From the Y Crate: 4th Avenue Jones

From the Y Crate, #11:

4thavenuejones“Stereo: the Evolution of Hiprocksoul” by 4TH AVENUE JONES (Gotee)

For my money, the best music genres are the totally made-up ones (Gutter Wonkstep, anyone?). And just that is what makes this neglected gem of an album so special. It ain’t hip hop; it ain’t soul; it ain’t rock – IT’S ALL THREE!!

Ahmad Jones, his wife Tena and their merry band of very fine musicians and rappers were another group which never really fitted into the ‘Christian band’ mould, but somehow felt compelled to stay there. A shame, really; their take on how things go when relationships get messy was sparky and often hilarious – and needed to be heard by more people. Last I heard, they’d disbanded (more’s the pity). Still, if you hadn’t discovered them before, Youtube has quite a lot of stuff to pique your interest…

From the Y Crate: The Dan Reed Network

From the Y Crate, #10:

drnetwork“Rainbow Child” by THE DAN REED NETWORK (Mercury)

London in the 80s was a lonely place to be if you were a black guy who liked rock music. But as the decade drew to a close, three bands emerged that made that lonely guy hold his head up high. There was Roachford, there was Living Colour… and to a lesser degree, there was the Dan Reed Network: what you’d get if you took those “United Colours of Benetton” ads from that era and added guitars with lots of distortion. This was the single that should’ve kickstarted a glittering chart career for them, but somehow didn’t.

The last I heard, Dan Reed was still making music, collaborating with Nuno Bettencourt from Extreme (another inhabitant of this here crate…).

Greenbelt ’09: Day 4

So far, I haven’t had much luck with getting to see any of the talks or workshops (with the exception of the one I hosted, of course), so my aim for today was to see at least two.

My first one was Robert Beckford’s Live Aid vs. Dead Aid session in the Centaur. A very thought-provoking presentation in which Robert compared and contrasted two opposing views on aid to Africa. On one hand, you had Dambisa Moyo – author of the book Dead Aid, who argues that all aid corrupts, and that hardcore capitalism is the real solution for Africa (because we all know the credit crunch is just a blip, right? Sorry). Then there’s Bono, putting the case forward for humanitarian help and for the aid that is given to be targeted better and with more transparency to weed out any corruption. Robert himself seemed to be looking for a third option, drawing on the strengths of both sides, rather than be polarised. A very interesting talk – that is, once I’d got over the fact that he’d cut his dreadlocks off…

My second session with the Apples was titled Tracing the History of Funk. This time round, I just introduced the band (after an impromptu jam) and they took it from there. Four band members, including Ofer (one of the DJs) and the drummer, who did most of the talking. Starting with pre-slavery West Africa, he took a sample drum rhythm from Ghana and showed how it cropped up in different forms within Salsa, Brazilian Samba and Bossa Nova, New Orleans marching band music, Bebop, Jazz, and finally funk (or to be more precise, James Brown in the late 60s). The audience was full of funk fans aged from 10 to 50-plus, all with a deep love for the music. When the session ended at 3.00pm, the band literally ordered us to go and see the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who were just about to start their Mainstage set.

I also managed to see the Women in Music panel discussion, led by Pippa Wragg – another member of Greenbelt’s music group. I even got to make a comment!

The Press Room closed at 6.00pm, and I decided that for my last few reviews, I’d just go and see stuff I wanted to see. That included Foy Vance (who’d played the Big Top earlier in the weekend, but ‘d missed it), Sister Jones and Brian Temba. And Athlete, of course (or what little would be left of their gig by the time my DJ set had finished). The Welcome Wagon seemed promising, too.

Sister Jones had started their set when I arrived at the Performance Café. Got a big hug from Brian, who was due on next. Both sets were brilliant – and then I finally got to meet Steve Campbell (their producer) for the first time, having communicated with him via email for several years.

After Brian’s & Sister Jones’ gig, I headed for the Blue Nun for my go at Djing. The delightful DJ Ayo was on before me, playing some nice House music – so for continuity’s sake, I started my set with a house tune from Ghana – an Afroganic track. Followed that with a jazz groove thing from Spha Bembe, and then with Max de Castro’s tale about a samba dancer’s wardrobe malfunction.

Predictably, there was a mass exodus around 9.25 when Athlete were due to start on mainstage, but I was determined to enjoy my time on the decks. This was also around the time that I noticed the note next to the decks with the venue’s music policy written on it: “Keep it mellow. The Blue Nun is not a banging dance venue!” Oops, too late – by then we’d already done Soca, Kuduro and Samba/D&B! Stuck with mellower stuff for the rest of the set, then caught what was left of both the Athlete and Foy Vance gigs. Caught up with Steve, Brian and the Sister Jones ladies again, and saw them off as they headed home. Then one final Last Orders (at which I did get to see Athlete) before bed.

And that was it – one of my best Greenbelts ever. Still wish I’d seen 100 Philistine Foreskins play, though…

Greenbelt ’09: My DJ Playlist

These are the tunes I played during my DJ slot in the Blue Nun wine bar on Monday night:

  1. Emagbo – Afroganic
  2. Lobhalaza – Siphamandia ‘Spha’ Bembe
  3. A Historia… – Max de Castro
  4. Adouma – Angelique Kidjo
  5. A Minha Fantasia (It Ain’t Over) – So Pra Contrariar
  6. Isto e Kuduro – Frederic Galliano Kuduro Sound System featuring Zoca Zoca
  7. Can’t Stop – Greenjade & MV
  8. I Sing – Victizzle
  9. En Mi Puertorro – Andy Montañez feat. Voltio
  10. Levanto Tu Nombre – Waldo Badel & Orquesta Horeb Internacional
  11. Josephine Brown – Sonnyboy
  12. Travelling On – Sam Payne
  13. Welcome – Isaiah Katumwa
  14. Picking Up Where We Left Off – James Taylor’s 4th Dimension
  15. Righteous – Dag
  16. Crazy – Liquid
  17. Soul Makossa – Manu Dibango
  18. Sanyu – Isaiah Katumwa
  19. Baba Rere – Kunle Ayo

Greenbelt ’09: Day 3

SUNDAY!!!

Seriously beginning to wonder if I’m not overworking myself. This is a festival, after all. A man needs to have a little fun…

During the night, I’d discovered that my tent is on a bit of a slope. Didn’t do anything about it then because I was trying to sleep, but once I got out of bed I re-positioned the airbed/sleeping bag combo so I won’t keep rolling off the thing at night.

IDMC had an early slot in Centaur venue with Christian Aid. I went along to that, then got to hang out some with John Fisher, ClauDieon and the rest of the gang before they had to dash off to the second of three gigs they’ve got on today (not to mention a ferry ride to France afterwards – and I thought I was overdoing it!).

Having alternated between “Yeah, go for it!” and “What have I let myself in for?” nearly every day last week, I did my first presenter’s slot this afternoon, introducing four members of the Apples to a laid-back crowd in the YMCA tent. In half an hour we talked about how the band got together, the cultural scene in Israel and the underground music scene that’s grown off the back of it. A couple of guys in the audience asked some questions, and then the band used the remaining half-hour to play tracks from some CDs they’d brought; recordings by other Israeli underground acts, including a side project of the soundman and one of the DJs, a reggae artist, a couple of other jazz things, and a very Rai-like party tune which went down really well with the audience. “The Israeli underground scene is like a big community,” they said. “We’re all friends, so we support each other.” I love that indie family vibe and camaraderie… and there was a bit more of it on show in the evening when Jahaziel and Karl Nova turned up for their slots on the Mainstage and Underground. Jahaziel played both. I saw all of his Mainstage set and a little bit of his Underground gig (I caught him teaching the audience the ‘Ben’ Yu Knee’ Reggae dance).

I finally caught up with Carl. My DJ slot is in the Blue Nun from 9pm to 10pm tomorrow. Hold on – isn’t that when Athlete are playing?

Greenbelt ’09: Day 2

Today was a very busy, full day – and for the first half of it, I pretty much managed to miss everyone I wanted to see!

I listened to Rob Bell speak for about half an hour, having pulled rank and used my press pass (and Rachel’s Access All Areas pass) to blag my way to the front of the 8 mile-long queue. Sadly, I didn’t get to hear everything Rob said; I had to leave at 11.00am for my first big interview of the day, with Tom Yendall and Ian Parker – two Mouth & Foot painters. I was busy chatting with Ian when I caught sight of an old mate, Dan Cunningham (Dapper Dan to his friends). Dan lives in Stoke, and as Ian had just mentioned to me that he lived in Stoke, I thought I’d introduce the two ‘Stokies’ to each other. Whenever I meet Dan at this festival, we invariably end up in the Beer Tent. This time was no exception…

We arrived at the beer tent just as Beer & Hymns was about to start. It’s pretty much become a Greenbelt tradition, but I’d never actually been to it before. The MC was clearly channelling Al Murray. I was halfway through my pint of cider when my mobile rang. Time to leave again…

In the afternoon, I joined the rest of the guys from Restore (my church) who’d come up for the day to celebrate Asha’s birthday. We had a lovely picnic on the lawn in the arena area. Nice cake… then it was time to get back to work. Had another failed attempt at adding pics to yesterday’s blog. More and more people are having problems with the wi-fi, so at least I now know it’s not just my computer. Anyway, I was needed to do an on-camera interview with Stu G, ahead of his gig in the Performance Café. Turned out to be just Stu on camera, for which I was immensely relieved; I’m not a telly person! We filmed the four-minute interview in one take. I might not be a telly person, but I’m still a pro…

As the evening progressed, I embarked on a ‘see as many gigs as possible’ blitz. I caught the Treehorns, Quench, Royksopp, Stu G covering Kanye West’s ‘Heartless – all with notebook in hand, as I was meant to be reviewing them (thankfully not full reviews – that would’ve been mental). Sadly, I missed Sway and the MPs he was with promoting Platform 2. I also missed Vula – two days, two Basement Jaxx lady singers gigs missed by me (I’d also missed Sharlene Hector’s the night before).

Carl (the guy looking after the DJs) is away at a wedding, so I’m still at a loose end as regards where and when I’ll be doing my DJ set. The Blue Nun wine bar looks cool…

Greenbelt ’09: Day 1

I’m finally here – at one of my most anticipated Greenbelts in my 19-year history of going to the festival. Here with even more hats on than usual. Here for the first time as a volunteer involved in the organising of the festival.

I arrived on site just after 1pm; picked up my volunteer’s wristband, then set about finding a space to pitch my tent. I found a prime location in the Volunteers’ camping area, just behind the Big Top (thankfully, all the gigs in there will be over long before my bedtime!).

Even though I’d packed meticulously in advance, I still managed to leave a couple of non-essentials behind – the worst omission of all being the tracksuit bottoms I was meant to wear to sleep (that place gets seriously cold at night. You want to be wrapped up as much as possible!). I’d also forgotten to bring a pot with me! Still I’ve got cereal for breakfast, and with the food vouchers I get for working here, I probably don’t need to cook! I’ll just donate the cans I brought with me at the end of the weekend…

Having done the volunteer check-in, I went and did all the Press formalities (told you I was wearing more hats than usual). My interview and press conference schedule got off to a good start with Bluetree. Not the quietest interview I’ve ever recorded (it took place backstage just as the festival was about to kick off), but the guys themselves were brilliant. In 40 minutes, they talked about everything from singing worship songs in a Thai brothel (and how that inspired them to start a movement against child sex trafficking), to tattoos (those guys have some of the most decorated arms in rock!), to the quirkiness involved in trying to make it in America (having to re-record their song ‘God of This City’ as ‘God of These Cities’ specifically for Minneapolis & St. Paul) – and a few tips for getting out of talking to your partner on the phone – but we won’t go into those…

Didn’t see too many gigs tonight; spent most of the time catching up with the many friends I’ve made coming here over the years. But I did want to see a little stand-up comedy. Now, in years past, comedy gigs at Greenbelt have always been over-subscribed. The Festival Bowl (Cheltenham Racecourse’s newest venue) seemed large enough to address that problem. Well, that’s what I thought – until I turned up after 8pm to see Andy Kind, and couldn’t get in because… yeah, you guessed it!

Later on, I had a look in the Blue Nun – the wine bar where I’m meant to do a DJ set at some point during the festival. Some young lad who was barely over 11 was playing some vintage 2-Tone stuff – well, mostly The Specials. The atmosphere there seemed pretty laid back, so I reckon some of my stuff will work in there… hold on, they’ve changed to drum n’ bass! Mental!

Sixpence None the Richer closed the first night’s mainstage line-up. They opened with ‘Kiss Me’ – which sparked off a conversation amongst some in the audience as to how they’d finish the set, given that they’d opened with their biggest ever hit. The gig seemed to be a sounding board for their new album, which they’re currently working on and is due in the shops next April. After Sixpence, I caught a bit of Last Orders, then retired to bed – where I had to sleep in my jeans. Still, better to be scruffy than freeze to death…

Baaba Maal: the Man on the Telly

baabamaal_television_211pxTelevision, Baaba Maal’s new album, has had tons of plays since I put it on my iPod a few weeks ago. I got to chat with the Senegalese singer recently (with my Sounds of Africa producer’s hat on), when he was in London performing at the Meltdown music festival. Here’s how the interview went:

Your last album came out eight years ago. Why has it taken you this long to record a follow-up?

Baaba: I had a lot of things to do back in Africa. One of them is to put on a festival called ‘the Blues of the River’. It really took a lot of my time putting it on. It’s a festival which belongs to the community I come from, and I wanted people to discover them and their culture; to show what they have to offer the world. There are a lot of musicians there; they’d like to do things but haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had.

The festival was also a platform to support my work with the UNDP; to talk about the Millennium Development Goals. It’s a music festival, but at the same time we use the days to let people who do lectures visit exhibitions, and we get together to discuss education and other issues. It was a very important festival.

At the same time, I was doing other things. I worked on a few productions that were released in Africa. Also, I was taking my time with this album. I knew that after Missing U, which was made in a very acoustic and simple way, I had to come out with something different. I didn’t want to rush it.

So tell us about Television, then; what about the telly intrigues you so much that you’ve made it the focus of your new album?

It’s all connected with new forms of communication. When you go back to Africa, you see people using television a lot. It’s not just something you sit down to watch in your front room. It’s very fascinating in Africa – especially for young people.

Since we have this fascination, I discussed it with the people I worked with in writing the album. I wanted to explore the kind of effect television has. What role can it play in the mind of a young kid from Africa? And how can this instrument be used to educate people, since we no longer have that place in the middle of the village where people go to get information. And how do governments – or individuals – who own TV channels use them to educate and influence people?

Sometimes I feel very happy, because in Senegal – the country I know most – when I see people watching TV, waiting for a programme in their native language; they see their dancing, their clothes, their culture, and they see people discussing all the issues that are important to us. But at the same time, I can see the danger if governments, say, start using television to sway public opinion, or to get people to think a certain way.

Television is a new thing and a fascinating thing for Africa. We should use it to educate people and lift them to a higher level from where they are now. Four years ago, I went to South Africa to participate in the African version of Big Brother. I know people say it’s a silly programme, but for one month, we used it to come to visit the kids in the house, and to talk to them. We talked to them about the Millennium Goals; we talked about education… all sorts of things.

I was a surprise guest for the housemates. I basically said to them, ‘When you go back to your home countries, you’ll be famous. People will want to talk to you. Use those moments to talk to them about education. Tell them how important it is.’ For the two days that I was in the Big Brother House, I saw all the text messages the show received. People were talking about how great it was that we could use the programme to educate and touch a large number of people.

There’s a track on the album titled ‘A Song for Women’. What’s that about?

For the past 10 years or so, when I look at all the elections that have taken place on the African continent, I see much more influential women are becoming. They’ve come together; some have formed parties… they’re just taking that power and bringing it into politics, and into the economy.

African women know that the place of women isn’t just in the house or the kitchen. Yes, it’s still good that someone takes care of the family; families are important in Africa. But at the same time, women are able now to go outside; to raise their voices and say ‘This is what we want’ – whether in politics – and they are sometimes at the front of the line. And we’re seeing the impact of this in politics.

We look around us and we see that women are now very powerful. Sometimes I think we forget that. But I believe that if we give them all the support they need, maybe changes will take place in Africa. I think women are sometimes more concerned about future generations, because they are close to their kids and want the best for them.

My favourite track on the album is ‘Dakar Moon’. What’s that about?

‘Dakar Moon’ has a double meaning. On the one hand, it’s just a love song. When you sit down with someone you love, and you just take the time to look at all that’s around you – especially the moon, or the sky or the ocean or nature… sometimes people forget to focus on these things. We’re all so preoccupied with looking for money or our jobs, we forget about our environment – which is meaning number two. I’m singing about the beauty of the environment. People need to be more connected with the environment and take care of it.

You’ve been in the music business now for 30 years. When you started out, did you ever imagine your career would last this long?

No, I did not [laughs]. I never imagined that I’d maybe some day travel with my voice and my music with Mansour (Seck). We were just musicians everyone knew from our home town. If you grew up there in the north of Senegal, you are a Fulani and you’re on your boat, just doing your fishing, you just sing. It could be just you, or you and some friends; you’d sit down, maybe have a little instrument, and you’d just sing. This was how we became famous – and we didn’t plan anything! It was just our community who said ‘you can entertain us’ and that became our job.

I was doing pretty well in school; I thought maybe one day I’d be a teacher, a lawyer or something else, who would always be playing music for his friends and family. That was my plan, and that was Mansour’s plan. Then we started to travel, to discover and get excited – and learnt about the business of making music. We began to see the opportunity that travelling with this kind of music could offer. But neither of us expected this when we started out.

The last time I saw you on stage, it was up in Liverpool at an Africa Express show, where you were jamming alongside Franz Ferdinand, the Magic Numbers, Hard-Fi, and of course Damon Albarn. A lot’s been said – both positive and negative – about Africa Express. But in your opinion, what good has it done for African music?

That’s a good question! And this was one of the reasons why I didn’t rush the making of the new album. The idea for Africa Express came from the fact that sometimes when people talk about Africa and use music – such as in Live Aid/Live8, for example – you don’t see many Africans taking part. And concerts like that should be used as an opportunity to showcase African musicians. Who knows; maybe if African musicians became famous as a result of being seen on such shows, they’d sell more records, bring more money back home and be able to employ more people and in so doing, fight poverty in some small way.

With Africa Express, the good thing is that musicians who come from different environments come together and just talk music. The fact that the projects take the time to travel back to Africa, meet people there and form links – I think for the business itself, it can bring forth new combinations. Audiences do get tired of the same old thing. People are waiting to see some new, fresh combinations and collaborations; different musicians working together, bringing about fresh new things, create new songs – new bands, even – and give the industry some fresh new material for the public that buys music. That’s often been missing.

I believe Africa Express gave us ideas; things we could do together. Very old musicians and very young ones; people who do hip hop and R&B… they all got together. Tony Allen teamed up with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, for example. Here at Meltdown, I’m doing something with Kano and Bashy. They come from a different environment to me. But thanks to Africa Express, we met; we appreciated each other’s work and made plans for things we could do together in the future, be that on stage or in the studio.

As African musicians, we don’t struggle to fit ourselves into what we know from the Western side. We’ve been listening to the West for centuries. Everything from the West came to us, but the West didn’t get everything we were doing. So it’s much easier for me to fit into what Franz Ferdinand do. It’s not difficult for an African musician. And I think that opens doors for African musicians; it opens a window for people to see us and see that we’re not just in so-called ‘World Music’. We are just musicians like any other musicians are. We can play any kind of music because we have those references – sometimes even in our own traditional music.

You work with the UN as an emissary for young people in West Africa. From your dealings with them, what would you say is big on the minds of young Africans today?

I think young people in Africa are more concerned about their leaders; about their parents – about the people who have power to make decisions; to take care of their issues, and their ability to do things.

People seem to forget that these young kids know exactly that they are a part of the world now. They’re not just African children; they are children of the world. Everything is global now.

I think that sometimes our leaders – parents too – don’t take time to sit down with the kids and talk to them, and to try to understand what they want to do with their lives, which is what happens in the West. You see a child going in a certain direction and you help them achieve what they want to achieve. There is a really big gap between the parents and the children, or between the leaders and the new generation. And I think something is there. The energy is there. They might be very poor sometimes, but at the same time, when they wake up in the morning, even with very small menial jobs, they try to achieve something. They run from east to west in the cities and villages; they try many, many things. So at least the energy is there. And I think it would be a waste if we don’t try to harness this energy, and to give them an opportunity to be at the front. Women and young people are the future of Africa.

Another blog about Michael Jackson…

The past 72 hours have been rather surreal, I don’t mind telling you.

For me, it started with a text message late Thursday night. I was in bed with a glass of wine, alternating between Question Time and My Name is Earl on telly when I received it.

“Switch on the news,” it shrieked. “MJ is dead according to reports!”

So I did. Sky News had already pronounced him dead by then; other news channels seemed to be trying to have their cake and eat it, saying that the LA Times had reported him dead but they couldn’t confirm it. And that was it. What was meant to have been an early night (by my standards) turned into a news marathon.

Figuring that the most reliable news source would be the one closest to the subject, I turned over to CNN and stayed there until midnight, when it abruptly turned into a gambling channel (yes, I’m one of those cheapskates who has Freeview instead of paying for Virgin or Sky). I then turned over to BBC News and stayed there for another hour or so before deciding that my need for sleep was greater than my need to know every detail of how it had happened.

The craziness continued after I woke up on Friday morning and settled down to do some work. After reading one Facebook status update too many quoting the “what does it profit a man if he lose his soul?” scripture (and even a few which very authoritatively claimed that Michael was now in Hell), I’d had enough. I’m not the rabid sort of MJ fan who thought he could never do any wrong, but the insensitivity was too much. So I fired back, saying, “Allow people some time to mourn before throwing all your ‘sound doctrine’ at us!” That in turn led to some interesting private conversations and a few very touching personal emails.

And then the big one happened. A producer for Radio 4’s Sunday morning programme rang me up and said they were looking for a music journalist who had knowledge of religious issues to talk about whatever faith Michael Jackson may have had, and how that faith was reflected in his music.

The call wasn’t totally unexpected; my friend Bernard who also works for the BBC had pre-warned me that it was coming. I had a few initial apprehensions; what made me qualified enough to talk about such a subject? Yes, I had looked into some of those issues when I wrote the chapter on Michael in the Rough Guide to Rock book – but that was years ago. But when the call finally came, all those fears disappeared.

The producer fired questions at me; I answered. We discussed all sorts of things: Michael’s upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness; how he’d put a disclaimer at the start of the Thriller video when its horror movie theme upset the JW leadership; other religious figures who’d influenced him; the various (and in my opinion, ludicrous) Internet rumours linking him with everything from radical Islam to devil worship… Eventually, the producer made arrangements for me to come in to Radio 4 to be interviewed for the show.

Now I had to do my homework. I’m usually the person doing the interviewing and I’m fine with that. Being interviewed, on the other hand, still makes me nervous. I went for a swim and used the time in the pool to do some more thinking about how Michael “did God” in his music.

There’s no doubt that some of Michael’s work had an element to it that could be considered spiritual, or at the very least ‘positive’ (if he was a reggae singer, I’d say ‘conscious’). The most obvious example would be ‘Man in the Mirror’. So yes, there was a spiritual side to some of MJ’s music.

What Michael didn’t do, though, was anchor the message in his songs to one specific faith. Whereas you’d have Prince sing “Don’t die without knowing the cross” (an obvious reference to Christianity), Michael on the other hand would sing “Keep the faith” but leave it up to you to decide which faith it was you were meant to be keeping. And the “be the change you want to see” message in ‘Man in the Mirror’ is one that is embraced by people of all faiths – and even by a few of us who claim not to have any.

That’s not to say that people with a specific faith didn’t influence Michael’s music. Various Christians in particular made a huge contribution. Seawind, the horn section on the Quincy Jones-produced albums, were a gospel group in their own right. Scan the credits on the albums, and you’ll find several others. The most notable is the legendary gospel singer Andrae Crouch, who did the vocal arrangements on ‘Man in the Mirror’ and on ‘Will You Be There’ and ‘Keep the Faith’ on the Dangerous album (in the last couple of days, Andrae has had to refute rumours now doing the rounds in some Evangelical circles, claiming that he and his twin sister Sandra converted Michael to Christianity a week or two before he died).

In the end, I never got to share any of this on air. A few hours after the first phone call, the producer called again to say they’d found someone in America who had been in the same JW fellowship as Michael, and would be having him on the show instead. A pity; I was really looking forward to having a go at being a Nelson George or even a Stuart Maconie.

Rest easy, Jacko. And thanks for all the tunes (though I’m not so sure I want to thank you for my mid-80s Jehri curl phase)…

Africa Oyé ‘09

oyelogoMany music fans who visit Liverpool do so on pilgrimages to the Cavern Club. My now annual pilgrimage to Scouseland is music related, but has nothing to do with the Beatles. The thing that’s brought me up here again this year is Africa Oyé – the UK’s biggest free African music event. It’s usually held (at least, since I’ve been going) over a weekend in June.

Miserable grey clouds hung over Sefton Park all weekend. Thankfully, though, the worst that happened was the odd drizzle. I turned up on Saturday afternoon and dutifully waited at the fence by the mainstage for Ali the Press office guy to give me my pass (I was there mainly with my Sounds of Africa producer’s hat on).

It was whilst waiting for Ali that I met Maya. She had come in the place of a friend of hers; an Irish radio presenter who couldn’t make it because he was ill. Throughout the weekend we worked together, pooling our equipment and oyebirdinterviewing artists (and Paul Duhaney, the festival organiser) together.

Africa Oyé aims to bring the best in African music free to the Liverpool public. That’s ‘African’ in the broadest sense of the word; this year’s two headliners were both reggae artists (Freddie McGregor on Saturday and Carol Thompson on Sunday). The lineup also usually features Latin music – though sadly there were no salsa bands there this year. Kasaï Masaï kicked off the festival with a blend of Congolese sounds and high energy dancing.

Next on were a Senegalese trio called Groupe Lolou. I managed to miss much of their set – but only because Maya and I spent so much time talking to their manager in the press/hospitality tent backstage. Turns out that back down in London (where they all live), I’d been to one of their friends’ houses to interview another Senegalese musician! I even managed a brief conversation in Wolof (well, ‘how are you?’ ‘Fine thanks.’ Counts as a conversation to me). I should meet with them again once their album’s out.

Up till this weekend, I’d never seen Daby Touré perform live – even though he’s played Greenbelt twice, and I’d interviewed him in person a couple of years ago. He recognised me the moment he saw me, and was as thought provoking, amiable and funny throughout the interview as he’d been the last time we’d chatted – in an Arabian-style parlour in Momo’s in London. He played both days, and was a monster onstage. Fantastic.

In between sets, I had a wander around and tried to set up interviews – including one with Kwame Kwei-Armah, who was there as ambassador for the Foreign Office’s Know Before You Go campaign, aimed at getting people to ensure they’re covered for every eventuality before they go off travelling.

I only stayed long enough to hear Freddie McGregor sing ‘When Push Comes to Shove’, then I set off home (tiredness had got to me, and the clouds looked threatening). Didn’t think much of Chino (Freddie’s son) who was one of his special guests. A reggae song about ganja – very original… The little I heard of Freddie sounded great, though.

The Congolese singer Gordon Masiala kicked things off on Sunday, and provided one of my most hilarious interview moments ever. Whilst onstage, Gordon had made a point of informing us that he was wearing Versace. I’d heard a lot about Congo’s Sapeurs before (and had met the king of them, Papa Wemba, once), so I asked Gordon about the significance of high fashion in Congolese music and culture. That was his cue to give Maya and me a close-up inspection of all his designer ‘garms’. He then went off on one about how he was the best-dressed Congolese musician ever. For a minute, he sounded just like the ‘Rolex Sweep’ song: “Papa Wemba can’t dress like me; Koffi Olomide can’t dress like me; Awilo Longomba can’t dress like me. One glass of champagne for me…” at least I can now say I’ve seen the inside label of a Versace jacket…

My best new discovery on Sunday (and a slightly more level-headed interviewee than Gordon) was the Cameroonian singer Muntu Valdo. With just his guitar and a harmonica, Muntu rocked. He had a Digitech Jam Man (gadget that allows musos to create loops whilst playing live, so they can make up their own accompaniment) which he used not only to create complex backing rhythms and music, but also to provide backing vocals for himself! That gizmo has really revolutionised acoustic music.

Kanda Bongo Man had a sore throat and so delegated most of the lead vocals in his set to his two backing vocalists. Despite the throat, he and his band rocked. Is it me, or are the girl dancers in Congolese bands getting really young these days?

Final act of the festival was Carol Thompson. I really hadn’t been that interested in seeing her sing, to be honest. I vaguely remembered her from back in the 80s, but thought that putting on mellow lovers rock tunes after all the bouncing about we’d done to Kanda’s soukous jamfest would be a major anticlimax. So it was rather reluctantly that I took my position by the stage.

“I’m only going to hear one song, than home,” I told myself. In the end, she won me over. A medley of her old hits morphed into a cover of the Commodores’ ‘Easy’. She followed that with a Gospel-flavoured song based largely on Psalm 23 (“In the times we’re living in, we need to be more spiritual,” she told us). Rather than do the usual ‘say goodbye, walk off the stage and do an encore’ thing, she just sang right through, ending with a medley of old ska songs that had the entire audience screaming along (I have all the screams on tape!).

“Everybody in Liverpool is a performer,” Maya informed me as we enjoyed a post-festival drink. I certainly met a few: the old bloke with no front teeth who kept rallying other people in the crowd to dance; the guy in a cowboy hat who managed to outdance Kanda Bongo Man and his entire band; and of course the women in the front row who got louder and louder whenever they saw my Zoom recording machine pointed at them!

And that was Africa Oyé 2009: a weekend in which I heard some brilliant music, made a new friend, got a few contacts and ate way too much Chinese food for one person. Looking forward to next year’s already…