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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
Anyway, I’m in Paddington station’s First Class lounge, waiting for my train to Cheltenham (yes, first class. I’m going to be spending the next five nights sleeping in a tent, so allow me a little luxury before then) – and, as with last year’s train ride, I’m using the down time to remind myself again what it is I love about the festival, and what I’m looking forward to most at this year’s.
On the music side of things, there’s quite a lot I’m excited about. I’ve already waxed lyrical on the Greenbelt blog about how happy I am that Eska is going to be there. I’m also looking forward to seeing a few old friends play – Freddie Kofi and Henry Bran. There’s a lady by the name of Dayana Trindade who’s travelling all the way from Brazil to sing in the Performance Cafe. I’ve been listening a fair bit to Listener and Hope & Social (both of whom I interviewed for a Greenbelt preview article in the Church Times newspaper); also to Rob Halligan, Lanre, Jason Carter and Atlum Schema. I’ll stop now before this turns into a list of all the bands playing (but not before mentioning the “leg end” that is Mavis Staples, of course).
I also plan on making time to see and participate in as much of the literature programme as possible; hang out with fellow writers and glean as much writing wisdom as I can from them. And then there’s the comedy. I saw Milton Jones at the Hammersmith Apollo a few months ago, so if I don’t get in to see him, I won’t be totally devastated. But there’s no way I’m missing ‘ma gurl’ Jo Enright. Or Paul Kerensa. And I’m praying that Mark Thomas‘ show on Monday doesn’t clash with my DJing duties that day. If it does – well, too bad…
But more than the music, the comedy or anything else, I’m excited about the hanging out. For the past few weeks, my Twitter stream has been abuzz with people I follow making Greenbelt hook-up plans. I’ve had a few invitations to have a coffee (or a beer) myself, and I plan to make good on every one of them. Greenbelt – it’s all about people, really. Now should I or shouldn’t I take part in the speed dating? That is the question…
First Class carriage on Virgin Trains’ 16:03 service from London Euston to Birmingham New Street. (Coach J seat 14, to be absolutely precise)
It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m on my way to do a spot of DJing in one of my favourite cities – playing at someone’s retirement/60th birthday do.
This is my second DJ gig this week. The DJ role is one that’s kind of been imposed on me throughout my life; in social settings, I’ve always gravitated (or been pushed) toward the stereo. I have a wide range of ‘likes’ and so can do quite a diverse mix on the turntables (actually, I use mp3 players and occasionally a laptop. But you know what I mean). I’m equally happy playing dancey stuff, or just something in the background while people socialise. I love it when I put a tune on and someone comes up to me to ask what it is. You could say DJing falls into two categories – “What I want to play” and “What the punters want to hear” – and my two gigs this week cover both those categories.
My first one (on Thursday night) was a “what I want to play” one. In theory, this type of gig is easiest for me to play, because it just involves me imposing my musical tastes on the public. People have differing reasons for why they get into DJing. Me, I do it because I love music. And herein lies my problem: I don’t always like what’s popular with the masses. No, I’m not a snob who only likes bands as long as they remain obscure. I want my favourite artists to be able to eat well, feed and clothe their families – and for their fans not to need to set up a fund or organise a benefit whenever they fall ill because they can’t afford health insurance (the American ones, that is). For artists to do all that, it usually helps if their music sells well – so I’m all for the masses liking the music I like. But it should be the masses coming up to my level when it comes to musical taste – not me going down to theirs (all right then, maybe I am a snob. I don’t care. Someone has to stick up for good music).
But as I said, this is all “in theory.” In reality, Category 2 occasionally sticks its butt in when you’re playing a Category 1 gig – and Thursday night’s gig was a classic example of that. It was in a bar on the Old Kent Road, with a couple of friends with equally impeccable music tastes: Vince (one half of the Secret Archives of the Vatican – check out their podcasts here) and Guy, aka ‘the Ginger Ninja’ (check out his latest mixtape here). We offered an eclectic mix of everything from dubstep, moombahton, Afro-beat and more – and Guy had made that absolutely clear when booking the venue for the night. But the moment Vince put on a dubstep track, the manager of the bar was over like a shot to order him to take it off (“This is a soul bar. Play stuff like that again and you’re out.”). By the time it got to my turn on the decks, I was self-consciously censoring my previously prepared playlist in my head (I wasn’t planning on playing any dubstep myself, but Brazilian drum & bass can pack a kick when it wants to). Still, in a virtually empty bar I made a bouncer dance with some Dele Sosimi and Femi Kuti tunes (and a cute barmaid with a Kassav’ track, and an extremely plastered punter with an obscure Chic tune), so I’m marking that gig down as a win. And if you’re reading this and happen to be in possession of (or have access to) some bar space, there’s an eclectic club night looking for a home…
Category 2 is where DJing requires you to have a professional attitude and think of it more as a job – because that’s what it is. You’ve been hired to provide a service, and you need to do that to the best of your ability… even though it does invariably mean that you might be playing one or two tracks you don’t really care for yourself (speaking as a self-confessed music snob here). At weddings, office Christmas dos, hen nights etc, people have come to party – and to dance to old, familiar stuff. Your job is to give them what they want, and to grin and bear it when a difficult customer gives you grief. And boys – if you got into this because you thought that being a DJ would be an easy way to get girls to like you, think again. Remember that old song by Space, about the female of the species being deadlier than the male? It definitely applies to female punters! Grannies in particular can be rather rude about music they don’t like. What was it one old lady asked me at one birthday party I played at? “Could you play something with a tune, please?” What on earth do you say in response to that?
But for all the grief you can get, it’s also the people who make the gig rewarding – even if you’re doing “a night of cheese.” Seeing a whole family rocking at their table to ‘1999’; having a little girl come up to request a song that’s older than she is; the declaration of intent when the hen party all take their shoes off the moment they hear the opening strings on ‘I’m Every Woman’ (or the opening drum beat of ‘All the Single Ladies’); the elderly couple waltzing to ‘Kingston Town’… these are the little things that make the job special.
As for that awkward moment when for a split second you think you might actually be starting to like that Girls Aloud track you’ve been forced to play… that I’m not so sure about.
Africa Oyé 2011 Sefton Park, Liverpool, 18-19 June
Liverpool’s African music festival has become a key event in my calendar. It’s a chance for me not only to hear great music and gather material for the Sounds of Africa show I produce, but also an opportunity to socialise and hang out with a few other World Music media types who’ve become friends of mine over the years we’ve all been attending the festival: people such as Geli Berg (a radio broadcaster and organiser of the Cultural Collage World Music festival in Manchester), and Maya Mitter of One Latin Culture. Sure enough, there were hugs all round when we caught up with each other.
On Saturday afternoon I arrived at Sefton Park just as the first act of the day was being introduced. Mariem Hassan is incredible singer from the Western Sahara, accompanied by a pair of guitarists who played the blues with an unbelievable passion. Mariem was my first interviewee of the day, and set the pattern for how most of the rest of the day’s interviews would go; after agonising between her manager/interpreter (who’s German) and myself, I discovered that she spoke fluent Spanish and so I ended up interviewing her en Español. As Saturday progressed, language barriers proved to be more a source of amusement than a hindrance – especially when Maya, Geli and I did an interview en masse with the Ganbgé Brass Band.
The band had a couple of members who spoke English, and at least one of us doing the interviewing spoke French. The ensuing interview was hilarious – but definitely gave you a sense of how the guys had become brothers purely by having played together for years and years. Questions and answers in English and French flew back and forth. The band talked to us about playing in the Shrine in Nigeria (they’re all big Fela fans, and covered his song ‘Shakara’ during their set). When Maya suggested to one band member that the easiest way for him to learn English would be for him to get an English girlfriend, the tent erupted with laughter.
The legendary Angolan singer Bonga was also good fun. Again, we agonised over how to do the interview – and suddenly we discovered that one of the women on the Africa Oyé team was Brazilian and spoke perfect Portuguese! Problem solved! Maya and I were able to have a good chat with Bonga about what happens when the worlds of Angolan culture and politics clash – as they often do.
Amkoullel (aka “the Fula Child”) is an upcoming young rapper from Mali, who uses traditional Malian instruments in his music. A very profound guy and a great interview. He did some workshops on the Saturday and performed on the Sunday.
This year’s Africa Oyé featured quite a few of the female singers (young and not-so-young) who are championing the cause of African women through song, and winning loads of friends and admirers with the
charm and humour with which they do it. The Cameroonian singer Kareyce Fotso was one such person. Embracing her acoustic guitar and playing a variety of percussion instruments, she charmed the crowd in no time. When Maya and I interviewed her afterwards, she told us the heartbreaking story of her elder sister’s forced marriage – one of the many issues she talks about in her songs.
Fatoumata Diawarafrom Mali was another one. I’d already seen her twice before – first as support for Staff Benda Bilili’s London gig, then at a showcase in an Islington pub called the Slaughtered Lamb (I kid you not!). On both those occasions, it had been just her with her guitar. This time she was with a band (and without the green tights that have kind of become her trademark),
and it was a whole different dynamic. She danced, she spun, she jumped… the energy coming off the stage could power a small city for a week. When I interviewed Fatoumata afterwards, she told me how Nick Gold (her producer – the man responsible for such World Music classics as the Buena Vista Social Club) had said he wanted the public to see all her different sides. Fatoumata (a former actress and one-time backing singer for Oumou Sangare) is another young African woman dealing with some of the heavy issues that affect African women, but doing so in a manner that invites people to join in with her.
It’s always a gamble recording interviews during Africa Oyé, as quiet locations for interviewing are very hard to come by. Listening to my recorded interviews later, I was glad to see that my “keep the record level low and the mike very close to the subject” strategy had worked – especially with Fatoumata’s interview, which we did whilst Marcia Griffiths‘ extremely loud band were on. We could hardly hear ourselves while we were doing the interview. But on the recording, Fatoumata came through crystal clear while the booming reggae basslines were distant enough not to be a problem. Yay for technology…
There was one point on Saturday afternoon when thought we were going to get washed out. But the very brief drizzle over Sefton Park was just nature messing with our heads (naughty nature!). The weather on Sunday held up even better than the previous day, give or take the odd occasion earlier on when the temperature dropped slightly and it got a bit windy. My first interview of the day was with Damily from Madagascar (with the help of a French interpreter), while the first act to perform was Steven Sogo from Burundi, with his band Hope Street. I interviewed Steve after his set, and he told me how some church musicians had taught him how to play guitar and bass. He’s only been making music a few years, but has already won an armful of awards from all over Africa.
The unscheduled interview of the day happened while I was watching (and occasionally photographing) the Ethiopian singer Zewditu Yohanes from the photographers’ pit in front of the mainstage. The set ended, and this lady who’d been standing next to me and simultaneously shooting the gig on a camera and a smartphone handed me a card as she walked past towards the backstage area. It read, “Princess Emmanuelle: the first Egyptian female rapper.” I wasn’t going to let anyone with such a claim to fame slip away, so I followed her and asked if she’d do a quick interview. Turns out she’d remembered my face from years ago, when she was on the performance poetry circuit and doing gigs with Soul artists such as the Escoffery Sisters. She was here as part of Zewditu’s team, and promised to help me get an interview with her if I was having any trouble. Funnily enough, so much stuff happened during the day, I ended up not being able to interview Zewditu – which was a shame, because she and her band and dancers put on an awesome show. But never mind…
The other act I didn’t see as much of as I should have was Khaira Arby from Mali. The little I did see of her set was amazing, though; another strong woman roaring on behalf of African women.
After interviewing him yesterday, this afternoon I got to see Amkoullel in action twice – performing on stage, and teaching a hip hop workshop. The audience at the workshop was made up mostly of young children who’d clearly taken to heart Amkoullel’s advice to rap about their lives and what was important to them; one little lad came up with the rhyme “Sometimes I wear a hoodie. But I’m not a baddie; I’m a goodie.”
Meeting the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars was definitely the high point of the second day for me. It was like a family reunion – even though we’d never met before! I interviewed two of the band members, Reuben Koroma and Ashade Pearce; between the three of us, we set all Sierra Leone’s problems to rights (as you do!); we discussed music, education, development and a million other issues, and I finally got some concrete answers to a question I’d been burning with since my trip to Freetown two months earlier: why had the All-Stars (easily the biggest band to come out of Sierra Leone in the last 10 or so years) not been a part of the 50th independence anniversary celebrations? (Let’s just say it wasn’t because they hadn’t wanted to take part). I missed their set because I had to catch a train back to London (the train I’m on right now, writing this). But phone numbers and email addresses have been exchanged, so I’ll be updated whenever the guys are in London.
And that was Africa Oyé 2011: a glorious two days of colour, vibrancy and brilliant artistry. Next year, the festival celebrates its 20th birthday. I can hardly wait…
You’d have to be seriously brave (or just mental) to try to set all Africa’s issues straight in two hours. But that’s basically what Patrice Naimbana sets out to do in the one man show which won him an Edinburgh Fringe First award (on tonight in London’s Cockpit Theatre, as part of the Pentecost Festival).
The Man Who Committed Thought is utterly compelling. Playing multiple characters (a poor man whose cow is stolen from him; the corrupt politician responsible for stealing the poor man’s cow and more; the rebel who seizes power and the honest but flawed lawyer referred to in the show’s title, to whom the poor man turns in his quest for justice), Patrice talks us through the troubled history of a fictional African nation called Lion Mountain.
Well, I say fictional. The handful of Sierra Leoneans in the Cockpit Theatre knew all too well whose stories were being told here. The rest of the audience weren’t left out, either; the beauty of Patrice’s series of monologues is the way he keeps it topical and fresh by absorbing so much of what’s current and relevant to wherever he might be performing. so tonight there are references to everything from Bin Laden to Britain’s Got Talent.
Underneath all that, there are bigger questions being asked. Naimbana challenges his audience to look at all the grey there is in issues of social justice. There is a tension at the heart of the show; between the righteous anger at the Europeans who brought “Gonorrhoea and Jesus” to Africa (to quote Fela Kuti) and a respectful acceptance of the message of good news to the poor and dispossessed that that Jesus preached. Patrice packs enough humour into the show to ensure that it never gets preachy or sounds like an “angry brother” having a rant.
After the show, Patrice spent another half hour answering questions from the audience, during which time he told us about his father – a lawyer who took on many poor people’s cases for no pay, and whose stories were the inspiration for the show’s lead character. That was every bit as engaging as the show itself, and continued in the bar afterwards.
I’m not saying Sierra Leone is behind on showbiz gossip, but I just walked past a shop that had a huge poster on display – of Rihanna and Chris Brown together as a couple. I wonder if I should tell them…?
It’s Tuesday (yeah – I know you’re reading this on Thursday or maybe even Friday, but I wrote it on Tuesday). We’ve just got home from taking Tina to see the hospital where she was born. Fiona and a few helpers have been packing books and stationery into bags to hand out to children in a school somewhere. And I’ve been sweating a lot (have I mentioned that it’s hot over here?). A lot’s happened in the past few days. But first I should probably update you on how things have gone since Independence Day.
In true African style, I am now the proud owner of two mobile phones: one on the Airtel network and one on Comium. I’ve only made a couple of calls, but somehow the Government seems to have got hold of my number. The minister of Information & Communications sent me a text message the other day. It read:
“The Government wishes to inform the public that there is no scarcity of petrol. All queues around petrol stations are created by unscrupulous people to create confusion. The public is assured that there is enough fuel in the country to serve the public for the next three months.”
Ah, those queues! They’ve made travelling to and from the East End a real nightmare! Someone needs to pass on the news that there’s no fuel shortage on to the National Power Authority. After enjoying continuous electricity all throughout the Independence celebrations, as soon as the big day was out of the way, we went back to having day-long power cuts again. Ah, well, whatever…
As I mentioned in an earlier post, my last two trips to SL were for family weddings. The last of those was in 2006, when my cousin Liz got married. So on the 29th, while Ol’ London Town was rocking with street parties and Sky News pundits were analysing the Royal Snogs (as indeed they were when I popped into an internet cafe to do my routine Hotmail clearout), I was with Liz and her husband Kai, celebrating their 5th anniversary and having my first Star beer of this trip.
Speaking of Star beer, I should tell you about the time I had my first ever one. It was on another of my trips back here; the last time I saw my paternal grandmother alive. It was her who offered it to me – which at the time was kinda surreal, given how strict she was with her grandchildren when we were kids! You know you’re officially a grownup when you go to visit your grandmother and she offers you beer!
Liz and Kai aren’t the only ones celebrating wedding anniversaries. Mr & Mrs Buckle (the couple in whose home we’re staying) got married 30 years ago (also on 29 April; what is it with that date?), and on Saturday, there was a little party in the house. Friends and family all came to pay tribute to the couple. Through the speeches, we learnt of how the house we’re in used to be the Scripture Union’s old office (the Buckles were both heavily involved in both SU and YFC). We also heard of how during the 90s rebel war, the house had miraculously escaped being destroyed when rebel forces torched the length of Liverpool Street. The Buckles then opened up their home to 70 people who had fled from where they lived during the worst of the fighting, caring for them through the worst of the conflict.
Before our hospital visit today, Tina, Mum, Afia and I went to ‘Big Market’ to do a little souvenir shopping. Tina proved to have mad haggling skills – so much so, some market traders said to her, “Tina, you run this city!” That Swedish girl drives a hard bargain! She helped me get good prices for the things I bought for myself – including yet another little bata (a djembe) to add to my drum collection.
And that’s how things have been here in Freetown over the past few days. I’ll sign off for now, as I have a text message to reply to…