Saturday, January 13, 2007

Notting Hill Blues

Some memories of early London ‘sound system culture’ in Notting Hill, late 1950s and early 1960s, a period punctuated by the 1958 riots as black people defended themselves from organized racist attacks and police indifference:

‘Then in fifty-eight you had a lot of shebeens, you call it that, a social situation, there was nothing because of the no-coloured policy, no blacks, no coloureds in homes, entertainments, there was nothing really for black people so you had to create your own social environment. The Jamaican people created particularly the reggae, ska and bluebeat. And Fullerton, a chap called Fullerton, was a tailor and bought his first house in Talbot Road. He had a basement and we used to have blues dances and stuff. Everybody used to get down there and get down. You had people like Duke Vin who used to play with big speakers, all these things that we have now is part of our culture, discotheques were actually born out of Caribbean culture.

You had a certain club that a lot of us never got into called the Montparnasse that was on Chepstow Road, the corner of Chepstow and Talbot, but round the corner was the Rio on Westbourne Park Road. Then you come further down, then Larry was in a place there with Johnnie at the corner of Ledbury Road and Westbourne Park and that was called Fiesta One. And right next door to it it had the Calypso. That what I call there, is no more than about 800 yards square. Then when you leave there you come to the corner of Colville Road and Elgin Crescent and some Barbadian guys have a club in the basement. Then Sheriff had his gym/club. It was a wild - when I say wild life you understand me - sometime you don't reach the West End. I used to hit the Grove like about four o'clock of the evening and leave there about quarter to five in the morning.

The police didn't take kindly to it. A lot of things made them annoyed. The music was too loud, they didn't like blacks period gathering in any kind of situation, and the selling of drinks which was outside [the law], because you couldn't get a licence, so you had to sell drinks, So you had to break the law. All this got under their wick. The shebeen didn't survive. The police, well they survived in a sense; the police used to regularly raid them, kick their boxes in, kick their speakers in, but sheer will, just natural perseverance. That aggravated the blacks no end and gave them the determination to persevere and the whole police hatred came out of that.

Anything which happens with the blacks and the police is inherent in the early stupidness of breaking their sound systems, costing them money, and indirectly disrupting their social pattern. It carried on after the riots, way into the sixties. The riots didn't do much for change. All the riots did was establish that you can't take liberties with black people, that's what it established, you've got to stand up and defend yourself. You're not going to back off.

Source: Notting Hill in the Sixties - Mike Phillips (Lawrence and Wishart, 1991)

'As early as the 50's people like Duke Vin and Count Suckle had carved names for themselves as sound system operators in the area, playing at basement sessions and parties. For Black people such entertainment was crucial in the face of the undeclared but effective colour bar in white pubs and clubs. Few appropriate places could be found for these sessions popularly known as 'Blues'. They happened in front rooms as well as abandoned basements. Police raids occurred with predictable regularity. One brother has vivid memories:

"Wherever you come from, you had a feel for the music. The people dem didn't too care where you come from. Dem people didn't have a prejudice like island thing, you know. For the youth dem, it was just oneness. Like when you finish work in a factory on a friday night, this is where you go, Blues dance. All de doors close and sounds just a drop in you head. Its like a refuge still. It remind you of home, the feel of it. From Blues sessions a culture develop. I remember one on Winston Road, played by a brother called Jucklin. One night in 1963 the door just kick down and policeman just step in and you hear funny sound, sound system switch off. Dem just bust up de dance! We couldn't understand it. De older people dem did know because it happen to them. A couple of brethren get fling on police van and get charge with obstructing police officers on de Monday morning"'

Source: Behind the Masquerade: The Story of Notting Hill Carnival – Kwesi Owusu and Jacob Ross (London: Arts Media Group, 1988)

See also: The Politics of Partying by Gary Younge (2002) for the road from the 1958 riots to the Notting Hill Carnival; Tom Vague’s account of this period in Notting Hill

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