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Book review: Sounds Like London: 100 Years Of Black Music In The Capital, By Lloyd Bradley
This survey of the capital's black music-makers is not just a fine anthology but also social history
Friday 20 September 2013
Lloyd Bradley's gallop of a book is as much about social transition as music – from the us-and-them of section one, titled "They come over 'ere …", to the next generation with "Nobody's going anywhere", then the final third, "Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner". Yes, we're all in this together. Without exaggeration, Bradley says: "Stand for long enough on any street corner in London, and you'll hear music. Chances are, these days it'll be black music of some description – dubstep, hip hop, grime, reggae, R &B … British black music has never been so prominent."
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The affecting presence in London of black music-makers echoes a long way back. Bradley revisits only one century, but even in 1787 white Londoners as well as black were dancing to black music at so-called "black hops" (as Peter Fryer reminded us 30 years ago in his indispensable history of black people in Britain, Staying Power).
By Bradley's reckoning the saga really begins in 1919 (also the year my father arrived to study in Britain, having won the Trinidad Island Scholarship). In that immediate post-First World War era, the Southern Syncopated Orchestra brought jazz to the capital, with a 27-piece band up of West Indian and West African and African-American musicians fulfilling long-term contracts at West End halls. So captivated was Edwardian London that the Prince of Wales invited the SSO to play at Buckingham Palace and they headlined a gig at the Albert Hall to mark the first anniversary of Armistice Day.
Calypso also tickled the fancy of the uptown aristocrats, and the customarily besuited Caribbean musos obligingly kitted themselves out in the flowered shirts and straw hats they were expected to wear.
Credit for introducing steelpan to a wide high-society audience is given to "renaissance man" Boscoe Holder, who reached London in 1950 from Trinidad via New York. Holder with his wife, Sheila Clarke, set up a dance troupe that was a hit in London theatres, they had a BBC radio series called Caribbean Carnival featuring his piano playing and her singing, and also put on a music and dance extravaganza called "Bal Creole" at Alexandra Palace that was twice televised live. They performed for the Coronation in 1953, and were among a select party invited by Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh to dinner at Claridges in 1966 (I declare a family connection with Sheila, still going strong, with whom I have checked these details).
Later chapters sum up other strands of the story, including the evolution of Notting Hill carnival, South African jazz exiles, mods and Afro-rockers from West Africa, the funkiness of the Seventies that delivered "Black-Skinned Blue-Eyed Boys", the black Britishness of lovers' rock, the clubs and weekend discos and raves, and ultimately the defiant questioning of any need for record companies in a digital age. For so much to have been condensed into 400 pages is a tour de force, notwithstanding that countless paragraphs cry out for their own volumes to expand on the extraordinary trajectory from migration to a kind of belonging, from outsider status to bedrock of all youth culture.
Bradley writes with panache, his style colloquial enough to have read well on Radio 4's Book of the Week. He has an entertaining way with captions ("For about twenty minutes in the early 1980s, the mainstream recording industry went Africa-crazy"); nor does he gloss over the crucial roles of opportunism and commercialism.
A slight hindrance is the strangely selective index – "f'rinstance" (to use a Bradleyism), despite a three-page discussion about Labrinth's signing to Syco Music, Simon Cowell gets no entry. Most invaluable are the first-hand testimonies (often taking me back to my years as a band wife) from the likes of Russell Henderson, Eddy Grant, Hazel Miller, Teddy Osei, Jazzie B, Janet Kay and many more. All told, this exceptional work can sit proudly beside the author's earlier Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King, the definitive account of the glory days of the Jamaican music industry.
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