Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black
Music in the Capital
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