Journal of World Popular Music, Vol 3, No 1 (2016)



Book Review

Jon Stratton and Nabeel Zuberi, eds. 2014. Black Popular Music in Britain Since 1945. Farnham: Ashgate. 256pp. ISBN 9-781-140949-413-1 (hbk)

Reviewed by: Tony Mitchell, University of Technology, Sydney

Keywords: Britain; ethnicity; gender; genre; identity; race

This book’s main predecessor was the 1991 edited volume Black Music in Britain: Essays on the Afro-Asian Contribution to Popular Music, edited by the late Paul Oliver, who was more noted for his substantial work on African American blues music. It was published at a time when Asian, West Indian and Afro-Caribbean music were considered as a united, strategic, anti-racist force in the United Kingdom. All of that book’s defects have been redressed in this volume, which is in a sense a product of the “empire writing back”, as the editors live in Australia and New Zealand respectively. It should be noted though that the prolific Stratton was born and educated in the UK, and Zuberi’s excellent 2001 book, Sounds English: Transnational Popular Music, examines white, black and Asian UK music scenes from a Pakistani perspective, from an epoch when he too lived in the UK. The editors critique the Oliver volume in their introduction, referring to it as emphasizing

the music it discusses as being made by migrants. That is, the book reinforces the idea that people identified as black are not, in some crucial sense, really British … Black popular music in Britain then becomes a remainder, a kind of bastard tradition of minority interest made by people not really British. (2–3)

The book’s contributors hail from Germany, Italy and Jamaica, as well as the UK, and include Mykaell S. Riley, an academic with a long experience as a musician in the Birmingham reggae group Steel Pulse and later the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra and Dub Colossus, as well as the producer of black British artists such as Soul II Soul and Courtney Pine.

The editors also place Black Popular Music in Britain in the context of three other recent publications on black British music: Jason Toynbee, Catherine Tackley and Mark Doffman’s 2014 edited volume Black British Jazz: Routes, Ownership and Performance, which is the result of an Open University research project, and caused something of a public “row”, even in some jazz circles, for attracting nearly half a million pounds of government funding (Sawer 2010). Lloyd Bradley’s Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital (2013) is a more journalistic account, while Stratton’s own collection of essays, When Music Migrates: Crossing British and European Racial Faultlines 1945–2010, serves as a companion volume to this book. They might also have included Steven Feld’s Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana (2012), a book I reviewed in the first issue of JWPM, and which “talks back” to the UK through a detailed account of the experiences of Ghanaba, formerly known as Guy Warren, a Ghanaian drummer who moved to the UK in 1950 and then went on to the United States. Warren invented Afro-Jazz, was known as “the Divine Drummer”, and released Africa Speaks, America Answers in 1957, the first US jazz album to feature African drumming, followed by a number of other albums. Warren played with Ginger Baker in the UK, died in 2009, and is mentioned on two occasions in Stratton and Zuberi’s edited collection. Feld also profiles Nii Noi Nortey, a fanatical devotee of John Coltrane, who spent most of the 1970s and 1980s in London, playing saxophone with the reggae group Misty in Roots. Nii Noi Nortey is not mentioned by any of the book’s contributors.

The point of origin of black music in Britain is usually defined as the arrival of the passenger ship SS Empire Windrush in London in 1948, when Trinidadian musician Lord Kitchener (aka Aldwyn Roberts) famously sang ‘London is the Place for Me’ on Tilbury Docks, later recording it and spawning an encyclopaedic six-album series of compilations of the same title, released in 2007 by Honest Jon’s Records. This series was devoted to African and Caribbean music in London in the 1950s and 1960s when the music was still largely a product of small local communities. One of these albums is mentioned in passing in Marcus Coester’s chapter, but the series warrants examination in more detail, and its omission is surprising, given the “trainspotting” nature of a number of the chapters in this book.

Catherine Tackley leads off with a survey of 1940s black jazz in Britain, pinpointing the bombing of Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, originally from British Guyana, and his US-influenced West Indian Dance Orchestra during the London Blitz at the glitzy Café de Paris on 8 March 1941. She then traces the subsequent careers of the surviving members of the orchestra. Stephen Poliakoff’s 2013 television play Dancing on the Edge portrays a fictional black dance band based on Johnson’s band. The play shows how black British jazz musicians in the 1930s and 1940s, especially female singers, became very popular with members of the British aristocracy, such as the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, although the musicians were still expected to enter by the back door of the posh establishments in which they played. Poliakoff has said, “If we think in terms of the enormous racism at that time, there was a window where things might have turned out differently”, but the war soon put a stop to it (Gritten 2013). After the 1935 union ban on visiting US musicians in the UK, black British musicians were expected to provide substitutions for black US jazz. Tackley points out that the “First Public English Jam Session” held in 1941 was “primarily an attempt to at once emulate, surmount and suppress the fundamental American identity of the music” (18), and there was no recognition that many of the musicians were from “the wider British empire”, a practice which continued for several years. Black jazz musicians were considered as novelties in the UK, but were also expected to be subjugated to the idea of Britishness. Many of the surviving musicians from the West Indian Dance Orchestra were also expected to assume US accents in an age of “fetishising blackness” (21). The West Indian Dance Orchestra was eventually replaced by the less ethnically-specific Coloured Orchestra between 1944 and 1949.

As Stratton points out in his chapter “Melting Pot: The Making of Black British Music in the 1950s and 1960s”, by the 1950s, a number of African musicians were playing in London and their music was classified as jazz, although it was largely highlife. African American blues musicians began touring the UK as solo acoustic singers, often performing with Chris Barber’s jazz band. It wasn’t until the end of the 1950s, when Muddy Waters toured, that electric guitars appeared, and musicians such as John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson began to play with British beat groups like the Yardbirds, John Mayall and the Animals. Champion Jack Dupree even settled in the UK, as did African drummer Ginger Johnson, whose group played with the Rolling Stones on ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ in Hyde Park in 1969. The almost totally white British r&b movement is credited with restoring credibility and recognition to African American blues musicians in the 1960s. Stratton also covers the influence of ska and African music on the Beatles’ ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La Da’ and the influence of white entrepreneur Chris Blackwell on ska and black r&b in Britain, both the subjects of more extended coverage in When Music Migrates. He concludes that “there has developed a strand of black British music that is increasingly distinct from its African-American origins; that distinct music is also influenced by the varying traditions brought by travellers from the West Indies and Africa” (45).

Marcus Coester, the author of a book on highlife, focuses on the “Afro Trend” of popular music in Britain in 1960s and 1970s, when Ghanaian and Nigerian musicians in the UK “merged highlife, jazz, soul, funk, rock ’n’ roll, pop, Afrobeat, ‘Congo music’, ‘Latin’, and South African township jazz: marabi, mbaquanga, and kwela” (48) into a rich tapestry, despite their resort to African stereotypes. He provides a case study of Osibisa, a group combining musicians from Ghana, Nigeria, Grenada, Antigua and Trinidad, who became “the undisputed kings of African music for over a decade”, as the cover of their 1984 album Live at the Marquee put it, touring the world. They had come from humble beginnings, though, with Richard Williams writing in the liner notes to their largely instrumental second album Woyaya, produced by Tony Visconti in 1971:

The first time I met Osibisa, they were rehearsing in a damp, dirty, postcard-sized room in London’s Denmark Street, the road known as Tin Pan Alley which traditionally leads to riches and fame. At that time, Osibisa had nothing … They’d come out of the blue: four Africans and three West Indians, most of whom had been close to starvation for a year or more. They were hungry, and that hunger was plain in their music. It showed itself in an energy and urgency long lost and forgotten by most European musicians. (Williams 1971)

This led to further euphoric coverage in the UK music press, but the fact was, as Coester shows, the band had gained most of their chops from an extended residency in a hotel in Tunisia in 1969, where they had time to rehearse adequately and develop their music, which they were never able to do in London’s restricted conditions. Osibisa also tended to be far more popular with white than black audiences, and they became misleadingly synonymous with “criss cross rhythms that explode with happiness” and compared to Santana, eventually breaking up (although they re-formed in the 1990s) and returning to Ghana due to conflicts between their African and Caribbean heritage. Osibisa features in Nii Noi Nortey’s elaborate shrines in Ghana to the continuities between African and African American music, as documented by Feld (2012).

Rob Strachan delves into Britfunk, which he claims “offered a playful sense of alternative black British identity whilst simultaneously constituting a constricting factor in the way in which black artists were handled within recording companies” (78). These were the soulboys and girls of Isaac Julien’s 1991 film Young Soul Rebels, set in the London club scene of the 1977 Silver Jubilee, which opened up “space for a whole number of transgressions—both sexual and racial” (81) at the time of punk’s emergence.

The complexities of the interracial “Bristol sound” are covered by Rehan Hyder, author of Brimful of Asia (2004), a study of the Asian music scenes in Britain, and a specialist in syncretism, which is reflected by his use of the word no fewer than ten times in this chapter. Unlike the editors, who mistakenly locate the legendary Dug Out club in St Pauls, he locates it correctly “just off the city centre on Park Row”, and just opposite where I used to study in the Bristol University Drama Department in the 1970s before its 1980s heydey (it closed in 1986). I went to the Dug Out at least twice: on one occasion, a member of the National Front got talking to me about his dislike of “coons”, and appeared to be trying to coerce me into a fight with them; on the other, I was at a mixed-race table and handed a five-skin joint to a Rasta, who commented: “what’s with the woodwork on this, man—it looks antique!” But the days of the Wild Bunch, Nellee Hooper and Massive Attack were yet to come, and the Dug Out’s music was more generically dance music. Hyder also profiles another important multi-racial club in Bristol, the Bamboo Club on St Pauls Street, which was opened by round-the-world yachtsman Tony Bullimore in 1966, hosted reggae sound systems and punk bands up to the late 1970s and became “the new wave venue” in Bristol, although it mysteriously burned down before the Sex Pistols were due to play there on 21 December 1977. Hyder refers to Mark Stewart, the Pop Group and Rip, Rig and Panic rather misleadingly as part of the “soul and funk scene”, and although Phil Johnson’s excellent, detailed 1996 book Straight outa Bristol is included in the book’s final bibliography, it isn’t mentioned once here.

In his chapter “Bass Culture: An Alternative Soundtrack to Britishness”, Mykaell Riley includes “sound systems, ska, roots reggae, dub, pop reggae, jungle, drum and bass, trip-hop, garage, 2 step, grime, dubstep and a host of other genres and sub-genres” under the rubric of “bass culture”, and gives a historic overview of these genres, although he explains that, as in the case of dubstep, many “pioneering Jamaican musicians, producers and DJs from the 1960s–1990s tend to be absent from its history” (112). This is certainly the case with the first documentary film about the Croydon dubstep scene, Bassweight (2010), which tends to focus on the white male practitioners, while the US excrescence “brostep” quickly led the genre into caricature. Lisa Amanda Palmer, in “‘Men Cry Too’: Black Masculinities and the Feminisation of Lovers Rock in the UK”, redresses the balance on what “has commonly been designated as some sort of female sanctuary” while “conscious roots reggae” has been regarded as a male concern (117). She quotes celebrated producer Dennis Bovell saying that girls in the reggae scene would “do as they were told” (124), and generally acting as a patriarch, and Jamaican academic Carolyn Cooper’s argument that some Rastafarian values involve “duplicitous gender ideology … derived from Victorian England” (127).

Julian Henriques and Beatrice Ferrara offer a “sounding” of the Notting Hill Carnival which unfortunately tends to reduce its human agency to features such as “sonic dominance”, and compares it misleadingly to festivals like Glastonbury or WOMAD, concluding rather surprisingly that “[i]t is impossible to hear the music of M.I.A., Dub Colossus, Burial, or Giggs, examples almost at random, without evoking the specifically British diaspora that Carnival embodies” (152). Hillegonda Rietveld traces, rather unconvincingly, the genealogy of one song, A Guy Called Gerald’s ‘Voodoo Ray’ (aka ‘Voodoo Rage’), through its various remixes and re-versionings, as an example of Manchester’s “defiant mood of hedonism-in-hard-times” in the Thatcher era, and attempts to evoke “jazz dancing, electro breaking, a house music approach, an embrace of Detroit techno, and the contexts of Situationist urbanism, acid house parties and the Madchester myth” (166). Jeremy Gilbert takes no prisoners in his trenchant political critique of this aspect of hedonism as it is manifested in the brief existence of jungle within what Simon Reynolds has misleadingly referred to as “the hardcore continuum”, where:

[j]ungle club nights like the UK garage and grime events that would eventually descend from them—were notorious as sites of aggressive, exclusively heteronormative masculinity, favoured by real and aspiring gangsters, at which sexual harassment of women was generally normal and expected. (172)

This extends into a scathing attack on Dr Dre’s “g funk” as embodying “neoliberal culture: competitive individualism, aspirational consumption and persistent narcissim” (173). Jungle, he argues, was all about “going nowhere fast”, with little or no interest in any form of political and social radicalism: “an extraordinary site of sonic creativity entirely cut off from any political and social assemblage other than itself” (177), as exemplified by the very brief careers of L. T. J. Bukem, Goldie and A Guy Called Gerald.

The final chapter, by Nabeel Zuberi, deals with black British MC culture as it extends through Jamaican-influenced dancehall, jungle, drum and bass, UK garage and grime into post-dubstep electronica. Most of the examples Zuberi pinpoints, as befits an expert on the subject, are pretty obscure, apart from Dizzee Rascal, and many of them African, often involving “technological destabilisations of the ‘natural’ human voice” such as auto-tune. He also includes a number of female MCs, crossing boundaries and operating in a niche economy “not opposed to that of the mainstream music industry, but operat[ing] in parallel but distinctive ways” (199). Zuberi concludes with an account of the London Metropolitan Police’s racial profiling of music events through the risk assessment Form 696, which forces a degree of politicization into a form of music that is not directly political. It seems that little has changed in terms of the discrimination applied to black music in Britain since 1945.


Bradley, Lloyd. 2013. Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital. London: Serpents Tail.

Feld, Steven. 2012. Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.

Gritten, David. 2013. “Dancing on the Edge: Stephen Poliakoff Interview”. The Telegraph, 31 January 2013. (accessed 25 August 2015).

Hyder, Rehan. 2004. Brimful of Asia: Negotiating Ethnicity on the UK Music Scene. Farnham: Ashgate.

Johnson, Phil. 1996. Straight outa Bristol. London: Serpents Tail.

Oliver, Paul, ed. 1991. Black Music in Britain: Essays on the Afro-Asian Contribution to Popular Music. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Sawer, Patrick. 2010. “Row over Public Funding for Research into History of Black British Jazz”. The Telegraph, 17 October 2010. (accessed 25 August 2015).

Stratton, Jon. 2014. When Music Migrates: Crossing British and European Racial Faultlines, 1945–2010. Farnham: Ashgate.

Toynbee, Jason, Catherine Tackley and Mark Doffman, eds. 2014. Black British Jazz: Routes, Ownership and Performance. Farnham: Ashgate.

Williams, Richard. 1971. Sleeve notes to Osibisa, Woyaya. New York: MCA Records (vinyl).

Zuberi, Nabeel. 2001. Sounds English: Transnational Popular Music. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.


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