Music at the old Africa Centre
It was my friend Clive Anderson who introduced me to the Africa Centre in King Street, Covent Garden, sometime in 1980. Very soon, it was my favourite watering hole in London. The bar downstairs was so small that it was impossible not to get talking to people. Music was everywhere. African music, of course - long before the term "Wold Music" was invented and rock fans started buying Fela records. Remmy Ongala live on the ground floor gallery stage remains one of my best concert memories ever.
To cut a long story short: early in 2014 I was invited to write a text about the music at the Africa Centre for a book to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this brilliant place (the organisation, though perhaps not the spirit, had newly relocated to Bethnal Green). There was no fee involved. Unfortunately, the commissioning editor died shortly after I delivered my contribution. Since then I've had no word from the Africa Centre about the future of this project - in fact, I've had no word of thanks either. E-mails remained unanswered, on the telephone I was told "we'll let you know..."
It would be a shame to let this story go to waste - not least for all those who generously gave their time and energy to talk to me about their own memories of the Africa Centre. So, here goes.
DJ Wala Danga of the Limpopo Club @ Africa Centre. Pic not mine, alas.
The 1980s were turbulent times everywhere in the world. And like any vibrant place of social gathering, the Africa Centre reflected these turbulences in every corner of its labyrinthine corridors. This was especially true of the basement bar, a room so cosy it was impossible for any new visitor to remain aloof for long from the general hubbub of discussion, story-telling and all-round merriment. Music was an essential ingredient in the atmosphere of openness and desire for communication. Many a verbal exchange threatening to progress from heated to worse was returned to its peaceful origins by a judicious choice of music by the bar keeper, or simply by turning up the volume of the legendarily tinny “sound system”.
Of course, music could be heard up and down the Africa Centre building long before, from the very beginning in 1964. However, in sharp contrast to most other London venues in the sixties, those responsible for programming the arts in the Africa Centre seemed to have little time for the musical revolution unfolding around them. African musicians – especially those involved with the Blue Notes, later Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, who had sought refuge in London via France and Switzerland from the dire situation in South Africa in 1965 – were enthusiastically mixing up the local jazz scene,bringing in fresh ideas the echoes of which can still be heard today, nearly five decades later. If these jazz musicians were ever invited to play at theAfrica Centre, no one seems to remember it. The live program in the ground floor Auction Hall appears to have been dominated by traditional music,appealing predominantly to an audience of earnest ethno musicologists. Perhaps the Africa Centre’s apparent lack of interest in the latest strands of popular music shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The Centre was located in Europe, after all, and European mainstream culture and academe generally held little respect for any type of popular culture even during heyday of the Beatles.
Things began to change in 1975. That year, Wala Danga, a Zimbabwean promoter and sound engineer who, like many other young Africans in London, hugely enjoyed the international mix of the Africa Centre’s bar clientele, organised his first club night here. “The Africa Centre was unique,” Wala Danga told Lloyd Bradley for his tremendous account of black music in London, “Sounds Like London”. “One of the first places that people from different African countries really used to mix, because for a lot of theAfrican students it was like a home away from home.” Long before the age of Sterns African Record shop and the “World Music” corner in HMV, Wala and his DJs imported their music – live bands or vinyl - directly from all over Africa. Sometimes, when the budget was tight, Wala put the bands up in his own flat for days, if not weeks. They were utterly non-partisan in their selections, thus contributing significantly to the pan-African outlook of the place. At their dances, music from all corners of Africa happily co-existed. London-based bands, too, were more than welcome. Despite the popularity of these nights, it wasn’t before 1983 that the club officially became a regular Friday night venture, named the Limpopo Club. Needless to say that Wala also had a hand in organising the trail-blazing series of African concerts with artists like Etoile de Dakar (with Youssou N’Dour) and Pierre Akendengue with which the Greater London Council (GLC) helped to bring African music to a much wider audience shortly before its abolishment in 1986.
By now, the musical and social climate in London had changed dramatically. The children of the early 60s arrivals especially from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent were a highly politicised generation. Whilst striving to define their own cultural identity within Britain and their own families, they were doing so against a backdrop of increasing, and often institutionalised, racism. Africans in London, meanwhile, were buoyed by the example of the turn-around in Zimbabwe. Support for the Anti-Apartheid Movement with its vigil outside South Africa House,conveniently situated just round the corner from the Africa Centre, grew exponentially, and by no means just within the African community. Punk, although at heart not a political but a playfully provocative movement, had made a new generation of British teenagers view their surroundings with a different, much more critical eye. They weren’t happy with developments under Labour, still less happy with the government of Margaret Thatcher, and least happy with the iron grip the major record labels held on the British music world. Rock Against Racism, the Anti-Apartheid League as well as myriad smaller pressure groups of all kinds thrived. In music, the spirit of DIY ruled the punk movement, first, and then the musically much more experimental new wave. With a few exceptions like the globally successful Osibisa or the Blue Flames-spin-off Assagai, African artists in Britain had always relied on independent labels to release their music. Now, independent record labels, including Earthworks, launched by South African Africa Centre regulars Jumbo Vanrenen and Trevor Herman, and Globe Style, run by the musician Ben Mandelson, became the “in” thing. And, in the wake of British reggae bands’ successful quest for a style that was their own, neither “Jamaican” the way their parents understood it nor British the way the record industry would have liked to see it, a joyous new attitude of musical adventurousness prevailed. The reputation of the Africa Centre as a place to discovernew music rapidly spread to a much wider audience.
Chenjerai Shire, today a lecturer at SOAS, started going to the Africa Center in the late 1970s, shortly after arriving from Zimbabwe, aged 18. “The atmosphere was beautiful,” he remembers. “The bar was like your little living room. All kinds of people were there who weren’t part of the political mainstream. People who didn’t fit the stereotype that if you were white and from South Africa you had to be racist, or if you were black and from South Africa you had to be a terrorist. It was a beautifully dynamic place. A sanctuary away from any such notions, whether you were black or white. Everyone was on a journey. That place was the only place where no one asked you where you came from. If you were part and parcel of the political vibe, nobody gave a toss where you came from. It was a place to connect, to make contact, to start off.” And, crucially, as Chenjerai points out, the Africa Centre was also a place of pleasure. “So many lovely bands, it’s really difficult to remember them individually”, he says. The names that start tumbling out include Remmy Ongala, Taxi Pata Pata (N’Simba Foguis’s London-based combo was undoubtedly one of the most popular and most regular Africa Centre draws), Lovemore Majaivana (“A lot of people still hadn’t been exposed to this kind of Bulawayo style music and dressing. It was wicked!”), Super Combo, Orchestra Jazira, Dudu Pukwana, Abdul T-Jay’s Rokoto (“I loved Christmas time when Rokoto played a lot!”), and on and on. “And I really enjoyed the Bhundu Boys. They were a breath of fresh air. Jit Jive. After we’d all been listening to Thomas Mapfumo and the political radical songs, here were the happy songs from the city. Refreshing. Danceable. Quite inclusive. It wasn’t always you had to know the history of the music and everything around it. You could just enjoy the music.”
The likes of Baaba Maal, Kanda Bongo Man and Salif Keita all made their European debut at the Limpopo club, Thomas Mapfumo and Angelique Kidjo played their first UK shows here. The Africa Centre was now recognised far beyond the inner circle of African musicians and their friends and fans as an inspirational source of fresh ideas. Members of post-punk-jazz outfit Rip Rig & Panic mingled with reggae punk funksters Basement Five (for a while featuring film maker and DJ Don Letts on vocals). Importantly, this was never perceived as “watering down” the essence of the Centre, on the contrary. “Everyone was there,” recalls South African saxophonist Frank Williams who had arrived in London at the end of 1978 as an asylum seeker. “East, Central, North, South, West Africans – we all went to the Africa Centre all the time. And Friday and Saturday were the big nights. People started downstairs in the bar and didn’t go upstairs into the Hall until the bar was drunk dry or the place closed. Hi-Life International I remember, “music to wake the dead”, they claimed. And Abdul T-Jay, the New Year’s eves! Incredible. Jabula, Super Combo - fantastic!” Thanks, not least, to the connections he made at the Africa Centre, Frank Williams formed, first, the influential District 6 with pianist Mervyn Africa, later the band Kintone, signed to Sterns Records. “Alot of African musicians at the time were cross-pollinating, looking further afield for their ideas, playing all kinds of stuff.” he says. “And the Africa Centre ended up for a lot of people, whatever the persuasion, as their HQ.”
Debbie Golt, who was a youth worker in the early 1980s but subsequently became heavily involved (and still is) with African music as a promoter, manager and DJ, drifted towards the Africa Centre as a friend of members of Super Combo and of Wala Danga whom she knew from Thursday nights at club Gold Coast at Gossips. “I quickly got to know a lot of people there,” she says, unsurprisingly. “Soon, I went to one of Nish’s clothes making classes and I took Shona classes, too. I remember going to a talk by Amos Tutuola there, and somewhere I still have the cassette recording of it. And I remember Ptika Ntuli, the South African sculptor and poet, and African Dawn.” In many ways, African Dawn were the Africa Centre’s house band. Comprising two Zimbabweans (percussionist Toendepi Danga – aka Wala - and guitarist and singer Torera Mpedzisi), two Ghanaians (Vico Mensah, guitar, vocals and percussion; Kwesi Owusu, vocals and percussion), one Grenadian (vocalist and poet Merle Collins), one Senegalese (the late Ahmed Sheikh, vocals, and also a poet), and one Uruguayan (vocalist and percussionist Eduardo Pereira), they wove all their different musical backgrounds into a tight fabric of pan-African- if not pan-World-style music, poetry and theatre.
For a while, in the 1980s, even the mainstream music business regarded Africa as the source of the “next big thing”. Bob Marley had demonstrated in spectacular fashion that the record buying public in Europe and North America was ready to accept music other than rock, jazz or classical into their living rooms. With Marley's untimely demise, the search was on for a new superstar from a world beyond rock music. Island Records tried their luck with King Sunny Ade, Virgin Records with Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, and EMI with Fela Kuti. At the same time, the French recording industry sought to expand its market in other territories. Realising that they needed something different from the usual rock, pop or singer/songwriter fare to compete in a non-francophone market, they focused their export activities on artists from the French-speaking parts of Africa and the Caribbean (not to mention Paris). At its peak, the resulting boom of "world music" (a catch-all label which no one seemed particularly happy with except record shop owners who were now able to put a name on everything they didn’t know anything about) landed the Bhundu Boys a deal with Warner Brothers and a spot as the support act for Madonna at Wembley Arena. By dint of a massive PR budget as well as a huge pre-existing African audience in London, most major-label-supported artists were too "big" to play at the Africa Centre. Most, however, paid it avisit for a drink, a chat, and perhaps a bite to eat at the Calabash restaurant.
London-born kora player and cellist Tunde Jegede and keyboard player Juwon Ogungbe who grew up partly in Britain, partly in Nigeria, belonged to a slightly younger generation of regular Africa Centre visitors and performers. "They belonged to a new school of musician," says Chenjerai Shire, "not just the old school playing for the memory of campaigning. It was quite a spiritual experience, to see this youngster, Tunde, making such beautiful music." Tunde, born in 1972, was strongly supported from early on by the members of African Dawn. He studied the kora in the Gambia with Amadu Bansang Jobarteth and went on to work as a composer for a variety of classical orchestras, including the London Sinfonietta, thus drawing together African and European classical traditions. He also founded a jazz group, the Jazz Griots. Ogungbe, on the other hand, spent his early years in Britain before moving to Lagos where, as a teenager, he experienced Fela's Shrine both as a punter and a musician. Back in London, he played in the band of ex-Orange Juice drummer Zeke Manyika, a Zimbabwean, before forming his own group to develop a style of music that reflected both strands of his cultural background. In the 1990s he began to express his ideas in a new framework of music theatre, later on developing a strong interest in the European opera and lieder tradition. With his latest outfit, The Life Force Band, he was one of the performers in the Auction Hall on the very last evening of the Africa Centre in King Street. "I was in my early 20s, back from Nigeria maybe a couple of years, when I started to go to the Africa Centre," he remembers. "I had reached a point where I decided to embrace the African music dimension as my mode of expression. That wasn't a given for me. It wasn't an obvious move." Once he had arrived at this decision, however, the Africa Centre became part of his journey. Naming Dudu Pukwana as a particularly inspirational and helpful figure to aid his early progress as an artist, he says: "It was such an important meeting point. In the bar you'd meet people who'd say: "play a gig with me", or:"why don't you play with this person or that person?" You'd end up going to their place for a jam session that would lead to other ideas and opportunities. Or after the bar you'd end up going upstairs to see a gig. My perspective now as a creative musician who deals with contemporary African music, my judgment, is very much based on having explored a vast number of possibilities because I met so many musicians from all over the continent at the Africa Centre."
At its electric, most exciting musical best, throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Africa Centre was the place in London where local African musicians came together, exchanged ideas and developed new ways of musical expression. It also served as a first haven in the UK and Europe for touring African musicians. Furthermore, the Africa Centrealso offered an entry point for non-African music fans into African music,first, and then, almost inevitably, African culture in general, and politics.
It wasn't just amongst the inner circle of African music fans, however, that the Africa Centre achieved legendary status. Trevor Beresford Romeo, aka Jazzie B., war born in London into a large West Indian family with a long history of running sound systems. In the mid 1980s, when the warehouse party scene in the suburbs was at its peak but, in the words of Jazzie B.,"becoming a little bit too gangsterish", a friend with connections to the Africa Centre - where Jazzie B. had DJed on one or two previous occasions - suggested there might be a space available for him and his crew's sound system, Soul 2 Soul. "I wouldn't say we were anarchist," says Jazzie B., "but we were against the grain, and it seemed the craziest idea for someone like Soul 2 Soul to go into the West End. In those days black people still had a hard time when it came to hiring a venue for a party, especially in the West End. So this was a great opportunity. My only criterion for a hall was that it had to have a wooden floor. And the hall in the Africa Centre did have a wooden floor. That's how it all started." Soul 2 Soul were pioneers, both musical and entrepreneurial. The desire to create a mode of musical expression especially amongst second generation West Indians and Asians in the UK had inspired a great number of musical hybrids. Soul 2 Soul were not simply a bunch of DJs playing records others had made. Apart from designing their own "Funki Dred" brand of clothing, the collective also began to make their own music. Alongside the similarly inspirational Neneh Cherry, they were the first to develop a truly British blend of black music styles, incorporating reggae, soul, funk and even a hint of West African sounds here and there (not least in their clothing designs).
"Afro-centric!" says Jazzie B."One of the biggest things I was pushing was the fact that we were born and raised in Britain. So we knew how important from a roots point of view that was. Nothing was done from a commercial point of view. It all came totally from idealism, from the love of music." Sunday nights with Soul 2 Soul swiftly became a huge success. With 200 to 300 people inside, they often had to turn away as many again. Predictably, the success created problems. “The neighbourhood” – Jazzie’s euphemism for rival club owners – made sure the authorities kept a close eye on Sunday nights in King Street. Soul 2 Soul realised they had to take extra care with their homework in order to be left to survive. Once they discovered that by turning themselves into a “private club” they could circumvent a variety of problems, the club really hit its stride. And it wasn’t just music and dancing. A variety of artists including Goldie, Derek Bates, Nicolai B. and “probably” a very young Banksy exhibited their works. Soul 2 Soul nights became so popular that on bank holidays they had to be run in shifts. The first shift lasted from eight o’clock until midnight: “At midnight we’d ask the first lot to leave and let a second set come in and enjoy themselves.” recalls Jazzie B. who is adamant that Nish, Rambo and Kwesi Asare, the Africa Centre people who helped him with the work, are name-checked here. “It was incredible. No one complained. Everyone was willing to share.That’s the kind of vibe we had.”
Soul 2 Soul’s time at the Africa Centre ended after about four years in 1989. Problems behind the scenes at the Africa Centreappear to have accelerated the departure. However, Soul 2 Soul were rapidly outgrowing the size of the venue anyway. After their album debut “Club ClassicsVol. 1” was released in 1989, the group became hugely and globally successful. In the UK alone enough copies of “Club Classics Vol. 1” were sold to earn the group three platinum awards. Two more came from the United States where black British musicians previously had found very little commercial success or, indeed, any kind of acceptance. With “Keep on Movin’”, “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)” and “Get a Life” they also had three top five single hits in1989 alone. Soon, the hydra-like Soul 2 Soul live revue incorporating a massive band, several singers and – of course – fabulously African-inspired clothes and robes, were playing in places like the Wembley Arena. Truly, Soul 2 Soul had built a bridge from the Africa Centre into the world. Their pioneering technique of blending British, American and African for a few years became th emost important British contribution to the world of popular music, evolving into the somewhat slower and darker trip hop style under the guiding hand of Bristol collective Massive Attack (with ex-Soul 2 Soul member Nellee Hooper). In fact, the Africa Centre left its imprint on the very soul of Soul 2 Soul’s music. “Oh man, those were the great times.” enthuses Jazzie B. “I developed so many different sonics from having that wooden floor. I give tribute to us playing there in the way of making our albums. A lot of the songs from (first single) “Fairplay” all the way up to “Back to Life” were played in the Africa Centre and adjusted in response to the way they sounded there.”
During the 1990s, the Africa Centre gradually ceased to be quite the hotbed of creative communication and enjoyment it had been throughout the previous fifteen years or so. This wasn’t just down to the departure of Soul 2 Soul. Wala Danga, too, following on from some more behind-the-scenes manoeuvres (most people willing to talk about these at least “off the record” – and there seem to be no others – will apply the word “political” in their context) had taken away his Limpopo Club to new pastures (where at the time of writing it is still flourishing). Also, without a doubt, the zeitgeist had moved on, too, to other, newer clubs. Furthermore, audiences at African concerts were beginning to fall away once “world music” had ceased to be an exciting latest fashion and settled into a more sedate existence somewhere between mainstream pop and folk, the Sunday papers and family-friendly summer festivals.
London-based African musicians in particular found the going tough. “Some of it also had to do with funding and a lack of infrastructure,” says Juwon Ogungbe. “There was a lack of producers, promoters, just generally people who had the interest of the artists at heart but also commanded respect as business people. The prevailing attitude at the time - even amongst Africans promoting bands – was that no one was interested in UK-based African artists. Nobody wanted to invest in people based in London. It takes a lot of single-mindedness to feel you don’t need those people to survive and thrive as an artist.” Frank Williams sees another reason for the fading attractiveness of the Africa Centre as a place for musicians to meet, drink and exchange ideas and telephone numbers. “The unity of purpose that existed previously around the struggles in South Africa, Angola or Mozambique created a sense of cohesion and mutual support.” he says. “As things progressed, and Thatcher decimated everything, a lot of this cohesion went and was replaced by inter-communal strife.” His own main reason for visiting the Centre less and less often is an entirely different one, however. “You get older,” he reckons. “And as you get older you turn into a tortoise.”