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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Long Live The Queen

I haven’t blogged in a while, so I thought I’d write something today, as the anniversaries have been stacking up.

Today is the 8th anniversary of the release of “Poetry Of The Deed”, my third album, and the first one with the Sleeping Souls in the studio proper. Time flies when you’re having fun, eh? It’s a record that I’ve not always been thrilled about, in retrospect, which I think is a little unfair of me. There are issues with the mix that still slightly get to me, but I think it’s a solid set of songs, a few of which (The Road, Try This At Home, Dan’s Song) are still regular staples in my set. It’s also the first album I did with Epitaph Records, so it was the introduction to my music for a lot of people, and I know well how that breeds loyalty from a listener. So let’s put it on today and raise a glass.

The other anniversary today is a sadder one. It’s 10 years since the passing of my good friend Alexa Burrowes, she lost her second battle with breast cancer. I wrote a song about it shortly afterwards.

Today we play at Red Rocks in Colorado, one of the most spectacular (and biggest) venues in the USA. Playing here would have been a wild and hilarious dream for me while Lex was still alive, when we used to stay up late in her kitchen and shoot the shit about life, music and the future. So I think I’ll be playing that one for her tonight.

I’m happy to say that Lost Evenings won the Golden Welly Award for Best Independent Festival at the AIM Awards 2017. So much work went into that weekend, it’s lovely to see it recognised. We are, of coure, doing it again in 2018. A limited number of season tickets (all 4 nights) go on sale tomorrow morning. The rest, including individual nights, will be on sale soon.

The tour with Jason Isbell comes on apace – he’s just one of the best songwriters and performers I know, so it’s a pleasure and an honour to share a stage night after night. Once this run is done, I’ll be knuckling down to finish the new record, and there will be new music of some kind before the end of the year. See you all on the road.

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Blink And You’ll Miss It

I woke up this morning a little sad because the Blink-182 UK tour is over. It has been an absolute blast, trundling round my home island with American friends old and new (shout out to the excellent Front Bottoms). We played to a metric shit-ton of people and hopefully made a few new friends along the way. Thanks to Blink / TFB / the crew / everyone who came out for the shows and made us welcome.

I wanted to post a quick blog update mainly to say “hello!” to any people who are new to what I do, who have discovered me and the Sleeping Souls through this tour. All are welcome, get involved, there’s music on Spotify and swag for sale. Next up for me is festival season (mainly in the UK, a few in Europe), then a US tour with Jason Isbell, and then I’ll be putting the finishing touches to album 7, which should be out (with an accompanying mega-world-headline tour) sometime early in 2018.

At the Blink shows, I was taking a moment to mention an important group called Safe Gigs For Women. They do incredible work in raising awareness of an issue that, in 2017, really shouldn’t be a thing in the punk scene (or indeed anywhere). But it is, and you can check out what they’re about and get involved right here.

Speaking of safety at shows… There was a small incident in Bournemouth. Blink had to cancel (through no fault of their own). My crew did an amazing job of sorting a last minute replacement show, and we worked hard to make the entry policy as fair as we could at such short notice. There was some kerfuffle on twitter beforehand (spoiler alert: TWITTER DOESN’T MATTER), which was a shame, but the show went ahead and was lovely. One individual was being abusive towards me, my crew, and most importantly, the people around them at the show, so they were politely removed. An awful lot of totally fabricated bullshit then got posted on social media. There’s nothing more to the story than that, in reality, and the small minority of people who spend their day shit-posting about me need to either move along or just admit they have a crush.

Anyway, it’s been a lovely tour. There are plenty of shows coming up soon, so hopefully I’ll see some of you in a field somewhere sometime soon. In the meantime, I’m off on holiday for a few days. Peace.

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Studio Summer

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

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

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

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

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Wi Lek Wi Salone – Part 5

DAY 5: FROM A SLAVE CAMP TO A PALACE

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

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Jamie and Mash on the beach

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

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

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Me and Abu

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

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

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

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

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With Meeky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Josta

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

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Mash-P tracking vocals

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

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The show in the courtyard

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

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Exhausted at the ferryport

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

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

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

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

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

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A message from BSF

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

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Wi Lek Wi Salone – Part 4

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

DAY 4: CHILDREN OF AFRICA, WE CAN SUFFER

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

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

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Bai Bureh

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

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

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Flyer for the Ferry Junction show

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

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Dave on drums

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

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

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Iron Team members digging gravel

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

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

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With Amatu

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

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

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

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

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

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The runway at Kissy Town

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

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Dave with suncream

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

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

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

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

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Wi Lek Wi Salone – Part 3

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

DAY 3: WHITE MAN IN BLACK MAN’S HOME

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

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

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Hanging at AiRadio

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

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

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

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

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

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Dave and Hazel heading into Susan’s Bay

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

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

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Jamie on the pitch

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

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

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Sullie with drawing, complete with added crutch

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

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Ben by the shore

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

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

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Ben playing in Susan’s Bay

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

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

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Moor Wharf

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

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

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

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

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Black Street Family rapping in the sunset

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

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