UFO tour to Tunisia and the Hammamet Carnival 2019
In my car stuck in traffic I’d heard a radio programme about how Tunisia is still struggling to rebuild its economy following the terror attack of 2014. Coming from Northern Ireland and having lived through ‘The Troubles’ this touched a raw nerve – for years no one came, and all news was bad news, and that hurt.
So when, only weeks later, we were contacted by an international carnival organiser whom we’d worked with previously, it was easy to say ‘yes’ to the invite to take the band to Tunisia. Besides, Mohamed Doukali our amazingly talented, kind and helpful guest player - and pan tuner - is half Tunisian. Mo was up for it, so UFO made plans.
We set off with 14 pannists (two having joined us from Switzerland) and a nine song set, taught diligently by UFO’s ever patient arranger Jason Constantine. It was mid March, and we’d been eagerly watching the weather which sadly seemed somewhat British when we arrived at Tunis Carthage Airport... wet, windy and cool. But the welcome we received from the Tunisian people immediately made it all worthwhile.
Our first gig in the hotel’s leafy courtyard was cancelled due to the rain and replaced by Jason’s boot camp rehearsal session… and this is where our holiday really began. The experience of being out of the panyard, out of our usual positions and in a different land, was valuable and exciting – we finished song No. 10, ready for performance and UFO were ready to go.
Our first real gig was in our second hotel – a 5* in the main resort of Hammamet – on stage in a huge conference hall – facing rows of formal seats.
Having seen Swiss band Funland Serenaders perform at the Tabernacle 5 years earlier I’d loved how the band had started their set – with the Star Wars Theme tune and one player taking the stage at a time, building into a fantastic crescendo. Paul Francis had introduced the band, linking them as family members and friends - it was personal and fun, and made for a great audience experience. So the lucky chance for an afternoon ‘staging’ rehearsal was full of hysterical laughter from UFO as we attempted emerging section by section from a small dark side room stage left…. drum and bass, then guitars, seconds then tenors. It was easy to get into showtime character given we were wearing either long red dresses and flower fascinators or blue shirts and red sequinned hats (which were somewhat objected to by a few tenors when spotted being packed into a guitar case back in London.) Now in Tunisia, all inhibitions disappeared, and UFO fully embraced giving the audience a great show.
It helped having tenor player - actor Colin Salmon’s - pro narration… he introduced us by name and country, and out of London, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Manchester and Trinidad it was “Mohamed from Tunisia” that brought the biggest cheer… a fellow Tunisian playing this beautiful instrument that made wonderful music? People loved that!
Children danced at the front but adults sat quite formally moving feet and clapping hands a little. But we soon got the vibe that they loved it... at the end mothers stormed the stage bringing children for selfies with the band, and asking genuine questions about the instruments. We worked as a team to help include the audience, and show them (mostly in sign language or bad GCSE French) how steelpans work.
The sun came out, the sky turned blue, and we played hotel gigs daily – outdoors by the pool, in the atrium with wonderful acoustics, and in reception. With 7 costumes each (tightly packed in ‘hand luggage only’) our efforts to look fresh and different for each gig was really appreciated.
The highlight of the tour was playing Hammamet Carnival on an open truck. Luckily the weather was beautiful… clear and sunny but not too hot. The carnival was well organised and laid on for the Tunisian people, who lined the streets smiling. In the parade was a combination of local acts including astounding young martial artists who high leg kicked most of the route. There were all varieties of acts and large animated floats, to dance troupes from Indonesia, a walking jazz band from Spain, folk singers from Slovakia, pipe musicians from Algeria. The colour and variety was stunning, but the best thing was the warmth and love extended to us from the Tunisian people who blew kisses and made little heart signs with their hands to show their appreciation of our soca, played by 14 UFOs who just couldn’t stop smiling.
We played for 2.5 hours nonstop, and as the route moved along the coast past turquoise sea and camels on the beach, everyone in the band felt enormously thankful to be in Tunisia. UFO would return in a heartbeat. We learned so much, we had so much fun, and we loved the experience. All we can say is thank you Tunisia.
by Fiona Hawthorne