(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 24, No. 5, 2006)
Last year London Is the Place For Me (Honest Jons) opened up the box that was 1950s black music in London for a long-overdue inspection. It was a revelation, with its jazzed-out, straight-off-the-boat calypso comments on the general state of the world and the joys, frustrations and problems of living in London in that decade.
Those conscious and very detailed lovers of music at Honest Jons have volume two ready for our delectation. Like the first disc it reams and expands the mind, moving through unexplored territory. This superb compilation, subtitled Calypso and Kwela, Highlife and Jazz from Young Black London, takes the journey of discovery through further regions of the African and Caribbean London music scene during the '50s and '60s.
In those days London was a far cry from the multicultural mix that today makes up this sprawling city of mini-towns, villages and subhamlets, crammed with people from every country in the world you've ever heard of and some you have not. In the '50s the musical scene was centered around the clubs: One was the Rehearsal Club on Archer St. just off Piccadilly Circus. During that period the street outside the club also functioned as an open-air musicians market, where in the morning musicians went to get work with the various popular dance bands or recruited for a tour of the regions or wherever a musician that night was wanted.
Volume two of London Is the Place For Me is as broad and deep as the Thames Estuary and a totally essential left-field musical excursion which jumps in at the deep end. With the grumpy, sharp, witty calypso of Young Tiger's "Calypso Be" as he emphatically states that he is a bit confused about modern music, particularly bebop jazz. He complains about how he cannot make head nor tail of "this Dizzy Gillespie" and his modern monstrosity with its "high-speed riffs and staccato beats" which should be sent right back to 52nd Street.
Mona Baptiste was a passenger on the Windrush, the boat that brought the first wave of postwar Caribbean emigrants to England in 1948. She is the possessor of a beautiful pure sweet voice, and provides us with a supremely cool cover of Nat "King" Cole's "Calypso Blues." Mona was an interesting example of how the new black music was fitting in with what was emerging as mainstream teenage popular music in Europe. She was a guest three times on Jack Good's seminal English pop show "Oh Boy" in 1959/60, and it was not her first appearance -- she had actually been in the pilot shows in 1958. She also was in German films including what must be a teen classic -- 1959's Madchen fur die Mambo-Bar. She died in Germany in 1993.
Other calypsos on this fully laden musical vehicle have Kitchener with another one of his classics of the ribald, "My Wife's Nightie," where unabashed by his own infidelity he demands his one-night stand return the loan of his wife's nightgown, if not, threatening to charge her "with larceny."
The companion and more open view to "Calypso Be" is King Timothy's "Gerrard Street" where he discovers and is impressed by a world of bebop inhabited by a hipster United Nations. King Timothy tells us how the music really blew him down and he comments the punters were jumping like mad, though he could not work out why "they had their [dark] glasses on the eyes."
He tries to attract the attention of a young lady with his dancing but she is not impressed and dismisses him "You only beeping when you should bop." English bebop sax pioneer and jazz club owner Ronnie Scott's first club was at 59 Gerrard Street. I like to think this song is about his club.
"General Election," Beginner's minor-key calypso blues, is a commentary on the 1950 victory for the Labor government which saw the Labor Party returned with a diminished majority. Listening to his description of the night with crowds hanging around in Trafalgar Square watching and waiting as the electoral results are flashed up on a sign, it seems a million years away, not just 55 compared to today's multimedia bean-feast pig-outs.
Lion's jouvert jump-up "Kalenda March" is a lovely fast-paced clattering percussionled stormer with violin, guitar and wild sax. Lord Beginner's "Nobody Wants to Grow Old," makes the point that it is difficult to tell the actual age of anyone. If it was difficult then what would he say in the modern age of paranoia about appearance and its nipand- tuck tendency?
Pan player Russ Henderson gives us "West Indian Drums." If this was an abstract painting it might be called "Drum Downpour over Insistent Piano." St. Vincent trumpeter and poet Shake Keane provides a track titled "Baionga" which he sings in French Creole. It has popping bongos and his trumpet explores the jazz side of things. Shake is a major contributor on a large number of the tracks on both volumes one and two.
The West African tracks heavily feature guitarist Ambrose Campbell, who came to London from Nigeria in 1940. His band the West African Rhythm Brothers was formed in the early '40s. After the end of the war they started regular dates at the jazz and black clubs (including his own Abalabi in Berwick St.) that dotted the West End at that time, as well as venues further afield.
Ambrose is quoted in the usual heavy-duty factfilled Honest Jons sleeve notes, "there isn't a Town Hall in London I haven't played." The compilation includes two tracks from his 1966 solo album, High Life Today recorded for Columbia (with Shake Keane): "Yolanda," a gentle, ethereal groove with sparkling trumpet, and "Ashiko Rhythm," a clave-led percussion storm. The West African Rhythm Brothers provide "Ominira," a Latin-style composition with great guitar and slinky trumpet; "Adura," "Eroya" and 1951's "Sing the Blues" are rootsy slow highlifes. Melodisc was a very important label in London during the late '50s and early '60s. Producer Dennis Preston recorded the London-based groups to be distributed with Melodisc's already wide selection of releases from the Caribbean and Africa, ranging through Cuban merengue and even Prince Buster's early work! Their catalog even includes Fela Kuti's first recording "Agigana"/ Fela's Special" (Melodisc 1532), but these are tracks so rare I have never even heard them. Ambrose was also a major inspiration to the young Fela Kuti.
Brewster Hughes' West African Swing Stars provide "Omo Africa" and "E.T. Mensah's Rolling Ball" featuring E.T. recorded during a threemonth stay in London, which included playing at the newly built, prestigious Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank as the guest of Chris Barber, leader of a highly popular traditional jazz band at the time. Things were a little bit further ahead than you might think from the period.
Rans Boi's Ghana Highlife Band gives us "Gbonimawo," a guitar-heavy groove, while Tunji Oyelana presents a classic slow highlife, "Omonike." The kwela comes in the form of "Nyusamkhaya" from fiery saxophonist Gwigwi Mrwebi, and also features Dudu Pukwana. Gwigwi came to London with the stage show King Kong and jumped ship alongside Miriam Makeba. Highly esteemed in South Africa, he now has a road named after him in Newtown, Johannesburg.
This cd -- and of course double vinyl -- features fantastic photographs from the collection of Val Wilmer whose books on jazz musicians and the clubs in London of the period are the bible of who played where and what it meant. The actual cover picture is taken from Notting Hill in the Sixties (Lawrence & Wishart) by photographer Charlie Phillips. Charlie had always taken photographs of the area around Portobello Road where he was born and grew up. He had become a professional fashion photographer but he was also known for running a barbecue corn-on-thecob stall in Portobello Road and the Carnival in the '70s and went on to open a West Indian restaurant in South London. His fantastic pictures capture a moment in time, now lost forever. The cover photograph features a head and shoulders shot of young lovers, a white girl and a black youth close up with his arm round her. The boy is Gus Brimstone from the early Ladbroke Grove reggae band Brimstone -- a nice closing of the circle. [www.honestjons.com ]
Chino Nunez is the hard-working timbalero for the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. He has produced a solo release, Chino Nunez and Friends: It's SHO Time -- Strictly Hardcore on 1 or 2: Tribute to the Dancers (Cookita) that features just about everybody who is anybody in the current New York salsa scene. I could use up the rest of this column by just listing the friends who contribute to this. My usual caveat about my penchant for bands led by percussionists applies here. This release is tough, tight, swinging, hard, sharp, relevant and brimming with great music. With superb musicianship and singing and overflowing with stonking songs, both original compositions and covers of tunes like Ray Barretto's "Indestructible," this solo offering is more than just getting the boys together and knocking out a few favorites. It genuinely has class, originality and great performances.
Of the many tunes worthy of note is a tribute to Cheo Feliciano with a re-jigging of his dancers' favorite "Bailadores," which gets the full-on treatment. The incredibly busy percussion pushes this speeding rhythm along as the punchy sax, diamond- sharp trumpets, wayward piano and very, very spirited soneros take this classic into hyperdrive. Last redone recently by Soneros del some examples more recent music from South Africa. The second volume of Crucial Reggae From Outside Jamaica (Skank), Professor Skank's acclaimed collection of small island and "foreign" reggae, is out now. It follows the furrow turned by volume one with the addition of some Ghanaian artists. If you like this left-field old-style reggae then you cannot go wrong with volume two.
Like everywhere in Europe, London has been bowled over by the reggaeton phenomenon with club nights proliferating. Heatwave Versus Mas Fuego at the Rhythm Factory in Whitechapel, and Que Rico in Wardour St., Soho are two of the first and still the best.
Recently I did a party with lots of very young people. I kept it simple and managed to carry them with me in the mix, running things like rapso stars 3 Canal's cut-up of "Oye Como Va," but reggaeton was the link that let me get away with taking things away from the familiar ground. I was also running a retro reggaeton selection. It sounded great to me, and I assume it did to the kids for who have only been exposed to current reggaeton but not its earlier Latin rap/hip-hop precedents, like Mangu with their version of Willie Colon's "Calle Luna Calle Sol." When this came out in 1997 it was called Latin hip-hop.
But what interests me is that the template that set and cast the die for the whole reggaeton thang is based on two tunes. While accepting that Shabba Ranks' "Dem Bow" is a major influence, I still maintain Chaka Demus and Pliers "Murder She Wrote" is the other major template. So Sly & Robbie can certainly add to the many accolades for generating some of the most creative and influential music that are already overloading their trophy cabinets. They will now have to find space for the award for creating yet another new music burning up the galaxy at the moment.
With the bombings that took place on July 7 in London, the media called it 7/7, or as Culture sang: "Two Sevens Clash."