blog

Studio Summer

I write from the sweltering heat of my flat in North London. Strangely, it’s not dissimilar from the heat I just left behind in Fort Worth, Texas, but given that it’s a rare event here, we haven’t got the air-conditioning to make it bearable, so I’m sweating in my underwear as I type. I haven’t posted on this blog for a while now, so I thought I’d give everyone something of an update.

As many people know, I have just spent a month in Texas recording songs for my next album. The session was an absolute dream – Josh, Austin and Chris manned the dials while I brought the Sleeping Souls over and managed to get 13 cuts in the can. I’ve really pushed myself, musically, this time around. If Positive Songs was, in a way, a defiant restatement of principle, this is me wandering off the path and heading for the undergrowth. I have no idea how many among you will like every part of this record, but I think it’s important to state that I haven’t been thinking about that. As ever, artists have a duty to follow where their art leads (if that’s not too pretentious a statement), and right now my brain has been dragging me out of my own musical comfort zone. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure.

It’s too early to say if this constitutes the final album. The last month has been intense, and I need a moment to consider where I’m at. I have the luxury of being able to take my time, if needed, with this one. The songs aren’t mixed, let alone mastered, and there may be more work to do on them, or more songs to write. But from where I’m sitting now, sweaty and jet-lagged, it feels like a great start. I cannot wait for people to hear this stuff.

Now that session is done, it’s festival season! I’ll be around the UK and Europe plenty over the next few months, keep your eyes peeled, and see you in a field somewhere.

Click here to comment this news item

Wi Lek Wi Salone – Part 5

DAY 5: FROM A SLAVE CAMP TO A PALACE

Our last day in Freetown began with overcast skies. We breakfasted quickly, packed up our bags, and were picked up by Mash-P, who took us in a cab down to the beaches at the west end of the city. Aberdeen sits on the other side of the river estuary and has the feel of a place unto itself. We drove down better roads past bigger houses. In the distance we saw the flashy new Lagonda casino, a Radisson Blu hotel and a half-built Hilton. At least here, development was gathering pace.

IMG_6633
Jamie and Mash on the beach

The beach itself was crowded but gorgeous on a Sunday morning. In the 1970s, they chose this spot to film the adverts for Bounty chocolates – “A Taste Of Paradise”. The war and the fall of Freetown put a dent in the idyll for a time, but nowadays it’s regained most of its former glory. We paddled in the Atlantic waves. Coastlines usually make me think of arrivals, but here there’s the shadow of forced departures as well – many thousands of people were taken from here to the New World as slaves.

As we wandered, Dave started chatting with a young kid called Abu. He told us he was 12 years old, and that he’d lost most of his family in the recent ebola epidemic. I noticed that he was wearing a Dashboard Confessional shirt, and explained to him that this was a band, and that I knew Chris, the singer. I’m not sure he was entirely convinced I was telling the truth, but nevertheless he asked if I could take a photo of us for Chris. I happily obliged. Then Mash told him about Way Out and the work they do, gave him some contact information, and we wished him well.

IMG_6661
Me and Abu

Once we’d finished soaking up the rays, we went back to the hotel to grab our bags. In the brief moment of having some wifi, I posted the picture of Abu and me, as I’d said I would. I don’t really want to spend much time discussing this part, because, compared to everything else I’m trying to write about, it’s vanishingly insignificant. But, for the record… I deal with a constant low level of idiotic online abuse in my chosen career. It comes with the territory and I’ve learned to ignore it. It was with some dismay, however, that I found out that charity work in one of the poorest places in the world still attracts these people, and in fact seemed to inspire a new level of vitriol. I’m not immune to criticism or error, and I don’t want to be, but if you’re someone who spends their waking hours trolling this kind of stuff online, you need to have a long hard look at yourself and your choices in the fucking mirror.

Enough of that. We said goodbye to Jam Lodge and returned, for the last time, to the Way Out building. Over the previous few days I had promised to lend my musical talents, such as they are, to four different tracks, so there was a lot to get done. Jamie, Dave and Ben decided to leave me to it and head to a market to do pick up some souvenirs (which proved instructively difficult to do; even the affluent end of Freetown isn’t really tuned in to the idea of a tourist trade as yet).

My first recording engagement was with the Black Street Family. Seven out of eight of the crew had made it down to the studio, an impressive turnout, according to Hazel, and they were contentedly causing chaos in the control room. They’d asked me to write a chorus, and I’d agreed to work on something over a beat from Thomas, leaving them to rap on the verses. Trying to think what to write, as a middle class white guy from England, for a Sierra Leonean street gang, was creatively challenging, to say the least. But after chatting with them for a while over the last few days, I’d come up with the beginnings of an idea, taking the chorus of “Wi Lek Wi Salone”, shifting it to a minor key with a reggae feel, and adding some more words, on the theme of pride in your home, something the Family seemed to represent to me. I ran the chorus on a guitar with the assembled crew, and was relieved to be given an enthusiastic thumbs up. Thomas set to work on a beat, a fascinating process for me – his working method with Logic was really different to anything I’d seen before, and he was quickly cooking up mad afro-influenced hip-hop beats that took me a while to figure out.

In good time, we had my vocal parts for the chorus down, as well as a bassline and a couple of guitar parts. I handed over to the Black Street Family, who started working on the verses with furious industry straight away. I went outside to find Meeky. After singing one of his songs at Ferry Junction, we had decided to work on it and film a live version at Way Out. We ran through the song a few times on a bench in the sunshine, figuring out chords and the verses, and finally got a great version down (that you can see and listen to here). It’s a beautiful song.

IMG_6730
With Meeky

Shortly afterwards, I was sorting out some things in my bag in Hazel’s room when Josta came in and sat down. I hadn’t spent that much time talking to him before this point, but he seemed like a good guy. We started chatting, and pretty soon it became apparent that he had a lot to get off his chest. Before I really knew what I was doing, I was giving him a full-scale interview about his life and Sierra Leone in general. It’s not something I’ve really done before, so I’ll beg forgiveness for the amateur profile that follows.

Josta was born in the east of the country in 1982, making him pretty much the same age as me. As a child, he saw the RUF shoot his father as they kidnapped him on the highway between Bo and Kenema. They used him as a porter behind the lines but thankfully never made him fire a weapon. After 6 months he managed to escape into the bush, and made the perilous journey to Freetown to find a surviving aunt. The fact that he survived through endless makeshift paranoid checkpoints on the highway was, he told me, something of a miracle. He saw a lot of people die. He told me that, with my tattoos, I would have been shot out of hand.

He made it to Freetown after the massacre in 1999, which meant he was there for the second attack in 2000, which was successfully rebuffed by British troops (leading, in time, to the end of the war). After that, Josta found himself homeless; he stayed that way for 13 years, until Way Out helped him to find and rent a flat for himself, his partner Isatu, and their young daughter, Hazel. Conversationally, I mentioned my own partner, and told him she was smarter than me (which she is). Josta was fascinated by the comment, telling me that no man in his country would ever say such a thing about a woman. He seemed to enjoy the idea.

Josta told me that Sierra Leone was “very wicked, very cruel”. He had nothing but disdain for the politicians in power, calling them “prime suspects”. He spoke with sadness of the rich resources and human potential of his country, and wondered sadly at the continuing poverty and corruption, and indeed the deference to the White world. He said “the richest place in Africa is the graveyard”.

In April 2018 there will be an election. In 2007 there was a peaceful transfer of power from the SLPP to the APC, a first in the country’s history. This time around it looked like the SLPP were due to return to power, something Josta was hoping for. It’s not that he was overly optimistic about the easy promises made by the challengers; it’s just that “a drowning man can hold onto anything – even a machete”. He believes that if things do not change for the better soon, there is a real possibility of more fighting in the country.

I asked Josta about the future. I’d noticed, over the last few days, some adverts for a music and technical college called Lincoln Green in Freetown; I’d also seen how awkward some of the Way Out crew were in the Ballanta music school. He told me that, given the fact that it was an organisation for street kids, there was some stigma against Way Out graduates in the city. He said he’d recently been applying for a job but had ended up turning it down as it was a religious group which demanded strict adherence to their social and moral codes. Josta is a Christian himself but found the deal too restrictive. During the Ebola epidemic, he’d had one of his photographs on the cover of the Observer, but he was still finding it hard getting work. If he was the president, he’d focus on education and scholarships – what little opportunity there currently is, is dominated by nepotism and corruption. He repeated his observation to be that he was interested in success and fame more than money. He asked, only semi-casually, if I’d be interested in adopting his daughter, to give her a life in the west. I was unsure how to respond.

As a child, Josta had visited Guinea, but the border was porous in the area. Other than that he’d never left Sierra Leone. He said he’d jump at the chance to go anywhere in the world that would have him. However, he also added that he would always return; a lot of his countrymen don’t. At the last two Olympic games, the majority of the Sierra Leonean athletes absconded. Josta was sympathetic – he told me that visiting the west for him was like “taking someone from a slave camp to a palace – why would they go back?” In the end, he struck a pessimistic note, telling me he knew he was essentially “living in a dream world”.

IMG_6683
Josta

After our intense chat, I headed back to the studio to lay down some verses for Mash-P on two songs, “Am Running” and “After The Jungle”. Again, it was hard to find meaningful words to sing along with his intense choruses, but it was a privilege to have been asked, and I did my best.

IMG_6690
Mash-P tracking vocals

As the sun started to dip below the horizon, Hazel told us that the assembled company wanted to give us a farewell performance. A battered and blown old sound system was set up in the courtyard, and one by one the kids took turns at lip-syncing along with their songs, holding an unplugged microphone and giving it their all, as we sat on a bank of chairs. We felt a little like visiting dignitaries, but they threw themselves into the show with gusto, and we felt honoured.

IMG_6696
The show in the courtyard

Once the show was done, the time for leaving finally rolled around. Saying goodbye took a long time and was quite emotional for all of us. Black Street told me they’d “miss me in their hearts”. We loaded up our taxi and waved goodbye to the crew. We drove across the estuary to Aberdeen for a final meal on the beach with Hazel, Gibo and John. Over burgers and beers we chatted through the trip, what we’d achieved, and what more we could do in the future. Then the crew took us to the ferryport, and we set out for the long overnight journey home.

IMG_6732
Exhausted at the ferryport

At the airport I noticed that my trainers were completely fucked. The damage done to them wading through Canadian snow in February had been compounded in Gullyside with dirt and red dust. The thought casually crossed my mind that, when I got home, I’d nip into a shop and pick up some new ones – £40 or so, not a big deal for me. Of course, it then immediately hit me that none of the people I’d been spending my time with over the last few days could even dream of doing that, let alone getting on a plane and flying to London, to head back to my comfortable flat and watch Netflix with my girlfriend, eating take-out in front of the TV. Inequality was suddenly starkly manifest once again. There was a lot to think about.

I’ve been back from Sierra Leone for ten days or so now, but the memories are seared into my consciousness. I keep dreaming about the place and the people.

What to say about our trip? I was skeptical, or at least ignorant, about the value of a bunch of western musicians traipsing around the slums of one of the poorest places in the world. The factor I’d not considered was, of course, Hazel and Way Out. Now that the dust has, for me, settled a little, I can see the enormous value in what they do. One of the comments made to me often by the kids at the project was that they were the only aid group who treated them as individuals, who helped them self-realise. I’d seen the hope and the enthusiasm, as well as the fierce protectiveness, of the people we’d met. Since starting, more than 2,700 Sierra Leonean kids have passed through the program. It’s not a panacea, these people weren’t “saved” from the situation they were born into, but the project gives real, vital value to their lives.

On a personal level, the trip taught me a lot of humility. Not just the obvious stuff – seeing so clearly the privileges I enjoy, living in the developed world – but also the fact that my career, my songs, were not particularly relevant to the situation. My value in being there was in a supporting role to the charity, and in spreading the word through my social media and so on back home. Walking through the shantytowns was a heart-breaking and eye-opening experience. The instinctive reaction, on one level, was to immediately go home, sell everything I have and return with fistfuls of cash. I’m not naïve enough to believe that that would constitute a solution of any kind, but I also find it hard to locate completely watertight argument against doing that. I suppose the intermediate solution, for me, is to do as much as I can to continue supporting Way Out Arts.

More practically, since we left, Hazel has been keeping us updated on their progress. Mash-P had one of his new tracks on AiRadio, a first for him, which was also significant as he was breaking new personal ground, discussing his rebel past in public. Some kids from Moor Wharf and Ferry Junction have walked into the project (a long way) and become part of the program. We smashed our fundraising target for a new shipment of equipment, and are now working on more ideas for the kids out there. Dave came up with the idea of sending some school lockers, so that the street kids have somewhere safe to keep their possessions. Mash and Meeky are going to go to Ballanta to have some vocal lessons, and Way Out now have some involvement in the Freetown Festival. I posted up my song with Meeky, and I have plans for us to record and release a studio version at some point. And of course I’m planning to return – after all, I promised a lot of people I would.

IMG_4742
A message from BSF

You can donate to Way Out Arts directly here. Thanks for reading.

Click here to comment this news item

Wi Lek Wi Salone – Part 4

This is part 4 of my Sierra Leone diary. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here. You can donate to Way Out Arts here.

DAY 4: CHILDREN OF AFRICA, WE CAN SUFFER

Sleeping hard was becoming a feature of the trip. We woke up refreshed, went through our standard breakfast procedure with Patricia, and wandered back to Way Out to load up the convoy and get back to work. Hazel had us scheduled for two stops for this day, Saturday, in Ferry Junction and Kissy Town. Cooper, the American journalist, was due to meet us at the first stop.

We made our way through slightly easier traffic back to the east end of the city. Like most cities, the western end is more affluent. En route I noted more billboards, including one that loudly proclaimed “We should not put our children away because they survived EBOLA”. In the back of the pick-up, Josta explained to me that there was a stigma for surviving children, motivated by fears that were partly medical, partly superstitious. The conversation wandered to the name of the only main road in the city – Bai Bureh road. Bai Bureh was an 18th century Sierra Leonean chieftain, who had attacked and destroyed the first British settlement on the Freetown peninsula. Josta and Allusine, our ever-present cameraman, rejoiced in telling me that he had defeated my countrymen through his ability to appear and disappear at will. They were entirely serious. His face adorns the 1000 Leone note. A second billboard said “POPULATION CENSUS: be counted for better planning.”

IMG_6054
Bai Bureh

I had time, as we meandered through the city, to observe the streets around us a little more closely. The merchandise offered by the ubiquitous hawkers was astounding. In the space of 20 minutes I saw shoes, sunglasses, USB cables, suitcases, bags of water, bananas, plantains, toilet brushes, flannels, air-fresheners, shirts, scarves, Tesco value cornflakes and cat food on offer (though I had yet to see any cats). We drove down a street full of second hand domestic goods from the developed world – furniture, appliances, stereo systems (like the ones I used to ogle in the Argos catalogue as a kid). The selection of T-shirts, also presumably shipped from the west, was similarly bizarre. I saw shirts labelled with logos for Tim Hortons, tattoo conventions, a “Clinton 92” shirt and a tour T-shirt for Rush. It feels like Africa is where the detritus of our world ends up.

A Krio comedy skit came on the radio and our driver turned it up. The comedian had a wild, screeching voice that reminded me of Chris Rock. With some translation from Josta, I gathered that the skit involved a village soothsayer who could see the future and thus solve crimes; he’d been asked to investigate a suspected thief, but on entering his house, he found a photo of his own wife on the wall. Cue much hilarity. Josta showed me some music videos he’d made on his phone, and solemnly told me, “most people want money and fame. I just want fame.”

IMG_6251
Flyer for the Ferry Junction show

We arrived at Ferry Junction. It’s an area a little further out of town, a little more spaced out and less cramped, but still desperately dirty and poor. There’s a horrendous river running through the camp, again overflowing with black water, turds and garbage. On one of the trees we passed walking in, we saw a flyer for our performance, put up by “The Iron Team”, who we were soon to meet. After a little bit of faffing around where we were going to set up and play, we settled on a large open square. This time we brought the drum kit with us for Dave to play. The sun was beating down with more ferocity than usual, so the locals attempted to rig a blue tarpaulin over us, but it kept falling down and hitting us in the head, so eventually we just decided to suck it up and play.

IMG_6269
Dave on drums

We had something of a routine for the shows together now, so we were more confident. We ran through our setlist, let the kids strum the guitars, took photos and did fist-bumping. After a while some of the locals came up and asked if they could sing their own songs. I got them to sing the melody to me, and did my best to work out the implied chords and rhythm. Some attempts went better than others, but it was fun. Meeky, one of the Way Out members, sang a song of his called “I Must Lose With You” that was sweet and catchy. A local guy started singing a song with the refrain “Children of Africa, We Can Suffer”.

After we had finished playing, we were introduced to The Iron Team. This was a local group of men who spent their days digging in the foul river. They dig for scrap and salvage, and in the run-up to the rainy season (which starts in April), they also dug gravel from the riverbed, to help ease the flow and to provide material to raise up the shacks in the area to stop them from flooding. Having explained their trade, they immediately, to my shock, leapt down from the bank into the vile water, grabbed shovels and began filling sacks with gravel. That was one of the single most intense and upsetting sights I’ve ever seen in my life, but the Team members had some pride in the work they did for their community. I was completely at a loss as to what to say to them, but I thanked them for showing me their way of life. They replied that Way Out did a lot for them, and thanked me for trying to help them. It was a strange moment.

IMG_6304
Iron Team members digging gravel

During the show and afterwards, I had picked up a small new companion. Amatu was a cute 10-year old local girl who had attached herself to me, trying to hold my hand as I walked and asking me questions about myself. Shortly after she started saying “please don’t go”, and later “if you go, I will come with you”. It was equal parts cute and heart-breaking. There was nothing I could promise or offer, other than that we would come back when we could. Before I left she asked me to take a photo with her, which I did.

Time had soon run short, so we said our goodbyes and headed back to the convoy on the street. I had a bag of water in my hand that I had finished, and was looking around for somewhere to throw away the wrapper. I asked Amatu where the trash was (“dirty box”, in Krio), and she looked at me like I was an idiot, and indicated that I should just throw it on the ground. But the whole place was already so ruined, so forlorn, that the very idea filled me with guilt. I didn’t want to contribute to the destitution around me if I could possibly avoid it. I put it in my pocket.

IMG_6318
With Amatu

A short drive took us to a roadside diner for lunch – gigantic portions of fried chicken with chips. As we ate we started discussing with Hazel the possibility of keeping to our promises of returning. Jamie, Ben, Dave and I had already caught the Sierra Leone bug, and were fired up with ideas of other things we could do to help, refined by actual on-the-ground experience of the country and of what Way Out are doing.

Somewhat restored by sustenance, we got back onto the road heading east for Kissy Town; Mash P had gone on ahead of us on a bike to reassure the people there that we were actually coming. Apparently they couldn’t really believe that we would. Kissy Town is at the eastern edge of the peninsula containing the capital, so it serves as a gateway to the rest of the country, on the outskirts of a suburb called Waterloo. It started life as an airstrip during the war, but by the time the fighting finished it had been converted into a massive refugee camp. The NGOs stayed for a few years but by now had long since left. The population was replenished regularly by people leaving the provinces for the city (or fleeing the ebola outbreak in 2014). Today there are 23,000 people living on the asphalt.

The drive out to Kissy Town took us about an hour and a half (though it’s only about 20 kilometres). This main eastbound road is where the RUF arrived in Freetown in 1999, in “Operation No Living Thing”, leading to one of the worst urban massacres of the 20th Century. I couldn’t help but picture the scenes of horror and mayhem that had taken place exactly where we were. The road felt haunted.

We were soon diverted by roadworks off the comparatively decent highway onto rugged, pot-holed roads of red earth that climbed above the plain, giving us panoramic views of the bush jungle, stretching down to the coast in the distance. The driver said “This, this is Africa.” The city sputtered into suburbs of townships interspersed with better-built houses surrounded by automobile graveyards, broken down fossils of trucks and cars dissolving slowly into the ground. After a while we returned, through a dust-storm and the smoke of trash fires, to the tarmac. Here the road was clean, flat and well-surfaced. We passed a large walled compound – a hospital – and road gangs with Chinese foremen. The Chinese are investing a lot of money here, as across Africa, building infrastructure in order to get their hands on the natural resources upcountry – diamonds and iron ore. Sitting next to me, Josta told me that they didn’t trust the oriental newcomers, seeing them as exploiters of the country, even if they are the only people building anything coherent at the moment. He said he thought they’d soon be gone.

As we drove, Josta tapped out a strange rhythm on the seat in front of him and sang a song I didn’t understand. He explained that it was a song from his tribe, the Mende. The two main tribes in Sierra Leone are the Mende, from the south and east, and the Temne, from the north. I was intrigued, as other locals I’d asked had refused to say which tribe they belonged to – John had told me it was an archaic form of identity that he didn’t want to endorse or encourage. The division is tangentially related to the sides of the civil war and the two main political parties, the APC and the SLPP, so that seemed understandable.

IMG_6480
The runway at Kissy Town

Finally, after driving through Hastings (which Jamie loved, being a Hastings local, back home) and Waterloo, we turned off the road onto the old airstrip that is Kissy Town. Along the sides of the strip were lines of shacks as far as the eye could see. The open space of the runway was oppressively, mercilessly hot in the mid-afternoon sun. We pulled up next to a kind of bus shelter at one side, surrounded by people, and were told this was where we were to play our show. We disembarked and started topping up our sunscreen, which the locals found hilarious, telling us we were quite white enough already.

IMG_6351
Dave with suncream

The show proceeded much like the others, gangs of excited kids strumming the guitar in between songs. Dave sat a procession of slightly older guys down behind the kit to give them a go at playing along with “Wi Lek We Salone”, with varying degrees of success. My tattoos seemed to be a particular source of curiosity and delight, especially as I sweated through my white T-shirt in the heat, showing off more designs. In the end I just lifted my shirt and showed them, and the kids piled in to rub the designs and check they weren’t fake stamps. Even more so than in the other places we visited, there was a real sense that no one ever really visits these people. The camp elder took me aside and said as much, and begged us to come back when we could. I told him we would.

IMG_6392

IMG_6625

We had to curtail the set a little as the heat was so extreme. After fond farewells, and me spraying some bags of water over myself and the children, we loaded up once more to return to Freetown. On the trip back, the driver put on Capital Radio, one of the main stations on the peninsula. It was noticeably more Westernised. They had Premier League football scores read out in a clipped British accent, and adverts for fancy restaurants and hotels (and, bizarrely, tinned sardines). The music played was from the UK Top 40, and I found it pretty depressing – a slew of bland melodies topped with embarrassingly thin metaphors for sex (“Jawbreaker”, really?). I wondered about the impression the Way Out kids had of New York and London, or at least the culture scene there.

We took a slightly different route into the city, up over the hills. It was beautiful and obviously affluent; at one point we drove past a huge walled mansion surrounded by armed guards, which is apparently where the president lives, literally at the top of Freetown. Over the crest, we finally looked out onto the western end of the city, to Aberdeen and Lumley, the beaches hemming the Atlantic, where ex-pats and the wealthy hang out. We got back to the hotel in good time and the four of us decided to venture out to a restaurant for dinner – Tessa’s – which was west of where we were staying. Our fellow diners were Sierra Leoneans, but they were not like the people we’d been spending our days with. They were well-dressed, comfortable, urbane, clearly middle class. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the drive, the view and our dinner reminded me that we were spending our time with only one section of society, the people at the very bottom.

A few beers had us all in the mood for sleep. It was sad to think this was our last night in the city, and that tomorrow would be our last day. It already felt like we’d been in Sierra Leone for a long time, and that there was still so much more for us to see and do.

Click here to comment this news item

Wi Lek Wi Salone – Part 3

This is part 3 of my Sierra Leone diary. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here. You can donate to Way Out Arts here.

DAY 3: WHITE MAN IN BLACK MAN’S HOME

We all slept hard. I got a solid 10 hours, interlaced with dreams made mad by Malarone, the malaria medication I’d been prescribed before coming. Patricia provided the pancakes on the veranda, and by 8.30am we were in a couple of taxis heading up the hill towards AiRadio.

As in many tropical cities, the drive to higher ground brought cooler, cleaner air and bigger houses. The radio station was at the summit, behind St Paul’s Parish Church – one of the oldest in Freetown, built in solid stone in 1816, and benefitting from stunning view across the coast to the north. The sun was already starting its daily onslaught, but the radio offices were an air-conditioned sanctuary. We were led into the broadcast studio, past a large sign saying “Silence please – brains at work!”. Jamie, Gibo and I spent an easy 45 minutes chatting about the charity and their work, and my impressions so far of the country. I played a song, signed the wall, took some photos, and we were on our way. As I was leaving I met the manager of the station, a heavy-set and serious man. He asked where we were headed next, and when I told him Susan’s Bay, his eyes hardened. “You will see some serious things there,” he muttered.

IMG_6041
Hanging at AiRadio

With his slight warning rattling round the back of my brain, we returned to Way Out to pick up more equipment and people. There was some confusion over who and what exactly were coming on the day-trip, but Hazel reminded me of her advice – “Go with the flow”. We eventually set off in a battered taxi and a hefty pick-up truck. Almost immediately we made a stop at the roadside to pay off the ghost drivers. Essentially, the people we were hiring the pick-up from were planning on paying 3 or 4 non-existent extra drivers for the day. It’s a form of corruption, I suppose, but it’s also the way people survive out here, so we paid up and I did my best not to judge. Ben noticed, as we were waiting, some signs on buildings saying “This house is NOT for sale!” Apparently, due to the total lack of any kind of paperwork culture, if someone goes away for a while, chancers will swing by and sell the house to someone else, leading to much chaos when the real owner returns. It made me feel better about being on the electoral roll back home.

We set out at a crawl through the Freetown Friday morning traffic, past colourful taxi’s, plastered with alternating Christian and Muslim slogans – “Allah is great!” next to (rather graphically) “I am covered in the blood of Jesus!”. Sierra Leone is a religiously mixed country but, unlike most places in the world, they’re very easy going about it. On our trip I noticed that the Muslims here tend to build mosques, while the Christians hold mass rallies, with wild names like “The Holy Ghost Invasion Crusade!”. I got the impression that the people had spent so much blood and toil fighting over everything else that they’d collectively agreed to leave religion alone. It was refreshing.
Our drive took us past the Cotton Tree. This massive tree was planted by the original 18th Century settlers, and the centre of the city is still laid out around it. Its cavernous branches were heavy with sleeping bats, and the base of the trunk was ensconced with billboards showing the powerful, glowering face of president Ernest Bai Koroma, sternly demanding “Stop violence against women and girls! Avoid prison!”

A short while later, we stopped the car at a crossroads in the middle of a busy market. We got out and gathered round Hazel, who warned us to stay close and keep an eye on anything in our pockets. She also introduced us to Amara, her adopted son. Hazel met Amara in Kenema, a city in eastern Sierra Leone, when she made a documentary about him. Back then he was a street gang leader, and former child soldier, known as YumYum (which translates as “bad man”). H’e a physically intimidating guy, compact rippling muscles, tied-back dreadlocks and an unsmiling, inscrutable stare. But he was also, as told by Mamma, our security for the day, always making sure we were safe. We set out into the maze of the market on foot.

The market was a hive of activity, cramped passages through endless stalls overflowing with food and household goods laid out on tables under corrugated covers between cinderblock walls. I wasn’t entirely sure where the path was leading us, so I asked Hazel what the plan was. She replied, “Did you just use the ‘P’ word?” The locals were surprised, amused and wary of us in equal measure, but mostly reverted to cheerily trying to sell us fruit, fish heads and clothes pegs. As time went by and our route wound confusingly ever further from the main road, I started to realise quite how off the map we were.

After a while we came to a huge descending flight of concrete steps leading down to a crumbling concrete dock by the water, on the other side of which was a large area of distinctly shabbier shacks. This was Susan’s Bay. As we reached the bottom of the steps – Dave hobbling down with some difficulty on his crutch – we were greeted by an ad hoc committee of locals. Hazel had told me that we had pre-arranged police clearance for our visit, but this information had not filtered through to a broad-chested and furious guy who emerged from his hut to block our way. Amara, Gibo and Mash started arguing with him, and a hostile crowd quickly formed.

IMG_6058
Dave and Hazel heading into Susan’s Bay

At this point I started feeling a little worried. We were a long way from any kind of escape route. It got me thinking. Almost all the time on my travels, I have a safety net, that comprises my passport, my credit card and my phone. With these three items I can effectively ejector-seat myself out of anywhere, cab to an airport and fly home, if I really needed to. It’s not something I’ve ever actually done, but the knowledge that I could is a comfort when far away from home. Of course, that safety is born of the fact that I tend to tour the developed world for the most part; that’s where the shows are. Standing on that wharf, I realised that I was completely out on a limb, dependent on Hazel and the Way Out crew.

I realised shortly that we were not actually in any danger. We’d been told about the local predilection for an argument, and I noticed a few casual passers-by enthusiastically joining in with no clear idea what we were talking about. Obviously the root of the issue was the arrival of four white guys with guitars, in a place that no Westerners usually venture. Once we’d managed to at least vaguely explain our motives and intentions, they let us pass.

IMG_6079
Jamie on the pitch

We continued further into the warren of alleyways, which got noticeably narrower. We walked along and across various streams – or former streams, I should say, as they were clogged with trash, black filth, human waste and snuffling pigs. It was a level of poverty I’d not experienced before. Sierra Leone is the third poorest country in the world, and Hazel was purposefully taking us to the poorest (urban) areas. It was genuinely shocking, seeing how people, especially the young children, were supposed to live. As we trudged along, an older man approached us, shook our hands and said “Welcome to our community!” Shortly afterwards I overheard a younger man mutter “White man in black man’s home.”

Finally we arrived in a large open square where a game of football – shirts vs skins – was in progress. Down one side, a large ramshackle building was pointed out to us as the mosque. We were immediately surrounded by a gaggle of excited and curious kids, who were excited by our presence, and my smattering of Krio, which they found predictably hilarious. While the pick-up arrived with the equipment and the Way Out guys negotiated a place for us to play, the four of us tried to socialise. Jamie was quickly brought onto the football pitch, and acquitted himself well. Dave met a sweet young boy called Sullie, who had drawn a picture of (presumably) his parents. Dave hobbled over, and tried to get him to decorate his crutch with a sharpie pen. His gestures of explanation, however, simply led Sullie to add a crutch to the picture of his dad.

IMG_6087
Sullie with drawing, complete with added crutch

After a round of bags of water – drinking water here comes in palm-sized bags, which you bite open; drinking without spilling it down yourself is an acquired skill – it was decided that we couldn’t play by the mosque, as Friday prayers were due to start soon. So we set off again, yet further into the maze, eventually reaching a second clearing by the sea shore itself. The gentle waves lapped a cornucopia of rubbish onto the black sand, while kids kicked around in the shallow water, next to a massive sow with a litter of piglets. A final round of discussion with the locals followed, and finally Ben and I got two guitars out of their bags and sat down on a little ledge to play.

IMG_6109
Ben by the shore

This, of course, was a moment of truth of sorts. I’ve played shows all over the world in myriad different settings, but this was totally new. I instantly felt very bourgeois, privileged, Western. Obviously no one knew who I was, or my songs; was there anything at all in anything I’d sung about over the years that these people could relate to? Would they understand the words, or care, even a little? What the hell were we doing, what value or help were we bringing, in the insignificant act of playing some songs?

These are not questions I have quick or complete answers to, but there we were, so there was nothing for it but to dive in with both feet. We launched into “The Next Storm”, followed by “Wessex Boy”; the latter felt unbearably awkward to me, lyrically, in that setting, but I thought the kids might enjoy the “ba ba ba” singalong section, and they did. A sizeable crowd of young kids had gathered by now, with adults watching cautiously from the back. I cracked out some covers – “No Woman, No Cry”, “Redemption Song”, and a rough version of one of Mash-P’s songs I’d heard in the studio, “After The Jungle”, which he enthusiastically backed me up on. In all we played for about 40 minutes before my tolerance of the heat and the local adults’ tolerance of us had run low. We packed up, spent a good 15 minutes taking photos (“snap snap!”) and fist-bumping the kids, thanked our hosts and headed back to the truck to drive out through the edge of the market. The older folks were a little warmer towards us now, and while we were white men in black people’s homes, I could say we had at least not done any harm.

IMG_6123
Ben playing in Susan’s Bay

We had a quick lunch in a roadside cafe. On asking where the toilet was, I found out the Krio term for having a piss was “easing oneself”. I’d also discovered that they use the words “disgruntled” and “vexed” a lot more than we do, and that rehearsing, for musicians, was called “training” – an expression I adore and plan to adopt. Much restored by some food, we paid a quick visit to the Ballanta music school, a fee-paying place that taught music grades, Western-style. The Way Out members traveling with us seemed a little uncomfortable there, and I sensed a class divide of sorts. The Ballanta band played us some of their songs, and also a local song called “Wi Lek Wi Salone” – we love Sierra Leone. It was a simple and catchy tune, so I made a mental note of the chords.

Our second major stop of the day was at Moor Wharf, another slum down by the water (“Gullyside” is the local term). The traffic en route was dreadful – there’s only really one main east-west thoroughfare in Freetown, and it was jammed with the Friday afternoon crush. Finally we pulled up at what seemed like an unremarkable set of roadside stalls. A small passage between two of them led to another steep set of stairs down towards the shore, and another open square, filled with curious kids.

IMG_6207
Moor Wharf

Ben and I set up to play again, with a little more confidence this time. We added “Wi Lek Wi Salone” to the set, which went down a storm. The kids were also more confident, rubbing and pinching my legs as I played to see if my tattoos were real – on my white skin, they look unrealistic to Africans. I handed out guitar picks and let them strum the strings while I held chords, and Dave played the cajon. We added “I Still Believe” to the set, the call-and-response section working well with the crowd. My earlier discomfort at playing in such a place remained, but I was also gripped by a feeling of being an entertainer in a very pure sense. People were getting off on the music.

As we were leaving, the local guy who’d invited Way Out to the area asked me if I wanted to “see the community”. I agreed, but Hazel warned him time was short before we had to leave. He charged off into the darkness of the shacks and I followed. I had a brief moment of being slightly spooked, as I quickly found myself separated from everyone else in the group, hemmed in by the plywood and scrap metal walls and a lot of eyes that wavered between welcome and wariness. My paranoia proved to be misplaced, and I quickly felt bad for my discomfort, as my guide happily introduced me to friends and family as we walked through. Eventually we came back to the stairs and we returned to the cars.

Our drive back to the Way Out headquarters was hellish, the traffic having reached a ludicrous density. We traveled under a mile in 90 minutes in the burning afternoon sun. The afrobeats on the radio started to tire my ears, and the crowded streets became claustrophobic. On the radio we head that the president was opening a bank on the main road, blocking the flow. I also heard a radio caller say “My daily prayer is to see my enemies live long, so they can see me prosper.”

We eventually made it back to our home base. Thomas met us as we spilled out of the cramped cars, and told us, firstly, that it was his 30th birthday that day, and secondly that the Black Street Family had invited us round to watch them “train”. Though we were exhausted, we didn’t want to turn them down, so we traipsed down to a large concrete area by the side of the Siaka Stevens stadium, where various intimidating guys were practicing karate moves. In the far corner, the rappers gathered and gave us a small performance with a boom box. Their rhymes and rhythm were impressively tight, intelligent and passionate. The sun dipped to the horizon behind them, casting the singers as silhouettes. The whole thing felt so surreal that I wondered if I was in a movie of some kind.

IMG_6226
Black Street Family rapping in the sunset

Eventually we wound up the party and walked back up the main road to the Jam Lodge. The four of us were so tired that at dinner people were in danger of falling asleep in their food. We were all in bed by 9pm.

Click here to comment this news item

Wi Lek Wi Salone – Part 2

This is part 2 of my Sierra Leone diary. Part 1 can be found here. You can donate to Way Out Arts here.

DAY 2: WAY OUT SAVED OUR LIVES

Three hours later, Ben shook me out of a deliciously deep sleep and summoned me to breakfast. I was drained, but also impatient to get on with the day. A cold and lacklustre shower brought me further into the land of the living, and the process was completed on the veranda with a serving of breakfast pancakes, cheerily presented by Patricia, the house manager.

At 10am sharp, Hazel and John arrived to collect us for the 20 minute walk to the headquarters of Way Our Arts. We strolled along the main road in the mounting heat, trying to remember to measure our paces so as not to burn up too quickly. I tallied aid agency billboards as Hazel filled me in with more information about the charity and the country.

The first things she told me about Way Out were not to eat food of my own in front of people (because they’re usually hungry themselves and struggle to buy food), and not to bring weapons, drugs or alcohol onto the property. The contours of the kind of people we’d be meeting were starting to emerge properly. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, but it hasn’t always been. At independence from Britain in 1961 it was something of a success story, known occasionally as “the Athens of West Africa” due to its high turnout of capable black African administrators. Unfortunately the country is also cursed with alluvial diamond deposits – easy to mine, impossible to police effectively – which have been a constant source of misery. A series of coups in 1964 was followed by the long one-party rule of Siaka Stevens. By the time of his retirement in 1985, the country was a hollow shell of poverty and corruption. When the RUF, a rebel group back by Charles Taylor, the dictator of neighbouring Liberia, invaded in 1991, the country collapsed into a bitter 11-year civil war, featuring child soldiers and extreme levels of mindless violence. The UN, and later the British Army, managed to stabilise the situation after the horrific massacre in Freetown in 1999, and the war officially ended in 2002. Sixteen years of uneasy peace had passed, but the scars of the war were still fresh, deep and on display.

In that context, what happened next will stay with me for a long, long time. We arrived at Way Out – a crumbling old two-storey building with a walled courtyard outside – and found around 40 of the kids sitting on chairs in a circle. As we came through the gates they stood up and began to sing the chorus to my song, “The Next Storm”: “I don’t want to spend the whole of my life indoors…”. I was absolutely speechless. Immediately they sat me down and encouraged us to get out some of the guitars we’d brought, so Ben and I ran through that song and “Get Better”, with clapping, dancing and singing provided by the members. Once we’d played two songs, some of the older kids stood up and made small speeches of welcome, explaining how important Way Out was and how they appreciated our visit. It was deeply humbling.

It’s probably worth an early mention of one of the main dilemmas for me about the trip as a whole. I was extremely wary, both before and during our stay, about what I think of as the Bono complex – or perhaps, more fairly, Russell Brand’s character in the film “Get Him To The Greek”. I was at pains not to imagine that my going to Sierra Leone was in any way heroic, that my presence there would achieve anything much at all for such a complex and dire situation; I wanted to avoid any kind of white saviour complex. And yet we had been invited, by Hazel, who knows much more than I ever will about the place, and she placed value in our being there. It was tough to figure out precisely where that value lay, and how to approach the subject, on a personal level. I think I reached some kind of conclusion by the time we flew home, but we’ll come to that later.

IMG_6012
Guitar students at Way Out

Our initial welcoming party broke up (followed by a mass selfie-session – the students with mobile phones incessantly snapping endless combinations of poses, a habit that was got pretty out of hand at times on our visit), and then we were shown around the studio. In the main control room I met Thomas, a seriously talented producer, who was in the middle of building a beat with Vinique, a Guinean rapper. I met Mash-P, a homeless former child soldier turned singer (Hazel made a documentary about him, After The Jungle, for the BBC in 2015), and Gibo and Josta, Hazel’s faithful lieutenants. The four guitars we’d brought with us were distributed, and I sat down for a guitar lesson with about 5 people. We worked through four basic chords – G, D, E minor and C – so that they could learn the song “No Woman No Cry”, something of a local anthem.

After a quick lunch of surprisingly tasty omelette sandwiches, we were given a brief tour of the local area. Behind the complex is an area called Black Street, home of the Black Street Family. The Family started out as an extremely tough street gang, but over time, with Way Out’s gentle steering, they have evolved into a gangsta rap group of sorts (though their neighbourhood prowess remains considerable). Strolling down the main drag with Hazel was surreal – a kindly, ambling English woman perfectly at home in the heart of Freetown gangland. They all call her “Mamma”, and I got the impression she was in very safe hands there. We were introduced to a guy sat on a dilapidated white plastic chair, who was, apparently, the Chairman of Black Street. We were bade welcome.

Once we were done at Black Street, an enthusiastic Mash-P took us to see his “block”. This turned out to be an abandoned, half-finished structure of cinderblocks and cement nearby. The entrance had “MASH” proudly sprayed on the wall, and on the first floor mash showed us his room. With real emotion, he told us that Way Out had paid for him to have a door fitted, complete with a lock, turning an alcove into a room for him. He opened up and we saw a small area, maybe 2 metres by 3, with a foam mattress and a small pile of clothes and other belongings. Mash crouched down and scrambled around for some papers, which he proudly showed us – Way Out Arts certificates in Photoshop, digital editing, recording and documentary making. The music achievement one was signed by Michael Eavis, but I don’t think Mash knew who that was.

IMG_6020
Mash-P in his block

In the cool dusty shadows outside his temporary home – he has to leave come rainy season as the room will flood – Mash evangelised for Way Out. He told us a brief outline of his life – being kidnapped at 9, becoming a child soldier, rejected by his mother after the war, living rough in Freetown, hiding from the cops, before finding Hazel. “Music is my whole life. Way Out saved our lives, man.” I didn’t know exactly what to say, but that elusive value started to emerge from the shadows.

IMG_6021
Mash-P with Way Out certificate

We made our way back to the studio, where Mash played me a new song of his “After The Jungle” – that he wanted me to sing on. I took a copy on a USB stick to work on. Meanwhile, Dave was in the rehearsal room teaching drums, and Ben was working on more guitar lessons. Some of the people I’d taught in the morning were rigorously working through the chords, correcting each others’ progress. I taught some more students from scratch.

I stopped by the drum room, which was a particularly fascinating experience for me. I wanted to learn more about African music, particularly the rhythmic aspect, while I was there. Dave began by teaching a basic, meat-and-potatoes, rock’n’roll beat – eight counts on the highhat, kick and snare on alternate beats. Some of the students were grasping it better than others, but overall it was happy yet slow progress. However, one of the youngsters, on his own initiative, started playing a syncopated beat – four-on-the-floor on the kick drum, with a shifting rhythm over the top. To my Western ears, this was a much more complicated drum patter to attempt, but all of the kids found it much easier to play than what they’d started with. It was a salutary lesson in the cultural nurturing of our musical assumptions.

IMG_6029
Dave teaching drums

The complex was a happy hive of activity as the heat of the day finally started to wane and the shadows lengthened, bringing a gorgeous early evening rose-coloured light to the red earth. We were paid a brief visit by Cooper – a friendly American freelance journalist living in Freetown, who’d contacted me about doing a story on our visit. We sat in the courtyard and were treated to a small performance by King Pizza, who rapped to us on the subject of “Water Is Life!” Afterwards, a female student brought Dave’s crutch down from the rehearsal room – “You left your foot upstairs!”. We visited the editing suite on the ground floor, where we met Meeky – a shy young man who quietly writes sweet, beautiful love songs; we watched a couple of the music videos he’d made for them.

IMG_6031
Dave with King Pizza

As much fun as we were having, the four of us were also still holed below the waterline by the inbound travel schedule, so at about 6pm we wandered back up the road to the hotel, through crowds of immaculately-turned out schoolgirls in archaic uniforms, back to a quick dinner, a beer, and an even quicker collapse into bed.

Part 3 coming soon.

Click here to comment this news item

Wi Lek Wi Salone – Part 1

INTRODUCTION: THE COMPLETE UNKNOWN

In the summer of 2016, I received a call from an old friend. Jamie Webb used to run the bar at Nambucca, my old haunt, but since the fire there in 2008 he’d moved on. These days he runs a group called The Joe Strummer Foundation (formerly Strummerville). They raise funds in the UK which they then disburse to different charitable groups around the world.

The purpose of Jamie’s call was to ask me a wholly unexpected question: would I be interested in visiting Sierra Leone? The Foundation were working with a group in the capital, Freetown, called Way Out Arts, who worked to bring music to disaffected and disadvantaged street kids, some of the poorest people in the world. The trip would be part investigative – checking out for ourselves exactly what Way Out were doing – and partly a publicity and fund-raising venture.

I like to consider myself game for pretty much anything, someone with a sense of adventure, but I have to admit that I briefly paused for thought at the offer. I knew very little indeed about Sierra Leone, other than what I’d learned from casual newspaper reading, and a half-forgotten viewing of the film “Blood Diamond”. In line with that, my associations were, chiefly, a vicious civil war, child soldiers, and conflict diamonds. Immediately after bringing myself up short on that thought, my mind flipped in the other direction. It seemed to me somehow mean, or cheap, to dismiss a country of which I was ignorant with a short list of Hollywood-generated stereotypes. After some brief reading up on Way Out, I decided to accept the offer to go.

Much logistical back-and-forth followed, as it usually does with the hectic state of my diary, but eventually we decided on sending a four-person team to the country in March of 2017. Jamie, our mutual friend (and JSF worker) Dave Danger, and Ben Lloyd of the Sleeping Souls would make the trip. Visas were acquired, jabs were jabbed, and books were read, in the countdown for our departure.

There are many fine lines to be trod in a venture of this sort, and indeed in writing about it. The first one to be encountered was the line between trying to prepare for the trip by educating myself about the country, on the one hand, and keeping my mind, my eyes and my ears as open as possible to the empirical experience of being there. I didn’t want to go to Freetown completely blind, but I also didn’t want to load myself with preconceptions about our destination. I settled on a couple of history books and a travel journal by journalist Tim Butcher, who walked across the country in 2009.

Despite these preparations, when the time for the trip finally rolled around, I realised that I was still essentially stepping into a complete unknown. That’s something I rarely do on my travels these days, so it was with some trepidation mixed with excitement that I set out for Heathrow airport on a sunny Wednesday morning.

DAY 1: YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL BUT I DON’T LIKE YOUR SHORTS

SL crew

The four of us met up in the smoking area outside the terminal in the unseasonable March sunshine. Dave had twisted his knee in a skiing accident a few weeks before, so he brought a grey hospital crutch along with him for the ride. Jamie brought four acoustic guitars, a kind of downpayment for Way Out on a future shipment of equipment, bought with funds that we’d raise online. We checked in easily, carrying the guitars with us through security, and caught up over a pub lunch, grasping at the last reliables fibres of wifi before we set off.

Our itinerary took us first to Casablanca, a three hour hop with a dramatic storm in the distance as we landed. After that, we had four hours to kill before our connection to Freetown; the flights to and from Sierra Leone are few and far between, and they tend to be at ungodly hours of the night. We skittered around Mohammed V airport, a slightly ramshackle affair, complete with redundant extra security checks carried out by angry, sweaty guards, who spent as much time pushing and shouting at each other as they did examining our affairs. In the countdown to our midnight takeoff we drank beers and discussed our destination, and joked about playing an impromptu show there and then with the Way Out guitars. One of the bartenders told Dave that he was beautiful, but she didn’t like his shorts.

As boarding time laboriously crept along, we gathered with our fellow passengers at the gate, the last chance saloon, last flight of the night. Ageing American missionaries, chubby Chinese businessmen and a blue-shirted, exuberant Sierra Leonean soccer team mingled, chatted and formed a queue. Finally we were off; following hard-learned techniques I cocooned myself in my cramped seat, ear-plugs in, hoodie up, pillow against the window, and tried to catch a little sleep.

I was woken by our bumpy arrival on the tarmac at Lungi airport. According to my reading, Freetown is one of the best natural harbours on the West African coast, with deep-water channels, a protective spit of land and the curved, lion-esque shelter of the Sierra that led the Portuguese to give the country its name. But these same factors make for a terrible location for an airport, so they built one across the water at Lungi instead. We groggily disembarked, comparing tallies of hours slept, and boarded a pointless bus that carried us all of 50 metres to the terminal.

The airport itself, on the arrival side, was pleasantly clean, modern and efficient. We were whisked through immigration, complete with finger-scanners, and collected our bags. At this point I started making notes about the adverts and billboards, which became something of an obsession over the course of the trip. My first specimens were for logistics firms, mobile phone companies (the ubiquitous Africell) and anti-corruption drives: “Together we can fight corruption and build a better Sierra Leone”.

The tide of travellers eventually spat us out into the warm night – it was about 4.30am – and into the arms of a gaggle of excited locals, all offering initial warm welcomes that carried the foretaste of a transaction. In the midst of the melee we managed to locate John from Way Out Arts. John is one of the senior members of the organisation; along with a few others, he actually draws a small salary for his work, and the charity has got him off the street into rented accommodation. He’s in his mid-30s, has a wicked, sarcastic sense of humour, and a fierce dedication to his team.

With John on the ferry
With John on the ferry

John shepherded us onto a bus to the ferryport, happily declaring “We’re team!” (which seemed unlikely to us sleep-deprived new arrivals), where we had to take a boat across the water to Freetown proper. The road down to the water was a ludicrous mountain range of potholes down a steep hill, our first real taste of the low level of development in the country. En route, John started teaching me some words in Krio, the main local language. Every linguistic success on my part was met with much hilarity on his, and he was soon on the phone to our welcoming committee in the city, telling them I spoke “small small Krio”. Krio is a pidgin, so after a few days in the country I was able to tune in and understand maybe up to half of a conversation, but at this time it was still fairly impenetrable.

The ferry carried us 25 minutes over the water. Onboard, I got chatting with an older American called Will, a farmer from South Dakota, who was in the country working for a Christian missionary organisation, taking solar powered ovens to people in the rural areas of the country. We talked Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers, my mind spinning with fatigue.The four of us were exhausted, paper-thin sketches of people by time we arrived to be met by Hazel.

Hazel is the founder of and driving force behind Way Out Arts. She’s originally from Manchester, lived and worked in London as a film maker for many years, before coming to Sierra Leone in 2004 whilst shooting a documentary about a Liberian politician. Something about the place stuck in her blood and she’s been coming back ever since, helping to form the charity in 2008. Now she alternates a couple of months there and in the UK through the year. She greeted us with smiles, a video camera, and some local tips – locals were quite keen on shouting matches, men comfortably hold hands in public, and so on.

We boarded a couple of taxicabs (and were treated to a minor shouting match, which everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy), and drove to our hotel – Jam Lodge. In the creeping dawn of 6am we scurried to our rooms and lay down to catch a few hours’ sleep, before the beginning of our first proper day of the trip.

Part 2 is here. More coming soon. In the meantime, you can donate to Way Out / Strummerville here.

Click here to comment this news item

End Cycle

I finally made it back to my place in London yesterday morning, pretty comprehensively exhausted after the New York and Boston shows, an end of tour party, and a gruelling overnight flight. There was a time in my life where I was indefinitely happy to be a wanderer, but these days I need to come back to my nest every now and again. Dropping my bags and getting into my own shower fills me with a sense of unburdening that is difficult to put into words.

As I’ve commented on social media elsewhere, it’s difficult (and pointless) to exactly pinpoint the beginning and end of what record labels insist on calling “album cycles”. That said, this was our last trip to North America until we have a new record to tour, so this feels like the end of something. I played 326 shows in 26 countries since August 2015, when Positive Songs For Negative People was released. That seems like a decent effort, to me.

My major preoccupation for the foreseeable future will be working on a new album. I have written a mountain of new songs (one of which we’ve released), and am brimming with ideas about where to take my material. It’s still too early to say much more about what’s coming, but I’m excited about it, and hopefully some other people are too. I have no idea when a new record would be released, but I’m hoping as soon as possible. Sorry to be vague, but yeah, watch this space.

There are other things happening in the meantime of course – dates in Europe, Lost Evenings (now sold out!), and various other festivals in the UK and Europe over the summer. There’s also news imminent about DVDs and films, books and more. So I’m not exactly slacking. But I will be holed up, comparatively speaking, with the new material, so forgive me if I’m a little less present than usual.

Finally, a word on the tour just gone. I’ve toured with a lot of bands in my time, and I’ve got on with and enjoyed almost all of them. But I have to say that I think Arkells take the prize as my favourite band, both musically and personally, that I’ve shared road with. Wonderful people, wonderful songs. I’d also like to officially thank Felix Hagan for stepping up and covering Matt’s keyboard duties for the last tour. It was a seriously tough job, and he absolutely nailed it. Matt is also now a proud father of a son, so everyone wins that one.

Right. I’m getting off the internet for a bit.

Click here to comment this news item

Hola América del Norte!

Greetings one and all from a hotel room in Mexico City. It is simply fantastic to be back at the wheel again. I had a great beach holiday, worked on my tan, but now it’s back to the grindstone. There’s the small matter of a North American Tour, starting imminently.

First of all, quite a big piece of news for everyone. Well, actually, it’s good news, bad news, then good news. Brace yourselves. Mr Matt Nasir of the Sleeping Souls is expecting a baby with his wonderful girlfriend Anna at the end of the month! Great news! The bad news is, that means he can’t be with us for this run. Which is a massive sad face. We’ve had the same line-up on stage with the Souls since 2008, when Matt joined.

But there’s good news! The wonderful Mr Felix Hagan has quietly stepped up to the challenge. We spent the UK tour last month rehearsing with the man, and he’s now kitted out in his own white shirt and ready for the tour, with Matt’s blessing. Everyone coming down should be extra nice to Felix and make sure he feels at home. Matt will be rejoining the Souls as soon as possible – once he’s bedded down into fatherhood.

So, all hail Felix, love to Matt and family. The tour starts in Mexico City on Friday, rolls through Wet Virginia and thence to Silver Spring where the Souls (and Felix) jump on board. Tickets are selling fast – the first Chicago show is sold out already – so don’t delay. See you all on the road.

Click here to comment this news item

Concert Numéro Deux Mille

Well, that was quite a year. 193 shows in 29 different countries, finishing up with show 2000 at Rock City. Colour me totally exhausted, but in the best possible way. I feel like we (me, the Souls and my crew) did some long haul honest graft in 2016, and we’re proud of it.

The 2000th show, incidentally, was a magical evening. My crew let me know that the crowd, as we walked on stage, hit 118dB, which is (apparently) louder than a sold out arena crowd. So well done everyone there! As attendees may have noticed, there were cameras in the building, the show was documented in full. I don’t yet have details I can share about how and when that will be released, but I’m not one for dawdling, so watch that space.

Speaking of films, the cinema release of “Get Better” also went well. It was pretty nerve-wracking for me to sit in the dark of the cinema and watch my character explored in depth on the big screen, but I was filled with pride for my friend Ben Morse and thought he did a stellar job. We are now working on cinema releases for other parts of the world, followed, of course, by a DVD.

Looking ahead to 2017, aside from the various imminent film content, there’s a lot of cool stuff coming up. Lost Evenings at the Roundhouse is shaping up well; in fact, it’s selling out, and we haven’t even announced any of the copious other acts playing! There’s also our biggest tour of the US and Canada yet, including the Boston Agganis Arena show. Get your tickets while you can.

There’s also a solo tour of France just announced. It’s been a decade since I toured France properly, so it’s with great joy that I cab point to shows in March in Dunkerque, Joué-Les-Tours, Rennes, Bordeaux, Albi, Nîmes, Lyon, Nancy and Strasbourg. Check out the dates.

There’s more tour dates coming, of course (gotta head for 3000 now.. ha). But the other main concern for next year will be working on another record, for which I am brimming with ideas. I can’t really say more about it for now but it’ll be the thing occupying my mind for the forseeable future.

But before we get into that properly, there’s Christmas, my birthday, and the new year. For all of which I am planning on being largely off-net. If I do say so myself, I feel like I’ve earned it this time around! Happy Christmas to you and yours, here’s hoping for a generally rosier 2017.

Click here to comment this news item

Show 2000 Supports

The UK tour starts tomorrow at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, with the Peaceful Noise concert, in memory of my late friend Nick Alexander. From there I’m flying to Dublin to meet up with the Sleeping Souls and commence total UK and Irish mayhem. Esme Patterson joins us in Dublin, and then Felix Hagan & The Family get on board from Salisbury onwards. There are still a few shows with tickets left – have a look. See you all there!

The tour proper winds up in Portsmouth on December 14th, but the Souls and I will be immediately heading to Nottingham, to Rock City, for my 2000th show. A thousand shows ago (dear God it feels weird to type that), after much indecision, I decided to celebrate my 1000th show with a party. We had a great night, so now it feels like an infrequent tradition that’s worth celebrating.

So we come to December 15th in Nottingham. We made an extra effort to stop touting for the show, which seems to have worked. We have people coming from all over the world. I wanted to make sure that the whole evening is special, and to that end, we have some tricks up our sleeve for the supports.

Main support for the evening will, of course, be my old friend Jay, a.k.a. Beans On Toast. Jay is the guy who convinced me to start playing solo acoustic shows in the first place, all those years ago, so it seems only fitting to bring him along for the party.

First on is something yet more special (no offence to Jay!). When I was first playing shows around London, hanging out at Nambucca, there was a local country band doing the rounds called The Tailors. In fact, Adam Killip, their singer, introduced me to the canon of country on the roof of the bar one evening, after beating me in an arm-wrestle (long story; read the book!). The Tailors have been inactive for a long time now, but they have remained a staple of my listening diet, and one of my biggest influences.

It’s long been a source of annoyance to me that so few people knew their stuff, but such is life. However, I’m now in a position to do something about this, so I called Adam and asked if he’d be up for putting the band back together for my 2000th show. After some umm-ing and ahh-ing, he said yes, the Tailors are back for one night only. And, given that Chad moved home to Vancouver, they may even have a lanky guest guitar player too (ahem). I couldn’t be more excited.

If you’re hoping to do some homework on the band before the show (or you just want to get a better idea of where my songs started coming from), they have a whole bunch of stuff on myspace still – no really – and two of their albums, “Wakey Wakey” and “Come Dig Me Up”, are on Spotify.

We will also, of course, be documenting the show for the people who couldn’t make it. So I’ll see you there, or elsewhere on the tour. Let’s see 2016 out in style.

Click here to comment this news item