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Lost City

Interview: Bongo Bongo

24 February 13 interview: Al Needham
photos: Dom Henry

Sophie Johnson-Hill and Rebecca McGlone spend their time dancing with kids and living in a big cloth house under the guise of Bongo Bongo, children’s entertainers extraordinaire. They’re also about to release Incy Wincy Boom Box - possibly the best LP you’ll hear out of Notts this year...

How did Bongo Bongo get started? Did you know each other before?
Sophie: We were both studying Performing Arts at Clarendon in the late nineties. We always worked together - we had the idea of being the new French and Saunders - and then life got in the way and we drifted apart for a bit. Funnily, enough, it was children who brought us back together; I had kidlets and moved to Turkey for a while, and then my mum bumped into her, and rang me up and said, “Becks has got a bun in the oven.” And I thought, “awesome - let’s get back together.”

Rebecca: We were the earliest of our friends to have kids, so in 2009 we met up at the Playhouse, and decided that we both needed some pennies. Neither of us wanted a proper job, so we needed to start our own business.
Sophie: I’d had the Bongo Bongo name kicking about in my head for years without anything to attach it to, so when the idea of doing music with kids popped up, I said; “Yes! Let’s call it Bongo Bongo!”

Before the kids came along, Sophie, you were part of the OutDaville collective, who are now looked upon as a legendary lost group...
Sophie: I know, and it’s amazingly flattering. I hardly go out at the moment, but I was a gig with a few Out Da Ville members the other night, and was shocked to see people coming up to me and saying; “Wow, you’re Sophie from Out Da Ville! I love your stuff!” And I’m thinking, my God, this was a decade ago. 

With all the interest in the current music scene, it must be hard for people in that collective to see the opportunities the current generation have.
Sophie: Yes, but at that time there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no social media at all, which meant that if you had the right management it was so much easier to get
yourself noticed. Out Da Ville were really skilled, and they totally deserved to be played on Radio One, but there was much less competition. It’s so hard to stand out and be noticed these days.

Presumably, you can’t just set up and start things like Bongo Bongo. What hoops do you
have to jump through? 

Sophie: We didn’t know anything about setting up a business.
Rebecca: We couldn’t get any investment at all. The Arts Council was scaling back, we didn’t know who to apply to, so we did everything on a shoestring. We had the idea of a Bongo House, that we still use today, and the prototype was made out of scaffolding, with biroed-on drawings stuck to it. 

There must be extra complications when your business involves kids, surely?
Rebecca: Not in our case so much, as the parents are always there. We’re applied to be CRB checked - Criminal Records Bureau - and they told us; “No, don’t worry about it, there’s going to be parents there.” But we said; “No, we need to say to people that we’re CRB checked.”

You’ve got a proper team of people now. How long does it actually take to train someone to do what you do?
Sophie: It’s so hard to find people suitable to do this job; there are so many boxes they have to tick. 
Rebecca: Obviously, it really helps if they’ve had experience with children, either their own or with others. A performance background is important, but if you can’t pick up on why a certain child isn’t feeling so great or enjoying it, then you can’t really do this job.
Sophie: ...and a lot of that can’t be taught. You have to be on the child’s level.
Rebecca: We get a lot of feedback from the parents - they tell us which potential candidates are good, and who are struggling. 

As kid-friendly performers, who are your influences?
Sophie: Roald Dahl - I love his sense of the ridiculous. And Fraggle Rock.
Rebecca: A lot of parents tell us that they feel like they’re on the set of CBeebies, which is a massive compliment, because they do it right. It’s funny how children’s presenters have gone from the benevolent aunties and uncles of the seventies to the streetwise older brothers and sisters of today.

Do you have to be a certain age to be a Bongo Bongo member?
Rebecca: Not at all. We would love to have some older Bongoers.

And what about male staff?
Rebecca: We have one at the moment. We’d like more, but it’s hugely difficult to get them on board. Some children don’t have any kind of male influence in their life, which is terrible.

How do your own kids deal with you going off and, for want of a better word, mamphilandering?
Rebecca: It can be hard. They’ve all gone through a stage of being a bit jealous, which is totally natural. When my daughter Emily was two, she would look at other kids while I was dancing and say; “That’s my Mummy!” Now she acts like she’s one of the team.
Sophie: My little girl was three when we started, and she enjoyed it, but there was always an edge. We made the horrendous mistake of using their toys when we first started. We never did that again. The thing is, if we didn’t have kids ourselves, we’d be a lot further ahead with the business. But then again, we probably wouldn’t have done it in the first place.

The danger of working with kids is the fear of being the equivalent of those builders who sort out everyone’s house but their own. How do you deal with that?
Rebecca: We cry to each other (laughs). No, we make sure that the time we do have with each other is super special.
Sophie: You make sure that you do something important and fun with them every day, and end up working until 2am when they’re asleep. 
Do you ever catch yourself thinking “God, I wish I was in an office right now talking
about house prices, or anything remotely adult”?

Rebecca: No, but you find it hard to switch off. I’ll catch myself talking to someone adult, and then when they go I’ll shout; “Byyyyeeeeee!” (massive wave and grin)
Sophie: ...or picking up the phone and saying; “Hello! I’m Bongo Sophie!” and talking to potential sponsors and business partners like they were three-year-olds.

Incy Wincy Boom Box: when did you have the idea for that?
Rebecca: Right from the beginning. 
Sophie: We originally planned to do it ourselves, but then we thought, y’know, there’s such an amazing music scene here, and we know so many of them, so why don’t we ask around? 
Rebecca: We spent loads of time listening to nursery rhymes, trying to work out what style of music would work best for which song would go with them.
Sophie: The first person we got in was Karizma; he immediately understood what we were after.
Rebecca: When we asked The Smears to cover Here We Go Looby Loo, they were like; “What?”, and we said; “Yes! The Ramones would be all over that song!”
Sophie: And they’ve done such a spanking job on it.
Rebecca: You can’t pick out a favourite on the CD. It all depends on what mood you’re in.

So what’s the recording process been like? How much of a say have you had?
Sophie: Apart from selecting the songs, we’ve not needed to do anything else. These are all creative people. All we’ve said is do it in your own style, and no swearing. It’s been quite some feat to get twelve different tracks down, but the great thing about Nottingham is that when something interesting’s happening, people immediately pounce on it. Only one group didn’t want to work with us, but that was only because they were working on their own album for children, so fair enough. 
Rebecca: Without naming any names, we were actually approached by a pop star who had a few No.1’s in the nineties who wanted to get involved, but in the end we had to turn them down. It just wouldn’t have sat well with the rest of the CD.

What happens when the CD’s finished?
Rebecca: We move onto the next one. We’re going to continue this.
Sophie: We’ll be having a release party, obviously, which hopefully will raise a lot of
money and awareness for the Children’s Air Ambulance, who are going to be selling it
through their shops. We’ve got some exciting stuff lined up, but we don’t want to jinx it by
telling you. 

Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Sophie: We’d definitely like to thank Pirate’s Play Centre in Sherwood for all their help.
Rebecca: And we want the people of Notts to know that our freebie session is open to anyone with kids who wants to give Bongo Bongo a try. Even if they have absolutely zero intention of coming again, we don’t mind - it helps us spread the word. Visit our website and book online.
Sophie: And - I’m coming very close to the dictaphone now - if you want a job, you’re reliable, and you’re brilliant with kids, tell me.

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