George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Thursday 13 September 2007
Bending the Rules
Alex Horne – 13th September 2007
Strictly speaking, Helder is ineligible for our project because he currently lives just outside London’s vague borders. But what’s the point of speaking strictly when you’re having so much fun with a self-regulated endeavour and have just spent a joyful hour being hugely entertained by a talented and occasionally dancing stranger from Mozambique?
Well, you might say, surely the whole point is lost if even one of your countries is unrepresented in London? Good point. But worry not (and chill out a bit, everything’s ok) for Helder knows a couple of Mozambiquanos (yes, that’s the correct word, despite what Microsoft spellchecker is telling me) who do actually live in London and who he’s going to introduce me to in the next week or two. But for now, I want to write about Helder because Helder gave me coffee and biscuits and is a musician. I’m sure I’ve already mentioned that I’m in constant awe, occasionally spilling over into envy, of musicians. I’d love to be a musician. And this one told me I still could – he said anyone can, it’s never too late – so now I’m an enormous fan of Helder.
And anyway, Helder has lived in London for nine years (dwelling in Golders Green, Willesden Green, Hendon and High Barnet before realising his dream of living in the countryside and moving to Datchet, a stone’s throw from the London Borough of Hillingdon and just 20 miles from Charing Cross and so closer to the centre of London than places like Cranham that is officially in London, located as it is in the London Borough of Havering...), so for me, his story and opinions are as valid as anyone’s and a lot more valid than mine (Chesham is four miles even further out of town than Datchet and I was only a Londoner for six years).
I was given his number by another musician (and, therefore, object of my awe/envy) called Joe who I grew up with back in Sussex. Joe had told me Helder no longer lives in London but I gave him a call anyway, intending to ask if he could help me out with a more London-based Mozambiquano, only to be foiled by a torrent of hospitality that resulted in me neither mentioning our crucial London rule nor turning down an invite to his home. So now, a couple of days later, I was warmly welcomed into a splendid house filled with the unlikely combination of tranquillity and drums. ‘I’m a percussionist’, he shouted from the kitchen as I wandered into the living room, ‘I also play a little bit guitar and piano but not enough for my musical conception’. ‘Fair enough’, I shouted back.
Helder encouraged me to make myself at home on the settee by the coffee table where a joystick was burning while he produced the coffee and biscuits and whistled (‘I have music 24 hours in my head. My wife sometimes says ‘please, give me a break’, he told me with a smile broad enough to signify that this wasn’t really the cause of any actual marital strife). Not just any coffee and biscuits either, coffee painstakingly prepared with boiled milk (‘my grandfather used to say never to mix something boiled with something not boiled’, he explained. ‘He also said never mix tomatoes with lemons…’) and biscuits (charmingly pronounced ‘biscwits’) in the form of four (Yes! Four!) hobnobs. I was a happy guest.
‘Now’, Helder began after finally joining me on the couch. ‘I will tell you a superficial history of Mozambique then something a little deeper – if that’s ok?’ I nodded, sipped my coffee, nibbled a biscwit and listened. But then his wife came home early and we both spent quite a long time saying hello to her instead (she is from Germany, by the way, and, specifically Bavaria – a place which, like Guernsey, French Canada and Palestine, many of its inhabitants insist is a country, despite not appearing on our list).
‘So’, Helder began again when the atmosphere of calm was restored. ‘My family and I left Mozambique when I was fifteen and, like a lot of people, we went to Portugal. I lived there for eighteen years and then came here. I’ve never been back to Mozambique.’
‘Did you come here for the music?’ I asked, thinking that I sounded pretty cool. ‘Yes’, he replied before pausing. ‘…also, to be honest with you, in my country it’s very multicultural, we have influences from everywhere – Greece, Turkey, South America, everywhere – but mainly from Asia. And I think we identify ourselves a little bit with oriental philosophy, the oldest philosophy; our way to see life is quite profound. And so I think I left Portugal not just for the music but to try to find a place for my roots. And now I’m quite happy here because I’ve met lots of people with the same beliefs and foundations as me. And yes, some of them are English too.’
I drew breath. It seemed we’d skipped the superficial history bit and were going straight for the deeper stuff. That was fine with me. I’d got my biscwits and, to be honest as well, Joe had hinted Helder had some fairly weighty things to say and I was looking forward to a bit of philosophy. After learning rather a lot of sometimes trivial facts about the 135 countries we’d already met, I was ready to tackle some less tangible sentiments. And Helder was happy to oblige.
‘I try to understand life in a very profound way’, he continued. ‘Most people try to understand it in a very superficial way which doesn’t really help to make it better. The thing is, London is a very old town and in any old town I believe lots of things have happened and certain developments have happened a long time ago with the people who were born here. In this place, for a long time, they have tried to experience things here. I had an opportunity to move to Florida instead of here, but I didn’t take the invitation seriously.’ I nodded. It might not have been clear but I thought I could see his point.
He moved on to still deeper matters. ‘We believe in a spiritual journey and reincarnation – that makes sense for me; transmigration from body to body as evolution. So I didn’t go to America. The history here is much longer and my connection with other cultures started a long time ago.’ Again I nodded. This was the first time someone had thrown reincarnation into the immigration debate and it seemed to me to be rather a powerful point. According to Helder, when you die you move from one body to another, so whatever nationality you happen to be now is irrelevant considering you may well have been from a different continent before that and another one before that.
Helder went on to express further, more practical doubts about the issue of nationalism: ‘We all have a tendency to tell people, ‘I’m Brazilian’ or ‘I’m English’, but this is all our planet, where – as soon as we do the right thing and actually cooperate – anywhere is the right place to be. My father was educated by a Hindu man who said your place is anywhere in the world where you feel you’ve found your position. He was right. We are citizens of the same planet. I don’t have national pride – I think that’s wrong. For me it’s just the next starting point’.
I drew another breath. Helder smiled. I did too. I told him I understood where he was coming from (in the short term) but thought it might be hard, in practise, to factor this belief, this philosophy (‘it’s not a religion’, he insisted) into immigration legislation. He agreed but pointed out that, setting rules and regulations to one side, London seemed to be an ideal example of ‘the next starting point’ for an awful lot of people.
I was feeling pretty thoughtful by now and, as if in some drug-induced trance, meditated for a while on what a fantastic notion it might be if someone from every single country in the world had indeed come to London to start again and how the city was in turn blurring the very idea of nationality. But then I reached for another hobnob and realised that whilst still being peckish I had in fact exhausted my capacity for deep contemplation.
I asked Helder to tell me about music instead. Again, he was more than happy to oblige.
Helder’s dad was a tango champion but didn’t have access to musical instruments as a child. He therefore supported his son’s talent as soon as it became evident, helping Helder to start playing professionally when he was nineteen years old. Now forty eight, he told me he still has the enthusiasm he had then before proving it by scrambling around for a CD he’d recently recorded with the German saxophonist Ingrid Lanbrook, grabbing a series of drums and playing along. I watched in wonder.
After getting some miraculous noises out of something called an Ibo drum (which, in my hands, was simply a vase) he then stepped up to his beloved bongos and started to demonstrate how he’d become a better drummer when he’d learned to dance. I was just a tiny bit worried I’d have to join in but Helder seemed content to throw himself into the music while I sat on the sofa with my cup, saucer and notepad, feeling more British than at any other time during the project or my life.
But I wasn’t uncomfortable or embarrassed. This may well sound like an excruciatingly awkward situation but I was loving it. Helder was brilliant and when it was time to go I felt the same remorse as when you unexpectedly lose a bit of your twix. ‘I was enjoying that’, I thought, ‘but now it’s gone’. Thankfully, before I left he gave me the number of a man called Rey from Cuba – ‘one of the best double bass players there is’ – so I’m hoping there’ll be more to come. I really am in awe of musicians.
‘I believe in one thing’, he said as I headed back to my car, ‘and that’s nature’. I said thank you, waved and drove back round the edge of London to Chesham. I didn’t need to write down this final thought. I’d already scribbled the words ‘force of nature’ while he was talking and then underlined them when he was playing. I wouldn't forget.