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.
WORDS: Paul Bradshaw
Dennis Brown – London 1980 by Jean Bernard Sohiez ©
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.
Michael Prophet + Clint Eastwood – London 1980 by Jean Bernard Sohiez ©
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”.
Dubplate: Coxsone posse – l-r: Blacker, Festus, Harlesden, Bikey Dread @ Acklam Hall 1979 by Jean Bernard Sohiez ©
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.
Lloyd Coxsone – Sunday Cricket – Clapham Common Summer 1980 by Jean Bernard Sohiez ©
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.
Glenmore Brown in his backyard, Kingston JA 1980 by Jean Bernard Sohiez ©
Augustus Pablo @ Channel 1 – Kingston JA – 1980 by Jean Bernard Sohiez ©
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.
Ninja Man Kingston JA 1993 by Jean Bernard Sohiez ©
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.
Classic shot of Festus Coxsone + Blacker Dread (l) & Bikey Dread (r) @ 4 Aces, Dalston 1980 by Jean Bernard Sohiez ©
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
Au revoir JB….