Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The return of MC Billy

Wow, what a few weeks it's been! I really don't know where to start. So far this trip just keeps on surprising me. I came here thinking maybe I'd meet some local musicians and learn some african rhythms. Perhaps even pick up a bit of djembe along the way. Instead I am now staying in Brikama, the main city and music centre of the gambia, hanging out with a music collective of the best reggae and dancehall artists the Gambia has to offer. And believe me, there's a lot of artists! Everyone here is obsessed with dancehall, reggae, bassman... anything to come out of Jamaica. Many of the young guys have dreads and speak a mixture of Mandinka and Jamaican patwa (don't know spelling!). Sizzler played here last week... apparantly that's big news... not that any of it means anything to me, as I haven't the first clue about Dancehall. Except how to sing it apparantly!

I met Janko at a festival over xmas and new year in Abene, just over the border in Sengal. In fact in Casamance, which incidentally is not full of rebel separists fighting with government troops. It is in fact full of rastas smoking large quantities of weed and dancing to reggae. I recommend it to everyone, especially for the festival! So after meeting Janko and letting him know I was a singer, he suggested I do something on the mic in the club that night. After a few beers I thought "f**k it, why not?", Janko put on an empty dub, and I dug into my memory of my days as a drum and bass MC and pulled out some lyrics. To say the response was good would be an understatement. I was literally lifted up onto the shoulders of the crowd and carried around the club. Clearly skinny white blokes who can MC are highly regarded here...

A couple of weeks on and I was invited to make a trip away from my life in the Katong bush and visit the dust and bustle of the "big city" as it's known in the local language. Brikama is at first glance a dusty town with one main street, lots of dangerous drivers, and many mis-matched buildings clinging to one another for support. But luckily for me I had a way directly into the heart of the city's real personality, and I love it. Janko introduced me to his friends, many of whom are artists, well known in the Gambian reggae dancehall scene. They welcomed me into their homes and their hearts and have made me feel a part of the family within two days. I arrived on Saturday evening, and the first item on the agenda was eating beans and bread together squatting in a circle on the floor. This is how all meals are taken here, so if you're a slow eater like me you're screwed! Luckily everyone is always super keen to make sure you eat so I'm given lots of encouragement, with people often pushing the nicest bits of fish in my direction. I guess it's like taking pity on the runt of the litter!

After dinner (and during) the smoking continued, and the jamming began. For these guys having me there to play guitar was a huge novelty. None of them play melodic instruments, so they are dependant on other people to create empty dubs for them to sing over. It sounded fantastic... each of them have their own distictive style, and it just gelled straight away. Then I was told that we were going to a free party, an open mic, and that I was going to perform. Ok, I thought, sounds like fun. We headed out into the streets. The moon was so bright it was almost like daylight, but seen through a thick blue filter. Even with this light, it was impossible for me to see anyones faces. Being the only white person for miles, everyone could see me no problem. My skin seems to amplify light. The black skin here on the other hand seems to eat light! In the end I resorted to memorising what people were wearing in order not to lose everyone! As we approached the booming bass coming from a junction up ahead, the sides of the roads started to become lined with large groups of young guys and girls dressed to emulate their american and jamican heroes. There are no street lights, so the moon was the only light, except for a single bulb hanging over the middle of the crossroads, where a large soundsystem had been erected. The crowd was about 20 deep on all sides, but with a large space in the middle of the junction, making it into a natural arena. A few crates had been stacked in front of the DJ desk to act as a stage. It was exactly what you'd imagine a street party in Kingston to look like.

As we arrived a guy stepped up onto the stage. He was wearing a large coat (gambians think it's very cold here at moment!) with the hood covering half of his face, making him seem rather menacing. The dubplate kicked in and he started mc'ing in what I am now learning is a "bassman" style, spitting angry lyrics out from under his hood. As I watched I suddenly became aware of the fact that I was very stoned, and supposedly about the get up on this little platform, in the centre of a sea of black faces, and attempt to be a dancehall artist. Something I had only done once in my life before, a week earlier, whilst being drunk. Who was I kidding? I started to feel quite sick, my stomach clenched in anticipation. Then the MC was calling my name, and I found myself raising my hand, and sliding through the crowd towards the stage. Up on the stage it suddenly became even more apparant just how exposed I was. Surrounded on all sides by surprised expressions, people pushing to get a glimpse of the crazy toubab (white guy). The DJ was still trying to find the right CD, so I was forced to speak. "Brikama!! How you feeeeeeeeeeliiiin?!!". Auto-pilot had kicked in! All my nights of trying to coax another few hours of dancing out of a bunch of sweaty drum and bass heads suddenly came back to me. The crowd went wild. One of the young boys at the front shouted "toubab!". I turned to face him... my first heckler! "Yeah that's right, toubab on the mic..." Before I really knew what was happening I was rapping like a lunatic, freestyling about everything and anything, and once the dub kicked in everything just slotted into place.

After I'd done two tracks to a very appreciative if somewhat puzzled audience, I tried to slip off into the crowd, but the MC called me back. He asked me to get up on stage and explain who I was and why i was there!! I'll tell you what, that was 1000 times harder than singing!! It was awful, I felt so self concious i completely forgot to big up the guys who had invited me there and got me the gig! After that the other guys performed as well. Unfortunately the sound was awful, which is turning out to be a recurring theme here. And so many people seem to sing over the actual final master of their CD, which to me just seems daft. If you're going to use a backing track, you should at least remove the main vocal, surely??! But anyway, it's pretty standard here. My guys told me the reason they do it sometimes is that soundsystem and mic are so bad that it's better just to hear the recorded vocal... Hmmm, maybe, but me I'd always choose live any day.

So anyway, I'm leaving Brikama today to head back to Katong. In the space of two days I have somehow become a recognised artist here, and I'm appearing on the radio next saturday before doing another dancehall party! The nicest thing is that now when I walk down the street instead of the young boys shouting "Toubab! Give me minty!", they just shout "Billy!!"...

I'll let you know when my first collaboration single is out... :)

3 comments:

Joseph said...

Billy, what a great story. Sounds like an amazing experience. A little different from life here in my Tokyo office! Look forward to further updates.

Anonymous said...

Hey Billy! Am not surprised you are having such a good time: you are very talented and Gambia is just fantastic.
Keep us posted - all the best
Eva (if you remember me! ;-))

Peter Verney said...

Billy - These people deserve to hear recordings you and I did in the Kartong bush with the musicians from Guinea-Conakry. There's an hour of mesmeric messing with the loop station to intrigue your public!
- Peter