Where do you start a narrative about music and migration? My thoughts are, it really depends on what you’re trying to say. In this instance, in the spirit of celebration, I’m suggesting songs for a playlist I’ve titled the ‘Windrush 70/50. The aim is to recognise the 70 years since the arrival of Windrush, through 50 years of reggae music as experienced in the UK. My start point is the music most probably on board the SS Windrush in 1948, as it docked in Tilbury, Essex.
Significant to my playlist is the musician, that in a chance encounter with a journalist, summed up the feelings of many on board – with a rendition of his newly compose song “London is the place for me”. He was calypso Artist Lord Kitchener, and like many musicians to follow, he gave voice to the aspirations of the community, whilst introducing new perspectives to Britain’s cultural life. Back then food, calypso, cricket and Soundsystem culture, were key conduits that connected Caribbean’s in England’s green and often, not so pleasant land. Sometimes music was the only escape and connection with back home, some 4271 nautical miles away.
In the late 50s early 60s turntable favourites in UK homes could include but was not limited to artists like: Luis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillesby, Elvis, Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke, to Russ Conway, Fats” Domino, Aretha franklin, Val Doonican, Tom Jones, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Nat King Cole. Favourites reflected hits from the island’s, the UK and the US. Suggestions for my playlist might include: “I did it my Way” Frank Sinatra, “Moon River” Andy Williams, “Boogie in My Bones” Laurel Atkins, “What a Wonderful World”- Luis Armstrong, “Oh Caroline” The Folks Brothers, “Chain Gang” Sam Cooke, “Green Green Grass of home” Tom Jones, “A Night in Tunisia” Dizzy Gillesby, “Madness”/ “One Step Beyond” and “Al Capone” Prince Buster.
We should also consider early top 20 UK hits like, ‘Alone or I am a mole and I live in a hole’ by The Southlanders, a Jamaican / British vocal group in late 1950s, Emile Fords self-produced cover of “What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?”, that made number 1 in the UK Singles Chart and stayed there for six week. These are just some of the songs, that provided the occasional beacons of success, in an otherwise hazardous aspirational landscape.
By the mid 60s Britain’s love affair with Jamaican music was visible to all. The hit Ska song ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by 14-year-old singer Millie Small, made the top 5 position in the national charts, and stayed there for four weeks. Technically this was the first hit for Chris Blackwell’s island Records. But more importantly, this was evidence that in spite of the often negative, social and political backdrop, the music of Jamaican independence was now breaking down barriers and building bridges. An import label was Trojan records and songs on the playlist from this period might include: Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites”, “Rudy, A Message to You” by Dandy Livingstone, “Monkey Man” by The Maytals and “One Step Beyond” by Prince Buster.
The mid 1970s saw first generation Black British born individuals, both recoiled from, and embraced their Britishness. Lost between conflicting ideas of home, identity and community – and let down by an educational system, that failed to inspire confidence or meet aspirations, music would again offer an escape. In 1972, the now iconic film ‘The Harder They Come’, provided not just a big screen visual representation of up town and down town Kingston Jamaica, but a banging soundtrack with Rocksteady hits that still sound great today. So, a must on the playlist is: “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, Jimmy Cliff, “Rivers of Babylon” by The Melodians and “0.0.7/ Shanty Town”, Desmond Dekker.
The music resonated with biblical and ghetto references in equal measures providing inspiration and salvation. By the mid 70s, Roots reggae and dub became the dominant genres in Britain. Signposting the love affair was not just still on, but set to explode.
The UK was soon to become the international capital of Jamaican music – and now perfectly equipped to introduce its own genre Lover’s Rock. Britain’s first indigenous black music genre. Sir Lloyd Coxson says the genre was underpinned by an established network of Soundsystems, that numbered almost 500 as we hit the 1980s. The seeds of multiculturalism might have already been sown, but the impact of Jamaican culture and music was now a key catalyst in moving black British Culture into the mainstream. Not to mention Rock Against Racism that that widened access and increased profile. Possible additions to the playlist: “I shot the sheriff”-Erick Clapton – Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – Burning Spear” Caught You in a Lie”-Louisa Mark, “Warrior Charge”- Aswad, “Silly Games”- Janet Kay, “Klu Klux Klan”- Steel Pulse, “Police and Thieves”-Clash, “Ghost Town”-The Specials,
With the 1980s came the death of Bob Marley, the rise of Dancehall, the birth of Ragga and a new generation of Jamaican DJs and MCs. This was a time of transition. The Windrush generation was now more inclined to look back at a glorious musical past, whilst their British born children, now adults asserted themselves in the reimagining of Jamaican music, from British perspective. Ska was now The Specials “Rudy Don’t Fear”, Reggae was now UB40 “Kingston Town” by Lord Creator. There was also Pop and rock responses to what was now almost four decades of Jamaican music in Britain. The Police’s “Beds to Big”, and Police and Thieves” by the Clash and Blondies “The Tide is High” by the Paragons. 1983 would also see Alphonsus “Arrow” Cassell, release Hot Hot Hot, become one of the most recognized soca songs. This year marks fifty years of Trojan records. So, as we look back at UK reggae labels like Jet Star, VP, Green Sleeves records were the tip of a challenging but flourishing music industry – the 1880s also marks the tail of what was a golden period for reggae in Britain. I’ve barely scratched the surface of songs that should be listed so please feel free to add your tracks.
Mykaell S. Riley began his career in the late seventies as a performer with pioneering Reggae outfit ‘Steel Pulse’ who went on to achieve a Grammy. In the nineties he founded the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra, who represent the most visibly black/multicultural collection of classically trained musicians in the UK. He has been a professional writer/producer and performer for over 25 years. Over this period he has achieved Silver, Gold and Platinum awards and contributed to four number 1 singles and seven number 1 albums via his production and writing work. He works as a music industry consultant and a content developer for music related educational programmes. He is a subject specialist (music/production) for the Open University validation panel. He is a member Arts & Business foundation, a board member of Camden Arts & Business Consortium, on the steering group for South Themes College, and a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts.