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From a BBC office job to mixing with rock royalty, Fermanagh woman Jenny Cathcart's fascinating life and family ties...

Jenny Cathcart fell in love with Africa when she first travelled there as a BBC producer in the Eighties. She tells Una Brankin about her new book on the music of the continent, the tragedies which have beset her family, and famous people who've crossed her path

Out of Africa: Jenny Cathcart with her new book
Out of Africa: Jenny Cathcart with her new book
Sting and Trudi Styler
Former Call the Midwife actress Clare Cathcart
Notes On Africa, by Jenny Cathcart

By Una Brankin

Jenny Cathcart's no-nonsense father gave her good advice when she graduated from university in the mid-1970s with an obscure arts degree and no job prospects.

"Go off to London and do a secretarial course now," the Fermanagh Lakelands farmer and shopkeeper told his eldest daughter, who had excelled at the piano in her childhood.

Jenny duly enrolled in a college around the corner from the BBC headquarters in central London, where she landed her first office job. It was a route similar to those taken by many TV personalities in their early career days, from Gloria Hunniford to Christine Lampard, but Jenny was to gain prominence behind the camera.

"I remember running along one of the London bridges with pure joy after that," she recalls. "There was a sense of 'this is the place' - from here you can go everywhere. The corporation is completely different now of course but back then it was a wonderland to work in. So many opportunities."

The Mary Tyler Moore moment wasn't to last, but that first secretarial role led Jenny on a journey of discovery to the former French colony of Senegal in western Nigeria, a path which included two marriages to Sengalese men and an enduring friendship with the superstar Youssou N'Dour.

Best known here for his Seven Seconds chart-topping single with Nenah Cherry, the multi-millionaire was the subject of Jenny's biography Hey You! In 1989, and the focal point of her latest publication, Notes From Africa, subtitled A Journey Around the Continent in the company of Youssou N'Dour. The meticulously researched book covers the rise of African popular music over recent decades with portraits of its best-known stars, including the revered Fela Kuti, and gives a compelling insight into everyday life and cultures across the continent.

Jenny gave a talk on the book at the recent Halyfest in Donegal, where the mystery festival headliner turned out to be Van Morrison.

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"It was so nice - Van is in fact mentioned in Notes From Africa," she says. "Youssou and I were watching a video of Van's blistering performance of Caravan, in Martin Scorsese's film The Last Waltz, and Youssou remarked upon how Van sings from his stomach, just as he and the griots of West Africa do.

"The griots train to excel as orators, lyricists, singers and musicians. Some of today's high-profile musicians from West Africa, like Mory Kante from Guinea and Masour Seck from Senegal, come from traditional griot castes. Youssou could see Van's similarity right away."

Jenny has lived in Senegal on and off since her first trip there, as a BBC producer in October 1984, but she came home to Bellanaleck, five miles outside Enniskillen, in recent years to seek treatment for breast cancer and to look after her mother, following her stroke.

Jenny Cathcart with her husband Oumar Sow
Jenny Cathcart with her husband Oumar Sow

The wider Cathcart family has been touched by tragedy. Jenny's older brother, Arthur, is the father of the late actress Clare Cathcart, a star of the hit BBC series Call the Midwife, who died of an asthma attack in Brighton in 2014. And her younger sister, Marion, is married to John Maxwell, whose son Paul was killed with Lord Mountbatten on his fishing boat in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo in 1979.

Jenny credits the surgeon Glen Marshall, now a consultant at the Ulster Hospital, for his life-saving breast cancer treatment at the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen. She was home at the time to look after her mother, Emily, who originally came from Coleraine.

"Mum was very attached to me - she lost two baby boys before me, so she was glad I survived," says Jenny. "She went on to have another boy, Malcolm, the youngest of the family, whose wife, Rosemary, runs the Sheelin Lace museum.

"I ended up looking after mum in the last years of her life. She was 70 when she died; dad (George) died quite a few years ago, at 85. I was on a flight to Senegal when mum died in 2010. So many people have said to me that a mother often waits to be alone to die. She didn't want me to be there, I know it's true.

"She was a very creative person. She had my sister and I playing the piano very young. I won lots of prizes, including one at the Derry Fheis - I remember wearing a red velvet dress mum made, when I played the grand piano at the Guildhall and got my cup."

One of Jenny's earlier creative projects was a book on "village life before television", which she wrote as a gift to her parents.

Star appeal: Jenny Cathcart with Stevie Wonder
Star appeal: Jenny Cathcart with Stevie Wonder

"I had a very privileged childhood, not in terms of money but in the place I grew up in and my family," she explains. "Dad was from a Scottish Planter family of 10, mum was a Thornton from Coleraine.

"Dad was a pillar of the community and we had a very happy family life. We went on caravan holidays to Bundoran, and we picked flowers in the countryside and wrote poems.

"I'd go to my cousin's house and we'd listen to Radio Luxembourg and the hit parade and dance around the kitchen. I loved the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Carole King. And I remember crying over a Jacques Brel song.

"But it was a Ken Russell documentary on Elgar, which I saw when we got a TV, which made the biggest impression on me."

Jenny gave up the piano to concentrate on her three A-levels, which included French. She expanded her knowledge of the language when she took a year out from BBC secretarial work in London.

"I started off in the World Service, got bored and went to France for a year," she remembers.

Paul Maxwell while out fishing with Lord Mountbatten in 1979
Paul Maxwell while out fishing with Lord Mountbatten in 1979

"When poet Paul Muldoon was a producer at the BBC in Belfast, I was his secretary for while, then secretary to the controller in Kensington.

"After that, I was transferred to the Music and Arts Department - I was at home there. Although I had given up the piano, the lessons and performances had given me an ear for it, and for what's good and what's not. That came in useful."

As did her increasingly fluent French, when she set out with a BBC TV film crew in October 1984, on her first visit to Senegal, on the western tip of Africa. She recalls arriving in the sun-drenched seaport of Dakar and falling in love overnight.

Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen

The moment she arrived she fell under the spell of the Senegalese Teranga, the equivalent of the Irish Cead Mile Failte. So evident was this to her BBC colleagues that they began to refer to the country as Jenegal, not Senegal.

"They have the same welcome as the Irish - they call it Teranga, which is the equivalent of the Irish Cead Mile Failte. It's very much a cheidhl atmosphere. London was so anonymous in comparison. Then, I met Youssou, three days in."

Then 24, Youssou N'Dour was known as 'the Michael Jackson of Africa'. He is now Africa's best known musician, a multi-millionaire, a leading businessman and one-time presidential candidate. Most recently, he performed at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall last August, in a concert transmitted on BBC Four.

Youssou introduced the classical music leaning Jenny to African popular music. Through him and her subsequent work as a producer of TV programmes for the BBC series Rhythms of the World, she got to know leading musicians from all over the African continent and ended up managing some leading groups, including Orchestra Baobab and Cheikh Lo.

"Paul Simon's Graceland LP (1986), as I write in the book, was so important to the rising prominence of African music," she asserts. "Many artists had boycotted South Africa due to apartheid but Paul Simon was able to justify his visit with the music he put together there for that amazing album.

"It gave confidence to record companies to sign up African musicians. They suddenly had money, from record company advances, and they were getting to work with the likes of Peter Gabriel.

Jenny Cathcart with Youssou N’Dour
Jenny Cathcart with Youssou N’Dour

"Then with the success of Fela Kuti and Youssou, more American record companies moved to Africa.

"A few years after Graceland, the term 'World Music' was coined in London. That's when I got involved. I came to appreciate the importance of music as a vehicle for social commentary, cohesion and change."

Peter Gabriel is one of the more famous artists Jenny has met in her career, when she accompanied African musicians to recording sessions in his Real World studio and on tours to Europe and the USA. She has also met Stevie Wonder, Sting and his wife Trudi Styler, and Bruce Springsteen.

"I was just sitting opposite Bruce on a bus bringing artists to Wembley Stadium and I was totally in awe, but I wasn't in the least when I met Stevie Wonder," she laughs. "We met at a church service in LA and spent the day together, with his girlfriend. He's so funny and so touching.

"He asked me what I thought of the church service. I said 'Now I know where rock and roll comes from'. He let me hear his latest recording, which he hadn't issued yet. I was so aware of his handicap, but he totally transcends it when he's performing.

"And yes, I had lunch with Sting and Trudi in London. I remember playing with kids in the garden. Peter Gabriel had a gorgeous house in Chelsea. I remember Daniel Lanois came and chatted me up. He's the most amazing producer."

Jenny married her second husband, guitarist Oumar Sow, in Enniskillen in 2002. They had their reception afterwards in the Cathcart family home in Bellanaleck.

"When I brought my first husband back home, they were very shocked. Her must have been the only black person in Ireland at the time!

"We lived in London - he's still there. We got divorced and then I went to work with Youssou and met my second husband, Oumar Sow, who's a guitarist. But it's not easy with him there and me here."

George Cathcart's early advice to his daughter is still paying dividends. These days, she works part-time as a receptionist in a local hotel, while putting the finishing touches to her proposal for a programme, Africa Rising, on Africa and its resurgence in music, dance, fashion, a trend led by stars such as Alicia Keys and Beyonce, and the emergence of new young Nigerian musicians.

"There's a new rapport between African Americans and Africans, which is wonderful to see," she concludes.

"African beats and rhythms are on the map again, and it has been wonderful to bring African artists to Lusty Beg and Donegal for festivals. I live near the lakes and it's nice having my sister live just down the road but I'll probably spend my old age in Senegal. I fell in love with Africa a long time ago, and I love the sun and the heat. I feel so at home there, too."

  • Notes On Africa, by Jenny Cathcart, can be ordered in paperback, £9.99, or Kindle version, £4.41, via Amazon or downloaded through crowd-funding publisher Unbound by pledging at unbound.com/books/notes-from-africa

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