The First Gig Back

(Photo credit – CapturedByCorinne)

Last night I played an actual, real-life, no-fooling, human-attended GIG. The first one since March 15th in Southend-On-Sea. In the interim I’ve done 26 livestream shows, but this was the first one with people in front of me, rather than my phone, my wife and my cat. It was quite an evening.

The gig came together like this. One of the venue benefit livestreams I did was for the Clapham Grand – a 120-year-old music hall run by my old friend Ally Wolf. I actually went to the venue for that one, and the fact of being in a room with a stage, a PA and a dressing room upstairs affected me emotionally much more than I’d been expecting. It changed my mind about the worth of doing a reduced-capacity show, should the occasion arise.

Meanwhile, the government here in the UK recently announced that they’d start permitting indoor performances from August 1st, dependent on a series of pilot events. Mark Davyd, the hero of the Music Venue Trust, was charged with sorting that out, and he called me to ask if I’d be interested in performing, in part as a thank you for the Independent Venue Love shows I’ve been doing. I readily agreed.

There was then a titanic bit of faffing around on the part of the powers-that-be (I’m aware that we’re in an unprecedented global pandemic, and that government infrastructure is under great strain, but fucking hell, this government couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery), it was arranged that the show would take place on Tuesday July 28th at the Grand. While there had been a musical theatre pilot event at the Palladium last week, under the aegis of Andrew Lloyd Webber, this was to be the first indoor independent music gig since lockdown started. Historic stuff.

Ally is an old friend – we met back in the Nambucca days – and he and his staff at the venue are the real heroes of this story. After we’d agreed to the show, Ally then called me to explain the regulations and restrictions required for it to go ahead. Among many other things (reduced capacity, track and trace, one-way systems, table service, temperature checks and more), there was a requirement that the audience were not allowed to sing. That brought me up short, and nearly made me change my mind about the show. Getting the crowd involved in the performance is at the heart of what I do on stage, and the shows I play work towards a moment of unification, where the barrier between performer and audience breaks down. That wouldn’t now be possible (or at the very least would be much harder). The reason, of course, is to to with aerosol diffusion from people’s voices – and as part of that I had to be 3 metres back from the front of the stage. I get that, but it was still galling to hear on the phone.

In the end I decided to go ahead – mainly by thinking about the alternatives. The government has requested that pilots go ahead. Collectively, as an industry, if the artists and venues respond to that by saying “no”, then, well, we’re just stuck where we are. Something has to happen to break the logjam and get us all moving forward.

So our aims with the show were threefold. Firstly, to demonstrate willingness to try. The live music industry is full of people who are triers, problem-solvers, go-getters, by its ver nature. We have to show that we’re game to find a solution to the problem posed by the pandemic. Secondly, we wanted to show that both performers and audience could successfully abide by the restrictions posited by the powers-that-be (in which we were successful – more on that shortly).

But thirdly, in a weird way, we wanted to show that this specific set-up doesn’t work. The Grand was at less than 20% of capacity (around 200 people), but Ally had to double the number of staff working, to meet all the guidelines. There was no talent spend (I didn’t get paid), and no advertising spend (the show sold out pretty much straight away), and yet it still lost money. And the Grand is a versatile space, as an old music hall, in a way that many independent venues are not. We needed to show that this isn’t a complete solution or a workable model, that either restrictions need to change or more funding is required; essentially that fight is far from over.

All told, it felt like the right thing to do – and of course, it’s what I do. Lockdown meant the immediate and total collapse of the industry I work in, a complete halt to my earnings, but most crucially, a body blow to my own identity. I play shows, that’s me, I’m that guy. Not being able to do that (streams aside) for the last four months has been weird and hard. I really, really wanted to play a show.

I got there on the day at lunchtime, for a long afternoon of press and a soundcheck. I’d sort of forgotten that gig days are hectic outside of your time on change – it’s funny how quickly we’ve all adapted to the situation. I went through my lines with journalists, checked the sound, and took stock of the layout of the room. Ally and his team had gone to enormous lengths to make everything safe and controlled as required. It felt pretty weird, but at the same time, it was still definitely a show. Hell, I’ve played to fewer people than this in larger rooms in my time!

Everything was set, and the time for doors to open rolled around. Ticket holders had been given staggered arrival times to prevent any crush, but Ally still had to chase off a couple of tabloid photographers who, as far as we could tell, had come down specifically to try and get a compromising shot of people breaking the rules. In the midst of the hard work and good will around the show, it was a reminder that some people are just dickheads. Thankfully they left empty-handed.

In no time it was showtime. First up was the amazing Ciara Haidar – another friend from the Nambucca days who briefly played keys in my band before Matt Nasir. In a way the honour of “first show back” goes to her and her wonderful, haunting set. The audience were respectful and enthusiastic, whilst obeying the rules – more foot-stamping than cheering. Everything was going swimmingly.

Next up, Jay (Beans On Toast), who likely needs no introduction for people reading this. He opened with a new song called “Save The Music”, which brought a genuine tear to my eye, so perfectly did it capture the moment. I think most artists will have written “lockdown” songs (myself included), and I think this song will put most of those to shame.

Unsurprisingly, Jay had the whole of the room in the palm of his hand for 30 minutes, and then he was done. I found myself feeling properly nervous, which is unusual for me, with the amount of shows I’ve done. Usually I know roughly what to expect, but it was different now. I congratulated Jay in the dressing room, and he told me: “You have no idea what’s about to happen to you, emotionally, once you step on that stage.”

And he was right. I think all three of us playing last night had become a bit blasé about it, not least because we’d played on that stage to no audience a month prior, for a livestream benefit. So mentally, well, it was just the same again. Except, of course, that it wasn’t. This time there was an audience.

I took the stage and felt the power of what jay had been warning me about. After months of playing to the back of my phone, this was something entirely different. It was powerful, slightly nerve-wracking, magical, and it felt like coming home, all at the same time. I opened with a new lockdown song of my own called “The Gathering”, which is about the moment when we’re allowed back into our hallowed communal spaces for the shows that give our lives such meaning. Today was not quite that day, given all the restrictions and financial strictures, but it was getting closer.

The set flew by. The audience were amazing – appreciative but respectful. Ally brought cardboard cutouts of some silent types – Marcel Marceau, Mr Bean and Charlie Chaplin (who last walked that stage in 1901 – really!) – up to remind people about the singalong rules. And at the end he triggered the traditional balloon drop. I left the stage sweaty and elated.

So there it was. This is not the start of a series of shows like this – that’d bankrupt everyone involved. But it was, as I say, a gesture of cooperation, an attempt to feel out the situation with an eye to taking steps in a better direction. But most of all it was a fucking GIG. I have missed that, for sure. It turns out, live music really, really matters.


The fight is not yet over, not by a long stretch. The Music Venue Trust’s excellent #saveourvenues campaign is here.
The Grand have a fundraiser with signed items for sale here.

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Sierra Leone 2020 – Part 4

We knew that our final day of our trip to Freetown was going to end with the traditionally gruelling journey home – a ferry to the airport at midnight, a long wait in the departures lounge until a 4am flight to Casablanca, a gritty and exhausted layover there for a few hours, before a final flight home to London. With some experience of that under our belts, we were braced and ready, but first there was a whole, long day in Sierra Leone to get through.

Jamie and I were a little the worse for wear after our adventures the night before, but we recovered over breakfast, regaling Dave and Jess with the tales of what had happened, both of us still visibly buzzing from the experience. The others were jealous to have missed it, but, hangovers aside, everyone was now back to fighting condition and ready for the day ahead.

In symmetry with our first day, our first stop was to be at a prison – this time the main male prison in Freetown, which is a larger and more intimidating affair. There had been much discussion leading up to the trip about the merits and wisdom of Jess joining for this particular excursion. It had occurred to Hazel and I that the sight of a young, blonde, Western woman in such a testosterone-fuelled environment might not be the most calming of influences. Interestingly, however, all the guys at WayOut seemed slightly perplexed by the query, and assured us that everything would be fine. So we set off to the prison slightly reassured, but still with a touch of nerves.

We arrived and went through the familiar rigmarole of signing in and being searched, though the whole process felt more serious, more foreboding this time around. The chalkboard in the foyer listed their inmates as at the Women’s Prison – 1,377 people incarcerated on that day, apparently, including 27 lifers. The number was, as before, recently depleted by the slightly random amnesty that had taken place over Christmas. We’d discussed this in the interim, and been told that the arbitrary nature of the justice system here makes the amnesty slightly more understandable. People get arrested and jailed for what we in the West would consider minor offences, often just to fulfil police quotas. On my previous trip in 2019, one of the WayOut attendees had been picked up right outside the main building for ‘loitering’ and jailed for two months. So it wasn’t like they were releasing hardened criminals into society – more just letting the unfortunate have a comparatively lucky break.

Eyed cautiously by the guards, we were led up a flight of stairs to the main office of the chief warden. We entered the room – all dark, carved wood furniture and deep leather seating, with a familiar slightly chaotic layout – with some ceremony, but the warden himself, Jimmy, was lovely once we were introduced. A large, uniformed, imposingly built man with a shaved head and an impressive physique and a firm handshake, he had kind eyes and welcomed us to the prison with some emotion, happy that someone, somewhere was trying to do something constructive for his charges. He told us proudly that he had worked all around the country in different correctional facilities, and this posting here was the pinnacle of his career. He bade us welcome and sent us on into the prison to check out the new studio.

The creative arts, like many things in Sierra Leone, still tend to be very male-dominated, despite the progress made by people like Susan at WayOut. So it is that while our visit to the Women’s Prison had been worthwhile and appreciated, at this place the project was further along the line. We’d pledged to ship over two new Macbooks to install in a dedicated room on the premises (and we found out during our visit that the shipment had finally cleared customs) so that they could set up a permanent facility there. We walked through a couple of desolate courtyards, separated by a shattered and gloomy cellblock, until we reached a kind of back alley in the grounds, and found a small room with freshly painted Strummerville and WayOut logos painted above the door. The mobile studio was set up inside, for the time being, and a couple of guys were in there, working on building a beat for a rap that one of the inmates had written. The producer was a guy I hadn’t met before but had heard about – Solo.


Solo at work

Solo is, at a guess, in his late 20s. He’s sociologically in a different place to most of the people we work with in the country, visibly wealthier and more middle class; for example, he has his own, functioning phone, on which he regularly taps away at WhatsApp conversations. But he’s an absolute diamond, as well as being a very talented producer and musician. He works in what counts as the ‘mainstream’ music industry in the country, and usually charges a fair amount for a beat. But he does deals for WayOut artists, as he recognises and supports their aims, and works at the prison one day a week for free. And most importantly, his beats are killer. Watching him work was an education in itself, flying around the keys of the midi controller and flicking through Logic work pages at a rate I could barely follow, all the while layering up something funky and irresistible.

It would have been easy to get lost for the rest of the day in the music there, but a tap on the shoulder politely informed me it was time to head over to meet the prison choir. There was a group of about 50 guys in a courtyard, standing in a circle and singing some African songs to the accompaniment of a single tribal drum. I got my guitar out of its case and was ushered into the middle, and welcomed with some polite applause. Gibo had told me that the inmates here had been listening to a few of my songs – indeed, I’d sent over lyric sheets a few weeks back – so I charged into playing my Africanised versions of “Little Changes” and “Don’t Worry”, which they seamlessly and enthusiastically joined in with. There was a wide demographic – young and old, those with the hangdog look of defeat and a long sentence and those clearly stopping for a short stay. There was no prison uniform to speak of, just the usual mishmash of civilian clothes we were used to from the street. The drummer kept time and we raised a rousing chorus or two.

After I’d played four or five songs of my own, the inmates asked if I could back them up while they performed their own material. As ever, this consisted of lyrics that they’d written, so my job was to improvise a musical backing with the help of the drum. I asked the first guy what direction we were heading in, stylistically, and he told me “soft reggae”, so I started vamping round some simple chords, and he sung along. While I kept the chords basic, we had a vibe together, but an one point I tried out some slightly more left-field progressions, and he immediately lost his way. I learned my lesson and settled back into the previous arrangement, and all was well again. The second volunteer requested something “hip hop”. That’s a hard style to play unaccompanied on an acoustic guitar, but I slipped into a sort of Rage Against The Machine style riff, with a lot of rhythmic muted strings, and he smiled and was off, spitting furious rhymes to the crowd. It went over very well, though as ever his Krio was beyond my comprehension.

Everyone in the choir seemed very friendly and pleased that I was there. But I noticed as I was playing with them that there was a mesh fence at one end of the courtyard, behind which, hanging off the wire, was a smaller group of very heavy looking guys, who were staring unblinkingly at me as I played. I never got a chance to ask what the delineation was between them and the choir, but it seemed clear that they hadn’t been given permission to be around the visitors directly, which left me a little spooked.

Time, as ever, was in short supply, and I was called away before the seemingly endless procession of budding performers had reached its end. As we were leaving I noticed that, for all our caution about how Jess would fare in the prison, she was totally fine. In fact, she was slightly guarding Susan, who had attracted the attention of a keen and optimistic guard. He kept trying to bring her chairs, water, umbrella for shade and more, and she didn’t seem overly comfortable with it. Shows what I know. And as we were leaving, I had a briefly surreal moment. I handed my guitar to a guard briefly, and he comically started strumming the strings. Presumably through some mad chance (rather than an unexpected passion for Canadian prog rock) it sounded like he was playing the introduction to the Rush song “YYZ”. I did a double take, we both laughed, and I left the prison, wondering what the hell had just happened.

In keeping with established tradition, our final afternoon at WayOut was a hectic frenzy of activity, getting as much into the schedule as possible. Jamie and Dave went off to the port to collect the equipment that had just cleared customs. Jess and I went back to the headquarters. Jess had planned a couple of drama lessons, which had been hugely over-subscribed on the sign-up sheets. She’s a trained actress and a teacher, so this was very much in her wheelhouse. She played a few basic drama games – one involving holding cards on your forehead and trying to guess the number value by how everyone else was treating you, well for a king and badly for a two and so on. She then moved onto more serious work, looking at self-confidence, empathy and diction. It went down a storm.

Meanwhile, I was lost in an endless sea of writing, recording and guesting with as many people as I could fit into my limited time. I sat with Meeky and Sulcut for a while, working through some songs they’d written on acoustic guitar and suggesting a few changes, some different chords and turnarounds. Then I recorded some vocals for a chorus with Sons Of Slaves, who I’d seen the night before. Next up, a verse and a chorus with Mash P (whose recorded material has come on leaps and bounds since my first visit). Fal G arrived, hoarse and exhausted after the show the night before (he told me he got to bed at 2am – good lad), but coherent enough to talk me through a chorus for another Black Street song. I tried a few approaches, which were OK, but eventually decided to experiment with some full-on hardcore screamed style vocals. Gibo and Fal were initially stunned by the performance, then burst into happy laughter, saying it was exactly what they wanted. I’m not sure if they’ve come across that stylistic approach to vocals before. Maybe there will be a Freetown hardcore band next I come back. Once we were done, I gave Fal a gift of a limited edition Social Distortion shirt that Mike Ness gave me last year (complete with an explanation as to who exactly that is).


Fal G repping Social D

We had two delightful social visits during the afternoon. Firstly, Moziz brought his grandmother, with whom he lives, down to WayOut to say hello. She was a dignified, ancient woman, who treated us with the familiar tolerance of a bemused relative, and wished us well. Later on, Fal G brought his wife and his son, little Frankturner Kamara, for a brief visit. He’s a bit less freaked out by the bold fact of existence and whiteness now, but he’s still a 3 year old kid, a bit overwhelmed by everything and distracted. In the end I managed to eke a brief fist-bump and a photo out of him.


Me, Jess, Moziz and his Grandmother


With Fal G, his wife, and little Frankturner Koroma

Time was running out, but Sulcut came to me with a song he’d like to record, which was very much in line with what I usually do for my own material – folky but upbeat – so I sat at the computer in the studio and threw together an arrangement as fast as I could. We just about got it down before Hazel said it was time to wrap up. There were still a few disappointed people waiting by the door to the booth, but there was nothing I could do.

Outside, in the courtyard of the building, everyone was gathering for their standard early evening ritual – Basic Chilling. Basic Chilling involves everyone sat around on plastic chairs in a circle, sharing new ideas for songs, poems, whatever. Meanwhile Amara cooks omelette sandwiches for everyone (one of the main attractions for people who don’t always have guaranteed food to eat at home). It’s a lovely, community-minded affair. Jess, Dave and Jamie (who’d finished unpacking the shipment) were already in the circle, and I went down to join. I had one more thing I wanted to do before we left.

Playing through songs from “Be More Kind” over the last few days, I’d been reminded how much of the material on that record was, consciously or otherwise, inspired by spending time in West Africa. I was looking for songs that were simple and easy for a crowd here to pick up, clapping, singing and so on. Two songs in particular – “Don’t Worry” and “Little Changes” – fit this mould, and over the preceding few days both of them had evolved into something more obviously African. I wanted to document that in some way, so I asked the assembled Basic Chillers if they’d be up for helping me out with a filmed performance. We got a light, rearranged the chairs, handed out drums and percussion, and I say down to lead a performance of “Little Changes”. I think the end result is just lovely – you can see it here.

Finally it was time to go. Departures can be slow in Freetown, as everyone wants a hug, a selfie and a few heartfelt words. We hugged and snapped for as long as we could but eventually managed to extricate ourselves from the warm embraces and load up in the jeep. I always feel a mixture of sadness and exhaustion at the end of these trips, but it was tempered this time by a feeling that the project as a whole is making tangible progress, that I’ll definitely be back in a year or so, and by the long list of new ideas and projects that had come to mind over our four days in the country. A part of my heart belongs to this place now.

As we drove back to the hotel, for a quick meal before heading to the ferry, we got caught in traffic behind a funeral procession. It was loudly, gaudily Catholic, very much with the feel of something from New Orleans. There was a marching band playing out loud, messy, mournful dirges, complete with brass and drums, and about 100 people were walking slowly but rhythmically down the middle of the road. There was a heady mixture of finery and tears, of Sunday bests and the rending pull of grief, ultimately of life and death, defiance in the face of all the shit that life can throw at you. Sierra Leone in all its ragged glory.


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Sierra Leone 2020 – Part 3

Presumably, you came here to read about my travels in West Africa, and the work being done there by WayOut Arts (part 1 here, part 2 here) – not about our collective stomach troubles. So I’ll save you the gory details. Suffice it to say that I had a tentative night, but felt OK by the morning. I was not the only one suffering though – something we ate the day before was working its way through our collective digestive systems. We’d all been paranoid about this kind of thing on previous visits, but never actually had any incidents before now. It’s an occupational hazard in that part of the world I suppose.

We had planned a bit of tourism for the morning of our third day. We’d often driven past the signs for Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the past, and always expressed an interest, so Hazel had scheduled in some time for us there, en route to a visit to Kissy Town. We dragged ourselves out of bed, through breakfast and into a taxi (the jeep was getting fixed), shaky and tired, but excited to see and learn about some primates.

The hour-long drive to Tacugama took us through familiar terrain until the turnoff, whence we drove through a jungle path up an increasingly steep hill. The taxi coughed and spluttered, but our driver seemed supremely zen about the whole thing, so we tried to adopt the same attitude. Eventually the path became so steep that there was a sign warning drivers not to attempt it without four-wheel drive, which we most certainly didn’t have, so we got out to hike. To our surprise, five minutes later the taxi (now unencumbered by passengers) successfully wheezed its way to the top to join us. Our driver looked pleased.

The sanctuary is a wonderful place, though its raison d’etre is a sad one. Chimpanzees are native to West Africa, but are under threat thanks to the predictable combination of expanding agriculture and growing human population. Many farmers just kill them; some people eat them as well (as “bush meat”), which is often a cause of the spread of diseases like ebola. Tacugama was set up to rehabilitate chimps captured, wounded or imprisoned as pets, and is in part funded by the visits of tourists such as us. The chimps go through five stages of rewilding, with an eventual aim of release – one of the putative destinations being an island in the river in the south of Sierra Leone which is uninhabited by humans. Because of the nature of the program, you don’t go anywhere near the wild animals, but in the early stages you get close enough to observe them at play, which was a wonderful humbling thing to witness. They are magnificent creatures.

They also put me in mind of punks – I was tickled by one of the information boards that told us that they “often carry out wild dances… They make their hair stand on end and stamp their feet, then they charge around breaking branches and throwing rocks… They all dance together, hooting and screaming”. This impression was reinforced by the startlingly unexpected sight of a plaque proclaiming that one of the sanctuary areas was funded by “The Sex Pistols’ lead singer, John Lydon”. Not what I was expecting to see that day.

We completed the tour, bought some tat from the gift shop, and got back in the taxi for a hair-raising trip back down the hill. From there we headed for Kissy Town, to meet up with the gang. I’d been there on both my previous trips. It’s essentially a refugee camp built around an abandoned airstrip that was cleared and built by the British army in 2001. It’s a vast community, only 15 miles or so outside the capital, that’s largely forgotten about by wider society and aid agencies. In 2019 we’d raised the funds to build a second headquarters for WayOut Arts there – renting a small building, supplying power, and putting in the equipment needed for a studio. We’d come back to check in on the project.


Jamie in the Kissy Town Studio

The realities of life in a West African refugee camp came flooding back pretty quickly – partly because, despite its size, it’s not signposted anywhere on the road, and our driver had no idea where he was going. Eventually we chanced it down a potholed side street, and suddenly emerged on the wide open runway. He was shocked. And secondly, on arrival we were told that the local dance troupe, who’d wowed us last time around, had a routine planned for us, but a powercut had done for their PA system and backing track for the time being. After a quick visit to the studio (where I play a little guitar on the track they were working on), we decided that we might as well crack on with the show. The crowd gathered and sung us a traditional welcome song, after which I ran through my set of increasingly Africanised songs, which went down a storm. As ever, the younger kids were the most excited, banging the sides of my guitar and scraping the strings with their fingers at the end of each number. The older kids kept their distance at first, but softened over time.


Playing in Kissy Town

Finally the power was back up and running, and we assembled in a clearing behind the studio for the dance performance. Seven incredibly muscular guys lined up and starting running through their routines. I can’t dance to save my life, and have to confess that it’s not an artform that particularly grabs me, but even I was blown away (and Jess, who has trained as a dancer, was enraptured). Each piece of music was a couple of minutes long, and the moves were carefully synchronised, viscerally energetic, and, as time went by, increasingly inventive and funny. At one point, one guy laid on the ground, another lay across his arms and legs, prostrate and with his stomach exposed, and a third guy played him like a piano, along with the backing track. Moments later, the middle guy was flipped over and the musician was playing his buttocks as drums. It was genuinely hilarious.


Kissy Town Dancers

Towards the end of the performance there were some darker moments. In one section, a few of the dancers sat on the ground, back to back, like prisoners, while the others acted as guards, stalking around then and beating them (in time with the music) with their hands and with imaginary rifle butts. It was instantly haunting – the physical movements were clearly authentic. The spectre of the civil war came rushing up through the ground, the chilling realisation that everyone here either lived through that nightmare or knew about it from their parents. The dance moves had real violence to them. But it was over as soon as it started, and I was left slightly shivering in the beating sun.

Shortly after that, as the routine continued, a slightly older guy – 20 maybe – came over and stood by me, and after shuffling uncomfortably for a while, leaned in and whispered “Can you help me?” He told me he was hungry. Hazel has often briefed me on situations like this. It’s morally impossible, of course. Every human instinct told me to say yes, to think of something to do for him (though I didn’t have any Sierra Leonean currency on me). But the problem is that there are thousands like him, all around Kissy Town, and his poverty is something systemic. Handing out to one guy would be dangerous, I was told, and destabilising for the project as a whole. It’s important for WayOut to remain seen as a long-term project, not just a vehicle for handouts. Nevertheless I asked Gibo and Hazel if there was anything that could be done, and I think someone got him an omelette sandwich. I came away from the whole thing feeling useless and small.

Soon it was time to go, not least because Dave was now really suffering with his stomach, and with the exhaustion of not having slept much the night before (for related reasons). We set off back to the city in the newly fixed-up jeep. As we passed through the suburb of Waterloo, we were pulled over at a police checkpoint. John was nervous – while he had passed his test, he still hadn’t received his license proper, and his permit to drive in the meantime was a legally questionable document. A female police officer came to the car window, and it was immediately clear that this was a shakedown. She was very polite – funny even – with the Westerners in the vehicle, but coldly told John to go with her to the police hut off to the side of the highway. We waited in tense silence for about five minutes, until the two of them returned, smiling. The policewoman told us her name was Felicia, and gave us her phone number on a piece of paper, saying that she could show us musicians a good time at night in Freetown. John tolerated all this and then pulled back out onto the road. He said that he’d paid a bribe of 25,000 Leones (about £2) for us to get on our way.

The whole thing was depressingly predictable, but we took it in our stride. As we sucked on wtaer bags, munched on omelette sandwiches, surveyed the chaos of the roadside vendors, and bribed our way back to the city, I was struck by how quickly you get subsumed in the environment out here. I’d only been in the country for two days but already felt normalised, settled.


We had a quiet afternoon scheduled, which was for the best, as by that point both Jess and Dave were under the weather. I got some work done and generally just enjoyed lounging around the Jam Lodge while Jamie went to a football match at the Siaka Stevens stadium and the others slept. By time evening rolled around, it became clear that our two invalids would be staying in while Jamie and I went out.

The plan for that night was something I was both looking forward to and slightly nervous about. After the “official” show at Carlington the night before, I had a different kind of gig lined up. Fal G, the leader of the Black Street Family (a gang now transformed into a rap group, thanks to Hazel and WayOut) was hosting a block party – or “carnival”, as I was politely but firmly instructed to call it. Fal is a lovely guy, we’ve hung out before, and he even named his young son Frankturner Koroma (a common tradition in Sierra Leone, giving a child the name of someone considered to be lucky). But he’s also an imposing character on the Freetown street – the head honcho of a serious group, and respected across the board. The carnival was in an area called Five School. The stage was set up by the side of the road outside a carwash. The theme of the evening was bringing together all the different street gangs of east Freetown for a musical event – not quite a rap battle, but certainly a chance for everyone to show off. The event was titled “Best of the Best”, and I was scheduled as one of the opening acts on the posters that we’d seen around town.


Show Poster in Five School

I’ve played a lot of shows in my time, and some of them in some pretty weird and wonderful places, from the roof of a London squat to a Lithuanian tea house via disused Chinese nuclear bunkers, but this one was definitely up there, in terms of the strangeness of the location and context. But I was honoured to have been included. Jamie and I got picked up at 10.30pm and brought over to the show. Despite the advertised start time of 9pm, things were still pretty quiet when we got there, but that’s standard for Sierra Leone. The stage was a wooden platform on some crates with a single bright light at the back and a blue tarpaulin hanging down the side. To one side of the clearing was the DJ booth, a ramshackle mountain of gear, and there were large blown-out PA speakers dotted around everywhere. There were chairs around the edge of the dance floor, where Jamie and I were sat like visiting dignitaries. Maybe 100 people were milling around the edge, and there was a cautious tension in the air as the different gangs assembled, each keeping to their own social grouping. Amara, Hazel’s adopted son, was keeping a close eye on the two of us, which was comforting, given that he’s built like a tank (and a very sweet guy).


Five School Dancefloor

We got some beers in and settled into our seats. Alusine, the WayOut filmographer, was playing the role of MC under his street name, Easy Man. He was something of a standup comic, and also seemed to be one of the only people who knew everyone and knew what was supposed to be going on. There was a moment of humour when we got up to introduce the first act, a dance performance named “Invincible Dancer”. Jamie and I misheard it as “Invisible Dancer”, which made a weird kind of sense when the backing track started and no one took the stage. We looked at each other, wondering if this was some kind of advanced avant garde art prank, but eventually the Dancer emerged from the crowd (he hadn’t heard his stage introduction) and started his routine. He was supple and bold, and the single light at the back of the stage cast him as a silhouette in the dark, warm evening.


Invincible Dancer

During his set, a slightly older guy – maybe 40 – approached me and started talking to me His speech was incomprehensible – partly because he was speaking in strong Krio, and partly because he was quite clearly off his tits on something. Amara stepped in with a faint air of menace, and the guy backed off. Amara told me he’d been asking who I was because he said he recognised me – apparently I’m a dead ringer for his brother.

And the end of the Invisible Dancer’s set, people came forward and threw money on the front of the stage, like it was a strip club. This surprised Jamie and I initially, but it’s standard practice for performers in this cultural environment, the way they make money from their art. The dancer – his name was Troy – gathered his takings and left the stage. Next up, little old me.

I set up quickly as the DJ played a mixtape of aggressive African music, more like Gabba than anything I’d heard before. In the gathering crowd I could see a lot of faces I knew, the WayOut regulars, making their way to the front, for moral support I suppose as much as anything. There were maybe 200 people there now, still fenced off in their own gang groups, but there was a palpable air of curiosity from the people who didn’t know me, as to who this white guy with a guitar might be and what the hell he was doing on the stage. Easy Man introduced me, I took a deep breath, and threw myself into the show.

Quite often when I play live, I have my eyes shut. It’s a way of focussing, shutting out the world and diving deep into playing and singing as best I can, summoning the emotional depth required to put my art over well. On this occasion, I forced myself to keep my eyes open, just so I could drink in the total insanity of where I was. This show – number 2,441 – was easily one of the craziest I’ve ever done. Despite being able to trace the causality, there was just something so inexplicable about me, a middle class white kid from London, playing by the side of the road in West Africa to a few hundred Sierra Leonean street gangsters. And people were into it. At first it was mainly the WayOut crew singing along and dancing, but others came down to the front in time, and by the end of my five song set we had a real atmosphere going. Even the harder guys at the sides, with their arms folded defensively across their chests, were nodding in silent approval. It was unbelievable.

And it was over in a flash, and I was back to my seat at the side with Jamie. People came over to say hello, congratulate me, and take selfies, both folks I knew and others. Amara was ever-present, but the whole vibe was welcoming. It felt like everyone else acknowledged how mad it was for me to be there at all, and they were taking it, and my chutzpah, with good humour. I was absolutely buzzing. Jamie and I have, in our friendship, been to some pretty wild and weird parties, but this one beat them all. More beers arrived (Jamie’s attempt to go to the bar by himself didn’t go well, so we went back to accepting them from our friends) and we settled in for the rest of the entertainment.

The gangs were still keeping to their corners, but the atmosphere was peaceful, if a little on edge. Fal had told me that his greatest hope for the event was for the whole thing to pass off without violence, and he was successful in that – despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he spent most of his time darting through the crowd, saying hello, diffusing tension and reminding everyone of the peaceful theme. There were no cops or outside authorities, and it was clear that he was using the force of his personality and reputation to keep things on track.

The music was awesome. Mash P played a set, and I promised him I’d dance, which I did, slowly at first, but with increasing confidence (if not skill) as time, beats and beer passed. Meeky got up and surprised us with a rap set – apparently what he used to do all the time before becoming enamoured with the acoustic guitar. I was pleased to see a woman perform – a first for me in Sierra Leone – called Abi Batu, spitting fierce rhymes. A WayOut guy called Speshial sang a strong tune of his called “I Am The Ghetto”. A band with the ridiculously strong name of Sons Of Slaves blew me away. There was even a song in a 6/8 time signature, which was a refreshing change from the ubiquitous Afrobeat rhythms. With each new act, a slightly different group came to the front of the stage, each gang supporting their own people. But peace continued to reign, and I continued to dance.

Hazel mentioned to me that pretty much all the music we were hearing (including the vocals – miming is a universal practice here at live shows, it seems) was recorded at the WayOut Arts studio. It’s the only place in the city, the country, where people like this can record music – one of their rules is that it’s free, but it’s also for people who couldn’t afford to pay anyway. Hazel said that while she knew most of the performers, at least by sight, she didn’t really know who was in which gang. Leaving their colours at the door is another condition of using the studio.

Finally the show was drawing to an end, and the main act was highly anticipated. The show was billed as Fal G rather than Black Street, but the membership of the group is amorphous enough that it was kind of a BSF show by default. There were certainly enough people on the stage, once they got going. Fal made his way through the crowd, mounted the stage, and launched into a massive tune called “Chocolate God”. It was electrifying, intense, heavy, threatening, lyrical, clearly the artistic climax of the night.. He powered through a set, 45 minutes maybe. His crew stood around him on the stage, sharing vocals from time to time, and passing around a bottle of Courvoisier cognac. I felt honoured to witness it. Jamie and I hovered at the edge of the dancefloor, trying out our increasingly confident moves (with Mash on hand as dance tutor).


Fal G in Full Flow

And then it was over. The music reverted to mad mixtapes, the stage cleared, and the two of us decided it was time for bed – it was after 1am now. We congratulated Fal on his performance, finished our beers, and got in the jeep with John to head home. As we left we saw the fucked up older guy still dancing on his own. Apparently the party was likely to run until sunrise, and I’d put money on that guy still being there well into the following morning, jamming to his own beat, like a casualty in the Stone Circle at Glastonbury on the Monday morning.


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Sierra Leone 2020 – Part 2

The first day of my third trip to Sierra Leone had been gruelling in the extreme – both to experience, to write up, and for you to read, I suspect. That night Jess, Dave, Jamie and I slept the sleep of the just, out like lights by 9.30pm and up at a manageable 8am. Hazel had told us that the trip was somewhat front-loaded, so our second day felt, in anticipation, almost luxuriantly easy. It was also set to feature a trip yet further into the country than I’d ever been before.

Sierra Leone is a country that is geographically and economically lopsided. There’s only one real major city, Freetown. The other cities in the country – Bo, Kenema – are much, much smaller. The capital sucks in people and resources in a way that is a little familiar to someone who moved to London as a teenager. On previous visits, we’d made it out to Waterloo and Kissy Town – areas that can take several hours to reach but which are still only 15 or 20 miles from the centre of the city, and still on the Freetown peninsula. It has long been an ambition of Hazel’s to spread the work of WayOut up country, and I’d been fascinated to visit, if possible. Most of the people we know at the project come from somewhere out “in the bush” (their phrase), so I was curious as to what it would be like.

So after breakfast we saddled up in the jeep and another taxi and set out for Songo. Songo is both the name of a small town (almost a village) and the general area of which it forms the administrative centre. It lies maybe 20 miles further up the Bai Bureh Highway, past Hastings and Waterloo, just over the border into the Northern Province. The majority of our drive there was familiar to the veterans among us. We wound up through the clearer air and better roads of the hills for a while, past universities, embassies and government property. On the further side of the hill, the road abruptly ceases to exist in any paved form, and the journey becomes a bumping, grinding nightmare for a good while. And then you pick up on the startlingly straight and flat highway towards the centre of the country, built, as I’d discovered on a previous trip, by the Chinese, with one eye on the many resources waiting to be efficiently exploited, not least alluvial diamonds.

Though the countryside passing the windows of the jeep was familiar to me to some extent from previous drives, it was still a good crash course reminder of many of the more intriguing things about the place. The Chinese presence was as noticeable as ever, most of the more stable-looking buildings being emblazoned with Chinese characters and logos for China Aid. These stand in stark contrast to some of the local attempts at development – we passed the “Sierra Leone Department of Environment and Town Planning”, which turned out to be a largely collapsed building, with a fallen down sign in the driveway reading “Trespassers Will Be Porsecuted”. I know from talking to Josta and others that there is a fair amount of suspicion about the long-term intentions of the Chinese builders, but they are at least building something, so it’s hard to know quite what to think. The shiny new Limkokwing University (specialising in IT training) had a guy outside selling wires advertised proudly as “Cables that don’t catch fire!”

We passed through Waterloo and out into virgin territory (for me). A toll gate welcomed us to the Northern Province. We turned off the highway at a roundabout, where I couldn’t help noticing that the two cars in front of us drove around it in different directions, which was slightly worrying. Then we were on to a pot-holed gravel road, where John drove alarmingly fast, given that the backseat of the jeep didn’t seem to have functioning seatbelts. We passed herds of goats, a slightly random police checkpoint, and finally pulled in to the centre of the town of Songo.


Checking out the mobile studio in Songo

The area where we stopped was a small dirt clearing among a number of huts and shacks, but it was clear that buildings stretched back into the jungle around us. It’s an area that doesn’t get many, if any, visits from foreigners and NGOs. Gibo had been out a couple of times to check the place out, explain the premise of WayOut, and bring along the mobile studio (funded by the Joe Strummer Foundation). This consists of a series of plastic crates containing a Macbook, some monitor speakers, an audio interface, some microphones and a large keboard-cum-MIDI controller. It’s a neat little setup, perfectly adequate to the task at hand, and the WayOut crew set it up quickly and efficiently so that the Songo locals could continue to work on their tracks, either cooking up new beats or recording the raps they’d been writing and practising since the last visit.

While the artists were getting busy, Hazel introduced me to the local youth leader, a guy called Worry (which was, in itself, potentially a bit worrying, but he was lovely). He told me that Songo (population? “About a thousand”) had 80% unemployment and very little infrastructure. They feel “forgotten” by the government, and were frankly amazed that WayOut were taking the time to visit them. There was immediate practical value to the project; the local Songo radio station were overjoyed that they now had tracks to play by local artists, and a genuine feeling of community building around the music-making. He told me that they had a local club as well, called Result, where they held gatherings, shows and parties – possibly all three are the same thing, there was a slight language barrier. He explained that Songo was the centre, the seat of the chiefdom, of an area called Kuya (population? “About a thousand” – hmm).


Me and Worry

In general, Worry struck me as a decent, committed guy, doing his best to help build something in a pretty desolate situation. There was a palpable feeling of neglect in the air, which was now burning hot, though noticeably cleaner than in the city. But Worry was cautiously optimistic, or at least working on coming across as such, and he carried himself with quiet pride and authority. I didn’t end up playing my usual short set, as the local musicians seemed perfectly committed to the project already, and I didn’t want to bust in with sharp, white elbows.

It was time for us to head back to the city, but as we were leaving, Worry insisted on showing us Result. We drove down a steep small side road and into a massive clearing, peppered with palm trees. There was a well-built building at one end of the space with a concrete stage out front, flanked by an enormous JVL PA system that was currently blasting out ear-splittingly loud, slightly distorted afrobeats. The place had an amazing vibe, and Dave and I immediately both thought of how, one day in the future, it would be an amazing spot for a rave of some kind. And of course, that thought was immediately a little troubling – organising raves struck us both as being quite low down the list of priorities for the people of Songo.


Result

While Dave and I were lost in our musings, Jess was being shown around some of the other parts of the Result area. They had a small area full of large hutches with various animals inside, which they referred to as their zoo. It was actually kind of sad – the caged animals looked miserable, cooped up inside, especially the jumping bush rats, which were desperately leaping against the wire mesh, over and over, trying to escape. Some of the guys had come over to the club area with us, and they were happily showing her around. It slowly dawned on her that they hadn’t twigged that we are married, and they were doing their level best to chat her up, in an endearing way. Once they started asking for phone numbers the situation was clear, and she laughed and showed off her ring. It’s always remarkable to me how totally that shuts the situation down in this part of the world – they hastily and apologetically beat their retreat.

We said our farewells and set off back to Freetown. Hazel said something intriguing to me on the way back. She said that it was frustrating to her that the government so totally ignored communities like Songo. Shew said that, for all the decades of peace since the civil war, all it would take is one charismatic leader to appeal to the bored and listless unemployed youth of so many areas like that, and you’d have a new insurrection on your hands. Looking out for the people of Songo is a moral imperative, of course, but it should also be a political one, a matter of national security, in her view. I could see her point.


We stopped back at the WayOut headquarters for a late lunch of omelette sandwiches, which I found I’d missed. They’re a cheap staple that most people survive off at the project, but they’re tasty and filling. Then I set about trying to fix up as many of the guitars as I could. We’ve brought and shipped quite a few over in the last few years, but the combination of inexpert playing and an unforgiving climate roughs them up pretty comprehensively. I found myself missing Ben Lloyd and his infinitely superior skills in this field, but I did my best and managed to restring, clean and tweak most of them. Then it was time to head back to the hotel to relax for a while before the big night ahead of us in Lumley.

As mentioned before, the idea behind doing a “proper” show on this trip arose from a few different angles. Firstly, in the past it had been hard to know quite what to mention when doing more “mainstream” press in the country – people interviewing me on AYTV and AiRadio (and most of the people listening) were unlikely to venture down to Susan’s Bay for a show. And it struck us that it would be cool to have an opportunity to showcase some of the WayOut talent as opening acts for a gig. So Hazel had booked a bar called Carlington in Lumley Beach. Lumley is a comparatively upmarket part of Freetown – it’s where they shot the Bounty chocolate adverts (“A Taste Of Paradise”) in the 1970s, and it’s where they’re building new tourist hotels at a visible rate. We’d wandered down there before, and the whole area has a much more touristy, ex-pat vibe than the places we usually visit. The show was set for that Saturday night at 8pm.

Due to various technical hitches, including a powercut at the venue, John was late to pick us up from the Jam Lodge, so we were a little rushed for time on arrival. The venue was a bar on the side of the main drag along the edge of the beach, though it was too dark by then for us to drink in the view. There was a large bare-floored room immediately in front of us on entry, with a stage at the left hand end, maybe 10 rows of chairs set up in front of it. A small divider ran across the room, with the bar on the other side. As we entered, the WayOut house band was running through a peremptory soundcheck, and quite a few people we knew were milling about, many of them looking a little uncomfortable in their surroundings. This is an area and a bar where people who go to WayOut don’t often come. Out front there was a large poster advertising the show, complete with a big picture of my face. The guy on the door welcomed me with a big grin when he recognised me.

After I’d quickly checked my levels, the four of us hit the bar to get food and beer. The crowd started to dribble in slowly. I’d had absolutely no idea what kind of turnout there might be for the show, I had no frame of reference for it, and this wasn’t an occasion on which any advance tickets had been sold. By the end of the night there were maybe 70 people there, almost all white ex-pats from a variety of different places – the UK, Germany, Ireland, the US. There were maybe one or two people in the room who struck me as wealthier, more middle class Sierra Leoneans. In some ways it was a shame that the divide was so stark, but you can only play for the crowd that shows up, and they were an enthusiastic bunch. The back rows were filled with kids from WayOut, sitting slightly apart from the Westerners, but definitely up for a good time.

The show began. The first act up was Meeky. He took the stage with Sulcut, another WayOut attendee, and an acoustic guitar, and they ran through about 4 original compositions. Their harmonies were sweet, and the lyrics were touchingly romantic, although some of their song structures were a little unformed – something I’d work on with them both a couple of days later. Next up was the amazing Moziz Roziz. Moziz is a street poet we’d met in 2019 who had completely blown us away with his visceral, angry, funny work. I was stoked to see him again. He read three poems, two of which I remembered from before, furious, unforgiving pieces. His third poem was a new one, a love poem, that was sweet and hilarious. “The reason I hate buying you clothes / Is because I love to see you naked.” The crowd were in the palm of his hand.

After Moziz was done, we had a quick catch up to discuss some future plans (more on that soon!) while the WayOut band set up – drums, bass, piano and keyboards. These guys were total beginners on my first trip in 2017. In 2019, their progress was startling. They’re now a pretty slick backing band by anyone’s standards, especially the rhythm section. It was great to see them play again. After a short instrumental introduction, Mash P took the stage. His performance was staggering – he’s a natural born star. He was everywhere, all over the stage, high-kicking, running into the audience, staring down his crowd. “Mr President” was a big singalong, the WayOut part of the crowd rousingly joining in with the “Tell me what a gwan” call-and-response. Hazel has focussed a lot of her energy on his talent over the years, and it was abundantly clear why in that room that night.


Mash in full flow with the WayOut band

Once Mash had finished wowing the crowd, there was a short break while I got ready to play. People tend to show up late to events in Freetown, so we waited a little to let the last stragglers into the room. Then it was my turn. In all honesty, I felt a little flat after the display of local talent I was trying to follow. It was interesting to play more of a “proper” set for the first time for the friends I’ve made over there, and I slipped back into my more traditional stage habits and banter. It was fun, I played maybe 45 minutes or so, and got the crowd engaged as best I could, even though everyone remained sitting down.

One of the highlights of the set for me was singing a version of “Eulogy” in Krio. John had helped me to translate it earlier in the day, and I’d been practising my pronunciation. It’s a song I’ve sung in nearly 30 languages now, so it seemed appropriate. Dave held up the lyric sheet for me, and it went down a storm.

I finished with “Photosynthesis”, which I managed to segue into a reliable chorus of “We Lek We Salone” at the end, which got everyone singing. I wrapped up and started to make my way off the stage, but the crowd were definitely in the mood for more. On the spare of the moment, I called the WayOut rhythm section to the stage and got them to strike up an African beat, while I reprised the singalong chords, and encouraged everyone to get on their feet. In no time at all everyone was down the front for a brief but joyously chaotic dance party. Mash, Sulcut and others joined me on the stage, and it proved a raucous end to the evening, a more satisfying conclusion than I’d been planning or imagining.

Finally it was time to wrap up the song (which is dangerously inconclusive – you can keep playing it indefinitely if you’re not careful) and the night itself. My stomach was starting to grumble a little, so I figured it was probably wise to make my way back to the hotel, with its reliable toilet, sooner rather than later. After some hugs, high-fives and selfies, it was time to get out of there.


Dance Party!

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Sierra Leone 2020 – Part 1

This is a blog about my third trip to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to visit the charity project WayOut Arts there. I’ve written up my two previous trips, the first one here and the second one here. It’s probably an idea to have a read of those first, to get the general background. I’m going to do my best not to repeat myself here, and to focus on the new experiences, events and ideas from this third trip, in January 2020. Thanks for reading.


There was a two year gap between my first two visits to Sierra Leone, thanks, in part, to the vagaries of airline scheduling. This time around, the return visit was planned just a year after my previous trip, which felt much better – like I was able to build some kind of rhythm with the project. With every successive journey, I feel more involved with WayOut, and more connected with the friends I’ve made in Freetown.

Unfortunately, this time around, Ben Lloyd was not able to make the trip, due to personal commitments, so I decided to invite my wife, Jess, to join me, Dave Danger and Jamie Webb (of the Joe Strummer Foundation) for the voyage to West Africa. Jess is, among other things, a trained actress, and, in discussions with Hazel, who runs WayOut, we decided that she might be able to lend some of her skills to the project and run some acting workshops. The plan for me was, as ever, to make some return trips to places already visited, to break some new ground, and to make some music with the WayOut artists in their studio on Rasmussen Street.

One extra idea that we threw into the mix was for me to do a proper show – by which I mean a gig in a venue, listed publicly, in the evening, and open to all comers, including the ex-pat community. On previous jaunts, I’ve played a lot of shows, but always in slum areas or refugee camps. I was asked on a TV show last time around where I was playing, and when I answered saying I was off to play at King Jimmy’s – a notoriously rough gang spot in the slums – both the presenters and, I presume, the audience, were slightly taken aback. I wanted to play an evening show, more in line with my usual outings, to give us something to promote in the country, to showcase some WayOut artists as support acts, and to try and go some way to breaking down the social barriers between the people I work with there and other, better-off members of Sierra Leonean society. So a show was booked for a bar called Carlington, in Lumley Beach, one of the more salubrious districts of the city.

Before heading off, as ever, I did a bunch of fund-raising back home, and Jamie and Hazel drew up a budget of ideas to spend the funds on. By adding a £1 donation to the ticket price of the upcoming UK tour in March, and selling some new T-shirts, we smashed our targets pretty easily, so there was cash to spare. Dave and Jamie sorted out a large shipment of new equipment to send over and got it sent off before we left, so we could meet it in Freetown. That sorted, the four of us saddled up and headed to Heathrow airport, malaria drugs, sunscreen and bug spray at the ready.

Throughout the gruelling flight, from London to Freetown via Casablanca, three of us felt like veterans shipping out again. We were ready for the delayed first flight, for the manic changeover in Morocco and more. Jess was new to all of this, of course, but I’d done my best to prepare her for the awfulness of the flight schedule (engendered by the poverty of our destination and the lack of tourists heading that way). What was unexpected for all of us was running into Cooper, our American-gone-native journalist friend, as we boarded our second flight. He’d been laying over in Casablanca for 14 hours, and had thoroughly exhausted their free internet allowance long ago. He’s a lovely and fascinating guy, and it was great (if a little surreal) to see a friendly face at that moment. We settled in for the overnight ride, our paltry attempts at sleep interrupted by a loud and clearly wealthy Sierra Leonean guy (his coat clearly cost more than my entire wardrobe combined) who insisted on having his own little party the whole way to Freetown, from 1am to 4am. It reminded me that even in a country as poor as Sierra Leone, there are sharp economic divides, and money seldom buys manners.


Arriving at Lungi Airport

Gritty and drained, we landed in the muggy warmth of the African night. Immigration was slightly held up by the officers being confused at the number of visas in my passport, but we got through just fine. As usual, John from WayOut met us at arrivals, all smiles, energy and insistence on speaking to me in Krio, which, I must confess, I had neglected to practice in the intervening twelve months. We trundled down to the ferry in the bus and crossed the water to the city proper. En route Cooper and I discussed British and American politics while the TV showed images of Trump, the Iranian bombing of American bases in Iraq, and some shenanigans with the royal family (about which I care not a jot, even when I’m not sleep-deprived). Our fellow passengers were a mixed bunch, but we made friends with a British couple from Warwickshire, a midwife and a town planner, over to do charity work. Helen, the midwife, had become aware of who I was because I’d accidentally snapper her in the background of a group selfie on the plane which I’d posted to Instagram. Her son is a fan and had alerted his mother to my presence (and existence in general, I think), so she came over to say hello. Lovely people.

Hazel and Gibo met us at the ferry port, and we loaded up in some cars to head to the hotel. On the ferry, John had told me I had a 7.30am start the next day (it was now approaching 5am), and I’d assumed he was messing with me. Alas Hazel rather hesitantly informed me that this was not a joke – I was due on a TV show at 8. The nature of these trips is that they’re hectic, we’re there to work, but even so this felt pretty brutal to me. Nonetheless I sucked it up, took a deep breath, and settled in for a grand total of 90 minute’s sleep once we arrived at our home away from home, Jam Lodge.


Morning had already been creeping around the corner of the blinds when I went to bed, but even so, the sound of my phone alarm going off was an unwelcome awakening. Jess elected to sleep some more, as my morning schedule was mainly promotional, for the charity in general and the Carlington show specifically. Jamie also proved beyond the point of being able to be roused, so Dave and I congregated on the upstairs balcony for our traditional breakfast of pancakes, coffee and homemade ginger juice. The sun was valiantly trying to break through the early morning haze, a pal over the city and the bay that I still haven’t quite decided whether it’s caused by pollution or just local weather patterns – likely a bit of both. Fuelled up as much as we could be, we went downstairs to the gate when we heard the beep of the car horn.

John was there to pick us up, driving a big, sleek, grey SUV. The vehicle was second hand, but in great shape. It’s something that the charity was able to buy with funds raised for previous visits of mine, and it was great to see it in the flesh, with a Joe Strummer Foundation flag draped over the bonnet (and, slightly precariously, the ventilation vents for the radiator). We loaded up to head for AY TV, John at the wheel. He told me that he’d passed his test, but that licenses can take anywhere up to three months to be issued after that, so he was technically driving with his learner’s permit. For a moment I was slightly alarmed, as the journey through the morning traffic felt manic and dangerous, but I soon remembered that that’s just the nature of driving over there, and in fact John was perfectly competent.

I’d visited AY TV the last time I was through Freetown, so the setting was familiar. I was ushered on set for the morning discussion show, which turned out to be a pretty big deal – over the next few days many people would stop me in the street and say they’d seen me on there. I was sat at a small table on one side of the room, while the two female hosts occupied a sofa across from me. Next to them were the other guests – two Americans, one of them a Rotarian no less, representing a charity group called Mediation Without Borders. They were up first, and one of the hosts hit them straight away with a fascinating, feisty question.

“You are a group that works on conflict resolution, yes? But there is no war in Sierra Leone, that ended a long time ago. Why are you here?” I was struck by the forthrightness of this approach, impressed even. Sierra Leone as a country is so often defined, in foreign eyes, by the Civil War, but, as she noted, it ended in 2002. Of course, her interviewees had good answers, talked about election violence and general strife and so on, and they had an intelligent chat. But I enjoyed the way the local presenters had asserted themselves so early on.

My slot came around, I chatted, ran through my spiel, played a couple of songs. It all went fine, and soon it was time to move on. On the way out of the studio, I had a lovely moment – we ran into three guys, all WayOut graduates, who were now employed by the TV station as editors. AY TV is one of the biggest stations in the country, and for these guys, getting a job there would have been unimaginable before their training with WayOut. It was wonderful to see such a tangible result from our efforts. Having a job means an income, an address, the cycle of homeless and poverty broken. It cheered me up immensely, in my exhausted haze.

After the TV, it was time for radio. We drove down the hill and stopped at a place new to me, Freetown Radio. Apparently they’re one of the more genuine stations in the city, in that they don’t demand cash from artists for plays, and they’re interested in promoting local talent, like the sounds coming out of Rasmussen Street. Located on a small side street at the top of a rickety cinder block building painted garish orange, it was a ramshackle affair, but infused with the enthusiasm of the people who worked there. The DJ – DJ Rockstar, no less – welcomed me and Gibo into the studio, and told me how he’d become a fan of my work from my previous visits. “Get Better” was playing on the air as we sat down and got ready to go live. We chatted for ten minutes or so, the rusting, battered microphones occasionally feeding back through the blown speakers. Once again I promoted the show and played a few songs, and then it was time to go. As I was leaving, Rockstar played “Get Better” again. One of his favourites, apparently.

We headed back to the hotel, already feeling like we’d had a pretty full day, even though it was now barely 10am. A second breakfast did much to raise my spirits, and Jamie and Jess were now ready to go as well. It was finally time to head down to the HQ and see all of our friends.

In a now-familiar setting, we pulled up at the courtyard and got out of the car to be greeted by the assembled gang singing me a traditional welcome song. Even though I’ve been in that situation twice before, it’s still hard to express how wonderful it feels to be accepted like that by people like this. There was much hugging and high-fiving, and a brief selection of welcome speeches, some prepared, some off the cuff. In particular a woman called Frances, who I recognised but didn’t really know too well, read out a short poem she’d written for the occasion. It was beautifully touching, and I learned that she has come into her own as a writer in the last year, a good example of the way that the women at the project have been finding their voice more over time, fighting against culture and stereotypes. An encouraging sign.

It was great to see everyone, to catch up with people I can comfortably call old friends now. In particular, it was great to see Mash P. On my first visit, he’d been at the forefront, a prominent character. Last time around he’d been much colder and more standoffish. After his harrowing childhood, it’s entirely understandable that he has social and mental issues to deal with. Apparently he’d been joshed a little by the others for being so friendly with me the first time, so he’d taken a big step back. This time around, it felt like he’d found his measure, and we had a warm reunion.

I took a moment to do some guitar maintenance on some of the instruments we’d brought over on previous visits (something Ben usually does, and does a much better job than me). The climate out there is unforgiving for acoustic instruments, and sometimes they’re not treated with the care and attention that they might need. I restrung a few, cannibalised one that was beyond repair to fix a couple of others, and generally got them as shipshape as I could. After that, Hazel took us into her office-cum-bedroom and presented us with some liability forms to sign. Worryingly enough, this isn’t something any of us had done on previous visits, but apparently that was an oversight. They were a salutary reminder of where we were and what issues we and the country face. We were reminded not to eat in front of people, as many of the artists there only get to eat once a day and are perpetually hungry. We also spent time discussing a new issue – Jess’ presence. For the most part it would be fine, but having a young, blonde, Western woman in our party potentially threw up some new problems, as far as male attention goes. Signals and protocols were agreed, and in the event they weren’t really ever much necessary, thankfully.

With that little piece of admin out of the way, it was time to saddle up for our first visit of the trip, and it was to be one in which we were breaking new ground. Over the last few months, WayOut has been successful in getting access to the prisons in Freetown. The legal system and the police there can be, shall we say, a little arbitrary (a week or so before our visit they’d had an amnesty and released about a quarter of their inmates, for no clear reason and with little discernment, as far as anyone could tell), and of course even people who have committed crimes remain human and worthy of care and attention. The sessions had been going well, so Hazel had booked us in for a couple of visits, starting with the Freetown Female Correctional Centre.


Arriving at the Women’s Prison

The four of us were a little nervous about the visit. We’d been briefed beforehand on a few essentials – not to ask what anyone had done, not to take any photos of the prisoners’ faces, and so on. The prison was situated on a side road in the centre of the city, a large shabby concrete building, walls topped with razor wire, with a wide green gate. We pulled up, emptied our pockets, and walked up to the smaller, nested door and knocked. The suspicious eyes of a guard checked us out through a crack in the door briefly, and then, on Gibo’s introduction, opened to let us in. We were searched thoroughly by the guards. The guy who searched me was called Francis, and enjoyed the fact that we share that first name (on my documentation, anyway). He also kept asking me if I had any “sterling” in my pockets which he could keep. He was jovial, joshing, but there was an undercurrent of seriousness to it which was a touch uncomfortable. Eventually we were cleared and walked through a second gate into the prison courtyard.

The atmosphere past that second gate, away from the street, was bizarrely tranquil. Suddenly it was quiet, the noise of the traffic was a distant hum. The prison buildings were spaciously laid out, with pretty flowerbeds lining the wide paths under a morning sun that suddenly felt generous rather than harsh. It was disconcerting. We were ushered into a small building on the right to sign in. In the entrance there was a large chalkboard, printed with categories of prisoners, with the day’s numbers chalked in. Apparently there were 58 inmates at present. The line below said “Babies In: 51”. We later discussed what this might mean – are the “babies” prisoners, or does this actually refer to children born? – and we did ask, but never got a satisfactory answer. Officially there were two people serving life sentences, and currently no foreign nationals.

The guards seemed divided between the higher-ups, who viewed us with suspicion, and the regulars, who seemed more relaxed about our presence. We were led through a block of cells, I think deliberately, for us to see them. Each large metal door had a handwritten list of inhabitants – between two and five people per cell – and a small grille through which you could see inside. The rooms were small but not tiny, maybe 6 metres by 4, with bunk beds, festooned with washing lines, radio aerials and personal affects. We didn’t actually go inside, but I was forcibly struck by the feeling that this accommodation was actually a lot more comfortable than some of the places I’ve seen people live in this country, in the slums and camps.

Out of the cell block, we walked through a meeting room of some kind, the walls daubed with garish educational cartoons of different situations that the prisoners might find themselves in. One of them depicted a weeping woman being ushered into a cell, but being told by the stern guard “Don’t worry, you will be reunited with your families”. There were a lot of cartoons about HIV – diagnosis, treatment, and the rights of sufferers.

As we walked through the different rooms, we were following the sound of singing, which got louder and louder, until we emerged into a distant courtyard and found the inmates choir we’d come to visit. The sun felt more intense here, the bare sandy earth peppered with wilting weeds, as about 20 prisoners and 5 guards gathered under intimidatingly high walls. Apparently there would have been more people, but numbers had been cut by the amnesty. The inmates were variously dressed in colour-coded plain smocks, which denoted their sentence, we were told – black for the lifers (and I’m pretty sure there were more than two of them). As we arrived, they were already singing and dancing, accompanied by a drum and a selection of homemade percussion. Some of the prisoners were young and seemed fired up; some were older and had a pallor of hopelessness about them; all of them were lost in the rhythm.

We were acknowledged as we filed in, but the music didn’t stop. They were shuffling in a circle, a relaxed African dance, to a shifting but insistent rhythm. People were singing out words in Krio, which felt improvised, but served as the first half of a call-and-response. Even the guards were dancing, and the divide between the condemned and the custodians seemed blurred. The melody and the rhythm seemed circular to me, it was hard to ascertain where anything started or stopped, but that was part of the appeal, once I surrendered my Western insistence on finding structure in the chaos. I got my guitar out of its case and started trying to join in, with some small degree of success. After a while, they motioned to me to lead a piece, and I slipped into versions of some of my songs – “Don’t Worry”, “Little Changes” – that could work with the rhythmic palette already established. As with all such shows that I’ve played, all roads lead to a version of the old classic, “We Lek We Salone”, which went down predictably well. I felt less like a performer than an accompaniment, and that felt right.

We stayed with the choir for maybe half an hour. After a while, the inmates said they wanted to perform their own songs for me, if I could strike up some chords for them to sing over. I picked something obvious and Reggae, and they passionately sang and rapped their words, using a small piece of plastic pipe as a prop microphone. Everyone wanted a go, and after a while we had to insist that our time was up, as the “mic” started a second trip around the group. We thanked them, they thanked us, and we retreated from the circle, not much missed, as the music continued without us, ringing in our ears as we walked back through the prison to the gate. I felt like I’d stopped in and witnessed something eternal, cyclical. I was also struck again by how peaceful and non-violent the general vibe had been, and also how pointless everything seemed. Of course the material comforts might have been a cut above some of the poorer places we visited out on the street, but these people were still in prison, not free. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but the WayOut team seemed satisfied with our visit. As we left, Francis insisted on giving me his email address, perhaps so I could send him some sterling.

We crawled through the Freetown traffic en route to our afternoon engagements, with a brief stop for lunch – fried chicken and chips. Today was shaping up to be one of the longer days in my life, but this was as planned. Over lunch I asked Josta about politics, as I usually do. Julius Maada Bio, the president who had been new on my previous visit, was a mixed bag, I was told. He’d promised much, especially to the youth, but changes were slow, and for the demographic that attend a place like WayOut, things were tough, not least because the price of staples like rice and cooking oil had gone up significantly. His wife does seem to be engaged with women’s issues, or at least, as Josta put it, she was “good at showing up to events”. There was some visible development, but mostly in the line of new hotels for visiting Westerners. As ever, there was a weary caution to his tone.

The plan for the afternoon was to revisit some of the slum spots that I’d been to before. The “shows” there were planned to be briefer affairs than usual – partly because our schedule was so jammed, but also because our purpose was to let people know we were still there, still interested, rather than to advertise the existence of WayOut, as it had been on previous trips. Our first stop was Fisher Street Market, the old tea warehouse where people live crammed into wooden chests that I’d seen in 2019. On our walk down into the slum, I spotted a herd of goats milling next to a freshly painted mural advertising the showing of a football game that evening (Barcelona v Madrid). Busy locals pushed through the melee with piles of wood balanced on their heads, while gaggles of teenage girls flirted with us as we passed – Jess most of all. As ever the area felt like a bizarre pile-up of the ancient and the modern, the sorrowful and the humdrum.

Our friend and local leader Bullet welcomed us to Fisher Street as we arrived, and he enthusiastically gave Jess the tour of their sleeping places that I’d been treated to before. The guys had made a short documentary about my previous visit, five minutes of interviews with locals, which they showed me on a laptop. The subtitled footage was both moving and funny – elders being slightly bemused about the whole thing, younger kids saying they’d felt validated and human. It was both moving and awkward for me to watch. Once everyone was ready, the performance began. This started with the shooting of some footage for a music video; last year I’d sung a chorus on a song for the local group, Victory Zone, so the track was blasted out of a boombox while we all mimed along (me desperately trying to remember the words), mugging for the camera. After that I played a few songs of my own, then fell back on the now-familiar routine of working through some standard chords while other guys rapped and sang over the top. We felt welcome and energised.

In no time at all we were wrapping up and heading to our second stop, Susan’s Bay, another place we’d been before. We actually walked through the slums to get there, making a geographical connection that was new to me. I realised as we walked that, three journeys in, I had become somewhat accustomed to my surroundings. The crooked cinderblock shacks, the pervasive filth, the mad buzz of humanity no longer assaulted my senses the way they did back in 2017. That was a mixed feeling for me. These places remain some of the poorest in the world, the people some of the most remarkably resilient. On some levels it felt good not to be shocked, but at the same time I don’t want to be blasé about it.


Local buskers in Susan’s Bay

Our regular spot in Susan’s Bay was a tiny square just next to the sea shore, lapped as ever with black waves clogged with trash. Jess was not as inured to the whole thing as the rest of us were, and spent time gazing with sadness and horror at the water. As we arrived and unpacked my guitar, we were welcomed by a warm-up act. A local guy was doing a Krio comedy routine, improvised I think, into a microphone plugged into a speaker. After a while it became clear that he was basically roasting me and Jess, and the crowd thought it was hilarious. I have no idea what he was saying, but we played along. At the edge of the crowd, a local imam was busy being disapproving. I went to go and introduce myself to try and break the ice, but he stormed off into the warrens.

After the stand-up routine was done, two local guys, also WayOut attendees, brought out their guitars to play a little. I recognised them as guys I’d taught some basic chords to on my first visit, one of them called Surprise. In the intervening time they’d clearly been practicing, and they ran through some instrumental pieces of their own composition, their advancing skills on proud display. Hazel told me that the two of them were now making a (small) living busking in the bars in the slums, which was great to hear. Once they were done it was my turn, and I hammered out my familiar short set, adding a cover of a Mash P song that I knew, his killer hit, “Mr President”. I played and he sang, me joining in on the choruses (pictured at the top). He was visibly happy to be recognised, and many of the locals knew his words and joined in. Once again the show was brief. I finished off with some fist-bumps for the horde of kids around me, many selfies (“snap snap!”) and hugs. We wearily circled back through the endless maze, at one point edging along a narrow stone ledge ten feet above the vile sea, and made it back to the jeep.

The Longest Day Ever™ had one more stop on the schedule – Ferry Junction, home of the Iron Team, a place I felt I knew well. The journey over took an age, oozing sluggishly through the mounting Friday afternoon traffic. As we arrived, their was a brief, weird altercation. On the final approach to the entrance to the area, John drove perilously close to a small crowd of pedestrians, including some children. No one was hit, but the adult of the group took enormous umbrage at this. We were familiar with the (male) Sierra Leonean predilection for a shouting match, but this guy was really incensed. “Don’t bang me!”, he kept yelling at us, as we got out of the car. The presence of white people was fuel to his fire, and his aggression kept mounting. John squared up to him, and for a moment I was concerned. But then his rhetoric took a turn to the surreal, and I realised he might not be all there. He shouted that he was the new Obama, then turned to me and, volume still at full whack, told me he was “the black pope, Benedict!” After a while he started telling us we were welcome there, but he was still screaming, temple veins pulsing and spittle on his lips. John started laughing and in the end we just walked off, leaving him to his tirade. We walked down the hill into Ferry Junction, and a minute later he comically popped out of a side street to accost us again with more of the same. Eventually our studied indifference lost his interest.

The centre of Ferry Junction is a large open area by the side of a dirty river, and I’d been here before. This time, however, as we approached the square, we were met by two impressive guys in full tribal African regalia, complete with painted markings daubed on their skin. Their physiques were impressive, their gazes distant and imperious. It became clear that our friends in the Iron Team had decided to put on an impressive traditional welcome for us. We walked through this initial honour guard and on into the clearing, where a larger guy in the same garb was sitting on a large chair, almost a throne. We were told he was the local chief. It was slightly incongruous, seeing this beautiful display of something ancient and rural in the midst of the jetsam of broken, modern industrialism. But there was a pride to it that was profoundly moving. Of course, I then screwed up by trying to shake the chief by the hand as we were introduced – not the done thing, I was swiftly informed. I embarrassedly bowed my respects instead.


A tribal welcome in Ferry Junction

Exhaustion creeping into my very being, I ran through my standard set, then backed up some local singers as before. Some people knew my songs from previous visits – always gratifying. The local kids gathered en masse for high-fives and fist-bumps and selfies. The sun was starting to slip below the horizon. Our duties discharged, I was looking forward to calling it a day. But we had one more thing to do.

Once the music was done, the Iron Team crew, led by our old friend Rasta and the chief, walked us over to their “office” – a tiny, crippled room, corrugated iron raised over a concrete base with gnarled wooden supports. There, they made something of a presentation. They told me that, while the area always floods in rainy season, the last two years had been devastating for what little they could call their infrastructure. Even more so than usual, Ferry Junction was hurting. Hazel and I listened attentively, and then Hazel responded, in what I later realised was a choreographed moment. She told the Iron Team that they had worked hard, both for their own community and at WayOut, and that in return we wanted to help. Using some of the funds raised from my March tour, we pledged to pay for them to build them a new main building down by the riverside. It’d be of a similar construction – concrete, wood and iron – but it’d be built more sturdily, to better withstand the rain. And on top of that we’d help them wire in a permanent electricity supply.

As with most things in this part of the world, the gesture felt simultaneously overwhelming and pathetic. The faces in the room lit up at the news, which seemed genuinely unexpected to most of them, and there was real gratitude. But at the same time, we’d just agreed to spend maybe £1,500 on a ramshackle building. As ever, I felt alien and helpless on some levels. But on another, it felt wonderful to be able to contribute in such a tangible way. And it also added to a feeling that had been gathering pace in me through the day. On this third visit to Freetown, it felt like the work I’d been throwing my weight behind with WayOut was starting to accumulate in a meaningful way. Our first visit was characterised by the shock of the new, for me and the locals both. The second was all about showing that I was committed, that we were in this for the long haul. Finally, now, we were here putting the resources to practical use, making small but meaningful improvements. I spend my time in the country on furious guard against any kind of White Saviour complex on my own part, but for a brief moment I allowed myself to feel good about being there.

Finally, finally, we loaded up to head back to the hotel. It had been a thoroughly draining day, dawn til dusk, probably my busiest in the country to date, and the four of us were ready for the soft embrace of the beds of the Jam Lodge. I went to sleep thinking about development. In Sierra Leone, things change like fingernails grow – ever so slowly, but inexorably, to a sharp point.

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Quite The Decade

Yesterday I got home from the Mongol Horde tour in the USA. That marks the last bit of touring, or work in general, for me in this last decade. It’s crazy to think we made it all the way through ten years without finding an acceptable term for the period. The Tens? The Teens? The Twenty-tens? Ugh. Anyways. It’s been quite the ride for me, and you probably know that I’m a fan of stats, so here’s some numbers I crunched for you.

(Brief aside – yes I know some people say the decade will end in 2021, because the count starts at 1 AD, but honestly, no one thinks 1931 was in the 1920’s. It’s an obvious numerical shorthand.)

In this decade, I have played 1663 solo shows – averaging 166.3 a year (that was tough maths). My highest annual count was 2013, when I played 196, and the lowest was 2014, when I played 113.

Those shows happened in 45 different countries, namely:
England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Irish Republic, Canada, USA, Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, China, Israel, Finland, Poland, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Guernsey, Latvia, Isle Of Man, Croatia, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain, Czechia, Norway, Vietnam, Slovenia, South Africa, International Waters, Mexico, India, Slovakia, Serbia, Hungary, Sierra Leone, Monaco, Portugal, Greece, and Bulgaria.

In this decade alone, I have played 816 more shows than Pink Floyd’s total, 984 more than Madonna’s, and 21 less than Elvis’. (My total count, at 2434, is, I’m told, more than Metallica and The Grateful Dead, though less than Bon Jovi.)

If you convert that total number to days, then that is 99 more than World War I lasted, and it’d be just enough time to travel to Mars and back 3 times. If you convert it to lies, then it is 11,772 less than Donald Trump has made since taking office (as of October 2019).

I also played 27 shows with Möngöl Hörde in that time period (since our inception in 2012), which likely makes us one of the laziest, slowest bands in history, but we’re OK with that.

Also in the decade, I wrote, recorded and released 5 studio albums, one collaboration with Jon Snodgrass, one Möngöl Hörde record, two bestselling books, and a podcast.

All of which makes me feel better about the fact that I am, at time of writing, utterly exhausted. I am, as ever, aware that the only reason any of this was possible is because of the people who came to the shows, listened to the music, read the books and so on. My gratitude is eternal. Here’s to another decade, one we definitely know what to call. Thanks all.

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Thoughts On No Man’s Land

There’s been a bunch of discussion, online and elsewhere, about the release of my forthcoming 8th studio album, “No Man’s Land”. As a thinking adult, I was obviously aware that I was stepping into some potentially contentious waters with the whole concept behind the record – and I have thought about it, a lot. I decided it might be useful to set out some of my ideas here, for those that are interested in my side of the various arguments out there.

The record is, first and foremost, a piece of story-telling – a history record, if you will, a pretty traditional folk approach. I didn’t actually set out to write exclusively about women. In the beginning I was just toying with various stories that felt interesting to tell (and I was keen, after my recent records, to write about something other than my own life and feelings for a while). Now, clearly, there is an implicit politics in the fact that, in telling lesser known stories, I’ve ended up singing about women, and I’ll stand behind that, for what it’s worth. But my initial interest was in sharing some stories that I didn’t know before, and that I suspect most people didn’t.

Nevertheless, as I say, there is a political angle to the record, and it’s one I’d like to handle sensitively. I welcome intelligent, good faith discussion of the point, actually. The main question that is being asked – and it’s a fair one – is what right I have, as a man, to write songs about women. That deserves a thoughtful response from me.

My answer comes in two parts. Firstly, for the most part, these are stories that have not and are not being told right now, and I think they deserve to be. I feel like I’m not crowding out other voices in releasing these songs. It seems to me that songs about Huda Sha’arawi and Catherine Blake, to name but two, are rather thin on the ground right now, as far as I’m aware. I’ve learned so much in researching and writing this project, and I’d like to share that knowledge. And, given the streaming world we live in, me putting out a collection of songs doesn’t lessen the bandwidth for other writers to make their own statements.

(A brief aside – there actually are a few songs out there about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, some of which I knew about and some I didn’t. She’s one of the more famous people on the album. The point of the song, for me, is that the history of rock’n’roll is inaccurately portrayed as being dominated by white men. As one of that demographic who plays that kind of music, I felt like it was good for me to acknowledge the people who actually laid the blueprints I’m following, rather than just always banging on about Elvis – as I’ve done myself in the past. Anyways – check out other songs about her by Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Noisettes, and my friend Emily Barker).

Secondly, I’d flip the question a bit. I’m a songwriter and a singer, writing and releasing (and then promoting) music is what I do. I could write another album about my own life, or I suppose a record about men from history, but I’m not sure I see the point (especially the latter option), and it doesn’t catch my creative interest right now. For better or worse, I have an audience who are interested in the music I make, and who will listen to the next album I put out. Having a platform, why not use it for something more interesting or worthwhile?

I have not tried to present this record as an aggressively feminist statement. I have no issue with that word – in fact I’m very much in favour of feminism, and equality in general. But putting that first would seem overbearing to me. I’m not trying to lead a parade I have no right to lead. My approach is perhaps best summed up by the name of a group I do a lot of work with on tour – The Ally Coalition (an LGBTQ+ rights group). It seems to me that my best contribution to all of this is to be just that, an ally, to use whatever platform I have to steer the conversation amongst my audience into better territory as best I can.

Some people have queried the lack of “prominent” female voices on the record itself. Well, I’d argue that prominence is in the eye of the beholder – all the women who played on (and produced) the record were fantastic players who are prominent in my eyes. Of course, I am ultimately singing and playing the songs that I wrote, but given my job description, that doesn’t seem especially weird to me. Naturally, my own character and viewpoint tends to come through in my own writing, like it or not. Then again, I’d argue that Mary Beard’s voice and outlook is pretty prominent in her (excellent) books, and that’s not often considered a problem.

Others have asked questions about the financial proceeds of the album. Well. Firstly, I think that people are radically over-estimating how much money someone like me makes from an album, especially one recorded in the best studios, with the best producers and players around. I might recoup on the costs one day, but that likely won’t be for a good many years. I make my living on the road. Beyond that, I’m not aware that historians are expected to donate the proceeds of their book sales to their subjects – that seems like an odd argument to me, not least because, definitionally, the subjects tend to be dead. Finally, we are of course continuing to take out activist groups on the road with us to broaden the conversation, raise funds and raise awareness, and I try my best to do as many benefit shows as I can afford.

In the final analysis, some people have said that my approach to all of this is perhaps at times a little clumsy, or could bear some further introspection. That is a potentially fair point. I’m painfully aware that, despite my best efforts, I may well get bits of my presentation of this subject wrong, and I welcome constructive criticism and correction. If other people take any of these stories and elaborate on them, or tell them better, or I discover they already have done that, I’ll shout about it from the rooftops with great joy. In the meantime, I’ll keep releasing songs and accompanying podcasts (new episodes and songs every Wednesday!) that try to go further into the details of the lives of these remarkable people. You’re all welcome to tune in and be part of the conversation.

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Kneejerk Fire Sale

UPDATE: These have all gone now. Thanks everyone, we raised over £1,000 for WayOut, great work.


Morning all. In cleaning out some space at home, I stumbled across a box full of CDs from my first “proper” band, Kneejerk. They’ve been sitting around various places I’ve lived for nearly 20 years now, and it feels like I should share them with the world, and maybe raise some cash for a good cause at the same time.

I have three albums here. On the left is the split we did with Abjure, called “Don’t Clap It Startles Me”. Released in 1999 on Skipworth Records, it features 5 songs by Kneejerk and 5 by Abjure. In the middle is the second and final Kneejerk album, “The Half Life Of Kissing” – 14 tracks, released on Enter Shikari records in 2000. And on the right is a compilation CD, “Uomo Al Mare”, released on Biscay Records in 2000. It features a whole bunch of bands, and includes an otherwise unreleased Kneejerk song, as well as my first ever solo song (which I’d completely forgotten about) called “Braille”.

This stuff all feels very adolescent to me in some ways, but then again, given that I was 17-18 when it was recorded and released, I’m old enough to look back at it with some equanimity, and I’m proud of it too. The CDs are in pretty good condition, given that they’ve been in a box under various beds for nearly 2 decades.

Here’s the deal. Each CD will cost you £15. That includes postage and packing to anywhere in the world. I have limited numbers, so it’s first come, first served. Every penny made through the sale will go to my friends at Way Out Arts. Send me an email at frank@frank-turner.com, tell me what you want and I’ll let you know the rest.

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Sierra Leone 2019 Part 3

This is part 3 of my write-up of my recent trip to Sierra Leone. Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here. You can donate to WayOut Arts here.


Our third and final day in Freetown started early. The trip already felt like it was too short, and we had a lot to get done, so sleep could wait for another day. We were up, breakfasted and out of the hotel in good time, and quickly driving through the city for a date with a TV station.

I passed my driving test in July of last year, and have predictably now become mildly obsessed with it. At the risk of sounding like a pub bore, I felt like I had a new appreciation of the chaos of the traffic in the city (though it’s not far off driving in Wood Green at rush hour, to be honest). There aren’t really any main thoroughfares. Like many older Western cities, it was laid out before the internal combustion engine was a consideration; unlike most of those places, not much has been done in the meantime, so there’s a general sense of confusion on the roads. On my two brief visits to the city, I haven’t managed to gather much in the way of a sense of urban geography, so sitting in the passenger seat was endlessly stupefying. We kept rounding corners to arrive at a junction that I knew, or thought I did. On the other hand, the ubiquitous use of the car horn in traffic felt refreshingly free of anger. Everyone beeps all the time, but it almost came across as friendly.

The flow of cars has a dreamlike quality to it, with a ceaseless procession of near misses both with other vehicles and with pedestrians. And yet in all the time I’ve spent in a car in the country, I’ve never actually seen an accident. Somehow the whole thing slides along, like mitochondria in a cell. I’d be interested to see some statistics on this, which I suspect might puncture my pleasant reverie on the subject. I’m not sure I would want to get in a car accident here.

During the drive, we passed an imposingly large building. Built from old cinderblocks painted bright red with white pointing, Mash P pointed it out as the Christ Church School, built in 1849. A small gaggle of kids hung around by the door, watching us as we passed, dressed in the immaculate and slightly old-fashioned uniforms that seem to be everywhere on this continent, somehow spotless in the dust and heat. Mash told us that he’d actually attended for a year when he was 8 years old, his first school. It wasn’t mentioned out loud, but it immediately occurred to me that this would have been before his traumatic experiences in the war, when we was kidnapped and forced to be a child soldier. The realisation was both chilling and saddening. I wondered what the building had witnessed in 1999, when the city was subjected to one of the worst urban massacres in recent history. The war felt like a fever dream, a terrible memory poking through, unwelcome, into everyday life.


Outside the TV station.

We arrived at our destination at the very top of a steep hill, AYV TV – “The Voice Of The Young Generation”, according to its prominent strap-line. Hazel told me that this was the main TV show watched by young or cool people in the country, something of a big deal. Their location certainly gave the impression of wealth – being up high in tropical cities usually means you’re important enough to get access to the cooler air. We hung around in the carpark outside for a while, enjoying the easier early morning temperature, waiting for my slot to come around. We were a little delayed by an unspecified issue – perhaps something to do with the fact that the channel’s live feed in their reception was fuzzy to the point of incomprehensibility – but eventually, I was mic’d up and ushered onto the set.

The presenter was a good-looking young woman called Stella Bangura. Chatting briefly before we went live, I learned that she had spent much of her life in Enfield, North London (close to where I live). She was intelligent, assertive and well-spoken; the class divide between her and the WayOut kids was immediately apparent. That said, a few of the kids from our project have got jobs with AYV TV, first as unpaid interns and now as proper employees. That represents a previously almost unimaginable social leap for these street kids, and is something that WayOut are rightly very proud of.

The interview itself was fine; it actually felt a bit run of the mill, compared to the other things I was up to at that time. We talked about my career, about WayOut and why I was there in Freetown. Stella asked me questions about where viewers could come and see me play while I was there, which was a little difficult, as we were prioritising spending time in slum areas, not places that most viewers of AYV TV would regularly go. Afterwards I chatted with Hazel about how I felt we should try and organise a proper show next time I come, to raise awareness about the charity’s work and artists in Sierra Leone itself, and to raise some money for them. We’re discussing the idea.

Also on the show with me was a guy called John, who was wearing a shirt rather strikingly emblazoned with the logo “Teenage Pregnancy – Not Me, No Way!”. Initially this struck me as a slightly obvious point for him to be making, as an adult man, but it all became clear in time. He’s the leader of a group of medical students running a campaign against teenage pregnancy, called Stress Free Zero Stigma. Their aims seemed a touch disparate, referencing school attendance and drug abuse as well, but his intentions were good and Stella and I applauded his efforts, as he forcefully intoned, “Everyone needs to put their shoulder to the wheel for mama Salone.”

My time on air came to an end, and after saying some goodbyes and taking some photos, we went back to WayOut to regroup for the rest of our busy day. When we arrived, Jamie and Ben started handing out some T-shirts we’d brought with us for the locals – a selection of Joe Strummer Foundation designs, and a big pile of shirts that Ben has collected from various festivals, tours, venues and gear companies over the years. It was to see our friends proudly sporting their new clothes, complete with logos for Hurricane & Southside Festivals, Blink-182 crew and more. Once we’d got through the stock we brought with us there were a few people who’d missed out and were disappointed, so I went into my bag and gave away all the shirts I had with me, even though they weren’t especially clean. I think we managed to satisfy everyone.


The WayOut crew with their new threads

Our next port of call was at Fisher Street Market – an area we’d discussed on our first visit but not made it out to. As ever, we loaded up the vehicles and set off at a crawl through the city. My obsession with the crumbling architecture was burning as strongly as ever. I wondered who built all this stuff in the first place and when, and how long they’d expected it to last. I kept thinking about Ozymandias.

As we drove, we passed the parliament building, which was swarming with police, holding up the already-viscous traffic. Josta told me that the former president, Ernest Bai Koroma, had been brought in to answer questions about corruption under his government. I couldn’t decide whether this was a good or a bad sign. Political leaders being held to account felt positive to me; former leaders being questioned by their successors seemed more worrying. He was attending of his own free will, apparently, so perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic.

As we were talking about police anyway, Josta made a canny and unexpected observation to me about my home city. He said he’d found the relatively benign nature of the police in London to be a pleasant surprise. His experience of police in general at home is a hostile and suspicious one – they’re just the gang who has the uniforms. He’d assumed that he’d be regularly stopped and hassled in the UK, as a black foreigner, but had found the police he encountered to be friendly and helpful. That seemed to genuinely surprise him, as did the overall diversity of both the officers and the population of the city in general. That left me feeling quite good about old London Town.


Fisher Street Market

We arrived at Fisher Street. The area as a whole is a normal, functioning city market, but contained within it is a truly remarkable place. At the centre, there’s an old warehouse room full of massive abandoned wooden tea chests. For the last 14 years, a whole community has been living here, using the chests as places to sleep, with locks on the doors, or curtains pulled across (or indeed nothing at all), depending on circumstance. We were shown around by Bullet, an impressive guy with long dreads, and the commanding feel of a local leader, who regularly visits WayOut to record his rapping. He seemed fuelled by a strange mixture of pride at what they’d built and outrage at the fact that they needed to. Seeing people, even entire families, sleeping in those conditions was genuinely shocking for me. Bullet told me it was a big step up from sleeping on the street. The police raid the area daily, hassling the inhabitants, arresting them on trifling charges and trying to extort money. The locals have a warning system and a sense of solidarity against these incursions, but everyone has suffered from them at some point.


Checking out the tea chests with Bullet

The general vibe in the area was pretty heavy because of all this, and it took a while for people’s suspicions of the white visitors to ease a little. After our guided tour, we set up in a doorway. Bullet rapped a couple of tracks into a mic through a battery-powered boombox, drenched in reverb and delay, alongside a brutal beat. Then it was our turn. Ben and I ran through our now-established set, dripping with sweat in the heat. The crowd loved it, it was one of the best shows of the trip, and at the end Gibo made his speech about the work they were trying to do. Bullet told us afterwards that our visit had been important to show people that he and the other WayOut attendees in the community weren’t lying about WayOut, that it was a real thing that people could get involved with. He was quite the local star, and I felt honoured to have played with him for a short while. As we walked out, he told me about a track he was working on back at the studio and asked me to sing some vocals on the chorus for him. Of course I agreed.


Playing in Fisher Street

We left Fisher Street feeling like we’d done some small good with our time, and set off for our next and final stop – Kissy Town. Kissy is a large community about 30 miles from the centre of Freetown, built on an old air strip that the British army cleared back in 1999. Once they left, refugees moved in, and they’ve been there ever since. It’s basically a huge slum, with the feel of a camp, and visits from any charities or aid agencies are few and far between. The state of the roads in Sierra Leone is not good, so we settled down for a journey of a couple of hours to get there.

On the way we drove past Fourah Bay College, Freetown’s university, the oldest in West Africa, perched on the top of the hill, and providing a large part of the justification for the city’s old nickname, Athens. The roads were good, the buildings impressive (though with their facades still marred by the ever-present tropical rot). The sidewalks were full of neatly turned out, comparatively affluent students, busily making their way to and from classes. Once again I sensed a class divide between these happy souls and our WayOut friends in the car. This was a vision of a life that was completely beyond their reach. Even so, it was good to see this kind of educational institution thriving somewhere in the country.

Further on, past a surprising number of Mormon churches, we reached the highest point of elevation, both physically and architecturally. Perched at the summit of the hill was a bold, imposing and very much finished building, complete with armed, uniformed men stood guard outside. Of course, it was the American Embassy, built around an old colonial hill station, looking down on the city. I wondered what exactly was going on in there.

We drove on, past an endlessly bewildering set of roadside scenes. Shops with enormous wood and leather bed frames for sale (were they made here? How do they get delivered anywhere? Who buys them?), areas still devastated by a huge and lethal mudslide in 2017 (and “mudslide” is a hard word to pick out from a Krio accent!), and finally the Freetown Teachers College, festooned with banners proclaiming “No to Examination Malpractice!”, and, brilliantly, “Like Money, Knowledge Must Circulate To Have Value”.

After a brief pitstop for a lunch consisting of boiled eggs mashed into baguettes with mayonnaise – which our crew absolutely loved – we finally arrived in Waterloo, the actual town next door to the Kissy camp. We had been supposed to play a set here before we returned to Kissy Town, but on arrival, all was chaos. There had been some miscommunication somewhere along the line, and the locals were not aware we were coming – in fact many of them were already waiting for us further down the road. We wandered aimlessly around the cars for a short while, before Hazel decided we were wasting precious time and suggested we simply go on to the main event. I felt pretty bad about packing up and moving on – those locals who had seen us get out were excited for something, anything to happen, and looked crestfallen when we saddled up again. Alas, we had to go with our guide’s best instincts.

Finally, we pulled up in Kissy Town. This was an important part of our trip. Last time we’d been here, we’d seen how the community was crying out for any projects to come and get involved locally. Hazel and Gibo had decided to put some of their resources into opening a second WayOut base here in the camp – the journey into the city centre was simply not practical for young people in the area to make regularly. So cash was pooled, a small building was rented and kitted out with two computers and some guitars, and the whole thing was opened for business over a year ago. Already, they have 300 kids signed up to use the facilities – way too many for the equipment they have, and so time management is a big part of WayOut’s administrative work out here.

The new centre itself was decorated outside with a truly wonderful mural, with computers, instruments, musicians, Joe Strummer, and the WayOut logo. As much as I’m allowed to, I felt proud to have been part of getting this off the ground, in some small way. We posed for pictures, all beaming smiles. Inside, the studio was dimly lit and stuffy, and they have serious problems with their intermittent and unreliable power supply, but the simple fact of its existence is encouraging. Much of the fundraising I have planned for the rest of this year (more on that soon) will be for this place. Gibo told us that they had the blessing of the local council, but that the elders were filled with suspicion that at some point they would be asked to pay for it, or give something in return. We did our best to reassure them on that point when we shook hands with them later.


Inside the new Kissy Town WayOut centre

After our little inaugural visit, we walked back up the scorching airstrip to where a large crowd had already gathered. As we got closer, we could hear that a show of some kind had already begun. A group of local musicians had a guitar and were playing yet another wonderful ‘welcome back’ song, specially composed for us visitors. Meanwhile, four guys were in the middle of a startlingly brilliant display of acrobatics, building human pyramids, back-flipping and more. Their movements were so engrossing that we waited until they were done before even trying to get one of our shows underway. As ever, Ben and I unpacked our guitars and launched straight into “Little Changes”, bringing the crowd of maybe 200 or more in for the singalongs and handclaps. As we played, a guy standing behind me, one of the ones who’d been singing the welcome tune, requested “I Still Believe”, a song he remembered from my previous visit, so that got added to the set. Our performance felt well-oiled by this point, the atmosphere joyous and positive.


Acrobatics in Kissy Town

Much as on my last visit to Kissy Town, the weather proved to be my chief enemy in terms of stamina through my set, and after 25 minutes or so I was in danger of overheating completely, despite regular water top-ups from Josta, so we reluctantly decided to call it a day. Once we’d finished playing, I offered up my guitar to the mass of kids gathered around me, so they could strum the strings and slap the sides. I was totally swamped by a giggling, writhing mass of happy children, which was lovely up to the point where it got a bit worrying, and Mash came to extricate me from the ruckus I’d caused. Meanwhile, Gibo was up on the truck handing out sweets, pens and other small presents to the kids. This caused a mass pile-on of people desperate for something, anything, from the visitors. The scene of chaos around the back of the truck was unlike anything I’d seen before, a real edge of desperation and threat in the clamour.

In the midst of the melee, I saw one woman walking through the crowd who will stay with me for a long time. She looked utterly broken as a human. Perhaps 25, she was visibly being shunned by those around her, and I was told that she was a sex worker of some kind, quite likely someone suffering from HIV. She had a hollow, animal look in her eyes, as she pushed through the people to try and get her hands on a pen or some candy – which wasn’t forthcoming, as she stood out like a sore thumb from the younger kids around her. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a person more alienated from her fellow humans, and it was painful to watch. I gave her the pen I was writing my notes with before I got into the car to drive back to Freetown. I saw her in the mirror as we pulled away, and I can’t stop myself wondering what she’s seen, what kind of life she is condemned to lead, what anyone could do to help her.

We drove back to the city slowly, feeling exhausted and filthy, and slightly nervous about the night ahead – the flights to Casablanca leave at 4am, and the business of trying to stay awake until the 1am ferry, then crashing for a few hours in the bare-bones airport before getting on the plane was, we knew from experience, not much fun. In the car I got chatting with Josta again and decided to use this last opportunity to grill him a little more about Sierra Leone and how he felt about the current state of his country.


In the car with Josta and Gibo

Josta told me that the war was firmly confined to history now. If nothing else, the country had suffered many more disasters since then, which had left fresh layers of tragedy in their wake. He told me that he hurt from seeing his father executed in front of him as a child, but at the same time, he knew people who had lost their entire families more recently in the ebola outbreak in 2014. He said he tried to live his life as an act of honour for his father. In the face of all this, the idea of fresh fighting seemed remote, in his opinion. “We know what holding guns feels like,” he said, “and we don’t want to do it again. We want to put our fingers on instruments, not triggers; we want to go to the studio, not the bush.” Despite all the horror and disaster that has befallen this part of the world, that felt like a cautious cause for optimism to me.

As we neared our destination, the traffic got so bad that Jamie, Ben, Dave and I opted to walk the last half mile of the journey, enjoying being out in the cooling evening air, strolling the sidewalks and taking in a last gulp of West Africa. Our last engagement of the trip was a full-blown dance competition back at the studio. This is something that they do regularly, and everyone was excited about it. I was intrigued to see what moves would be on offer, whilst also making sure no one expected me to get up and try to partake.

A selection of about ten people got up at the start, as Gibo played DJ through the battered old sound system. He changed the tunes (and the beats) every couple of minutes or so, and the dancers had to keep up with him. The whole mood was chaotic and joyous, totally improvised but hugely energetic. At the start, the guys took the lead, preening like roosters and showing off highly sexualised moves, all crotch-thrusting and lordosis. After a while, the girls started to gain confidence and hold their own. The pace was relentless. Every five minutes or so, by a mixture of his own judgement and popular acclaim, Gibo would tap someone on the shoulder to indicate that they had fallen by the wayside. The competition thus thinned slowly. John had been having a whale of a time up there – “I want to dance like a fish!” he exclaimed at one point – but in time even he was made to sit down.


Rasta and Vanessa dancing

In the end it came down to two people. Rasta, the leader of the Iron Team, was up against Vanessa. Rasta’s dancing was completely over the top in a wonderful way. He was theatrical and funny, leaping up onto the fence and using his shoe as a prop phone. Vanessa was more focussed and sensual, and seemed more in tune with the music. The tension rose as the two of them went head to head. In the end, despite Rasta’s best efforts to put Vanessa off by writhing around on the floor at her feet, she was declared the winner. The crowd seemed genuinely pleased that the prize had gone to a woman, and Rasta was gracious in defeat. I was asked to present them both with a small cash prize for their efforts. As the party wound down, I was struck by how free and vivacious the whole thing had been, by the sense of collective pride that shone through it all, and by the fact that everyone had been completely sober. I was also relieved that I had escaped any attempts to make me join in.

We started wrapping up our trip, repacking bags and saying farewells. I had a few quick studio engagements to get finished before we left, knocking out a chorus vocal for Bullet, and another for the Black Street Family track I’d started work on the previous day. Finally, I rushed out a chorus for a nascent track called “Hands Off Our Girls”, a message song some artists were working on. I was knackered, desperately in need of a shower, and ready to hit the trail.

The four of us headed across town to the restaurant on the beach in Lumley where we’d had a meal at the end of our previous visit, with Mash, Gibo, John, Josta and Hazel, the core WayOut team. We chowed down on some predictable Western tourist food and talked through the trip, what we had and hadn’t achieved, what we could do better next time, and when that might be. After food and a few beers, we got the ferry to the airport, survived the night on uncomfortable benches, and flew home via Morocco.

I’m happy to say that I felt as fired up, then and now, as I write this, as I had done at the end of my first trip. Supporting WayOut feels like such an obvious thing for me to do, and the effects of their work is so tangible, so immediate. I do my best to lend a shoulder to most charity causes that come my way, of course, but this one feels special. Not just because I now have friends in Sierra Leone, but mainly because so much can be achieved with a little effort. If you’d like to support WayOut, you can make donations here, and, more than in most cases, really every little helps. I have plans for various benefit shows, donations and music releases through the rest of this year, and I hope to be back out there with my WayOut crew as soon as I can be. Thanks for reading.

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Sierra Leone 2019 Part 2

This is part 2 of my write-up of my second trip to Sierra Leone. Part 1 is here. Since writing the first part, Hazel from WayOut tells me that some of the people from King Jimmy’s have started to visit the studio to get involved, and some have even moved into some abandoned building structures nearby so they can be close to the studio – great news!

You can donate to WayOut Arts here.


When I was 18, fresh out of school, I spent a couple of months backpacking around Eastern and Southern Africa, in a pretty typical middle class, gap year kind of way. The trip was instigated and planned by my first love, Sarah. My first proper girlfriend, she was a Londoner, half-Chinese but had spent most of her childhood in Botswana. She was filled with a general sense of yearning to return to Africa, and before the trip had spent many hours trying to describe to me how different, how special the place was, how it got in your blood, how it always called you back.

Our holiday was mind-blowing and miraculous, as most late adolescent experiences tend to be. We travelled overland from Kenya to Cape Town – where Sarah now lives, incidentally, having finally given in to the siren call of the continent. I loved the trip but was also glad to get home. Nevertheless, I learned in a small way to appreciate the unique atmosphere of the place. Sierra Leone is a long way from anywhere I went on that trip, both geographically and culturally, but every morning I’ve woken up there I’ve breathed in the scent, basked in the light, in a way that reminds me powerfully of that youthful excursion.

Our second day in Freetown began with the four of us feeling rested and raring to go. After hotel breakfast, we returned on foot to WayOut. I had a busy day ahead of me, not least recording music with as many of the local artists as I could (most of them had asked me to guest on a track). On the journey there, I quizzed Josta further about political developments since my previous visit. In the 7 months since the change of government, there had been some tangible changes – a new oil pipeline was in the works, a system of PIN codes had been introduced for state employees to try to crack down on the phenomenon of “ghost workers” – the registration of extra, non-existent workers on the payroll. As ever, Josta was smart and thoughtful in his replies. As we walked the now-familiar route and talked, I kept thinking about the endless mounds of crumbling concrete that characterise the urban landscape in the city. All of it, just all of it, seems to be falling apart, in some fundamental way. I wondered whether that’s a question of materials, technique, or climate. Josta couldn’t say.

On arrival at headquarters, Hazel told us that the water system in the local area (which mainly consisted of wells on the street) had broken down. This was a serious issue, and meant that quite a few people were running late, as they had to scour the city for supplies for their families. All the same, there was a lot to be done in a short period of time, so I started trying to ration my studio time in the best way I could, while Ben, Jamie and Dave decided to make a trip across the city to see where some of our friends actually lived.


Working on beats with Thomas

My first appointment of the day was with the Black Street Family. I met this imposing group back in 2017. They began as a local gang, based in Black Street, the slum area around the dilapidated Siaka Stevens stadium, just behind the WayOut building. Many of them were former child soldiers, and their founding purpose was essentially defensive of their area, but with Hazel’s encouragement they have, over the years, found their voice as a rap group. They were keen for me to help them get a track off the ground. Fal G and various others (I’ve never been entirely clear of the exact membership of the band) were in the small, stuffy control room, with Thomas, the producer, all people I’d met before. They sang me a chorus they had been working on, and I came up with a heavy guitar part to lay down underneath it as a backing, playing heavy distorted chords alongside the beat, which they loved. I left them to work their magic on the verses, and moved on to writing with Mash P.

Mash had been working on a new song on the subject of homelessness. When the WayOut crew came to London in late 2018, it was for a worldwide summit discussing homelessness and the arts, and he’d decided to write a track addressing the issue, and had asked me to contribute. He had a chorus and a beat worked out, and asked me to contribute a verse. Writing lyrics on this subject is tough for me, even leaving aside the fact that I had only about 20 minutes to come up with something. I live a comfortable life in the West; saying something meaningful about this alongside someone like Mash, a homeless former child soldier, is a creative challenge if ever I met one. I had been intrigued to hear that all the Sierra Leoneans who came to the UK had been shocked to see people sleeping rough in the capital city of one of the richest countries in the world; it’s a fair point.

I managed to rustle up some words on the subject that (hopefully) weren’t too cringeworthy or trite, and laid them down. It felt good to sing with Mash again, he’s an amazing talent. After we’d nailed the part, I moved on to tracking with Meeky. Last time around we’d recorded an acoustic take of one of his songs together, “I Must Lose With You”. He wanted to record a proper studio version, so, along with Thomas, we started building the piece, with a reggae feel. At the end of the trip they actually gave me the audio files of what we’d worked on so far, and I plan to finish that off in good time at home for release.


Recording vocals with Meeky

In a quiet moment after finishing that bit of work, as Ben and Dave set to work fixing various guitars and other bits of equipment, I got chatting with Chen B, a guy I’d met last time there but hadn’t got to know especially well. Chen lives in Black Street, but he’s a slightly different character, because he is actually Guinean, speaking African French as his first language. He was very keen to take me on a guided tour of Black Street. I was initially a little wary of this, as Hazel’s general direction to me had been not to wander off unsupervised, and the area still has a fearsome reputation. Chen was sincere, however, and I thankfully threw caution to the wind and went for a walk with him.

I’d briefly visited before, but this was a proper introduction to the neighbourhood. Chen introduced me to a burly-looking older guy, telling me he was the “king” of Black Street. I paid my respects and shook hands. Throughout the walk I met a further four or five “kings”, so I’m not sure how official the title is. We threaded our way down the Street itself, a dusty, rutted track, edged with corrugated iron shacks filled with the busy sights, sounds and smells of domestic life. At the other end, the Street empties out into a large car park by the stadium full of cars, half of which were abandoned wrecks, many with people living in them. Everyone was friendly, and most of them knew who I was from my WayOut reputation, and I was greeted with joy and respect (and requests for selfies) everywhere. It was a curiously touching experience.


Black Street with Chen B.

As we walked, Chen told me his story. He’d grown up on a farm in Guinea with his half brothers, his mother having died when he was young and his father having remarried. They sounded well-off, relatively speaking. When his father died, however, the sons of his stepmother turned on him and evicted him both from the farm and from any inheritance. Left destitute, he had wandered through the country, crossed the border, and ended up homeless in Freetown, living with the Black Street crew. Like so many of the people I’ve met in this country, he was keen, almost insistent, to relate his circumstances, even though there is little, practically, I could do about it. There was a sense of wanting to have the facts on the record, and on that level, I was of course happy to listen.

I returned from my excursion for some lunch – a plate of chicken and fish, a gift from Fal G’s wife, which we shared with everyone – and a quick music lesson. When we’d seen Meeky and his amazing band play on our arrival the day before, it had occurred to me that they could quite easily learn the chords to one of my songs – “Little Changes”. I’d had the idea of showing them the changes and then letting them take it in their own direction and play it in their own, African style. Meeky was into it, so I got a guitar and talked him though the music, and then left him and his crew to work it over.

Meanwhile, the four of us, Hazel and Fal G loaded up into our convoy and headed out into the city. I had an appointment to keep with Fal’s family. Not long after we met, Fal had become a father for the second time. He’d decided to name his son after me – Frank Turner Koroma. I had been supposed to be present at his naming ceremony back in December 2017, but, in probably the most crushing part of that disappointment, had been forced to miss it. To make up for that, I was now invited to the house to meet my namesake.

Incidentally, Hazel had told me that naming a child after someone else in this way is actually quite common in Sierra Leonean culture. The belief is that the name will carry with it the original bearer’s luck and strength. I was not being asked to act as a godfather per se, just some vague form of inspiration. Either way, it’s a huge compliment to me, as well as being one of the more unusual things that has happened to me in my career.

We pulled up at the bottom of a steep hill and trekked up to Fal’s home. He and his family live in a half-built shack of brick, iron and wood above the city, on the edge of a building site. The poverty of the situation is only a little set off by the amazing views of the bay. In fact, they told me they are close to being evicted from their home, such as it is; the building site next door is not far off being finished as some new housing, at which point they will no longer be welcome there. Part of the naming ceremony that I’d missed involves the invitees giving the new parents cash gifts, and Hazel had told me that this would be appropriate for me to do too, if not expected. After some discussion of amounts, I gave them about £40 in local currency – an amount easy for me to afford, but which would make a big difference in their search for a new place to stay. The whole thing gave me very mixed feelings, as you might expect. I was reminded of my musings at the end of my last trip here, about whether or not I should simply sell everything I own and give it to people here. As I thought last time, I’m aware that that’s not the solution to the problems of West Africa, but that fact is not, in itself, an argument against doing that.

So it was with slight sense of inner conflict that I was greeted by Fal’s beautiful wife. We thanked her for the food and the welcome. Shortly afterwards I was introduced to little Frank Turner Koroma – the “future CEO of Black Street”, as his proud dad called him. He was a very cute little two year old who was extremely wary of the white visitors at first – youngsters here often think white people are ill, or even ghosts, when they first encounter them, as it’s outside their experience. After a while he warmed to us, and we sat on chairs outside the house chatting in the sunshine. He regaled me with tales of the ceremony I’d missed, the different traditions, a mixture of local African things and more traditionally Muslim rites.


With Fal G and Frank Turner Koroma

Sitting around and shooting the shit with the family was a lovely respite from our hectic schedule, but there were demands on our time calling, so we had to say our goodbyes and head back down the hill. WayOut was hosting a talent show in our honour that evening, a chance for all the kids at the project to show off their skills. Given what we’d already seen, we were excited for the performances. We rolled back into the compound to hear the stereo already pumping, with John up front playing MC and giving an impromptu dance show. Given his usual seriousness, it was really quite funny to see him clowning around and keeping the crowd entertained as they waited for our arrival (we were running a little late). There was a joyous, chaotic atmosphere that felt wonderfully African.


John leading the talent show

Once we were settled in, the show began in earnest with some rather more coordinated dancing. I got chatting to a tall, soft-spoken guy I hadn’t met before called Mozis Rozis, who spoke excellent English. He talked me through some of the dance moves, and laughed unguardedly when I told him that I wouldn’t be getting up for a go myself as I can’t dance to save my life. Once the dancing finished, he surprised me by getting up and walking to the microphone. It turns out he’s a spoken word artist, and he gave a performance of a poem called “The System”, which opened with the line “I have not smiled in a while.” It was a visceral, staggering piece of art, sinewy, angry, sarcastic and bitter. I was completely blown away by his voice, he’s easily one of the best spoken word performers I’ve ever seen, truly powerful. Chatting with Hazel later, she told me he was a homeless guy who’d started coming to WayOut since I’d last been there, but in that time he’d won a national prize for one of his poems. He’s definitely someone I’d like to try to help as an artist if I can.


Mozis Rozis in full flow

After Mozis had floored us, Meeky’s band got up to back a selection of different vocalists. All the material was original, and the standard was very high. Some of the songs were humorous crowd-pleasers, like the rapper Facebook’s song “Money There For Spend By You”. I was particularly tickled by the lyric “If you’re the king, I’m the kong.” But there was also a lot of angrier, more political work. I was struck by their self-awareness of poverty and suffering. These are people perfectly aware of where they sit in the socio-economic scale, and they aren’t taking it lying down.

After a while, Meeky and his band took over the proceedings themselves; they’re clearly one of the most developed groups there (and I should especially mention their drummer, Courage, who is simply brilliant). Meeky sung a few of his songs, which the crowd knew and sang back to him, including the charming “She Wants A Man Like Me”, and a song called “Stereo”, a celebration of music that reminded me of Rancid’s “Radio”. The grand finale of the show was their performance of “Little Changes” with me on vocals. The arrangement they’d worked out was a glorious fusion of my chords and their own distinctly Afrobeat sensibilities. It’s a song I’ve worked out in quite a few different guises since writing it, but this was certainly the most fun to play. Connecting with those musicians was as real honour.

Once the show was done, Ben, Jamie, Dave and I begged forgiveness for our exhaustion and wandered slowly back to our hotel for dinner and sleep. It had been another rollercoaster of a day. Meeting my little namesake had been wonderful, but it was Mozis’ poetry that was still running around my head as I drifted off to sleep.


Once again, you can donate to WayOut Arts here.

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