Emmanuel Jal: Keeper of the Key

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.

Emmanuel and band soundchecking
Emmanuel and band soundchecking

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…

Interviewing Emmanuel
Interviewing Emmanuel

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.

 

 

emmanuellive2emmanuellive1You’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.

Film review: ‘the Quickener’

The time has comeBirmingham, Saturday 21 September, 8.10pm: My train home leaves in an hour, and I’ve decided to spend my last few minutes in our second city doing a brief review of the film I’ve just been to see in the Midlands Arts Centre. I find myself fired up, having spent an afternoon in a cinema full of very talented, slightly Bohemian people. They included Joel Wilson, director of the short film The Quickener (whose premiere is taking place here) and various members of the cast and crew.

Joel Wilson, the director
Joel Wilson, the director

The Quickener is one of those films that would leave people scratching their heads and muttering “Yeah… right” if you tried to explain it to them. It’s set in Medieval times, but the entire dialogue is done in a hip hop style. That’s right – Medieval hip hop. With a poor artisan couple on the run from a loan shark who speaks something akin to Parseltongue (for which he needs one of his heavies to act as his translator), corrupt officials, a power-hungry gangster and a friendly hermit, this is really an urban street movie with chain mail. And bubonic plague…

Osbert, a struggling artisan. Very good at sculpting scary statues. A bit broke.
Osbert, a struggling artisan. Very good at sculpting scary statues. A bit broke.

Joel got the idea for the film from another project he’d been

Tipharah, Osbert's missus. You don't want to mess with her when she has a sword in her hand...
Tipharah, Osbert’s missus. You don’t want to mess with her when she has a sword in her hand…

asked to work on. He’d written an epic poem about a gargoyle being decommissioned, so to speak, having lived on a church wall for about 600 years. Writing about the gargoyle’s last day on the wall, he wondered, What would its first day have been like? Cue a fantasy tale about a poor sculptor and his wife – who, having been commissioned to make the gargoyle, then being told on completion of the job (and a huge debt incurred in the process) their services were no longer required, and that they wouldn’t be getting paid for the job they’d done. It’s only half an hour long, but it’s a very fascinating half hour, full of passion, tension and quite a few dead bodies.

"Hiss, hiss, hiss" (translation: "We'll cut off your fingers")
“Hiss, hiss, hiss” (translation: “We’ll cut off your fingers”)

Life begins…

My home during Greenbelt. A man's got to camp in some style...
My home during Greenbelt. A man’s got to camp in some style…

This time last week, I was at Cheltenham Racecourse with a few thousand other folk, taking in (and contributing to) the 40th annual Greenbelt festival. The first one since 1995 or thereabouts that I haven’t attended as a member of the Press (although I was on reporter duty for Surefish and did do some festival coverage for them). This was my fourth year of being involved with Greenbelt as a volunteer, and I’m still learning a lot about the inner workings of this crazy festival I’ve been a devoted fan of since 1990 (as those who’ve seen the interview with me in this year’s festival programme will tell you).

In some ways, ‘#GB40’ (as it’s known on Twitter) was a smaller Greenbelt than usual. Cheltenham Racecourse is in the early stages of major renovation work and parts of it are yet to recover from the almighty flooding that made last year’s Greenbelt so ‘memorable’. As a result, the festival site was shrunk a bit. That, coupled with the fact that some of the regular traders had either gone out of business or stopped doing festivals, meant that a few regulars from previous years – Nuts Cafe, for example – weren’t around this year (it probably also explains why Higgledy Pies ran out of my favourite mash so quickly – but let’s not dwell on that).

Extra Curricular doing their 'thang' on Mainstage.
Extra Curricular doing their ‘thang’ on Mainstage.

But ‘smaller’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘of lesser quality’. And as far as the programme went, Greenbelt delivered goodies a-plenty. Both Extra Curricular and the London Community Gospel Choir were a joy to watch on Mainstage on Saturday (and as the DJ between the Mainstage bands that evening, I was privileged to see both gigs from side stage). Amadou & Miriam were great too – as were those mad folksters Folk On, the Austin Francis Connection (of whom, more later) and the ‘oldies’ who played each afternoon: the Fat Band, Fat & Frantic and Why? (I’m actually wearing my XL dark blue “Giggle, ‘cos it’s fun” T-shirt as I write this; a T-shirt that got completely soaked in cider on Sunday afternoon).

The LCGC 'bring it' on Mainstage, Saturday evening.
The LCGC ‘bring it’ on Mainstage, Saturday evening.

The line-up in the newly relocated Performance Cafe was just as great (not that I’m biased or anything) and included stellar sets from Eska, Eliza Carty, Jacob Lloyd, Daughters of Davis and a poetry showcase curated by Harry Baker.

As far as talks go, I found the short talks in GTV easier to get in to see than some of the others (I took one look at the queue for Vicky Beeching’s talk and knew I wasn’t getting in). I was able to see Sami Awad speak, and enjoyed a talk Catherine Fox gave offering an insight into the novelist’s craft – plus short talks from Andrew Howie, Sara Batts, Cieran O’Reilly, Steve Lawson, Vicky Walker, Jonty Langley and Jim Wallis.

I mentioned the AFC earlier. Their Sunday afternoon Mainstage gig was also their swansong, the band members having decided earlier in the year to disband. I interviewed founder and front man Edi Johnston for Surefish; you can hear an edited audio version of that interview – plus a few of their most popular songs – here.

The Austin Francis Connection: One Last Chat by George Luke on Mixcloud

My other jobs over the weekend included co-hosting a GTV talk show with Chine Mbubeagu, interviewing a few of the Israeli and Palestinian speakers at the festival. I also had another stint DJing at the silent disco in the Big Top on Monday night. I did record the set (mostly world music for the first two hours, plus some soul, some more Latin music, and a couple of what my rival DJ on the night described as “low blows”). The plan was to put that out on Mixcloud, but it appears that the audio file needs some work before I can do that.

Greenbelt, it was a pleasure celebrating your 40th. Life begins; let’s see what life has in store…

Tools of the DJ trade: my IDJ deck on the side of the Mainstage.
Tools of the DJ trade: my IDJ deck on the side of the Mainstage.
...and of course, one must always be prepared.
…and of course, one must always be prepared.

“Too many Latinos”

Yesterday I attended Day 1 of the Big Church Day Out – a two-day Christian music festival on the grounds of a stately home situated at the foot of the South Downs, on England’s South Coast.

One of my reasons for going was that Salvador were playing. I’ve interviewed their lead singer Nic Gonzales several times in the past (and also his wife, the singer Jaci Velasquez) and a follow-up interview was, in my mind, long overdue – especially since I’ve now kind of started playing in a Latin band myself…

A few days before I was due to see Salvador, the Internet threw me another good reason to want to speak to them. A certain right-wing commentator had decided to spew some bile on immigrants (again), and had written a column basically claiming that there were “too many Latinos” in the USA (I’m not even going to dignify such nonsense by naming the person or posting links to their writing; I suggest you google ‘too many Latinos’ yourself if you want to know who it is and what he/she/it wrote). And so when it came to my turn to fire a question at Salvador during their press conference, I knew exactly what I was going to ask.

“As a multi-cultural Christian band that plays Latin music, how do you respond when someone says ‘there are too many Latinos in America’?”

Step forward Nic Gonzales and saxophonist Craig Swift:

NIC: “I think that any time people talk about there being ‘too many’ of something, it’s spoken out of frustration. We certainly give grace where we believe grace would be given. People who speak that way have obviously come into a bad encounter with a person of Hispanic culture, or maybe they’re frustrated by something. Any time you’re overwhelmed, or feel like you have a lack of something, you’re looking for someone to blame.

“Being Hispanic is one thing. But being Christians overall, we certainly feel that grace needs to be given. Maybe they just don’t understand. Personally, those comments don’t hurt my feelings because I probably don’t dig into them as much; I kind of live in a bliss that I’m working as hard as I can, and I’m going to do the best that I can by my family and my bandmates. And I think that as long as I do that, I can certainly feel good about who I am and the colour of my skin.”

CRAIG: “As a white person, I think it probably offends me more than it would offend them [cue laughter from the Hispanic band members]. I think Chris (Bevins, the band’s keyboardist) would probably feel the same way. It kinda baffles my mind, the small thinking of some people.

“Being around Latin culture, as a white person I’ve gained a lot. I love how Latin people place such a high priority on family. It’s beautiful to me to see that. Loyalty is another thing I see throguhout the Latin culture. I think that’s something that we all gain a lot from. We all need to put more emphasis on our families. And we all should be loyal friends and loyal husbands and wives and churchgoers. So as a white person, I probably shoulder more offence and am in more of a ‘fight’ mood than these guys.” [cue more laughter]

Oh yeah – I also mentioned to the guys that I’d started playing in a salsa band, and asked if they could offer me some survival tips. Percussionist Alejandro Santoyo offered this advice:

“I would go back and listen to Santana. Listen to the rhythm section that’s going on; it’s very simple. as you start to listen to more salsa music, the montunos get more and more difficult. As far as percussion goes: if you have the rhythm here, and you learn the two different claves, you’re on your way.”

Muchisimas gracias, hermanos. And now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time I got some montuno practise in…

Salvador at their press conference. Nic Gonzales is second left (in the blue shirt); Craig is on the left. Alejandro is at the other end; on the right.
Salvador at their press conference. Nic Gonzales is second left (in the blue shirt); Craig is on the left. Alejandro is at the other end; on the right.

Review: Alexander Abreu y Havana D’Primera

Review: Alexander Abreu y Havana D’Primera
The Electric, Brixton, Friday 12 April

Spring’s finally arrived in London. I know that not because of the weather (heck, it might as well still be winter), but because that delightfully eclectic Latin music festival, La Linea, is here once again. And it kicked off in grand style with one of Cuba’s most popular bands at the moment, Alexander Abreu y Havana D’ Primera, in their debut UK appearance.

Manos pa'arriba, CUBA!!!
Manos pa’arriba, CUBA!!!

I’d come to the Electric tonight mainly to discover an artist I didn’t know. As it turns out, I was already familiar with more of Alexander’s music than I realised. The song ‘Pasaporte’ is a firm favourite at the salsa dance class I frequent most Friday nights, and I had tried several times to find out who the artist responsible for it was, without success (seriously, Shazam – does every salsa track in the world have the title ‘Sorry, We Couldn’t Find a Match for This Music’? But I digress). Long before the band took to the stage, a massive poster up on the stage informed us that this gig was in fact the London leg of Alexander’s ‘Pasaporte Tour 2013’. So now I know, I can go and buy his album. But anyway, back to the gig…

Alexander and his backing dancer "throw down".
Alexander and his backing dancer “throw down”.

This wasn’t so much a gig as a party – a six hour fiesta with Alexander and his band sandwiched between some of the finest salsa DJs the Big Smoke has to offer. The band took to the stage around 11.15pm. The sound seemed a bit iffy for the first number; nevertheless, the guys gave a stellar performance – tight as anything and with the larger-than-life Alexander proving to be an able ‘hype man’ as well as a good singer. The command “¡Manos pa’arriba!” (hands in the air) was never far from his lips. When they did play ‘Pasaporte’ (which they began with a cheeky nod to Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’) the whole house sang along.

The hour and a bit that Alexander and his band were on stage for came and went a bit too quickly for my liking. But suffice it to say they made a great first impression – and what a way to kick off a festival! After this gig tonight and El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico’s gig last year, the Electric is fast becoming my favourite salsa gig venue in London…

Famous Sierra Leoneans: A*M*E*

I know I haven’t done one of these for a while. It’s not because I ran out of famous Sierra Leoneans to write about or anything like that; it’s just… [Save the explanations and get on with it, mate]

 

If you follow the UK charts, then you probably know that Duke Dumont‘s club hit ‘Need U (100%)’ unseated Ant & Dec’s ‘Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble’ from the Number One slot yesterday (7 April). Guest lead vocalist on the song is the rising singer songwriter Aminata “Amy” Kabba, aka A*M*E*. So, who exactly is this young lady who’s helped rescue the charts from the tyranny of PJ & Duncan, I hear you ask?

 

Well, she was born in Freetown in 1994 – three years after the Sierra Leone civil war started, and three years before it hit Freetown. Her mum was a hairdresser with her own salon; as the war intensified, the salon was burnt down and Amy (then only eight) moved to the safety of the UK.

 

In her new home, she joined her school choir. From there, she spread her creative wings, linking up with another singer-songwriter, MNEK. One of their collaborations (a song called City Lights) caught the attention of Gary Barlow, who ended up signing her to his label, Future Records.

   

What else has she done? She’s co-written a K-Pop hit (no, not that one!), toured with Jesse J and the Wanted, and has been longlisted for the BBC’s Sound of 2013 poll. AND she publishes her own magazine. No, I am not jealous at all… 

 

 

In a taxi with Baloji

balojialbumcoverLast November, the Congolese rapper Baloji paid London a flying visit for a gig at the Village Underground in Shoreditch.

It was a hip hop gig, all right; the swagger and all the other elements that make up a good hip hop act were all present and correct. But it was so much more besides. It was oldies night for African music fans of a certain age; it was a political rally… and it a good old party, with a charismatic host and a very tight band.

I was due to interview Baloji the next day, just before he hopped on a Eurostar train back to Belgium where he lives. Unfortunately, certain wires got crossed somewhere along the line in the booking process, and I ended up having to do the interview in the taxi that took him from his hotel in Whitechapel to St Pancras station where he was catching the train. With London lunchtime traffic, the ride took just under 20 minutes – just about enough time for him to give me the run-down on his music, his acting aspirations, his concerns about his country and his hopes for the future.

Here, for your listening pleasure, are some edited highlights of that interview – plus snippets of tracks from Baloji’s album Kinshasa Succursale. Enjoy.

In a cab with Baloji by George Luke on Mixcloud