One night, two gigs

hate it when things clash.
Back in the summer, I went to the launch of Andy Flannagan‘s new album, Drowning in the Shallow, and it was great. Great enough for me to say “Of course I’ll go!” when I received a Facebook invitation to a special radio/press launch for the album. But then bad news: salsa “leg ends” El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico were playing the Electric in Brixton on the same night – Thursday 18 October – and I’d already bought a fairly pricey ticket for it.
My first thought was, “Seems I’ll have to miss out on Andy’s gig this time.” But then I noticed that Andy’s gig started at 6.30pm and was due to finish at 8pm, while the ‘doors open’ time for the Gran Combo gig was 7.30pm. Guessing that they would take the stage sometime around 9pm, I figured I could safely go to both – so that’s what I did. My first stop was a little side road off Tottenham Court Road, where Andy had booked a nice Spanish bar/restaurant called Nuevo Costa Dorada for his gig. I started bumping into old mates almost as soon as I set foot in the place (always a good thing).
The gig was a warm, intimate affair; two short sets with a complementary tapas buffet in between. Accompanied by Lucy Payne on cello, Yves Fernandez on bass and Phil Jack on percussion, Andy went from profound and serious (songs about people he’d met in India and Egypt and during the time he lived in Luton) to romantic (a couple of songs from different periods in his relationship with his then girlfriend, now wife Jen) to endearingly silly (a medley of songs that included LMFAO’s ‘Party Rock Anthem’ and Flight of the Conchords’ ‘Business Time’). Lucy the cellist’s husband acted as MC for the evening, and I found myself sharing a table with Alan Branch, who produced the album.
The bonhomie continued after the band had packed their gear away, but I had my appointment with El Gran Combo to head off to and couldn’t hang around. “They’re like the Rolling Stones of Latin music,” I offered by way of an explanation when a mate asked where I was off to (well, it is their 50th anniversary this year too). I hummed my favourite Gran Combo song, ‘Azuquita pal Café’, as I walked to Tottenham Court Road Station.
Turns out I’d called it absolutely right. When I arrived at the Electric just after 9pm, I breezed through security without having to queue up. The MC and house DJ were still keeping the crowd warmed up in anticipation when I walked into the auditorium.
About another 15 minutes later, El Gran Combo took the stage in their trademark blue and green striped shirts. They opened with their classic ‘Me Libere’ and rolled out the pick of their arsenal of hits: ‘Brujeria’, ‘Verano en Nueva York’, plus a few tunes that were favourites of mine but which I hadn’t realised that they were responsible for. They didn’t sing ‘Azuquita pal Café’ – but it kinda didn’t matter; all the other stuff was so good. Halfway through the gig, Charlie Aponte (one of the band’s three lead singers) gave a special ‘shout out’ to all the people in the audience who weren’t Latino but had come because they were interested in Latin culture or just loved the music. “Muchisima thank you,” he said.
The audience participation was an event all on its own. One guy in the audience had brought a cowbell with him and played it all throughout the show. Despite us being packed pretty tight, a few couples managed to find enough floor space to execute a setenta or two. I even got to do a spot of bailando con una Hermosa Latina myself. As El Gran Combo sang and played their hearts out, a string of smartphones  – obviously attached to some extremely sturdy arms – hovered in the air for the duration, capturing every sidesteppy move. I did take a few pictures myself; in fact I did at both gigs. But if I were to post them online, HTC would probably sue me for bringing their smartphones into disrepute. (or maybe give me one that does take decent pictures. You never know…)

Sod it – they can sue me if they like…
¡Señores y señoras – El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, en vivo!

I got home just after midnight, tired but immensely fired up, and grateful that I’d been able to pack two inspiring gigs into one evening. Cheers, Andy – and “Muchisima thank you” a ustedes tambien, Gran Combo.

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…

In conversation: Wicked Aura

As promised, I’ve started packaging the artist interviews I did at Midem a couple of weeks ago into podcasty radio features for your listening enjoyment.

Here’s the first one; an interview with Budi, lead guy with the Singaporean drum ensemble Wicked Aura. He was great fun to talk to, and as for the band… well, you really have to see them play live!

Wicked Aura in action at Club Da Da Da in Cannes. Budi (centre) has his hand in the air.

Have a listen, and enjoy!

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…

MIDEM Day 1: “It’s a lot of things…”

Saturday night, in an apartment somewhere just outside Cannes…

It’s been quite a full day today, and a very productive one – which is great, given that I didn’t have much planned, but came ended up doing about ten interviews. I’m back in my apartment with the NRJ Music Awards on the telly as I write this. The awards had just started at the Palais des Festivales as Day 1 of MIDEM was winding down – which made getting out of the Palais was a bit of a pain, what with all the massed hordes of starstruck French ‘yoofs’ who’d crowded the place hoping to catch a glimpse of the likes of Mika, David Guetta, Shakira, Justin Bieber and LMFAO as they turned up to collect a gong or two… WHAT?!?!?!?

Sorry – just had a temporary ‘wtf?’ moment there. Some lady called Shy’M just won the award for best French female act… and for a minute, I thought she was topless! As you were…

South African singers Pebbles (left) and Zaki Ibrahim (right)

All the interviews I did today came about from chance meetings with people whilst hanging about in the exhibition area and media centre. After searching in vain to find any African exhibitors, two South African singers came up to me out of the blue and introduced themselves (ironically, this happened seconds after I’d tweeted “Dear #Midem, where are you hiding all the Africans?”). Zaki Ibrahim and Pebbles were both great fun to interview; I’ll be posting podcasts featuring those interviews and their music in the very near future.

I’ll also be posting (once it”s all nicely packaged) some interviews I did with a handful of artists from New York, all of whom belong to a label called Three 2 Go Records. Great guys (and ladies) doing a nice line in soul, funk, jazz and more. I was in the middle of interviewing them en masse when along came an old friend – reggae man Anthony Brightly. It was at that point that I thought to myself, “I do believe this MIDEM is going to be a good one.”

Stephen White, president of Gracenote.

My big press conference of the day was one Sony had to launch Sony Network Entertainment (their rival to the Spotifys of the world). Ralph Simon (CEO of Mobilium International Advisory) was moderator; on the panel you had Tim Schaaff (president of Sony Network Entertainment), Denis Kooker (another Sony exec), Paul Jones from Omnifone, and Stephen White, president of Gracenote. To be honest, I think I learnt more from chatting to Stephen White during the drinks reception afterwards than I did from the roundtable itself. Way too much stating the obvious (such as Schaaff informing us that ‘the Cloud’ was, in fact, the Internet), and questions from the moderator that bordered on the inane (“how do I take my music from my living room to my car?” You could try a piece of antique technology we used to call a cassette recorder, mate).

In contrast, my chat with Stephen White was very enlightening. Like anyone else who’s ever put a CD into their computer, I’ve been aware of Gracenote’s existence without actually knowing anything about them. The figures Steve quoted when I asked him how big their music database was were mind-boggling. You can hear some of that conversation here:
If you can not see this chirbit, listen to it here http://chirb.it/N7cv2g
Check this out on Chirbit
I should have gone to see Zaki Ibrahim’s showcase at the Club Dadada tonight, but MIDEM ended around 7pm and I didn’t want to stay in Cannes twiddling my thumbs until 10pm when her gig was supposed to start (and the weather was still rather wet and cold). So I’m home, having consumed much of a big pizza… and now Johnny Hallyday has taken to the stage at the NRJ awards show. Vive le pop Français…

Me with the Three 2 Go Records family.

“Je suis un Rock journalist…”

It’s the last few days of January – and for various movers, shakers, schemers, skeezers, grafters, grifters and other types of character you come across in the music business, it’s time once again to decamp to the south of France for MIDEM, the international music industry conference. For a third time, I’ve managed to blag myself a press pass to the conference – and as I write, I’m waiting for my flight to Nice, from where I’ll make my way on to Cannes where MIDEM takes place.

The last time I went to cover MIDEM, I flew to Cannes with Easyjet. This time round, I’m flying Business class (I’m in the BMI Business Class lounge right now – and believe me, it is the… something you’re not supposed to mention in airports). While I would love to make out that this is because I’ve moved up in the world since 2009, the truth is that BMI were doing a special promotion allowing people to fly Business Class to Nice for the price of an Economy ticket (sometimes it pays not to delete spam emails).

If you’re passionate about music, MIDEM is the sort of thing you develop a love/hate relationship with. If you look hard enough, you will find some talent worth writing home about. But at the end of the day, it’s primarily about the business of music, rather than the music itself – which would explain why one of the press conferences I’ve been invited to attend is from a university plugging its MBA course for people who want to work in the music industry. Not to a music course, mind you, but a business course. And this press conference is taking place on a luxury yacht. And record label bosses still complain that they’re not making any money…

Anyway, it’s easy to get cynical. My mission over the next four days is to find new music that stirs the soul. That makes you want to sing, dance, jump up and down and all the other stuff good music is supposed to do for you. I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open, and reporting back to you on any goodies I do find out there. After all, je suis un rock journalist…

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…

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: In their own words

Sometime in the late 90s (maybe ’96 or ’97), I was privileged to spend an afternoon in a pub in west London with the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. We had lunch together, and then Joseph Shabalala, the group’s leader, sat with me and my big ole Pro Walkman (sorry about the Americanism, but I am in the South right now) and talked at length about the group’s history.

The interview’s only been heard in public a couple of times – the most recent being in 2010 when I made package out of it for the in-flight radio show I produce. I’ve just stumbled upon that package once again and decided to make it public once more, this time via Mixcloud.

For a while now, I’ve been toying with the idea of doing some kind of World Music radio thing online. I still haven’t quite made up my mind as to what form it will take (a series of podcasts is one option; a full-blown internet radio station is another), but one has to start somewhere, so here goes…

 

 

“Never meet your heroes…”

One of the funny things about being a music journalist is the completely opposite ways the people in your life view your job. On the one hand, you have those friends and relatives who imagine that it must be really glamorous getting to rub shoulders with the stars (trust me, it isn’t – well, not always).

On the flipside of that (actually, now that even CDs are becoming obsolete, does anyone use the word ‘flipside’ anymore?), people within the trade will always warn you, “Never meet your heroes.” Don’t be too eager to meet that artist you’ve always admired, because chances are they might turn out to be a complete tool. I’ve heard more than a few stories from fellow music writers who stopped being fans of one artist or other the day they finally got to meet them in person.

Well, last night I met one of my all-time favourite musicians… and I’m happy to say that things didn’t go quite so badly.

I’ve been an admirer of the work of Nile Rodgers and the late Bernard Edwards for, um – let’s just say a very long time. Back when I lived in Freetown, I got hold of the 12” single of ‘I Want Your Love’ (on shocking pink vinyl!) at around the same time I came across a copy of their Grand Tour souvenir book. ‘Le Freak’, ‘Good Times’ and all their Sister Sledge tracks were already firm favourites, and over the years I pretty much gobbled up anything that had their stamp on it. I can remember vividly where I was when I heard of Bernard’s death (I was driving to Shepherd’s Bush to interview the author Courttia Newland for a literary mag when Danny Baker announced it on his show on GLR).

More recently, I’ve been following Nile’s blog, Walking on Planet C (detailing his fight against cancer), which has been enlightening, having lost a couple of friends to the vile disease myself in the last few years. And yesterday, I was one of about 200 fans who gathered at Waterstone’s bookshop in Piccadilly, for an evening with Nile promoting his autobiography, Le Freak. I bought my copy a couple of weeks ago and have started reading it – though I won’t get a great deal of reading done this month, as I’m more preoccupied with writing a book of my own (yes, it’s that time of year again). The little I’ve read so far, however, I’ve found really captivating.

I found Nile himself to be just as captivating during his interview. He is quite the storyteller; some of his stories I’d heard before (being a self-confessed Chic anorak), but quite a few I hadn’t – such as him being asked to be a judge on American Idol and turning it down (which is how Randy “yo dawg” Jackson ended up with the gig). When it was all over, we shook hands and said hello, he signed my book and my Chic box set, and I left Waterstone’s (in the words of the old Chic song) a Happy Man.

Nile wasn’t the only hero of mine I encountered last night. The interviewer was Pete Paphides, whose writing I’ve enjoyed for many years – and who I was able to have a brief chat with as we stood in line waiting to have our books signed. When I started doing music columns for Surefish, I modelled my style on Pete’s articles in the little entertainment guide that comes with the Guardian on Saturdays (a writing style which has led to comments that I write “like a white person” – though I really don’t think I do, or even know what that means!).

So yesterday I got two heroes for the price of one – and they both turned out to be quite nice blokes. Amongst the many stories Nile told us, he spoke about the time he and Bernard produced Diana Ross’ Diana album. Tonight, I’ll be meeting Diana’s daughter, Tracee Ellis-Ross (who’s in town promoting her new TV series), and then from there I’m going to see Switchfoot in concert. Yay me and my rock n’ roll lifestyle…

Nile signs my copy of 'Le Freak'

Greenbelt 2011: A few more pictures

You may have noticed that I tried to squeeze a lot of pictures into my last blog post with my personal reflections on Greenbelt. Here are a few more I wanted to put in but felt they’d make the page look too “busy”…

Mavis Staples, Mainstage, Monday
Mavis' backing band

 

Ron Sexsmith, Mainstage, Monday
Kate Rusby, Mainstage, Monday
Gentlemen's Dub Club, Mainstage, Saturday
Iain Archer and drummer, Mainstage, Monday
My DJ gear all set up, Mainstage, Monday
Rob Halligan in the Performance Cafe on Saturday