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'While the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton were making the earliest blues recordings in America, this equally strange and compelling music by West African singers and musicians was simultaneously being recorded in London... [a] treasure trove of golden voices, chants, authentic percussion and traditional instruments presented in totally unmediated fashion' (***** Songlines).
Made in London, these recordings were issued originally by the Zonophone record label over three years from late 1927.
The first West African Zonophone recordings date from 1922, when the Reverend J. J. Ransome-Kuti — Fela’s grandfather — travelled from Nigeria to Britain, to record Christian hymns in Yoruba. Notables of 1925 sessions included the Pan-African activist Ladipo Solanke, who had come to Britain three years earlier to study Law; and Roland Nathaniels, also resident in Europe at this time, who soon afterwards recorded for Odeon in Germany, before returning to the Zonophone studios in 1927 (probably doubling as an A and R man).
Finally, with these recordings in 1927-9, Zonophone moved decisively to dominate the West African market ahead of the competition, by exporting hundreds of discs — and record players — recorded in almost all its major languages. Included here are Wolof, Temni, Yoruba, Vai, Fanti, Hausa, Ga and Twi.
The records were recorded and manufactured in London: all of them were sent to West Africa, where few have survived.
Zonophone was soon followed by Odeon as the decade turned, then Parlophone in 1936, and HMV the following year. Unlike Zonophone, all three rivals travelled to West Africa with recording equipment.
Though they themselves disclose so compellingly some of the key existential and musical secrets of Africans in Britain at the close of the 1920s, not much is known about the artists behind these recordings.
We can dig up scraps from Zonophone catalogues, public records, the internet: Prince Zulamkah, we know from an aside of his daughter, was a circus showman, and perhaps he was the same Zulamkah born in Camden, London, in 1897; Domingo Justus was already recording in London by 1925; the fine lead guitarist with the Kumasi Trio, Kwame Asare (like Ben Simmons) hailed from the town of Saltpond, in Ghana, and later, in the 1940s, he recorded again under the name Jacob Sam for HMV in Ghana — just as Harry Quashie made two records for the company in London the following decade, with Awotwi Paynin And His Ghana Rockers.
And we can speculate about names, and references in the lyrics. With his Portuguese name (like Justus), perhaps Douglas Papafio was a West African slave returning from Brazil, after emancipation; or maybe a descendant of the Portuguese and Brazilian slave traders on the West African coast. His song praises and defends a resident — named Sakyi — of Mampong, in Ghana. Presumably the name de Heer is a legacy of the Dutch colonial presence on the Gold Coast. His song Edna Buchaiku relates a regional dispute between the towns Tarkwa and Elmina (which he appears to praise at the start). Elmina was held by the Dutch from the 1630s till 1872, and another de Heer was the Dutch representative there at the turn of the 1850s — so is it Nicholas de Heer’s hometown?
More concretely, with the exception of the Ga and Kumasi groups (which found local sponsors for the voyage from Ghana to the London studio), it is probable that most of the musicians were more or less resident in Britain at the time of these recordings. Students in their number were likely domiciled in such cities as London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Durham; the rest in amongst West African populations, which were concentrated in the working class districts of port towns.
For sure, the only address entered on the recording contracts is that of Daniel Acquaah (from Ben Simmons’ ensemble), in Liverpool — Caryl Street, Toxteth, hard by the docks. There is no trace of these artists in contemporary mainstream musical publications, so presumably performances too were restricted to these communities. And it seems only the Kumasi Trio went on post-Zonophone to successful recording careers back in West Africa: when HMV arrived on the Gold Coast in the mid-30s, it was only Kwame Asare of the artists here who recorded for them, suggesting that the others — at least most of them — had remained abroad.
At the start of the twentieth century, seamen formed the largest occupational group amongst blacks in Britain. African and West Indian sailors signing onto British ships in colonial ports — up to one third of the British maritime workforce, such was the shipping lines’ nose for a bargain — faced lower pay, worse conditions and earlier deaths than their white counterparts. If they jumped ship in British ports, however, they were entitled on paper to the same pay and working conditions as British workers.
Times were very hard for them, though, with widespread misery and destitution. The shipping industry was in a forty-year slump. White seamen and dockers were often resentful towards them, and sometimes refused to work alongside them. In 1913, the National Sailors’ And Firemen’s Union called on fellow unions to boycott cargo carried by ships employing colonial labour.
The war years were good for business, with rates in 1918 more than twenty times those of 1913 — but the armistice abruptly signalled their collapse, the trebling of operating costs, a drastic excess of ships carrying a fifth less cargo than five years previously. Black labour had been fully engaged in the war effort: with peace, it was out of work again. And demobilisation increased the black population dramatically.
In June 1919 — fired up by a mixture of perceived economic grievance and deep sexual anxiety — white lynch-mobs ransacked the interracial communities of Cardiff and Liverpool ports. (On every side it was argued afterwards that white sexual neurosis underpinned the violence — the dread of sexual relations between white women and black men.)
Community buildings and many homes and businesses were wrecked or burned to the ground. In Liverpool, according to a police report, gangs of men between 2,000 and 10,000 strong went on the rampage, ‘savagely attacking, beating, and stabbing every negro they could find’; in Cardiff, the Western Mail reported that discharged soldiers, some in uniform, fired rifles on blacks in the Millicent Steet area of Butetown — ‘niggertown’, as The Times put it — by turns lying down in rows to shoot, then falling back, military-style.
Two years later, the Home Office prescibed an Aliens Order, designed to exclude colonial workers from the British labour market, In 1925, the Coloured Seamen’s Order required all non-white seamen to establish their British identity (or register as aliens), clearing the way for the widespread harrassment of the black residents of British ports, whether seamen or not.
Pressure, hurt and melancholy flow from their immediate social milieux into many of the songs presented here: the prevailing mood is haunted by helplessness, financial hardship and legal trouble, sickness, alcohol, separation, departure and death — even racist murder, in the tale of Asin Asin.
Minstrelsy, spirituals, ragtime and jazz, the classical compositions of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor — in the standard history of black music in Britain during the ninety-odd years prior to these Zonophone recordings, the dynamic, meandering processes are popularisation, adaptation and mutual assimilation.
In 1846, towards the outset of the minstrel period, The Ethiopian Serenaders — the first black troupe to cross the Atlantic — performed for Queen Victoria, and soon there was a constant flow of visiting bands, and a proliferation of Afro-American songbooks, banjo tutorials, and collections of minstrel monologues, to meet the demands of aspiring British minstrels. Troupe members — sometimes entire groups — often chose to remain in Britain at the end of a tour: the Afro-American virtuoso James Bohee, for example, from Haverly’s Genuine Colored Minstrels, who taught banjo in 1882 to the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII.
Likewise the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who in 1873 brought spirituals and slave songs into the English concert hall. ‘Tell them we are delighted with their songs’, declared the Queen. After further touring, some members settled permanently in Britain; and spirituals were well on their way into the core British vocal repertoire, amateur and professional both.
After the ragtime craze of the early twentieth century — by 1920 the catalogues of British record companies carried almost three hundred ragtime records — there was a tumultuous reception for the dazzling technical innovations of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra (including Sidney Bechet), which crossed the Atlantic to tour Britain in 1919. Once again, the Orchestra remained resident in Britain (or tried to — Bechet was deported in 1922). And when original Afro-American members drifted away, they were frequently replaced by British colonial musicians, making for a truly international outfit — during its three year existence, over one hundred musicians passed through its ranks — spawning numerous teachers and new bands, and making a momentous early black contribution to British jazz.
The Orchestra mashed up plantation songs and spirituals, ragtime and jazz — even a dash of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, without question the most celebrated African musician of this period in Britain. Raised in Croydon by his English mother — his father having returned home to Sierra Leone after medical training in London — Coleridge-Taylor studied violin and composition at the Royal College Of Music, and in his mature art sought to integrate black musical forms and themes within Western classical music. On his death in 1912, crowds lined the route from church to cemetery.
In 1924-5, the British Empire Exhibition was staged at Wembley. Spaced across three acres inside a model of the walled city of Zaria in northern Nigeria, the pavilions of Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria displayed the arts, crafts, music and industries of each colony, for the edification and amusement of up to nineteen million visitors. Sir Robert Baden-Powell was so taken with the Ashanti talking drumming of Kwaku Prempeh that he suggested it should be studied by his boy scouts.
Ladipo Solanke — on the other hand — abhorred the voyeurism and exoticism of the Exhibition. This was the year he took a break from founding the West African Students Union — a forum for anti-racism and anti-colonialism — to record a series of discs of Yoruba folklore for Zonophone, in line with his political ideas about a new West African state, melded by its cultural traditions.
From the 1928-9 sessions — when Solanke was settling into the Union’s new London headquarters, provided by Marcus Garvey — Ben Simmons’ three recordings here offer a kind of entrenchment of this African nationalism, deep inside Fanti culture. His untitled track is uncompromising possession music — it is hardly surprising that Zonophone declined to release it — and the steadfast political vision of Obu Kofi is beautiful and startling.
Altogether, these Zonophone recordings are a disruptive late entry into the history of black music in Britain. There is nothing whitened or sentimental about them, beseeching of pity, like minstrelsy and spirituals. It is comical to imagine Ben Simmons before the King — or championed by Edward Elgar and Arthur Sullivan, or invited to the White House, like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. These records are unhitched from the protocols of a white listenership. You can hear Caribbean influences in the music of the West African Quintet, and the promise of highlife in Harry Quashie, but — setting aside a handful of guitar-based songs — the performances here disavow fusion. This is folk, not popular music, living by word-of-mouth, better suited to small, community-based gatherings than concert halls — resilient, elemental roots music from the West African underground of 1920s Britain, encrypted with messages home about life here.
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