‘FOR THE LOVE OF CYPRUS’ – HAJI MIKE INTERVIEW

Martha Lewis and Eve Polycarpou are organising a memorable evening of music and songs called ‘For the Love of Cyprus’, sharing their desire for unity and peace bringing people together to celebrate their roots, and love for Cyprus.
Martha and Eve are joined by British-Cypriot artists including Peter Polycarpou, star of stage and screen, Echo Wants Her Voice Back, folk noir with blues, Aydin Mehmet Ali, award winning author, Tahini Molasses, known as a Cypriot Goddess, singer/songwriter, Theo Lucas, pop/EDM singer/songwriter, Elena Hadjiafxendi, actress, singer and storyteller; and last but by no means least, Haji Mike who I caught up with in Nicosia last week for an interview.
Haji Mike needs very little introduction to audiences in Britain as he launched his career from London in the late 1980’s fusing Reggae and Cypriot sounds in his own unique way. He does however wear many different hats, including one he wears every year at graduation as Head of Department of Communications at The University of Nicosia, where he has been teaching and playing music on the side for several decades since he left London. Maybe that surprises a lot of people, that the person once known as ‘Mr Vrakaman’ is also an acclaimed academic and when I start asking the questions, I am not sure what to anticipate, because I am also one of his students in my third year of doing a Bachelor’s degree at the University of Nicosia. So it does feel different asking Professor Hajimichael the questions for a change!

Your focus on music is interesting given your culture. Can you talk about how you got into music, and why reggae specifically?
I got into music or music got into me in my teens, and by the time I went to university, after 1979, I was a DJ on campus radio station URE, which led to being a DJ at events. Reggae drew me in with its music and cosmic viewpoint. It provided me a worldview with which I could connect and agree, and then in 1990, I became more of a recording artist as Haji Mike.

Describe what it is you do musically, and what exactly makes the gigs in London so special?
In terms of music, I engage in a few different things: presenting a weekly radio show, spinning music at events, singing and MC-ing my older songs, and playing acoustic guitar. It all began in 1980 when I was a college student in a dorm room, strumming around on a guitar and penning a few tunes. I returned to it after a couple of decades and discovered an entirely different kind of inner voice – one that may have been there the whole time but that I had been unable to express properly. Things have come full circle, but now I have far more life experience and knowledge to draw on when I write songs. The city of London will always hold a unique place in my heart. Being back there feels like coming home since that is truly where my story began in so many ways.

You were born in Cyprus but raised in London. Which place feels most familiar to you?
Hard question to answer. I would say both but what’s familiar to you is also what you know and that’s so past tense. Sometimes I think about how things were in London, even before I knew it, how things were like say for Cypriots in the 1950s. The same applies to Cyprus. London has changed in so many ways, but then again so has Cyprus. If familiar is a case of where I feel most at home, I would say ‘both’ and ‘neither’ at the same time. I see myself more as a citizen of the world. Roaming free, wherever that’s possible from place to place, sharing music.

Eve Polycarpou and Martha Lewis are responsible for organising an entertaining evening of British-Cypriot talent, calling the event ‘For the Love of Cyprus’. What does this title mean to you?
‘For The Love of Cyprus’ is a crucial event. We come together because we believe in togetherness. That passion is central to our vision for Cyprus. It’s also vital because in everything we do, as British-Cypriot artists, we are simply saying we are here, we exist, so listen to something different that blends where we come from with where we are at.

How did you come to meet Martha and Eve?
Well Eve and Martha are partly responsible for me being who I am, because seeing them live for the first time, playing in such a prestigious venue like the Shaw Theatre in the West End back in 1988, was an inspiration. Back then, Cypriot women were often just backing singers so seeing these two women doing their thing and representing our common experiences was a revelation. Their voices bring me so much joy, and I consider them my long-lost soul sisters. They float gracefully, they convey our essence, our soul.

The show also marks 50 years since 1974 when Cyprus was invaded. Can you briefly elaborate on the situation and how it affects you culturally, but also musically?
I will never stop thinking about Cyprus, and if I do nothing to change the situation, I am essentially accepting it as it is. However, fifty years have passed, and it is critical to grasp all sides of the tale in order to realise that history did not begin and end in 1974. This path we’re on is shaped by music, poetry, and life on many levels: musically, culturally, politically, and emotionally. Either we go it alone, or we walk it together.

I also know that you are a professor at the University of Nicosia, and additionally the Head of the Communications department. Is it difficult juggling these two worlds of professor and musician?
I would say it used to be more difficult. The time I used to go to sleep after a performance in a club, became the time I would be waking up to take our kids to school. Becoming a full time academic started in 2000. I taught part time for a couple of years. I am lucky to have a job to pay the bills. Most musicians in Cyprus have to do other jobs because music alone might make you starve. I feel that’s improved a bit since the 1990s. In spite of this, being a musician is no picnic; there will be highs and lows, joy and sorrow, in any given situation. Sometimes, the two have been mutually supportive. Without a doubt, my background as an artist has shaped my approach to academia and the classroom.

Your online radio station ‘Koubebi’ has been rather successful, reaching over 9,000 listeners. How did its name come about and what are your goals for the future of ‘Koubebi’?
Koubebi started in April 2023. I am involved with numerous online stations in the USA, Nice Up Radio and Jamaica, Riddim 1 Radio, and I just wanted to start something in Cyprus that had the Mediterranean as its central focus. My goal is to keep on bringing people together through radio shows on Koubebi. We have DJs in Cyprus, Egypt, UK, Ireland and USA. The name came about through looking at a pot full of koubebia cooking on the stove – all cooking nicely together – it has an idea of solidarity to it. You can hear us at www.koubebi.com

What other plans have you got for 2024?
I have a gig in developing hopefully at The Bandshell, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, USA, that’s in the fall, sometime in September or October. In the meantime you can catch me at various venues and events in Cyprus happening over the summer. Academically, this is my last year before I retire, so there’s a couple of workshops to attend in Jordan and Bulgaria, and a new book to complete by the end of the year about songs and what they mean to us.

One last question, what are your thoughts on how a British audience responds to your music, and how does that differ from Cyprus’ audience?
My audience is the same, it’s an audience that understands Haji Mike. That however, is an audience that is based in Cyprus and Britain, and around the world. I am not sure though if it is so clear cut, as in is there is one audience? The importance of diverse audiences and their power has always resonated with me. That’s why my work incorporates a wide variety of musical styles, languages and life experiences.

For three nights only, this July, Haji Mike will be performing with Martha and Eve and a whole host of artists at ‘For the Love of Cyprus’, an evening of music and songs at Theatro Technis on 11th, 12th and 13th. For more information, visit the theatre’s website: www.theatrotechnis.com
What are you waiting for? Book those tickets!

Interview by Lia Amvrosiou

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