nthposition online magazine

London is the place for me

by Ian Simmons

[ cdreviews ]

Cultural narratives are as much conventionalised and fictionalised as any other, and this is especially true of the story of black music in Britain. The standard histories will have you believe that apart from the occasional passing jazzer, nothing much happened until the 1970s. But to accept this narrative is to airbrush a whole vibrant musical subculture out of existence; from the moment the Empire Windrush docked in 1948, bringing with it Calypsonians Lords Kitchener and Beginner, there has been a flourishing, if rarely acknowledged, black musical culture in Britain. If truth be told, you could probably track one back far further if you looked hard enough. However, the post-1948 culture has the singular advantage of having left behind solid recorded evidence.

Honest Jon’s have done a brilliant job of documenting this on their London is the Place for Me CDs; and while volume 1 was the more immediate, being packed with beguiling calypso, volume 2, perhaps, is all the better for having a more diverse spectrum of music to hand. We certainly get our fair share of calypso, though, particularly Lord Kitchener’s entertainingly louche ‘My wife’s nightie’ and Lord Beginner’s ‘General Election’, which transplants the Caribbean tradition of using calypso to comment on current affairs to Britain’s 1950 election. Elsewhere, Young Tiger’s ‘Calypso be’ decries bebop, while King Tiger’s ‘Gerrard Street’ takes the opposite stance and praises it. Other musics here reach far and wide for their connections; Ambrose Campbell’s ‘Ashiko rhythm’ has distinct similarities to the drums of Count Ossie’s ‘Mystic revelation of Rastafari’, for example. But it is not just the Caribbean that sent musicians to London in the 50s and 60s: there’s a healthy stream of African musicians represented here, too, from Tunji Oyelana (who came over with playwright Wole Solyinka to perform with one of his shows and then couldn’t return for political reasons - he stayed to record the excellent ‘Omonike’, on which he is joined by luminaries such as Dudu Pukwana and Mongezi Feza) to Gwigwi Mrwebi, who also arrived with a theatrical production (King Kong- The Musical!) and never left, creating jaunty London Kwela instead, plus some classy Highlife from the immensely cool ET Mensah.

London is the Place to Be 2 would be a fine production if all it did was draw together these unjustly forgotten heroes and bring their songs back into the public eye, but the package Honest Jon’s put around the CD is an artefact in its own right. More than a booklet, this features artist bios, interviews, archive photos and some amazing ephemera, including menus and publicity materials from regimental and hunt balls (!) at which these bands played, album sleeves and single labels, helping to create some of the feeling of a world almost lost to history.