Sunday, July 06, 2008

VARIOUS ARTISTS - Living is Hard: West African Music in Britain, 1927-1929 (Honest Jon's)

Following the excellent London is the Place For Me series that covered the role of Caribbean and African music in post-war London life, the admirably assiduous Honest Jon's have taken a plunge into the EMI Records archive to stitch together another fascinating, evocative part of roots music’s rich historical tapestry, and the city's role in it.
These late '20s Zonophone recordings were made in London by West African artists resident in (or visiting) Britain, and sold back to their home market (record players as well as the discs themselves were part of the deal), and thus little of this music contains influence from outside the British colonial nations of their origin (Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast/Ghana).
It’s mostly raw and elemental folkloric fare which has the resonance of field recordings (albeit with a clear, cleanly-mastered sound), with singers either unaccompanied or backed by rudimentary percussion, and with much in the way of call and response, possession or trance songs, and spirituals.
However, melody does have its place alongside tracks heavy on rhythm and mood, the presence of acoustic guitar pointing the way to later, more recognisable genres like Ghanaian highlife and the palm wine music of Sierra Leone. Harry E Quashie pushes the known provenance of the latter genre back a couple of decades with the Ghanaian standard Anadwofa, and there’s enough of a countrified twang to The West African Instrumental Quartet’s elaborately arranged instrumental to suggest the early shoots of the musical intermarriage with Europe and the Americas that was so important to the region’s popular music in later decades.
What little biographical detail that compiler Mark Ainley has managed to unearth suggests that few of these artists went on to greater musical achievements, and the socio-economic backdrop to the period in which these recordings were made - Africans who came to Britain to work were subject to the typical vagaries of immigrant labour (low pay, poor living conditions and racism) - suggest this collection might be both the starting and stopping place for our knowledge about them. So Living is Hard is a fine a way as any to mark these mysterious, unfamiliar voices of a newly discovered past.

Honest Jon's website

This review first appeared in fRoots magazine.

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