Emmanuel Jal: Keeper of the Key

Last night I went to see Emmanuel Jal performing at the Forge arts centre in Camden. As gigs go, it was an exciting performance in a space which at times seemed too small to contain all the energy that was raring to burst out. Support came from members of his backing band who have their own solo careers: vocalists Tanika Charles and Clinton ‘Roachie’ Outten, and Afrobeats artist and multi-instrumentalist Silvastone. Emmanuel’s own set consisted mostly of songs from his latest album, the Key.

Emmanuel and band soundchecking
Emmanuel and band soundchecking

I’ve known Emmanuel for quite some time; over 10 years, now I think of it. I was one of the first journalists here to help relay the heartbreaking yet uplifting account of his escape from life as a child soldier to the world (that would be in 2003, if my memory serves me well). I was at Westminster with my notebook and camera when he and several other Sudanese people and their supporters staged a ‘die-in’ as a protest against the war in Sudan. We bumped into each other again the first time he played Greenbelt, and at an African music festival in Trafalgar Square. But all that was a long time ago, so it was good to catch up with him again.

Before Emmanuel took to the stage, he and I retreated to a nearby restaurant where I threw a few questions at him…

Interviewing Emmanuel
Interviewing Emmanuel

So much has happened in your life since we last met up. Give us a rundown, please…
Yes, a lot of things have happened. The We Want Peace movement is still going, where I go to schools and share my experiences. I believe that when you share your experiences and stories, it’s like putting on a spotlight in a dark place. When you put a light on in a dark place, evil will perform less.

I’m also still doing charity work with Gua Africa – the charity that I founded, helping families and individuals overcome the effects of war and poverty. I’ve just been in a film called the Good Lie with Reese Witherspoon. And I now have five albums out; the latest one is called the Key.

The Key isn’t just an album. What else is there to the concept?
It all came about when I met Paul Lindley in South Africa. Paul’s the founder of Ella’s Kitchen, a company that makes baby food here in the UK. We started talking about food – but from that I came to realise that Paul cared about children, as I do. And so he suggested an idea: Why couldn’t we make an album about children’s rights? And so we started brainstorming ideas.

Later on, these ideas gave birth to an enterprise. And that was when we formed The Key is E. It’s going to fund small business owners who have a direct impact on children’s lives. It’s going to focus mostly on Africa. The Key is E will be a platform to connect people who want to invest in Africa; connecting the diaspora to local people with ideas, or any other investors who want to go to Africa.

I’ve been doing tours where all the proceeds from the tickets at the door go to the enterprise. All the proceeds from the album go to it too. As for the album, we had lots of people involved. Nile Rodgers did a song called ‘My Power’. Nelly Furtado’s on two songs, and then we have two songs from the album featured on a film soundtrack.

 

 

emmanuellive2emmanuellive1You’ve also started your own record label. What acts have you signed so far?
The label’s called Gatwich Records and it’s based in Canada. In terms of artists, at the moment there’s just me and my sister Nyaruach. But we’re looking to sign others. What we’re going to try to do is focus more on management. It’s not easy to make money from CD sales, so we’re trying to bring 360 deals in.

How did you find the writing process when you did your autobiography War Child?
It was a difficult thing to come out and tell the story. One of the most difficult things is, when you tell the story, who’s going to believe you? And because there’s a political side to it, you could get attacked. People will accuse you of lying.

The main questions are: who’s going to believe you, why are you doing it, what’s going to happen and will it create change? Those four Ws all have to be answered first. After I’d answered them, I just took the risk and wrote the book. But yes – telling it personally was difficult.

What’s this new film you’re in, and how are you finding the acting experience now that you have two films under your belt?
The Good Lie is about the ‘lost boys’ of South Sudan who escaped, and how they survived. Some became child soldiers, and they finally made their way to the US. Reese Witherspoon’s in it, and I brought the musical and cultural aspect to it, together with other South Sudanese, we helped make it accurate. The writers did a fantastic job; the director was awesome. It’s an amazing project – and it was fantastic to have Reese Witherspoon humble herself and help put the message out.

The hardest acting experience for me was Africa United – the first film role I was ever given. It was hard because I was being told to act! But then, the role was that of a child soldier, so that made it easy. I was a soldier before, so I acted as if I was going to kill. Sometimes soldiers act when they’re threatening you.

One of your collaborators on this new album is Nile Rodgers. I’ve been a Chic fan for, like, forever; how did you get to link up with him?
When you’re walking your path and you keep on doing your work positively, you’ll meet a lot of positive people on the way. And that’s how I met Nile. I met him at a UN concert. From there, we kept in touch. He invited me to a We Are Family Foundation event; I supported him; he liked what I was doing – and so we ended up doing a song together.

Nile’s an amazing person. He’s like a mentor to many people. Whenever you meet Nile, he will always give you the support you need.

How are things in South Sudan at the moment?
Right now, South Sudan is in a difficult situation. I feel betrayed when I think about the situation, where the people we trusted – the people who fought for our freedom – pocketed our freedom. The war that’s happening in South Sudan now started as a disagreement between people in the same party. The president was questioned by some of the other party members, who said “we have corruption going on; we need to have accountability towards the people we’re leading and towards our party”. They said they needed to be transparent and put institutions in place that would protect all of us. Some of them also said they would like to be able to run for the presidency. That made the president angry – and he fired the entire cabinet.

When that happened, people started to speak out, and the president started putting them under house arrest. He broke the constitution and dissolved the electoral system. His biggest threat was his vice-president, so what he did was arm members of his own ethnic group within the city and made them the presidential guard. That was what led to the conflict. Later, he accused the cabinet that he’d fired of trying to stage a coup. His plan was to silence any opposition. When that failed, those who escaped discovered later that their families had been killed. A lot of young people got angry when this happened, and they thought it was a tribal war. Some of them attacked the government’s barracks; some carried out revenge attacks on people from the other tribes.

According to community research, about 20,000 Nuer people were killed in Juba. We’re talking innocent civilians here – women and children in their homes. My house was burnt down. Sixty people from my family got killed – including my brother and stepmother.

What saved the situation was the widow of Dr John Garang. She spoke on the radio and said, “Look – what happened in Juba is not good.” Her speech on the radio was what prevented the conflict from becoming a tribal one. I give her credit, because without her intervention, genocide could well have happened. A lot of innocent people would have died.

The situation is terrible. We have approximately two million displaced people; thousands killed… Our country spent a billion dollars on arms, while the UN is looking for 1.3 billion to fund the refugees that need food. But now I think both sides are beginning to come to their senses. I hope they find a peaceful solution, and that all those involved in these killings are held accountable.

“All we want here is peace…”

It’s now been a week since I returned home from a my first ever trip to Israel and Palestine, and my head is still trying to make sense of everything I saw, heard and felt while I was out there.

Two Saturdays ago, a disparate bunch of arty types (and one seriously cool reverend) got into a plane headed for Tel Aviv, on a trip organised by the Greenbelt festival and the Amos Trust charity. I was in Istanbul when I received the invitation to go on this trip; prior to this, I’d tactfully steered clear of the Israel/Palestine conflict issue. When you grow up in certain Evangelical circles, you pick up on the party line very quickly… and if it’s a line you’re uncomfortable with, you kinda learn to keep that discomfort to yourself (at least that’s one way of dealing with it, though not necessarily the right one).

One Bible scripture that’s always meant a lot to me is Galatians 3:28, in which Paul says, “There is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” It’s been a source of encouragement to me as a person of colour in a society where racism is prone to raise its ugly head every so often, with its assurance that (ideally, at least) church was one place where we could all be truly equal.

However, it’s always seemed that when it came to Israel – and, dare I say it, to Palestinian people – the Evangelical response seemed to owe more to George Orwell than to Paul: “You are all one in Christ, but some are more equal than others.” I never could accept that everything Israel’s government did was right, or that all Palestinians were inherently evil, as it was always kind of suggested to me. And I really hated the way that anyone who felt any different was immediately branded “anti-Semitic”. I still reject those labels: “pro-Israel”, “pro-Palestinian”, “liberal”, “conservative” and the like. It’s sad that Western Christianity – like much of our media – can only deal with issues Harry Hill style (“I like Israel and I like Palestine. But which one is better? There’s only one way to find out…”). At the end of the day, it’s not an either-or thing for me. None of the Palestinians I met when I was there wanted to “obliterate” Israel; they simply want a peaceful life, living like regular human beings. Walls, checkpoints, appalling (in some cases, nonexistent) amenities… nobody deserves to live like that. And for Christians to condone or actively support such injustice due to dodgy theology is absurd. If I am pro-anything with regards to Israel/Palestine, then it’s pro-reconciliation and pro-justice. I resent the patronising notion that my unwillingness to be blindly Zionist is because “You believe what you see on television” – especially now that I have seen the ‘separation wall’ with my own eyes…

Banksy was here...

So, wall aside, what else did I see and what did I make of it? Well, the trip was quite full-on (there was easily a month’s worth of activities packed into seven days). What I’m grateful for the most was being able to meet both Israelis and Palestinians who are committed to seeing peace and justice prevail in the region – many of them with incredible hope-filled stories. People such as Daoud Nassar, who runs the Tent of Nations in the West Bank; Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem; Marwan and his multicoloured pet birds (“My birds all believe in nonviolence”), and Iyad our guide who showed us round everywhere (except Jerusalem, which he can’t go to on account of his being Palestinian).

There was Munther, the Jerusalem bookshop owner from whom I bought a copy of Amos Oz’s How to Cure a Fanatic and Suad Amiry’s Sharon and My Mother-in-Law. Jeff, Itay and Ruth from ICAHD, with whom we shared about a ton of pizza in a tent in Beit Arabiya, on the site where a Palestinian family’s home had been demolished. Claire, whose gift shop/guest house struggles to make a living ever since the wall was put up right in front of it. Zoughbi, who runs Wi’am, the Palestinian Conflict Transformation Centre. And there’s no way I could forget the three members of Combatants for Peace – two Palestinians and an Israeli – who spent an afternoon with us in Beit Jala, telling us about their work, and the various reasons why they now embraced non-violence as a way forward.

One thing’s for sure: I’m never going to believe the ‘Palestinian suicide bomber’ stereotype ever again (not that I actually did). It’s impossible to label an entire race of people as anti-Western Muslim fanatics when you’ve sat with them in a pub called “Cheers”, having a pint, smoking water pipes and watching Milan play Barcelona. Or when a handful of Palestinian schoolgirls have tested your volleyball-playing skills to the limit. Or when you’ve spent an evening having dinner with a granny who’s about my mum’s age, and she’s told you about all the work she’s been doing with other women for years and years. These are all human beings with everyday needs and dreams, just like any Londoner.

At the end of it all, the comments that will stay with me are our Palestinian guide’s plea to the outside world (“We’re not asking you to hate Israel, or to love them any less. All we’re asking is that you show us a little love too.”) and the Israeli lady from Combatants for Peace (“At some stage, somehow, peace will come. And we need to be ready to live in it when it does.”). That and a bloke called George, who came up to me on a busy Jerusalem street while I was recording some background noise, and introduced himself to me: “All we want here is peace. Just peace.”

We can but hope…

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

My Name is Braima

“Party like it’s 1999.”

Hmm, sounds like a plan. Yeah, I know everybody says that, but trust me – I for one will be glad to see the back of this year. And this decade. In fact, the whole century can jump off a bridge. Like I had to in order to save my life. Only without the surviving bit at the end of it.

Sorry – didn’t see you there. Been a bit preoccupied with my own thoughts. A bit too much for a 16-year-old, I’m told. But then, being a war orphan kind of forces you to grow up faster than one would like to. And then something big comes along and hits you, and you realise that you’ve only partly grown up…

But I digress again. Where are my manners? Hello – my name is Braima. Braima Sesay. Braima William Sesay. Please don’t ask how I ended up with William for a middle name; it’s kinda embarrassing. Let’s just say it involves a future King of England and leave it at that, shall we? You can probably tell from my accent that I’m not originally from round here. Actually, I’m not even sure what my accent sounds like now. There’s a bit of London in there, because this is now my home. The odd palabra might slip in, because I’ve kind of been adopted by some friendly Colombians. Long story – but as no-one can afford to bail me out right now, I think I’ve got enough time on my hands in here to share it with you…

So let’s rewind back a year or two – and go back to a little village just outside Makeni. That’s in Sierra Leone. You know, where Ryan Giggs’ granddad came from. In Africa. You didn’t know that? Actually, half of Sierra Leone’s population supports Man U, and I’m sure not all of them know that either. Sorry, floating off point again. Me – two years into secondary school; loving English a lot but loving Chinese films even more. I regularly kekked – sorry, I’m in England now; I mean I regularly bunked off school to go and see them. It was just what you did. If you had to choose between simple equations and Jackie Chan, who would you go for? Seriously!

I got my love of Chinese films from my father, I think. Well, I guess I must have. We never talked about them at first, but when he found out I was a fan, that was it. We had something we could bond over. Which was good because he’s from the other half of Sierra Leone’s population (the half that supports Arsenal). My dad worked in a bank. I think he would have liked me to do that too, but I’ve always wanted to be an engineer. Maybe I still will. My dad loved his palm wine; he loved his friends; he loved my mum, and he loved the BBC World Service. And like me, he loved Chinese films. I discovered my dad shared my love of Chinese films the day my mum caught me going to one when I should have been in school. Of course, kekking – sorry, force of habit. Bunking off – is a gamble. And I lost big time the first time I did it. I had to choose the day my mum decided to do a mid-week food shop in the market just next to the cinema! Woman dragged me home by my left ear. I do miss her…

When she wasn’t using my left earlobe as a pulling handle, my mum was the best. I suppose she was still the best even when she was – I mean, I shouldn’t have allowed myself to get caught, should I have? Fatmata, her name was. Shorter than me. So much so, that her arm hurt her more than my ear hurt me that day she dragged me home from the cinema. It wasn’t so much me walking with my head down as her walking with her arm up. It goes without saying that the first words she said to me after letting go of my ear were “Wait until your father gets home.” And I did, expecting a fate worse than death. I felt like a cockroach as I stood in the middle of our parlour while mum recounted the afternoon’s proceedings to my dad. Then she left the two of us alone in the parlour and went off to attend to some other business. Me and Dad alone in the parlour. “Tense” doesn’t even begin to describe it…

But to my surprise, the expected beatdown never came. Instead, my dad sat me down and asked me, “So who’s your favourite Chinese film actor?” I would have pinched myself – but as I could still feel the extended ear pinch inflicted on me by my mum, I knew I couldn’t be dreaming. Dad and I talked for ages about the Chinese films we’d seen; he told me about the old-school masters from the films he saw when he was my age: Wang Yu, Carter Wong, Sonny Chiba… and the master of them all – Bruce Lee. That day, he promised that we would both watch all Bruce Lee’s films together. And then – more out of husbandly duty than anything else – he said, “and don’t do that again.”

I’m not sure how my mum would have reacted if she knew that he hadn’t beaten me as she’d hoped he would. But I’m not mad at her. I can’t be; she’s my mum. Was my mum. She was lovely. You haven’t eaten ‘casada leaf’ until you’ve eaten it cooked by my mum. And she always cooked it in a pot the size of a bathtub because of the open door policy she and my dad had going on. Anyone could come in and eat. And somehow there was always enough, and even though times were hard the pot was never empty.

When I meet God – if I do – he’s going to have to explain why the nastiest things always happen to the best people. With a diagram. Actually, on second thoughts, I’ve seen enough graphic nastiness to last a lifetime, so I’ll pass on the diagram. But I definitely do want to ask him what kind of loving deity allows one’s home country to be overrun by vicious rebels who ransack whole villages, make people choose how much of their limbs they want chopped off, and then force children to watch their parents being murdered and their mothers being raped – just before carting them off to be stuffed full of drugs and sent off to inflict the same sort of nastiness on other innocent people.

That’s my story – well, part of it. The ‘rebels’ stuck a load of us kids in the back of a Land Rover – me and some of my friends from school and boys who were my neighbours. I have no idea where they were planning to take us to, but by the time we got to Lunsar, I knew I had to escape. So I waited until the Land Rover got to this rickety old bridge. And when it was halfway over the bridge, I jumped.

What happened next is kind of a blur now. Well, actually it isn’t – but I’ve decided that I’m going to write a book about my life when I do get out of here, so I can’t give away all the juicy bits just yet! But to summarise, I lived on the goodwill of strangers as I trekked all the way out of sierra Leone to Guinea, where I ended up in a refugee camp. Then by some very good fortune – or so I thought at the time – I managed to make contact with an uncle of mine in London. I came over here and lived with him for a while – and that brought a whole heap of its own problems. Long story short, Uncle threw me out of his house. And then so did another uncle. And another one. And another one. And just when I’d run out of uncles with homes for me to be ejected from, I bump into this kind, friendly Colombian man and his son. Their family gave me a home and I started to get back on my feet. Found a job in a fast-food restaurant. Got some college applications in. Bought a Man U shirt from a stall in East Street Market. Discovered it wasn’t genuine. Also discovered that Millwall fans don’t like it when you walk down Ilderton Road wearing a Man U shirt, real or fake. Rescued by an angel. Then I caught my total toe-rag of a manager unawares in the middle of making a very troubling phone call. Next thing I know, I’m being accused of having my finger in the till and I’m given the sack. And then Toe Rag Manager winds up dead, and the Police think I killed him.

Of course I didn’t do it. I wasn’t even in the country when it happened – oops, I’ve already said too much. I could tell you where I was when the murder took place, but if I did that, I might as well just go ahead and phone the men in white coats myself, and give them all the measurements they’d need for my padded cell. Yes, it is that unbelievable. But it’s all true.

So I reckon I’ll be in here for a while, unless some miracle happens…

Africa Oyé!

Africa Oyé 2011
Sefton Park, Liverpool, 18-19 June

Liverpool’s African music festival has become a key event in my calendar. It’s a chance for me not only to hear great music and gather material for the Sounds of Africa show I produce, but also an opportunity to socialise and hang out with a few other World Music media types who’ve become friends of mine over the years we’ve all been attending the festival: people such as Geli Berg (a radio broadcaster and organiser of the Cultural Collage World Music festival in Manchester), and Maya Mitter of One Latin Culture. Sure enough, there were hugs all round when we caught up with each other.

Mariem Hassan

On Saturday afternoon I arrived at Sefton Park just as the first act of the day was being introduced. Mariem Hassan is incredible singer from the Western Sahara, accompanied by a pair of guitarists who played the blues with an unbelievable passion. Mariem was my first interviewee of the day, and set the pattern for how most of the rest of the day’s interviews would go; after agonising between her manager/interpreter (who’s German) and myself, I discovered that she spoke fluent Spanish and so I ended up interviewing her en Español. As Saturday progressed, language barriers proved to be more a source of amusement than a hindrance – especially when Maya, Geli and I did an interview en masse with the Ganbgé Brass Band.

the Ganbgé Brass Band in action

The band had a couple of members who spoke English, and at least one of us doing the interviewing spoke French. The ensuing interview was hilarious – but definitely gave you a sense of how the guys had become brothers purely by having played together for years and years. Questions and answers in English and French flew back and forth. The band talked to us about playing in the Shrine in Nigeria (they’re all big Fela fans, and covered his song ‘Shakara’ during their set). When Maya suggested to one band member that the easiest way for him to learn English would be for him to get an English girlfriend, the tent erupted with laughter.

Bonga

The legendary Angolan singer Bonga was also good fun. Again, we agonised over how to do the interview – and suddenly we discovered that one of the women on the Africa Oyé team was Brazilian and spoke perfect Portuguese! Problem solved! Maya and I were able to have a good chat with Bonga about what happens when the worlds of Angolan culture and politics clash – as they often do.

Amkoullel teaches some kids (and a few adults) how to rap at one of his workshops

Amkoullel (aka “the Fula Child”) is an upcoming young rapper from Mali, who uses traditional Malian instruments in his music. A very profound guy and a great interview. He did some workshops on the Saturday and performed on the Sunday.

This year’s Africa Oyé featured quite a few of the female singers (young and not-so-young) who are championing the cause of African women through song, and winning loads of friends and admirers with the

Kareyce Fotso

charm and humour with which they do it. The Cameroonian singer Kareyce Fotso was one such person. Embracing her acoustic guitar and playing a variety of percussion instruments, she charmed the crowd in no time. When Maya and I interviewed her afterwards, she told us the heartbreaking story of her elder sister’s forced marriage – one of the many issues she talks about in her songs.

Fatoumata Diawara: now she's on the ground...

Fatoumata Diawarafrom Mali was another one. I’d already seen her twice before – first as support for Staff Benda Bilili’s London gig, then at a showcase in an Islington pub called the Slaughtered Lamb (I kid you not!). On both those occasions, it had been just her with her guitar. This time she was with a band (and without the green tights that have kind of become her trademark),

... and now she's airborne! Watch her go!

and it was a whole different dynamic. She danced, she spun, she jumped… the energy coming off the stage could power a small city for a week. When I interviewed Fatoumata afterwards, she told me how Nick Gold (her producer – the man responsible for such World Music classics as the Buena Vista Social Club) had said he wanted the public to see all her different sides. Fatoumata (a former actress and one-time backing singer for Oumou Sangare) is another young African woman dealing with some of the heavy issues that affect African women, but doing so in a manner that invites people to join in with her.

It’s always a gamble recording interviews during Africa Oyé, as quiet locations for interviewing are very hard to come by. Listening to my recorded interviews later, I was glad to see that my “keep the record level low and the mike very close to the subject” strategy had worked – especially with Fatoumata’s interview, which we did whilst Marcia Griffiths‘ extremely loud band were on. We could hardly hear ourselves while we were doing the interview. But on the recording, Fatoumata came through crystal clear while the booming reggae basslines were distant enough not to be a problem. Yay for technology…

"Yo Liverpool, how you feeling?"

There was one point on Saturday afternoon when thought we were going to get washed out. But the very brief drizzle over Sefton Park was just nature messing with our heads (naughty nature!). The weather on Sunday held up even better than the previous day, give or take the odd occasion earlier on when the temperature dropped slightly and it got a bit windy. My first interview of the day was with Damily from Madagascar (with the help of a French interpreter), while the first act to perform was Steven Sogo from Burundi, with his band Hope Street. I interviewed Steve after his set, and he told me how some church musicians had taught him how to play guitar and bass. He’s only been making music a few years, but has already won an armful of awards from all over Africa.

Steven Sogo

The unscheduled interview of the day happened while I was watching (and occasionally photographing) the Ethiopian singer Zewditu Yohanes from the photographers’ pit in front of the mainstage. The set ended, and this lady who’d been standing next to me and simultaneously shooting the gig on a camera and a smartphone handed me a card as she walked past towards the backstage area. It read, “Princess Emmanuelle: the first Egyptian female rapper.” I wasn’t going to let anyone with such a claim to fame slip away, so I followed her and asked if she’d do a quick interview. Turns out she’d remembered my face from years ago, when she was on the performance poetry circuit and doing gigs with Soul artists such as the Escoffery Sisters. She was here as part of Zewditu’s team, and promised to help me get an interview with her if I was having any trouble. Funnily enough, so much stuff happened during the day, I ended up not being able to interview Zewditu – which was a shame, because she and her band and dancers put on an awesome show. But never mind…

The other act I didn’t see as much of as I should have was Khaira Arby from Mali. The little I did see of her set was amazing, though; another strong woman roaring on behalf of African women.

After interviewing him yesterday, this afternoon I got to see Amkoullel in action twice – performing on stage, and teaching a hip hop workshop. The audience at the workshop was made up mostly of young children who’d clearly taken to heart Amkoullel’s advice to rap about their lives and what was important to them; one little lad came up with the rhyme “Sometimes I wear a hoodie. But I’m not a baddie; I’m a goodie.”

Meeting the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars was definitely the high point of the second day for me. It was like a family reunion – even though we’d never met before! I interviewed two of the band members, Reuben Koroma and Ashade Pearce; between the three of us, we set all Sierra Leone’s problems to rights (as you do!); we discussed music, education, development and a million other issues, and I finally got some concrete answers to a question I’d been burning with since my trip to Freetown two months earlier: why had the All-Stars (easily the biggest band to come out of Sierra Leone in the last 10 or so years) not been a part of the 50th independence anniversary celebrations? (Let’s just say it wasn’t because they hadn’t wanted to take part). I missed their set because I had to catch a train back to London (the train I’m on right now, writing this). But phone numbers and email addresses have been exchanged, so I’ll be updated whenever the guys are in London.

"Me en mi fambul dem," Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars

And that was Africa Oyé 2011: a glorious two days of colour, vibrancy and brilliant artistry. Next year, the festival celebrates its 20th birthday. I can hardly wait…

In Conversation: Watcha Clan

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of hanging out with Sista K, Supreme Clem and Nassim – three members of the Marseille based ‘global fusion’ band Watcha Clan. Their fifth album, Radio Babel, comes out in April and it’s simply the most awesome take-everything-you-can-get-hold-of-and-shake-it-all-about concoction I’ve ever heard; a mix that includes dubstep, drum & bass, rai, and folk music from Europe and the Middle East, underpinned by a strong sense of social justice. The band were as much fun to talk to as their album was to listen to. But don’t just take my word for it; have a listen for yourself…

 

AFRICA OYE 2010

Man, this year has flown past. I can’t believe it’s been a whole 12 months since I made my now annual trip up to Liverpool for the Africa Oyé festival. But it has – and I’ve just enjoyed a brilliant day in the sun with a field full of friendly Liverpudlians and some awesome music acts.

Africa Oyé’s definition of what constitutes African culture and music remains as broad as it’s always been. Not that I’m complaining; the range is great, and it gets people in. Haiti featured quite heavily this year, represented by the folkloric stylings of Ti Coca, and Saturday’s headliners, the upfront Boukman Eksperyans.

I landed at Sefton Park just before 1pm. No sooner had I introduced myself at Event Control and picked up my press pass when I bumped into Maya, the friend I’d made at last year’s festival, together with her Irish radio DJ friend and his wife. Last year, he’d been unable to come, and Maya had borrowed my equipment to record interviews for him. Friendly hugs and handshakes all round, and then we headed out into the main area to see the stalls and see the first act on the bill.

The Cuban band To’Mezclao were the opening act. Unfortunately, their set was plagued with technical hitches; they barely made it through their first song when the power cut out. And again. And again (this time, during their second song). And yet again. Still, you have to commend them on their professionalism. The hitches didn’t faze them, and when the power problem was sorted for good, they delivered a fantastic set which spanned salsa, merengue, cumbia, reggaeton and more.

I saw a good chunk of To’ Mezclao’s set before retreating to the Hospitality tent with Maya and her friends, for an in-depth interview with the lead singer of Boukman Eksperyans. He talked about everything – Haiti’s history, the sore relationship between politicians and musicians there, rebuilding after the earthquake, all the things Irish mythology and Haitian tradition have in common, and his disgust at Monsanto’s “evil seeds” being planted in his country. I left the interview feeling somewhat educated, I don’t mind saying…

The Guinean band Les Espoirs de Coronthie were on next, and gave a dazzling display of kora playing, a nice fusion of bluesy guitar and ‘Cookie Monster’ style ragga vocals. Ti Coca and his group Wanga Nègès were mellow and easy-going. I particularly enjoyed their cover of ‘Bobine’ – a song I was introduced to by Ska Cubano (now that’s a band I’d love to see play here!). Halfway through their set, I nipped back into Hospitality and interviewed To’ Mezclao’s DJ, who talked about everything from younger Cubans’ approach to their musical heritage, through to what effect Barack Obama’s easing of restrictions on Cuba has had on the music coming from there. I kind of got the impression he wasn’t in any hurry to move to Miami…

After saying goodbye to Maya and her friends (who had to leave early to meet some other people), I caught some of Victor Démé’s gig. I was completely blown away by Victor’s guitarist. He looked rather unassuming when you first saw him… and then he’d pick up his white Stratocaster and suddenly turn into Slash Clapton. The moment Victor came offstage, I made a beeline for his tent and got a copy of his latest CD off his tour manager. After he’d rested a bit, we did a press conference-style interview together with some radio people from Manchester, and their French translator.

I’d first come across Victor’s music a couple of years ago, when he’d released his debut album at the age of 46 (or 47, depending on which magazines you read). I wanted to know if other late starters saw him as an inspiration for having started recording at that age (especially given that anything over 24 is considered ancient in pop star years).

“Yes!” was his short answer. “Young people do too,” he continued. “What a lot of them say to me is, ‘If you can do it at your age, then we can do it too.’ But one thing I do tell young people is not to be fooled into thinking that they have all the time in the world to do the stuff they want to do and achieve. Imagine that you’re already late, and act with that urgency.”

With the Victor interview done, I was free to enjoy some of Boukman Eksperyans’ storming set before heading back to my B&B with one of those legendary Liverpool-sized Chinese takeaways. Sadly, I couldn’t stay for the whole weekend due to work commitments (and trust me, that is not a complaint!). But I’m more than positive that Andrew Tosh (son of Peter), the Rasites, Carlou D (whom I’ll be seeing perform live on Tuesday) and les Freres Guissé will be every bit as entertaining as the line-up I did see were… and that To’ Mezclao will make it through their set without any hiccups.

Liverpool, see you in June ’11…

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.