Emmanuel Jal: Keeper of the Key

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

Emmanuel and band soundchecking
Emmanuel and band soundchecking

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

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

Interviewing Emmanuel
Interviewing Emmanuel

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Walking on Water (sort of)

It started with one of those dream gigs us writers get every now and then: go on an all expenses paid trip to a holiday resort in Turkey, and write an article about it when you get back. So I did (who wouldn’t?), and amongst the activities on offer at this resort were some free windsurfing lessons. It seemed like a good idea (despite my initial quibbles) and I picked up the basics quite quickly.

On the water in Bodrum last year.
On the water in Bodrum last year.

A whole year passed before I ventured out on the water again – this time on a ‘Start Windsurfing’ course at a watersports centre in Wales. I was a bit rubbish this time (I spent more time in the water than on it), but at the end of the weekend, I returned home battered and bruised – and, more importantly, in possession of my RYA Start Windsurfing certificate. I then found somewhere closer to home (Broxbourne in Essex), where I’ve been having practice sessions at the East London Windsurfing School. It’s now end of term, so to speak; I had my last practice session for this year yesterday and am looking forward to next spring when it all kicks off again.

So, in these past few months, what have I learned about windsurfing – and what has windsurfing taught me about life? A few things…

  1. I’m always going to feel a little bit “oo-er” about going out on the water. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
  2. Windsurfing is a team sport masquerading as a solitary one. Yes, it is just you on your board, sailing solo. But at every step of the way, you depend on others and are encouraged to work as part of a team (it’s much more fun sailing in a group anyway). The ‘Seven Common Senses’ insist that you tell someone when you’re going out sailing, and for how long. Even the wetsuit is designed in such a way that you need someone else’s help to put it on (although I did manage to put mine on by myself yesterday).
  3. Some handy tips apply as much in windsurfing as they do in other areas of life. Looking up helps as much in windsurfing as it does in public speaking. And as Martin the instructor always says, “the more you do it, the better you get”. My piano teacher says that too – as has every book on writing I’ve ever come across…

What else? Oh yeah – if you are going to take up such a sport in Britain, there will be times when you will have to do it in bad weather. Just accept that and move on. And speaking of the weather, there will be days when the wind will simply not play ball. So as well as your sailing kit, remember to pack a book or magazine (or some knitting, or whatever your other favourite means of passing the time is), just in case.

See you out on the water next spring, hopefully…

My all-time favourite interview

“So what’s the best interview you’ve ever done, then?”

Just about everyone who interviews people for a living gets asked this at some point, usually at dinner parties after you’ve just volunteered information about your job to whoever you’ve just been introduced to in the name of ‘small talk’. It sounds innocent on the surface – and I’m sure that the person asking it means no harm by it – but it can be quite a loaded question.

How do you measure “best”, exactly? The most famous person? The most powerful? Most infamous? Or just the interview you were happiest with when you did it (for technical reasons that mean nothing to the civilian questioning you)? And it’s always funny when you mention a name and get a blank look and a “never heard of him/her, mate” in return…

But I digress. I have been asked ‘that question’ (or some variant of it) enough times to pay for a holiday in Cuba if each questioning had been accompanied by a tenner (maybe I should charge?). The answer tends to surprise people, because most people know me for music journalism and the subject of my all-time favourite interview is not a musician. So who is this mystery person?

Well, since you ask – my most favourite interview out of all the hundreds that I’ve done is the one I did with (drum roll): Charles H Townes.

If you’ve just said “Charles who?” you’re not the first person to. No worries…

Charles Hard Townes
Charles Hard Townes

There are a ton of reasons why this is my favourite interview. Back in my school days, I was inclined more towards science subjects than the arty stuff I’m into now, and having the privilege of spending half an hour chatting to one of the modern world’s most eminent physicists kinda took me back to those days at some level. Then there was all the history. THIS MAN INVENTED THE LASER! How could meeting someone like that be considered anything less than ‘absolutely awesome’? And he played a part in making Threads and the Day After not come true. Again, what’s not to like? (I do realise that at this point, I’ve probably lost everyone under 25 who’s reading this. But those of us who lived through the 80s can remember how much effort the media put into putting the fear of God – or rather, of nuclear war – into us).

But above all, I liked this interview because it gave me a picture of how I want to be when I’m, er, older than I am now. Retirement is a concept that I’ve never really grasped. That could be because of the nature of what I do; I don’t get why I should hang up my pen or switch off my computer just because my 65th birthday’s here (and anyway, by the time the ConDems are through with us, the retirement age will be 80). When I met Charles, he was just a day or two away from turning 90, and yet he was as into science then as he was back in the 40s when he made the discovery that made him famous. I asked why he was still working and he replied, “I’ve never worked. I’ve just been having a good time!” The man was a living embodiment of why it pays to make a career/vocation out of the things you are most passionate about. And for that, he has my respect.

Charles celebrates his 99th birthday today. Initially, I’d planned on putting my interview with him online on his 100th birthday. But then I thought, why wait? And so, here it is: my all-time favourite interview. And happy birthday, Dr Townes…

Things I’ve learnt (or been reminded of) during my time in Barbados

So – Ive barely unpacked my bags, having arrived back home from my first ever trip to a Caribbean island. I’m halfway through writing a “seeing Bajanland on a budget”-type piece that will be up later. But for now, here’s a list of random things I either learnt or was reminded again of during my trip to sunny Barbados:

  • “In these harsh economic times.” How many times did I not hear that phrase during my time in Barbados? Thing is, the phrase “trouble in Paradise” is very much a reality for a lot of Bajan people. Kudos to them for their resilience in rising above it whilst acknowledging its existence – and for their humour in the face of it.
  • ‘Caribbean Time’ really is a thing. When you’re in the Caribbean, just go along with it. No point in making your time here a stressful one…
  • ‘I do not get lost’ is a worthy rule of life to live by. And there are ways of avoiding getting lost when in an strange land. Not being afraid to ask for help is a big one…
  • Don’t be afraid to try new things.
  • Free wifi is your friend (except, that is, if you’re an easily distracted writer with a deadline).
  • In many ways, Barbados is SO like Sierra Leone, it’s unbelievable.
  • Nothing is wasted.
  • The human body is a battery. And the sun is an ideal charger for it.
  • That ‘battery charger’ thing above also applies to the mind.
  • I can swim in just about any depth of water.
  • Perception is a funny thing.
  • Life – it really is an adventure.
  • Solar power and iPads don’t get on well together.
  • Age really ain’t nothing but a number. And sometimes your body and the years you’ve lived in it simply do not match.
  • Life is a gift. Enjoying it might not always be an option available to you, but making the most of it always is.
  • Anthony T. Barrow is an awesome poet.
  • It’s fun to explore.
  • People are great (when they’re not being complete poo-buckets, that is).
  • There are white people with Bajan accents. Don’t look so surprised…
And another thing: Everyone should see a Bajan sunset at least once in their lifetime.
And another thing: Everyone should see a Bajan sunset at least once in their lifetime.

 

Rules, resolutions and screwing up (aka “the blog post wot I’ve just wrote”)

There’s a poster stuck on the wardrobe in my bedroom; one of those ‘motivational’ things that do the rounds on TwitFace and other such places. I first came across it via our fundraising manager at work, who had it on the wall in front of her desk. It’s a list of 29 ways to stay creative.

29_ways_to_stay_creative_by_edhallNothing on the list is particularly new, but two things stuck out for me – so much so that they’ve formed the basis for the closest I’ll get to a New Year’s resolution for 2014. I say ‘resolution’; it’s not so much a resolution as a rule of life I intend to live by.

Along with tips such as “sing in the shower”, “dance” and “drink coffee” (no urging needed on that front!), the poster also urges you to “allow yourself to make mistakes” and to “quit beating yourself up”. It’s from these two that I’ve derived my rule of life for 2014. You could sum it up in three words: DEATH TO PERFECTIONISM.

We’re all our worst critics. As someone put it at a creative writing workshop I once attended, “We’ve all got that little demon sitting on our shoulders, telling us we’re crap”. Well, I’m done listening to mine. Done with expecting to get things right at my first attempt, and especially with getting frustrated and angry when I can’t pick something up. Of course I’m going to do my best and aim to do well at stuff, but no-one ever gets something completely right first time round (or second, or even third). Stressing yourself out over it helps nobody.

So, with that in mind, George Luke is hereby permitted:

  • to play as many bum notes as possible in piano class. In fact, invent a few new bum notes and play them too. Haruko and Sara won’t mind…
  • to be as ‘dos pies izquierdos’ as one can possibly get in salsa class. After all, as Etian says, “It’s just a move”. You will get that ‘setenta like an octopus’ right eventually…
  • and to get as many words wrong as possible when parleing Francais or hablando Espanol – or having a go at any other language I decide to learn (and anyway, no mistake I make could ever top “I had boobs for breakfast” or the infamous BSL ‘tent incident’).
  • As for writing – well, it goes without saying that it’s all about the rewriting, and that the first draft of anything is pants. So just get on with it.

typoDo feel free to adopt this as your New Year’s resolution, if need be. And remember – if at first you don’t succeed, breathe slowly and do it again.

Happy new year.

Film review: ‘the Quickener’

The time has comeBirmingham, Saturday 21 September, 8.10pm: My train home leaves in an hour, and I’ve decided to spend my last few minutes in our second city doing a brief review of the film I’ve just been to see in the Midlands Arts Centre. I find myself fired up, having spent an afternoon in a cinema full of very talented, slightly Bohemian people. They included Joel Wilson, director of the short film The Quickener (whose premiere is taking place here) and various members of the cast and crew.

Joel Wilson, the director
Joel Wilson, the director

The Quickener is one of those films that would leave people scratching their heads and muttering “Yeah… right” if you tried to explain it to them. It’s set in Medieval times, but the entire dialogue is done in a hip hop style. That’s right – Medieval hip hop. With a poor artisan couple on the run from a loan shark who speaks something akin to Parseltongue (for which he needs one of his heavies to act as his translator), corrupt officials, a power-hungry gangster and a friendly hermit, this is really an urban street movie with chain mail. And bubonic plague…

Osbert, a struggling artisan. Very good at sculpting scary statues. A bit broke.
Osbert, a struggling artisan. Very good at sculpting scary statues. A bit broke.

Joel got the idea for the film from another project he’d been

Tipharah, Osbert's missus. You don't want to mess with her when she has a sword in her hand...
Tipharah, Osbert’s missus. You don’t want to mess with her when she has a sword in her hand…

asked to work on. He’d written an epic poem about a gargoyle being decommissioned, so to speak, having lived on a church wall for about 600 years. Writing about the gargoyle’s last day on the wall, he wondered, What would its first day have been like? Cue a fantasy tale about a poor sculptor and his wife – who, having been commissioned to make the gargoyle, then being told on completion of the job (and a huge debt incurred in the process) their services were no longer required, and that they wouldn’t be getting paid for the job they’d done. It’s only half an hour long, but it’s a very fascinating half hour, full of passion, tension and quite a few dead bodies.

"Hiss, hiss, hiss" (translation: "We'll cut off your fingers")
“Hiss, hiss, hiss” (translation: “We’ll cut off your fingers”)

Life begins…

My home during Greenbelt. A man's got to camp in some style...
My home during Greenbelt. A man’s got to camp in some style…

This time last week, I was at Cheltenham Racecourse with a few thousand other folk, taking in (and contributing to) the 40th annual Greenbelt festival. The first one since 1995 or thereabouts that I haven’t attended as a member of the Press (although I was on reporter duty for Surefish and did do some festival coverage for them). This was my fourth year of being involved with Greenbelt as a volunteer, and I’m still learning a lot about the inner workings of this crazy festival I’ve been a devoted fan of since 1990 (as those who’ve seen the interview with me in this year’s festival programme will tell you).

In some ways, ‘#GB40’ (as it’s known on Twitter) was a smaller Greenbelt than usual. Cheltenham Racecourse is in the early stages of major renovation work and parts of it are yet to recover from the almighty flooding that made last year’s Greenbelt so ‘memorable’. As a result, the festival site was shrunk a bit. That, coupled with the fact that some of the regular traders had either gone out of business or stopped doing festivals, meant that a few regulars from previous years – Nuts Cafe, for example – weren’t around this year (it probably also explains why Higgledy Pies ran out of my favourite mash so quickly – but let’s not dwell on that).

Extra Curricular doing their 'thang' on Mainstage.
Extra Curricular doing their ‘thang’ on Mainstage.

But ‘smaller’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘of lesser quality’. And as far as the programme went, Greenbelt delivered goodies a-plenty. Both Extra Curricular and the London Community Gospel Choir were a joy to watch on Mainstage on Saturday (and as the DJ between the Mainstage bands that evening, I was privileged to see both gigs from side stage). Amadou & Miriam were great too – as were those mad folksters Folk On, the Austin Francis Connection (of whom, more later) and the ‘oldies’ who played each afternoon: the Fat Band, Fat & Frantic and Why? (I’m actually wearing my XL dark blue “Giggle, ‘cos it’s fun” T-shirt as I write this; a T-shirt that got completely soaked in cider on Sunday afternoon).

The LCGC 'bring it' on Mainstage, Saturday evening.
The LCGC ‘bring it’ on Mainstage, Saturday evening.

The line-up in the newly relocated Performance Cafe was just as great (not that I’m biased or anything) and included stellar sets from Eska, Eliza Carty, Jacob Lloyd, Daughters of Davis and a poetry showcase curated by Harry Baker.

As far as talks go, I found the short talks in GTV easier to get in to see than some of the others (I took one look at the queue for Vicky Beeching’s talk and knew I wasn’t getting in). I was able to see Sami Awad speak, and enjoyed a talk Catherine Fox gave offering an insight into the novelist’s craft – plus short talks from Andrew Howie, Sara Batts, Cieran O’Reilly, Steve Lawson, Vicky Walker, Jonty Langley and Jim Wallis.

I mentioned the AFC earlier. Their Sunday afternoon Mainstage gig was also their swansong, the band members having decided earlier in the year to disband. I interviewed founder and front man Edi Johnston for Surefish; you can hear an edited audio version of that interview – plus a few of their most popular songs – here.

The Austin Francis Connection: One Last Chat by George Luke on Mixcloud

My other jobs over the weekend included co-hosting a GTV talk show with Chine Mbubeagu, interviewing a few of the Israeli and Palestinian speakers at the festival. I also had another stint DJing at the silent disco in the Big Top on Monday night. I did record the set (mostly world music for the first two hours, plus some soul, some more Latin music, and a couple of what my rival DJ on the night described as “low blows”). The plan was to put that out on Mixcloud, but it appears that the audio file needs some work before I can do that.

Greenbelt, it was a pleasure celebrating your 40th. Life begins; let’s see what life has in store…

Tools of the DJ trade: my IDJ deck on the side of the Mainstage.
Tools of the DJ trade: my IDJ deck on the side of the Mainstage.
...and of course, one must always be prepared.
…and of course, one must always be prepared.