Checking in

I haven’t been here in a while…

It’s March. March, for [insert deity or rude word of choice here]’s sake, and this is my first blog post of the year. I didn’t do the customary “What I liked/hated about last year” blog post at the end of 2012. Nothing in January (I tell a lie; there’s a post waiting to be published, just as soon as I’ve finished the audio piece that goes with it). No reflections on growing older when my birthday rolled round in February. Nothing. For two whole months.

No, I haven’t given up on blogging (or writing, for that matter). I just haven’t been here. I guess this short post is my way of saying “Still breathing over here!” whilst waving my hands in the air like an apathetic person (I’ve always wondered if that line was one of hip hop’s earliest attempts at irony).

As it goes, I’ve been writing more than usual these past few weeks: ‘morning pages’ most days, beavering away at the novel I started last NaNoWriMo, plus whatever writing/editing the day job requires me to do (speaking of which, you really need to read this). I guess this must be the period of no apparent action between a seed being planted and a little shoot appearing above ground.

Anyway, I am still here. And I will be blogging this year. Thanks for caring; can I stop waving now?

PS. While I’ve got your attention, I’d just like to point it in the direction of a few things that deserve it. I’ve already kind of mentioned the Joint Public Issues Team‘s The Lies We Tell Ourselves report, debunking some of the popular received wisdom about poverty. Also well worth your time is Jendella‘s beautiful collection of photography and poetry, Deaths, Dreams and the Dull In-betweens. If you like Indian music, my friends Chris and Pete (aka Aradhna) have released a live album – the proceeds from which go towards helping women out of the sex trade. And if you do ‘do God’, why not try the God52 challenge?

Greenbelt 2012

Ten days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIDEM Days 2 & 3: “just rambling…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prince K: Cool character, isn't he?

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

Mark Ronson (left) talks Coca Cola Olympic stuff

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

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

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

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

Mally & Me

I’ve heard stories in the past of some hip hop superstar or other who started their climb to the top by selling copies of their debut recording out of the boot of their car. But until Christmas Eve, I’d never actually seen it happen in real life (and anyway, after so many years as a music journo, you tend to dismiss those stories as something the artists’ publicists made up).

I had just landed in Atlanta an hour or two earlier, and hopped on the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transport Authority (or MARTA  for short) train to Indian Creek station, where my cousin was going to pick me up. I was sitting in the station’s passenger pick-up/set-down area, minding my own business and enjoying the rare spectacle (for a Brit) of warm sunshine in December (they don’t call this place “Hotlanta” for nothing) when young a man came walking by, carrying a stack of CDs in clear plastic wallets.

He stopped, introduced himself as Jamal – aka “Mally G” – and offered me a copy of his debut CD for whatever amount I was prepared to pay for it. I offered him $5; he gave me a CD, thanked me and wished me well and then went over to where a handful of cab drivers were waiting for fares and did his sales pitch again.

And that was when I had a crazy idea: why not interview the guy?

And why not? After all, I had my recording machine with me and I wasn’t going anywhere! And so I called him over after he’d sold a few copies to the cabbies. He came over; I explained what I wanted to do; we sat down and I got him to, as we say, tell me about himself. “That was a very nice thing you did,” said the lady who was sitting nearby waiting for her ride (and who took this photo of the two of us).

Here, for your listening pleasure, is that interview, packaged nicely with a selection of tracks from Mally G’s album. Think of this as a random snapshot; that was what I had in mind when I put it together…

NaNoWriMo: the Morning After

Thursday 1 December 2011, sometime before 6.00am…

It’s not November anymore. So why am I still getting out of bed at such an unearthly hour and firing up the laptop? I’ve already had a whole month of this…

Yep – I signed up once again for that exercise in complete madness that is National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo for short). The challenge, for those of you who haven’t heard of it before, is to write a novel in a month; 50,000 words or more in 30 days.

And boy, did I write. I wrote in my office (the one at home, that is!), in bed, in Starbucks, on the bus, on a plane, in a Latin music bar in Soho, a hotel in Istanbul, and reclined on a beanbag in a really nice café in Sultanhamet called the Palatium. I wrote on my new MacBook Pro and my old G4 iBook, as well as on my mobile phone (thank God for Evernote!) and even, on occasion, with good old pen and paper. 

This year’s NaNoWriMo felt a little different to previous ones where, for the most part, I’d come in to the exercise on Day 1 with a blank sheet and just winged it. I always believed that I would be more in control if I already had an idea and outline planned in advance, and so knew what I was supposed to be writing about when writing time came along. This time round, I did have an idea – and with a little help from the NaNoWriMo workbook Ready, Set, Novel! I had a handful of characters ready to work their magic. All the advance preparation helped me build up some great momentum in Week 1 – which helped, because things got a bit slack on the writing front in Week 2 (see previous blog post for some idea why; I had far too many late nights and other events in my diary that week). I struggled a bit in Week 3 but kept writing, and got back on track in the final week.

What would I say I learnt from this year’s NaNoWriMo experience?

Well, I’d learnt a long time ago that NaNoWriMo is a means to an end and not an end in itself. But that became more and more obvious to me as the month progressed. Basically what happened was that I developed an idea I thought was strong, but then struggled a bit with making it work (too few subplots to keep you going from one end of the story arc to another). I kept on writing nonetheless, but a lot of the time, it felt like treading water; just writing to keep the word count up, rather than to advance the plot.

Just write. It seems like daft advice, but none of that work is wasted. If nothing else, it is good practice – and it really does help sharpen your writing skills!

Well, November is over and I have a little under 51,000 words about an unconventional family I’ve quite grown to like. It would be nice to work on them a bit more and get them to the point where I’d be happy to introduce them to the rest of the world. That phase, I’ve decided, will start after Christmas.

Watch this space…

During November, I went on a Quiet Day at work, at which I was given this notebook. One or two of my novel ideas ended up in here...

Greenbelt 2011: a look back

It’s now been a good few days since I ‘de-camped’ from Cheltenham and took the train back to London – feeling absolutely shattered but also inspired, elated and, dare I say it, turbo-charged from Greenbelt.

The campsite starts to fill up...

It was a much scarier Greenbelt than usual for me this year – mainly because I’d accepted the major responsibility of booking acts for the Performance Cafe. The rest of the team were incredibly supportive, and made my debut as a festival booker a great learning experience (special thanks to Roger, the venue manager).

Eska
Lanre

Naturally I’m biased, but that doesn’t make it any less true when I say that the Performance Cafe’s lineup this year was absolutely brilliant. The lady I sat next to during Eska‘s set couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful she was (another bloke sitting next to me said simply, “She’s a genius.”). I felt immensely proud to hear people raving about Lanre. Jason Carter was great on Friday – and given the awful road accident he’d been in just a few days before, we were all just glad he was alive and able to play. Having him on just before Duke Special yielded an unexpected bonus; it turns out they’re both old friends, and Duke talked him into joining him onstage during his set. The little I saw of Rob Halligan was great, as was Paul Bell – and Folk On were wee-yourself funny. Mainstage highlights included the Gentlemen’s Dub Club, the IDMC Gospel Choir and Extra-Curricular. And Monday’s lineup: Ron Sexsmith, Kate Rusby, Iain Archer, the Unthanks and Mavis Staples, with you-know-who playing records in the changeover periods between each act.

There wasn’t a working Press room this year as there had been previously, so whenever I wanted to interview someone, I had to go up to them and ask. I still got a few cracking ones, though: with Brian McLaren, the Dalit human rights campaigner Vincent Manoharan, comedian Andy Kind, Rob Halligan and Shane Claiborne (actually, the last two had been pre-arranged). And Luke Leighfield – if you’re reading this, I owe you an interview!

Folk On chill backstage with their group- I mean their fan club...
Paul Bell

I didn’t get to as many talks as I’d have liked to (I even managed to go through the whole festival with just a fleeting glimpse of Rob Bell), but really liked Brian McLaren’s talk on Christian identity. I did much better on the comedy front – what with Last Orders most nights, and Folk On playing the Performance Cafe. It was also good to catch up with my old friend Jo Enright again, and hear her jokes about knitting.

Greenbelt gave me ample opportunities for putting real faces to the names of people I’d developed friendships with via Twitter and Facebook. Helen (aka Fragmentz) was a great camping neighbour. And it was fun helping Karen get settled on her first Greenbelt (you can see some of her Greenbelt experience here). Catching up with old friends was also great – especially seeing Matt and Trish Hart again after about 10 years (I first met them in Ecuador in 2001, when I worked for a couple of months at Orphaids – the HIV/Aids care charity Matt’s parents set up). It was good to catch up with both the Akinsiku brothers (Siku and Akin, co-authors of the Manga Bible) and their families.

What else was good? Nadia Bolz-Weber’s communion service message, the morning worship sessions in the Methodist tent, my first Goan fish curry (I didn’t do Pie Minister this year)… and of course, DJing on the Mainstage on Monday night. Hanging out in the beer tent until 3am on the last night of the festival was a first for me; I usually go straight to bed after Last Orders; I never realised they had so much fun there!

Thanks once again to Greenbelt, for a great weekend and another reminder of how rewarding it can be to step out of one’s comfort zone and do something that stretches you.

Some stewards have a group hug. Aawwwww...
Sunday morning, and the communion crowd starts to gather…