Daniel Metcalfe

Notes from an author: Luanda, Angola

Journalism, September 2013

Finding the Globo Restaurant was like coming home. Funge meal and calulu stew bubbled on the stove, rumba flowed from the sound system, and the hosts bantered good-humouredly with their guests.  So far so welcoming.  I looked at the menu and saw that it was affordable. Something strange was going on.

My knee-jerk suspicion was based on weeks living in Angola’s capital, Luanda, where restaurants can clear you out dangerously fast. Thanks to Angola’s legendary oil ‘curse’, only rich locals and well-paid foreigners eat out. Even in the scruffiest dive a one-egg omelette would set you back £13.

But the Globo Restaurant in downtown Luanda was different. It was owned by a young Angolan couple, Njaya and Maguí, who had lived in Brazil and were now back to run this small venture, serving comida caseira (home cooking), blending Afro-Portuguese-Brazilian food with an international twist.

Maguí, with that irrepressibly sunny Brazilian demeanour, would bustle round her modest tables with platters of calulu com peixe, a classic fish stew with local greens and sweet potatoes, or muambe de dendem, a spicy chicken casserole. Sometimes I would find her filling glass bowls of home-made passionfruit mousse, berating her chef for over-salting the food again (a common problem in Luanda). The Globo just seemed real.

It’s hard to describe the joy of finding affordable food in Luanda’s capital. For a month last year, I became a regular. It wasn’t just the comida caseira that recommended the place, but also its almost heroic eccentricity, unafraid to fly in the face of the rampant capitalism that rules in Angola. We were only two minutes up from the £290-a-night five star Epic Sana Hotel, but Maguí and her husband Njaya were running in the opposite direction.

Njaya – which curiously means ‘he who has been vindicated’ – is a young man who’s mad about growing his own, keeping chicken hutches, vegetables and fruit trees, which supply the kitchen. “We set this place up last year because there is nothing natural about food in Luanda,” he told me. “We wanted something at least locally grown, to provide just normal cooking. You couldn’t find it here.”

The devastation wreaked by Angola’s 27 year civil war, which ended in 2002, and the oppressiveness of the oil economy has all but suffocated manufacturing and agriculture. Today about half of all food is imported, but all is sold at prohibitively high prices, especially in the restaurants.

It wasn’t always like that. Emigrés recall a different Angola of the Sixties and Seventies. Languishing in the late dominance of the Portuguese, Luanda was an airy and pleasant city. The Paris of Africa, foreigners called it, full of open air cafes and good food. But the civil war gathered steam from 1975 and the capital would balloon as refugees streamed in from the provinces. Prices surged, infrastructure collapsed, and the pleasure of eating out became the preserve of the very fortunate.

Luanda is still attractive, with a wonderful assemblage of flaking, peach-pastel buildings in the Portuguese style. But the experience of the last quarter century has left a bitter mark on service culture. Departing from the warm embrace of an Angolan family – if you are lucky enough to find one – can be ill-advised.

The Globo was in the heart of the city, but it could sometimes be strangely empty. I think affordable food is still too new for Luanda’s growing middle class. It was as if Luandans had got so used to high prices that they couldn’t get their head around £20 for a main course. This perplexed the couple, and me too.

Njaya, I think, was too energetic to doubt his project. Unlike almost anyone else in the capital, he was mad about his quinta (farm or allotment), which conjured up images of a lush tract on the banks of the nearby Kwanza river. The reality, however, was a concrete yard between the restaurant and a neighbouring slum. Next to gas cylinders and beer crates the couple kept chickens, a mango tree and a fish tank. The street children stole the eggs, the power cut out all the time and there was nowhere to walk the goat, but what is Luanda without effort?

“Come, look at this,” he said to me once with great energy. He took me to his solar panel. “I just rigged it up”, he beamed. “Imagine, if every poor Angolan family had one, they could make their own electricity. I’m just a Rasta at heart. I love the natural. There’s nothing natural about Angola.”

Technically, Njaya was a child of the system. He came from a family of assimilados, a category awarded by the white Portuguese to Angolans who had become “civilised”. His grandfather had designed and built the adjoining Globo Hotel and father had worked as a doctor to some of Angola’s most powerful politicians. Njaya could easily have capitalised on those connections. But instead he dreamed of hydroponics and organic farming, and his restaurant was a shot of oxygen in a city that chokes on its own oil wealth. The restaurant isn’t going anywhere, but I do hope Njaya’s ‘vindication’ really is on its way. facebook.com/GloboResto

March with the penguins

Journalism, May 2011

It is like a trip back to scout camp: the smell of weak coffee and detergent, the draughty iron sheds and barrack-room customer service. Arriving at Mount Pleasant Airport, the British military airbase, isn’t the warmest of welcomes but the Falklands are not for the average tourist.

Most visitors to the archipelago in the south Atlantic leave their cruise ships just long enough for tea and a piece of cake. A few spend a bit longer to experience an unlikely slice of British culture in the far southern hemisphere. But all are wowed by the flora and fauna. These blustery, empty islands, all 700 of them, are a veritable ark of sub-Antarctic life, boasting five species of penguins, 220 species of bird, 2,000 elephant seals and hundreds of Commerson’s dolphins, playfully escorting seagoing vessels. With few land-based predators, Falklands wildlife makes a noisy and absorbing spectacle, as unconcerned with the trickle of tourists as they are with the 2,500 kelpers (as locals are called) living among them.

The best way to see the local wildlife, and to explore the Falklands, is to go island-hopping, not by yacht, but using the tiny aircraft run by the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (Figas). These aircraft land on beaches and grassy airstrips and provide an indispensable link between remote farming communities and the capital, Port Stanley. My trip involves a circuit of the outlying islands, staying as a guest of the farmers. After a day or two, I fly on to the next, to find my new host waiting beside the airstrip in a Land Rover.

At Mount Pleasant, Terence McPhee, my first host, throws my kit into the back of his Land Rover and hits the gravel road to his farm in San Carlos, my first stop in “camp” (as everywhere outside Stanley is called). The landscape is bleakly inspiring, a Shetland-like expanse of tawny grasses that undulate without end. The only trees are a pair of cypresses planted outside his farmhouse, teased into a near right-angle by the unrelenting gusts. I’ll never forget McPhee’s warning: “You’ve got to park your car properly or else the wind will blow the door off.”

San Carlos Water, codenamed Blue Beach, was the main bridgehead for the British taskforce, which landed on the islands on May 21 1982 during the Falklands war: a lonely spot these days, where small waves lap towards the jetty in an almost Technicolour ultramarine. McPhee’s wife Sheila serves me a mountain of local mutton and organic vegetables from their garden. “If they hadn’t been so greedy, the Argentines would have had us by now,” she says, echoing the widely held belief that the UK government was trying to wash its hands of the Falklands in the years before the war. “All it had to do was wait.”

Right now there’s plenty more to think about than the conflict. Two events have revolutionised life here: fishing licences – the mainstay of the economy after taking over from sheep farming in 1987 – and now oil. Though everyone’s tight-lipped about it (including the local government, which insists the future lies in tourism), it seems there may be commercially viable reserves of crude oil.

My first hop is to Pebble Island, a large tract off the north coast of West Falkland, known for the translucent pebbles on its beaches. As I gaze from the air at these green expanses spread over an area the size of Wales, I am struck more than ever by the pioneering spirit of the 300 people who have chosen the camp life, living in settlements of one or two, running enormous farms on a quad-bike or from the saddle. “What would I want in Stanley?” one woman asks me on Saunders Island. It is a stoicism of a pre-internet age.

On Pebble Island, I know the penguins are near because I can smell them: the fishy miasma of a thousand rockhoppers, crowding on the edge of a cliff face. These fearless, bowling-pin sized birds have glided in from the sea, clawed their way up sheer rocks and have nested together in a vast gaggle of black-and-white baubles, grunting and squeaking like a broken cello. Unlike the more cautious gentoo and magellanic penguins, rockhoppers are unfazed by gaping visitors.

Another endlessly watchable animal is the elephant seal. Sea Lion Island, famous for the sinking of HMS Sheffield in its waters, boasts the largest waddle of seals in the archipelago. I arrive on this flat, grassy island with two war veterans and we make straight for the beaches where the seals bask. We take our places amid heaps of coiled orange kelp, like rubbery monster entrails. Just a few feet away lie nine neckless torpedoes of blubber, their skin nicked and stretch-marked, their moist black eyes flashing. Every so often an adult male elevates its giant proboscis and whispers to its harem with a throaty gurgle. Misjudging his distance, one veteran steps too close. With more agility than you’d think possible for an animal with no visible bones, the two tonner shoots instantly into a perpendicular position, poised to knock him down in a second. We all back away to the Land Rover.

These thriving penguin and seal colonies were on the verge of extinction at the end of the 19th century. Eagerly sought for their blubber, each penguin was said to render a pint of oil. They were eaten, too. According to Recipes for an Antarctic Cook (1959), “the meat of young shags, seals and penguins makes excellent eating but, in the natural state, it is rather too highly flavoured to be palatable”. The writer recommends adding Bisto gravy.

The bird that really takes me off my guard is the striated caracara. A scavenger of extreme rarity in Scotland, this falcon-like animal abounds on Carcass Island, a breathtaking little island in the far north-west of the archipelago. “The cawing drives you a bit potty but you get used to it,” says Robin McGill, in his languorous Falklands burr (somewhere between Australia and Somerset), as he drives me from the airstrip.

So large and powerful, caracaras remind me a bit of the roc of Sinbad fame, snatching objets trouvés in its powerful talons. Later I only just stop one from flying away with my clothes as I emerge from an ill-advised dip in the bay.

Predictably, the whole of Carcass Island teems with life: rock cormorants that swim as expertly as they fly; striped Magellanic penguins scurrying to their burrows at the first sound of feet; gentoo penguins, basking on their drum-shaped front bellies. Being free of rats and cats, Carcass is also a haven for small birds, such as the feather-ball shaped Cobb’s wren, which hops around the tussock grass with its sabre-like beak.

They don’t eat penguins or seals these days but islanders are proud of their food self-sufficiency. Walk on the windswept plains and you’re surrounded by edible plants, from wild celery and scurvy grass to the bushes of diddle-dee berries, a bittersweet species of crowberry used to make jam, and teaberries, which taste like a cross between mulberries and junipers, and are used to flavour teacakes. “Smoko”, or the “tea break”, is taken seriously here, in the English countryside manner.

I arrive in Port Stanley half expecting a yawning megapolis from the way the outlying islanders talk about it but I suddenly understand all the tourist talk of a “relic of a bygone England”. It has swept streets and shining cottages, sweet shops and red telephone boxes. Pubs offer darts and pints of bitter. Most striking of all is Jubilee Villas, a terrace with double-fronted bay-windows (complete with green corrugated-iron roof), built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887. It must once have seemed rather out of place in this impoverished rural community. But, perhaps, not for much longer.

There is a feeling of change in the air. Contract workers fill the pubs, prices are soaring, and developments are springing up in anticipation of the boom. Everybody’s talking about oil. If it really does come on stream, there will be little “bygone” about Stanley. Let’s hope the penguins remain unfazed.

Just São stories: a honeymoon in São Tomé and Príncipe

Journalism, May 2011

Two young guards stood astride the entrance of the presidential palace in São Tomé town, resplendent in white gaiters and BMX-style helmets. They stepped forward in unison, clapped their rifles to their shoulders, caught each other’s eye, and collapsed into laughter. They didn’t cut very convincing figures as guards, but then military pomp seems a bit superfluous in São Tomé and Príncipe, arguably Africa’s most peaceful country.

This twin-island nation tucked in the Gulf of Guinea, off Africa’s Atlantic coast, seems to be a secret largely confined to purveyors of cocoa – São Toméan chocolate graces the shelves of Fortnum & Mason – and naturalists, who flock here for its rare birds and butterflies. But any visitor to Africa’s second-smallest country would be bewitched by its vivid natural beauty, dilapidated architectural grandeur and disarmingly friendly people.

São Toméans’ renowned “ease of being” is enshrined in the local watchword, leve-leve, meaning something like “easy, easy” – which they say when you try to hurry things along. In this informal island culture, more Caribbean than African, where fruit flops off the trees and the sea is jumping with fish, the question always seems to be, “What’s the rush?”

Watching Príncipe from the plane was like preparing to enter an ancient world: extinct volcanoes, lush forest. Bom Bom Island Resort, on an islet off Príncipe, has 21 luxury bungalows around pristine, forest-lined beaches. Between lunches of grilled red snapper on the jetty, I passed my days snorkelling amid shoals of tigery-looking fish, kayaking to distant beaches and falling asleep to the ebb of the tide on my own private beach. I was in danger of setting up shop here, which was the fate of manager Dmitry:

“Príncipe, and São Tomé, appeared after volcanic activity,” he told me. “They were never part of the African continental plate. That’s why there are so many endemic birds and butterflies around. You get professors staying here for months. They can’t leave!”

The Portuguese were equally bewitched by these uninhabited islands when they arrived in around 1470, but were also quick to see their commercial potential, first sugar, then cocoa. The island became as famous for the inhuman conditions in which its slaves were kept as for the quality of its produce. The chocolate magnate William Cadbury was so shocked by his visit to the islands in 1908 that he boycotted the import of the bean on humanitarian grounds a year later.

Most of the cacao roças (plantations) have been reclaimed by nature since independence in 1975, but a handful still function as cocoa farms (the crop still accounts for 80% of the country’s exports), and are a fascinating record of the country’s history. At one time all roças were self-sufficient, with their own hospitals, and a railway to transport the cocoa to port.

My guide and I hopped on Bom Bom’s quad bikes and set off for nearby Roça Belmonte. We clucked along winding forest roads, past distinctive box-like huts, brightly painted on high stilts, and through Santo António, the island’s main town, where pink-pastel buildings seemed to peel in the glare of the Pico do Príncipe, the island’s highest mountain (948m).

At Roça Belmonte, it was as if the Portuguese had dropped everything and hurried away when independence came. Past the turreted entrance gate, the old schoolroom still bore a blackboard, the image of a horse and the word cavalo (horse) written in old-fashioned cursive chalk.

The largest of the roças are over on São Tomé island. Driving up the wide boulevards of Roça Agostinho Neto, you’re surrounded by the elaborate workings of the plantation economy, with hospitals, warehouses and offices that at one time processed huge amounts cocoa, coffee and copra (coconut kernel). A small boy handed me a cacao pod to try. He cracked it in two, to reveal the sweet, white, gooey flesh of the seeds, which I snacked on until my mouth turned purple.

Roça Agua Izé, on the coast road south of São Tomé town, is a compellingly tumble-down roça. With its throwback warehouses and narrow-gauge railway, the plantation just about shudders along. “Cacao is a good crop, but it can be a real headache if the rains don’t come,” sighed the manager, leaning on a sack of beans. “And this railway hasn’t run in 18 years.”

One roça owner had a radical response to plantation heritage. João Carlos Silva lives in the village of São João dos Angolares, home of the Angolar people (a “maroon” community descended from runaway slaves, with their own language, N’gola). He has restored Roça São João to its original airy charm and, with his cooking school, dance classes and eco-tourism projects, he has also created a renowned centre of São Toméan culture. But he is still best known outside the island for his infectiously enthusiastic cooking show, Na Roça com os Tachos – In the Roça with the Pots – on RTP Africa TV.

We sat on the veranda, nibbling spiced breadfruit fritters and sipping passionfruit juice. “My father was an administrator in the 1960s and stayed on after independence,” he said, “so the blood of the roça is in my veins. “Centuries of slavery have contributed to a national low self-esteem. Yet the country has so much to be proud of.”

The islands are almost completely forested: Obô national park – with areas on both Príncipe and São Tomé – covers 30% of the islands, and boasts 28 endemic species of bird out of 120 recorded here, rare tree ferns, orchids and the giant begonia. Tough walkers attempt the volcanic finger-like picos. I opted for a gentler hike in virgin forest in the heart of Obô, through Bom Sucesso botanical garden up to a large volcanic crater called Lagoa Amélia.

Clad in Barbour jacket and wellies, Francisco, my guide, wielded a fearsome machete. He led me through mosses, massive ferns and vast tree trunks: “The only thing to worry about here is the cobra preta, which is deadly.”

“But it slides away when it hears footsteps, right?” I suggested.

He made no reply, but hiked on, lopping off ferns with a soft ping of metal. Occasionally he would stop to point at plants. “This one,” he chortled, “you grind up and mix with honey, for when you’re on a date and need a – you know – pick me up.”

São Tomé island is a touch more worldly than Príncipe, but it still preserves a slow pace of life. The city has the charm of a colonial metropolis on the long road of decay, with seemingly little repaired since the Portuguese era. Stately boulevards flanked with walnut trees are cracked and split, pastel facades are rough with age and humidity, and life seems to roll by without the pressure of time – safe perhaps in the shadow of the imposing 16th-century fortress of São Sebastião.

By contrast, the centre of town, with its brightly coloured buildings, is alive with chatter. The mercado grande bustles with trade; hefty women flog tuna and sailfish, limes and mountains of chillies and okra, swigging palm wine from old Sagres bottles.

Like in all Africa’s former Portuguese colonies, there is a profusion of pastelarias, where you can eat custard tarts (pasteis de nata) and, best of all, açucarinhas, spirals of fudge and coconut pulp. And when you’ve had your last chocolate liquor at Café e Companhia (the town’s best cafe bar), and the street lights have fizzled out, it’s still safe to wander by the beachfront to suck in the sea air.

You don’t have to be a honeymooner to fly to São Tomé and Príncipe (although they’ve guarded the secret well), or a naturalist, or a chocolatier, but it does pay to leave your watch behind, and forget all sense of time.

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Elastic fantastic: when skiing meets bungee-jumping

Journalism, October 2010

Alexander the Great crossed the raging Oxus on stuffed animals’ hides; Indiana Jones hacked off a string bridge and swung over a croc-infested gorge. But for winter sports freaks jaded with all the known adrenaline-inducers, here’s a new one: Bun-J-Ride, a devilish mid-air experience straddling an Alpine river, every bit as thrilling as skiing and bungee jumping.

Bun-J-Ride is the invention of veteran bungee enthusiast Jean-François Michelin. Having supervised tens of thousands of jumps in Normandy, New Zealand and Indonesia, the Doctor of Near Death has brought his invention to the near-comatose French village of Saint-Jean-de-Sixt, a neighbour of the ski hubs of Grand Bornand and La Clusaz in the Haute-Savoie region of France.

Michelin and his Bun-J-Riders erected a ramp 40m above the freezing river and then strung twin cables to the opposite bank. They strapped on rubber bungees that slide along the cables, and opened their first Bun-J-Ride in May 2009. At €65 a go, the idea is that you ski, sled or cycle down a 28m-long ramp and are hurled in to the open air to fly, and then slide gently to the other side. The point, of course, is the near-death illusion, which even for the hardest stomachs, doesn’t disappoint.

I’ve never managed to dispel a growing unease in the run-up to simulated suicide, as they strap you in (“don’t they know I’m about to die?”). I seek reassurance from Michelin: “Anything I need to know before I go?”

Non,” is all I get back in reply.

Hardly comprehending what I’m doing, I hurtle down the ramp, absurdly worrying about my ski style. I feel like Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards. Suddenly, I’m shot into the abyss, and I forget Edwards because now I’m a bird – or something. I experience that deep awareness where your brain shuts down and consciousness shifts. I notice that a large mountain is revolving 180 degrees downwards.

That’s a strange direction, I muse. I notice the swirly pattern on my skis, weightless against a deep blue sky. Then the floating ends as my body begins to fall. Adrenaline floods my body and I’m fully into my liminal experience. I perceive that I’m mortal again, which means I have a lot to lose. My harness tugs at the cables and I bounce up, slower this time. Am I safe? Yes I think I’m safe.

My thinking brain returns and I laugh maniacally in the calm descent to the other side of the river. I’m still giggling as a laconic staff member unstraps me from my supine position. “Have I arrived?” I ask, mystically.

He’s seen it all before. “Euh, oui, monsieur.” Yes, there are many ways to cross a river, but few quite so transcendental.

• Bun-J-Ride (bun-j-ride.com) is open every weekend throughout the year. It is open daily from 19 December to 3 January (except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day), and from 6 February to 7 March. Advance booking strongly recommended

South Tyrol: a hotspot for fine dining

Journalism, June 2010

In the Alpine region of Tyrol, there’s a saying – “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are” – which dates back to the days when feuding barons savoured speck and dumplings, leaving their peasantry to chew on rough Schüttelbrot (crispbread).

Times have changed. South Tyrol, the predominantly German-speaking region of northern Italy, is now one of the continent’s prime fine dining spots. It boasts 18 Michelin stars, more than any other Italian province. By way of comparison, the Los Angeles area, with a population 15 times greater, can manage only 24.

Tyrol formed the Alpine flank of the Habsburg empire until 1918, when Italy annexed its southern half. It was renamed Alto Adige, raised to “autonomous region” level, and its capital, Bolzano, given a robustly Italo-Fascist makeover. It is here in Südtirol – as the German-speaking locals still call it – that the food really sparkles, a region that combines an Alpine love of starch (watch out for Knödeln, or dumplings) with the fruit strudels of the Viennese drawing room, and all the spices of the local Lagrein and Gewürtztraminer grapes.

South Tyroleans are serious about cheese too. My first stop was at one of the region’s leading lights, Degust, a small independent cheese affinatore in the village of Varna in Val d’Isarco. Since 1995, Edith and Hansi Baumgartner have been working out of a Mussolini-era bunker that provides perfect refining conditions, often adding figs, cherries, and even seaweed for flavour.

Edith appeared, half-obscured by ribboned boxes of cheeses with blueberry chutney and mandarin mustard. “South Tyrol has wonderful cows and milk but the cheese was a disaster, so we started this micro-refinery. There was really nothing else around,” she explained, once I was happily nibbling on some Gruyère with a glass of dark muscatel. Edith handed me one of her favourites, a bittersweet blue cheese called Golden Gel, made at an altitude of 1,800m. “It was matured for six months in the bunker,” she confided, “another month in basins of sweet grapes, and then wrapped in hay for a further month.”

Edith’s brother-in-law Karl Baumgartner is head chef at the Michelin-starred Schöneck restaurant and shares her almost obsessive passion for quality ingredients. Winding up to the tiny village of Falzes, I passed lonely hayricks that stood on snow-covered meadows, before finally reaching Schöneck. It was more than worth the drive. After a round of delectable starters – steak tartare with white truffle shavings and some succulent gnocchi, I had capretto (milk-fed goat) and winter vegetables in a herb sauce, with a punchy Pinot Nero Burgum Novum Castelfeder 2006. Then Baumgartner arrived with a glint in his eye and an oozy chocolate tart with a shapely clod of beige ice-cream. It slipped down like a dream before I felt a sudden kick in the larynx. “You like it?” beamed the chef, before revealing that it was derived from vanilla-flavoured pipe tobacco.

Fine dining was all very well but I still wanted to know what constituted Tyrolean home cooking. And what about the speakers of Ladin, a minority language not so different from Swiss Romansh, spoken by 40,000 in the Gherdëina and Badia valleys of the south-east of the region? What did they eat? Refreshed by Baumgartner’s mountain flowers herbal tea, I headed to the skiing heartland of Badia to find out.

In the winding mountain roads outside Pedraces, a modest wooden farmhouse finally appeared from the darkness. With no English-speaking staff, and a fixed-course menu written entirely in Ladin, the family-run Maso Runch makes few overtures to its customers. I was surprised to discover that it is, however, one of the region’s most popular restaurants, often booked for weeks in advance. It was as homely as it got: waitresses in faux-peasant outfits swished around with spinach Knödeln, great pink sides of pork, bowls full of juniper-flavoured sauerkraut, and carafes of Lagrein – a dark local red – all served in such a hurry there was no time for a humble Ladin bun apetit. The food was hearty and delicious.

Restored by the Hotel Fanes spa in the nearby mountain village of San Cassiano, I prepared for my fourth and final sample of Tyrolean cuisine. This was at the upmarket Rosa Alpina hotel, frequented by the likes of George Clooney and Prince Albert of Monaco, and home to St Hubertus, a double Michelin-starred restaurant run by renowned chef Norbert Niederkofler.

St Hubertus is the Mont Blanc of South Tyrolean fine dining, though eating there sometimes feels like scaling the mountain. Settled behind a starched tablecloth in a wood panelled dining room, I paced myself through course after wine-paired course (not to mention several amuse-bouches), all twiddled, twisted and twined to perfection. Each offering dazzled, arriving like the perfect little present you’d always wanted but never thought to ask for: pork belly with smoked potato purée, Kaluga Amur caviar and champagne sauce; buckwheat ravioli of buffalo milk ricotta with squid and cream of green beans. My head swam, my taste buds danced.

But by the time the chocolate millefeuille arrived eight courses later, the sommelier ever present, the maître-d’ always watchful, and everything so relentlessly excellent, I wished for a brief moment that I was back in the Maso Runch being largely ignored. Ah well, perhaps that old proverb was right …

Daniel Metcalfe’s ‘Out of Steppe: The Lost Peoples of Central Asia’ (Arrow) has been shortlisted for this year’s Dolman travel book of the year

see also livinginitaly.com

Nairobi’s live music scene

Journalism, June 2010

“Anyone here who’s been mugged recently?” calls Blinky from the stage, looking cool in his tweed flat cap. Whoooh, the crowd roars, lapping up Nairobi’s next big thing, an eight-piece called Just A Band.

“Who’s had their mobile stolen?” Woo-hoo! They know what it feels like. I don’t yet, and I tap my pockets. He lowers his voice: “We just had our equipment swiped on our way from band practice.” Then, his voice rising, he says: “Don’t these guys know that Africa is the future?” The crowd erupts again, and the band launches into its flagship dance single, Usinibore. “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do/I can cha-a-a-ange the world.” It’s an optimism Nairobi hasn’t felt in years.

Despite the curse of Nairobbery, the city has had a thorough clean-up, but still too many visitors head straight to their eco-lodges on the Masai Mara rather than staying to sample the capital’s delights. And few of them know that Nairobi is the centre of a rich music scene.

Just A Band is one of the many new outfits making waves on the Kenyan circuit, having just launched their second album ’82 (the year they were born), with a gig at the GoDown Arts Centre, a converted warehouse and exhibition space in Nairobi’s hip eastern Industrial Area. A group of geeky young graphic designers, Just A Band are renowned for their award-winning animated music videos. They perform a strange but compelling blend of electronica, funk, hip-hop, and disco, a cocktail they’ve nicknamed “Afro Electro-gravy”. They are a middle-class Kenyan phenomenon, hot on the marketing potential of the internet.

“How did you hear about them?” I ask my sweaty neighbour. “Facebook,” she shouts over the din.

I hadn’t expected the music in Nairobi to be so varied and vibrant. Weaned for years on Andy Kershaw’s BBC Radio 3 slot, with its frequent doses of Congolese rumba and Zimbabwean jit, I expected a scene dominated by benga, with its popping, pulsating bass and aching vocal interweaves. Meaning “something beautiful” in Luo, benga has been the east African guitar music sound since a band called Shirati Jazz took Kenya by storm in the 60s, and it’s impossible not to love. But over the past decade there has been a musical and technological revolution – accelerated since president Daniel arap Moi departed in 2002 after 24 years in office – and a chaotic splash of new sounds. On top of the standard soukous (rumba) and benga that you still hear, Nairobi now boasts live fusions of Afro-beat, electronica, R&B and hip-hop, and some remarkably palatable jazz. If you know where to go.

James Murua, of online magazine Nairobi Living, is inspired by the renaissance: “In the 90s the biggest career move was flying to the US. But now we have a ton of radio stations. It’s a chaotic, vibrant time. Everyone’s writing music.”

Being the economic hub of east Africa, Nairobi has drawn musicians from all over the region for decades. Added to the heady mix of local bands singing in their own languages – Luo, Kikuyu, Luhya, Kamba – many Tanzanian musicians have carved a niche in Nairobi, and Zaireans have arrived with their seductive soukous and hip-shaking cavacha.

The big issues now are the twin evils of corruption and tribalism, which led to horrific post-election violence in 2008. And musicians aren’t scared of singing about them. Since Eric Wainaina released Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo (Country of Bribes) in 2001, he has inspired hundreds of artists to express hope for a better future, in English, Swahili, and Sheng – the ever mutating Swahili-based street slang, designed to stay one step ahead of the authorities.

Like any big city, Nairobi has plenty of low-quality gigs, but equipped with some online dailies, such as Kenyabuzz.com and Nation.co.ke, you can strike out. Make it your mission to catch Orchestra Super Mazembe and the Harmoniq’s Jazz Band.

Every weekend, Nairobians flood into Westlands, the city’s drinking district. The writhing floor of Black Diamond on Mpaka Road offers a dim but unhealthy recollection of university nightspots, only sweatier and louder. Gipsy on Woodvale Grove is fun, though the sheer overload of expats and conflicting boomboxes (four) leaves you feeling fragile and bewildered.

But the Klub House, a thumping, jumping, local bar on the Ojijo road, was exactly what I was looking for. Less self-conscious than the GoDown Arts Centre, it had an unchained buzz. Crammed round small wooden tables, people chattered, while waitresses twirled through the close-packed crowd. This was where I found Gogo Simo, one of Nairobi’s hottest acts, led by married couple James Jozee and Susan Wanjiru from Mombasa, who brought a raw, good-time energy to the venue. With clear soul and funk influences, they also draw on benga and soukous (of course), zouk – a Caribbean carnival vibe, and chakacha – a bopping dance sound from the coast. Susan was remarkably dynamic, one minute belting like a Swahili Aretha, before descending minutes later into a sizzling near-whisper. I caught the band after the gig, and they explained the inspiration behind their music. Gogo Simo shared the same “you can make it” mentality I found with Just A Band, a reaction to the national apathy brought on by the country’s politicians. “That’s what our song Kilele is about,” said Susan, husky after the performance. “It means the peak, how nothing in life comes easily, but everything’s possible if you strive for it, even if the politicians try to get in your way.”

I had another gig to catch. I drained my Tusker Malt and taxied to the other side of town, past the grey business district, to the jacaranda-lined avenues of Karen (after Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa). Taxis are easy to find in Nairobi and generally safe, but they’re not cheap. A tenner down, I arrived at a modest-looking entrance to one of the city’s most relaxed nightspots.

Talisman on Ngong Road is a loungey, woody restaurant and bar, where sun-beaten blondes sipped gin and tonics and well-to-do young Kenyans basked on low-slung sofas. Here I discovered Maia von Lekow, a twenty-something Kenyan artist, the daughter of Tanzanian jazz groover Sal Davis. A quarter Arab, a quarter Luo, and half European, Maia fuses her musical influences like a lounge chameleon. She sings in English and Swahili. “Bit of a difficult audience,” she confided to me on a break. Barefoot, she soon roused them with a rendition of Peggy Lee’s Fever. To Maia, the biggest problem is the lack of instruments. “Everyone’s trying to write something, but it’s running so fast. There are so many drummers, but no drums.”

Maia, who lived for years in Australia and Ireland, performed in February’s Sauti Za Busara festival in Zanzibar and on 4 July is set to play at Blankets and Wine – a once-a-month event in north-west Nairobi.

So whether its’s Blankets and Wine you discover, the trendy GoDown, or the spontaneous Sunday street acts franctically in need of drum kits, keep an eye out for a generation of musicians as they blaze a trail through the night spots and Facebook pages of Kenya’s Wild West.

Daniel Metcalfe is the author of Out of Steppe: The Lost Peoples of Central Asia (Hutchinson, 2009), which has been shortlisted for this year’s Dolman travel book of the year

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