My first premiere (and Happy New Year?)

It’s been a while, I know, since my last blog post. A whole three months, in fact. And I’m not even sure why I never got round to posting anything during the first quarter of 2010 – but the longer it got, the more I felt pressured to make my first blog post of the year a really good one. Pressure can do bad things to creativity (yeah, I know – sometimes it can do good things to it too). And then the first time I tried to write this particular post, Micro$oft Word decided that it would be really fun to kill it on my first save and leave no trace of its existence (I’m rewriting it with Open Office now, if you’re interested).

Anyway, I’m back now – and I’d like to use my first blog post of the year to congratulate an old friend on two major milestones.

I’ve known Shabazz Graham for over a decade. A friend introduced me to him years ago when he was a comic illustrator and I was just starting out in this writing game. The first time I realised that important people read the stuff I wrote was when I did a piece about Shabazz’s comics for the now defunct Christian Herald newspaper – and received a phone call from Radio 4, asking me to put them in touch with him (even before I’d seen the piece in print myself!). When he had a go at being a rapper, I wrote about his music for some music mag (can’t remember which; there’ve been a few in my career). And when he started to work on his dream of being a filmmaker, I wrote about that a couple of times too.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in BAFTA for the premiere of Malachi – Shabazz’s directorial debut. It was my first premiere (I’ve done loads of previews; that’s part of the job. Premieres – that’s the pretty people’s department). I absolutely loved the short film about a young Sickle Cell Anaemia sufferer who gets a bit more than he bargained for when he uses his camcorder to capture the good things in life.

Malachi was shot very close to where I live, so it felt familiar in a way films don’t normally do. The daughter of an old friend of mine has a small role in it. Luke Carradine’s score was excellent. And in the film says more about love and relationships in half an hour than your average telly soap does in years.

Master storyteller that Shabazz is, even his film premiere had an unexpected twist. We saw the film, the cast and crew came up onstage and talked about the experience, and then Shabazz called out a few people he wanted to thank and give small gifts to in appreciation for their work on the film. Last on the list was Oliveene Whittaker, who had taken photographs on set – and who also just happens to be Shabazz’s girlfriend. She went up to collect her gift and next thing we know, our man’s on one knee in front of her! Yes – he went there… and she said yes!

There’s not much more I can say, really. Shabazz, my boy, I wish you Palme d’Ors, Oscars, BAFTAs, and Golden Globes by the shedload. But above all, I wish you and Oliveene an extremely joy-filled marriage.

“#09 Memories”

About a week ago, “#09memories” was a ‘trending’ topic on Twitter. I’ve never really done the ‘recap of the year’ thing that much in the past (as much as I do like reading other people’s), but found myself spending the best part of an evening sharing my memories and reading those of others. It seemed a bit of a shame just to let one audience see them in short bursts, so I compiled them into a list to post here – expanding on a few where I felt the 140-character limit didn’t really let me say what I wanted to.

So in no particular order (well, maybe slightly chronological, but only just; actually more emotional than chronological), here are some of my standout memories – both great and not-so-great – from 2009:

• Meeting the adopted little sister I never knew I had for the first time.

• The whole Celebration fam going to Hereford and spending a day with Cynthia, barely three months before she passed away.

• Doing the last DJ slot in the Blue Nun wine bar at the Greenbelt festival.

• Going to MIDEM for the first time in 14 years, and discovering great music from Sonnyboy, Ndidi Onukwulu, Yom, Monica Giraldo & Charlie Winston. Also seeing Duke Special in concert, and celebrating Barack Obama’s inauguration with members of the American Association of Independent Music. MIDEM has a reputation for being all about the business and not so much about the music. But it is possible to find decent music there, if you look hard enough.

• Discovering London’s coolestest venue, the Shunt Lounge… only for it to close 10 months later.

• The Operation Christmas Child trip to Swaziland – and the delighted screams of the kids as they opened their shoeboxes.

• Arriving in Jo’burg airport en route to Swaziland; hearing ‘Viva la Vida’ on the PA system and thinking, “Coldplay? This can’t be Africa.”

• Giving career advice to the Swazi schoolgirl who told me she wanted to be a journalist when she grew up.

• The loud cheer that erupted in our minibus as we drove into Mbabne (the Swazi capital) and saw a branch of Nandos.

• My first lunch in India: Domino’s Pizza!

• Painting and decorating the community centre in a Delhi slum; logging on to the internet and wondering who this Susan Boyle woman was, and why so many of my Facebook friends had become fans of hers.

• Riding an elephant up to the Amber Palace in Jaipur.

• Visiting the Taj Mahal – and not really believing our tour guide’s story about how he’d told Danny Boyle off because “that scene in Slumdog Millionaire made Indian tour guides look bad.”

• Being mistaken for Ice Cube by some of the kids in the slum where we were working.

• A pimp in Nashville offering me girls an’ ting. That’s the last time I stay in a Motel 6!

• Driving a van in Atlanta with no satnav, and introducing my passenger (my 11-yr-old niece) to the world of Bill & Ted and their “be excellent to each other” philosophy.

• Lou at the Bridge Bar in Beckenham.

• Several trips to Paris, during which the Starbucks on Boulevard St Germain became my office away from home.

• Curling up in bed ready for a good night’s kip, then receiving a txt msg saying Michael Jackson had just died…

• … and then receiving another text from the same person two hours later, informing me that Farrah Fawcett had also died (at which point, I responded with “You’re really the herald of good tidings tonight, aren’t you?”).

• Being asked to talk about MJ on Radio 4…

• … then receiving another phone call from Radio 4 a few hours later (after I’d prepared what I was going to say), saying they’d found someone else to do it.

• Discovering a new way to watch TV: reading your friends’ sarky status updates and/or tweets about the show while it’s on. Sometimes you didn’t even need to watch the show in question; the running commentary told you everything you needed to know!

• Jedward, Kandy Rain, Mr. “I don’t know how to spell Daniel properly”, Afro Boy and La Gordita in Miss Frank.

• Cave Austin Girl.

• One of the deepest films ever (Downfall) being turned into a series of often sick “Hitler reacts to…” jokes on Youtube.

• Dizzee Rascal losing what little respect I had left for him with asinine comments about the preparations for the 2012 Olympics.

• The realisation that people actually read my blog!

• My big ‘fanboy’ moment: shaking Nile Rodgers’ hand at Chic’s gig at the Forum (I now use his plectrums to play my guitars – when I can be bothered, that is. I must do more of that – and more seriously – in 2010).

• Watching Baaba Maal, Kano & Bashy soundcheck from side stage at the Royal Festival Hall.

Daby, the 'vibe man'

• Africa Oyé in Liverpool. Meeting and working with Maya; ‘vibing’ with Daby Touré (pictured) and doing the most hilarious interview I’ve ever done (with an extremely well-dressed artist who will remain nameless).

• The last ever Delirious? gig – and meeting Mr. Tommy Sims at the after-party.

• “What would we do? Usually drink; usually dance; usually bubble.” (Yeah, I know; I discovered it in ’09).

• Seeing people’s nastier sides come out after certain celebrity deaths. Not nice at all.

• Vampires. Vampires everywhere.

• My first ever purchase of a Hed Kandi CD… oh, wait – that was in ’08. In a Zavvi shop, just before they all closed. My last ever purchase from a Woolworth’s, and my last ever visit to a Border’s bookshop.

• Shelley Ryan.

NEWSFLASH: God tells music award nominees, “Leave me out of it.”

HEAVEN, 6 December, 2009: With the Brits and Grammies just a couple of months away (and a handful of even more insignificant awards ceremonies due to follow), the music awards industry has been shaken to its core by an enormous snub from the Almighty himself.

Yesterday God took the unconventional move of calling a press conference to disassociate himself from every mediocre musician who has ever thanked him on receiving an award, and formally asked all present and future music award nominees not to mention him in their acceptance speeches, should they win.

“For decades, I have wondered why the myth that the devil has all the good music  persists,” God said. “I have now come to the realisation that constantly being associated with naff music the way I am at music awards ceremonies has done my brand image a great deal of harm.

“It’s not just the fact that terrible musicians blame me for their lack of imagination that hurts. There’s also the fact that members of the public validate this by voting for their music to win awards. I suppose they blame me for their lack of good taste too. As the Almighty, I simply cannot have that.

“Besides, as a God of truth and honesty, I cannot take credit that’s not due to me. We all know the real person most of these artists should be thanking is (AutoTune inventor) Andy Hildebrand.”

God added: “I don’t normally deliver personal messages. But Michael says that’s enough tributes, thank you very much.”

News of the divine diss sent shockwaves through the music community. Hip Hop artists in particular were uncharacteristically speechless. MC Kill Murder Dawg is expected to win several awards next year with his hit single ‘Bitch Slap’. “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve seen all my heroes at the Source Awards or the Grammies, or the MTV Awards, up there with their champagne and their hoes, thanking God for it all,” he said. “That’s all I ever wanted to do – and now I can’t! I’ve got to thank somebody! Maybe I’ll join the Scientologists and thank Xenu.”

The snub has created a big dilemma for the organisers of Gospel music awards, as God’s statement says “all music awards ceremonies” and he has refused to make any exceptions. “This is just going to kick up that old debate about whether old hymns are better than modern ones,” said a gospel music spokesperson.

However, there is one group of people for whom the snub from God is good news.

“For my industry, it’s a godsend – if you’ll excuse the pun,” said a representative of the Association of American Advertisers. “Those thank-you prayers used to take up a lot of time – which can now be freed up for us to fill with more adverts when the ceremonies are televised. Maybe I should be thanking God for that! Ker-ching!”

‘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)…

10 Reasons Why Urban is the New MOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A TYPICAL SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN THE OLD TV AD CHARACTERS’ RETIREMENT HOME

Captain Birdseye, the Green Cross man and the Scotch Videocassette skeleton pulled up a chair each at the large oak table in the middle of the common room. The Green Cross man sorted out the chips; the skeleton opened a pack of cards and began to shuffle them.

“Hey, Hartley – you in?” said the skeleton to the old man sitting at the opposite side of the table to his. JR Hartley looked up from his copy of the Sunday Telegraph.
“Sorry – not today, old chap,” he replied, sadly. “I’m a bit skint. But if you could loan me some cash to play with, I’d be delighted to join you.”
“Skint?” said the Green Cross man. “Have you been taken to the cleaners again? I keep telling you – stay away from the Bear Enclosure! Those two will bleed you dry if you let them!”

‘The Bear Enclosure’ was the residents’ nickname for the corner of the common room where the pool table stood. Long ago, that would have been the spot where you’d find the old boys gathered on afternoons like this; flexing their cues, enjoying a pint and friendly banter. That is, until the bears arrived at the home. Cresta and Hoffmeister were the biggest pool hustlers known to man. Before long, the pool table became their turf. It wasn’t that other people weren’t allowed there (in fact, as far as they were concerned, the more mugs, the merrier); it was just that playing pool with those two was the quickest guaranteed way to lose all your money. Everyone was convinced that they cheated, but so far nobody had been able to prove it. Needless to say, both bears were barred from the old boys’ Sunday poker games.

JR Hartley blushed slightly. “Okay, so I lost a couple of games to the bears,” he said. “It’s really no big deal.”
“A couple?” Captain Birdseye quipped. “More like a dozen!”
“What you guys don’t get,” said JR Hartley defensively, “Is that this is just part of my strategy. I’m playing a long game here. As any good fisherman will tell you, patience is as essential in pool as it is in fly-fishing. I’m just letting the bears think they’re outsmarting me. I lose a few more games, they grow over-confident and let their guard down – and that’s when…”
“…you lose your shirt to them?” Captain Birdseye interjected.
“I give up,” JR Hartley sighed. “It’s pointless explaining it to you.”
“Oh, don’t take life so seriously!” said the skeleton. “And anyway, we’re not playing for money today. We’re playing for Werther’s Originals.”
“Lemme guess – his grandson’s been visiting again, has he?” Captain Birdseye said, waving at the elderly man in the far corner of the room.
“Well, at least his offspring care about him,” the skeleton snorted. “Look at our French friend over there. Poor sod hasn’t seen his daughter since she dumped him here last year.”
“Ah yes, Nicole,” said Captain Birdseye, not even bothering to hide the lust in his voice. “She was fit. I so would!”
“Birdseye, you’re a perv,” said the Green Cross man. “I honestly don’t know what all those parents were thinking, leaving their kids unattended with you.”
“You can talk!” Captain Birdseye spat back. “What were your lot thinking? One minute, ‘Kids – don’t talk to strangers!’ Then the next minute, ‘Kids – let this strange man with green leggings on help you cross the road!’ Talk about your mixed messages!”
“Oi! Children! Break it up!” said the skeleton. “Let’s play some poker! Hartley – you speak the lingo; ask him to join us, will you? I hate seeing him on his own, so depressed.”
JR Hartley turned round. “PAPA!” he shouted across the room. “MON ARMY! VOO-LAY-VOO JEW-EY LE POKER?’
“Mais oui!
” Papa replied, and headed towards the table.

“You know,” the Green Cross man said as he gathered up the chips he’d just won, “we’ve got some really good players in this little group of ours. If we went on one of those poker leagues on telly, we’d do really well.”
“Oh no, not that again,” said Captain Birdseye. “You say this every time we play. Be honest: this isn’t about wanting to play poker on TV. You know we’re nowhere near that good. You just want to be back on telly again!”
“Well maybe I do. What’s so wrong about that?”
“Look, I know you miss it; we all do. But face it, those days are over!”
“But who says they’re over?” JR Hartley chipped in. “I think Greeny has a point. Oldies come back all the time.”
“Exactly!” the Green Cross man said, happy for the support. “All I’m saying is, it’s possible. Look at Vera Lynn. She’s in the charts again, and she’s what – 150?”
“Well, it might happen again for you lot,” said the skeleton, “but I’m stuffed. People still eat fish fingers; they’ll still need to find a plumber’s phone number every now and then – but NOBODY USES VIDEOCASSETTES ANYMORE! I used to tell people that they could re-record on their videocassettes for 25 up to years. Boy did we get that wrong! Now it’s all DVD this and Blu-Ray that! Blu-Ray my bony…”
“Calm down, calm down!” said Captain Birdseye, doing his best Michael Winner impression (which, in reality, sounded more like Jimmy Saville). “Don’t get your ribs in a twist! They could bring you back for something else, like they did with that monk-”
“Shhhh!” the Green Cross man whispered, jabbing him in the ribs. “Don’t say the M-word when they’re in the room!” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the table to the left of theirs, where the PG Tips chimps were having their afternoon tea.
“Oh. Still a sore point, is it?”
“Yeah.”
“Thing is,” said JR Hartley, “The new talent’s really not up to much. You’ve got that panda who can’t even pronounce ‘biscuits’ properly. He’s dodgy, that one. I swear he makes those two look like amateurs.” He motioned towards the Bear Enclosure. “And as for that bloody bulldog – do I want to grab him by the neck and strangle him until he’s dead? Oh, yes!”
“The meerkat’s good, though,” said the skeleton.
“Hear, hear,” Captain Birdseye nodded. “Class act, that meerkat. Simples.”

Over on the other table, the chimps were having a similar conversation.

“Those Cadbury’s people need a slap,” Dad said angrily. “Anyone can tell that’s just a human in a gorilla suit. I mean, come on – he’s playing a Phil Collins song! PHIL COLLINS!! No self-respecting primate likes Phil Collins!”
“Speak for yourself!” Mum replied. “He’s made some good tunes in his time. Besides, I love that gorilla; he’s a real hunk! Top totty! And anyway, his drumming’s much better than your piano playing!”
“Ha ha! Got you there, dad!” one of the younger chimps chimed in.
“Shut it, you cheeky monkey!” Dad retorted.

Afternoon turned to evening, and as darkness drew in outside, the nurse arrived to give the Smash robots their nightly dose of WD-40. All the old boys fancied the nurse. It wasn’t hard to see why; she was delicate, serene and stunningly beautiful. It was just the taser gun she always carried in case Tango Man tried something stupid that shattered the ‘perfect angel’ illusion.

“I swear I know her from somewhere,” Captain Birdseye said.
“You say that every day,” said the Green Cross man.
“I just can’t place her. But it’ll come to me.” Captain Birdseye paused and racked his brains.

“Eureka!” he half-shouted. “The penny’s dropped. I know where I remember her from!”
“Come on, then!” said JR Hartley. “Tell us!”
“Here – watch this,” said Captain Birdseye. “Hey – Nurse?”
The nurse turned. “What can I do for you, Captain?”
Captain Birdseye reached into his pocket and pulled out a yellow packet. “Oh, nothing,” he replied. “I just wondered if you’d fancy a Flake.”

© George Luke, 2009

Baaba Maal: the Man on the Telly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another blog about Michael Jackson…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

India: last week’s news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swaziland: Day 1

Well, it’s now close to two weeks since I flew off to Johannesburg en route to Swaziland, on a work trip covering the activities of Samaritan’s Purse/Operation Christmas Child in Africa.

Every year, thousands of schoolkids across the UK fill shoeboxes up with toys and various other bits and bobs. OCC distributes those shoeboxes to needy children in parts of Africa and Eastern Europe.  I was asked to go along with this team (made up of 12 people from over here who are usually involved in getting the shoeboxes together), and report on what happened as they saw the gifts being distributed in Swaziland.

I’ve now been through the photographs I took (all 724 of them), downloaded over six hours of interviews and actuality I recorded, and made some attempt at getting my thoughts together. I’m in the process of writing articles about the trip for a couple of magazines. Here, though, is the diary I kept on the road – starting the day we arrived…

Monday 16 Feb, 5pm-ish: Boy, I’s shattered. We landed in Jo’burg just after seven this morning, having endured a 10-hour plane ride in sardine class (Virgin, what the heck?). That was followed by a seven-hour bus ride… and we crossed the border sometime around 3pm-ish. Must. Have. Sleep…

Now for a brief diversion as George reviews his in-flight movies:

BURN AFTER READING: John Malkovich says the F-word repeatedly and Brad Pitt behaves like an ass. And just when you thought Batman & Robin was the low point of George Clooney’s acting career…

ROCKNROLLA: I’ve come to the conclusion that Guy Ritchie has only got one script. He just changes the valuable thing that goes missing and everybody wants to get their hands on. In Lock, Stock… it was dope; in Snatch it was a diamond; this time round, it’s a painting. I’m guessing it’s not ‘The Fallen Madonna With the Big Boobies’.

GET SMART:Loved the 60s sitcom and was hoping they hadn’t messed up on the film version. Can’t tell you how good a job they did, because I fell asleep shortly after it started and woke up just before the closing credits. But before I dozed off, I saw a scene that was exactly the same as a key event in Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. A very, very bad omen…

Anyway, back to what I’m meant to be telling you about…

We landed just after seven, and breezed through Immigration and Customs with all our baggage intact. Clement (one of our translators) was waiting in Arrivals, having stayed overnight in Jo’burg (the border closes at 7pm, so you have to stay in SA overnight if you’re going to meet someone that early in the morning).

From what little I saw of Johannesburg, it appears that South Africa has got a bit of a combined UK/USA thing going for it. We went into a Spar supermarket in Bethel (a ‘Superspar’, as it was called), which looked just like a Wal-Mart or some other American supermarket. The shopping precincts also reminded me of America – but they drive on the left hand side of the road, which is where the US similarities end. Seeing Tom Jones Street raised a few smiles on board our minibus – as did the ‘Beware of Hippos and Crocs’ sign that greeted us when we finally arrived at the Maguga Lodge, our home for the first part of our trip to Swaziland.

Our base for the first five days is the Hhohho region in the north of the country. The team will be visiting schools and a hospital in the town of Pigg’s Peak. We’re staying close to the Maguga Dam, one of this area’s main tourist spots. The dam looks really spectacular, like a water slide for mental extreme sports fans (you’d probably break your neck if you tried sliding down it though, I reckon).

The Maguga Lodge is beautiful – but then, from what little I’ve seen so far, so is Swaziland. We had some serious African rain for much of the bus ride. I mean serious African rain. The kind of warm downpour we used to have in my schooldays back in Freetown. Boy, that brings back memories…

Today’s mostly the chill-to-get-your-bodies-back-in-sync day. The team hits the ground running tomorrow with a big distribution at Pigg’s Peak. They’re expecting around a thousand kids – plus the Mayor and a couple of Swazi Government representatives. Also looking forward to chatting some more with Clement and the rest of our translators, Blessing, Tiny and Sosanda (I think that’s how she spells it). And of course there’s Bishop Zakes Nxumalo, our host here in Swaziland. He’s already given us a comprehensive intro to Swazi culture, of which the only thing I can remember right now is that when you offer to shake someone’s hand, you give them one hand supported by the other; kind of what The Todd in Scrubs would call an “assisted five!” And “yebo” means “yes”. Apparently that word crops up a lot in interactions with people here…

Anyway, it’s time for a rest. Big day ahead…

THE TEAM
Team Leader              Trevor Hammond
Assistant Team Leader        Roger Fenton
Team Pastor            Mike Wildsmith
Team Host            Bishop Zakes Nxumalo
Team Photographer        me

Rest of the team: Fiona Baxter, Andrea Clews, Margaret Griffin, Val Loach, Joan Pygott, Rob Stacey, Heather Young