London African Gospel Choir: “Graceland just seemed perfect for the sounds and message of the choir”

Graceland is, for me, quite simply one of the best albums ever made. I’ve never had the time nor the talent to study the music of Paul Simon’s classic back to front, however, so I’m somewhat in awe of a group of musicians who would use their collective talents to adapt it into a beautiful interpretation of the original. Enter the London African Gospel Choir, who have worked with everyone from Tom Jones to Idris Alba in their storied journey so far.

Crystal Kassi, the choir’s founder, told me all about their exploration…

Could you tell me a little about how this project came to be?

Towards the end of 2016, the Columbo Group, who run the Jazz Café, approached us and asked us to cover the album. They had asked us to do cover other artists such as Kanye West, which wouldn’t have been a good fit, but Graceland just seemed perfect for the sounds and message of the choir. It was only supposed to be one show, but it sold out within a day, so we ended up doing 6 shows over 2 weeks in the Jazz Café, Camden and XOYO.

Does it link in with previous projects the choir have done?

Not really, we’ve covered a few songs here and there when they were requested, for corporate events. For example, when singing alongside the Soweto Gospel Choir at the O2 Arena. Graceland was actually quite a challenging project for us, but we’ve used it to push ourselves, and it’s shown us how much we are capable of.

Do you have a personal affinity with ‘Graceland’?

I always loved the album, especially the richness and colour of South African music.

Is there a specific person assigned to play Paul Simon in the performance, or is it a shared role? What about the guest vocalists on the album?

No, we have 8 incredible singers who share the lead vocals throughout the show. Some songs, like Crazy Love are sung as duets. We include Miriam Makeba’s Retreat Song, which was performed in Paul Simon’s 1987 African Graceland Concert.

Obviously, there are some quite substantial South African links on Graceland, which turned out to come at a great time for him. Musically, do the influences stand out to those more familiar with the South African music scene?

Yes, especially amongst the musicians, who are really invested in their art, so would look into the styles of Paul Simon’s band. However, they are all also heavily influenced by the music from their own specific countries, so the audience will get the South African foundation laid by the original composition, with hints of Congolese music, high-life, and East African
tones too.

Dan Sheehan: “I have been becoming increasingly aware of how greed is allowed to cause the air we breathe and the water we drink to become polluted and toxic”

Dan Sheehan, an American rocker with distinctly Irish roots, is currently on a mission to draw awareness to growing global issues through his deep-diving political album ‘Tales From Earth Incorporated’.

In it, Sheehan steps away from his pure rock background and instead dips into a more international sound, taking aim at the corporations that he sees damaging the world around him, and taking advantage of national assets. Green themes, from climate change in general to rising sea levels and an attempt to build a Wallmart next to a Mexican heritage sight fill his lyrics.

With his own musical heritage including a host of musicians who’ve toured alongside Morrissey, Pearl Jam and Yes, Sheehan doesn’t think he can change the world, but is happy lending his voice to an ever-expanding choir of discontent.

Let’s talk about the eco side to your music as, obviously, it’s a big thing for you. The world seems to be coming around to the idea that being green is really important, slowly. How did you come to write a whole album about the idea?

The album is more loosely about the effects of greed on the world, which inevitably brings up what’s happening to the environment. Over the last several years, I have been becoming increasingly aware of how greed is allowed to cause the air we breathe and the water we drink to become polluted and toxic, and I find it insane that we should allow this to continue, so I wanted to raise awareness about just how devastating climate change is, and we also touch on matters such as indigenous rights, which is an important issue in the Americas, and the American refugee crisis which of course also relates to the European refugee crisis.

Can you tell me about some of the people and places you speak about in the album?

There are two songs about Mexico, one called “Teotihuacan” which is an Aztec name for a town with famous Aztec pyramids, next to which Walmart (one of the big American chain stores) wanted to build a large store which was done despite historical zoning and environmental concerns via a massive bribing scheme . One is “Cross the Border” which is both about guns crossing the border from the U.S. to Mexico, and then people crossing over to the U.S. as they flee those very guns. The Pacific Island of Kiribati as while as the Maldive Islands and Bangladesh come up in the song “Wishing Well” which is about how these three nations deal with the rising sea levels from climate change. Two songs are about Africa – “Black Gold” is about Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa and others who were scapegoated and hanged after protesting oil drilling off the coast of Nigeria in the ’90s, whereas “Kimberley” is about Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe forcing men, women and children to mine for diamonds to fund a counter-rebellion. There is also a song about the displacement of indigenous Brazilians currently occurring called “Dam That River.”

Clapton CFC: “Making the club an open, welcoming environment that stands up to intolerance runs right through the club’s DNA”

Having formed last year following a dispute that arose in Clapton FC, Clapton CFC are part of a growing football trend: clubs that look to distinguish themselves by stepping away from the more corporate aspects of the game, and instead taking on distinct identities relating to their community-driven nature and politics.

Having just completed their first full season, though, Clapton CFC have been successful beyond any reasonable expectations. Their away shirt, which referenced the 80th anniversary of the end of the Spanish civil war, a bright purple offering with the slogan ‘No Pasaran’ on the collar.

I came across the club through their extensive social media over the course of last year, watching their fanbase grow to an astonishing 1,400 or so for the final home league game, playing in 11th tier of English football. Having joined the club myself (at £10 for annual membership, why wouldn’t you), I got in touch with communications manager and match commentator Martin Fletcher to learn more…

Hi Martin! Before we get into the politics of the club, let’s cover some football. You’ve obviously put together a side that’s very competent for its level. What style of football do you play, and who are you stand out players?

This iteration of the club was founded in June last year, and so it was quite a rush to make sure we had a full and competitive squad for the season. Fortunately, our player coach, Geoff Ocran, has a lot of contacts and was able to pull some players in. We also held open trials which turned up quite a few gems. As you would expect, it took the new team a while to gel and at the halfway point in the season I think we’d have been happy with a good mid-table finish. However, from early 2019 the squad really started to come together, resulting in their title winning run that saw us go 9-1-1 down the stretch.

Key players in our run were keeper, Dan Anfossy, our defensive lynchpin, Dean Bouho, dead ball specialist, Stefan Nielsen and our bullet on the wing, Josh Adejokun, who scored a hat trick in our league title deciding game at the end of the season. There tends to be quite a high turnover of players at our level so it’s difficult to confirm who will be back next year. But I’m sure we’ll continue to play a pacey, attacking style of play that entertains our growing fanbase.

Clapton CFC seem to have developed into a kind of anti-facsist, alternative football club. How has this come about?

Clapton CFC grew out of a group of fans that started following Clapton FC, one of London’s oldest football clubs, back in 2012. From the beginning the fans who attended were looking to build an inclusive atmosphere and differentiate themselves from more mainstream clubs, which can sometimes be quite unwelcoming spaces for a lot of people. In the years after 2012 attendances grew largely through word of mouth as more like-minded people wanted to come along and participate.

The fans broke away to form Clapton CFC last year, as part of what is an ongoing dispute with Clapton FC’s ownership. The club was founded as a democratic, fan run organisation. Making the club an open, welcoming environment that stands up to intolerance runs right through the DNA of the organisation.

SYLK: “We want to let the past inspire us while creating something new with it, too”

They’re new to the Irish music scene, but there’s a substantial story behind SYLK. Having met and dreamed of forming a band as teenagers, they take their inspiration from the mood of 80s synth acts and dingy post-punk, and focus heavily on their atmospheric live show.

The result is a distinct mood, one that fits with smoky backrooms, shoe-gazing slow dances and textured energy. They’re also a distinct part of what they view as an increasingly boisterous queer scene, and in the process of bedding in some great collaborations.

I spoke to the duo in the build-up to festival season, to check out what they’re all about…

You call your music Darkwave, which I understand is a type of underground electronica. Tell us about it…

Yes it is. And we want our music to take you underground, to somewhere dark yet somewhere vivid and energetic. Our tone is inspired by the underground darkwave culture of the 1980s, with the beginning of bands like Depeche Mode & Joy Division. When we listen & learn about past movements in music, like dark-wave, which stood out to us as it has such a mix – new wave, synth-pop, post-punk & gothic rock, we wanted to let the past inspire us while creating something new with it too.

Our sound is inspired by popular culture, we use a lot of synthesizers in our songs, experimenting with them by putting them sounds through loads of different guitar pedals, usually with a lot of distortion! We also record a lot with an electric baritone guitar to create ambient textures and then a lot of vocal manipulations too – something that we really explore after being mind blown by music concrete of the 1940s. We have a love for heavy bass lines and massive minor textures and we think this comes through in a lot of the music we create right now.

I haven’t seen you live show yet but I’m told it’s quite a trippy, spaced-out experience. Is that what you’re going for?

Yeah it is! We aspire for our live shows to be an immersive experience – we want to connect with people and in that time let them forget about everything and get lost in the music, to feel the unknown, an adrenaline buzz, to feel excitement. Our live show is the most important thing for us, we love how it feels to see an artist/band we admire and we wanna create that for our show. When we write our songs, we craft them around our live vision.

Red Wine and Arepas: New Book to Explore Venezuelan Football

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in recent months to learn a great deal about the unconventional footballing world. As a result of writing about CONIFA, I learnt of and attended the Island Games, met people who obsess over the minutiae of football on tiny island states, and became mildly fixated with a tiny London football club called Clapham CFC.

I also met, virtually at least, Jordan Florit, who was kind enough to bring me on the These Football Times podcast. I learn he has his own strange football leanings, in that he’s obsessed with one of South America’s weakest footballing nations, Venezuela, and their sporting output. Much like CONIFA, this fascinates me: you’d have done well to miss the countries economic problems in recent years, yet the team are thriving, with increasingly impressive showings at international level. They’re currently ranked 26 in the world, they’re highest ever position. Yet I know almost nothing about them. I suspect I’m not alone.

Jordan’s book isn’t out until some time in 2020, though he will be putting out his Kickstarter in the coming week, in order to fund a trip over to South America, printing, and the other aspects of such a book. He has a host of big-name interviews lined up. You can get a discount on the Kickstarter by signing up for updates on his mailing list, here

He kindly agreed to talk about it all, so here’s an informed little glance at football in a South American company you might not have had much of experience of to date. I know I hadn’t…

Obviously, South America is a real footballing powerhouse. It’s fair to say Venezuela are very much the poor relations. What attracts you to the place from a footballing perspective?

From purely a footballing perspective, it was a mixture of the appeal of the unknown, the U20s reaching the World Cup final in 2017, and the Juvenile Rule introduced in 2007. Its something I’ve already talked a lot about with many people, privately and publicly. I’m a massive fan of it. It stipulates that teams must field at least one U20 in their starting line-up and this is in place in both the men’s and the women’s game.

Within six years, it was having a noticeable impact. They finished runners-up in the U17 South American Championships in 2013 and reached the U17 World Cup finals for the first time in the same year. Four years on from their first World Cup finals, they reached the final, finishing runners-up to England. Successes have also been reaped in the women’s game. The U17s reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2016, won the U17 South American Championship in the same year, and then finished fourth in 2018 edition. 

Sixteen of the 23-man 2019 Copa América squad made their debuts as “juveniles de la norma,” including all three of the goalkeepers, four of the defenders, six of the midfielders, and the three strikers, including Salomón Rondón. Additionally, 91% of them play their football outside of Venezuela, compared to just 41% in 2007, when the rule was introduced. 

Stereophonics: Walking their own Rocky Road

Welsh rockers Stereophonics were once on the brink of becoming one of the great stadium bands. Back in 2002, they headlined Glastonbury after finding fame off the back of two superb early albums. They’d produced a succession of lightly snarling radio hits, lyrically smart and evocative, and took asides into subtle, touching love songs.

Things went off the rails slightly over the years. Former drummer Stuart Cable died. Albums slipped from platinum to gold, and the venues got that little bit smaller as guitar music fell out of fashion. Sticking to their distinctive vocal style and observational songwriting, however, the band maintained a passionate hardcore of fans, and proved their longevity: their still filling fields, if not quite the ones they were nearly two decades ago. 

Latest single ‘Chaos From The Top Down’, is an example of their class. Oddly reminiscent of memorable early single ‘Local Boy In The Photograph’, it references a knife attack that took place at the end of lead man Kelly Jones’ street, and is crammed with lightly abstract points and intelligent lyrics.

“For Kelly, it’s personal because of where it happened,” Jones’ brother Rich, guitarist, explains of the single. “It’s a lack of policing, the politics behind the funding, stuff like that. We always write about what goes on around us, our experiences. I think a lot of our work is along the same lines. It’s not overly political, but there’s always something going on that leads back to politics and politicians.”

“For me, I’ve been listening to Kelly’s lyrics for 25 years, and obviously being brothers we come from very similar backgrounds. He just writes what he believes in, and I think that’s always stood to us.”

It’s certainly served the band, and comes with its own minor issues, such is the depth of their catalogue today. “We’re getting to the point where it’s very difficult to pick setlists,” Jones laughs. “There are some must have songs, some new songs. We have this kind of greatest hits skeleton that we work from, and a few songs that we’ll nearly always play. Tracks like ‘Dakota’ and ‘Local Boy In The Photograph’.” 

Interview: Zimbabwe Homeless World Cup team 2019

The Homeless World Cup has long been widely reported on in Ireland, and it’s a tournament that fills me with hope. It’s pretty obvious, of course, that most of the participants have gone through significant hardships in their lives, and the chance to represent their country probably means a great deal to them.

It got me thinking, though, for all it means to represent a country in the Homeless World Cup, it probably means that much more when you come from a place where the average person wouldn’t have much opportunity to travel, let alone people living on the street.

The next edition of the Homeless World Cup will take place in Cardiff in late July/ early August 2019, and Zimbabwe are one of the participants. They’re in the aftermath of the fall of Robert Mugabe, and the country is in turmoil. What would it take to bring a football team of disadvantaged people to another country against that backdrop? I asked head coach Joseph Kuseka:

Hi Joseph! Can you give me a short history of this team – how did they come together, and how are they funding their trip to Mexico?

The Zimbabwe Homeless World Cup team is coordinated by Young Achievement Sports for Development (YASD) – a community-based initiative that seeks to empower young people through mentoring, positive coaching and education to transform their lives. The Zimbabwe Homeless world
Cup team was formed in 2006 after many families in Zimbabwe faced the destruction of their homes following a government directive to demolish unregulated and unplanned settlements. An estimated 700,000 families were left homeless.

The founders of YASD are survivors of this cleanup exercise. The founders were young people who came up with a homegrown solution to address the challenges they were experiencing due to being homeless.

I understand you had a female manager, Pearl Gambiza, previously in charge of the team for the tournament in Mexico, still a relative rarity in the tournament. How was her tenure, and how have things been for you so far?

Pearl was the 2018 Manager for the team and was amazing in advocating and championing women’s inclusion and participation in sport. Through her initiatives, she created platforms to enable more women to be involved in YASD sporting initiatives. Her tenure saw her advocating for the 2019 team to have a quota for women and the 2019 team will feature 3 female players. Pearl should have been part of the 2019 team but could not renew her passport due to challenges in the country where the travel document is not available.

A Day At The Island Games (Ynys Mon 2019)

Llanfairpwll Station

Occasionally, I love a little bit of an offbeat adventure. In line with my growing love for off-the-beaten-track football, when I learnt that the Island Games – a sporting competition for those from small islands, like Guernsey and the Shetlands – would be holding their football competition in Anglesey in mid-June, I couldn’t resist bringing my bike over and taking in as many as I could. 

Anglesey is at the far end of the ferry line from Dublin to Wales, which meant early and late ferries as a foot passenger got me to just the right spot, and I found if I watched the games and almost immediately got back on my bike and headed for the next one, I could watch four full games in a day. This was the second time I’ve squeezed four live football matches into a day, and I can’t deny it’s probably one too many, but it’s hard to say no to seeing teams like this.

As this was half cycling adventure, half niche-football, here’s a little map of the route between the four different village grounds, starting at Holyhead Ferry Port and finishing – because I couldn’t resist the ride back, and by the evening I was tired enough it seemed the only sensible option – at the notoriously named Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch Station (yes, I copy and pasted that, and yes, it does have four Ls in a row somewhere in the middle there). My route was essentially right through the heart of Anglesey, doubling back a couple of times to make the maximum of four games in the day. It’s 37 miles (60kms) in total, which I found tough enough in the heat with a rucksack full of books on my back (I bought quite a few of my CONIFA books to sell):

GAME ONE: St Helena 1-2 Western Isles (9th/ 10th place play-off – Aberffraw FC)

St Helena were probably the main draw of this entire idea for me. A tiny island in the middle of the South Atlantic with a population of less than 5,000, their road to get to Anglesey had been quite an odyssey, involving raising nearly €20 for every person on the island just to afford the tickets and accommodation – they did this by selling shirts, scarfs, pins etc.