10 Reasons Why Urban is the New MOR

Its mostly young audience likes to think that ‘Urban’ music – in its various forms – is cutting-edge, cool, even dangerous. But scratch the surface, and in many ways ‘Urban’ music is every bit as safe, as conservative and as middle-of-the-road as its fans misguidedly think Easy Listening is – perhaps even more so. Here are my ten reasons why Urban is the new MOR:

1. The Cowell factor. Leona Lewis, JLS, Fantasia, Alexandra Burke, Jennifer Hudson… I’m not here to argue over whether they’re ‘soulful’ or not (Jennifer and Fantasia certainly are; the rest – well, that’s up for debate). But the sole purpose of X-Idoltalentfactor telly shows is to find the most saleable artist possible – and nothing sells as much as the stuff aimed at the middle. So be big enough to admit it: if your favourite R&B singer came up through one of these shows, there’s no difference between him/her and Susan Boyle (and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that).

2. Ice Cube’s film career. For the most part, I preferred the comic strip version of The Boondocks to the telly version. But one scene in one episode of the show stands out for me. Wannabe thug Riley and his favourite rapper Gangstalicious were on the run from some thugs; they got caught and were tied up and locked in a car’s boot. As they lay in the boot awaiting certain death, Gangstalicious said to Riley, “When I was your age, my favourite rapper was Ice Cube,” to which Riley replied, “That guy who makes family movies?” It’s a brief scene, but it speaks volumes of how one of hip hop’s legendary tough guys has mellowed – and in the process, become middle-of-the-road. It seems to happen to a lot of rappers who go into acting (Will Smith doesn’t count because his music was never that ‘threatening’ to begin with). I’m not sure whether it’s because they’ve grown up, started having kids and now feel some responsibility for what they put out, or because they’ve realised that there’s more money to be made in doing more family oriented stuff. Still, it can’t hurt…

PS. It’s been pointed out to me that this doesn’t just affect rappers, and that Eddie Murphy’s career has taken a similar path. That’s true – but Eddie recorded ‘Party All the Time’ while Ice Cube gave us ‘F*** Tha Police’.

3. Flavor Flav’s TV career. From prancing about on The Farm to going all Ozzy on us with Flavor of Love, Flav’s career trajectory from Public Enemy’s time keeper to serial reality TV clown has to be the biggest blow ever to hip hop’s street cred. Just the thought of him in that barn dancing to ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ gives me shivers.

4. The Obama effect. Like Spike Lee, I’m not drinking the “post-racial Kool-Aid” either. But there’s no escaping the fact that America now having a black president (all right, you pedants – a half-black President) has had the knock-on effect of making large chunks of black culture – music in particular – more mainstream. It’s also indirectly responsible for the next item on this list:

5. Dizzee Rascal’s Newsnight appearance. Sorry – this is supposed to be the things that made urban music MOR. Dizzee’s interview with Paxo just made it comical. My bad – but the next Dizzee-related thing on this list definitely belongs here…

6. Dizzee on the Electric Proms. I know the ‘Electric’ prefix is supposed to make them sound youthful, or less formal (or something) but ‘electric’ or not, the Proms are still the Proms – and you can’t get any more Middle England than that.

7. Timbaland wins Eurovision for the Russians. Here’s Russia’s first ever Eurovision Song Contest winner from 2008: Dima Bilan singing ‘Believe’ – produced by (whisper it) Timbaland! That victory puts one of the coolest producers in urban music in the same class as Abba and Celine Dion. I’ll say no more…

8. Dancin’ Alesha. I do love Alesha Dixon. The only time I’ve ever voted in a TV poll was for her to win Strictly Come Dancing. But when I remember Mis-Teeq’s “ragga gyal” and then hear that “does he wash up?” song, I can’t help but wonder if the price for mass appeal hasn’t been a bit too high…

9. 50 Cent is now a self-help guru. Personal development is the new religion of our time. And with his new opus The 50th Law, our man Fiddy can now be found in the ‘self-help’ selection in your local bookshop, stuck between Your Best Life Now and Screw It, Let’s Do It. Think about it: that annoying bloke who phones you up trying to sell you double glazing gets his motivation fix from a book Fiddy wrote! I wonder what his success seminars are like? Or his infomercials?

10. Dr Dre collaborates with Burt Bacharach. Actually, I’m changing my mind on this one too. It hasn’t made urban music MOR. But it did temporarily turn Mr. Bacharach into Burt Badass. And for that, Dre, I salute you.

Bassekou Kouyate: Proud Fula Speaker

bassekouispeakfulaI Speak Fula is the name of the new album from Malian ngoni player and singer Bassekou Kouyate; the follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2007 debut, Segu Blue. I caught up with Bassekou while he was in London on a brief promo trip last week, and threw a few questions at him.

These days, it seems that if you’re into African music in any way, you’re inundated with artists from Mali. What is it about your country that’s made it so prominent musically overseas?

Bassekou: Well, Mali is a very rich country musically because it’s a multi-ethnic country, and every group has their own music. The Bambara, the Malinke, the Sarakole, so many others… each has their own music. It’s from that rich cultural heritage that we take our inspiration. That’s one of the factors that have made Mali such a rich country musically. And because our parents and ancestors have put in a lot of work, we haven’t even exploited everything yet.

So there’s more to come, then?

There is indeed! For example, on this album, I have called an elder musician, Dramane Ze Konate, who plays an instrument called an mpolon. He played it at Mali’s independence in 1960 for Modibo Keïta, our first president. He came and played that same instrument on the album so that people can hear it and discover it. It’s not an instrument that’s well known.

As far as your own musical journey goes, how did it all begin?

When I was young, grew up with my father, Moustapha Kouyate, who was a great ngoni player, and my mother Yakare Damba, who was a great singer. My father would give ngoni lessons to his children, and the girls would learn to sing as my mother did. There were many students in that group. I found playing the ngoni very easy, so I was easily bored because some of the other students were having a hard time learning how to repeat and repeat and repeat. So I lost interest and went off to play football.

One day at home, I was sitting in my room, just playing all the ngoni lessons we had learnt off by heart – all alone in my room. My father heard that and knocked on my door. He asked, ‘What are you playing? Are you by yourself?’ I said ‘yes.’ And he said, ‘As a child, you mustn’t sit in a dark room and play ngoni by yourself. Come outside.’ He said to my mother, ‘Don’t force him to play the ngoni anymore. There’s no point being angry; I can already tell that this child will be a great ngoni player one day.’

How do your own albums fit into this master plan to expose Mali music to the world?

I started with my debut album, Segu Blue – which I did so that people would know about the ngoni, and know about my region. Usually, when people think about the music of Africa, they associate it with the kora and the drums. I wanted to let people know that the ngoni exists, and that it was around even before the birth of Christ. It’s a very old instrument that was used in our region only, and I wanted to bring it out, so that people would know about it – and about my region… and to get to know Bassekou as well.

The story behind the title track is that in Mali, we have many ethnic groups; it’s a very multi-ethnic country. The song is the story of a young Bamana man who falls in love with a Peul (Fula) woman. One day, he called her over and said, ‘Really, I find you very beautiful.’ She said, ‘What? You find me beautiful? But you’re Bamana and I’m Peul!’ He replied, ‘But if you come with me to my room, you’ll find out that I speak Peul!’ basically, the title is a way of saying no to racism and making differences between peoples.

You also get a bit political on the album – mainly on the song ‘Jamana be Diya’…

That song isn’t really about politics in a strict sense, but it’s more about unity and peace. When there’s a war, innocents die; people get angry… it’s better to have unity and peace. We mention Barack Obama in the song, because people in the USA united behind him to let him become President – and he’s a black man as well. This song’s a way to say that democracy can be a good system.

There are also some very personal songs on the album – both very happy and very sad. On the sad end, there’s ‘Saro’…

Yes. Saro is my brother. There are five boys in my family – same mother, same father – and Saro was my youngest brother. He was always helping me a lot. When people came to record – for example, when Lucy Duran and Jerry Boys came to Mali to produce the album – he would bring them; take them to their hotel, run errands if they needed something from the market. He would drive, pick people up… he helped with so many things. And he never asked for anything in return.

One day, he was getting a camera for somebody. On the way back, he was hit by a car. He fell on his head and was bleeding, but instead of calling for an ambulance, the people who saw it went and picked his pockets, took his cell phone and left him there. It was only much later, after he’d lost a lot of blood that someone called for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. He was taken there; he had my card on him and also those of other family members, but no one called us. He died in the hospital and was taken to the morgue. Still nobody called us. All his cards were taken away and he was left there.

In the meantime, back at home everyone was wondering what had happened to him and why he hadn’t come back. He’d never done something like this before. Back at home, they’d left him some tea, some chicken… all the food was still there, untouched. Even t he television was still on. So we went looking for him. We went everywhere – the Police station, the hospital… in the hospital, some people said that he’d been there, but they couldn’t tell us anything. Maybe he wasn’t very ill; maybe he’s left – we don’t know where he is. So we continued searching until we found him at the morgue.

I just wanted to write a song – partly as a homage, and to thank him. At the same time, I wanted to use the song to let people know to wear helmets, and also to say to people that when someone has an accident, call the ambulance immediately – don’t pick the victim’s pocket! I don’t want this to happen to somebody else. I’ve also set up a foundation to let young people and children know how to act in these circumstances. It’s called the Saro foundation.

And on a happier note, there’s a song for your wife.

Yeah, Amy! (Amy Sacko) She’s a very kind, very beautiful woman. She’s supported me all this time, and has given me many children. We’ve never had any problems since we started living together. So the song is just to thank her, because she’s a kind, intelligent woman, beautiful and with a good heart.

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: 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.

India: last week’s news

Media junkie that I am, I couldn’t spend ten days in a media-heavy country like India and not sample the local press, telly and radio. Here are a few of the stories that caught my eye while I was out there.

On the day we arrived, the Hindustan Times had a story on its front page which seemed to disprove the old saying that beggars can’t be choosers. “Playing God in caste-crazy Bihar” said the headline to a piece telling how many childless couples in Bihar are demanding to know what caste their potential sperm donors come from. Sad…

The story that dominated the week’s news agenda happened on Wednesday, when Jarnail Singh (a Sikh journalist) threw a shoe at India’s Home Minister during a press conference.

The incident was another chapter in a story that goes back all the way to 1984 when Indira Gandhi’s assassination sparked off anti-Sikh riots which left over 3,000 Sikhs dead. Jagdish Tytler – a former minister and member of India’s Congress Party – had been accused of being involved in those riots, but had been cleared in 2007… and again last week. But this was all too much for Jarnail Singh, who decided on hurling footwear at the Home Minister as an effective means of protest.

Tytler had been running as a candidate in the elections currently taking place in India. But by the end of the week, he’d announced his decision to withdraw from the race. He said he didn’t think he should fight as “a lot of embarrassment has been caused to the (Congress) party.” I’m thinking the Congress top brass figured it was more expedient to lose one troublesome candidate, rather than millions of Sikh voters…

Bollywood shuffle #1. An almighty row is brewing between India’s filmmakers and the owners of the multiplexes that screen their films, over how big a share of the takings the film producers should receive.

The producers asked for 50% of all ticket sales from multiplexes. Predictably, the multiplex owners told them to get lost. The producers responded to that by refusing to release any new films after the 4th of April. And so Bollywood is now locked in its own equivalent of the writers’ strike that hit Hollywood last year. Two top Bollywood stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, have tried to mediate between the two sides – so far with not much success.

Bollywood shuffle #2. Meanwhile, there’s been a less-than-warm response to a new reality TV show featuring Bollywood actress Rakhi Sawant. Rakhi ka Swayamvar follows Ms. Sawant as she searches for a husband.

As you may guess, this hasn’t gone down too well in a society which still values the institution of marriage very highly. But I have another reason for not liking it. Anyone who’s seen a few Bollywood movies knows that they occasionally “borrow” ideas from Western films, telly shows, etc. (just go to Youtube and type the words “Indian thriller” into the search engine. You’ll soon see what I mean). We know that and accept it as part of the charm of Bollywood. However, you have to be seriously desperate to nick programme ideas from Jodie Marsh!

Real Girl Power. My favourite story of the week appeared in the Hindustan Times on Sunday; the story of Rekha Kalindi. 12-year-old Rekha lives in a small village in West Bengal – a village with the lowest female literacy rate in India. Amongst her tribe, girls traditionally get married at the age of 12. However, when Rekha turned 12 last November, she put her foot down and refused to be hitched – standing firm even when her dad cut off her supply of food, water and soap.

Rekha’s act of rebellion inspired other girls in her village to do the same, and there haven’t been any child marriages there ever since – something the Indian Government had been trying to achieve for years without much success.

According to Rekha, she decided not to get married so young because she wanted to go to school and get an education. Seeing her older sister Jyotsna must have helped too. Jyotsna did get married at 12; by the time she’d turned 15, she’d already lost four babies.

Rekha was in the papers again yesterday. The president of India heard her story and has now invited her over to visit the Rashtrapati Bhawan (the Presidential palace). Not bad for a young bidi-roller…

Sadly, the expression “You go, girl!” hasn’t been translated in my English-to-Hindi phrasebook. Neither have “Gwaan!”, “Respect!”, “Brap brap!”, “Way to go!” or “Booyaka!” So I guess I’ll just have to settle for “Congratulations!” and throw in a “Namaste” for good measure. Here’s to Rekha – proof that it just takes one individual to start a revolution.

The Freed Bird Sings

 I haven’t been as prompt with my updates on here as I’d like to. But I should share a really heart-warming moment from a couple of weeks ago with you.

 Actually, I’ll go back further – back a few years to when I was hosting my World Beat radio show on UCB, and I first heard about an Eritrean gospel singer who was serving a prison sentence inside a freight container.

 Helen Berhane was a member of an Evangelical church in Eritrea – one of the many religious groups deemed ‘illegal’ by the Eritrean Government. When she refused to renounce her faith, she was arrested.

 Torture and imprisonment followed; Helen was held in a freight container in sweltering heat, with a mentally ill woman who’d tried to assassinate a Government official as a cellmate (probably in the hope that the mad woman would try to kill her too).

 Helen’s plight caught the attention of several people outside her homeland. Amnesty International joined Christian groups such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Release International in campaigning for her release. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie took up her cause. As well as give her album T’kebaeku airplay on my show, I also lent a hand in remastering the only available cassette of it for a CD release.

 In November 2006, we received the news that Helen had been released after spending two years in her makeshift cell. The following year, she was granted asylum in Denmark, where she now lives. And that brings us to Saturday before last, when she was a guest speaker at CSW’s annual conference in London.

 She couldn’t come to the conference in person, due to the terms of her asylum status (if she leaves Denmark within her first three years there, she loses all her benefits). But thanks to the power of Skype, we were able to see and chat with her, and have her sing for us. I don’t mind telling you it’s been ages since a singer’s voice made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end…

 Helen is free. But there are still hundreds more Eritrean Christians facing heavy persecution in their homeland. As long as that’s the case, the fight continues. 

So, how will Jesus vote?

Well, Indecision 2008 (or whatever nickname Jon Stewart and his Daily Show chums have given it this time) is nearly here.

Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t be paying any attention to an election taking place in a country I don’t live in (yes, I know: a black man is running. Big woop). But when writing about Christian music is part of your job, you’re kind of forced to take an interest. You see, politics is a biiiig part of American Christianity, and a lot of the art, media and teaching that come from there are heavily coloured by the partisan stance of whoever produced them – a point many of us non-American Christians who feed voraciously on the Christian culture industry’s output often fail to realise.

Every April, I take a trip to Nashville to attend the Gospel Music Association’s annual GMA Week. I remember turning up at GMA 2004, and being greeted by a giant banner covered in signatures, proclaiming “The Christian music community supports our troops in Iraq” (this was the same GMA at which my friend Mike Rimmer went about wearing a T-shirt with WWJB? (Who Would Jesus Bomb?) written on it). As one of the millions who’d marched the streets of London in protest against the war, you can imagine how that made me feel…

I’d kind of resigned myself to accepting that Christian music = rightwing politics. But in recent years, I’ve seen quite a few of those fiercely conservative Gospel/ccm people become less so. You still have guys like Redeem the Vote (ostensibly non-partisan, but in reality very pro-Republican) rallying young Christians’ support – first for Mike Huckabee, then for McCain once Huckabee was out of the race. But it appears that this time round, Christian voters are looking at other options beside the GOP – and are being helped to do so by some of their favourite gospel/ccm acts. The Democrats – famous for not ‘doing God’ – have even enlisted gospel singers such as Donnie McClurkin and the Mighty Clouds of Joy to help bring folk round.

I met Frank Schaeffer (author of the book Crazy For God) at Greenbelt this summer. Not only did he openly pledge his support for Obama several times during the festival; he also had a lot to say about how Christian voters’ moods were changing.

“A lot of Evangelicals now realise that they were sold a bill of goods by the Republican leadership,” he told me. “The one stick in the mud that won’t go away is abortion. But that said, most Evangelicals – with that as a caveat – are becoming more comfortable with voting for a Democrat, because they see the absolute failure of not only the Bush administration, but also this idea that you have to pass a sort of theological test in order to be President. That’s insane; you’re not hiring the guy as Pastor-In-Chief.”

As I’ve spoken to American Christians (musical and non-musical alike) over the last couple of years, many have cited one guy as being the catalyst for so many of them re-examining their political views: Jim Wallis, the Vicar of Dibley’s husband (no, seriously!) and author of books such as The Soul of Politics and God’s Politics: How the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.

“People like Jim Wallis have taken a lead in getting people involved in a larger conversation than abortion and homosexuality as the touchstones,” said Jars of Clay’s keyboardist Charlie Lowell, when I interviewed him before the band’s last UK gig. “He’s got us looking at issues such as taking care of the poor and ultimately what we’re building as a future, rather than what we’re against.”

I’ve met Jim Wallis several times over the years – usually at Greenbelt, where he’s a regular speaker, as well as at events organised by Faithworks and Make Poverty History. He’s told me more than once that “the monologue of the Religious Right is over,” but I’d always had a hard time believing that when TBN – along with the other Christian satellite channels – shouted the opposite so loudly. Brian McLaren, another speaker at this year’s Greenbelt, had an explanation for that.

“Something people outside the US just don’t understand is the degree to which religious broadcasting has enormous power,” he said. “I sometimes – being very tongue in cheek – refer to it as ‘Radio Orthodoxy’. The most powerful denomination in the USA is actually not Baptists or Pentecostals; it’s the people who control the Christian broadcasting networks!”

Brian longs for more Christian musicians to be more questioning of the political process, and cites the singer Derek Webb as one bright spark in the ccm pool. Having heard Derek’s The Ringing Bell album and seen the hilarious video for his song “Saviour on Capitol Hill”, I have to agree with Brian. When I actually got to interview Derek, I wasn’t disappointed – nor was I too surprised to learn that some of his more edgy songs haven’t gone down too well within the Christian music scene.

“The Christian music market is traditionally a fairly conservative one,” Derek said. “So when you as a Christian artist start looking at the more social implications of following Jesus, it does kind of concern people. I’ve always found that ironic, because looking at just the simplest teachings of Jesus, he clearly puts a high priority on caring for the poor. When you start to look at the social implications of what Jesus said, applying it socially is not only inevitable; it’s commanded. And when you look at the social implications, it inevitably becomes political.”

As you would expect, Derek’s been observing Indecision 2008 with interest. “So far, I think it’s better now than it’s been in a long time,” he said enthusiastically. “There does seem to be a heightened interest in having a more nuanced political conversation. I’ve been surprised by some of my friends and people I know, who four or eight years ago would simply have looked for the conservative candidate and blindly pledged their allegiance to him. Now I’m seeing some of those people are more interested in a whole discussion.

“I’ve been hoping that over time, Christians would begin to realise that politicians are primarily in the election and re-election business; willing to go to any group of people whose language they can decipher, and say to them whatever they need to say in order to get their votes. That’s just how it works. As you look over the history of the last 20 or so years of Evangelicalism and how it touches elections, people are bound to start realising, ‘these guys aren’t necessarily on my side!’

“Whoever you discern as the ‘Christian’ candidate – the guy who seems to have all his spiritual ducks in a row – has more likely deciphered the Christian language and is able to get in front of Christians and make himself seem appealing and electable. That’s not to say that some of these men aren’t whom they say they are, but Christians have to be a little more savvy about the game that’s being played. The politicians understand what they’re doing, but unfortunately, the public – and most often, these Christians – hear the politicians talk about the few issues that those politicians know are the only issues that are important to them, and they’re just swayed really easily. We should be a little more careful.”

Derek has some valid points, IMHO. And I’m all for Christians getting involved in the political process, whatever side of the fence they’re on or whatever country they’re in – just as long as they don’t try to claim God as a member of their party of choice (which is why I agree 1,000,000 percent with the line in one of Derek’s songs that one of the two great lies he’s heard is that Jesus was a white middle-class Republican). But is this “more nuanced political conversation” going to have any real effect on the poll results? Well, they’re nearly in; lets see for ourselves, shall we?