4 mins

Andy Kershaw: No Off Switch Part 2

In the second of a two-part interview, Andy Kershaw talks about his work as a foreign correspondent and his respect for the people of Haiti

Rwanda (Shutterstock)

Andy Kershaw is perhaps best known for his passion for music from around the world, but he is also a highly-respected foreign correspondent. He has found himself at the centre of some of the biggest stories of our generation: the invasion of Kuwait; the genocide in Rwanda; and more recently, the earthquake in Haiti.

The chapter on his experiences in Rwanda in No Off Switch makes particularly harrowing reading.

In your book you say that you wish you were nineteen in 1969 not nine.

The feeling that I wished I’d been ten years older at the end of the sixties dawned on me when I was older – maybe 14 or 15. Not only was I was more aware of the music being made back then in 1968 and 1969, it was the political upheaval going on around the world too.

I was thinking, “Shit, I wish I were old enough to throw rocks at the American embassy in Grosvenor Square and I wish I’d been old enough to see the Stones in the park and I wish I’d been old enough to see Bob Dylan on his electric tour with The Band in '66.”

Yet, perversely, in the late 80’s you were in the right place, at the right time, at the right age.

Absolutely. I count myself as bloody lucky to be around for punk, although I never adorned myself with safety pins. I was selective. I never took the attitude that all punk was great and everything that had gone before was rubbish. I adored a lot of things that came out of punk but weren’t strictly punk, like Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Ian Dury and the Blockheads and the big one for me of course, The Clash. But at the same time I never stopped listening to my Joni Mitchell records.

When you started working as a foreign correspondent it was when the world was being turned on its head...

The late eighties was like the late sixties, but I was part of it. I’d go off by myself, using my own money, and then phone up the BBC or broadsheet newspaper and say, “Hello, I’m here!”

When you’re in foreign correspondent mode, are you still looking out for new sounds, new bands, undiscovered talent?

Oh yeah, of course! Definitely, that doesn’t stop. But if you’re in the middle of a civil war, the likelihood of your hearing much music is pretty slim. It’s not your priority.

Having said that, there have been moments. I’ll never forget at a road block in Rwanda – an RPS roadblock, the rebels, the good guys who stopped the genocide. I was travelling with the RPS, so when we came up to the roadblock they all piled out. They were exchanging information with the guys manning this barrier and the whole country was still and silent. One of these lads had a ghetto blaster and he started playing Cecile Kayirebwa. It was the spookiest thing I've ever heard.

Generally speaking, though, front lines of war zones aren’t over run with guitarists and accordion players.

You've been to Haiti over twenty times...

It’s simultaneously one of the most exhilarating and exasperating countries in the world. The Haitians are remarkable.

You were angered by the coverage of the country after the earthquake.

It was the attitude of a lot of foreign reporters there, even some BBC ones. Their attitudes towards Haiti, their presumptions towards Haiti, the mythology of Haiti. It was all about violence, violence, violence and there was none. I slammed it in a double-paged piece in the Independent.

What I saw was an incredible stoicism and resourcefulness and dignity in the face of an appalling tragedy, on top of the suffering they’ve endured for decades. I hate to quote Dylan about it but “If you ain’t got nothing you ain’t got nothing to lose.” The Haitians never had anything and from a zero base they were put back even further.

As I pointed out in the article, the Haitians will do it for themselves if they’re allowed to and they’re given what they needed. But there was a whole industry of aid organisations down there and piling everything up in the airports and not handing it out because of security concerns. It was just awful.

But that’s why I have so much respect for the Haitians. They are the most self contained, imaginative, resourceful and strong people leading lives that must seem, if you’re Haitian, one permanent humiliation.

You visited Angola in 1996. In the book you describe leaning against a crate of BM-21 Katyusha rockets at the Halo Trust HQ flicking through a wallet of CDs and coming across a Warren Zevon one.

What a great moment that was! You couldn’t have scripted that! I was leaning against high explosives, enough, probably, to take out the whole town. When Lawyers, Guns and Money came on I thought “Warren Zevon would have loved this, the in which I was listening to his song.”

I was lucky enough to have Warren play on my very last Radio 1 programme. I told him the story and he thought it was fantastic. To the extent that when he got up at the end, put a twelve string around his neck and said something like “I know you’ve been waiting for this one Andy”.

(Andy hums first bars of song then sings “I went home with a waitress, the way I always do”)

He gets to the line that should have been “I was gambling in Havana, I took a little risk” he changed it there and then, God bless him, to “I was gambling in Angola, I took a little risk, send lawyers, guns and money, hey! Get me out of this.”

It was wonderful. It ended up with me and him sitting in the studio at the end of the recording and saying, “When are you next going to Haiti? I’d like to come with you.’ Phone numbers were swapped, it was all agreed, then the poor bugger got cancer and he was dead within a short space of time.

The work you did with Music Planet took you to some remote corners of the world

That was one of the things that excited me about Music Planet. We generally went to places that even I had never been to before.

A different kind of music as well. Throat singers in Siberia, for example...

I think I’ve had my life’s quota of throat singers now!

How was that? It seemed to be more about going into communities rather than into a bar in Kinshasa.

I was lucky enough on those Music Planet trips to have had the production and research manpower of the powers at Radio 3 who organised these trips a lot more than I organise the solo trips of my own. I just buy an airline ticket, grab my rucksack and just set off. They do something called planning.

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


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