(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2008)
Most Londoners consider the area around the perimeter of Heathrow airport to be dull, ugly, semi-industrial zones that they are forced to pass through to and from the airport. However, it was not always like that for Hounslow, Hatton Cross and Hayes. Until the land for what was to become Heathrow airport was requisitioned by the English government at the end of WWII, they were still small towns, hamlets and villages surrounded by countryside, an area of market gardens on well-drained gravel overlaid by alluvial soil which had been well fertilized for a couple hundred years as the recipient of Londoners’ solid waste. It was also an area rich in prehistoric, Iron Age and Saxon archaeological finds, so it seems it was always a good place to live. If gravel and stones collected the vibrations of life around them and there was a way of replaying them, there would be good stories to tell.
Part of that tale would obviously include a mythical place in Hayes: The EMI Archive, once the headquarters and main pressing plant of EMI Records. The archive is more than a collection and more than a history of record labels; it is a social history full of meaning. Many museums would love to have such a full context of their exhibits as this archive has.
At EMI Hayes the paper collection includes a “unique” assemblage of record catalogues from around the world. Artist files with correspondence, recording sheets and contracts. Matrix cards of EMI recordings from 1900 to 1980. Trade magazines from the early 20th century. EMI house journals from 1917 to date. Biographies on artists and the history of the recording industry. Non-musical activities like the development of television, radar and CT scanners. There is also every kind of playback device, early radio and televisions, domestic appliances from the ’40s and ’50s. Recording equipment and photographs of all aspects of the company’s history.
The recorded music archive has an extensive collection of records issued by EMI and its related labels worldwide from 1898. Eighty-thousand 78 rpm metal masters from HMV, Columbia, Parlophone, Odeon and Fonotopia, including a unparalleled collection of Berliners—the earliest commercial disc recordings made at the end of the 19th century. There is even an oral history of Abbey Road studios. EMI encompasses much of the social and musical history of the 20th century of our little islands up to the Beatles and recent times. We may be little but a lot has passed through our shores.
Culled from the archives of EMI at Hayes comes a collection of Nigerian and Ghanaian recordings from 1927-29 for the Zonophone label titled Living Is Hard (Honest Jons). This is a real eyeopener for the fan of West African music. It’s like discovering Robert Johnson recorded in London. The earliest Zonophone recordings were done in 1922 when the Reverend J.J. Ransome-Kuti—Fela’s grandfather—traveled to England to record Christian hymns in Yoruba. By 1927 Zonophone was planning domination of the West African market. They recorded every language and dialect from Wolof to Coastal English. But by the 1930s they had become eclipsed by other labels like Odeon, Parlophone and HMV that actually traveled to West Africa with recording equipment.
The 23 tracks on Living Is Hard were made for the West African market. They range from solo and choral efforts to instrumentals. But one thing unites them: They are all completely authentic roots folk, a beautifully preserved snapshot of West African music as it had existed for thousands of years. Very pure, before any other elements had soaked in. Here you can hear the roots of highlife and the myriad of other West African styles, even catch tinges of Caribbean musics to come. They are just deep and rootsy and in some cases quite mad music, like Ben Simmons’ grunting tracks. You also hear everything with total clarity. The fantastic sound restoration means the music is live in front you.
There is no real point in talking about individual artists and tracks here as they are names nobody really knows and information about exactly who the artists were is somewhat thin. However the usual Honest Jons’ in-depth sleeve notes fill in as much of the details as possible, as well as giving out snippets of information about African musicians living in London at this period. They were in demand to play in bands resident here—ragtime jazz bands such as the Southern Syncopaters Orchestra—Sidney Bechet’s band. The American musicians drifted away and West Africans filled the gap. The sleeve notes also talk about 20th century social history and the English lynch mobs who destroyed the houses and communities of West African seamen which had built up in Cardiff and Liverpool.
Lord Baden Powell was so impressed by Ashanti talking drummer Kwaku Prempeh’s playing at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924-25 that he suggested it should be studied by his Boy Scouts. I am intrigued by the thought that a spotty-faced young Scout (like I was) could get a badge for studying traditional African drumming. You never know, the world could be in a slightly different place if Baden Powell had gone ahead with his idea.
Living Is Hard is a fascinating insight into music that is rarely uncovered, and it helps us understand the hows and whys of modern West African music and our place within it. In the future I can see some of the music from Living Is Hard being reworked by the Honest Jons (HJ) label. They have started delving into their own archives, filing cabinets and piles of tapes along with some of their very interesting incursions into the left-field dance-floor arena.
Lagos Shake is a really grade-A creative fest, described as the companion to Tony Allen’s Lagos Shaking album for HJs. With Lagos Shake all kind of inventive folk turn their hands to reworking Tony Allen, while other parts of the HJ catalogue get an airing for the first time outside of their 12" singles. The Tony Allen reinterpretations are going back to the roots of funky Afrobeat, twisting, spinning it some more and splicing the bits together. Ripping open proceedings are Chicago’s mutant jazzers, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, with the big horn-overlaid “San Kofa.” Here dark apocalyptic brass bunches up on the horizon like thunderclouds, as black as a New Orleans evening and as bright as a Lagos morning. This is quite a radical tune.
DJ Carl Craig shifts around “Kilode”; the female r&b vocals go into darker corners than expected. Brazilian funk band Bonde do Role adds percussion and squiddly noises to more percussion on “Awa Nare.” Berliner producer Mark Ernestus’ “Mark’s Disco Dub” is thick, chunky, dubbed out and very mean, while Moritz Von Oswald thumps up “Ole” for some kind of moody drifting journey. Salah Ragab’s Afro Egyptian Ensemble give “Ole” a full-on Cairo twist to great effect. East Londoners the Newham Generals take “Gbedu” to some drum’n’bass place that’s out there on the edge.
Culled from HJ’s 12" catalogue (its experimental wing) is Colombia’s Son Palenque which gives us a well-endowed wide-eyed craziness with “Samba,” bringing the Afri-freakout highlife goods back to Colombia. This is a track that minus the modern instruments could have easily come from Living Is Hard.
“Fuji Ouija” by Diplo—I’m not sure of the exact term to describe this aural experience. Crazy big thump will suffice for the moment. This track was created in the down time while recording the Tony Allen album. A serious slice of freaky dubbed-up nuttiness with a hard ’bone comes in the form of “Reggae Land Dub” from Wareika Hills Sounds. I know these tracks here will reverberate around all over the place for a long time. They already have made a mark on the more offbeat dance floors of the world.
Over the three decades Honest Jons has been in the area they have developed an iconic status, with the distinctly individual nature of the shop and the music they have subsequently put out. Their shop in Portobello Road, West London, was even the location for a episode of a BBC crime series called Waking the Dead. In the ’70s I used to buy records from the original Honest Jon when he had a stall in an arcade in nearby Golbourne Road. I’ve known all of the people involved and the counter staff over the years.
While we are still hanging around on a street corner in Lagos here comes Nigeria Rock Special (Soundway), the result of label-honcho Miles Cleret’s headlong dive into the ’70s Nigerian rock scene. As usual he comes up trumps with an outstanding selection of the rockiest, with influences that range from Jimi Hendrix, the omnipresent Carlos Santana, Led Zeppelin, Traffic (who had a Ghanaian percussionist, “Rebop” Kwaku Baah) and obscure rock-funkateers the Chambers Brothers.
There are container-loads full of whacked-out fuzz and feedback here. I sincerely look forward to the point where this musical style is discovered, adopted and reworked by someone from the next crop of London indie rock groups. The mix of people is there and there are loads of samples and ideas to be stolen/used. But these young kids’ groups have a lot to absorb in going back to the ’70s. Nigeria Rock Special is good place to start. But who was the Nigerian equivalent to Pink Floyd? Was there a glam rock or a new romantic or punk scene in Nigeria? Perhaps that’s Miles’ next project.
Roberto Linares Brown is a Cuban keyboard player living in Toronto. In Cuba he was in demand and became the pianist for Azucar Negra and then Adalberto Alvarez where he was the arranger for the last three AA albums. Roberto now leads a well-respected and very tight band, arranging and playing keyboards, percussion and singing on several tracks. They have a release out titled Que No Se Pierda la Esencia (RLB) which is firmly in the “modern” vein with the dreaded reggaeton rubbing shoulders with the straightforward Adalberto Alvarez-type elements. Mostly it works very well and there is some tough music here. To me part of its importance is it is a slice of the Toronto Caribbean mix. Certainly worth checking out. And keep an eye on Roberto Linares Brown.
Always worth investigating is north of England band Charanga del Norte. Led by flautist Sue Miller, they are 100 percent authentic charanga with a raft of top-notch players, both English and extraneros. Their latest release is called Our Mam in Havana (CDN) The cover features a picture of somebody’s mother sitting at a Cuban kitchen table in very fetching pastel colored hair curlers. The music is beautifully crisp and well constructed, original compositions and classic charanga songs. Liberally infused with a dash of humor, Our Mam in Havana is a worthy contribution to the charanga tradition and helps keep this seminal style of Cuban music on the tips of our toes.
I knew Colombian vibe player Dorance Lorza very well. I booked his group Sexteto Café regularly for my Wednesday nights at a club called Cuba in the ’90s. I always liked his classic salsa sound that had that all-important tough swing. The vibraphone is not as popular an instrument these days so it’s crucial to support the musicians persevering with it. Seeing him so often we became a bit blasé about his talents, but a new release from him, Ten Years of Salsa (SLIC010), is a wake-up call to remind us just how good a bandleader and musician he is. His contribution to music is considerable— in Cali he worked on many releases from top Colombian bands like Los Niches, Los Del Caney and Fruko.
Ten Years of Salsa is comprised of tracks off two cds he made, Café Salsa (1997) and Salsa Pa’ Ti (2004). The remaining tracks are from a “lost” 2000 album called Latin DNA. It is superb music, crafted from the best ideas and carved into dance-friendly slices. It is time to give Dorance his due for being a very talented musician, allround good bloke and a top player on the Cali and London musical scenes.
I had not come across Austin, TX-based combo Grupo Fantasma before. But my life is enriched by finding their latest cd Sonidos Gold (Aire So/ High Wire Music). Described as one of the hardest- working bands, they have played with Prince and indeed have ex-James Brown and now-Prince sax star Maceo Parker playing along. The music is a real mixup of Latin styles, never staying in one place, cutting and pasting, moving and grooving, dipping and diving with consummate ease. They are very accomplished and can do anything musical and make it sound good, which takes real talent. Yerbabuena could call on Fantasma to provide some music—they are that good. They transcend barriers and do not fall into any easy category, so they have to work harder to get their message across.
The Soneros All Stars’ La Timba Soy Yo (Soneros) is one of those special European/Cuba mixups. The story so far—Swedish tres player Janne “Yanesito” Bogdan makes Dime Nague, a well-respected cd, with Cuban drummer “Bombon” Reyes and singer Pascual “Sinsonte” Matos exploring the trad end of Cuban riddims like son and guaguanco. This, their second release, gets a real edge to it as Los Van Van co-founder and pianist Cesar “Pupy” Pedroso is involved as co-producer and A&R man.
This is a great collaboration and he has given the release a completely new dimension, putting this into a totally different league. One of the things Pupy does is create a great big pulsating thump with extra songo rhythmical density and washes of sound. To the production he introduces new elements like members of his own super-tuff band including his young hotshot hipster vocalists Armando “Mandy” Cantero and Jose “Pepito” Gomez, alongside my fave roots Cuban female vocalist Cristina Azcuy (Papi Oviedo/Bana Congo). The result is a sound mixing the best of the old and the new with a modern perspective.
There is not a dull moment in this kicking release. It is one of the best new Cuban releases in a while for fans of the modern style. The songs are strong, brimming with wide horns and grooves. The arrangements are subtle, intricate and intelligent as well as powerful while all the participants are allowed the freedom to do their best and shine. Janne is a pupil of the Oviedo family and there is no better musical teacher of the trad son tres than Papi.
Virtually every track is a standout. “Tumba, Bongo Con las Pailas” is a chunky drum pattern with changui expert ex-Reve vocalist Sinsonte warbling away while “Gloria Eterna” has Cristina giving her all on a tribute to the son and other Cuban musics. On “Conciencia” (written by Cristina) she joins Los Que Son Son vocalist “Pepito” Gomez Martinez for a stormer of a song. It is a big thumbs up with Cristina at her best, a big tune.
“Para Oshosi un Tambo” is another tour de force for Cristina’s lead. I can never get over the quality of her voice. Whatever is necessary for the song— hard or soft—she can deliver exactly what is needed. This is a monster of a track which breaks down with a real thick “Pupy” piano, bass and a classic, rhythmically fragmented big-drum groove. “Babalocha Y Yalocha” has Mandy on lead and it has a real power and thump. “Sali A Buscar un Corazon is a Cristina-led bolero which goes all horny—very jazzily—and Cristina is just so smooth. “Besos de Miel,” another Cristina composition, allows Mandy to show what he has to offer in the vocal department, which is a lot, a major bumper with lots of hump and bump.
“De Esa Manera” with Pepito on lead is another superb groove while a real heavy tune, “El Congo Francisco,” tops things out with Sinsonte on vocals and showcase for Janne’s playing as he solos away passionately. This release is one of the most interesting Cuban things I’ve come across for a while. It has meaning and substance. Full marks to Janne Bogdan for having the ability to pull off such a major recording. La Timba Soy Yo is some achievement, which should be rewarded by you purchasing it by whatever means you choose to acquire it.