(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2005)
In the early '80s, some of the residents of North and West London, living within an area bounded by the hilly high ground of Dollis Hill, Neasden and Wembley, down through the slopes of Ladbroke Grove and Acton to the Thames floodplain of Shepherds Bush and Hammersmith, even as far out as Camden, spent their weekends tuning into the Dread Broadcasting Corporation. DBC was created by dj Lepke— a relation in the Rita Marley family. It was our local radio station and also importantly it was the first real pirate station in London and probably the whole of England (I'm excluding the offshore pirates of the 1960s).
At that time the pirates existed because of a lack of any "young" music on the BBC. BBC Radio One was created after the government keelhauled the pirates and the BBC hired all their djs. The Dread Broadcasting Corporation came about because BBC Radio One did not really play black music. DBC started broadcasting on Sundays, but eventually went all weekend, then for a while every day.
DBC's importance within the great scale of things is very high. Not only was it the first radio to play reggae and other musics you rarely heard on the BBC outside of the ex-Radio London pirate dj John Peel's show (RIP John), they also created the pirate station mold, from promoting and supporting the station with merchandising, the sales of DBC shirts and skankies, getting Indian schoolboy electronic whiz kids from Southall to build the transmitters after homework, and using microwave links and setting up antennas on the top of tower blocks. Ladbroke Grove's own masterpiece of modernist architecture, Arno Goldfinger's Trellick Towers, has among its many claims to fame that it once hosted a DBC transmitter. DBC was also the very first black-run pirate, a well-multiracial operation that included white people like Mike the Bike. DBC also showed how to mix the music together: Reggae, soca, soul, funk and occasionally African all rubbed shoulders doing the urban hustle. After DBC pioneered the way there was an explosion of pirate radio, which fueled the warehouse, party and early rave scene. Many of these pirates evolved into the numerous community and legal stations that exist today in England, but DBC was there first.
There is a double cd compiled by Lepke celebrating the life of DBC: Dread Broadcasting Corporation: Rebel Radio (Trojan) cuts together tunes that got played on the station and the jingles/ dubs that he produced for DBC. Disc one is titled Tune In If Yu Rankin and the selection kicks off with local heros Aswad's "Warrior Charge" and keeps the pace up as it drips with English and Yard greats: Sugar Minott, Papa Levi, Prince Lincoln, Spear, Johnny Clarke. Disc two, All Kinda Style, takes a more classic journey: its 22 tracks span the ages from Theo Beckford's "Easy Snapping" to Paul Blake's anthemic "Rub A Dub Soldier" via Nora Dean's "Barbwire," Marcia Griffith's "The First Time Ever," Sparrow's cha cha calypso classic "Maria" and Kitchener's ribald "Dr. Kitch."
At Carnival DBC broadcasted from a sound system outside their mailing address in Portobello Road, the "pink shop," a second-hand clothes shop with no name but painted pink (it's still there). Operating openly DBC reasoned that the authorities tasked with shutting down the pirates would not raid them broadcasting and playing to a roadblock at Carnival. One year they actually got a license to broadcast legally at Carnival from a community center called the Four Feathers Club. But while the other pirates made money by charging djs to play and getting substantial advertising DBC did not manage to capitalize on their uniqueness. A few busts, possibly seen as racist when the commercial pirates were left alone or maybe DBC were just easy targets to pick off, meant that the station drifted apart.
For many years Lepke had a stall outside the "pink shop" doing a roaring business to the passing Saturday trade with his tape compilations of old and rare tunes. Star dj Ranking Miss P (Lepke's sister) went on to broadcast on BBC Radio One so in one way DBC did its job. Guest djs included Neneh Cherry, and even I can claim to have broadcast on DBC one time from "studios" above a grocer's shop in Kilburn and again from the Four Feathers Club, and I had a benefit for them at my Sol Y Sombra club. History has pushed DBC past being legendary to almost mythological status. I agree they were that important.
A brace of wonderful reissues from the golden days of African music have been gracing my ears. First up is a double cd from Guinea's Bembeya Jazz National, The Syliphone Years (Stern's). Compiled by Bembeya expert Graeme Counsel, it is a selection of their best music from the early '70s when they were producing music of mind-boggling wildness and rhymical intensity. Some of the finest Afro-Afro-Cuban music ever produced, The Syliphone Years also features loads of tunes never released before.
There are far too many wonderful moments to chronicle them all in detail but standouts include "Sabor de Guajira" with its slinky guitar that is totally out there, riffing on Planet Zog. "Armée Guinéenne" has showers of rhythm that link everything together. "Dembaty Galant" is slinky smooth slow groove with wild guitar that mixes all parts of West Africa, "Air Guinée" is a mega groove, while "Guinée Hety Horémoun" sounds like Carlos Santana had stepped into the recording session, but it's the usual genius Sekou Diabate playing guitar. Disc one ends with "Alalake" which to my untutored ear sounds like a Bluebeat tune with Hawaiian guitar.
Disc two starts with "Beyla," its chiming guitar takes off into near space as Afrobeat horns ride the Afro-Latin riddim. "Sou" is another blast of outrageous razor-sharp guitar. But top of the pile is "N'gamokoro," 10 minutes seven seconds of demented music. The horn section opens things up with one of Bembeya's trademark complicated attention-grabbing intros. It kicks into cowbell, crazy vocals and a staccato riddim that builds and builds. This stupendous tune moves through wahwah guitar, trumpets, sax, a totally off-the-hook percussion solo, into nutty vocal injections, and then veers back to guitar.
"Ballake" hits us with spellbinding twangy guitar and wonderful crazy vocals, adlibbing and making it up sonero style. "Dya Dya" is what I would describe as an '80s pan-Caribbean Afrosoca groove. Then with "Petit Sekou" we end disc two on a high note of fuzz guitar like a Farfisa keyboard! The music Bembeya created helps my mind to reside in a happier place. Do not neglect this cd as it reaches parts of your soul that you never knew existed and links parts of Africa and the new world from a place and period that exists at the point where Fela meets Tito Puente and where Jerry Garcia would have been at home. [www.sternsmusic.com ]
Joining Bembeya is Tanzanian rumba legend Orchestra Makassy's Agwaya reissued under the title of Legends of East Africa: The Original Recordings (ARC Music). Originally recorded for the Virgin label in 1982, today it sounds quite experimental and very dubby, especially on the opening track "Mambo Bado" which was the big dance-floor hit off this album at the time. Makassy was quite a pan-East African band featuring Congolese ex-pats Remmy Ongala and Mose Fan Fan under the leadership of guitarist Kitenzogu "Mzee" Makassy and playing Congolese-style rumba so they always had an interesting sound. Also this recording was the first time they had not just gone into a studio and recorded like they played live. Virgin wanted a good quality recording so paid for them to go into the modern studios at CBS in Nairobi which allowed them to overdub and multitrack. This cd also has three bonus tracks on it. I had not listened to Agwaya for many years and it was a real pleasure to rediscover it. [www.arcmusic.co.uk ]
The cover of this cd has an uncredited painting by Kinshasa artist Moke I had not seen before. One of Moke's recurring themes is that he always puts some of the same people his paintings, so I had to go and compare the cover with my Moke painting. Sure enough, two sets of characters were the same, a couple sitting dozing at a beer-laden table and a couple dancing. The original lp had a nice cover featuring a painting of an establishment called the Blue Bar Hotel and Lodging House used here as the cd inlay card where the the poster by the entrance in the painting says Makassy is playing live that night.
World Circuit has done a public service and reissued two crucial albums in one package from Ali Farka Toure, Red and Green. Red was originally released in 1978 and Green in 1988. They were the recordings that got attention in the West and kick-started his international career, then, as you know, everything else is history. Red is just Ali on vocals and guitar and Hammer Sankare with vocals and calabash. Of the two I prefer the Red album—so called because the original lps had identical covers printed in different colors—it has a simple purity of the wide-open spaces of Malian blues. Wonderful and soul stirring.
Listening to the new Mbilia Bel release Belissimo (Stern's) for a few minutes I got kinda nostalgic about the times when Caribbean music had an influence on Congolese music. But after a while those cheesy keyboards and that tinny drum sound reminded me that nostalgia isn't all it used to be. This release has been touted as a return to form for her and as a Souzy Kassaya production with him doing 98 percent of the songwriting. He is someone I've always respected so I was looking forward to it. Sadly though this is not a return to form, just better than what she has done recently. Her voice is still as enchanting but this is not going to gain her new fans.
As a resident of a nation characterized by a collection of islands of varying sizes I can appreciate the Jamaican "small island" term for any island in the Caribbean sea that is not Jamaica. I can extrapolate that concept to our cluster of volcanic and sedimentary outcrops parked out here on the edge of the European continental shelf. I feel exactly the same way about Shetland or the Orkneys or London's Isle of Dogs. So I was happy to receive a missive from one Professor Skank asking me if I was interested in his compilation titled Crucial Reggae From Outside Jamaica (Skank). I jumped at the chance to sample his selection of small-island roots artists from St. Croix, Dominica, St. Vincent, and those little-known Caribbean islands California and Montreal.As a small islander I could not resist it. The majority of the tracks on this excellent compilation hail from St. Croix: never been there myself but if the quality of the music is anything to go by then a visit is long overdue. Artists like Iba, Danny I, Bobo Ites, Bambu Station, Abja Junior Daniel and Ankh Watep deal out roots style with that small twist of the sound and rhythm. There is a difference and you can hear it. Dominica—ahh, that beautiful jewel of an island— offers three Nasio Fontaine tracks, all with real swell grooves and fructose-laden vocals. Ossie Dellimore comes from St. Vincent with his stirring "Downpressor Man." Vincy—hmm, loved the weed and the sailing there. As for the other "islands," top-notch stuff from California's Groundation—rough-voiced Harrison Stafford; and nice trumpet from Montreal's Moogose.