blog

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

The Shining City On The Hill

I made it home from North America yesterday morning. We did 89 shows north of the Rio Grande this year, which seems like a pretty satisfying total. We also made super-best-friends with Arkells, which is one of my take-home events of 2016. We have one more US / Canadian run to go for this album – tickets are available now – after which we’ll be taking a break from that part of the world until I have another record ready to go. So don’t miss the shows in January and February.

It was a fascinating and mildly terrifying year to be in the USA. I like to think I’m an intelligent and engaged adult, so of course I have my opinions about what’s going on, and today is the big day. I have, in recent years, shied away from public political statement, but my conscience is bugging me today, so, for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents.

I love America. Really, adore the place. It’s intriguing and complex and infuriating and delightful in equal measure. I take pride in having played shows in 44 states (and D.C.), and having some small feeling for the great mass of the country; I’m not someone who went to New York City on holiday once. I’ve spent quite a lot of my time at home, since my first US tour back in 2007, trying to debunk lazy anti-American stereotypes that abound in the UK and Europe – stupid, ill-informed jokes about Americans being provincial, nationalist, fat, stupid or whatever. None of that has been broadly true, in my experience.

And then there’s Donald. To my foreign eyes, he is the absolute embodiment of every joke, every lazy prejudice and slur about Americans ever levelled by the armchair warriors of the old world. He is everything I’ve spent nearly a decade telling my non-US friends that America isn’t. And yet here he is, in the final run-off for the presidency.

I am more than aware of the shortcomings of Clinton, of the arguments for and against third party candidates and so on. And let me be totally clear that I’m very aware I’m not a US citizen, not entitled to vote, and not entitled to tell anyone else how to use their vote. But the outcome matters, to everyone in the world. I’m not suggesting anyone vote *for* anyone in particular, but I’m crossing my fingers and toes that the America I love and I like to think I know will vote *against* the insulting and childish caricature of their nation and its values that stands on one side of the ballot. I’m hopeful, today, I really am.

Not everyone is going to like what I just wrote. And to a large degree, given the circles I move in, this is going to be preaching to the converted, which I always find to be a waste of time. I’m no fan of easy moral grandstanding. But today of all days it needs to be said, if only to salve my insignificant conscience. Peace, see you in 2017.

Click here to comment this news item

Post Holiday Catch-Up

Greetings, one and all, from a parking lot (carpark) in Columbus OH. It seems like only yesterday we were… somewhere near here. In actual fact, we took a couple of weeks off this month. I went to Italy and sunned my pasta-filled self to the point of bronzed incapacity. It was wondrous. But now we’re back at the grindstone, and happy to be so. My email account, upon my return, was something between a snow-drift and a multi-car pile-up, but I’ve just about got to the bottom of it, so I thought I’d do a general round-up of where things are at, as we head into the remainder of this most curious of years, 2016.

Right now we’re at the start of a small US run – we have shows in Cincinnati, Champaign IL, St Louis MO, Maquoketa IA, Milwaukee IL and Kalamazoo MI in the next week or so. Then we have a break in October (I’m working on some secret plans back home; Nigel will be on tour with Sad Song Co). After that, it’s back to the US again for more shows in Athens GA, Charlottesville VA, Morgantown WV, Norfolk VA, Wilmington DE (for Halloween!), Albany and Ithaca NY, and then Toronto.

After that we head to the UK for the Get Better tour – about which I am very excited. The majority of the shows have sold out; there are still a few tickets for Dublin, Carlisle, Doncaster, Oxford, Exeter, Edinburgh, Scunthorpe, Newcastle and Portsmouth. We are still working on an elusive Cornish show – there’s been a lot of changes in venues down there lately which is making it very hard – announcement coming soon. On top of that that, there’s some imminent news for both London and for show 2000.

There was, inevitably, some touting bullshit around the tour. It drives me to distraction, and I’m always looking at ways to combat it. For the time being, I’d say don’t buy from touting sites. Nearer the time there’s almost always people trading tickets fairly, either on twitter or on the forum.

Moving on to charity stuff; I donated a signed guitar to add to my late friend Wayne’s signed record collection, all of which is being raffled off for Music Vs Cancer. Check it out here.

The good people at the Music Venue Trust have launched a new #Fightback initiative, raising money for an emergency venue fund. There’s a show at the Roundhouse on October 18th which is well worth looking into (I won’t be playing this one, alas). In other venue news, there’s a fundraiser here for the great Exeter Cavern, which had a tragic fire while I was away. And if you’re still feeling generous and helpful, the Star & Shadow in Newcastle could use a hand.

Next up, journalism (of a kind). I answered some questions about Nirvana’s Nevermind here, and waxed lyrical about Lucero here.

Finally, for now, lots of my friends have wonderful new music on the way; Xtra Mile sure are busy right now. Skinny Lister have a new record coming, and tour dates in the UK and the US. Will Varley and Beans On Toast have similar. And Koo Koo Kanga Roo put me in a music video, which was fun.

So, in short, the world kept turning while I was roasting by the side of the swimming pool. Which is reassuring. See you all on the road soon.

Click here to comment this news item

Finally – UK Tourmageddon!

It is with GREAT PLEASURE that I can finally announce some more tour dates for the UK.

I know, I know, it’s been a long while since we were on home turf. And last time we toured the UK we only played the major cities. So, as is becoming tradition, this time we are hitting some different places, taking the show around the country to see some different people. Of course I can’t ever please everyone, but this is an attempt to cover as much ground as I can this year.

Support comes from the amazing Felix Hagan & The Family, and the sublime Esme Patterson. Both hand-picked, both awesome, get down early to catch their sets.

The tour will go on a special fan pre-sale this WEDNESDAY AT 9am, and on general sale on Friday. Get ready! Here are the dates:

THE GET BETTER UK TOUR, NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2016

Fri 18th November 2016, Salisbury City Hall (14+)
Mon 21st November 2016, Liverpool O2 Academy (8+)
Tue 22nd November 2016, Carlisle Sands Centre (All Ages)
Wed 23rd November 2016, Doncaster Dome (14+)
Fri 25th November 2016, Coventry Empire (14+)
Sat 26th November 2016, Cardiff Great Hall (14+)
Sun 27th November 2016, Oxford New Theatre (All Ages)
Mon 28th November 2016, Exeter Great Hall (All Ages)
Wed 30th November 2016, Reading Hexagon (All Ages)
Thu 1st December 2016, Leeds University Refectory (14+)
Fri 2nd December 2016, Aberdeen Garage (14+)
Sat 3rd December 2016, Edinburgh Usher Hall (14+)
Mon 5th December 2016, Scunthorpe Baths Hall (All Ages)
Tue 6th December 2016, Warrington Parr Hall (14+)
Wed 7th December 2016, Newcastle Northumbria University (All Ages)
Fri 9th December 2016, Nottingham Rock City (14+)
Sat 10th December 2016, Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (14+)
Sun 11th December 2016, Norwich UEA (14+)
Mon 12th December 2016, Guilford G-Live (All Ages)
Wed 14th December 2016, Portsmouth Guildhall (14+)

As ever with these things, we’ve been planning this tour for a long while and the details are set. It’s also not the last tour I ever do, so if there are places I’m missing this time around, fear not, I’ll be back soon enough. See you there.

Click here to comment this news item