Andy Kershaw: No Off Switch

In the first of a two-part interview, Andy Kershaw talks about 'discovering' Ali Farka Touré and the appeal of 'bonkers' countries like North Korea

3 mins

You're almost as well-known as a traveller than as DJ. What got you hooked on travel?

Not having been anywhere by the time I was 24. Certainly not anywhere that you would describe as 'exotic'. And having a fascination with the world, nonetheless.

The age at which I became aware of the world was a very turbulent time. It was the late 1960s, so many things happened in a space of 24 months. Including man’s greatest adventure: leaving the confines of his own planet and landing on the moon. So I grew up against that background of exploration. Space flight was man’s biggest adventure since Columbus disappeared over the horizon.

I was very lucky, I came from a background of education and parents who had an awareness of the world. The house was full of books and newspapers. It wasn’t that I didn’t know much about the world, I just hadn’t seen much of it until I was 24.

What pushed you out into the world?

Billy (Bragg) and I started travelling around Europe. My boredom with Anglo-American rock translated into an appetite for something more stimulating from somewhere else.

I really like the story in the book when you’re on that first tour with Billy and you’re in Amsterdam stuck in a traffic jam...

That’s right, the young couple in the car in front of us peeled off their clothes, lit some cigarettes and turned up the music. In the sunshine, by a lovely canal. I thought “This is my kind of town!” In London they’d all be swearing at each other.

What first drew you to Africa?

The music, obviously. But then Lucy Duran really pushed me over the edge by taking me to Gambia via Senegal. That was the turning point. The moment that plane door opened in Senegal. It was so other-worldly to me at that time.

Even the smells, the aromas of Africa, were like something I’d never smelt before – the wood smoke, the damp vegetation, the paraffin lamps, the sweat, the sewage.The whole smell of human life was there! In one inhalation!

Strangely enough, I instantly felt at home. I had an instinctive, innate connection with the place right from the first moment. I thought, “This is where I want to be.”

Do you think you enjoy African music more because you’ve been there? Does it give you a greater understanding of the countries you visit?

Well, you can put it in context. But let’s not get carried away. I was absolutely mad keen on music from all these countries long before I’d set foot in them. For example, it was only last summer that I'd been to Kinshasa. But that hadn’t stopped me from having a huge enthusiasm for Congolese dance music for the last twenty years. You don’t have to have been there but it helps.

A lot of your journeys are driven by music. Your trip around Zimbabwe with Biggie Tembo (from the Bundhu Boys) for example.

That trip with Biggie was such an honour. That particular period in that country’s music, to have gone on a tour of Zimbabwe with Biggie Tembo and recording it! The result was absolutely magical. Not because of my effort, but because of Biggie and because of the music. It's still on the BBC website and you can listen to it whenever you want.

I went to Malawi twice, the first time in ’93, because you simply didn’t hear any music coming out of Malawi. I thought there’s got to be something. But you couldn’t go into a shop, even Sterns, and buy records from Malawi. So I went down there, did a load of recordings for Radio 4 and found out why we weren’t getting music from Malawi. It was because there was no kind of commercial music industry there. Doctor Banda kept things so backward...

Did you always feel compelled to record the music you uncovered?

I couldn’t understand why someone in my position –  a very, very fortunate position, national, on Radio One, with a free hand in the choice of music on the programme – had never bothered to take a tape recorder and go off and do this kind of stuff before. But nobody had, in the twenty-odd year history of Radio One.

The other thing that made it easy, that kind of liberated me, was Sony’s invention of the Walkman professional tape recorder. Suddenly I could go off with something that was no bigger than a paperback book, that ran off Duracell batteries, and came equipped with, a very high quality, stereo hand-held microphone and the whole set up. Put some decent quality cassettes in there, and it was broadcast quality.

In the book you call it the 'AK-47 of tape recorders'.

Before that you had to use these 5-inch diameter reel-to-reel tapes that lasted two minutes. Useless! You had to lug these enormous tape recorders with you and each tape lasted two minutes! And you had to take along sound engineers to deal with it. Suddenly I’d discovered this activity of guerrilla field recording.

One of those trips was up the Niger river with Ali Farka Touré...

Yeah, it was me, Ali Farka Touré and Chris Heath. It took about a month. Simon Broughton, now the editor of Songlines, had to turn back way up the Niger, because he had other work commitments in London.

I kept pulling out TDK SA cassettes out of my backpack putting another one in, changing the batteries whenever they were needed and just recorded as we went along. So easy! You could do the equivalent of fly-on-the-wall audio recordings with no fuss, with no intrusive equipment without what seemed like the entire cast of Mamma Mia as your production team.

What was that like travelling up the Niger with Ali Farka Touré?

It was great fun, great fun. Wherever we went he was regarded as a local hero. We were treated as royalty. Well, Ali was Malian royalty. He's of Malian royal descent. And he was also just a very popular guy, even though he was little known outside of Mali.

He presented me with a sheep on the end of a piece of string. We picked it up about half way up in his home town of Niafanke. The sheep was slaughtered fairly early on and the carcass was put in a number of plastic bags. This was a great honour, according to Ali, for me to have this sheep. I wasn’t going to dispute that. I was flattered. But I did have to carry the bugger around for what seemed like weeks.

Every morning I would come down to breakfast, these lamb chops had been maturing in plastic bags in the Saharan sun the whole day before, and Ali would have had the people where were staying or in the hotel we were in warming up the bloody things again, on the table in the morning at breakfast. Luke warm and greasy, it was an absolute incubator for every bacteria under the Saharan sun. I would have to stuff it down, gagging, because it was a great honour.

It wasn't all rancid lamb chops though.

No, Ali did lots of playing too. I recorded him singing. In Timbuktu he brought along one of the local female singers to the foyer of the little Novotel there. He sat there and played the guitar and she sang and I recorded it and it was extraordinary. It was a magical trip. Magical. I considered myself so lucky to have been to place like that with a character like him. How could I have been luckier?

You seem drawn to off-the-wall places like Equatorial Guinea. In the book you say you went there because no one else bothered to go.

I went because it was obscure, because it had a crackpot dictator who’d been in power since '79 by having his uncle executed. I thought "That’s my kind of place!"

What makes your kind of place?

I list them in the book – extravagant postage stamps; throwing political opponents in jail; moving the capital city from a long-established, historical place to the dusty village where the President was born; a playboy son with a flair for spending his father’s money in the casinos in Monaco while crashing Ferraris. Any permutations of those characteristics in a country and it has generally got Kershaw written all over it.

Why do you think you’re drawn to those kinds of places? Is it because life can be boring in the west and it’s easy to get in a rut, a routine?

Yeah, of course. The best example of that is North Korea. I could have done a whole book about the craziness of North Korea. It’s just that sense of ‘What the fuck is this?” And nowhere do you get that sense more intensely, more regularly and more routinely than you do in North Korea.

You’ve been to North Korea a number of times. And you mention at the start of the chapter that it has ‘the spirit of a school trip.’

You’ve no choice when you go to North Korea. What you have to do is look upon it as part of the experience. One of the things about North Korea is the close control that they exercise over their own citizens and the very few people that they let in. So you can’t go over there and start grumbling about being shoved in a little minibus every morning with a load of other westerners pretending to be birdwatchers.

From a music perspective you mention the music you come across in North Korea. Songs like ‘My country is a nice place to live in’ and ‘We shall hold our bayonets more firmly.’

The titles are the best bit! You don’t want to listen to the stuff itself!

Is there an Ali Farka Touré of North Korea, waiting to be discovered?

No. It is the most bizarre place. And any individuality is conditioned or beaten out of them. If there are any such things as individuals they are probably in some kind of labour camp. You and I, as visitors, on a tour like that are not going to meet them.

Would you go back to North Korea?

Already, my little lad Sonny thinks that North Korea is absolutely fascinating and he wants to go. He watches my 1996 Channel 4 documentary again and again and keeps asking when I’m taking him to Poyongyang. There’s not many 13-year-olds who ask their dad’s that.

It’s funny you say that. I’ve got a six-year-old daughter and I’d love to take her to the Mass Games.

Unbelievable. One of the most dramatic events you’ll ever see. One of the greatest spectacles in the world is the Mass Games in North Korea.

I just think it would blow her six-year-old mind.

Listen, it would blow your mind as a 40 or a 50 year old. Cristopher Hitchens sat next to me in that stadium, hard-bitten, thinks he’s seen it all and done it all, and he sat there puffing on a Dunhill and just muttering to me, ‘Fucking hell, Kershaw, fucking hell!”

The people on the other side of the stadium were holding up bits of coloured card. One minute they’re a field of waving grain. Then, on a command, that field of waving grain turned itself into a blast furnace with molten metal flowing out of it. By the time it reached the other end of the stadium it had turned into farming equipment and guns. And that was people holding up bits of card. Unbelievable!

What’s next? Have you got your eye on anywhere in particular?

Well, I’ve only been to 27 of Africa’s 47 countries, so I’ve still got a few to go. I’ve not been back to Haiti since the earthquake. And the other one that’s been gnawing at me for a while is that I've not set foot in Zimbabwe for 20 years.

At the end of the book you talk about introducing your children to travel, maybe a holiday in Belarus.

I’m fascinated by Belarus. That we still have a bonkers country in Europe is astonishing. We’re not living in an age of conformity and consensus and everything the same. You go to any European city, even a former Eastern European one and it’s all the same shops that you get in London or Birmingham.

Even Moscow is just like a big European city now. In the old days the toilet paper that was like wiping your bum with a Ryvita, it was like wood chip toilet paper. It left splinters in your bum.

What would you want your children to get from travel?

Whether it’s travel or an attitude to life in general, I want to them to have what my dad gave me and that’s curiosity. It’ll take them so many places if that’s cultivated in them like my dad cultivated it in me.

Has that been your driving force, both in music and travel?

Yeah. Sheer bloody nosiness!


Andy Kershaw is a radio DJ and foreign correspondent. His autobiography, No Off Switch, is available now on Amazon.


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