I was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. My father worked for a multi-national and founded a company importing limousines and chauffeurs. All I remember is Men At Work, Peter Gabriel and Led Zeppelin soundtracks to sandy backdrops.
A few years later, we moved to Kuwait for a short spell, before a bomb went off nearby and blew in some of the windows in our apartment. This violence, connected to attacks allegedly conducted by Iran for the Kuwait’s involvement in the Iran/Iraq war, spurred our move back to the UK.
We moved first to London for a few years and then to Somerset.
I resisted all music education until aged 12, when a close friend whose parents ran a piano restoration and sales business, began taking group guitar lessons. They were learning Bob Dylan and Stones numbers – and I wanted in.
In my early teens, unsettled at school and home, I moved to live at my grandparents’ house on the edge of a dam in Cyprus. I went to a school for British Forces’ kids and found a small group of outsiders to start a band with. Sifting through my parents’ record collection had sparked an interest in me, but it was out here in relative seclusion, that I began to play a lot.
On my return to the UK, I started a funk/rock/hip-hop band with old friends and enrolled at college studying Business studies and French – which didn’t work out. After working a few office and factory jobs, I went on to do a course in popular music and music business.
I followed with a move to London, where I studied sound engineering and developed an insatiable appetite for new music styles from across the world.
I left London, worked on a building site on the coast and bought a ticket to India.
I landed in Hyderabad with an electric guitar and battery-powered amplifier. I soon met a sitar teacher on the southern island of Cochin and studied with him until his alcoholism got in the way, when I went to study with a tabla teacher. Armed with some ideas of Indian classical music forms, I travelled around the country on an Enfield bike, studying and playing .
The journey came to an end when Indian police accused me of aiding a gang trying to smuggle jewellery out of the country.
Back in the UK I got a job in a workshop, imitating rare marbles out of plaster (scagliola). For a whole year we worked recreating huge marble columns and ornate surrounds from the opera house in St. Petersburg, for a house being built in Canada. I saved money and, with a new found fascination for flamenco, moved to Andalucia with a musician friend.
We busked with a guitar and tabla in the streets of small towns and villages, made no money and few local friends. Running out of cash, we cut our losses after a few months and took a boat to Morocco.
We travelled the length of the country and spent time with musicians – Berbers in the Atlas mountains and Gnawa musicians in the desert and on the coast.
Back again in the UK, I was offered a job teaching music to young people with behavioural difficulties in Somerset. I stayed for a year, devising ways to keep emotionally damaged and angry kids interested in music production and performance..
With money saved once more, and a blossomed curiosity for South American music (especially Brazilian) I booked to do an English teaching course in Guadalajara, Mexico.
After the course I traveled through Central America and into Colombia, where I met musicians in Medellin and stayed to study Colombian classical guitar and some of their turbo charged Salsa.
I crossed into Venezuela, headed south over the border into Boa Vista, Brazil and took a boat along the Amazon from Manaus, to Belem, on the coast.
I followed the coast south to Fortaleza, where I met great musicians who shared with me their knowledge of MPB (Brazilian popular music), Forro and Bossa Nova. I bought my first pandeiro here.
I then headed to Recife, where I bullied my way into a Maracatu street band.
Then Bahia, where I stayed and studied with a local drummer, and Rio, where I studied Bossa Nova and Samba.
In Sao Paulo, I got teargassed at a gig I was watching and spent too much money.
I flew to Buenos Aires and spent a short while studying Argentine tango guitar with a teacher in the city, and crossed over into Uruguay where I saw my first Candombe street drumming ‘cuerda’.
On my return to the UK, I started working in construction, taught music privately and cured beef to sell to market traders and delicatessens on the side.
I lost my father to cancer at this time.
I moved to Seville to see through what I’d attempted before and study Flamenco. This was, and remains, the most demanding musical style I have studied – and possibly the hardest musical culture to immerse ones self in. The specific techniques, the dramatic passion, the clothing and the unwavering devotion to one style of music is hard to absorb.
I devoted a year, teaching English and music, working on the art form as a whole, though focussing on guitar.
During my stay in Seville, I visited Morocco several times. Once, on my way to the International Gnawa festival in Essouira, I met a Norwegian musician who told me he was going to study a masters course in music leadership at London’s Guildhall school.
I thought no more of it.
At this time I also began to form a vision of how I could forge a career using music in international relations, communications and conflict work. I was in contact with the Barenboim-Said foundation, who were funded at the time by the Junta de Andalucia and had both their offices and the orchestral summer school based in the city.
I decided I needed to study again, to gain at least a batchelor’s degree with which I could move forward. Within a few weeks of making this decision, by chance, the sound engineering school I studied at 7 years previously, contacted me asking if I’d consider studying a further year with them to gain my batchelor’s. I accepted and moved back to London, only to find that the institution was unable to run the course due to a lack of subscriptions. It closed down immediately.
I applied to several other universities and, trying my luck (not having an undergraduate degree), the masters course I’d been told of. I auditioned and was accepted with my experience in lieu of qualifications.
With time before the start of the course, intrigue in what lay below Morocco and the variety of rich music from West Africa, I planned a trip with two French friends, to drive from La Rochelle in France – with an ambitious personal goal of reaching Zambia, where I have family.
I passed through Western Sahara, ashamedly knowing very little of the region’s current affairs and its music. (see site for more info.) In Mauritania, I first saw electric guitar being used in traditional folk music of the Sahel region.
I left my French companions heading south to Casamance, and spent time in San Louis and Dakar, Senegal, seeking out music performances and meeting musicians.
I crossed over into Mali after a gruelling 2 day taxi ride across sandy tracks in a converted Peugeot estate – and a day long border interrogation.
Big things happened in Mali. I met incredible players in Bamako and studied guitar styles and percussion there. I headed north towards the desert and learned of a festival being held in remembrance of Ali FarkaToure, in his hometown of Niafunke.
Arriving a couple of weeks before the festival, I was shown hospitality by a local businessman, Gouro, who insisted on installing an air conditioning unit in the room he’d offered me. A week before the festival, a convoy of Police trucks turned up at his place, escorting a Tuareg band, Agna, who had come to play at the festival. Everyone was hosted at Gouro’s and I forged a great relationship with the band, ecstatically accepting their offer to learn their set and join them for their performance, playing my Brazilian pandeiro.
A huge stage and Festival au Desert sound equipment was brought from Senegal and sailed into Niafunke. It was incredible seeing how it was put together without the machinery you’d expect.
I got malaria and had a rather sweaty performance, but was later nursed back to recovery.
I left Niafunke and spent some time in Timbouctu, before heading down the Niger river back to Mopti and onto Gao, to catch up with Agna once again.
I took a bus into Burkina Faso where I stayed for a couple of weeks, tagging on to a social djembe drumming group, who met most days.
I then headed south into Ghana and spent some time by the beach and soaked up some of Accra’s Highlife music.
Now, faced with 6500km of terrain by public transport, and some tricky countries to cross, I postponed the adventure in front of me and flew to Ndola, Zambia.
Here, I put feelers out and made contact with a remote Zambian choir, who I’d later have the chance to practise workshopping techniques with, learned at the Guildhall.
I was also introduced to the small orphanage that my family help support, where I’d spend time doing musical activities with the kids.
Back in London, the Guildhall course taught me ways of working with groups of people across society, across art-forms and cultural boundaries. It helped me gain confidence in presenting myself as a qualified individual and in some cases, validated my expertise.
I joined a Salsa band and put together a couple of my own projects.
I visited Israel and crossed into Palestine, where the NGO, ‘Musicians without Borders’ train workshop leaders in marginalised communities – and the Barenboim-Said foundation run a mixed-faith music school and several outreach music education projects. Again I was asked to draft proposals for work I thought would benefit their existing projects and conversations were stretched out over a couple of years before dissipating.
I gathered the impression that coupled with a lack of funding, my entirely musical background was holding me back.
In 2012 I was asked by a London-based music foundation to set up a recording studio on their behalf for a small charity in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I shipped equipment from the UK and flew out to meet it, staying for 5 weeks to train around 15 conflict affected street youth in recording, production and instrument tuition. As part of the training we recorded a hip-hop street gang, a Guinean guitarist, the last surviving pre-war electric band and a few individual acts with great results.
This has counted as hugely valuable experience for me in terms of developing my project management and advanced communication skills. The studio has now established itself as one of the finest in Freetown. The trained engineers are regarded as being amongst the most qualified in the country and along with the artists, are regularly invited to be interviewed on national television and radio. It has significantly helped them in being accepted back into their families and society – many of them having been ostracised for their involvement in the war.
At a similar time I began working as a musician for a touring dance company which has taken me across the world in a very different way to my previous shoe-string adventures.
This was interesting to see how a large side to the charitable arts sector is run and funded.
I used the gaps in the touring schedule and funds to visit more projects and try out some of my own ideas.