Pirate Ship on the Streets Of Salvador.

People have been sending me videos of BaianaSystem at Brazilian Carnivals for the past few years and what a site to behold they truly are, a perfect example of bacchanalian spirit personified. Mass musical participation and unbridled revelry, I have to join them one year!

This particular video is from earlier today at the Carnival in Salvador. The group host their annual Navio Pirata blocos (essentially Pirate Ship block parties) both there in the Bahian capital and in Brazil’s largest city São Paulo. Contrary to most blocos, BaianaSystem choose not to charge for theirs, keeping it as open as possible. The group themselves are politically charged and very much against the continuing commercialisation of Carnival, but they also believe keeping it free fosters a much more creative and spontaneous environment. I think this video speaks for itself in that respect.

This year the group have collaborated with AfroPunk in putting Navio Pirata together. It seems the Brooklyn based global festival brand and cultural commentators are very much branching into the Brazilian festivities, as I also noticed they have joined forces with the all black LGBTQ run bloco Batekoo in São Paulo and have their own one in Belo Horizonte. Other acts that joined them in Salvador included: Afrocidade; Cronisto do Morro; Vandal; BNegão; and Mano Brown, a founding member of seminal hip-hop crew Racionais MCs.

One year I will manage to get BaianaSystem to Boomtown, we got close last year when they played in London for the first time the week before the festival, but I got in touch just a little too late… watch this space for the future but for now enjoy their brand new single alongside fellow countrymen Tropkillaz, who have linked up with Major Lazer for their own bloco in São Paulo today after the crew joined them for a secret set last year. The FOMO is very real right now.

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My Carnival FOMO is kicking in hard this weekend, to solidify this fact I decided to stay up late Friday night and watch the International Soca Monarch on my laptop. Not quite as exciting as being there in the midst of things like last year but I have to admit I still felt a little like sports fans must feel before watching a big match, the anticipation was real.

International Soca Monarch is a tournament between (mostly) established vocalists from across the globe but especially from the Caribbean Islands of Grenada, St Vincent, St Lucia, Antigua and of course it’s homeland, Trinidad & Tobago. These artists are judged by their performance of one original track and the contest is split between the “Groovy” entries (slower more melodic Soca better suited for radio and Carnival fetes) and “Power” (faster paced and higher impact Soca, perfect for those long days marching on the Carnival parades). Generally the chosen tracks will have had some kind of official release and we’d be familiar with them on the Super Soca Show, however given the “Soca Mafia” favourtism given to a limited amount of songs in Trinidad, they are not always well known by the crowds who have come to watch. This can prove a problem for entrants who don’t fall into those favoured few, as people are often far less receptive to unfamiliar offerings.

Surprisingly, this year’s Groovy winner seemed to fall into the latter category. Not only was it his first time entering Soca Monarch but College Boy Jesse’s chosen track ‘Happy Song’ doesn’t seem to have had anything near the pick up it really deserves, with many of the often acerbic social media commentators unaware of the song at all. Still there’s no doubt that the young singer was aware of his disadvantage and put on a great performance, which included a short medley of other peoples hits (perhaps so that the crowd had something recognisable to latch onto) and a quick additional verse that took a dig at the defending champion Swappi,

“See Shadow dead, Swappi take he voice, he singing all the song and think he can take crown twice…”

This made reference to the fact that Swappi’s entry ‘Jumbie Head’ (as with last year, a collaboration with Ultimate Rejects) and his performance on the night, very much pays tribute to the Calypso legend Shadow, who sadly died in 2018. Swappi came in just behind Jesse at second place with Viking Ding Dong in third, another relative newcomer to the Soca stage despite being a recognisable DJ and Radio presenter in Trinidad for years.

There was some controversy however when Skinny Banton from Grenada failed to place in the Top 3 with his hugely popular song ‘Wrong Again’. This is one of my favourite tracks of the season and there’s no doubt that Skinny put on an energetic performance, though it was quite refreshing to see that crowd favourites alone don’t make a winner, especially with the controversy that followed in the Power Section.

My personal choice for the Power segment was Problem Child from St Vincent, whose track ‘Nasty Up’ is an absolute powerhouse that seems to be causing bedlam in fetes across the islands. Sadly his performance was marred by a number of technical difficulties which no doubt went against him unfairly. Problem was quick to call out forces that he claimed were out to sabotage his win and “keep the money in Trinidad”. Although I wouldn’t be quick to support this claim, the lack of winners from any of the smaller islands definitely has people talking. It’s a tricky call when there is no clear winner, such as last year when Mr Killa from Grenada scooped up the prize for ‘Run Wid It‘. That was the first time there had been a winner from outside of Trinidad and he would have been in for another shot at the prize this year with ‘Soca Storm’ but pulled out of the competition early citing a lack of support and information needed to give his best performance.

Problem Child did not end up placing in the Top 3, although Trini artist Lyrikal came in second with ‘Rukshun‘, a track on the same riddim as ‘Nasty Up’. Third was Olatunji, who is back in the Soca game stronger than ever this year, after some time away here in the UK competing in the X Factor contest.

The winner is where the real controversy comes in. Iwer George is a well respected veteran of Soca and the Soca Monarch contest, however he hasn’t claimed a win since 2007. He’s also been runner up a number of times in the Road March competition (more on that after Carnival) but only ever been a joint winner with Superblue back in 2000. This year has seen him really come out fighting on this count and there’s a strong chance he will win with one of his collaborations, either Stage Gone Bad with Kes (who came second in the Road March last year with ‘Savannah Grass‘) or Conch Shell with Machel Montano and Skinny Fabulous (who took first place last year alongside Bunji Garlin with ‘Famalay‘).

It was with the track ‘Stage Gone Bad’ that he became the International Soca Monarch this year. Although it was undoubtedly a crowd favourite, it was far from one of the best performances with Iwer short on both energy and voice. Things were only really saved when Kes stepped to the stage and raised the levels up further, however it has rightly been pointed out that Kes was not the one in the competition. That said, I do love Iwer George and even though it doesn’t seem fair it’s good to see him finally gain a title again. Hopefully the controversies don’t damage the competition too much as it’s an important institution that really makes for a great start to the extended Carnival weekend and I very much look forwards to being back there again next year.

Don’t forget to tune into the Super Soca Show on Ujima 98FM every Saturday 12:00-14:00 GMT.

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With Pre-Lenten Carnival festivities switching into top gear all around the world, the people of one Caribbean country are most likely viewing the next few days with as much trepidation as excitement.

After anti-corruption protests shut down the majority of Carnival celebrations last year, Haiti is once again in the midst of troubles (if it could be said that they ever departed that is). Aside from the massive political and social instability the country faces, a rise in kidnappings, outrageous inflation and the ongoing public protests, the last few days have seen the Haiti National Police burning Carnival floats and stalls as part of an impromptu protest for the right to unionise.

Despite this unrest, Prime Minister Jean Michel Lapin has announced that ‘Kanaval 2020’ will still take place in the capital Port Au Prince and other cities from Sunday 23rd to Tuesday 25th of February under the theme “Ann pote kole pou Ayiti dekole” (Together let us unite for Haiti’s recovery). There is also a smaller annual Carnival in the town of Jacmel which happened last weekend, seemingly without too many problems.

Despite all the troubles, one of my favourite Haitian bands, Mizik Rasin legends RAM, have released their latest musical offering for Kanaval 2020. According to their Twitter account, they have released one every year for the last 3 decades, aside from 1994 during the time of the right wing paramilitary group FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti) and 2011, the year after the country’s devastating earthquake.

I’m afraid I can’t properly translate the lyrics, even if I could, RAM are known to use voodoo based metaphors within their songs, but (according to Google translate) there is mention of trouble in the streets and reference to Haiti being ‘sick’. That said, it is hard to feel anything but a sense of joyous upliftment when you listen to their music, this tune’s very essence seems to be as defiant as it is acknowledging of the problems people are facing. If you’re feeling it then I very much recommend you listen to more of their music and also take a delve into their colourful history, oh and as a special treat I can let you know that they will be here in the UK this summer and performing at The Forge stage in Boomtown, if you’re at the festival it’s an absolute must!

Note: The picture above is from Wednesday’s arson attack on the carnival stalls. The figure in the statue is Jean Jacques Dessalines, a leader of the Haitian Revolution and the country’s first ruler after independence. It certainly makes for a powerful image.

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Although tinnitus has meant I’ve had to limit my DJ gigs these days, I’m still constantly collecting tunes to play out. This Top 20 hopefully represents the various tunes that I’m currently excited to spin for a crowd.

My next outing is for London Remixed at Rich Mix in Shoreditch (London) on February 1st. Hopefully see you there.

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Stonebwoy – Tuff Seed

Brand new single from one of Ghana’s top artists. This is the kind of uplifting Dancehall and Afrobeats fusion that makes me super excited ror his show at Boomtown this year. He’ll be performing as part of the Tropical Tea Party takeover in the Paradise Ballroom (Paradise Heights), as will I.

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Focus Wales: Day Three

So I’m now on the train home, slightly bleary eyed after the last late night of a long few days but I can’t snooze until I’ve at least told those of you who have made it through my Day One and Day Two posts, a few highlights from the final day at Focus Wales. I’ll try and be brief as it is Sunday after all, but it would be wrong not to mention these guys…

I couldn’t see much of punky Mancunian pair Glove from the back of a packed-out pub, just snatches of their facepaint through people’s cameras mostly, but I could certainly feel the energy from both the band and the crowd. They were raw, passionate, honest and often amusing, not to mention thoroughly enjoyable. I look forwards to checking out more of their recorded material.

I am forever fascinated at the amount of musical talent in Bristol that I am constantly uncovering, and a little embarrassed that it took Emily Magpie approaching me all the way in Wrexham before I heard her stunning take on folktronica (for want of a better term). Confidently armed with a ukulele and a loop pedal, she did a great job of holding the mostly local crowd’s attention from the corner of a noisy pub.

Whilst watching Emily’s set I bumped in to my old friend Dan Lambert aka Johnny Cage who was performing with the next act Siobhan McCrudden. Although Siobhan’s softer vocals fared less well with the background noise and a largely absent sound man, her voice itself was beautiful and she’d printed out the lyrics to her songs, so at least the poetry of her fabulous folk noir songs could be properly appreciated. I was also happy that whilst rummaging through my emails to find her surname, I noticed she will be performing with the Naked Citizens at Big Love this year. I very much look forwards to that.

I think I’ll stop there but also honorary mentions to Cate Le Bon who put on an excellent headline show as always, Mart Avi from Estonia who’s awkwardness onstage somehow managed to make him even more endearing and Welsh chamber folk trio VRï , who were perhaps a little too traditional for my tastes but nevertheless played a great set.

I’ve grown rather fond of Wrexham and Focus Wales has proven a great conference for the past 3 years so hopefully I shall be back reporting from there again next year.

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Before you jump straight into Day Two, it might be worth having a look at Day One if you haven’t already done so… or this post could be rather confusing.

Although feedback is great, I get slightly concerned after doing public talks or panels at just how many people come up afterwards and say “thanks, that was really honest”. It’s literally the main thing that gets said, and it makes me think I’ve been saying something I shouldn’t. Remember, what’s said at Focus Wales, stays at Focus Wales… or something like that.

Perhaps in future I shall divulge some of these potential secrets from the ‘Get Me On The Bill’ panel that I was on yesterday, but for now all you’re getting is music I’m afraid. There’s been some beauties here too.

At the risk of losing you too soon, I’m going to start off with my highlight, though it has to be said most of you will probably prefer the last act I mention (don’t skip).

I’d met Maija Kauhanen briefly on Thursday evening, she’d been highly recommended by Lisa Whytock from Celtic Connections (amongst other things), whose tastes I tend to trust, especially in the wider realms of Folk.

She performed solo using an assortment of instruments, but largely centred around the kantele, a traditional stringed instrument from her homeland of Finland. The particular one she played this time looked far from traditional though, with a clear body filled with decorative lights and sequined material. It added an intriguing extra touch to her performance, which in itself was absolutely hypnotising. Even though I have no grasp of Finnish I followed her stories avidly as she managed to translate the emotions through her powerful vocals and virtuoso instrumentalism. I’m not sure it comes across quite so well on video as live, and this is a stripped back version with far less percussion and an under-mic’d up kick drum, but here’s a little taste that should be watched til the end.

Just before Maija began I’d bumped into Mr Phormula, a stalwart of the Welsh Hip-hop scene as both beat boxer and bilingual wordsmith. I briefly caught some of his set with rap savvy poet partner Martin Dawes last year but with an extended line up that included a keyboard player and a bassist / saxophonist, their show as BARDD this year had me dancing and singing along from the start til the very end. Conference crowds are often notoriously difficult to squeeze emotion from but I was certainly not the only one joining in and I honestly felt the general mood of the room raise a number of degrees til it reached the perfect level of warm and friendly across the diverse range of age groups present.


Quodega gave me something of an almighty flashback as I recognised the central figure on stage as Tom Raybould, whose Fake Death EP under the alias Zwolf I released as an official Chrome Kids ‘Free-Release’ a decade ago next month. I’d actually forgotten about any of those releases up until that point and just found them again here.

This is a very different project although I can hear snippets of previous work within some of the grooves. It’s a lot more guitar heavy and the drumming is more intense and experimental, which if I’m right in reading that they are provided by Kliph Scurlock, makes a lot of sense. If you’re not familiar I write about him here last year. Although I really liked them, I don’t think I have enough musical references to do the band any descriptive justice, but they have been likened to Tom’s other alias as Fist Of First Man.

They were certainly a great warm up for Snapped Ankles, a tree themed post punk troupe, or ‘AGRROcultural PUNKTRONICA’ as they call themselves. They were perhaps the band I had recommended people most as I loved their Rough Trade show in Bristol previously. Looking like they’ve maybe stepped out of a Super Furry Animals cover probably stands them in good stead for a North Walian crowd, but these energetic electroclash ents also have some really great music to back it up and had the majority of a respectably busy room at UnDeGun jumping around last night.

Hopefully I can get at least a handful doing the same when I close that room tonight! The way I’m thinking, the music won’t be too dissimilar but that could all change in the next few hours.

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