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, 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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Sierra Leone 2019 Part 1

In March 2017, I visited Sierra Leone for the first time, under the aegis of the Joe Strummer Foundation, and in conjunction with a local music charity, Way Out Arts. You can read about that trip in (perhaps overly exhaustive) detail here. It was, at the risk of sounding like someone recently returned from a gap year, a life-altering experience for me.

One of the most obvious outcomes of that first trip was a burning desire to do more for Way Out and the people they help and represent. I sold a guitar, did some benefit shows, and planned a return visit for December of the same year. Unfortunately, the trip didn’t work out. In a stark reminder of the poverty of the country, Royal Air Maroc simply cancelled the only flights going in a few days before the trip due to lack of demand. On my first visit, Hazel, the proprietor of Way Out, had emphatically told me not to tell people I was returning if that wasn’t true. Due to the vagaries of African airline scheduling, I now found myself in the horrible position of having lived down to those initial low expectations by accident. I realised that it was important for me to rebook the trip as soon as possible.

However, in the meantime, there was the minor business of the release of “Be More Kind”, and the accompanying rounds of touring and promotion. In the end, Jamie and Dave Danger (from JSF), Ben Lloyd (of the Sleeping Souls) and I managed to arrange a return visit of three days in January 2019. This is an account of that trip.

On my first visit to the country, I did a lot of reading and research, and included that in those older blog posts, so I’m going to skimp on some of those details here, so as not to repeat myself too much. Jamie, Dave, Ben and I met up at Heathrow once again for the hellish flight schedule to West Africa. Being a touch more experienced, our packing was more judicious, with more pens, sweets and shirts to give away, and less Doctor Martens boots (which I lugged with me last time and never once wore). We caught up, had dinner, and boarded a flight to Casablanca. Last time, we’d had a leisurely Moroccan stopover, but this time we had to run through the airport for our connecting flight to Freetown, hustled along at every step by frantic members of staff who seemed to regard the whole fiasco as being our fault. We were wondering if there was any way our baggage could have made the connection as well, but once we were sat on the plane, we stayed where we were for a short while as the bags caught us up, so our minds were put to rest on that score. The much emptier plane took off, and we nestled down in our seats, hoping to catch a little sleep before arriving.

As before, we landed in Sierra Leone at 1.30 in the morning, feeling ghostly and shattered. We processed dutifully through immigration and customs, and the melee of locals soliciting taxi rides and other favours, until we successfully located the friendly face of John, one of Way Out’s staff members, in the crush. The last time we were there, on leaving, I’d promised John I’d learn some more Krio for the next time we came back. I had actually spent some hours listening to lessons on YouTube in the preceding days, but it’s hard to learn a language in such sterile conditions. I had a couple of sentences ready to go, which he was duly impressed with, but over the coming days I learned much more through osmosis than I did through study.

The airport itself, and particularly the ferry ride from the Lungi peninsula over to the city proper, felt to me like it was somewhat improved since our last time there, nearly two years before. Of course, that’s starting from a pretty low bar, and I was wrestling with my impressions all the time, trying to decide whether I was seeing changes, or whether I was simply less culture-shocked now that I had some experience of my destination. I spent much of the trip mulling this over and discussing it with my friends in the country, and in the end I think there has been some notable development – slightly better roads and facilities and so on. All the same, Sierra Leone was ranked as the 8th poorest country in the world in 2018, so it’s important to keep a sense of perspective.

At the ferry port on the mainland we met up with Hazel and Gibo. I’d actually seen them both, bizarrely, in Camden Town back in November (along with Josta and Mash P). Hazel had managed to secure the boys visas for a trip to the UK and Europe alongside a photo exhibition on the global homeless. On my last trip, the idea of some of the Way Out kids visiting the Global North had been much discussed, but never in especially realistic terms. In the end, though, it had worked out, and we met up briefly in Dave’s pub, The Monarch, on the Chalk Farm Road on a free afternoon for me mid-tour. Seeing them in London was surreal, to say the least. The boys had been freezing cold and unsettled by the food, excited more by McDonald’s than Buckingham Palace (they’d heard of the former but not the latter). They were excited to be experiencing new things, most likely mind-blowing things, on their adventure, and I’d been overjoyed to welcome them to my corner of the city. That said, seeing them back in Freetown made more sense to my tired mind; they seemed more comfortable. We had a joyous reunion, then loaded up in some clapped out taxis for the short journey to the Jam Lodge. Returning to the hotel felt like a homecoming of sorts, not least when we were finally able to lay our heads down and get some sleep.

Dave, Jamie, Ben and me at the airport

We woke a few hours later, savoured the return of our traditional pancake breakfast, and girded our loins for the day. Tired as we were, we only had three full days in the country this time around, so we’d agreed, with Hazel, to pack our schedule to the gills. Our first port of call was a return visit to AiRadio, a national station on one of the Athenian hills that loom over Freetown. On our drive up there, I was glued to the view out of the window as ever, trying to take in as much as I could and organise my fresh round of impressions. My nocturnal suspicions about development were further fuelled. The AfriCell logo, which had been prevalent on our last trip, was now plastered, it seemed, on almost every available surface or hoarding, as the mobile phone company attempts to sponsor every living thing in the country. In addition, they seem to have recently acquired a rival in the shape of Orange, whose rival billboards yelled about their new 4G service. In between there were new adverts for banking services, kitchen and bathroom design and lotteries.

Despite this abundance of new trimmings of wealth, the whole thing was still built on the achingly desolate crumbling infrastructure of the city. The roads felt a little better, but they’re still driven through and over pockmarked heaps of rubble and rubbish. I found myself wondering how and when any of the detritus of old construction would ever be cleared away. It can’t be impossible – London has been there for millennia and somehow the remains of the old has been successfully disposed of. But something in the Freetown heat made that task, here, seem insurmountable.

We got to the radio station (predictably smothered in AfriCell tags) in good time. We visited here before, in 2017, but this time they seemed a bit more prepared for my visit. The station owner, a slightly perplexed Lebanese guy, came down to say hello, and I was ushered into the booth with my guitar and some small degree of ceremony. We chatted through my visit, Way Out and the work they do, and my feelings about the country. Half way through, we were joined by a lovely guy called Sahr Issa. Sahr is a local drum’n’bass DJ, apparently one of the first homegrown talents after the war, a man who has fostered a lot of younger artists over the years. We listened to some of his music (notably a banging dance tune called “Foot!”) and shot the breeze. I played a song – “Don’t Worry” – which Sahr said he enjoyed, telling me he’d liked my “crazy chords”. That I found fascinating, because that song has, to my ears, very basic chords, by design. I was being reminded of the differences between my own musical tradition and those of the locals.

With Sahr Issa at AiRadio

After saying our goodbyes, we drove back down the hill towards Way Out’s headquarters in the middle of the city. En route I started chatting with Mash P. Mash is a former child soldier and singer who I’d befriended on my previous trip. This time around he was slightly different. He had new clothes (which looked great) and a camera, which he was constantly snapping away. He also seemed slightly stand-offish with me, which was a big contrast with his exuberant friendliness from before. Later in the day Hazel told me that he has, unsurprisingly, very serious mental health issues with PTSD after his experiences in the war, and problems forming normal social bonds with people. The last time I was in town, I think he felt he’d been overly friendly with me, so now he was very much keeping his distance, in a way that was jarring for me initially; I think his natural response was to go to the other extreme and withdraw himself. Over the course of this visit, I’m pleased to say, he softened, and I left feeling like we were friends again.

Despite his distance, on the drive we did manage a conversation. Mash was a bit down on Sahr, saying that he charged younger artists to work with him. I was reminded of the huge gulf between the people who come to Way Out – a charity which specifically works with homeless, marginalised and street youth – and some of the other Sierra Leoneans we encounter. Sahr was a great guy, but he definitely inhabits a different universe to Mash and his friends. We also discussed my suspicions about things getting slightly better in the margins in the country. Mash and Josta talked me through the recent elections, when the APC lost out to the SLPP, bringing in the new president, Julius Maada Bio. He came to power on a platform which, among other things, promised much to the young. Both Mash and Josta had voted for him, and were generally optimistic about his prospects (albeit with a heavy dose of general cynicism about politicians in general). They cautiously agreed that there had been some improvement since 2017.

Our arrival at Way Out was a glorious moment of homecoming. As we spilled out of the taxi and through the gates, the assembled crew greeted us in song – much like my first arrival there, but wonderfully more so. The whole group was in the courtyard outside, with a band set up at the front, featuring my old friend Meeky on guitar, as well as a drummer, bass player and two keys players. As we walked in, they played us a newly composed “Welcome!” song. The standard of musicianship on display was mind-blowing for me. Last time we were there, I was teaching people basic guitar chords, Dave had struggled to get people through simple beats on the kit. Now we were met with an accomplished band, holding down reggae and afrobeat grooves with ease and taste. The band held down the songs as different people got up to sing – Meeky, Mash P (with his total hit, “Mr President”, complete with crowd singalong) and others. Afterwards we asked them quite how they’d made this musical evolutionary leap, and the answer, for the most part, was through YouTube instructional videos. We were stunned.

Mash P welcoming us back to WayOut

After the music, the poets. Way Out published a compendium of street poetry, written by their members, and I wrote a short forward for the collection. We were treated to a performative reading of some of the best material, and a brand new welcome poem for us as well, which featured the frankly crushing opening line: “Until now, happiness was too expensive”. It’s difficult to know what to say when faced with such a sincere compliment, so for the most part, effusive praise aside, we stayed silent.

The whole collective felt radically more together than last time we visited. The overall level of confidence was sky-high, the musicianship impressive. There were visibly more women involved, both in terms of simply being there and also being involved in the art and the administration. Susan, who last time had been a quiet bystander, was now firmly established as one of the staff members and prime movers. Sexual politics in Sierra Leone can be pretty unforgiving, especially at street level, so that was an encouraging thing to see.

After the formal (ish) presentation, we happily devolved into more general hanging out and catching up with our friends. It felt great to be somewhere that felt so welcoming, albeit for such a short period of time, and to see it prospering so. On my previous trip, I’d spent a lot of time wondering about the exact worth of our going to a country like Sierra Leone, a bunch of middle class white music people. That moment, I started formulating a better answer than I’d had before.

After our brief lunch, we started loading up for our first field trip on this visit. Heading out into the slum areas was our main activity on our previous journey. By playing in areas filled with homeless and poor people, we were advertising the existence of Way Out, showing some respect for these severely marginalised people, and hopefully entertaining them a little as well. Hazel had warned me not to promise return visits unless we were serious, but serious we were. Thus it was that we had several outings planned for places we’d been before. But we were also planning on breaking some new ground, to spread the charity’s message further still.

Hazel’s plan for our first stop was to go to an area called King Jimmy’s. When I’d mentioned this to some locals at AiRadio in the morning, they’d stared at me with barely disguised disbelief. King Jimmy’s has a fearsome reputation, and Hazel was candid with us about the possible risks. The other slums we’d visited in our time tended to be fully social areas, in the sense that they had whole families living there, women and children and the elderly, comprising coherent (albeit utterly destitute) societies. King Jimmy’s, by contrast, was based around the remains of a once-optimistic youth centre. The people we’d meet there would tend to be young, unemployed men, passing their days in boredom, frustration and a haze of alcohol and weed. The atmosphere was likely to be febrile, and it was a noticeably more dangerous excursion than any we had attempted before. Quite the reintroduction to Freetown, in other words.

Jamie, Ben, Dave and I discussed the merits (and otherwise) of this idea for a little while. We were pretty unsettled by the prospect on a lot of levels. But then I was also sympathetic to Hazel’s argument, that these were exactly the kind of people that Way Out was set up to reach, people that no one else had any interest in, beyond them not rioting, starving or dying of communicable diseases. In the end the matter was settled by the intervention of Susan. She’d visited the area on a scouting trip the day before, and despite being initially afraid of the people down there, she had made some headway explaining the planned visit, and had left feeling like the locals were cautiously but sincerely interested in what we might have to say to them.

So we set off, butterflies stirring nervously in our stomachs. On the drive through the city, I was pleased to be able to renew my obsession with Sierra Leonean roadside advertising. There is a splenetic, joyous abandon to their take on this most public form of expression. There were adverts for TV soaps – season 21 (!) of “Yellow Woman”, a “Christmas Global Movie Production!” – alongside more traditional fare, religious evangelist gatherings with wild slogans like “Victorious Jesus Breaking The Taboo Of Barrenness!” Political groups, such as the wonderfully named “People Of Reasonable Solution To Humanity” (who could argue with that?) vied for space alongside more prosaic metropolitan housekeeping concerns – “Don’t Ignore Your Broken Latrine Or Septic Tank – It’s Illegal”. My two personal favourites were the Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority, which appropriately enough turned out to be a half-collapsed shack in the middle of a roundabout, and a hairdressers (or “Barbing Centre”) brandishing the slightly alarming slogan “Improvise Within Positive Agenda!”

Our small convoy – a pickup and a taxi – pulled up at the side of the road unexpectedly on a small bridge over a gully running down to the sea. We got out, grabbed our guitars, and were immediately led off down a tiny alleyway which led down under the bridge and into King Jimmy’s – the kind of place that you would barely have noticed, let alone thought to explore. And yet underneath was a bustling slum, packed to the gills with people buying, selling, eating, sleeping, and carefully observing the outlandish new arrivals. Susan confidently led the way, joined by Fal G of the Black Street Family, a friend we’d made in 2017. Fal doesn’t live in King Jimmy’s but he knows a lot of people who do, and he took us first to a small gathering place, maybe 5 metres square, with an earth floor and corroded corrugated iron walls and roof.

Around the edges were sat a whole crew of young men, aged between 16 and 30 at a guess, in various poses of caution, style and aggression. Fal and Susan introduced us, and space was made for me and Ben to sit down and get out our guitars. They respectfully asked to hear some of our music, but made it clear that they also wanted to sing some of their own material for us. Fine by me, I told them – part of the joy of being there, for me, is being exposed to things way beyond my own cultural experience.

The last time Ben and I had been faced with an audience like this, we’d had to learn on our feet pretty quickly, to figure out which songs made sense to play in this situation. Generally speaking, songs with participatory moments go down well, and they also need to be loud and bold to make themselves heard. Thankfully I have a few of those in my repertoire, and from previous experience, I knew that songs like “Wessex Boy” and “I Still Believe” were a safe bet. Obviously, the lyrical content is so socially removed from the people in King Jimmy’s as to be truly awkward, but they were there for the music in a really pure way, so I don’t think that mattered to them much. I also noticed that a fair few of the songs I’d written and released since my last time in Freetown worked well in this context – songs like “Don’t Worry” (with the stomp-and-clap rhythm and repeated refrain) and “Little Changes” went over easily. I don’t know quite how consciously my West African experience influenced my writing and arrangement on the album “Be More Kind”, but I think it’s safe to say the two are not unrelated. “Little Changes”, with its easy backing-vocal refrain, became a highlight of the sets on this trip.

Playing songs with Fal G in King Jimmy’s

After a handful of my own songs, one of the local guys started singing me a melody. I did my best to pick up the chords that would sit behind it, and in no time we had a song together, me holding down a backing that was rhythmic enough for rapping in the verses, and a big singalong chorus. It worked so well that a few other guys did the same afterwards, and we had a good half hour of collaborative music-making. The whole thing didn’t feel threatening at all, and I felt a bit embarrassed about my earlier concerns.

It soon turned out, however, that I had fallen prey to that most usual of failings in a West African slum – confusion. A few songs later, Fal motioned to us to wrap things up, a short explanatory speech was made, and we packed our guitars and headed further into King Jimmy’s. I couldn’t help but notice that we now had a couple of local police officers in tow, while some of the Way Out regulars were starting to position themselves around us in a subtle but firm protective ring. Susan and Gibo led the way into a new area. Cracked concrete pillars connected the floor and the ceiling, with the sides open to the elements. On one of the pillars was painted a sign that identified this space as the remaining ruins of the original King Jimmy’s youth centre – complete with a set of rules, detailing fines for swearing, stealing and fighting. The space was jammed with despondent young men eyeing us warily, and with the harsh blare of African reggae being pumped out of broken speakers. The mood was tangibly tense, and it was quite difficult for me and the other Westerners to figure out exactly what was going on. There was an angry negotiation between the local leaders and our crew, which seemed to be mainly concerned with getting them to turn the stereo off so we could play. We were introduced to a guy who was clearly the boss, maybe 30 years old and giving off a very heavy vibe. After checking us out, looking us up and down silently for a minute or two, he assented, the music was stopped, and our time to shine had arrived.

In a situation like this, of course, the only strategy open to me is to soldier on with the bravest face I can muster. It was still very noisy with chatter, but Ben and I strapped on our guitars and did our best to make ourselves heard over the din. We ran through our little set again, working on getting the audience involved in the music. People were initially a bit incredulous, but slowly their curiosity, and later some small degree of enthusiasm, broke through, and after a few numbers we had their attention and even some smiles. Hazel indicated quietly that we had probably peaked, in terms of making ourselves noticed, so we wrapped up and let Gibo stand on a stone bench and make his short speech in Krio about Way Out, the services they offered and the reason for our visit. By the end, I wasn’t feeling overly uncomfortable, and we walked out to many fist-bumps, back-slaps and high-fives. Making our way back up to the road, Hazel seemed relieved that everything had gone off OK, and told me that we’d done very well to connect with the people there. It’s difficult for me to say with any certainty how dangerous or not the whole thing had been, but it certainly felt like we’d done what we came here to do.

Playing to a tough crowd in King Jimmy’s, complete with rules on the wall

We loaded back up into our convoy and set out across the city for Ferry Junction. As we pulled away from King Jimmy’s, someone mentioned to me that the dilapidated bridge over King Jimmy’s had actually partially collapsed a few years, killing a lot of the homeless people sheltered underneath. They’d rebuilt the road bridge in comparatively good time, but left the slum where it was. That chilling fact stuck in my mind. It’s hard to draw any kind of line between poverty and development in a city like this, and I was starting to doubt my earlier thoughts about improvement. Certainly growth, such as it is, is not something that spreads its benefits evenly in Freetown.

As we crawled through the traffic, my eye was caught by a half-finished building by the side of the road. At a distance, it looked as though the whole thing was comically crippled. The building seemed completely crooked, and though it clearly wasn’t done yet, it was hard to see how it could ever be anything more than an unstable mess. As we got closer, I realised that I had been mistaken. The building was surrounded by scaffolding made of twisting, organically warped tree branches. The actual concrete structure was sound. It was the irregular lines of the support structure that gave the whole the impression of impending collapse, an optical illusion.

The crooked building

I don’t want to get overly amateur-travel-writer here and dwell too long on an obvious metaphor, but my impressions of that building did seem serendipitous. One of the ubiquitous things I’ve noticed in Sierra Leone is the constant background hum of entrepreneurship. The locals positively fizz with economic activity, every street corner is heaped with stuff for sale, and the inventiveness of these people, given their shocking levels of poverty, is a marvel to behold. There is no dearth of drive among the local population, the structural materials are sound. Maybe it’s the crooked timbers of their tragic history (including the horrors of slavery and colonialism) and broken institutions that make the whole thing look hopeless, from a distance. This whole thing is, perhaps, armchair philosophy of the most facile kind, and it certainly suggests little in the way of a solution. But it was a striking moment of understanding on some level, for me.

We pulled up at Ferry Junction, a place we visited back in 2017. As mentioned, Hazel had told me how important it was for me to stick to my promises to return, and it was important for her and the charity too, to show the people in these deprived areas that their commitment was sincere. In fact, I was, on arrival, greeted with a stark and heart-breaking indicator of this. On one of the walls in the slum as we walked in was a hand-painted advertisement for my return trip that never happened, back in December 2017. It was gutting to see the reminder of our failed attempt to come back, standing stark and prominent in the middle of the area. I was, at least, happy to be back this time.

With the advert for the show that didn’t happen

The warren of half-streets that make up Ferry Junction were familiar to me from last time. The area is run by a group I met before called The Iron Team. They make their living fishing scrap metal out of the utterly filthy river that runs through. On my last visit they’d told me about how, during the rainy season, the whole place is inundated with torrential flooding. As I wound my way down to the performance area, Mash P, walking with me and snapping photos, told me that he’d visited in that time, and the water had been up to chest height everywhere; Mash is a tall guy. It was hard to picture, and harder still to imagine how much damage that must do to an already fragile community every year.

Eventually we arrived into the main part of Ferry Junction, an open space dominated by a small hillock next to the river. The members of the Iron Team were up there setting up the drumkit that we had brought with us from Way Out, and settling in with the guitars. On a tree nearby was a poster for the show (actually a hand-doctored version of one for a December show out in Lumley that I also hadn’t made it to), which ranks as one of my favourite bits of promotional material for my music that I’ve seen over the years. A sizeable crowd had already gathered and were preparing themselves for the music. Flocks of small kids were charging around, as small kids the world over are wont to do. My presence was noted, first as a white guy, and then, with slowly dawning recognition based on a comparison of my hands and their tattoos with the photo on the poster, as the main event. Everyone was welcoming and seemed genuinely happy that I had come back, which was moving beyond mere words.

As the Iron Team geared up to play, I asked someone if I could have a piss – “ease myself”, in Krio – and was told that, as the place was a sanitary disaster, I could go pretty much anywhere I pleased. Something about that felt really wrong to me. I didn’t want to barge into this desperate society and then piss on it. I looked around until I found a nook between two half-collapsed walls and went there.

The local musicians were now ready to play, and opened with a specially-composed welcome song, as was to become customary as our trip went on. Their musical skills were not perhaps quite up to the standards of the regulars at Way Out that we had seen earlier in the day, but the balance between enthusiasm and skill had still noticeably shifted in the right direction. Their leader, Rasta, led proceedings, singing into a distorted megaphone. After a while, Ben and I were ushered onto the stage and began our set (with added drums from Dave). Some of the locals remembered songs from our previous visit, which was amazing, and I got back down into the melee with the youngsters to let them slap and strum my guitar at the end of songs. Once we were done this turned into a mass fist-bump and high-five party, with seemingly no logical endpoint.

At one moment in the crush, I found my hand being held tightly and looked down to discover myself face to face with Amatu. She was a small girl, maybe 6 years old in 2017, who had sort of adopted me on my last time in Ferry Junction. On that occasion she had been adorably clingy, melting my heart with a forlorn plea for me to take me with her. I had made a mental note to keep an eye out for her on this visit, and here she was. Wonderfully, she squeezed my hand tightly, gave me a nostalgic smile, and then flounced off into the distance; now nearly two years older, she was clearly a bit too cool to be seen being overly close to me (and I suspect she might have been teased in the interim). I felt like I’d been dumped. Kids are the same the world over.

We hung around for a short while after the show and caught up with folks we knew, hearing stories of the change in attitude and optimism brought about by the work Way Out had done in the area. I felt like we had consolidated something by coming back, and made sincere promises to make this into a habit in the future. We were also, by this point, completely exhausted, so it wasn’t long before we loaded up and headed back to our base to drop the equipment off and walk the short stretch back to the hotel, grateful for some food and an early night.

As I drifted off in the delicious embrace of my bedsheet, the overwhelming images of my day whirling through my mind, my impressions and interpretations jostling for position, one thought occurred to me. During the whole day, while I had been face to face with appalling deprivation and poverty everywhere I turned, I had not thought about the war once. Perhaps that in itself could be a cause for celebration.

Playing at Ferry Junction

Part 2 coming soon.

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Campfire Punkrock

Next year, 2018, is going to be a big one for me. We’re looking at a brand new studio album (which we’re mixing at the moment, very exciting), and a huge world tour to go with that. We’re aiming to get absolutely everywhere on this next cycle, new places and old, so look out for that.

In amongst that madness, I’m going to be spending a week in the Forever Wild Catskill Forest Reserve talking about songwriting. The Music Masters Camps have been going for a while now and have hosted some amazing artists – Steve Earle, Richard Thompson, Melissa Auf der Maur and others – so I was excited to be asked to take part. There’s been a bit of internet kerfuffle about the whole thing, so I wanted to talk about it in depth for a moment or two.

The camp is going to be an intense hangout based around songwriting as a concept. I’ll be there for the duration, with the Sleeping Souls. There are only 125 tickets going, so I’m expecting to get to know everyone pretty well while I’m there. We’ll get deep into my material, your material, arrangement, inspiration, all aspects of writing, and there’s also a plan for us to collectively work on some new material when we’re there. I’m not entirely sure where things will go over the week, which is part of what makes it exciting to me.

Songwriting is the thing I spend the vast majority of my waking life thinking about. In the past I’ve been a little reluctant to talk about it in detail, not least because I struggled to find the right vocabulary for it. On the back of releasing “Songbook”, I’ve been working to get over that mental block, and I’m always interested in sharing ideas where possible, so hopefully I’ll be able to impart some useful and interesting knowledge to the people who come along.

Some people were not enthused by the idea of the camp when it was announced, and it’s worth me addressing that. It’s not a paid meet-and-greet – I still hang out after my shows as much as possible to meet whoever, and believe me there are a lot of them coming everywhere around the world very soon. I have never been interested in commodifying my company. The price tag is on the high side, but most of that comes down to the fact that the camp is in a nature resort in the Catskill mountains for 5 days. This isn’t the only time I’m going to talk about songwriting – I’ve actually recently started working on a book on the subject. And this camp probably isn’t for everyone anyway. But for those interested, I think it’s going to be awesome. Some tickets are still available, so I hope to see some of you there, and the rest of you on the road soon.

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Book of Songs

Just a quick update here to say hello and answer a few frequently asked questions of late. November 24th sees the release of “Songbook”. It’s a collection, and it features three types of songs. The first pile is a compilation of my favourite songs I’ve written over the past 6 records and 12 years, the original versions. Then there are 10 new recordings, which are rearrangements of old songs – new approaches, documents of live versions and so on. Then there’s one new song, “There She Is”, which is the first glimpse of what will be album 7. The songbook comes digitally, on double CD, on 3xLP, and as part of a box set that includes vinyl, 2 DVDs (“Get Better” and the Show 2000 set) and unseen photos. The box-set and the vinyl will be available on December 15th. I hope people enjoy the collection, whether newcomers or people who’ve been part of the team for years. Check it out here.

To answer some more questions… The DVD of show 2000 will be available on its own at some point down the road. Right now, the Sleeping Souls and I are in Texas working through the rest of the new material that will comprise my 7th album, which will be released in (hopefully) the Spring of 2018. We have an absolute mountain of world touring plans to go with that for next year, which will be announced in good time.

In the meantime, I’ll be in Mexico and Florida shortly. I’ve just announced a solo set at London’s ULU on November 25th as part of the 2nd annual A Peaceful Noise event, which is part of the Nick Alexander Memorial Trust, commemorating my friend Nick, who died at the Bataclan. Tickets are available tomorrow here. Lost Evenings is edging towards sold out, though there are still a few tickets left (including for the first two nights, keep looking people!). The Campfire Punkrock Music Masters camp next summer is also selling well, if you want to come hang out in the Catskills and talk about songs for a few days, get your tickets while you can.

That’s all the news that’s currently fit to print, from me. In the meantime I’m going to finish off this new album – I’m very excited about it, it’s sonically the most diverse thing I’ve ever attempted – and then head home for some rest, recuperation, writing words (more on that as and when), and working on a few side projects. Peace.

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Wrapping Up

Another month ends, another tour comes to a close. This one feels a touch more significant, so I thought I’d say a few words about it before getting on a plane back to London.

The last month of shows (mostly) with Jason Isbell was an absolute blast. At the risk of losing myself in a forest of hyperbole, I really can’t say enough god things about touring with Jason, his band and his crew. A truly wonderful group of people, amazing music, wonderful audiences. It was an inspiring time, and we made a whole bunch of new friends (hi!) as well as checking in with some old ones. Thanks everyone for coming out to the shows.

The show last night in Millvale, PA, was a special one. It formally marks (as much as anything can do) the end of the touring cycle for Positive Songs For Negative People. Since it was released in August 2015, we’ve played 411 shows in 31 countries over 26 months. That feels like a pretty good chunk of effort. I remain as proud of that record as I was the day it was finished, and it’s been great taking it around the world and sharing it with you all.

We’re heading home now and will be (largely) off the road for quite a while. My main priority will be finishing off the new album. Hopefully it’ll be out in spring next year (with some new tunes before then), and of course there will be tour dates galore to accompany all that. But for the moment, we are collectively regrouping, focussing on new music, and indeed having some time at home with our loved ones. It’s kind of a new thing for me to actually schedule time to do that but it’s a good feeling. There will be a few bits and bobs surfacing from time to time, but for the most part, I’ll see you all with a new record in the new year. Peace.

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