Jazz Warrior, Junglist, Educator, Innovator… Hackney born ‘n’ bred… Cleveland Watkiss returns to his roots and the music that shaped his youth…
It has to said that whenever I hear that a friend, or anyone else for that matter, is poised to do over a brace of reggae classics from the Seventies and early Eighties I’m struck with a serious bout of trepidation. So, when my good friend and collaborator, Cleveland Watkiss, declared he was set to rework a host of tunes, live and in the studio, that I’ve played in their original format hundreds of times, I was like… “Awoahhh!”
I deejayed at the very first “The Great Jamaican Songbook’ gig and got a solid idea of where Cleveland was heading with this project and he was clearly intent on hitting up classics from Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Delroy Wilson, Junior Byles, Prince Lincoln, Bobby Melody and Burning Spear. Yes, that’s right, the warrior was poised to step into the shoes of some of the greatest singers ever… and he was loving the idea.
Cleveland grew up in Hackney. This is the music of his teens… the music that he and his bredren would have listened to at Brooke House school and would have picked up shops like R&B in Stamford Hill, Count Shelley’s on the High Road, Regal records on Lower Clapton Road or Music City in Ridley Road – where the outside speakers would punch these tunes out to shoppers engaged in the hustle and bustle of the market on a Saturday.
Similarly these were the tunes he would have heard via Fatman Hi Fi or Sir George or the sound men playing clubs like Four Aces, Phebes or Noreik. It was therefore natural for Cleveland, as an aspiring singer to find himself in studios like Easy Street dropping vocals on lovers tunes, sharing the mic with singers like Carol Thompson.
I punched The Great Jamaican Songbook cd into the player as I was cooking and pretty quickly found myself rocking along to the fat, solid bass lines and rewinding tunes to re-listen to the harmonies or the way Cleve had negotiated a particular melody. The thing is, Cleveland is a great singer. He has spent decades honing his craft. He has invested years studying the vocalese of the jazz masters – male and female – plus he has done backing vocals with the Who, Bjork and Stevie Wonder as well singing in operas! He is a master improvisor, he loves his technology and he knows how to listen.
The one thing about Jamaica is it has produced a flood of truly unique voices. Rock steady produced an array of vocal groups schooled on R&B and doo-wop from the States… the spirit of Curtis Mayfied and the Impressions loomed large! Harmonies… you have to love the harmonies of the Techniques, the Uniques, the Paragons… think Slim Smith, Pat Kelly, John Holt… and then you have the rootical combinations like the Wailers, Gladiators, Congos, Israel Vibration, Mighty Diamonds, Earth and Stone… the list goes on. Voices.. unique voices … nobody sounds like Gregory Isaacs or Dennis Brown at their peak… and definitely not like Burning Spear.
From the opening salvo of Gregory’s ‘If I Don’t Have You’ with its guitar licks, wikkid horns, edgy rockers drumbeat, rolling bass line and female harmonies you immediately recognise you’re in for a treat. Cleveland is clearly relaxed. This music… these songs are in his DNA and you feel instantly he’s enjoying the session. Jamaica provided him with the template and as with other UK reggae artists before him he’s totally at home gently extending that template, investing the skills that he and his his fellow musicians have honed in the decades that have elapsed since this music first hit the street.
His take on Junior Byles’ Scratch produced classic ‘Curly Locks’ is delivered as a sweet, minimalist lovers rock with nice keys from Phil Ramacon and I’ve always loved the line “your daddy is a pork chop”! I was thrilled that he’s taken on Bobby Melody’s always uplifting ‘Jah Bring I Joy In The Morning’ and his vocal range is more than a match for the original. Delroy Wilson’s ‘What Is A Man’ originally came out a Count Shelley 7″ and has great horns… Ray Carless (the don), Byron Wallen (trumpet /mystic) , James Wade (trombone). The horn arrangement (courtesy of Jason Yarde – another don!) seems to offer a bridge to New Orleans while Cleve’s sing-jay style meets U Roy. It’s followed by another Delroy classic,… ‘Cool Operator’… and as with ‘Only A Smile’ Cleveland is totally convincing as the penniless singer looking for love.
‘Babyon Too Rough’ offers up some lovely vibraphone courtesy of his long time spar Orphy Robinson and on the back of this album I can’t wait for Orphy to revisit the music on Lennie Hibbert’s Studio One LPs. D. Brown’s ‘Only A Smile’ features a languid bass line from Delroy Murray and some deft touches on guitar from Alan Weekes. Prince Lincoln of the Royal Rasses was another unique singer and ‘Humanity’ is given a new lease of life here. Before finishing the set with a smoking, hot stepping version of Burning Spear’s ‘Red Gold And Green’… respect to the bass-man and drummer Carl Robinson… Cleveland slides into Gregory’s ‘Night Nurse’ accompanied by some lovely trombone from James Wade.
Of all the singers who delivered the original songs on the album only the majestic Burning Spear is still with us. All in all, Cleveland’s homage to the Great Jamaican Songbook has just added another classic to the cannon of reggae music produced in the UK that boasts not only consistently great vocal performances but some wikkid musical touches, This is an album he can be deeply proud off.
Here’s some summer reading if you fancy dropping into the genre of the crime thriller… but crime thrillers with a twist… there’s always a twist!
Basically, thrillers keep me reading. It feels good to keep the pages turning. To say I’m a fan of Walter Mosley would be a definite understatement. I live in constant anticipation of the next episode in the turbulent lives of Easy Rawlings or Leonid McGill or Socrates Fortlow and having just watched the AppleTV rendering of the The last Days of Ptolemy Grey, starring Samuel L Jackson and the excellent Dominique Fishback, I am further convinced of Mosley’s genius. However, the recent arrival on the scene of S. A. Cosby has presented us with a potential contender to the throne.
My first encounter with Cosby was Blacktop Wasteland. The writer drops us into the deep South … rural Virginia… and introduces us to a black ex con, Beauregard aka ‘Bug’ who is running a repair shop, trying to keep the wolves from the door and feed his family. Bug is an astute and good man but well capable of turning up the violence notch when necessary. As fans of the genre we all know shit happens especially when the option of staying on the straight and narrow suddenly vanishes. We enter the Bug’s world via an illegal car race and when he agrees to be the driver on one last heist we are rapidly drawn into into the land of trailer parks, small towns and confederate flags where the odds against a black man succeeding in a legit business are still stacked. Buckle up for the ride.
I waited nigh on a year for Cosby’s next book – Razorblade Tears– and I was not disappointed. A Black father. A white father. Two ex-cons and two murdered sons. We return once more to the deep south where S. A. Cosby resides. Ike Randolph has been out of jail for fifteen years, with not so much as a speeding ticket but after his son Isiah has been murdered – along with Isiah’s white husband, Derek – he is devastated. The police are not interested and Ike crosses the racial divide to unite with Derek’s father, Buddy Lee (you get the picture!) in order to seek revenge. The love they have for their sons forces them to confront their own ingrained homophobic and racial prejudices as they hunt down and rain vengeance upon those who killed their boys. Radical retribution and maybe even redemption.
Not surprisingly, Razorblade Tearsnotched up ’nuff acclaim and awards and if you’re a bit of a completist like myself you can check out Cosby’s first novel, My Darkest Prayer to see how the man’s work has evolved.
After chatting with a good friend and enthusing about S.A. Cosby he casually informed that all his recent reading consisted of African crime novels, all written African writers. Boom! After he’d hit me up with a couple of recommendations I was off and running.
First up, Making Wolf by Tade Thompson. This book is based on a London based supermarket/store detective – Weston Koji – returning home, to a fictional country in West Africa, for a funeral. After a few beers he starts telling people that he is with the London Met and is a homicide detective. In the blink of an eye he’s been kidnapped by a psychotic former school friend and member of the Alcacia Liberation Front (LFA). Weston is commissioned to investigate the death of Enoch ‘Pa’ Busi, a respected diplomat trying to broker peace between the the rebel factions. Ironically, our hero is subsequently forced to work for the LFA’s rivals – the rebel army of Our Lord’s Forces – to do exactly the same. With the threat of a Civil War looming, Weston enlists the help of an ex-girlfriend, Nana, in order to negotiate a path through the threats and the violence to prevent the country going up in flames. Making Wolf was a definite winner and paved the way for what was to come.
Easy Motion Tourist – a title lifted from a classic Rolling Dollar song – is Leye Adenle‘s award winning debut novel. An out of his depth British journalist, Guy Collins, gets embroiled in a gruesome murder that takes place outside a Lagos night club frequented by wealthy Lagosians and ex-pats. His saviour is Amaka, a woman who works under cover, devoting herself to the protection of the city’s working girls. In return for her assistance she expects the journo to deliver a story in the foreign press that will bring global attention to her campaign against the people traffickers and body-parts smugglers. It’s a seriously risky business and, as to be expected, the Nigerian mega-city throws up a quite a cast of shady, deranged and dangerous characters, from whom there appears no chance of escape.
I quickly moved on to Adenle’s follow up When Trouble Sleeps which is now subtitled an An Amaka Thriller. Our ‘oyibo’ journalist is now back in London and makes but a fleeting appearance. Amaka Mbadiwe – the self-appointed saviour of Lagos’ sex workers – is back with a vengeance and poised to pull back the curtain on the seedy underbelly of Lagos. When a plane crash kills the state gubernatorial candidate, the party picks a replacement who is assured of winning the election: Chief Ojo. However, Amaka knows the skeletons that lurk in Chief Ojo’s closet. She is the only person standing between Chief Ojo and election victory, and inevitably Amaka is caught in a deadly game of survival, against a backdrop of political corruption, sex, sleaze and violence. Top stuff!
Femi Kayode’s debut novel –Lightseekers – won the 2019 UEA Crime Writing prize and takes us down another path. Dr Philip Taiwo, is a professor in investigative psychology, who has recently returned from the US to his hometown of Lagos. He has just completed his PhD research on mob lynching in America. Little does he know that he is poised to be embroiled in a notorious incident, dubbed by the Nigerian media as the Okriki Three. This tragic incident involves three middle class university students being accused of stealing and after having been bludgeoned near to death by a mob of townsfolk they are burnt alive. Documented on smartphones and uploaded onto social media platforms the lynching inevitably goes viral, sparking a nationwide condemnation of the mob violence. Dr Taiwo is approached by a one of the grieving parents and asked to seek out the truth behind the incident and investigate “why what happened, happened”.
Upon accepting the mission our intrepid psychologist, armed with his expertise in analysing crowd violence, sets out for the small university town of Okriki to investigate. The question is, how does one allocate blame when a murder is committed by a crowd of people, especially when it is — “a unified force rallying behind a crime initiated by one, covered by all”.
As it evolves his journey is fraught with danger. There’s an uncooperative local police force, hostile townsfolk and university fraternities/secret cults. With the assistance of his streetwise “research” assistant – the quick-witted Chika Maruochi — the duo are determined to get to the bottom of what starts to reek of a pre-meditated crime.
Lightseekersis a complex tale with a tension-filled narrative. It highlights the realities of living in modern day Nigeria within a volatile political landscape, where wealth and poverty reside side by side, resulting in an ongoing menacing military presence, and deep seated corruption that feeds an underworld, where drugs, weapons and murder are the norm. Lightseekers is an intense and intriguing read.
As part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations the Nu Civilisation Orchestra led by pianist /composer Peter Edwards took to the stage at the QEH to deliver Duke Ellington’s legendary ‘The Queen’s Suite’ alongside a suite of brand new compositions inspired by the Duke.
ALL Nu Civilisation Orchestra QEH photography by Graeme Miall / Tomorrow’s Warriors
As part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee runnings Tomorrow’s Warriors presented the Nu Civilisation Orchestra at the QEH last Friday night. The mission: to explore a selection of Duke Ellington compositions including the once legendary ‘The Queen’s Suite’. The suite – which is in six parts – was co-written with Billy Strayhorn and was inspired by Ellington’s meeting with Queen Elizabeth II at an arts festival in Leeds in 1958. It’s a deep story.
Various reports from that time confirm the Duke was indeed a charmer and after the 22 year old Queen expressed some regret at not being able to check his gigs on that tour the band leader / composer’s face broke into a huge smile. He declared, “In that case, your Majesty, I’d like to write a very special composition for you—a real royal suite.”
From Christopher Carroll’s piece in Lapham’s Quarterly I discovered the following: In the wake of the recording of ‘The Queen’s Suite’ a master was prepared and a gold disc issued privately to the royal family. An agreement between Ellington and his producer, Irving Townsend ensured Ellington retained the rights to release the entire Suite at a later date. Eventually Ellington reimbursed Columbia $2,500 in production costs to buy the suite back from Colombia. Acccording jazz scribe Gary Giddins, hardly anyone outside of Ellington’s inner circle knew of ‘The Queen’s Suite’ until two years after his death in 1974. It was released posthumously, along with two other suites, by Norman Granz and in 1976 ‘The Ellington Suites’, released on Pablo records, notched a Grammy!
Appropriately, the 15 piece Nu Civilisation Orchestra kicked off the evening with a tribute to another queen… the piece was entitled ‘Royal Majesty – A Portrait Of Ella Fitzgerald Part 1’. It was great to see and hear Gary Crosby back onstage and holding down the bass seat. The man would clearly not have had it any other way. He has vivid memories of being presented with The Queen’s Medal for Music by HM herself and being told of her passion for both Ellington and acoustic instruments. Word is that her father, George VI had snapped up a few LPs by the Duke , and it’s well known that ‘Take The A Train’ and ‘People Will Say We’re In Love’ propelled the young queen and her Prince onto the dance floor more than once .
‘Royal Majesty’ set the scene and allowed both the band and the overall sound to settle. The piece was followed by a suite in four parts written by Peter Edwards. It was called ‘Above and Beyond The Horizon’. Inspired by Ellington’s hugely expansive and finely tuned repertoire of compositions he had boldly applied his own composing skills to craft a tantalising set of compositions that were inspired by the natural world, by nature and the elements. We went from ‘Evening Song’ to ‘Raindrops’ to ‘Thunder Claps and Lightning Strikes’ to eventually arrive at ‘Morning Song’. It was an evocative journey that won the elegant conductor and composer an approving wave of warm applause.
It’s been a while since I’d been immersed in the sound of a big band and in that concert hall setting, free from chatter and other distractions, you can’t help but be pulled into the swirling orbit of its instrumentation and the complex, constantly shifting arrangements. It was one of my fellow travellers who described the experience as immersive and surprisingly meditative.
The second set burst into life with the ‘Tattooed Bride’ an Ellingtonian masterpiece from way back in 1948. Initially composed as an 11-minute jazz symphony divided into four sections it took us on a journey of contrasts…. mood, tempo and dynamics… and delivered memorable solos from Mebrakh Houghton-Johnson on clarinet, Rosie Turton on trombone and Peter Edwards on piano. Props has also got to go to Rod Youngs on drums… the man shone, not just on this piece, but throughout the whole gig.
That session took us into ‘The Queen’s Suite’ . Reading from Ellington’s autobiography, Peter Edwards, homed in on the Duke’s own words to illuminate the location and the inspiration for the varying pieces in the suite. At the heart of ‘The Queen’s Suite’ is ‘The Single Petal of a Rose’, rightfully regarded as one of the most beautiful and personal melodies Ellington ever wrote. On this night, as on the recording, it sat in the warm embrace of compositions that represented different musical landscapes — a grove full of fireflies, a mockingbird singing at sunset, the Northern Lights — all experienced by Ellington on his travels around the world and, apparently, representing some of the most moving moments of his life.
The set followed the order of the album… ‘Sunset and the Mocking Bird’, ‘Lightning Bugs and Frogs’, ‘Le Sucrier Velours’, ‘Northern Lights’ ‘The Single Petal of a Rose’ and, finally, the wild ‘Apes and Peacocks’ which was inspired by the Queen Of Sheba. The original recordings ran to around 20 minutes and the Nu Civilisation orchestra kept it tight but with some stunning solos. Big respect to Denys Baptiste, Maddy Coombs, Lewis Daniel , Rosie Turton, Joe Bristow, Kurt Mayling, Mebrakh Houghton-Johnson and Gary Crosby.
‘The Queen’s Suite’ is deep and the Nu Civilisation Orchestra rose to the challenge conjuring up an enthusiastic and deeply appreciative vibe from the audience. Listening to pieces there were moments when I felt like I was hearing Sun Ra without the more abstract avant-garde solos of Marshall Allen, John Gilmore or Danny Ray Thomson. That said, why not? Both Ra and the Duke were two master musicians who retained their big bands long after the demise of that era. Reflecting on the set, there was moment right at the end of the night, after a blazing tenor solo from Denys Baptiste, that I suddenly thought Rhiannon Jeffreys, who’d helped anchor the sound of the orchestra all night on baritone sax and bass clarinet, was gonna jump in and bust that baritone solo…. a wild Harry Carney or a bootin’ Danny Ray Thompson would have rocked the house. Sadly, it didn’t transpire… discipline prevailed! That said, a session was had and I shall now dust off some of some of the Duke Ellington LPs that I’ve shamefully neglected.
References: Harvey G. Cohen – Duke Ellington’s America / Duke Ellington’s Autobiography – Music Is My Mistress / Gary Marmorstein – The Label: The Story of Columbia Records / Christopher Carroll – Lapham’s Quarterly
Braving an icy wind on a December Saturday morning… a new generation of jazz-orientated musiciansdefied that late sleeping, nighthawk stereotype and gathered on the Southbank to add to the lexicon of photos inspired by Art Kane’s legendary Great Day In Harlem. Later that evening those same musicians gathered under the Tomorrow’s Warriors banner at the QEH to celebrate 30 years of activism and dedication to the collective musical exchange that resides at the heart of this thing called Jazz. It was indeed heartical!
Photography by Steve Leigh aka Steve Funkyfeet / Tomorrow’s Warriors
As this story is all about a continuum, let’s begin with the London jazz scene post WW2. Caribbean born musicians like Joe Harriott, Coleridge Goode, Ernest Ranglin and Shake Keane were all incredibly active and hugely influential in the post Windrush era. These musicians, along with a community of players from West Africa… mostly Ghana.. and later South Africa paved the way for a new generation to emerge. They would become known as the Jazz Warriors.
It was during the mid Eighties that a collective of young black Londoners surfaced to blaze a radical new path. The Jazz Warriors were schooled on reggae, soul and funk. Formed out of Abibi Jazz Arts in 1985 they regularly came together in the Atlantic in Brixton in order to pursue the way of jazz… and hone their skills. The Jazz Warriors produced their one and only album, ‘Out Of Many, One People’ in 1987 and the opening track of ‘In Reference to Our Forefather’s Fathers Dreams’ still sounds as majestic today as it did the first time I heard it. That LP introduced the nation to the talents of Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson, Orphy Robinson, Cleveland Watkiss, Ray Carless, Alan Weekes, Philip Bent, Julian Joseph, Rowland Sutherland, Adrian Reid, Claude Deppa, Harry Beckett, Kevin Robinson, Michael and Mark Mondesir, and Gary Crosby. What a crew and I’m honoured that many of these players featured in the pages of Straight No Chaser… the “designer fanzine” that we launched in the summer of 1988.
It was one of the original Warriors, bassist Gary Crosby, who along with Janine Irons, was to build on the experiences of his generation and launch Tomorrow’s Warriors. That was in 1991. It began with a weekly jam session at the Jazz Cafe and the concept evolved to offer “a pioneering, comprehensive programme of learning and training throughout the year which, in particular, champions and supports young people from the African diaspora, girls and those whose financial or otherwise challenging circumstances would tend to lock them out opportunities to pursue a career in the music industry – 100% free at the point of access.”
“I know there are young people from a similar background to me who, if given the opportunities, can create great art. It’s not curriculum style, because what we are dealing with is art. the individuals are artists, I want to hear what they have got to say.” Gary Crosby.
The Great Day In London celebration at the QEH was to do exactly that. The place was buzzing with youth who all seemed to carrying instruments… from drum sticks to a tuba.to a basson! Bucket hats carried the swing. The place was alive with greetings and enthusiastic conversations… it was like the flood gates had opened after those strict Covid rules and long periods of enforced isolation.
It was down to the Junior Band to kick the show off with ‘Oyinbo’. It was genuinely touching to witness Gary Crosby – not long recovered from a stroke – on the bass. It was a master and apprentice vibe as the understudy looked on and took in the rhythm Gary that was laying down before being handed the instrument to continue the piece. The impact on the audience of 13 year old Nahuel Angius-Thomas on bassoon was immediate. His sound was deep! As their set progressed flautist Keira Chakrobarty, trumpet player Fin Hori-Ohrstrom and pianist Kyle Osbourne were joined by the mighty duo of Shabaka and Theon Cross. At the back of the stage excellent young drummer Nico Sargese was joined by Tom Skinner on another kit. The energy and intensity reached another level that was felt throughout the room. ‘Inner Babylon’ was deep ‘n’ funky.
Next up came a 10 piece ensemble by the name of the Soon Come orchestra. ‘Thank You’ by Sultan Stevenson was an angular complex composition and they carried it off with confidence and finesse. Zara McFarlane’s ‘I Am Warrior’ followed and the three vocalists, including Zara, were more than ably accompanied by the likes of Camilla George on alto.
The next set came from Female Frontline, five bold young women who homed in on Jeff’ Tain’ Watts’ ‘Autumn Leaves’. The quintet were eventually joined by Tomorrow’s Warriors alumni, Binker Golding, Moses Boyd and bassist Alex Davies. What a treat! Binker has a tremendous presence on tenor and his rapport with Moses – his regular co-p – wrapped around their fellow musicians and pushed the music to new heights. Once more, I was loving the energy and power of two drummers and seeing Birmingham based Romana Campbell breaking into a huge smile as she locked in with Moses was a joy to behold.
The Violet Room All Stars united the tenors of Shabaka, Nubya Garcia and Ruben Fox with the alto of suited and booted Nathanial Facey and the trumpet of Kokoroko’s Sheila Maurice Grey. Shirley Tetteh shone on guitar and props goes to Hamish Nockles-Mooe on bass. ‘Sonny Rollins’ Tenor Madness’ was pure old school and I have to say that this homage to the age of tuff tenors and the easy snappin’ rhythmic pulse of those smokey late night 40s/50s clubs felt real good.
Nu Troop should need no introduction and while Gary Crosby held down the bass slot over two compositions – ‘Greater Love’ and ‘Wee’ – the interplay between a front line that featured Jason Yarde, Nathaniel Facey and Deny Baptiste was supa-chilled. They looked like they were having a real good time.
Pics Above: Cherise + Nubya Garcia
A duet between our compere, Cherise, and pianist Jonah Gumbley resulted in a stirring version of ‘Round Midnight’. It paved the way for the stage to be occupied… rammed to capacity with 20+ musicians. Led by vibe controller/conductor, Binker Golding, the Soon Come Orchestra delivered that final blast of words, sound and power that would send most of the audience off into the night. Composed by Denys Baptiste, the finale was appropriately titled ‘Warriors Rise’. That said, the partying in the foyer did continue with an endless queue of Warriors desperate to play on the “jam session” stage…. and, on reflection, having spent a few hours earlier in the week soaking up the excellent Life Between Islands exhibition at Tate Britain and and several hours in the QEH … I’d say that London is the place to be.
This radical and essential show at Tate Britain builds on the momentum ofthe Black Lives Matter Movement and will hopefully prove as educational and as popular as the hugely successful Soul Of A Nation.
It’s midday on an icy Monday in early December and I’m meeting fellow scribe Andy Thomas for the press viewing of Life Between Islands: Caribbean British Art 1950s – Now. Still buzzing from Theaster Gates’ Clay Sermon’ at the Whitechapel, a few days earlier, my hopes were high.
Little did we know it but we were about to be blown away, room after room, by one of the most finely tuned and deftly curated shows I’ve seen in a long time. In the words of its curator – photographer, writer, curator, lecturer and cultural facilitator – David A Bailey MBE: “Although several years in the making, this exhibition has an additional sense of urgency in the wake of protests in support of Black Lives Matter and the Windrush scandal. These events have forced a national reckoning with British history, challenging institutions to rethink the stories they tell and the communities they represent.”
Life Between Islands‘ is broadly chronological show. The powerful content, which spans painting, sculpture, photography, film and fashion is constructed around different themes which embrace “the culture of decolonisation, the socio-political struggles that British-Caribbean people face, the social and cultural significance of the home, the reclaiming of ancestral cultures and the cross cultural nature of Caribbean and diasporic identity”.
The Afro Caribbean population in the UK have consistently battled against a hostile racist environment built on negative stereotypes and historical ignorance. A succession of Governments have failed to recognise the contribution of a community that has created a unique and distinctly Caribbean-British culture – a culture that has had a massive influence on modern Britain as a whole. This show is testimony to several generations of artists, practitioners, who have dedicated themselves to their practice despite discrimination and limited access to cross cultural spaces. I will never forget inviting a Gloucester based sound system to play at the art college in Cheltenham in the early Seventies. After stringing up the set, several young box boys were stood looking at the fish pond outside the refectory. They had entered another world and one quietly asked me, “Can black people come here?” It was good question.
There are a host of names in this exhibition that I’m sure many people are familiar with – Frank Bowling, Steve McQueen, Peter Doig, Isaac Julien, Dennis Morris, Michael McMillan, Liz Johnson Artur, Lubaina Hamid (currently exhibiting at Tate Modern), Horace Ové, Zak Ové, Charlie Phillips, Pogus Caesar – but there a lot excellent artists here, many of whom are women, about whom I know nothing. That fact in itself is speaks volumes.
Our journey begins with Arrivals and those invited, in the wake of WW2, to the UK under the 1948 British Nationality Act. It was an invitation to “citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies” to “return to the mother country” and as writer George Lamming pointed out, that despite arriving from different islands with different identity’s and cultures in the Caribbean, “we became West Indian in London”.
This group of visual artists forged new paths. They found natural allies with others from the Caribbean whether writers or activists. Frank Bowling arrived from Guyana after doing National service in the RoyalAir Force. After studying at Chelsea School of Art he won a scholarship to the Royal College Of Art where his fellow students included David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones and R.B. Kitaj. Bowling’s dedication to abstraction has more in common with Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane than the pop art of his contemporaries and the large abstract canvasses at this show sees him directly introducing references to to his African and Caribbean roots. It was genuine treat to see Frank’s long overdue retrospective at the Tate pre Lockdown.
As we progress through the space we next meet PRESSURE and a group of artist whose work confronted British racism head on. Black Power was on the rise in the late Sixties and Seventies and is well documented in the artworks here. There are photos of Stokely Carmichael, James Baldwin and Darcus Howe addressing a Mangrove protest. There are Neil Kenlock’s Black Panther school bags. There is the celebration of hard won spaces whether the West Indian Front Room, reimagined by Michael McMillan, Liz Johnson Artur and Grace Wales Bonner, or a painting of a Jah Shaka Sound System session. This was an era of resistance. There was the era of SUS, the New Cross Fire, the explosion at Carnival in ’76 and the ’81 riots that blazed in every major city in the UK. Make sure you sit through Isaac Julien’s Territories. Take your time. Let the works sink in. .
The Ghosts Of History rooms introduce us to the works of the Black Arts Movement of the Seventies and Eighties. They confront the legacy of slavery, colonialism and migration and the ongoing stereotyping, the demonisation, of a people, a community, whether in the media or through the state and policing. This work pulls no punches, it hits hard and it needs to for people outside the black community to realise just how invasive and consistently insidious it is.
Caribbean Regained: Carnival and Creolisation carries us across the Atlantic. Caribbean Regained: Carnival and Creolisation carries us across the Atlantic. Here, we find ourselves at the global crossroads. These artists are working with the African cultural and religious retentions while exploring the impact of the cultures of the indigenous peoples and the practices of the indentured labourers from India and China. They take us to the roots of Carnival… of masquerade and shine a bright light on collective resilience. Look no further than Zak Ové’s evocative sculptures.
Also worth spending time with are Peter Doig’s paintings – a collaboration between the Trinidad based Scottish-Canadian painter and the Nobel Prize winning poet Derek Walcott from St Lucia. As we progress to the final chapter Past, Present, Future we witness a new generation of artists building the foundations laid by previous generations. They embrace creative multi-disciplinary and collective approaches to critiquing and furthering the struggle against the ongoing consequences of this country’s slave owning and colonial past. Past, Present, Future reminds of a quote from acclaimed cultural theorist Stuart Hall who wrote, “detours through the past” are necessary “to make ourselves anew”. That concept resides at the heart of Life Between Islands and confirms my view that this exhibition is truly radical and one can only hope that it generates the same kind of audiences that made their way to Tate Modern for Soul Of A Nation.
Life Between Islands : Caribbean British Art 1950s – Now is on @Tate Britain until 3rd April 2022.
As 2021 draws to a close my long time collaborator on Straight No Chaser, the artist formerly known as Swifty, comes with the second volume of The Graphic Art Of Ian Swift. This second volume completes a comprehensive chronology of Swift’s career as a graphic artist to date. Volume Two follows on from Volume One, which covered his typo-grafix and design practice up to the millennium, bringing us to the present day with a further two decades of prolific output.
Volume Two delves deeply into Swift’s archive covering a diverse selection of work that showcases an array of work which takes us beyond beyond the music industry commissions – Talkin’ Loud, Mo Wax, MELT 2000, Blue Note Japan, Far Out et al – that he has become so well known for. In this volume we see Swift pursuing more personal ventures and working on paintings, collages, assemblages, found objects, constructions, wall art and print editions. Much of this work was displayed in various exhibitions that he did in London and Australia. I loved the corner shop from his childhood that he replicated in a hotel room on Tottenham Court Road. I think that was the Red Dot Art Fair… Classic.
The book also features graphic art and designs – the man loves his Camo! – for the apparel industry including many seasons work for the street wear brand Addict Clothing Co., Ruff and Huddle, Hackney GT, Reebok and Stella McCartney.
The shadow of street and club culture is ever present in Swift’s art works whether it’s jazz, the world of Sound System or skateboarding. For a taste of the book check below!
Chapters also include his logo designs, title sequences, skateboards, sound systems, club graphics, merchandise and numerous commissions and collaborations.
Here’s the Specs…. Pages: 300 Size: 275mm (H) x 230mm x 22mm Spine Cover: 2 colour Pantone Print: Four colour Litho Thread sewn Soft back
Each book will be signed and numbered by Swift THE PRINT RUN IS ONLY 400 – YES ONLY 400. WORD IS OVER HALF HAVE BEEN SOLD ALREADY… SO DON’T SLEEP ON THIS!
Last week I tuned into the online launch of Pauline Melville’s ‘The Master Of Chaos’ – a brand new book of fables… courtesy of her Scottish publishers, Sandstone. The award winning author is not keen on the term ‘short stories’…. it kinda lacks the magic and, in the case of this fresh and totally absorbing volume, I definitely agree.
Though Zoom style events have become the norm in Covid… this potentially illuminating conversation between Pauline and Margaret Busby – her good friend and Britain’s first Black publisher – was fraught with techno blips. Pauline is more at home in the Iwokrama rain forest in Guyana than on the web and it seemed somewhat apt that at each pivotal moment of the reading she would vanish into the digital ether only return to pick up the thread on another continent or in a different city or in a different dimension. Brilliant!
Back in 2019 via #SNC100 I had revisited in the story that Pauline had penned for us after an encounter with Brazilian songstress Flora Purim. However, it was a more recent encounter with Alexei Sayle – who had worked with Pauline on the 80s alt-comedy series The Young Ones – that I was able to renew a friendship that goes back decades. All I had to do was find a red Nissan Micra.
Pauline Melville is a one-off. She has lived life and radiates enthusiasm for the absurd… she was thrilled at the story of Bolsonaro being hospitalised after a ten day bout of hiccups. She has roots in Guyana – both African and Amerindian – and in the Old Kent Road. There’s also a Scottish connection. Pauline is a traveller and a fabulous story teller. Both her first book Shape Shifter along with the prize winning Ventriloquist Tale are stamped into my consciousness.
On our first catch up – in what felt like a decade – she immediately informed me of this latest volume. I couldn’t wait to grab a copy and while awaiting its arrival I couldn’t resist ordering a couple of copies for friends… spread the word baby! Upon the book’s arrival I immediately hunkered down and demolished a few stories. Salman Rushdie is right… this is “a virtuoso performance”. The reader is transported. Fourteen fables for the times which span Georgetown, Glasgow, Yarmouth (& Hamelin), Petersburg, Buenos Aires, Grenada, Czechoslovakia, Syria….
Expect to encounter the unexpected… Pauline is a radics… her friends range far and wide across the cultural and political spectrum… and her visions reflect an openness that shuns dogma replacing it with a huge dose of humanity, often laced with a spritely and fierce humour. In The Dostoyevsky Room a group Russian intellectuals and writers ponder a grant from the EU. It’s a classic. One Guyana tale deals with fate and spans Georgetown and Lewisham while the other fizzes amid nature and introduces us to Uncle Tommy and Uncle Horace , the chief Arawak speaker of the Pakuri Village. There’s the dark shadow of the political prisoners and the discovery of a fascist murderer. The Fable Of A God Forgotten drop us into a visceral, all night, physical and mental fight for one’s life. On a suicide tip you can join a conversation between Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary in a room… waiting. There are tricksters and angels.
Welcome to the world of Pauline Melville. Dive in… and I definitely benefited from googling Hamelin and Ocelan! It’s the perfect read for yet another globally turbulent summer.
On the 9th June 2021 my good friend Jean Bernard Sohiez left this world. During the late 70s and early Eighties Jean Bernard and I roamed through the subterranean world of UK sound system and dedicated our words and photography to the promotion of the culture. This is a reflection of that window in time and a celebration of the journey and some of the incredible photographic work that he did.
Back in the late Seventies I was doing part time youth work and writing about reggae for a Dougie Thompson’s fanzine Ital Rockers, Arif Ali’s monthly magazine West Indian Digest and the Morning Star. One of my regular West End stop offs was the office of the hugely influential Keith Altham PR company in Old Compton Street. Altham was a music journo with a serious track record and a music biz don. My contact there was the effervescent French PR Claudine Martinet and it was Claudine who declared one Friday, “I want you to meet this photographer who has just arrived in London from Paris… “
After experiencing Bob Marley live in Paris Jean Bernard Sohiez had made his way to London – the best place for reggae apart from Kingston JA – and Claudine clearly thought I would make a good guide into the scene. Born in Morocco to French parents, JB as he initially became known, was an archetypal Parisian. The leather jacket, the ever present cigarette… he was well read, massively into the art of photography and had decent English with a strong French accent. He was living in a shared house in West London that was not ideal and when a space came up in our communal household in Stoke Newington I organised for JB to move in… thanks to his mother, Simone, he was an excellent cook!
Obviously, he had to make a living and was doing the rounds of the music press. I was a regular at Ron and Nanda’s reggae nights at the 100 Club and during a session with Clint Eastwood Jean Bernard introduced me to the editor of the NME, Neil Spencer. On the spot he commissioned a review of the gig and that sparked a working relationship between JB and myself which in 1979 resulted in shorts and features for the NME on Trinity, Prince Hammer, Errol Dunkley, Michael Campbell (Dread At The Controls), Sugar Minott, Prince Lincoln & Pablove Black…. and Laurel Aitken.
Laurel Aitken – London 1980 by Jean Bernard Sohiez
The Laurel Aitken meet up was classic. I was working in Maroons Tunes in Greek Street with Leroy ‘Lepke’ Anderson (DBC) and Rae Cheddie and this older guy comes in the shop. Turned out to be Laurel Aitken. Rae vanished to his flat upstairs only to re-appear with a stack of the 7’s credited to this original rude boy. The man was living in the midlands, was fired up by the new generation (Specials, Selecter, Madness et al) and had cut a new tune of his own. Sensing a good story, I arranged a meet and a photo shook in Stokie. On the day Laurel arrived suitcase in hand, well prepared, fresh double breasted whistle, pork pie hat, darkers and two toy Lugers! JB’s portaits are classic and paved the way for him to sign to Arista and join The Beat on stage at the Lyceum.
JB and I became a team. I did the scribbling, JB did the shots and the driving. As a journo it has never been wise to depend on the PR’s and record companies. I shopped for music all the time and M&D in Dalston was where I bought most of my pre releases. The shop was always packed on a Friday evening with a host of hungry, just been paid buyers, eager to acquire the latest missives and music from Yard. That weekly gathering introduced JB to a unique form of etiquette. It’s the same etiquette that was required if you were to venture into the world of sound system… especially if you are intent on taking photos.
I was keen to introduce Jean Bernard into the world of sound as it was totally underground and in many respects undocumented. I’d first heard Sir Coxsone sound system in ’73 at the Jamaican Club in Gloucester – a mind blowing experience – and in ’75, given the opportunity to write about the music my first choice for an interview had been Lloydie Coxsone. He remains a charismatic spokesman for sound system culture… the man has history and gravitas. I regarded myself a Coxsone follower and once JB was active on the sound system circuit he simply became known via the Coxsone posse as “Frenchie”.
Watching JB at work with people, he was affable, polite, open to conversation and his being French gave him an exotic edge… he was an outsider in an outsider world. Plus he was discreet. He carried a small bag and his weapon of choice was a small but excellent Leica. He never used flash in the dance. In fact, I recall being in Brixton Town Hall and witnessed another French photographer with a big ass camera firing off a bunch of shots on flash… boof boof booof… and having the camera snatched from his hand and dashed into pieces on the floor.
We did the 4 Aces, Colombos, Bali Hai… regular sound clashes and the big cup clashes. JB and I savoured the tension of those big sessions… at the Acton Town Hall one Friday night the session was in full flight… Lloydie was running late… he was coming from JA and straight to the session from the airport. Preshah!! There was a tangible sense of relief when he finally materialised and handed Festus and Blacker a pile of dub plates… the top one was marked ‘Cup Winnner’. That tune was ‘Five Man Army’.
Quite often on a Sunday afternoon JB would borrow, Ann Hodges’ Morris Minor and head off to check Lloydie and the crew playing cricket on Clapham Common. A major feature in Rock & Folk – the premier French music mag – carried a brilliant double page shot by JB of Lloydie tossing a cricket ball. Sometimes a summer sound clash might be preceded by a cricket match. Such was the case at one clash in Northampton… Sheep Street… Quaker City, Jah Shaka and Coxsone. A heavyweight clash. We took JB’s brother, Philippe, to that session. It was pretty intense and I’m not sure that Philipe had the most positive experience. Still, it was in at the deep end and he did survive.
There are plenty of stories. The night that Bob Marley died we were almost refused entrance to Coxsone’s tribute. The gateman suspected we were police… jokes!… and as we waited for Naphtali to sanction our entrance JB was like… “Merde! What is this tune they’re playing… what is this version… ???”. The tune was ‘Rainbow Country’ – a long time Coxsone sound dubplate. Another time, on our way to Huddersfield with Blacker and Naphtali we ended up in the cells at Hinckley police station. I might write a short story about that little scenario one day.
With fellow scribe and reggae aficionado Penny Reel in tow, JB and I followed Coxsone sound to Amsterdam. As far as I know that was the first time a big UK sound system had crossed the channel into Europe. While the posse were clearly impressed with the herbal situation it was enlightening and depressing to see how the largely Surinamese party goers lived in fear of the local Dutch police.
Of course, JB dreamt of going to JA and in 1980 he finally made it. Just last weekend I was at a friend’s house in Bristol and on one wall was a lovely framed image of Bob Marley at Hope Road ready to play football. It was a JB Sohiez original print. Somewhat predictably, JB’s photo shoot at the Black Ark was fraught with problems. JB was desperate to shoot Lee Perry. All seemed to go swimmingly well but then again, Scratch was as tricky and volatile as ever. At end of the shoot he said, “Let me hold that film for safety.” JB wisely held one of two films back. Scratch deftly dropped the other into the fish tank. Gone.
Like all of us, JB could be a touch obsessive. At Augustus Pablo’s yard JB came across a vinyl… a pared back, raw, alternative version of ‘Catch A Fire’ LP. He needed to find this album. Despite all the evidence pointing to there being no such thing, and suggestions that it might just have been the ganja… JB held firm. It was the eventual release of the ‘Catch A Fire Deluxe edition CD, that would prove our wandering lensman right . Disc 1 delivered “the unreleased Jamaican recordings”. It would nice to revisit and reflect on some of the images from that trip… I loved the shots of Glen Brown in his yard. . . Pablo at Channel One.
Looking back 1981 was a very heavy year. The year commenced with the New Cross Fire. The blaze at a house party in south London killed 13 young black people. On the street the consensus was that a racist fire bomb had started the fire. The Black People’s Day of Action followed in March and was a genuine reflection of the anger and frustration. Placards read “Thirteen Dead, Nothing Said”, “No Police Cover-Up” and “Blood Ago Run If Justice Na Come”… and when the march reached Fleet Street – home to the UK press – the protestors were met with chanted monkey noises from the windows above them. Tensions continued to escalate into the summer and between April to July there were riots across the nation… Toxteth, Chapeltown, Handsworth, Moss Side, Brixton.
In February, between the New Cross Fire and the Black People’s Day Of Action, Neil Spencer boldy commisioned for the NME a major feature on UK sound system culture. That was a big deal. Believe! It featured a journalistic clash between myself (Coxsone Outernational), Penny Reel (Fat Man Hi Fi) and Vivien Goldman (Jah Shaka)… all photography by Jean Bernard Sohiez! It was totally ground breaking, especially as the NME had a weekly circulation of around 200,000+ readers. I think Neil got a bollocking from the publishers for that cover story. I loved JB’s cover shot of the box boys stringing up the sounds in Brixton Town Hall… radical runnings!
The NME feature… a classsic… February 1981. All photos by Jean Bernard Sohiez
It was in ’81 that I met and introduced Molly Dineen – an up n coming documentary film-maker – to the Coxsone posse. She struck up a friendship with Blacker Dread who was living in Armoury way in Wandsworth, as were members of the aspiring Young Lion sound system. Molly’s ‘Sound Business’ film was her degree submission and remains today an evocative and classic document of that time.
The militant soundtrack to that summer of ’81 was Black Uhuru and their performance at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park that July was electrifying, strangely attuned to the menacing vibe in the venue. JB and I both agreed this was not the place to take photos. The venue was mobbed. The crowd rushed the doors, there were fights, the bar was looted and one person died. A couple of days later I answered my doorbell only to find a couple of plain clothes police. I ushered them into JB’s studio and was immediately hit by the smell of ganja. JB had photographed Culture the day before! The look on my face must have been priceless. However, the detective just said, ‘We’re not interested in that, we’re murder squad, and interested in locating people who had been at the Rainbow that night… we’re trying to locate anyone who’d been filming or taking photos.”
One wikkid set of images in JB’s archive documents the Peace Dance that took place in the wake of the ’81 Brixton Riots. It was the day of the Royal Wedding (Charlie & Di) and was held in the adventure playground on Railton Road. When I was asked about this event some years later by a BBC researcher I couldn’t remember being there. Jean Bernard thought that was funny and sent me a bunch shots. It was a hot day and there I was, in a white tee, in the midst of a jam packed crowd of black Londoners. Seeing the shots it all came flooding back. Castro Brown was the Master Of Ceremonies. Coxsone Outernational played and the stage hosted a kids dance competition alongside the likes of Sugar Minott, Eastwood & Saint, Jah Thomas… all sporting the same Clarks shoes!
JB and I definitely felt like we were on a mission. I was designing logos and flyers for the Coxsone Outernational record label and working on a couple of paintings – based on images taken by Jean Bernard – that eventually graced the sleeve of the LP – ‘King Of The Dub Rock Pt. 2’. Sound system was the roots… the foundation… and we wanted to give it the respect it deserved.
Vivien Goldman – ‘Launderette’ 12″ photography by Jean Bernard Sohiez
As the Eighties evolved so the musical landscape changed. JB did a lovely set of shots for Vivien Goldman’s ‘Launderette” 12″ featuring Viv and actor Archie Poole. A return to his native Paris beckoned and upon his return in ’82 Jean Bernard struck a relationship with Fanny Feeny – a school friend of Molly Dineen (small world!). Fanny was the co-owner of Blue Moon records – Paris’ premier reggae shop and record label. She was a regular ball of energy and at the epicentre of Paris’ deejay and dancehall scene. We can give thanks that JB made the odd foray in Jamaica on behalf of Blue Moon to shoot the new dons of the dancehall world.
When we started Straight No Chaser magazine back in ’88 Jean Bernard was my go to man in Paris. Together we went in search of the underground Congolese Sapeur scene – that was difficult! The photo shoot I commissioned with MC Solaar – who was massive in France and unknown in the UK – quite righfully made the cover of SNC and produced a classic spread inside. His photos of ‘Cachaito’ from the Buena Vista, who was playing in Paris with master congalero, Anga Diaz, were equally classic.
However, life is complicated. Maintaining one’s identity, especially as free lancer is never easy. The news that JB had split from his family and was living alone was sad and worrying. Adding to the pressure, he was being harassed and threatened by a man claiming to represent Festus Coxsone. He maintained that JB was exploiting Festus via the classic photo that has made Festus famous worldwide. Ironically, that image has to be one of the most bootlegged in reggae music. JB was principled, a purist, an artist, who would never have sold the rights for that image to be printed on a t-shirt or a tote bag. He was seriously stressed and deeply wounded by the whole scenario. It undoubtedly led him to close himself off from the world he once thrived in.
In these times of Covid and self isolation we are all aware of how fragile our own mental health is and as the years have gone by JB’s health and well being was under serious assault from drinking. He was an alcoholic. I always hoped he would quit.. stop completely… pick up the pieces and enjoy his kids – Laurie, Dylan and Coco – and his grandchildren. Personally, I never witnessed him in meltdown but, all too often, his family did. So, I knew it was bad. But no matter how bad you think it is you are never prepared for the worst. And that’s what arrived via a phone call yesterday.
The last time I saw JB was in October 2017. Along with his sister Christine and his brother Philippe they had a stall in a flea market in Paris. We were on our way back from visiting another friend and artist, Frederic Voisin in Reims and it was so great to see alll three of them. It was a beautiful day. We had a Moroccan lunch and chatted about the usual stuff… friends, politics, music, art and photography. It was all good… positive… and looking at a picture we took that day, they were all happy. And that’s how I shall remember him. Jean Bernard was my spar at a pivotal moment in our lives.. my bredren… a great photographer and I, like many others, will miss him.
Christine, Philippe & Jean Bernard Sohiez – Paris October 2017
On the warmest day of the year so far and one year on from Black Out Tuesday – #theshowmustbepaused – I suddenly felt inclined to pen a few words about Lock down FM – a book that I’ve spent the last 6 months editing. It was art directed and designed by the very excellent Hugh Miller. The process… the journey… was ‘long’! That said, we had a blast stitching it all together while consistently being dipped in a sea of music that – even I with a LARGE record collection – was old, new and consistently enlightening. The book arrived fresh from the printers in Sheffield around a week ago and having seen little press aside from tweaked versions of my own press release I felt the need to shed a little more light on the generous tome that is aptly subtitled L FM.
So, what’s the word on this surprisingly easy to handle 604 page hardback of biblical proportions?
The concept for Lockdown FM belongs to my good friend Gilles Peterson – broadcaster, club DJ and genre defying music aficionado. Working with GP is always a pleasure, even if he’s somewhat hectic – the man has got ’nuff energy – and is sometimes prone to the odd flash of stress! It was in the wake of that first Covid 19 lockdown that we got together at his studio – the Brownswood basement – in Stokie to chat about documenting what had been a unique moment, not just in our history, here in London, but globally. The pandemic had brought the world to a disorientating stand still. We’d been confined to our “bubbles”… allowed out only to exercise and take in a world where traffic had all but ceased and the bird song was incredible. The weather was amazing and the skies were free of planes endlessly circling. Everything moved online: food deliveries… our social lives… work! Zoom zoom zoom!
During Lockdown I’d shelved the notion of producing Vol.2 of Straight No Chaser / #SNC100. The live energy and face to face interaction needed to do the mag had evaporated and I was stuck in my flat with my partner and our son, both of whom worked all the way through that first lockdown. To tell the truth it was hard to focus. However, I could turn on my computer every morning and tune into GP broadcasting on Worldwide FM from around the corner. His life as a globetrotting DJ had ceased and he’d retreated into his studio to explore his ever expanding record collection.
“‘I wanted to document the most turbulent period in my life and how so many of us got through it, with music.” Gilles Peterson
The deaths of musicians … some of whom we knew, had interviewed, had admired… came thick and fast as Lockdown became a new reality. The news that Manu Dibango had been taken by Covid 19 in Paris was a shocker and others followed. To balance off against the deaths there were birthdays to celebrate… Stevie Wonder, Marshall Allen… musical careers to revisit… genres to illuminate… jazz waltz, trip hop, bruk beat, jazz funk… The 20s… plus there was non stop flow of new music… SAULT… Gilles’ sessions offered up passion, optimism… give thanks… the man was following the mantra… “Music is the healing force of the universe”.
In the summer of2020 Lockdown crumbled under the weight of the Black Lives Matter movement and in our own community there was a wave of deep, penetrating conversations, soul searching and reflection that demanded a response to the deep rooted racism that is all too often left unexplored and unchallenged. Writing this today, a week after the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a couple of days after the anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 we are still in that moment. The struggle goes on.
OK… back to L FM. The initial concept was to document the the journey through lockdown via the daily playlists – somewhere in GP’s mind were those anorak-ish books that you get in Japan documenting the releases of obscure record labels or artists. Gilles was broadcasting on Worldwide FM five days a week and had “key-worker” status that allowed him to drive into a desolate West End on Saturdays to broadcast from a deserted BBC6 Music. The shows were long – 2 to 4 hours. To back up the playlists we had GP’s instagram posts, the vibe of which could give the book a “social media” feel. To take us out of the Brownswood bunker and onto the streets we had a plan to incorporate the photography of local don, Dobie. Throughout lockdown he’d roamed far and wide on epic cycle rides around the city.
Through EYE magazine’s, John Walters, I was introduced to award winning graphic designer Hugh Miller. He arrived at Brownswood armed with a few examples of print to consider and, predictably, both Gilles and myself were drawn to a classy, minimalist, little hardback from Scandinavia documenting record releases from the jazz avante-garde. We had our template.
It was kinda crazy that we would embark on such a venture when we had no idea of how many pages the book would need! Improvisation was the name of the game… it’s just jazz baby! We just thought, let’s start collecting all this stuff together and see how it goes. We enlisted Pedro Montenegro… who was in our Brownswood bubble and a long way from his home in Rio De Janeiro… to type up and complete the playlists from each show. This was a mammoth task as Gilles was dealing mostly with first editions – not re-issues – and he was adamant that we needed each list to feature artist, track, name of LP, record label and date. It was the proper way to go… give thanks for discogs.
After toying with several flat plans Hugh and I settled on a basic structure. Pre-lockdown would begin on New Year’s eve at Oval Space and TRC and the follow Gilles on his crazy DJ/curator schedule to NYC, Chicago, the Worldwide FM Awards in London, Australia and New Zealand. The second section would be Lockdown… kicking off when our bumbling, bluffer of a PM, Boris Johnson, addressed the nation on the 23rd March… just 10 days after the Cheltenham Races (check out Matt Hancock’s connection that little super spreader) and the Liverpool v Athletico Madrid match which played host to 3000 fans from a Covid-19 ravaged Italy. The Lockdown part of the journey would be follow the daily time line and be built around the playlists which we farmed out to our man Gareth in Glasgow. He rose to unenviable, mathematical challenge of creating an airy grid system that would host Pedro’s diligent efforts.
On top of that we envisaged GP’s own Lockdown Listening and props for whoever contributed. However, the next monster task to emerge was the quest of photographing all the albums that GP chose to accompany each playlist. Enter Andrew G Hobb’s, a mate of Hugh’s who not only photographed all the LP sleeves, front, back and inside gatefolds but also meticulously cut out each one so as to retain the battered nature of each sleeve. Without this process many of the images would have been framed within an annoying white square. That design disaster that would not have sat well with Hugh’s fastidious approach to the design. The bonus for Hugh was that his studio flat was now home to a small mountain of rare vinyl gems that would provide an ongoing soundtrack to his daily endeavours. Believe me… on reflection, we re-lived that first lockdown, day by day.
On a regular basis I’d mask up, pocket the hand gel and make the bus journey across Hackney to Hugh’s studio in Bow. Some days it definitely felt like you were taking your life in your own hands. The months began to slip by. Deadlines evaporated. Pedro was on the cusp of burn out. While it was clear that this was Gilles’ book he was uneasy about his own visual presence and eventually we opted only for shots that showed him working. It also became clear that we need to source better shots of the artists who’d died and that raised the whole game. Fortunately I have my own Straight No Chaser posse of photographers like Peter Williams and Liz Johnson Artur who I knew had killing shots of artists like McCoy Tyner and Manu Dibango. Gilles put us in touch with Egon who came through with great images of Bubbha Thomas and the epic flyer, ‘Why do racists fear jazz?’ Momentum started to gather. We tracked down great photos of Henry Grimes. DC poet and primal force with Heroes Are Gang Leaders, Thomas Sayers Ellis, delivered a terrific shot of Marshall Allen and the late Danny Ray Thompson. It turned out that the super funky shot of Tony Allen in the studio with Fela on keys was shot by the mother of Remi Kabaka Jnr.
As the flow of scintillating spreads emerged so it became clear that we had a different beast on our hands. We were constantly adding to the mix. Gilles brought Kassa Overall on board to illuminate the lockdown of a back-pack producer. Louie Vega had been broadcasting nightly on WWFM so it felt right to commission some words from Louis and from Francois K as to how they’d negotiated lockdown in New York – a city that had generated nightmarish stories from their ICU and A&E frontlines. The flow of music released during lockdown was incredible. It was constant. It only seemed right that we hit up musicians like Zara McFarlane (her LP came out in the midst of lockdown) and Bluey Maunick (who finished the Strata LP with GP during lockdown.) It was a process. Weeks would go by and a new story would emerge that had to be included. Think: Jazz Is Dead or Indaba Is.
The music world is a very male orientated and Gilles’ focus on and homages to great women artists like Dee Bridgewater, Shirley Scott and Mary Lou Williams were essential to the book, as were images of Zara in the studio or Greentea Peng live in the basement during the Worldwide Awards (respek to Dan Moss for that BOOM shot!).
Obviously, we were, and still are, dealing with serious and deadly virus. Some things hit us harder than others. Ty’s passing hit us hard. He had come out of the induced coma and come off life support. People had rallied to aid his recovery. Sadly, that recovery was not be. Shock waves travelled via social media… which was where we discovered Paul Martin’s tribute and Bunny Bread and Jason Cabello’s mural. Similarly, the on-line video of George Floyd crying out, “I Can’t breathe!’ was devastating. The ongoing divisive agenda of Trump combined with ongoing police violence… the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.. and the killing of George Floyd sparked protests and support for Black Lives Matter worldwide. Nowhere is the depth feeling and bitter reflection captured than in the words of Erica McCoy who took to the airwaves on the 10th June 2020.
“We have created something unique in this book; a personal story with a collaborative spirit. An eclectic journal and cultural documentation of an unprecedented time told through music, essays, poetry, photography and design.” Hugh Miller
As I said earlier, deadlines came and deadlines went (sorry Simon!). We planned to have it done and dusted for Xmas. We weren’t ready. We were worried for Hugh. He’d been working non stop. The virus meant he couldn’t return to his native Birmingham to see his mum who is in her eighties. Luckily, a visit to deliver a present to his aunt in Thornton Heath resulted his being subjected to traditional Jamaican hospitality and rescued from Xmas alone on the east side. As we entered 2021 the end was in sight. I had culled 200 pages from the book to reduce down to a modest 600 pages. It was now down to Hugh who had finally corralled thousands of words and images into place. He needed the time to do his thing, to finesse the design, stamp his mark on those spreads that today are guaranteed to have peeps nod and smile in approval.
L FM is unique, It’s cultural. It’s political. It’s about community and power of music. It’s a goldmine for both the diggers and beginners! It’s a visual feast that documents a period of creative resistance not just to a deadly virus but resistance in the face of ongoing government incompetence and down right craziness when it came to leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro. L FM is a book that no regular publisher could have done. We bruk too many rules and at a certain point we just needed to get it right! And I think we’ve done that.
Lindigo: “I was born Maloya, I breathe Maloya, I sweat Maloya, I will die Maloya”
It’s a balmy September Thursday night and outside the Brixton Jamm on Brixton Road and a modest crowd consisting mostly of members from Brixton’s Afro Brasilian ensemble Baque de Axé – renowned for their Maracatu de Baque Virado – are gathered in the hope of witmessing a rare performance from Lindigo, an ensemble who hail from the island of Réunion in the southwest of the Indian Ocean. Founded in 1999 by vocalist Olivier Araste, Lindigo is named after a local plant with healing properties. They play Maloya and have notched up hundreds of live gigs and released half a dozen albums.
As the band take the stage there is a genuine sense of anticipation. This one-off UK gig, is part of their European tour and as Brixton Jamm is home to Cal Jader’s Movimientos the regulars in the house are well versed in the roots music of Latin America and beyond. The first song kicks in it sets the dancefloor alight. The sharp percussive shuffle of the kayamb – a flat rattle made from sugar cane tubes and seeds – goes straight to feet and as the thunder of the ‘rouler’ – a large hand drum – drops it lifts the vibe in the room to another dimension. The spirit of the ancestors arrived in the room.
Araste deftly initiated a call and response rapport between the 8 piece ensemble and its audience and at one point even had the whole room, hands in the air, stepping side to side, in a Réunion style line-dance. The musicians consistently swapped places onstage to introduce an array of instruments including marimba, djembe, a small accordion and a unique home made ‘kora’. It was down to Lauriane Marceline, who doubles on keys, to drop both soprano and alto sax into the mix.
I can recall being introduced to the riddims of maloya at WOMAD through the political and social protest of Creole poet Daniel Waro. It’s a music of both the spirits and protest and its origins lie in the music of African and Malagas slaves combined with the Indian indentured workers on the island. For decades the powers that be considered maloya a cultural irritant that needed to be stamped out and some maloya bands were actively banned by the authorities until the 1980’s due to their connections with the Communist Party Of Réunion. However, as this show progressed it was clear that while Lindigo’s music stubbornly looks the past there’s no hint of nostalgia. What we experienced was a reviving dose of sonically fresh, contemporary maloya and a taste of what they plan to deliver during their forthcoming tour of Brasil.
As we bowled out into the night under a bright but waning Harvest moon high on maloya the consensus was that we’d definitely notched up a good one! And for that I have to big up Jody G for turning me onto the session and the man called Pedro Chiodi (B•Mundo) for having the having the vision and determination to host it!
PS: On an offbeat synchronicity note, I rode the tube back to North London with a trumpet player who’d I recognised from the Lindigo session and then, having parted company with him, boarded a bus home only to discover the woman on the seat adjacent to mine was a friend of the Brixton/Brazilian legend that is “Maria” and had also been at the gig. Deepness!