From backstage at Africa Oye 2018, Manchester-based broadcaster (and good friend) Geli Berg and I got to interview the Ghanaian reggae singer and activist Rocky Dawuni. Here’s the interview, with tracks from Rocky’s 2015 album, Branches of the Same Tree – the album that won him the accolade of being the first Ghanaian artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award.
The weather may not have been as pleasant as it could have (I should’ve known the heatwave wouldn’t last; this is England, after all), but that didn’t stop Africa Oyé 2018 from being one of the best ones I’ve attended – either as a reviewer or as a guest DJ.
I do enjoy wandering about Sefton Park (especially when the weather’s good – but we’ll say no more about that), and the opportunity to spin a few tunes for the assembled masses is always welcome. I had a great time on Saturday interviewing the Ghanaian singer and activist Rocky Dawuni and the Senegalese singer Marema.
My DJ set on the Sunday afternoon was one of the most personal sets I’ve ever played. Having realised a few weeks earlier that I would be DJing on Father’s Day (my first Father’s Day without a father), I’d decided to turn my DJ set into a tribute to my dad.
I kicked off the set with an old favourite of Dad’s: ‘Joromi’ by the legendary Nigerian guitarist Sir Victor Uwaifo. Later on, I played a track called ‘Harmony’ by rapper/beatboxer/playwright Homecut (aka Testament), taken from his album No Freedom Without Sacrifice. Over a nice Highlife rhythm (the kind Dad really liked back in the day), Testament tells the story of his life growing up with a Ghanaian mother and an English father. His parents never categorised their offspring as ‘mixed race’; instead they described them as being ‘harmony’. Being in an interracial marriage myself, whenever I hear this song, I like to think that one day, it’ll be my kids writing poetry about their upbringing and sharing it with the world. Also, the song namechecks ET Mensah, who was one of Dad’s favourite artists. I think he would have liked that. With ‘Joromi’ representing the past and ‘Harmony’ the future, we had a little ‘circle of life’ thing going.
Next on the DJ stage was my good friend Geli Berg, aka DJ Mayeva. She turned the “awww” factor up to 11 during her set by introducing my wife Karen and I as “a lovely couple whose wedding I played at last year” and dedicated a song to us. Suddenly it felt really sunny.
In between doing interviews, taking pictures and, of course, DJing, I did manage to catch a few of the live sets. Orchestre Poly Rhythmo were brilliant, all dressed in red and white, they crossed genres seamlessly and vibed really well with each other. Sona Jobarteh on Saturday was cool too, wielding her massive kora like Thor’s hammer. Kasai Masai’s soukous grooves got everyone dancing. And Sunday’s headliners, Inner Circle, were out of this world. I can’t think of a single reggae song that was popular in the 90s which didn’t find its way into their set in some form. An awesome live act – but then they have been doing this for 50 years.
And that was my Africa Oyé 2018. See you in Liverpool next year…
“Cancer shouldn’t be a death sentence. It isn’t a death sentence in the West; why should it be one in Sierra Leone?”
Who’s asking? Her name’s Cremelda Pratt, and she’s the founder of Thinking Pink: an NGO dedicated to fighting breast cancer in Sierra Leone.
A Business Administration graduate with a major in Marketing, Cremelda lived in the USA and worked for the Federal National Mortgage Association (‘Fannie Mae’) until a trip home for a holiday in 2008 set her on a new path.
“I’d travelled via Accra,” she recalls. “I noticed that there was a lot of breast cancer awareness in Ghana, just as there was back in the US. But when I arrived in Sierra Leone, there was nothing. And yet I knew that friends of mine had died from breast cancer.”
In 2012, Thinking Pink’s office opened in Freetown’s city centre. In its first two years, some 3,000 women (and a handful of men) walked through their doors. More than half of them had some form of breast cancer.
“We saw girls as young as 12 and 13 with lumps,” Cremelda says. “A 21-year-old had a mastectomy with no reconstructive surgery. Losing a breast is a big deal. And dealing with that with no reconstructive surgery or even a mastectomy bra is devastating. I’d see the tears every day, and I’d cry with them.”
And then Ebola hit. “Breast cancer basically got ignored during the Ebola outbreak,” Cremelda says. “Early detection became late detection; late detection became death. Since the outbreak ended, we’ve been seeing three to five people a day. We’ve noticed a surge amongst younger women; we’re seeing a lot of college students. A lot of teenagers too.
“I want to see a day when we have a dedicated cancer hospital, rather than the current situation where we only have one mammogram in the whole country, no oncologists, and cancer patients are in general wards in our main hospitals. We want to see palliative care happen too. Why should women suffer and die worthlessly? If we had a palliative care centre, at least people would have their dignity up until death.”
The challenges Thinking Pink faces are enormous. When I first met Cremelda (in 2014, in the very early days of the Ebola outbreak), Thinking Pink had a staff of five – including a patient liaison officer who was a breast cancer survivor herself. They’re now down to three. “I’ve had to drop people because there aren’t enough funds to pay wages,” she says, “and I’ve dipped too deeply into my widow’s mite. Without help to sustain the foundation, we might have to close doors. I could go back to the US, but where would these women go? We trust that things will turn around – but it’s on all of us. In Sierra Leone, women make up 51 percent of the population. We’ll keep knocking on doors, and hope that someday soon, somebody will hear us.”
I’ve just got back home from my first windsurfing session for this season – my first time on a board since last October. It was an ideal day to do it; so warm and sunny we didn’t need wetsuits, and a wind that varied from “just right for a beginner wanting some light practice” to “Help! I’m arm-wrestling with my sail – and it’s winning!”
Now in my third year of doing this, all the things I struggled to grasp in previous years are beginning to fall in place: upwind, downwind, tacking, gybing, steering properly and maintaining hold of the board. I’m doing much longer runs than before (my instructor Martin says), and staying on the board longer – though I did fall in twice today. One of those falls was EPIC. It was also a great laugh – and proved that those swimming sessions have paid off!
My confidence on the water is getting better, although that initial reticence to go on the water in the first place is still there (maybe that’s just something one has to live with). But hey, the instructor says I’m improving, and he’s going to draw up a few courses for me to tackle over my next few visits. Then I can get a few signatures in my log book and start working properly towards a certificate or two.
I’ve written before about things windsurfing has taught me about life. Today’s big lesson was this:
“There’s no such thing as stationary.”
Last year, I used to take a lot of breaks mid-sail. I’d run for a bit, then drop the sail and sit on the board for a while before starting again. Yes, I needed a breather. But the downside of that is that by the time I decided to get started again, I’d have drifted off somewhere I didn’t want to be. Because this is the way with stopping things: everything and everyone else around you is moving on (and in this case, the water is moving on and carrying you along with it). Even when there are loads of you staying still, time is still moving on. Yes, there’s a time for rest. But maybe – just maybe – that time isn’t when you’re on a board floating on a lake.
But if today’s session is anything to go by, my strength on the water is building up and those breaks are getting fewer. That’s not too shabby…
Last night I went to see Emmanuel Jal performing at the Forge arts centre in Camden. As gigs go, it was an exciting performance in a space which at times seemed too small to contain all the energy that was raring to burst out. Support came from members of his backing band who have their own solo careers: vocalists Tanika Charles and Clinton ‘Roachie’ Outten, and Afrobeats artist and multi-instrumentalist Silvastone. Emmanuel’s own set consisted mostly of songs from his latest album, the Key.
I’ve known Emmanuel for quite some time; over 10 years, now I think of it. I was one of the first journalists here to help relay the heartbreaking yet uplifting account of his escape from life as a child soldier to the world (that would be in 2003, if my memory serves me well). I was at Westminster with my notebook and camera when he and several other Sudanese people and their supporters staged a ‘die-in’ as a protest against the war in Sudan. We bumped into each other again the first time he played Greenbelt, and at an African music festival in Trafalgar Square. But all that was a long time ago, so it was good to catch up with him again.
Before Emmanuel took to the stage, he and I retreated to a nearby restaurant where I threw a few questions at him…
So much has happened in your life since we last met up. Give us a rundown, please…
Yes, a lot of things have happened. The We Want Peace movement is still going, where I go to schools and share my experiences. I believe that when you share your experiences and stories, it’s like putting on a spotlight in a dark place. When you put a light on in a dark place, evil will perform less.
I’m also still doing charity work with Gua Africa – the charity that I founded, helping families and individuals overcome the effects of war and poverty. I’ve just been in a film called the Good Lie with Reese Witherspoon. And I now have five albums out; the latest one is called the Key.
The Key isn’t just an album. What else is there to the concept?
It all came about when I met Paul Lindley in South Africa. Paul’s the founder of Ella’s Kitchen, a company that makes baby food here in the UK. We started talking about food – but from that I came to realise that Paul cared about children, as I do. And so he suggested an idea: Why couldn’t we make an album about children’s rights? And so we started brainstorming ideas.
Later on, these ideas gave birth to an enterprise. And that was when we formed The Key is E. It’s going to fund small business owners who have a direct impact on children’s lives. It’s going to focus mostly on Africa. The Key is E will be a platform to connect people who want to invest in Africa; connecting the diaspora to local people with ideas, or any other investors who want to go to Africa.
I’ve been doing tours where all the proceeds from the tickets at the door go to the enterprise. All the proceeds from the album go to it too. As for the album, we had lots of people involved. Nile Rodgers did a song called ‘My Power’. Nelly Furtado’s on two songs, and then we have two songs from the album featured on a film soundtrack.
You’ve also started your own record label. What acts have you signed so far?
The label’s called Gatwich Records and it’s based in Canada. In terms of artists, at the moment there’s just me and my sister Nyaruach. But we’re looking to sign others. What we’re going to try to do is focus more on management. It’s not easy to make money from CD sales, so we’re trying to bring 360 deals in.
How did you find the writing process when you did your autobiography War Child?
It was a difficult thing to come out and tell the story. One of the most difficult things is, when you tell the story, who’s going to believe you? And because there’s a political side to it, you could get attacked. People will accuse you of lying.
The main questions are: who’s going to believe you, why are you doing it, what’s going to happen and will it create change? Those four Ws all have to be answered first. After I’d answered them, I just took the risk and wrote the book. But yes – telling it personally was difficult.
What’s this new film you’re in, and how are you finding the acting experience now that you have two films under your belt? The Good Lie is about the ‘lost boys’ of South Sudan who escaped, and how they survived. Some became child soldiers, and they finally made their way to the US. Reese Witherspoon’s in it, and I brought the musical and cultural aspect to it, together with other South Sudanese, we helped make it accurate. The writers did a fantastic job; the director was awesome. It’s an amazing project – and it was fantastic to have Reese Witherspoon humble herself and help put the message out.
The hardest acting experience for me was Africa United – the first film role I was ever given. It was hard because I was being told to act! But then, the role was that of a child soldier, so that made it easy. I was a soldier before, so I acted as if I was going to kill. Sometimes soldiers act when they’re threatening you.
One of your collaborators on this new album is Nile Rodgers. I’ve been a Chic fan for, like, forever; how did you get to link up with him?
When you’re walking your path and you keep on doing your work positively, you’ll meet a lot of positive people on the way. And that’s how I met Nile. I met him at a UN concert. From there, we kept in touch. He invited me to a We Are Family Foundation event; I supported him; he liked what I was doing – and so we ended up doing a song together.
Nile’s an amazing person. He’s like a mentor to many people. Whenever you meet Nile, he will always give you the support you need.
How are things in South Sudan at the moment?
Right now, South Sudan is in a difficult situation. I feel betrayed when I think about the situation, where the people we trusted – the people who fought for our freedom – pocketed our freedom. The war that’s happening in South Sudan now started as a disagreement between people in the same party. The president was questioned by some of the other party members, who said “we have corruption going on; we need to have accountability towards the people we’re leading and towards our party”. They said they needed to be transparent and put institutions in place that would protect all of us. Some of them also said they would like to be able to run for the presidency. That made the president angry – and he fired the entire cabinet.
When that happened, people started to speak out, and the president started putting them under house arrest. He broke the constitution and dissolved the electoral system. His biggest threat was his vice-president, so what he did was arm members of his own ethnic group within the city and made them the presidential guard. That was what led to the conflict. Later, he accused the cabinet that he’d fired of trying to stage a coup. His plan was to silence any opposition. When that failed, those who escaped discovered later that their families had been killed. A lot of young people got angry when this happened, and they thought it was a tribal war. Some of them attacked the government’s barracks; some carried out revenge attacks on people from the other tribes.
According to community research, about 20,000 Nuer people were killed in Juba. We’re talking innocent civilians here – women and children in their homes. My house was burnt down. Sixty people from my family got killed – including my brother and stepmother.
What saved the situation was the widow of Dr John Garang. She spoke on the radio and said, “Look – what happened in Juba is not good.” Her speech on the radio was what prevented the conflict from becoming a tribal one. I give her credit, because without her intervention, genocide could well have happened. A lot of innocent people would have died.
The situation is terrible. We have approximately two million displaced people; thousands killed… Our country spent a billion dollars on arms, while the UN is looking for 1.3 billion to fund the refugees that need food. But now I think both sides are beginning to come to their senses. I hope they find a peaceful solution, and that all those involved in these killings are held accountable.
It started with one of those dream gigs us writers get every now and then: go on an all expenses paid trip to a holiday resort in Turkey, and write an article about it when you get back. So I did (who wouldn’t?), and amongst the activities on offer at this resort were some free windsurfing lessons. It seemed like a good idea (despite my initial quibbles) and I picked up the basics quite quickly.
A whole year passed before I ventured out on the water again – this time on a ‘Start Windsurfing’ course at a watersports centre in Wales. I was a bit rubbish this time (I spent more time in the water than on it), but at the end of the weekend, I returned home battered and bruised – and, more importantly, in possession of my RYA Start Windsurfing certificate. I then found somewhere closer to home (Broxbourne in Essex), where I’ve been having practice sessions at the East London Windsurfing School. It’s now end of term, so to speak; I had my last practice session for this year yesterday and am looking forward to next spring when it all kicks off again.
So, in these past few months, what have I learned about windsurfing – and what has windsurfing taught me about life? A few things…
I’m always going to feel a little bit “oo-er” about going out on the water. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
Windsurfing is a team sport masquerading as a solitary one. Yes, it is just you on your board, sailing solo. But at every step of the way, you depend on others and are encouraged to work as part of a team (it’s much more fun sailing in a group anyway). The ‘Seven Common Senses’ insist that you tell someone when you’re going out sailing, and for how long. Even the wetsuit is designed in such a way that you need someone else’s help to put it on (although I did manage to put mine on by myself yesterday).
Some handy tips apply as much in windsurfing as they do in other areas of life. Looking up helps as much in windsurfing as it does in public speaking. And as Martin the instructor always says, “the more you do it, the better you get”. My piano teacher says that too – as has every book on writing I’ve ever come across…
What else? Oh yeah – if you are going to take up such a sport in Britain, there will be times when you will have to do it in bad weather. Just accept that and move on. And speaking of the weather, there will be days when the wind will simply not play ball. So as well as your sailing kit, remember to pack a book or magazine (or some knitting, or whatever your other favourite means of passing the time is), just in case.
“So what’s the best interview you’ve ever done, then?”
Just about everyone who interviews people for a living gets asked this at some point, usually at dinner parties after you’ve just volunteered information about your job to whoever you’ve just been introduced to in the name of ‘small talk’. It sounds innocent on the surface – and I’m sure that the person asking it means no harm by it – but it can be quite a loaded question.
How do you measure “best”, exactly? The most famous person? The most powerful? Most infamous? Or just the interview you were happiest with when you did it (for technical reasons that mean nothing to the civilian questioning you)? And it’s always funny when you mention a name and get a blank look and a “never heard of him/her, mate” in return…
But I digress. I have been asked ‘that question’ (or some variant of it) enough times to pay for a holiday in Cuba if each questioning had been accompanied by a tenner (maybe I should charge?). The answer tends to surprise people, because most people know me for music journalism and the subject of my all-time favourite interview is not a musician. So who is this mystery person?
Well, since you ask – my most favourite interview out of all the hundreds that I’ve done is the one I did with (drum roll): Charles H Townes.
If you’ve just said “Charles who?” you’re not the first person to. No worries…
There are a ton of reasons why this is my favourite interview. Back in my school days, I was inclined more towards science subjects than the arty stuff I’m into now, and having the privilege of spending half an hour chatting to one of the modern world’s most eminent physicists kinda took me back to those days at some level. Then there was all the history. THIS MAN INVENTED THE LASER! How could meeting someone like that be considered anything less than ‘absolutely awesome’? And he played a part in making Threads and the Day After not come true. Again, what’s not to like? (I do realise that at this point, I’ve probably lost everyone under 25 who’s reading this. But those of us who lived through the 80s can remember how much effort the media put into putting the fear of God – or rather, of nuclear war – into us).
But above all, I liked this interview because it gave me a picture of how I want to be when I’m, er, older than I am now. Retirement is a concept that I’ve never really grasped. That could be because of the nature of what I do; I don’t get why I should hang up my pen or switch off my computer just because my 65th birthday’s here (and anyway, by the time the ConDems are through with us, the retirement age will be 80). When I met Charles, he was just a day or two away from turning 90, and yet he was as into science then as he was back in the 40s when he made the discovery that made him famous. I asked why he was still working and he replied, “I’ve never worked. I’ve just been having a good time!” The man was a living embodiment of why it pays to make a career/vocation out of the things you are most passionate about. And for that, he has my respect.
Charles celebrates his 99th birthday today. Initially, I’d planned on putting my interview with him online on his 100th birthday. But then I thought, why wait? And so, here it is: my all-time favourite interview. And happy birthday, Dr Townes…