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The Telegraph Reviews Singing in the Rainforest

Taking Western music to the tribe of the oldest people on earth.

Former Busted pop sensation Charlie Simpson has introduced an African tribe to pop music. Sarfraz Manzoor listens in:

The medicine man is short, wiry and naked except for an animal skin loincloth. He is wide-eyed and seems to be in a trance, as he taps a wooden stick into the dusty ground.

Behind him a row of women clap in time and sing in a high-pitched chanting. These are the San people, descendants of the oldest humans on Earth, and the dance is taking place in the village of Grashoek on the north-eastern tip of Namibia.

It is a scene that could have taken place any time in the past 20,000 years except for the presence of one man. He towers over the tribesfolk; he is white and wearing a blindingly white shirt and blue jeans. He is Charlie Simpson – once the lead singer of teen pop phenomenon Busted.

He was there because he was taking part in a new television series that is either inspiringly original or something Alan Partridge would dismiss as too ridiculous. The show, Singing in the Rainforest, takes singers to meet remote tribes who have never been exposed to pop music. The pop star and the tribe have a week to create a song that combines both their musical styles.

Among those who agreed to the challenge were Myleene Klass and Shuan Ryder and Bez from the Happy Mondays.

Busted had four number one singles and sold four million records but while his former bandmates have revisited old glories by teaming up with members of boyband McFly, Charlie was keen to challenge himself. “I want to do this because things can just get a bit safe sometimes,’’ Charlie told me before setting off for Africa. “The idea of putting myself into a position where I am totally out of my comfort zone is exciting.”

Charlie certainly looked out of his comfort zone as the medicine man rubbed charcoal below his nose – an ancient ritual to ward off evil spirits – but he also looked a little like Adolf Hitler. After the welcoming ceremony Charlie and his musician friend Alex were shown around the village that would be their home for the next five days. Facilities were basic with army-style tents to sleep in and food to be cooked on an open fire.

The San have been nomads in this part of southern Africa for around 20,000 years and their musical traditions were very different from the world Charlie knew. “Music is not entertainment for us,” one of the elders explained, “when we sing [we are] communing with our ancestors.” He spoke using a click language, but fortunately a few of the younger villagers were able to translate his words.

It wasn’t just the purpose of the music that was different. “Listening to the women’s singing and clapping, one thing that struck me was they syncopate the claps to make a rhythm and that’s not easy,” Charlie told me. “It is hard to work out what beat they are in – it is going to be a real challenge to try and incorporate their sound to what I am used to.”

Later that day in the clearing of the village, in front of huts made from cow dung and mud, Charlie prepared for the strangest gig of his life. He would be performing one of his songs to the tribe and it was a pretty safe bet that the San were unfamiliar with his work since this was the first time they would have ever heard live Western music.

As Charlie prepared I asked if there was anything he had learnt as a rock star that helped him with playing to this audience. “You learn that no matter who you play for, you have to put on the same performance,” he said. “You just have to get into your own world.” The audience was gathered. “OK this is a song called Emily,” Charlie said before launching into a slow and rather pained ballad.

It was a brave choice I feared but the villagers looked rapt. Everyone was silent, their hands cupping the sides of their heads and their faces drinking in the strange sound. One man had tears streaming down his cheeks. When Charlie finished the song he was mobbed, everyone circled around him chanting “Charlie! Charlie! Charlie!”

I spent the next few days with Charlie as he searched for lyrical inspiration by delving deeper into the life of the San – joining them as they trekked in the jungle and sleeping under the open skies. The heat was punishing – upwards of 40C. On our feet we were instructed to wear snake gators to ensure we were not bitten – the San walked barefoot.

As we walked we learnt more about them. Incredibly it was legal, according to some of the older tribesmen, to shoot bushmen as vermin as recently as the Fifties. Hunters could get permits to shoot the San and they had to hand in a severed ear or nose as proof they had killed them.

The current world of the San was also under threat. They can no longer be nomads, their diet has been forced to change since they are not allowed to hunt and have to eat the food the government distributes.

The life of the San was not quite as National Geographic as our first sight of them. They didn’t, for instance, always wear animal skins. When I visited them in their homes they were dressed in Western clothes. “We only wear those skins for the tourists,” explained one man smiling. The villagers make their living by dancing for tourists and making jewellery and gifts.

I saw two men sharpening the tip of an arrow. “Is that for killing animals?” I asked. “No, hunting is illegal,” he said, “this is for the souvenir shop,” he replied.

The longer he spent with the tribe the more Charlie saw that the San were being forced to change the way they had lived for thousands of years. “I get the sense that they preferred the way it was,” he said.

On the evening of their third day in the jungle Charlie and Alex were joined by three women from the tribe, as Charlie tried to explain to them the concept of verse chorus verse. He played a chord structure that he had created to the women – inevitably dubbed “Charlie’s Angels” – and the women joined him with their chanting and clapping.

It sounded good – the song was taking shape, but he was worried that it would sound disjointed – his part and the San’s – rather than a true fusing. “Why don’t you get the San to sing your lyrics in their language?” I suggested.

The villagers gathered on Charlie’s last day with the San. “We want to sing a song for you that we have written together,” he told them. “It’s called Walking with the San.” The women from the tribe started chanting accompanied by keyboard and guitar and then Charlie started singing. “Open up your eyes, there is nowhere left for us to hide, I get the feeling that we’re lost in San today, and there are no disguises.

Walking with the San, we are nothing but strangers to this land, can we keep it in our hearts until we can live this way again.” When the chorus struck up Charlie and the singers were joined by others – men in loincloths with ankle bracelets filled with shells who stamped the ground in time to the music and the entire village was clapping along.

It was potent and deeply emotional: an experiment that could have been tasteless was, thanks to the open-hearted and generous spirits of the San and the empathetic warmth of Charlie Simpson, a joyous triumph and a glorious reminder of what binds us all together as humans – whatever our tribe.

Singing in the Rainforest starts September 14th at 9pm on Watch.

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