Sounds Like London by Lloyd Bradley: An intensive, lovingly written account of 100 years of black music in the capital

A serious music journalist, Lloyd Bradley's history of black music in the nation's capital is captivating and well crafted, writes Bim Adewunmi.

Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black
Music in the Capital
Lloyd Bradley
Serpent’s Tail, 429pp, £12.99
 
Early this summer, I received an email asking me to sign a petition for the institution of Windrush Day. Proposed for 22 June (the date on which, in 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury from Kingston, Jamaica), it would be an opportunity “to give thanks for the positive contributions made by those who have come from overseas to Britain”. What an excellent idea! After all, the petition went on to say, “Many aspects of British society today would be unrecognisable without the contributions which immigration and integration have made to our society over the generations.” It listed, among other things, the NHS, food, language, literature and that blanket term for everything everywhere, “culture”.
 
The now-troubled NHS, with international staff at all levels, is an obvious recipient of the gifts of immigration. The contribution to literature and journalism, from the works of C L R James and Jean Rhys to Zadie Smith and Gary Younge, is also evident. The language – that most easily appropriated symbol of a civilisation – is all around us, heard in the casual way we drop “gwaans” in conversation.
 
As for food, Nigella Lawson prepared a (surprisingly good) version of rice and peas on BBC2’s Nigella Kitchen in 2010. That most Caribbean of dishes, now firmly entrenched in the British cultural landscape, has been joined by jollof rice, the most recognisably West African. I knew jollof rice had made it when I heard this staple of my childhood in rap lyrics (the Hackney-born Mikill Pane’s “Return of Mr Pane” mentions it along with salt-beef bagels). And this last example is my clumsy way of segueing into the journey that black music in the UK – specifically London – has been on over the past near-century.
 
Lloyd Bradley’s dense, detail-rich book begins on the calypso-soundtracked gangplank of the Windrush, where the Trinidadian Lord Kitchener delivers an ostensibly off-the-cuff song about London directly into a Pathé News microphone. Contrary to the narrative that has spun out from this newsreel footage, Kitch was not the first black musician to break through on British shores – that title belongs to the jazz outfit the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which arrived here after the end of the First World War, in 1919.
 
Almost 400 pages take us through steel pan, modern jazz, Afro-rock, lover’s rock, funk, jazz-funk and the new sound systems, and we end up at the gates of the self-confident “London bass” scene (jungle and its many offspring, including the grime of Roll Deep and Dizzee Rascal): underground music forced into the mainstream in the 2000s.
 
The message in this book is that black music – influenced by and made in the British capital – is not just music but history. There are big chunks of it to be found here. Everything Bradley writes invites more research: Sounds Like London is an informative and entertaining long-form reading list. In 1945, for instance, at the VE Day celebrations at Trafalgar Square, a troupe of African musicians, including the Nigerian Oladipupo Adekoya Campbell, better known as Ambrose Campbell, led a conga line into Piccadilly Circus. (The one newspaper that reported the scene wrote of “a small group of West Indians”.) That group became the West African Rhythm Brothers, and provided music for the UK’s first black professional dance company, Les Ballets Nègres. All of that information is conveyedin three or four paragraphs.
 
In another passage, Bradley interviews Teddy Osei, the leader of the Afro-rock band Osibisa, who remembers being the first allblack band on Top of the Pops in 1971. “One of our things was that . . . we would be wearing African clothes,” Osei says. “On television, it made such a difference. It let everybody see we were a proud band, proud of the music we played.” It is impossible not to draw a line – however indirect – between this moment and performers today such as Shingai Shoniwa and Laura Mvula, whose musical identities are built on an ease around their ethnicities and backgrounds.
 
I found particular joy in the chapters covering the 1980s onwards – the point at which, for me, music became a less passive thing, with its sound systems and pirate radio. The people involved – such as Soul II Soul’s Jazzie B (who wrote the foreword for this book), Norman Jay and Trevor Nelson – are still relatively young and now have OBEs and MBEs. Their vivid recollections are illuminating. “At the time, Maggie Thatcher coming up had legitimised the moves we were making,” says Jazzie about his entrepreneurial ventures in selling London’s street culture. Bradley deftly blends the personal with the political; he shows young black Londoners (many of whom were the children and grandchildren of those first Windrush immigrants) growing in confidence and then influencing culture on a wider scale. Unsurprisingly, it was with these chapters that I was most comfortable.
 
The research and the interviews, as well as the author’s comprehensive but lightly worn knowledge, elevate this book from being just a list of notable anniversaries and dry facts. Because of Bradley’s background as a serious music journalist (for NME, Q and Mojo), he is well equipped for this kind of intensive curation and he never neglects the art of crafting a lovely sentence. Describing the funk musician Root Jackson’s Sundaynight show at a Kilburn venue, he writes: “During the half-time break, on really good nights, the landlady brings out platters of complementary fried chicken.” I have only a proof copy, so that “e” might be a typo, but I hope it’s not – the idea of compatible music and food is wonderful and completely in line with the rest of this book.
 
Bim Adewunmi’s column is on page 60
Soul II Soul's Jazzie B, who writes a foreword to Sounds Like London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear