christians’ support – first for Mike Huckabee, then for McCain once Huckabee was out of the race. But it appears that this time round, Christian voters are looking at other options beside the GOP – and are being helped to do so by some of their favourite gospel/ccm acts. The Democrats – famous for not ‘doing God’ – have even enlisted gospel singers such as Donnie McClurkin and the Mighty Clouds of Joy to help bring folk round.

I met Frank Schaeffer (author of the book Crazy For God) at Greenbelt this summer. Not only did he openly pledge his support for Obama several times during the festival; he also had a lot to say about how Christian voters’ moods were changing.

“A lot of Evangelicals now realise that they were sold a bill of goods by the Republican leadership,” he told me. “The one stick in the mud that won’t go away is abortion. But that said, most Evangelicals – with that as a caveat – are becoming more comfortable with voting for a Democrat, because they see the absolute failure of not only the Bush administration, but also this idea that you have to pass a sort of theological test in order to be President. That’s insane; you’re not hiring the guy as Pastor-In-Chief.”

As I’ve spoken to American Christians (musical and non-musical alike) over the last couple of years, many have cited one guy as being the catalyst for so many of them re-examining their political views: Jim Wallis, the Vicar of Dibley’s husband (no, seriously!) and author of books such as The Soul of Politics and God’s Politics: How the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.

“People like Jim Wallis have taken a lead in getting people involved in a larger conversation than abortion and homosexuality as the touchstones,” said Jars of Clay’s keyboardist Charlie Lowell, when I interviewed him before the band’s last UK gig. “He’s got us looking at issues such as taking care of the poor and ultimately what we’re building as a future, rather than what we’re against.”

I’ve met Jim Wallis several times over the years – usually at Greenbelt, where he’s a regular speaker, as well as at events organised by Faithworks and Make Poverty History. He’s told me more than once that “the monologue of the Religious Right is over,” but I’d always had a hard time believing that when TBN – along with the other Christian satellite channels – shouted the opposite so loudly. Brian McLaren, another speaker at this year’s Greenbelt, had an explanation for that.

“Something people outside the US just don’t understand is the degree to which religious broadcasting has enormous power,” he said. “I sometimes – being very tongue in cheek – refer to it as ‘Radio Orthodoxy’. The most powerful denomination in the USA is actually not Baptists or Pentecostals; it’s the people who control the Christian broadcasting networks!”

Brian longs for more Christian musicians to be more questioning of the political process, and cites the singer Derek Webb as one bright spark in the ccm pool. Having heard Derek’s The Ringing Bell album and seen the hilarious video for his song “Saviour on Capitol Hill”, I have to agree with Brian. When I actually got to interview Derek, I wasn’t disappointed – nor was I too surprised to learn that some of his more edgy songs haven’t gone down too well within the Christian music scene.

“The Christian music market is traditionally a fairly conservative one,” Derek said. “So when you as a Christian artist start looking at the more social implications of following Jesus, it does kind of concern people. I’ve always found that ironic, because looking at just the simplest teachings of Jesus, he clearly puts a high priority on caring for the poor. When you start to look at the social implications of what Jesus said, applying it socially is not only inevitable; it’s commanded. And when you look at the social implications, it inevitably becomes political.”

As you would expect, Derek’s been observing Indecision 2008 with interest. “So far, I think it’s better now than it’s been in a long time,” he said enthusiastically. “There does seem to be a heightened interest in having a more nuanced political conversation. I’ve been surprised by some of my friends and people I know, who four or eight years ago would simply have looked for the conservative candidate and blindly pledged their allegiance to him. Now I’m seeing some of those people are more interested in a whole discussion.

“I’ve been hoping that over time, Christians would begin to realise that politicians are primarily in the election and re-election business; willing to go to any group of people whose language they can decipher, and say to them whatever they need to say in order to get their votes. That’s just how it works. As you look over the history of the last 20 or so years of Evangelicalism and how it touches elections, people are bound to start realising, ‘these guys aren’t necessarily on my side!’

“Whoever you discern as the ‘Christian’ candidate – the guy who seems to have all his spiritual ducks in a row – has more likely deciphered the Christian language and is able to get in front of Christians and make himself seem appealing and electable. That’s not to say that some of these men aren’t whom they say they are, but Christians have to be a little more savvy about the game that’s being played. The politicians understand what they’re doing, but unfortunately, the public – and most often, these Christians – hear the politicians talk about the few issues that those politicians know are the only issues that are important to them, and they’re just swayed really easily. We should be a little more careful.”

Derek has some valid points, IMHO. And I’m all for Christians getting involved in the political process, whatever side of the fence they’re on or whatever country they’re in – just as long as they don’t try to claim God as a member of their party of choice (which is why I agree 1,000,000 percent with the line in one of Derek’s songs that one of the two great lies he’s heard is that Jesus was a white middle-class Republican). But is this “more nuanced political conversation” going to have any real effect on the poll results? Well, they’re nearly in; lets see for ourselves, shall we?