Asha: Bringing hope to Delhi’s slum dwellers (Part 1)

In April last year, a group of ten of us spent a week in Zakhira, a slum area on the outskirts of Delhi.

Kiran Martin is a paediatrician by profession and founder of Asha, an Indian charity dedicated to improving the quality of life of Delhi’s slum dwellers. Asha has worked tirelessly on behalf of slum residents – primarily in the areas of healthcare, women’s rights, and children’s education. Zakhira is just one of the many slum areas the charity operates in.

2009 was quite an eventful year for Asha. For a start, it celebrated its 21st birthday. 200 young people from the slums it operates in started their first year in University – the first time in India’s history that slum residents have entered higher education in such large numbers. In September, Australia’s deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited Ekta Vihar, another of the slums Asha operates in.

Around the time of my visit (and in the midst of the credit crunch), India’s major banks started giving loans to slum dwellers after Asha campaigned on their behalf. Several slum dwellers have since been given loans to expand businesses they started with Asha’s help.

During our brief spell in Zakhira, we helped decorate the building Asha had turned into a community centre for the area. The only thing I didn’t get to do was interview Kiran properly (we never managed to get some free time together, busy woman that she is). I did get to do an in-depth interview with her later in the year, when she made a brief visit to London. We talked about the history of Asha, what motivates and inspires her, and shared a few success stories from the slums of Delhi.

Asha’s been going just over 20 years. How did it start?

Dr Kiran Martin (right) at a women's meeting in one of the slums Asha operates in

I qualified from the University of Delhi as a paediatrician, and in 1986 I completed my residency and had enough experience to launch out. I’d already been working in hospitals for a while.

You have slums in every big city in India. You see them all over the place. I come from a middle-income family, and I’d see them all over Delhi. But you take them in your stride; nobody from a middle-class family ever sets foot in one. I certainly hadn’t! But the hospital I worked in was a public hospital, and so there were poor patients coming in all the time. I suspected that they came from the slums.

I was driven by a very very strong spiritual desire to reach out to these communities and use my services and skills, my gifts and talents for people who really needed me. Most of my batch mates – 180 of them – were either in private practice or had left for the UK, the US or the Middle East to make lots of money. I wanted to see what it was like in the slums. In fact, I used to go and volunteer there while I was a student. My desire kept getting firmed up with the passage of time.

What were your early slum experiences like?

Well, it was a shock! First of all, it was so dirty, so filthy. It was unimaginable – as I said, I’d never been in one! There were mountains of garbage. You couldn’t even see beyond them. There was slush everywhere; the roads were so dirty – in fact, there were no roads, just muddy paths!

People had these shallow hand pumps that they’d dug – 40 or 50 feet into the ground – because there was no clean water. This particular slum had 7,000 people living in it. The water was brown and contaminated with sewage – in fact, there was a cholera epidemic. Children were getting cholera; people were getting all kinds of gastro-intestinal diseases and diarrhoea, and they were dying of dehydration. I used to have to jump the fence at the back, just because I couldn’t get access through the main entrance!

Back then, I didn’t know you had slum lords. These slum lords are self-styled leaders, because there’s no democratic institution in a slum; no organised community or a cohesive body that gets together to discuss development issues or solve poverty problems; there’s nothing. They are the only leaders there. They’re very, very powerful; they are basically linked with the powerful political parties. In fact, they are grassroots level politicians and it’s their job to protect their party’s interests; to ensure that during election time all the slum dwellers are herded to the polling booths to vote in favour of whatever party the slum lord represents.

The slum lords also exploit slum dwellers for every little thing. So the average slum person was thrilled that I was there. I had this tiny little space where I would see patients; it was all out in the open. I didn’t even have a building! I would see 200-300 patients. But the slum lords felt very threatened by my presence. I had no axe to grind; I didn’t want anything from the slum dwellers. I wasn’t a politician; I wasn’t there for votes; I was just there genuinely to help. And so people started forgetting about the slum lords and started coming to me instead. My being there was a direct threat to the slum lord’s popularity – to his existence, even. And so I faced a lot of opposition from them.

So now – have you won the slum lords over, or have they learnt to live with you?

I realised quite early on that unless you have them on your side, slum development is not going to be possible. If you just want to do something cosmetic, it’s different. If you want to have a little clinic and just be this good doctor who sits there very day and examines 100 or 200 patients and then go home at the end of the day, that’s a different story. But if you really want to tackle the systemic causes of poverty; if you wasn’t to tackle poverty by going to the roots of it; if you want to work with politicians and with Government; if you want to address areas such as women’s rights, or water and sanitation, or slum housing, or any other radical areas, you cannot do it without the slum lords’ cooperation. They’ll just throw you out! So it was really necessary for me to have good relationships with them. I realised that early on.

My philosophy has always been that I must never reject a person. This is what the Bible has taught me; this is what my faith has taught me. I can reject their deeds, but I cannot reject them. They’ve all been created in God’s image, and I believe that they’re a product of their past circumstances and their past life. And therefore, whatever they are today is because of that. And therefore I have always had the approach that even if I confront them or challenge them for something wrong that they’re doing, it must be in the context of a relationship that exists. Because if there’s no relationship, then their defences will go up. And then they’re never going to listen to you.

And so I thought, first things first. First thing is acceptance; they must realise that I’m not here to reject them or pass judgement on their actions. So I’d eat, drink, have tea with them, talk to them, sit down with them, befriend them… whenever meetings were held for the benefit of the community I would invite them over.

Gradually I began to win over many of these slum lords and we became good friends. They began to realise that I wasn’t really directly a threat to them, and I was willing to work alongside them. 21 years down the line I have many, many friends among the slum lords… and a lot of them have actually lost their power completely!

The reason for that is that the women have been empowered by my work. Just with the passage of time, I don’t think the slum lords realised what was happening. But the erosion of their powers has happened because of the empowerment of the women. The balance has tilted in the other direction. Nowadays, the slum lord is really no longer that much of a necessity because the people themselves are so empowered. He’s basically out of business!

How many slum areas in Delhi does Asha operate in?

We work in 50 slums. There are roughly 3.5 million slum dwellers in the city, and we work with about 350,000 – 10% of Delhi’s slum population. The slums we work in are scattered all over the city.

“India on my mind…”

I’ve been thinking about India a lot lately.

It started with an invite to the premiere of the new documentary India’s Forgotten Women, just a day before hopping on a plane to Singapore for a week. Then last Friday, I spent much of the evening in Secondo (a trendy bar/clothes shop situated under a railway arch in Clapham), at a fund raising event called Tamasha, organised by a couple of young women I go to church with.

Last year, ten of us spent two weeks in Delhi, with a project we support out there called Asha (the Hindi word for “hope”). Asha operates in 35 slum areas in Delhi, providing healthcare, educating children, helping people set up businesses, and a lot of work empowering women in various aspects of life – to the point that whereas in the old days, slum dwellers were completely at the mercy of slumlords, these days it’s the women who ‘run tings’ in the slums where Asha operates. Anj (one of the two ladies who organised the event) works in London as a teacher. She’s about to head off to India to work with the Asha project again – for a year this time.

The event itself was a lot of fun. I ate some extremely sticky Indian confectionery and saw a couple of very promising new singers perform live (with real bands; none of that karaoke business). I even bought a Levi’s denim jacket really cheap! All in all, a good night – and it started me thinking about a few things.

One of the reasons I started a blog was that I was getting fed up of having stories which I felt ought to be heard, but not being able to share them because they weren’t “what editors are looking for right now.” If your work involves dealing with a gatekeeper of some sort – an editor, an interview board, Simon Cowell – you can probably relate to that feeling of your destiny being in someone else’s hands. Not nice. Well, this blog was meant to be the place where those stories found an outlet, so it’s about time I used it for that a bit more.

As I’ve already mentioned, I went to India last year and spent some time with the Asha project. I’ve got an in-depth interview with the leader of the project, which I’ve hawked around various newspapers to no avail. The commissioning editor of one very big magazine was interested in the story; we swapped emails back and forth discussing the possibility of them running it… and then the emails stopped (I discovered a while later that the mag had gone bust).

Anyway, the point of all this is to announce a mini “India Season” of blog posts. I’ll be putting up part of that interview with Dr. Kiran Martin (founder of the Asha project) soon, followed by an interview with Michael Lawson, the director of India’s Forgotten Women. In the meantime, why not recap by having a look at my blog posts from last year’s India trip?

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…

On Movies, Hoodies, Slums & Messages – Knowotimean, Harry?

The other day, I went – somewhat reluctantly – to a film screening at the Albany theatre in Deptford.

The main feature was Michael Caine’s London-set vigilante thriller Harry Brown. The support act (sorry – music reviewer’s habit) was English, the debut of Tarun Thind, a young British Asian with no formal training in filmmaking. Both Tarun Thind and Gary Young (the screenwriter who wrote Harry Brown) took part in a Q&A session afterwards.

Gary Young describes Harry Brown as “a British Death Wish” and he isn’t far wrong. It’s extremely dark, depressing and very, very violent. Michael Caine turns in a flawless performance as the ailing ex-marine whose life revolves around visiting his terminally ill wife in hospital and having a pint and a game of chess with his old mate Len. The only characters you feel anything for are Harry and Len, whose brutal murder is the tipping point that turns Harry into the Equalizer of Elephant & Castle. The various hoodies, pimps, drug & arms dealers and low-lifes of some description are either so grotesque or so irredeemably evil, they might as well just have giant multicoloured neon signs saying “HATE ME” stuck on them.

As you can probably guess from what I’ve just said, Harry Brown wasn’t my cup of tea (hence my initial reluctance to go to the screening). On the other hand, I cannot recommend English highly enough. The last time I’ve seen such a non-patronising portrayal of deaf characters in a film was in Four Weddings & a Funeral. And that was some time ago…

I found the Q&A session quite insightful. I’ve spoken to a few filmmakers and writers in my time, and as I grow older, I find myself believing in hard-and-fast rules less and less. This Q&A session just reinforced that further. Gary’s viewpoint is that people don’t go to films to ‘learn’ stuff, and he seemingly has no time for any of that “a film must have a message” nonsense. He also didn’t seem to care much for issues such as whether a filmmaker has a responsibility in how they portray certain groups of people. In this regard, he was the polar opposite of Tarun Thind, who set out to make his film with the intention of countering the negative image of ‘hoodies’ so prevalent in the media today. While I can see both their points (and I’m not just saying that to sit on the fence), the difference in the characters in both films is enormous; Tarun’s ‘hoodies’ are a lot more human than Gary’s.

But Gary is right, up to a point. A writer works best when s/he writes what’s on his or her mind – not when trying to “write to order” or deliberately trying to shoehorn a moral into their work. “Write what’s on your heart” is the best advice you can give any writer. And I suppose it is possible to make a film and not have some sort of agenda beyond wanting to create something you find entertaining. I’ve seen some of the work done by filmmakers who claim that “all films have agendas” (especially some of the new breed of Christian filmmakers), and a lot of the films they make do end up being very preachy.

But when it comes to the issue of responsibility in how you portray people on film, there are personal reasons why I can’t see Harry Brown in such an objective manner as Gary suggests: The Heygate Estate where it was shot is literally five minutes’ walk from my home (in fact, I can remember walking through it while it was being prepped for shooting this very film, and wondering if it was 1Xtra shooting another of their “music for the sink hole estate massive” trailers). My brother and sister-in-law had their first home (and first child) there. A cousin of mine lived there for many years with her husband and baby daughter before eventually emigrating to the USA. It might be a dump, but Harry Brown made it look like the tenth circle of Hell (and trust me, if it really was that bad, I wouldn’t walk through it as casually as I do on a very regular basis). I know it’s fiction, yada yada yada – but I bet if someone shot a film somewhere in Newcastle that Gary had fond memories of growing up, and made it look that nasty, a small part of him would go “Hey – that’s out of order!”

The film opened in the US this week, and I’ve already read one review from there saying it was set in a “slum”. That reviewer really ought to see the ‘slum’ being built on the other side of the road…

‘Happy Thingymas’

Since I’m writing about a religious topic here, I think I ought to start with a confession.

I may be a God-botherer, but I’m also a pragmatist. If I’m miles away from home and it’s cold, wet and dark outside, I don’t care what’s written on the side of the first bus that comes along; I’m taking it. And that’s exactly what I did one Saturday night/Sunday morning last winter, after an awesome Dele Sosimi gig in east London: I (whisper it) rode home on one of those ‘atheist’ buses several Christian Facebook groups were urging me to boycott at the time.

The “there’s probably no God; now go and get plastered” (or whatever it said) bus ad campaign is now just a vague memory for most of us. But a follow-up to it has been launched to coincide with the festive season… and so it was that a few days ago, I found myself in Foyle’s bookshop in central London, for the launch of a book titled the Atheist’s Guide to Christmas.

Ariane Sherine (the journalist/comedy writer who devised the bus ad and edited the book) was host for the event, along with guests Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, David Baddiel and Derren Brown – four of the book’s 42 co-authors – who read the essays they’d contributed to it. Apart from acquiring a new spiritual dilemma for myself (will I go to hell because I think Ariane Sherine is hot? I’m sure me fancying her is what my team calls “being unequally yoked”), I found the evening simultaneously thought provoking, amusing, and in places deeply tragic.

The thing that stuck out most for me was how similar atheism is to the religions it is so opposed to. Guess what? Atheists argue over dogma and doctrine just like Catholics and Protestants, Sunnis and Ahmadis, or Orthodox and Reform Jews do. Boy, do they! During the Q&A session that followed the readings; in the lift; on the street walking to the Tube station… Even more interestingly, even in a roomful of people generally disposed to believing that faith is irrational, there were a fewwho were brave enough to admit that there were some mysteries cold, rational thinking could not sufficiently explain.

It’s been said that the ‘New Atheists’ (is that the same as ‘New Labour’ or “new Windows operating system”?) are every bit as intolerant in their atheism as religious fundies are in whatever religion they subscribe to. They certainly have an equal amount of smugness about it, that’s for sure. I mean, what’s the difference between David Baddiel’s blanket statement that people who profess a faith are “all wrong” and the ranty Imam who labels all non-Muslims “infidels”?

Derren Brown made a passionate argument for people to be kind to those around them – not just at Christmas, but all year round. The advantage atheists had over religious people, he said, is that religious people did good deeds because they expected a “reward from God” whereas atheists didn’t have any such carrots to motivate them, and so had purer motives for the acts of kindness they did. Sounded good at first – but then he had to go and spoil it by mentioning the “benefits of kindness”… and it was then that you realised that he was basically preaching Karma without the Buddhism. Derren, you say “benefits” and I say “rewards from God”. Tomayto, tomato…

Having said that, some of the contributions made me wonder whether religion (Christianity in my case) wasn’t partly to blame for people’s unbelief – and no, I’m not referring to that lame joke about Dawkins being the second biggest cause of atheism in Britain after Cliff Richard (and on the subject of lame jokes: Richard Dawkins, stick to science and leave comedy writing to the experts. That Jeeves & Wooster skit was terrible). I found myself feeling for Derren Brown when he said he’d been a Christian for many years, but had packed it in because he’d found himself unable to defend his faith intellectually as he had wanted to. The un-intellectual (sometimes anti-intellectual) streak I find in some Christian circles bothers me too, but I’ve stuck with it. I even found myself agreeing with something Richard Dawkins said: that Jesus taking the punishment for sins he hadn’t committed himself “just doesn’t add up.” It doesn’t – but then, forgiveness and love (and the things people do for them) have never “added up”.

On the other hand, I found AC Grayling’s claim that “once you’ve achieved a few major things in your life, you have less of a need for a God figure” seriously lacking. Four years ago, I met Dr Charles H Townes. For anyone who doesn’t know who he is, Charles Townes is a Nobel Prize-winning American scientist, credited with the discovery and development of the laser. In the 80s (at the height of that USA vs. Russia who-can-wee-the-highest contest we called the Cold War), he helped persuade then President Ronald Reagan not to flood the planet with strategic nuclear weapons, as he was being advised to. Those are pretty big achievements by anyone’s standards, yet Dr Townes had an active Christian faith – a faith he still holds on to now, well into his 90s. And let’s not forget Desmond Tutu, who’s still a bishop in spite of his Nobel Peace Prize and other accolades. Maybe “achievement” is just relative…

I received quite a few responses when I reviewed the launch for a Christian magazine. Many of them were positive (and that’s always good to have), but a lot of them simply parroted the usual cliché responses Christians come out with whenever stuff of this nature is discussed: “They would never say things like this about Mohammed”, “Why do they hate Christianity so much?” – you know, the usual…

Here’s the thing (at least, “the thing” as I see it). This martyr mentality isn’t doing Christianity any good, and statements like that only serve to prove that we’re a bit too self-absorbed and not really listening to what’s going on around us. The so-called ‘militant atheists’ aren’t singling Christianity out; they’re opposed to ALL religions. So yes, they do say ‘things like this’ about Mohammed. And about Vishnu. And G_d. And Shiva, The Force and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Enough with the whining already – and can we please have one Christmas without any complaints about shopping malls not having Christmas trees, or someone resurrecting that urban myth about some council somewhere trying to change the holiday’s name to ‘Winterval’? (It’s not true. I’ve checked). This whiny victim mentality does nobody any good; it just trivialises the very real persecution Christians face in places such as Sudan, Eritrea, Burma, North Korea and Turkmenistan.

Happy Christmas, whoever you believe in (or don’t)…

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…