Well friends, I could not be more excited to announce to you my tenth studio album, Undefeated. Released 3rd May 2024 on Xtra Mile Recordings.

After the pandemic, back in the independent world, with a new drummer, I feel proud, grateful and pleasantly surprised to be putting out a record that I love with all my heart, that I think might be one of my best. It’s a defiant, energetic record about growing old disgracefully and making peace with that. I’m still standing up, still have something to share with the world, and I’m excited to let you know about it.

So, here we go! ‘Do One’ was the final song I wrote for this album. I felt like I needed a song to sum up where I’m at in one short burst – revitalised, rebellious, having fun, and still a sucker for a big singalong. I hope you enjoy the song, and I can’t wait to sing it with you at a show sometime this year.

Preorder the album here: https://frankturner.orcd.co/undefeated

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Eating Before Swimming

Today sees the release of “Playtime with Christopher & Francis Volume 1”, the debut of a new musical project of mine, Eating Before Swimming. I wanted to tell you all a little about it, and encourage you to take a listen.

Chris Blake and I met at the village primary school in Meonstoke, Hampshire, in 1985, when I was 3 and he was 5. We lived on the same street and became firm friends pretty much immediately, bonding over a love of Action Force toys, for the most part. We stayed friends past that school, and by time we were in double figures, music had entered our lives. I fell for Iron Maiden, Chris for Metallica. I got a guitar and amp from Argos for Christmas, Chris got a drumkit. Set up in his bedroom, we started our first musical ventures together aged 11 and 13.

That band (a million different names, all terrible, very rough recordings do exist but NO YOU CAN’T HAVE THEM) continued in one form or another through our middle teens. We played birthday parties for my older sister and our bass player, Toby (both medium disastrous events). We covered AC/DC and Nirvana, and had some truly dreadful original songs. Over time the band drifted apart, but Chris and I stayed friends.

I moved to London after school, and set off on my own various courses. Chris played in a handful of great bands in Winchester and Southampton, and got more and more involved in electronic music, releasing stuff as Palest Boy At School. Throughout this whole period, we kept in touch, and kept discussing the idea of collaborating on something. Tapes of some very weird sounds got sent in the mail. Drum machines were programmed, guitars were bent out of tune, but nothing quite coalesced.

Roughly 10 years ago, we came across an idea for a proper project; it would involve a post-modern attack on some of our favourite old pop songs, a deconstructionist (not to mention absurdist) examination of how far you can push a song before it falls apart. It would be noisy, aggressive, weird and fun. I started tracking vocals and guitar for a few songs, occasionally piano, sending them to Chris, and he’d work on them while I was on the road.

Neither of us thought it would take quite this long to finish the damn thing. We’ve had hold-ups due to my schedule, sorting out mixes (this is a difficult approach genre to nail, sonically), getting clearance on some of the songs from frankly bemused publishers, my schedule again, finding a band name that we liked that wasn’t taken (Eating Before Swimming was the first idea; then we had a million others, then went back to the start), a pandemic, the works. We made videos, made plans, shunted things around the diary, and then FINALLY, in August 2022, here we are.

The record is out today. We don’t know if we’ll do more of this (hopefully!), we haven’t yet worked out if shows are even possible. We hope you like it. Here’s a video we made in lockdown. Brace yourself.

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Entschuldigung Sie Bitte

Let me paint you a picture.

Last Friday night, loading up the bus and trailer after the show in Milan. We’re all exhausted but radiant. We’d just had our best show in Italy to date. Being on the road again, properly, consistently, hitting places that had started to feel like a dream in the last two years, seeing old friends, making new ones – it’s almost impossible for me to exaggerate how redemptive all that felt. Shows in Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Italy had all been wonderful. I felt like I had a purpose again, for the first time in a long while.

But. You knew there was a “but” coming.

We were heading home, instead of heading to Austria. For those who missed the announcement a week ago, we have had to pull the Austrian shows on this tour (and thus also Nuremberg), and that’s what this post is about. I wanted to start by emphasising that the mood on a bus when you’re in for the long drive home without having finished what you started is funereal black. My band and crew and I take a huge amount of pride in our work, and letting people down is the very last thing we ever want to do.

So let me explain the reasons. I think the initial announcement wasn’t clear enough about this, for which I apologise, but after a fair few hostile comments on the subject, I wanted to state my case and try to help people understand what’s going on, not just for me, but for the live music industry in general.

Someone somewhere snarked that the cancellations showed I was “all about the money” – and that is true, to the same extent that paying rent, paying bills, eating food is “all about the money”. Touring isn’t free – in fact it’s hugely expensive. With 12 people being paid full time, a bus and trailer, fuel (fuel!) costs, hotels, PDs, food, taxes, carnets and the like, it used to cost me a comfortable five figures a day to be on the road – show days and days off the same. Now, with extra Brexit bullshit and soaring gas prices, it costs more.

I’m not trying to garner sympathy or complain about my lot in life, just to explain. Looking forward through the tour, and after consulting with our promoter in Austria (an old and trusted friend), it became clear that going there for a week was going to cost a fortune – it was going to put the tour catastrophically in the red.

Now, in times gone by (and maybe again in the future) I’ve toured at a loss plenty. It’s arguable that I’ve never actually done more than broken even going all the way to Vienna (13 times now), but you make it work – you route it in with bigger shows, you balance it out against other tours, you make some (not as much as people think…) money on merchandise. You do the job you said you’d do.

But after the last two years, the music industry in general is still bleeding profusely, wounded, limping. Any buffer zone, any fallback, is so long gone it’s a joke at this point. Everyone is broke. A lot of people think musicians at our level are wealthy people – pretty entertainingly wide of the mark at the best of times, not even funny now. Among other things, no one got paid for two years. Doing those shows at this point in time was simply not possible.

There’s a whole bunch of reasons for that. Obviously I know that shows in Austria are open now, but attendances are low across the board, and no-shows are through the roof. I know of 3 other acts in the same shoes right now. I’m not blaming anyone in that part of the world for anything, it is what it is, but ultimately there’s a bottom line here that I can’t just wish away, ignore, tough out, or anything else.

So we drove home. My team are working overtime to get the shows back on the books for later in the year. I think there’s been some confusion about ticketing – for which I apologise, and which we’ll sort ASAP. But we ARE coming back. We WILL make good on our promises, as soon as that’s humanly possible.

I guess ultimately the reason I’m writing this is because there’s been a fair bit of disappointment around the cancellation – which I fully understand, and to which I can only add “me too!” – but also because there’s been some comments which, to me, feel pretty unfair. Sure, things unlocked recently. That doesn’t undo two years of catastrophe for touring musicians at a stroke. I wish it did, but it doesn’t. I know people were looking forward to the shows, and some of them are now out of pocket – again, me too.

Thank you so much to everyone who made a show on this tour. Thanks to the people in Austria who have been understanding about this situation. We will be back, before the year is through. I’m going to take a bit of a break from the internet for a minute, but we’re hitting Yeovil and then the Eden Sessions with MCR at the end of the week, and I can’t wait. Peace.

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The Show Must Go On

About last night… Last night, the road took me, Matt Nasir and the crew back around to Columbus, Ohio. We had a pretty eventful day and show, and I wanted to put the story down for the record.

The venue booked was The Basement – a 300 capacity room in the basement (natch) of a complex of venues. We arrived overnight on the bus, wandered off to find breakfast, loaded the equipment in in the rain and started setting about the daily business of putting a show together.

About half-way through our soundcheck (a daily ritual that becomes more perfunctory as tours roll on, naturally enough), an explosion of noise came through the ceiling, drowning out even the loudest noises we were making with our current acoustic, duo setup. It turned out there was another show in the mid-size room above us, a rescheduled event. The volume coming through was such that our show was basically impossible.

It’s important to note that I don’t hold anyone particularly to blame for this; there can be mix-ups at the best of times, and with everyone scrambling to try and repair the live music infrastructure as we begin to entertain thoughts of life in a post-covid world, well… It’s difficult. Nevertheless, after a few minutes of trying to pretend it’d be fine and we’d muscle through and not be precious about it, it became clear that we had a serious problem for the evening’s plans.

Now we come to the part I want to tell you about – my crew. On this run, we have Dougie (production manager and live sound), Ryan (backline and guitars) and Tre (tour managing). I’ve been on the road with these three for years, and I know they’re good at what they do, but yesterday afternoon they proved that in spades, and also showed why crew are so vital (as well as so skilled).

Whilst I was in the middle of having a minor sense of humour failure about the whole thing, Tre declared that “there are no problems, only solutions”, and the three of them set about finding one. The other room in the complex is the big room, Express Live (where I’ve played a bunch of times), but it’s currently slightly up on bricks, being refurbished and so on. Plus putting 300 people in a 3000 cap room wouldn’t really work. But there was space on the floor, and Dougie had located various piles of staging and PA equipment around the backstage.

So it was than in 90 minutes flat, the three of them found and built a stage, found and wired an entire PA (with monitors), set out bike racks and signage to get people into the venue, through the bar area and into the gig, worked out some makeshift lighting, and put an entire show together. In the event we were good to go, soundchecked, Nathan Gray as support all checked as well, by the time doors were originally supposed to open, and the show went ahead as planned. I’d even say that the euphoria of success made it a better show than it might otherwise have been.

A lot of people (probably including me) would have given up. A lot of people would have had no idea how to make a show happen given the materials on hand. But my crew didn’t do that; they soldiered on, got the show running, and enabled me to do my job. I am drowning in admiration for and (if allowed) pride in their work, and I know I’m lucky to have these people as both my crew and, more importantly, my friends.

So, raise a glass to the crew. The last 18 months have been rough across the industry, but it’s these folks who have suffered most in some ways. If they’re doing their job right, people at the shows barely know they’re there, but trust me, without them there’d be no shows to speak of. All hail the crew, support WeMakeEvents.

The show must go on. Asheville tomorrow night!

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Revive Live

Last week, I played the first three full capacity indoor shows since March 2020. I’m still getting my head around the experience, but I wanted to do some of that here, and to talk about shows coming up through the rest of the summer.

The build-up for the first show, which was of course at The Clapham Grand, was surreal and quite stressful. There is of course a lot of tension and uncertainty out there right now about shows, about restrictions and regulations, government action and personal responsibility – no doubt you’ve all read and thought about all that enough recently. The UK government has helpfully (sic) decided to duck hard decisions and left restrictions in the hands of individual venues. That’s difficult in many ways, but does also leave open the possibility of doing shows again, something that is incredibly important to me and (I like to think) the audience, something we’ve missed more than words can say. Through a combination of hard work by venues and promoters, and a voluntary ask for people to test or be vaccinated, we managed to get to a place where we all felt the shows could go ahead safely for all concerned.

The crucial thing, the thing I want to talk about here, was the magic. Playing again was completely, indescribably pure. I wept openly twice before I even went onstage, and it got worse from there. The audiences were a delight, the atmosphere was tangibly electric. Everyone in the industry wants to help, wants to be responsible, but in the midst of that we’ve sometimes lost sight of the need to stress the importance of what we contribute, to us and to those who come. This is our culture, our therapy, our life. Thank you so much to everyone who came to the shows.

Looking forward, of course things aren’t simple. The tensions and uncertainty remain. There has been huge damage wreaked across the industry, in particular the supply chains behind the scenes, which is still reverberating. Many people are not yet comfortable with indoor shows, and I completely understand that. Collectively, we’re doing our best to do our jobs and keep everyone happy. It’s not always easy.

All that said, I have some awesome shows coming up this summer. Margate on Friday is at Dreamland – full capacity but outdoors, with an amazing lineup. I can’t wait. We have more Gathering shows in Frome, and various festivals (Beautiful Days, Victorious and so on), even a free show in London for Love Music Hate Racism (August 14th). To have anything in the diary, after the last 18 months, is a singular pleasure, and I can’t wait to see you all.

A moment, now, to address the Manchester show next month. It was originally planned to be a full capacity outdoor show. Alas over the weekend the promoters contacted me to say that the infrastructure for an outdoor show just isn’t available to them right now, there’s been too much lost in the last year. The choice facing me was either cancelling, or moving it indoors. I chose the latter – the show will now be at the Apollo. All tickets remain valid, more are onsale. For those who, completely legitimately, don’t want to attend an indoor show, full refunds are available at point of purchase. This is not ideal, but it’s the best we can do right now.

I hope everyone can be understanding of the stresses and strains facing the live music industry right now. And I hope many people will join me in coming down to a show and remembering what we’ve been missing, losing themselves in the power of live music. I can’t wait. Peace.

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The Final IVL Show

Like most people, some days I find it hard to believe what’s actually going on in the world right now. I wake up and get staggered all over again by the fact that we really are living through a pandemic, and more specifically, that the industry I love and have made my life in remains in cold storage. It’s weird, and it can feel pretty defeating a lot of the time.

Playing the Independent Venue Love shows on and off for the last year (year!) has been one of the ways I’ve tried to make sense of all this. Obviously, independent venues need help; obviously I owe my career in large part to small rooms up and down the country (and around the world) where a few hundred people can gather together and immerse themselves in underground music and culture; and obviously, if I can help, I will. It feels like the least I can do.

More than that, though, it’s given me structure and routine, two things I need to have in my life to keep myself on an even keel mentally. A lot of people have said to me that the regular Thursday night gatherings, as ersatz as they might be, have been helpful to them. To which I can only say, “I know what you mean, friends.”

Having said all that, I’ve decided that it’s time to pause the shows again for the time being. Like the last time I did that, it feels like my own wells of energy and creativity are running low for these shows, and I want to focus on other things for a while (I’m finishing off my own studio among other things, am working on a new album, and I’m planning for how to move forward as and when lockdown eases up here in the UK). That’s not to say that other venues don’t need help, or that the Music Venue Trust #saveourvenues campaign is in any way “finished”. There’s so much more to do, and I’ll be helping out with that (and the #wemakeevents campaign) as much as I can going forward. It’s just time to pause the shows again for now.

I am overwhelmingly grateful to everyone who’s tuned in over the year, and especially to everyone who’s donated. At around £250,000 raised, I think we can all pat ourselves on the back a little. The final show, number 21 (!!), will be this Thursday, the 25th. It’s a benefit for The Lexington in London – a venue I know well and love dearly. Let’s all gather together one more time at 8pm (UK) and raise them a ton of money. Jess is playing first, and then she’ll be picking my setlist for me (payback for all the times she’s run the requests for other shows!).

I’m really looking forward to it. See you all there.

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The First Gig Back

(Photo credit – CapturedByCorinne)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sierra Leone 2020 – Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solo at work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fal G repping Social D

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

Me, Jess, Moziz and his Grandmother

With Fal G, his wife, and little Frankturner Koroma

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

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

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

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

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

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Sierra Leone 2020 – Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamie in the Kissy Town Studio

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

Playing in Kissy Town

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

Kissy Town Dancers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show Poster in Five School

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

Five School Dancefloor

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

Invincible Dancer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fal G in Full Flow

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

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Sierra Leone 2020 – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

Checking out the mobile studio in Songo

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

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

Me and Worry

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mash in full flow with the WayOut band

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

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

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

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

Dance Party!

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