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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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