It looks like that’s that then. A trip shot by in a flash. 5 months. 7 countries. Various cities. Hundreds of people. Immeasurable generosity. Innumerable memories.
As we come to the end of it all, it might be nice to have a little recap. Think of this as the blog version of an end of sports tournament tv montage, except without the grimacing slowmos and cheesy Snow Patrol music.
I started off on that October Friday night (the 13th no less) by packing my bag 5 times (which isn’t that many times considering), setting up a blog and completely bricking it in the lounge at home in Walthamstow. I was up at 2am and got my first and so far only night tube train down to Victoria, and a coach to Heathrow, and then via Frankfurt I made it to Lagos. My 5 and a half weeks there absolutely exhausted me but I think about Nigeria all the time. I miss it and I miss Eko Samba a great deal. That’s the most beautiful bunch of people you could ever meet and their generosity of welcoming a stranger and looking after me is something I’ll never forget. Plus the sound of that band! Proper. The utter chaos of Lagos for the first 3 weeks was intoxicating and I loved it, before the wahala became a bit too much post Ile-Ife. If I were to go there now, at the end of the trip, I wonder if I’d react differently. There is certainly nowhere else like it. The intensity of the place is unique. It’s coupled with this incredible spiritual depth, apparent in the whole of West Africa, and I regularly cast my mind back to the beauty of Nigeria. Ile-Ife especially, when Ifa wanted to communicate with me, and Ojo and I retraced the roots and routes of the Yoruba civilisation via Osun Grove, the Obatala Temple, the Museum of Ife and the Ifa Temple, as well as the visit to Ejigbo. I had made an album where 2 of the songs were about 2 of those very subjects, so having listened to E d’Oxum countless times and taking a dip in the Osun River was so special. Then to be welcomed and have a conversation with Baba Olotu in Ejigbo was brilliant too and interesting to hear that he knows of the song Elegibo. I think about those things a lot. Candomble, Santeria and Voodoo, three of the most popular and growing religions in the world, originate in that very place, as do vast amounts of music. I’ve been exposed to so much re-Africanisation through music and culture and seeing it all first hand, from the place it came from and seeing it still alive there, was hugely moving. I felt it profoundly on the back of my neck.
I re-watch the videos of Eko Samba every so often and that was such a great band to play with. I loved playing in that classroom in the sweltering heat as the sun set behind us. I’m going to try and make Akara when I get back to London, and in future I am absolutely paying Lagos and Eko Samba another visit. I love the people there very much.
Senegal in hindsight wasn’t the best of times until the last 2 days when I perked up again. Not speaking any French that isn’t catchphrases meant I really didn’t get to know the place until Zal collared me and I went to his Dad’s home studio on that last day. That was a fantastic day. But what was important was that I managed to deal with a mood swing on my own in a foreign country, but didn’t realise the gravity of it until it passed. However, I did it, and all those miles walked and all that snooker watched in the hotel kept me going until I came back to earth. It was lucky I did because I had the best 5 days in The Gambia after that. I loved it there and Foday, Bouba and the girls were just wonderful at Bouba’s lodge in Kartong. The Gambia is really cool and very different from Senegal. They are a much more welcoming people, helped I think by being a small and compact country reliant on tourism, but also I went at a time when real change was on the horizon with the dictatorial Yahya Jammeh voted out in favour of Adama Barrow. As far as I know, change is continuing to come with great difficulty, but a smooth sea never made a good sailor. All of the usual corruption and tribalism that so plagues politics all over the world, but particularly in Africa with so many tribes, is afoot but without me being there, I don’t know if I can rely on the things I have read online.
Then came Ethiopia. I’ve eaten Ethiopian food 3 times in 9 days in New York. Addis Ababa is fantastic and I was so lucky to meet the right people there. Edom especially, whose gallery became a second home and through whom I managed to play with Mulatu Astatke within 3 days of being there. The man himself! And we met Frances Falceto too, the man responsible for the Ethiopiques series that has given so much of the world access to Ethiopian music. George the economist too, who so kindly put me up in his flat in Kazanchis, and Frank and Zoe who bought me a room for the first night and who I had many raucous nights in Top One with. I miss the Shiro there and it is my current task to find one as good as that. The rock steady Biniam crew up the mountains was quite a way to spend Christmas too and to finally make it to Shashemane and see the Rastas was really special. It really is mad to think that their Messiah gave them land and they live on it. That’s certainly one way to devote your life to something! I took a picture in Jamaica that I forgot to post. It was in the museum in Accompong Town and was a poster of black empowerment figures. Have a look at Emperor Haile Sellassie:
No death date. The Messiah lives forever!
I didn’t want to leave Ethiopia after I’d met Hanna at that house party (another thing through Edom) and could happily have set up camp in Addis Ababa. But I did leave and I found my spiritual home in the next place – Japan. I’ve said it every post since I left but I think about Japan every single day. There’s nothing much more I can say on the place here without repeating myself. I wonder just how much I’ll re-settle in to London life and whether it’ll be difficult to head over to Tokyo permanently if things take off project wise. We’ll have to wait and see really. I’ve got so many ideas that I want to do in London but I have a vague time limit in the back of my mind.
New Orleans came next which was initially hard because I missed Japan, then it was alright for a bit, but then I realised my first thoughts were correct and the place was just not my bag. It was made infinitely better by Peg but I was very disappointed with the place; a sentiment she shared. It’s just weird there. There’s something missing and I wish I could pinpoint it. It can’t only be the fact that it’s the deep south, or can it? I think I did see enough musically to inspire me… the school band playing a snatch of Wham was one thing. A lot of inspiration came in the form of fuel to avoid musical repetition in any future projects. It’s a real bugbear of mine, seeing the same thing too many times at once.
Jamaica was lots of fun with Lauren and Paule and Poushali. I had the fume on for 2 days but the rest was a real treat to be with my pals. Going to Studio One and buying an LP recorded there that I’d listened to endlessly with Angus was another one of ‘those’ moments that have filled this trip up so much. The street dance event was fascinating too and all those secret rules that seemed so obvious to them and so oblivious to us. Sound clashes are apparently the same. It’s a special part of the world. To be there when Lauren connected with her Jamaican relatives for the first time was really touching too.
I managed to parade in Mardi Gras, which was another box ticked. I did learn a great deal from playing with BateBunda, both music and not. It’s all gone in to the fire to throw myself in to some new ventures when I get back.
And then 10 days in New York to finish it all off, seeing a city I’d always been intrigued by, almost entirely because of John Lennon. It’s alright here I suppose. There’s more on it later as we wrap up the blog.
I’d like to quote Socrates and George Harrison too. Socrates said, and there are two versions of this quote, “wisdom is knowing how little you know”, or “the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing”. I suppose it’s apt that I don’t know which one he actually said. Perhaps he said both. I like it though and it certainly releases the tension in the quest to learn stuff and experience things.
The Inner Light is a fantastic Indian b-side to Lady Madonna, released in 1968 and the last of George Harrison’s 3 Indian tunes he wrote for the Beatles. He released the very Indian film soundtrack ‘Wonderwall Music’ in that year and this tune was written and recorded in Bombay as a spare track. The chorus goes: “the more one sees, the less one knows. The less one really knows”.
Those two quotes resonate a lot. I can’t find the actual version so here’s Jeff Lynne and Anoushka Shankar from the Concert for George in 2002.
I also want to say the world’s biggest thank you to everybody that has read and engaged with this blog. I wasn’t sure if anyone would read it! All of your messages have been incredible and it has been consistently humbling to recieve your lovely thoughts and to know that you’ve been reading it. I couldn’t have asked for a better response. Thanks so much everyone, genuinely. I hope you’ve taken something from it. Depending on how the new project ideas take off, it could carry on.
On to the last few days then. New York is exactly as expected really, in as much as it’s just like in the films. It’s a little more Maid in Manhattan than Taxi Driver nowadays as it’s been gentrified as much as London has in the small amount I’ve seen of the city. There don’t seem to be as many building sites as London but there is certainly some building going on here. Staying at Rekha’s is like a cosy Manhattan bubble so I haven’t had as big an exposure to New York as others will have. I haven’t made it to The Bronx or Queens but I’ve seen the other three boroughs – Manhattan, from Harlem all the way down (Harlem now has a Whole Foods Supermarket), Brooklyn, around the Shoreditch bit, and a little bit of Staten Island. The city is tall buildings and deli shops; fire hydrants and steaming manhole covers; yellow taxis and everyone on the phone.
A lot of the street names in Manhattan are just numbers and to me it makes it a little clinical and not as easy as I thought to get around. There’s loads of roads with names though and it’s only really Midtown and Uptown Manhattan with numbered street names like 34th Street etc. The Avenues head from up to downtown, numbered from 1st upwards but with Park and Madison inbetween 4th and 5th avenues, and the numbered streets head across Manhattan. I suppose it makes things simpler but I just don’t get on with it for some reason. It’s probably me being irrational. I like it when a city isn’t so clearly square and rectangular and has been built over time, with curved roads and little alleys and nooks and crannies. When it’s all set out in blocks like New York is, it’s like living in Lego.
I’ve seen the Graham Ave area of Brooklyn and it could easily have been Bethnal Green Road. It is interesting to see the stark Americanisation (spelt with an S and not a Z) of parts of London by going to America itself. The graffiti, designed to look impromptu and ‘cool’, is clearly commissioned and contrived. Artisan coffee shops and cheap takeaway places sit next to posh shoe shops. There is a lot of character to the buildings, with old ones converted to apartments next to bespoke new apartment builds as the area is increasingly milked down. Prominent churches hog street corners and in that part particularly are frequented by the large Italian-American population in the area. They’ve painted the fire hydrants in the colours of the Italian flag. People amble along in thrift store fashion sense, designed to look rough but with hours of thought put in to it. There are bicycles. Trendy bars with mood lighting and craft beer. You know… it’s hipsters basically.
We watched some music at an event in Brooklyn under the name ‘Diversity Rising’ that Jess’s band was playing at. It was one of those well meaning events with music, drinks, food and a raffle as a fundraiser for a charity of some sort. The music, apart from Jess’s band, was like a High School talent contest, except worse. One of my least favourite types of music is Musical Theatre. I’m yet to see something I like. I’m not really a lyrics man so it’s not going to hold my attention anyway, but the way the story is spelt out so gratuitously grates with me and all the songs seem to be the same message of ‘he doesn’t love me’ or ‘why don’t they understand’ and sung in that heavily accented American way. I find it childish. It’s music for people that think it’s OK to wear waistcoats in public. The singers that got up and did these songs from Chicago or whatever just looked to me like they were still living out High School fantasies. They were about 30-odd but had peaked at school and were still holding on to it. I think they were both teachers so that says it all really.
Jess’s band sound a lot like Joy Division so that was a nice respite after all that Musical Theatre. The drummer, Tre, who turned 30 that day, did a very good imitation of Stephen Morris’ style, and whilst it was nothing original, anything would have been welcome after witnessing High School Musical first hand.
Other than that, it’s been casual times with Rekha and her flat. I’ve been so at home that I made a joke that it feels like I’ve colonised the flat. I’ve been really winding down this week. I suppose I’m just knackered really as it’s been full on for a while. Although I feel I could go on doing this forever, I’m probably ready to come home. I won’t know until I head back and I’ve already got some exciting musical plans lined up.
We got the Staten Island ferry, a free way in which to see the Statue of Liberty. I never knew it was a gift from France, and nearby Ellis Island was the home of the immigration office for people wanting to move to the U.S. One Punjabi gentleman lived on Ellis for 21 years after being refused entry. The statue acted as a stark visual symbol as people entered the country. Now it’s $50 to see it up close, or free if you get the ferry. Staten Island is odd too. It looks like a depressed English coastal town. It reminded me of Gosport. Wandering around those places on a cold grey day, where you hardly see another pedestrian and just look out at buildings but actually you see nothing, really fascinate me. There’s a quality to the apparent nothingness, magnified on a cold and grey day, and to see the dozens of lavish towers of Manhattan over the water puts Gosport/Staten Island almost literally in the shade. The locals here consider themselves the ‘forgotten borough of New York’. Definitely feels that way.
There was an ethereal quality to the New York Subway when we travelled on Sunday. It’s an interesting one down there. There were engineering works on many of the lines, meaning some stations were shut and the trains passed through them. There were four tracks; one for each platform going different directions and two in the middle for the express trains and passing trains to run through both directions. As we trundled on those spare tracks through the empty starions, and then slowly through the tunnels, the lights for the construction works lit up the tunnels so you could see the graffiti on the walls and the dank conditions. Workers in their orange jackets looked like moles. The tunnels aren’t shaped like the tube and there is space between the train and the walls, and even more so as we were using the middle train tracks. The sounds emanating from a train slowly moving down there, with their spooky screeches and echoes, reminded me of a documentary I saw in college. In the mid 1990s, a young Englishman named Marc Singer ended up working as a model in New York. Despite money and relative fame, he hated the superficial life he was leading and he was struck by how many homeless people he saw in New York. He befriended them and fell in to a crowd of homeless people that lived in the New York Subway tunnels. They had built themselves houses in Freedom Tunnel, between Penn Station and Harlem in Manhattan, and many of them had been living there for years. As a means of raising money to help them, he made his first and only documentary. What came out of it was a stunning film, seriously provocative and moving, and I urge everybody to watch the link below. It’s seriously a stunning piece of work and if you have an hour and a half, please do watch it.
Rekha and I headed up to catch a gorgeous Sunday sunset at the One World Tower. Built next door to Ground Zero, it has viewing decks on floors 100 and above and panoramic views of Manhattan, New Jersey, Brooklyn and beyond. It’s disconcerting up there because you can really feel the building swaying in the wind. Honestly, it knocked me off balance a couple of times.
They also show you this film of New York life before you head on to the decks. It’s a nicely filmed selection of speedily cut shots of typical New York life with this cinematic music over the top. It’s nothing you don’t see for yourself just walking up Fifth Avenue or something. The film carries on, attempting to create drama and feeling, building up a narrative, before by ‘surprise’, the screen dramatically lifts up to reveal the view out the window! You could hear the room shrug. It was frankly ridiculous and very American. They also tried to flog iPads for $15 hire that tell you everything that you’re seeing.
My camera didn’t capture it too well (above) but the moon looked gorgeous as she made her way out. It’s full moon tomorrow and she had a beautiful auburn glow as it got dark and she rose up the sky.
I ventured up to Strawberry Fields the other day as well and said hello to John again, and I will do so again before I leave New York. There was a fella there with a guitar playing tunes – a few of Lennon’s and he rattled through renditions of Jean Genie and Lola too – as people of all nationalities sat round the small black and white Imagine mosaic, listening to him, taking photos and chatting. I like the Strawberry Fields gardens because they have a visible Japanese influence from Yoko, whose idea it was to open the memorial gardens opposite the Dakota in 1985. I hadn’t realised Yoko still lived there. She never moved on from December the 8th 1980, as many people wouldn’t in the same situation, but she’s living access to a musical world millions of us inhabit and her constant devotion to keeping John alive will be missed when she’s gone. It must be strange, even nearly 40 years after he was murdered, to be living in the apartment they shared and walking through the lobby where he was shot dead. I wonder if she watches the tourists in Strawberry Fields out the window, or if she has ever decorated or changed anything from how the flat was that day. Rekha says Yoko often goes to Strawberry Fields and sits alone. I can imagine she’d be mobbed doing that though, even in New York.
It’s easy to see why she hasn’t moved on. Her soul mate was murdered. It can be sad when things come to an end, in any circumstance. From a relationship, to a day out, to a musical project. Endings don’t have to be sad but they often are. Think of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal – at 20 years and counting, he’s been there too long now, missed his window to leave gracefully and now the situation is just sad when you consider what he achieved in his first 10 years. Perhaps this is why I mentioned before that I was no good at endings. A few weeks back I said I’d always disrupted the ends of things through some odd fear, and having control over destructing it meant I was more ‘comfortable’ with it finishing, even if it meant it finishing badly. It’s a strange psychological thing and not that uncommon I think. But, here I am, coming home today after 5 months away, finishing something as it was intended to be finished. In my life that rarely ever happens. Endings don’t have to be sad. Endings don’t need to be feared. Endings don’t need to be disrupted or destructed.
There is a major difference here though.
This is just the beginning.