Power to the People

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March 11, 2006 by cosmoakacitizensmith


Symbolic of our struggle against oppression? Symbolic of his struggle against reality more like….

The fightback has taken a few bizarre twists lately. It has involved legally obtaining intoxicating green plant leaves from a Cardiff cafe called Amsterdam Paradise, and doing a black nationalist rap with a clean-cut, chart-topping band by mistake.

But the story starts off with my mate Paul Chi. When I was pratting around in Brighton many years ago, I stumbled across him on the music scene. This guy would think nothing of getting up on stage and doing a set with no songs. He’d just stand there strumming his guitar and make stuff up on the spot. Mad as a bucket of spiders, but strangely genius-like.

Another one of his ideas was to put on acoustic concerts in peoples’ houses. This was a good plan because there are loads of nice, unusual houses in Brighton, and the concept soon took off. The thing was, there was a strict “no drugs and alcohol” policy at the gigs.

Of course, me being the wild man of bargain basement rock that I am, I didn’t know what to make of this. I even performed at one of his concerts in a state of near-total inebriation.

But I respected the man and his ideas. And not having heard from each other in years, I looked him up on the net at the end of 2005. His project Healthy Concerts was going from strength to strength, (check out the site here).

And not only that, he invited me to a gig he was doing in Bristol with a then-unknown band called Nizlopi.

Nizlopi had come on my radar a while back. Their sound was described as acoustic guitar and double bass with a human beatbox. Sounded interesting. I had caught them at Glastonbury that summer at the Croissant Neuf solar-powered tent, which had been packed despite it only being early afternoon.

And I was a bit surprised as the whole crowd burst into song when the band struck up one of their tunes about a flipping JCB digger. Odd.

So I said, hell yeah, see you in Bristol.

I turned up and watched Paul do his thing. He was as twistedly genius-like as ever, and the audience, many of whom seemed to be youngsters out with their parents to see Nizlopi after hearing them on radio, lapped it up.


I must admit I was quite looking forward to seeing this band. As they were getting ready to play, the double bassist was tuning up. He was so fragile it looked like he would snap in two, and how the hell was he going to hold that thing upright…..?

Nizlopi started off doing a song without any ampification. It carried round the small venue and within seconds the audience were eating out the palms of their hands. The band cracked on, the singer doing vocal acrobatics and the bassist smacking his bass and beat-boxing away like a nutter.

No-one knew what had hit them. This was musical anarchy in the extreme. Sometimes the band would tire of standing on stage and they’d drag their instruments around the venue, singing to people as they went.

At one point the singer asked the audience to stand up and got them singing three part harmonies like a choir. Was this a gig or some kind of religious revival? I wasn’t quite sure…

Their album will no doubt sell lots of copies, and parts of it appeal to the cheese meister in me, but it does not do justice to the kind of mayhem I saw that night.

ANYHOW, unusually for me at a gig these days, cynic as I can be, I was watching this and thinking “I wanna sing something…” The feeling grew more and more intense as the evening wore on, until it got to the point where I felt this is a calling. And sure enough during the song Call it up, the singer says:

“Anyone here want to do a rap?”

WELL, I seized my moment, got up on stage and was given the mic. The band had vibed the audience up something mental, and I looked out onto a sea of clean-cut, dancing people, with adults and kids alike getting down, and felt my mind go totally blank….

What the hell was I going to rap about?

Before I could stop myself, I started rapping the lyrics from the Public Enemy track He Got Game. Now don’t get me wrong, I love my Public Enemy, but there is nothing that winds me up more than a skinny-assed white boy on the mic pretending to be black, giving it lots of large about how “the Man” is gonna get his just desserts etc. But there I was, rhyming about a subject I have no direct experience of (i.e. being black) cos it was the first thing that had come into my head, and having a really good time.

After the show, I got to talk to the band. I told them how I had listened to the JCB song a few weeks before and started crying floods of tears thinking about my dad who had died a year previously. It had been the first time I had cried since his death. I had also sent a copy of it to my close friend who had just caught up with his dad after not seeing him for about ten years.

We also talked about politics, hip-hop and the bass player from G-Love and Special Sauce.

*******

The next time I spoke to Paul, I explained how, being sick of racism and the barriers being put up between people of different cultures, particularly Muslims, in this country, I thought that maybe the Healthy Concerts idea might be a way of breaking them down. Particularly as some cultures frown on the drink, (stay with me on this one, more of this later). I told him I was going on a mission to find musicians from the Somali, Iranian and other communities in Cardiff and see if there was any interest in putting on such a show here. He said he was right behind me.

We were laughing because the night before he had done a “make it all up on the spot” gig at the Houses of Parliament.

And a month later, Nizlopi shot to number with the JCB song in Britain and Ireland.

*******

The first stop on this mission was the Somali cafe on Broadway near where I live, called the Amsterdam Paradise. I had noticed it recently cos it had ads and posters for lots of Somali musicians. This had struck me as strange as some Somalis I know who are very religious frown on music. Or at least if they do listen to music, it has to be devotional.

Intrigued, I ventured in.

I got talking to Ide who is one of the guys who works there. He used to live in Holland and managed some Somali groups out there. They used to do weddings and other social events.

I told him about my idea. He showed me this video of a concert that had been put on about ten years ago in Cardiff. The promoter had got together lots of Somali peformers who had been dispersed all over the world because of the Civil War there, and brought them here.

It was intense, watching all these people brought together, and seeing the house band jamming around the singers, and watching the stand-up comedy as the audience howled with laughter, with me not having a clue what they were on about. It must have been an amazing thing to watch at the time.

Ide seemed to think we’d be better putting on a big concert. I told him about the idea of having it small and with a no booze rule, and asked him what he thought.

He told me that most of the Somali musicians he knew liked a drink. I noticed he had pen and a piece of paper, and had a strange habit of writing down every ninth or tenth word he spoke.

I said, “I thought drinking wasn’t on cos of religion and stuff!”

Apparently not. Muslims look at their religion in various different ways. There you go. Another prejudice hits the dust. Ide agreed to ask around and we put an advert up in the window. It was then that I saw the advert for qaat.

“You like qaat?” Ide asked.

“I’ve never tried it,” I told him.

Qaat is a plant and you can chew the leaves of it to get a high similar to that of speed. Better still, it’s totally legal. I’d always meant to give it a go but never had the chance.

“Have some,” he said, and gave me a leaf. I thanked him

He then proceeded to go into detail about the effects of it, the etiquette associated with its usage and what to do and not to do when I was on it. It turned out he had been munching the stuff all that afternoon, which was why he kept writing down what he was saying. Like speed, it can make you behave in an obsessive/compulsive way.

It kind of reminded me of sampling various substances when I was younger with more those experienced in these matters. Rites of passage stuff.

Thanking him again, I left the cafe chewing on my qaat. I went off to a squat party that night and very much enjoyed my first experience.

I thought, yes, I like all this breaking down barriers stuff. It’s taking me in totally unexpected directions, and it’s FUN!!!!

I’ve been in youch with a number of other musicians in Cardiff, mainly from Africa. If anyone wants to help out with this project, drop me a line.

Who knows what will happen?

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