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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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism