POP / DJ Derek and the dominoes

DJ Derek is not your standard turntable spinner: he used to be an accou ntant, has a major cardigan habit and is 60 years old this week. But they dig h im in Bristol. A lot.
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The Independent Online
For a DJ, DJ Derek is a radical dresser. For a man of his age, however, he is the soul of convention. He wears a beige shirt with toning tie, a collared cardigan under a brown jacket, and a heavy pair of specs, which stick out like joists from under the eves of his greying thatch. Stooping in the brown back-parlour of the Star and Garter in St Paul's, Bristol, dimly lit by the orange glow from his low-tech console, DJ Derek cuts an unremarkable figure. Even with 12in of ``Late Night Blues'' by Don Carlos rotating at his finger ends, he is a man engrained in his environment.

He is also a respected figure among the elders of the local black community, which is unusual given that he is a white man and his business is music. His one-man ``Sweet Memory Sounds'' sound-system plays the Star and Garter twice a week, and a brace of other Bristol pubs on the remaining weekday nights. ``He give us what we want,'' the grown-ups say.

He does the music in the Jamaican tent at Glastonbury, and he's clocked up five sessions at the Jamaican Independence Day dance plus several more at its Dominican and Barbadian equivalents (''I'm the only white man who's ever done one of those, let alone three''). Tomorrow he's off to play at the 60th birthday party of a local Bajan worthy. The style may be downbeat Denis Norden, but the attitude is strictly ``backayard''.

``It's the manners,'' he says, his Avon burr attenuated by the long vowels of Jamaican patois. ``The big people in the black community have manners. A 1950s Jamaican upbringing was just like my British upbringing of the same period, as regards the schooling of manners and general demeanour, and I identify with that. I love the black community in Bristol. I am at home with them. They have culture.''

Derek Morris has lived in Bristol, or thereabouts, all his life. His father was a chippie, as often out of work as in, and the family experienced post-war austerity first-hand. They had to burn ``books and old shoes and things'' to keep warm.

However, in common with members of the Rolling Stones and other musicians of his generation, he found adolescent solace in the sudden heat of American rock `n' roll: first Bill Haley, as heard on the American Forces Network, then, in the backwash, Louis Jordan, Lloyd Price, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, leading to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and, critically, Rosco Gordon, the peripatetic Memphis choogler in whose chugging, piano-driven R&B Jamaican bluebeat is so adamantly prefigured. Transfixed, young Derek fashioned himself a drum from a cheesebox and remnants of a parachute that had snagged on the chimney-pot during the war, and went into skiffle. By the end of the decade, his group, the Ramrods, had appeared on an HTV talent contest and done stints as local support to Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry.

Unlike the Rolling Stones, however, Derek didn't give up his day job. He worked at Fry's, the chocolate firm, as a clerk, his Sixties passing not in a riot of counter-cultural contumely but in marriage, appendicitis and accountancy exams. ``I could have wound up with an ulcer and a managing directorship of Cadbury's,'' he says, ``but I don't regret that.'' Poor health, divorce and an undimmed regard for the imported ``heartbeat music'' eventually led him to disc-jockeying and to the bosom of Bristol's immigrant community.

Next Tuesday, DJ Derek is the subject of BBC 2's Picture This (8pm), a documentary series dedicated to the ``illumination of the apparently ordinary'' in daily British life. It is a gentle, occasionally stagey film about how music works in the lives of older West Indians: not as therapy nor as a valve but as a social grace, as an agent of ``sweet memory''; much as their grandchildren use music as a token of aspiration, confrontation and escape from the past. Arguing passionately over the slap of dominoes and a perpetually chugging backbeat, Derek emerges from the film as a passionate advocate of the values of people who have been unremittingly undervalued in a society which, paradoxically, sought only to exploit them.

On Saturday morning in the Star, it is the morning after the night before. Ken, the landlord, who hasn't been to bed, is prostrate on a bench - ``I'm half dead, man''; Derek, head back against the wall, wearily traces the creases in his face. His Guinness is going down slowly.

``Well, it's the African tradition,'' he says when asked about the value ascribed to music in black society. ``The oral tradition, minstrelism, the carrying of news.'' And then, realising that this is a lazy reply, he starts on the economics of the black music scene, on the manufacture and distribution of records here and in Jamaica, independent of the corporate mainstream; and he tells a story about a producer who had a huge hit in the reggae charts, with a record sold only by specialist, non-Gallup shops, who then turned down an offer of pounds 15,000 to buy the ownership credits. Derek affects a Jamaican accent:

`` `Look, man,' says this bloke. `I sold 50,000 copies of that record at pounds 5 a pop. Now, by my reckoning that's pounds 250,000, and you offerin' me pounds 15,000! Go `way.' `` Derek smiles. ``He's running a blinking travel agency now.''

We talk about the BBC 2 film's melancholic atmosphere, the sense that nostalgia for old music is only the surface trace of a deep-running current of disillusion among those who left the islands between 1948 and 1958 at the invitation of the British government.

``Oh yes. There's a very strong feeling of nostalgia in the West Indian community right now. Nostalgia for the islands. To the big people [he always uses the Jamaican form for ``grown-ups''] this country has been a big let-down. They came here and worked like . . . well, I was going to say slaves, but then this country treats people like slaves, both black and white.

``Anyway, there's all these people who've only ever earned enough to live on, no more, and who have lost contact with any family at home. So you've got this decreasing, and increasingly sad, population watching their friends disappear one by one.'' Derek's head is back again. ``I've lost three friends over the past week. Older guys who've just popped off - you get that this time of year, when the weather changes.''

And what about Derek's melancholy?

``My melancholy is for the same thing - the dying of a generation, and for opportunities missed by a white culture which fails to absorb these people properly, to take care of their abundant talent, skill, love and soul. These people are capable of giving so much and have had it all thrown back in their faces. For what? For what is basically a materialistic, facile, avaricious culture of . . . of . . . We haven't got a culture, a white English culture. We've got nothing.''

One wonders whether Derek has any nostalgia of his own. He says he has, but it's for the jazz clubs of Harlem and Kansas City in the Forties and Fifties, where he's never been.

(Photographs omitted)

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