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Emmanuel Jal

"A heavy and serious story but told with dignity and humour and illustrated with brilliant songs"

"I don't care who's on next ... I'm coming anyway!"

Sunday 8th March 2015

The Lantern Theatre, Sheffield


A sold out Lantern Theatre was enthralled by this incredibly powerful evening in the company of Emmanuel Jal. Through his opening with the title track of his 2008 album, Warchild, immediately followed by a spoken word version of Forced to Sin, Emmanuel told the core of his early upbringing and the horrors he endured as a child soldier in the civil war in Sudan in the 80s and 90s. And there were many points throughout the evening that really made you ask yourself, how does anyone come through such trauma and survive – let alone achieve the status and respect that he has – both through his music and activism to do something to help young people in Africa.


But it wasn’t an evening of unceasing torture and horror – far from it. Indeed, Emmanuel had the audience laughing with his very first story of his earliest memories of childhood games head-butting sheep! And by the end of the evening, the entire TalkingGigs audience were on their feet singing to the anthemic We Want Peace and dancing to the party-friendly Dusu from his latest CD The Key … I’m not sure how many had anticipated that they’d be doing that when they left their houses that evening. And throughout I had the huge privilege of conducting the on-stage conversation – which was a real joy.


The first half of the show covered the period covered by his book Warchild – the early flight from his home village, through his time in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, his recruitment into the SPLA, the attack on Juba, the eventual retreat and disastrous march to another refugee camp at Waat, and his final ‘rescue’ by British aid worker, Emma McCune, who smuggled him out to Kenya. To mark this moment of the story, Emmanuel did a spoken word version of Emma, a song which is clearly hugely powerful to him and really moved the audience. His life in Kenya was by no means easy, particularly after Emma was killed in a car accident after just 2 years. But he also related how he took to music – a key moment being when he heard a song by Puff Daddy on the radio. He closed the first half with a stunning version of his first Kenyan number one Gua – accompanied by a special guest Juliani, a young rapper from Kenya … a real bonus and another star in the making.


The text for the second half was more upbeat – focusing on his work since his appearance at Live 8 at the Eden Project in 2005 and featuring songs from his most recent release The Key. He was briefly joined on stage by Paul Lindley of Ella’s Kitchen to talk about their joint venture – The Key is E – which is promoting a variety of development projects, and he also explained the work of his own Gua Foundation. He touched on the contrasts in his current life – relating the absurdity of the wealth and pampering during the filming of the forthcoming Hollywood film, The Good Lie – Reese Witherspoon and others being lovely people but also commenting how you have to re-learn how to “wipe your own arse” afterwards. And the dark humour of the response of children in Africa on being told that over-eating and obesity was a major problem in the West: “What a great way to die.” And then to the final dance-off, which has taken me several days to recover from …


So what a delight! A heavy and serious story but told with dignity and humour and illustrated by brilliant songs – and evening which seemed to leave everybody inspired and uplifted. Perhaps the best demonstration of the strength of the TalkingGigs format yet? Certainly for one member of the audience who told a member of the bar staff: “I don’t care who’s on next … I’m coming anyway!”


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