Ronan’s pledge from the heart
RACHEL BANHAM Before coming to Blickling Hall later this month, Ronan Keating will be performing in Edinburgh for a Live 8 concert to push the 'Make Poverty History' message. He tells Rachel Banham why.
More than a year after he visited Ghana, the plight of the people he met and the injustice of it all still plays on Ronan Keating's mind.
A fair deal for Africa is the talk of the moment, with Live 8 and the crusade to 'make poverty history', but Ronan has seen the effects of an unfair system at first hand – and is keen to help change things.
“It's something that's close to me and really important to me,” he says.
“This is going to be massive. I don't think anyone realises how big it's going to be – and especially with people marching to Edinburgh for G8. If it's done properly it will all be incredibly powerful.”
While his contemporaries will be staging concerts in London's Hyde Park, France, Germany, Italy, America and Canada today, July 2, Ronan didn't need asking twice to perform next week's 'final push' concert in Edinburgh, saying simply “I was the one calling them saying 'I'm coming!'”
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It was a pledge from the heart. Travelling with Christian Aid, Ronan saw the damaging impact of international trade.
“I went out there to educate myself. I wanted to see what was going on because of free trade, how countries like Ghana are being affected and how fair trade can make a difference,” he says.
“It's very important that people don't mix them up. Free trade is what's happening at the moment – which is wrong. Fair trade is what these countries need – trade justice.”
Ronan was introduced to local chicken, tomato and rice farmers in Ghana and saw how hard it was for them to make a living. Christian Aid also showed him how imported goods were flooding the country, out-pricing local goods.
He met Victoria Adongo, who works for Christian Aid partner, the Integrated Social Development Centre (ISODEC). She invited him to her home to cook Jollof Rice using locally-bought ingredients. Most Ghanaians exist on less than £1.50 a day, leaving them no choice but to cook the dish with cheaper, subsidised produce imported from America or Europe.
The singer was particularly upset at the plight of Kofi, a former tomato farmer who used to be able to send his children to school and feed his family by selling his own tomatoes. When Ronan visited, he found Kofi now had no other option but to work in a local stone quarry for £1 a day.
That was in May last year, but time hasn't softened the memories.
“It's a crime,” Ronan says, and his voice, previously so personable with that familiar Irish lilt, becomes tinged with anger at the injustice of the situation. “A crime against humanity.”
While he's committed to his work for Africa, Ronan works equally hard for a cause close to home. We are speaking just days after he's completed Walk Ireland '05 – a trek of 361 miles to raise money for cancer charities.
“It was an amazing adventure. We walked for three weeks from the top of Ireland to the bottom,” Ronan recalls.
He and his fellow walkers were reported to have sustained blisters and muscle cramps. But if he's hurting today, it doesn't show. He's still on a high from the journey that took him from County Antrim's Giant's Causeway to Kinsale in Cork.
The first walk in 2003 raised more than £100,000 and this time it's already topped £100,000 – as money continues to come in.
Bucket cash collections took place in each town the team passed through. Funds taken in the Republic of Ireland will go to the Marie Keating Foundation – a charity set up in memory of his late mother – while money raised in Northern Ireland is destined for Cancer Research NI.
Ronan has come a long way since Boyzone, the pop quintet that shot him to fame. His first solo hit When You Say Nothing At All went to number one, and he also became known as a manager, through co-mentoring Westlife with Louis Walsh.
He's enjoyed album success solo too – from his debut Ronan in 2000 to 10 Years of Hits last month. It's difficult to believe that he's still only 28.
Yet, even now, it seems his life could hardly be busier. And he admits he's excited to be playing at Blickling later this month.
“I haven't done this outdoor festival stuff before really. I've done one-offs in the UK – but mainly in arenas. I'm really looking forward to coming over and playing,” he says.
“The atmosphere will be great. I think it's a family sort of show, and I'll get the chance to perform all the hits.”
Those songs are included on his current greatest hits CD – a collection of favourites including Tomorrow Never Comes, When You Say Nothing At All and Words. And, he says, there's more material to come.
“At the moment I'm making a new album. I've just finished my walk of Ireland and now I'm looking forward to focusing on this.
“I'm in the studio today and it's really nice to take time to make the album I want to make,” he adds, before explaining that he's also written most of the songs on it.
Since Ronan is arguably best-known for his cover versions – including Cat Stevens'/Yusuf Islam's Father and Son – those less familiar with his back catalogue may presume that's all he does.
But, in fact, he's been writing songs for years – he co-wrote tracks on his debut solo album as well as its follow-up, Destination, and had a hand in all but two of the songs on his 2004 CD Turn It On.
Much of the material on that release was personal – including First Time dedicated to wife Yvonne and This Is Your Song written for his late mother Marie – but it seems his next album could include even more self-penned material.
“I've been lucky to have 11 years. I've worked very hard and I haven't sat down much – that's why I've crammed so much in. But I enjoy what I do. I did at times work too hard but I've taken the time and I have my kids and my wife,” he says.
Ronan and model Yvonne have a son Jack, six, four-year-old daughter Marie and another baby on the way.
“I will continue to make albums and tour,” he adds. “And I love to do that.”
But whether his music plans will include a Boyzone reunion is uncertain.
“You never say never in life,” he says, at the suggestion of a get-together.
“I can't see it happening in the next couple of years – everyone is very happy with where they are. But you never know.”
What is clear that Ronan has an equally hectic time ahead of him in his personal and professional life. In addition to his growing family and forthcoming Norfolk show, charity work at home and abroad will doubtless feature highly on his schedule in the future.
But first he and his contemporaries have a more pressing aim – to make poverty history, for good.
t Ronan Keating plays Blickling on Sunday July 24 as part of the Summer Nights series of concerts. Tickets are £37.50 each. Call 0870 010 4900 or you can log on to: www.getlive.co.uk/shows/summernights.
t Ronan will be at Live 8 Edinburgh – 'the final push' on Wednesday, July 6, with artists including Bob Geldof, Annie Lennox, Travis, Texas, Sugababes, McFly, Youssou N'Dour, Snow Patrol, Midge Ure and African artists from Peter Gabriel's WOMAD. Visit: www.live8live.com
t He also supports Make Poverty History: www.makepovertyhistory.org
t Ronan Keating's album 10 Years of Hits, right, is out now. Link: www.ronankeating.com