Honest Jon's - the world in the mix

Honest Jon's record label is putting on a cross-cultural spectacular at London's Barbican. Tim Cumming reports
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The Independent Culture

Honest Jon's is one of the few independent record shops surviving on London's streets. It is a fixture of the Ladbroke Grove scene, with its unreconstructed Portobello Road premises, where anarcho-hippie bands played free gigs for a local audience long before The Clash absorbed the Westway into their late-Seventies street-punk mythology.

Opening its doors in the Seventies, Honest Jon's reflected the tastes of the people who worked in it, browsed its racks and lived in the area – like Nick Gold, who was doing his best to persuade them to release music from Latin America.

The record bins were filled with bebop, reggae, funk, R&B and dub. Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McClaren were regular customers, as were Rough Trade's Geoff Travis, and Clash members Mick Jones and Joe Strummer when their 101'ers were still playing pub-rock. A young Declan MacManus signed his first cheque as Elvis Costello over the shop's counter.

By the early 2000s, few of Honest Jon's counterparts from the old days remained. Mole Jazz, Compendium Books, and Camden's Rhythm Records had all been forced under by the forces of chain-retailing and spiralling rents. Honest Jon's was almost literally a case of last man standing.

It was perhaps the only possible destination for Damon Albarn when he walked through its doors one afternoon in 2001, with 40 hours of music he had been making with various musicians from Mali – kora master Toumani Diabate, Ali Farka Toure's sideman Afel Bocoum, Kasse Mady Diabate, and Kokanko Sata Doumbia, nicknamed "the hunter's heroine" on account of her mastery of the the kamele ngoni, a three-stringed hunter's harp usually only played by the men of her village of Wassoulou, south of Bamako, the capital of Mali.

Albarn had been invited to Africa by Oxfam, and developed the project to make it a true crossover recording in which he could find a place for his own responses to these West African master-musicians, he being armed with an easy musical mixer in the form of the melodica, the instrument Augustus Pablo blew into dub immortality. Albarn handed the material over to current shop owners Alan Scholefield and Mark Ainley with the idea of putting it on a small label, with proceeds going to charity.

"I wouldn't have got into Mali music in the first place without the encouragement of Mark and Alan at Honest Jon's," he said. "It made perfect sense – a good record shop should be able to put out good records. It's a bit like what Rough Trade was in its early days."

It wasn't the first time Honest Jon's record store had moved into pressing vinyl. Back in the jazz boom of the early Eighties, they'd launched Boplicity, putting out reissues from the Riverside and Contemporary catalogues, and launching a shop night at the 100 Club, playing host to jazzmen such as Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Courtney Pine and Tommy Chase. It was while working at Honest Jon's that James Lavelle set up the Mo' Wax label, becoming a focal point of the burgeoning trip-hop and breakbeat scene.

Once Mali Music was released in 2002, Albarn helped launch the label with a Barbican concert featuring the musicians he had brought together for the album.

Now, six years later, Albarn is putting on another Barbican showcase that gives us an idea of how widely Honest Jon's has travelled since its first release in 2002. Along with some of the musicians from Mali, the Honest Jon's Chop Up this Saturday boasts an eclectic range of artists who have released music on the label. We're promised the return of Toumani Diabate, sharing the platform with American disco-soul diva Candi Staton, Louisiana singer Victoria Williams, soulful Californian folk singer Simone White, the king of Afrobeat Tony Allen, and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble from New York – the group's rank of eight brass players chasing the lines laid down by Chicago's progressive jazz scene of the Sixties and Seventies, and whose members are linked to the great Sun Ra, as they are all sons of Sun Ra's trumpeter Kelan Phil Cohran.

"It isn't a world music label," insisted Albarn at the time of Mali Music's release. "The music we sign just has to appeal to our three-way sensibility for us to give it a go. If we get sent stuff we'd listen to it, but our A&R brief is quite vague."

Not "vague" so much as carefully targeted at those cultural fissures and mixes that throw up music you simply won't hear anywhere else: Honest Jon's record label now boasts a pretty eclectic catalogue. There's the fantastic Algerian chaabi of Abdel Hadi Halo and The El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers; and the unique magic of Lal Waterson's lyrical songs as reinterpreted on Migrating Bird.

They have a strong line in historical compilations, too. There's the forthcoming Living Is Hard – West African Music in Britain 1927-1929, culled from the vault's of EMI's 78rpm collection, joining the likes of the cult success of London Is The Place For Me, the label's four-volume survey of Trinidadian calypso in London in the Fifties, and the aural sandblaster that is Lagos Chop Up and its companion volume Lagos All Routes.

The label's collection of Seventies English folk, Never the Same, was another gem.

The Barbican Chop Up will feature each of the individual artists performing three of their own songs, and then collaborating with others, so that Tony Allen will be working with Candi Staton, or perhaps Simone White with Kokanko Sata Doumbia. But not all musical genres represented in the label's line-up will be on the same plate.

"No, it would be too much on every number," says Honest Jon's co-founder Scholefield. "When Afel Bocoum performs, he'll play with his own group behind him – Alpha Sankare on calabash, and Kipsi Bocoum on one-stringed violin.

But there will be a certain amount of cross-fertilisation and adventure, incorporating Mali musicians with Candi Staton, Victoria Williams and Simone White. It's a celebration of the label and the people we've worked with. It could have been bigger, but you can't fit that many people on the stage."

Mark Ainley joined the shop at the beginning of the Eighties and quickly started buying in records, many from America. He recalls: "It was thrilling. It was a different community in those days. Music was the way in which people negotiated their lives – it meant the world to people. The shop was full of people, and it felt embedded in the community. We used to sell to a lot of sound-systems and party systems, like Norman Jay, a lot of dance records from the United States, across the whole field of America post-war black music, especially soul and world music. We always had reggae, but quickly we had specialist vinyl. We're not just a shop, we're an idea. There's something counter-cultural about Honest Jon's, something utopian, and if we were just a business trying to make a profit we'd have gone."

He's excited and proud of the Barbican show: "Putting together artists we've worked with over six years from over the continents is thrilling. Some of them are our idols. Candi Staton, Tony Allen – I've listened to most of them since I was a kid. It's amazing to be responsible for Candi Staton singing, Tony Allen playing drums and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble as the brass section. It's great. In fact it'sa dream."

An Honest Jon's Chop Up is on tomorrow at the Barbican Hall (020-7638 8891)