“Never meet your heroes…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nile signs my copy of 'Le Freak'
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Boy, that was some expensive underwear…

(but it was in a good cause)

Last night I became the owner (note that I didn’t say “the proud owner”) of a piece of Hollywood memorabilia.

Some guys pay tens of thousands for a Batmobile, or for an Italian Job Mini Cooper. Others shell out equally ludicrous sums for the privilege of having Captain Kirk’s chair (or some other piece of furniture from the USS Enterprise) in their front room. Me – I paid a little over a hundred quid for… Borat’s ‘Mankini’ (signed by the man himself, I hasten to add).

No, I won’t be wearing it (and trust me, I have had loads of requests). And no, I didn’t particularly want it either. But rather than looking at this as a crazy impulse purchase, I prefer to see it as a donation to charity – which, actually, is what it was. I bought it at ‘Bidding for Hope’ – a charity auction in aid of the UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre.

The auction was organised by Dina Lazarus, a former workmate of mine. When I started at my current job, I was initially covering for Dina while she was off sick, having cancer treatment. When her sick leave ended, we both shared the job for a while. She decided she wanted to do something for the hospital where she’d had her treatment, and organised the auction with help from a few other people in the office.

Quite a few other showbizzy things went under the hammer at Foyles Gallery last night, including a day on the set of New Tricks, and Rod Stewart’s platinum disc for his Tonight I’m Yours album. For film buffs, there were a couple of autographed film posters: one of Black Swan (signed by Natalie Portman) and one of Never Let Me Go (signed by Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and the author of the book, Kazuo Ishiguro). For the more sporty bidders, there was a Nike tennis cap signed by John McEnroe, and a Tottenham shirt signed by the entire team. A £425 voucher for creative writing classes at the Faber Academy went for just under £300. If you’d rather be written about in a book than write one, you could have placed a bid to have the ‘chick lit’ author Freya North include you as a character in her next novel. I was tempted, but very quickly outbid – as opposed to when Lot #14 went under the hammer, and everybody mysteriously stopped bidding after the third bid…  (which is how I ended up with you-know-what)

But hey, it was for a good cause. And even as I write, Mr. Baron Cohen is in LA somewhere, autographing the lime green undergarment which will soon be on its way to me. Altogether the auction raised £11,750 – £8,200 in sales of the auctioned items, and the rest in donations. Another small financial victory in the ongoing battle to kick cancer’s butt. Now, that can hardly be a bad thing…

…and no, I will NOT be posting any pictures of me wearing it. I’ve already said that a million times since last night…

POSTSCRIPT

Saturday 29 June 2013, 4.22pm

On Monday morning, we received the sad news that Dina passed away on Sunday. A handful of us from work attended the funeral on Tuesday afternoon.

In the last few months of her life, Dina would occasionally pop into the office. Now if you look at the comments at the end of this blog post, you’ll see that an old friend of Dina’s came across this post by chance (nearly two years after I wrote it!) and asked me to help her get back in touch with her again, which I did. The last time I saw Dina alive was the last time she popped into the office. She told me how this lady was an old friend of hers, and thanked me for helping her get back in touch with her. And those were the last words she said to me.

Rest easy, Dina. I only knew you for a short time, but that was long enough to see that you were a really loving, caring person.

Review: “The Man Who Committed Thought”

You’d have to be seriously brave (or just mental) to try to set all Africa’s issues straight in two hours. But that’s basically what Patrice Naimbana sets out to do in the one man show which won him an Edinburgh Fringe First award (on tonight in London’s Cockpit Theatre, as part of the Pentecost Festival).

The Man Who Committed Thought is utterly compelling. Playing multiple characters (a poor man whose cow is stolen from him; the corrupt politician responsible for stealing the poor man’s cow and more; the rebel who seizes power and the honest but flawed lawyer referred to in the show’s title, to whom the poor man turns in his quest for justice), Patrice talks us through the troubled history of a fictional African nation called Lion Mountain.

Well, I say fictional. The handful of Sierra Leoneans in the Cockpit Theatre knew all too well whose stories were being told here. The rest of the audience weren’t left out, either; the beauty of Patrice’s series of monologues is the way he keeps it topical and fresh by absorbing so much of what’s current and relevant to wherever he might be performing. so tonight there are references to everything from Bin Laden to Britain’s Got Talent.

Underneath all that, there are bigger questions being asked. Naimbana challenges his audience to look at all the grey there is in issues of social justice. There is a tension at the heart of the show; between the righteous anger at the Europeans who brought “Gonorrhoea and Jesus” to Africa (to quote Fela Kuti) and a respectful acceptance of the message of good news to the poor and dispossessed that that Jesus preached. Patrice packs enough humour into the show to ensure that it never gets preachy or sounds like an “angry brother” having a rant.

After the show, Patrice spent another half hour answering questions from the audience, during which time he told us about his father – a lawyer who took on many poor people’s cases for no pay, and whose stories were the inspiration for the show’s lead character. That was every bit as engaging as the show itself, and continued in the bar afterwards.

Freetown: the Geezer Has Landed…

Outside Lungi Airport on a pleasant Sunday afternoon

Air France Flight AF774 landed at Lungi Airport sometime around five-ish on Sunday afternoon. The make-or-break moment of any trip to Sierra Leone – getting through the airport – turned out to be relatively painless. I’d spent half the flight mentally preparing myself to become the nasty hard-ass you have to be to survive the various leeches and hangers-on who’ve made getting through the airport such a nightmare on previous trips: “Do not make eye contact. Don’t accept any offers for help. Don’t smile.” I did it all so well, I ended up walking past the health inspectors and being called back to show them my vaccination certificate! In the end, I got out of the airport with only 8,000 Leones (about a quid) coming out of the “small ting” budget (for the uninitiated, “small ting” is the technical term for tips, bribes, or any other financial incentives you give to someone to leave you alone).

The Allied Marine ferry to Freetown was a pleasant experience; air conditioned, and with a complementary drink and music videos piped through two LCD TVs. A lot of local artists have recorded patriotic songs celebrating the big milestone. Most of these never really say much more than “Happy 50th birthday, Sierra Leone” (or words to that effect), but a few actually made some effort to talk a little about the country’s history, and appeal to Sierra Leoneans today to put the past behind them and work together to rebuild the country, memories of the 90s civil war still alive in many people’s minds.

After about 45 minutes’ sailing, we pulled into Government Wharf. I looked up and say my cuz Afia with a big smile on her face. Allied Marine’s ferry service brings you a lot closer to the centre of Freetown than the old ferry service used to, and Government Wharf is actually just a short walk from Mama Buckle’s house Liverpool Street, where Mum is and where I’ll be staying. But Afia wasn’t going to let me walk with big suitcase (I wasn’t that keen on walking the distance, either)

I was warmly greeted by Mama Buckle’s husband, and then after dropping off all my stuff, I sat down to a big plate of Jolloff rice, then spent the evening watching Who Wants to be Rich? (Ghana’s version of Millionaire) before retiring to bed.

Apparently Mum let slip that I was coming, so the sisters know I’m here. Curses…

Live review: Baaba Maal presents “In Praise of the Female Voice”

Baaba Maal presents “In Praise of the Female Voice”
Royal Festival Hall, 12 March

The last few Baaba Maal gigs I’ve seen were all collaborative efforts. There was the marathon Africa Express show up in Liverpool, where he rocked out with the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Hard Fi – and following that, a Meltdown show at the Royal festival Hall, at which he shared the stage with long-time collaborator Mansoor Seck and Brit rappers Kano and Bashy. Tonight’s gig was a similar joint effort; this time round Baaba played host to a string of female vocalists from Africa and the UK: Eska, Krystle Warren, Annie Flore Batchiellilys, Speech Debelle and VV Brown.

Baaba has been singing the praises of African women in an honorary feminist style for some time now (as he was the last time I spoke to him), and this gig was, in effect, him taking that further. Sure enough, the track ‘A Song for Women’ (from his last album, Television) had an airing – done as a beautiful duet with VV Brown. But I’m running ahead of myself…

Eska was the first lady to take the stage after Baaba and his band had got things started (actually, the first lady to take the stage was host Andrea Oliver, larger than life and rocking a ‘baldhead’ look as only she can). I’m one person for whom Eska can do no wrong, and she was on brilliant form – both as a vocalist and as a multi-instrumentalist. The first of Eska’s two songs was a reworking of Odyssey’s ‘Inside Out’ (of late, she’s been taking old 70s and 80s disco-pop tunes and reinterpreting them in a quirky jazz style). For her second song, ‘Rock of Ages’, Eska emerged from behind the keyboards and accompanied herself on a violin.

Annie Flore Batchielys was definitely the surprise act of the night – or at least the one with the most unusual entrance. Having been led onstage arm in arm by Baaba, she proceeded to back-track her way out of the band’s little circle, and stayed out of it for nearly all of the song she was supposed to be accompanying Baaba on. When she did start singing, however, she was electrifying. She did a couple of songs on her own while the band took a short break. I didn’t catch all of what she said while she was talking to us (Note to self: might be time to start listening to those French podcasts again), but everyone caught the profuse thanks to Baaba Maal in the closing lines of her last song.

For my money, Krystle Warren was the most intriguing of the other guests, but you kind of got the impression that she’d been added on to the bill at the last minute (especially when she didn’t appear in the grand finale). VV Brown was dignified and elegant while Speech tried to play up to the “rappers are rebellious” stereotype by declaring that she was going to take up more time than she’d been allocated for her set. But there was plenty of love in the house – as the founder of the South Bank’s Women of the World season (of which this gig was a part) discovered when she chatted to Andrea about the advances that have been made by women in the 100 years since the first International Women’s Day was observed. It was only at that point that I realised there was supposed to be a feminist angle to the whole event – but I’m sure I speak for all the blokes in the house when I say that it never felt exclusive or “girls only.”

I left the RFH nodding my head along to the opening track of Annie Nightingale‘s post-gig DJ set. As I stepped out of the venue, I wondered what Kwame Kwei Armah and Paul Gambaccini had to say about their feminist sides, and contemplated coming along on Sunday to hear them speak. In the end, I didn’t.


Famous Sierra Leoneans, #1: Idris Elba

Known to millions of telly viewers as Stringer Bell in the crime series The Wire, London boy Idris is one of the finest British actors in recent years to find success stateside.

Idrissa Akuna Elba was born in 1972 to a Ghanaian mother and a Sierra Leonean father. His journey from Hackney to Hollywood has seen him appear in Absolutely Fabulous, Family Affairs, Luther, The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the US version of The Office on telly, and a long string of films that includes 28 Weeks Later, American Gangster and Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla. Off screen, he’s also a pretty nifty DJ. spinning tunes under the nom de turntable DJ Big Driis.

Look out for Idris this summer, playing the role of Heimdal in the film version of Marvel Comics’ Thor.

Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then I’ll begin…

I’m not a big fan of ‘reality’ TV shows, but one of them has been keeping me entertained quite a lot over the last few weekends. Not the show itself, so much as all the banter that you get on the two main social networking sites when it’s on. In fact, it’s become something of a weekend ritual for me. The show starts; I fire up my laptop and read the barrage of sarky tweets and Facebook status updates that ensue as the show unfolds. Sometimes I don’t even have to have the telly on to enjoy the fun. I’ve been on a train from Sheffield to London with nothing but my laptop and a wifi connection, and still been thoroughly entertained.

Sadly, though, the fun only lasts until Sunday evening when we get the results of the previous night’s voting. That’s when (depending on how the results have gone) the tweets and status comments go from being light-hearted and fun to whiny and vitriolic.

I know that generally we all get upset when our favourite team loses. But for some unknown reason, the people who watch this show tend to take that disappointment to infinity and beyond. Suddenly it becomes a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the UK. Every now and then, some level-headed soul will try to restore some balance by reminding us that it is, after all, just a TV karaoke show and nothing to get too steamed up about. But that usually just seems to stir up more anger (why are the people who take ‘reality TV’ so seriously always so bloody angry? I thought it was supposed to be light entertainment?). Well, I don’t care anymore. It’s time to point out one simple fact the complainers have clearly forgotten.

So far this series, the highest audience figure this show has had is 12.6 million. That’s a lot of people. But here’s the thing: the population of the UK is 61.8 million. Big though it is, 12.6 million is just a fifth of the country’s population. And that’s just the number of people who watch the thing; the number that actually votes is even lower than that.

People, please bear that figure in mind before making any sweeping value judgements about the state of Britain based on however the results turn out. If the bottom two are black, it isn’t conclusive proof that the whole of Britain is racist (especially if Wagner gets through again, what with him being Brazilian and all). And if Wagner does get through again, please don’t whine about the British public having no taste (at least big them up for having a sense of humour). Remember: it’s (less than) one in five people.

Have a “glass half full” attitude. Instead of moaning about the (less than) one in five Brits who have bad taste in music, why not commend the four who have good taste in music (and who demonstrate that good taste in the most obvious way possible: by simply choosing NOT to watch this bloody programme)?

Oh, and of you’re going to moan generally about “this not really being a singing contest” or “the judges deliberately don’t choose the best singers” – change the record, please. You’ve been watching this show now for at least five years; surely by now you know how it works? Stop making exactly the same complaint every year. You’ve seen the pattern; you know they never deviate from the script; and yet you still choose to watch – so put up or shut up.

Now grab a beer and sit down, tune in and tweet; make those sarky comments on your Facebook statuses, and let’s all have a laugh. Mock the off-key singing, the dodgy hairstyles, the “drunk uncle at a wedding” dance moves and Louis (PLEASE, do mock Louis!). By all means root for your favourite… but keep it light-hearted. Don’t get too precious about the result – or the show itself. Definitely don’t see it in any way, shape or form as an indicator of how the whole country thinks.

Remember, it’s only a TV show.