JOHN STORM ROBERTS: AN APPRECIATION
In the early 80s when I was searching for African music I came across AFRICA DANCES, the first release of John Storm Roberts' Original Music label. It wasn't very promising looking: one-colour cover with bad rub-on type, a muddy halftone -- but I had learned from experience that the worse-looking the sleeve, the better the music inside (this is not always true, but a good rule of thumb for self-produced African albums). It kicks off with "Afrika Mokili Mobimba" by African Jazz, the song that became the anthem for an entire generation of Zairois. After a pulsing rumba from the Bantous de la Capitale (Brazzaville) it continued West to Ghana, thence to Sierra Leone for S.E. Rogie's "Toomuss merry merry no good"! Then to South Africa where we good to meet "Miss Smodern." It kept moving, in a leisurely circle around the great continent. By the time we got to Nachil Pichen's "Pole Musa" from Kenya I was hooked -- on the album and also on the label because I knew that here was someone with their finger on the pulse. Roberts saw the world differently from others, he started listening to Bessie Smith and flamenco as a kid growing up in England. Not for him Edmundo Ros and Billy Cotton. He studied languages at Oxford then went to Kenya where he worked for newspapers and the BBC world service, and (like Hugh Tracey a generation earlier) started digging the local pop that none of his colleagues seemed to be even aware of. He didn't like the typical ethnomusicologist isolationism and resistance to modern influences: He saw all these little individuals marking their own turf and decided to build a superhighway to connect them all. The second Original Music release, THE SOUND OF KINSHASA, confirmed my faith. "Mickey me queiro" by Nino & Orch. Rockamambo, Mujos & OK Jazz performing "Finga mama munu," Dr Nico with the Kiri Kiri, Empire des Babuka doing "Ya yongo" -- it was heaven-sent. The albums had great liner notes, so even if the music was not something I gravitated to, I bought it anyway for the education. SONGS THE SWAHILI SING was followed by a solo album, Francis Bebey's sweet thumb-piano disc AKWAABA. JAMIILA: Songs from a Somali City was the 7th release. The address on the back moved from Brooklyn to Tivoli, New York. I wrote a letter and got a reply: Roberts was starting a mail order business and so I saved up to buy imports from him and his boy Carl, who seemed to like throbbing Haitian music. I placed ambitious orders for West African LPs that he had a direct line to, but sadly they often came back unfulfilled. I enquired about the possibility of more Congolese 78s coming out on his own label and he responded by sending me a cassette of Rock-a-Mambo sides he owned. When I told him how much I appreciated his books The Latin Tinge & Black Music of Two Worlds, he generously sent me a cassette of a BBC radio broadcast he had done explaining the connection between Cuban music and Congolese! Funnily enough his accent reminded me forcibly of that other African musicologist Hugh Tracey. We all find our teachers and he was one of mine.
I added AFRICAN ACOUSTIC VOLUME 1, THE KAMPALA SOUND, and FROM THE COPPERBELT to my collection, laughing at the lame rub-on University Roman type that had become his default house style (probably because he got a clearance lot of it). There's a solid connection to one of his mentors here, because the Copperbelt album was licensed from ILAM and had been recorded by Hugh Tracey in 1957. Original Music tried out a Caribbean series with charming music from Grand Cayman UNDER THE COCONUT TREE (recorded by Roberts & his wife on vacation) and the brilliant STREET MUSIC OF PANAMA, subtitled Cumbias, Tamboritos and Mejoranas, but it also included "Gritos" or drunks yelling in the deserted late-night street, one of my favourite cuts.
Then in the mid-80s the CD appeared and so Original Music started reissuing its albums in expanded format. Richard Henderson came aboard to remaster the sound, but the packaging remained rudimentary. AFRICAN ACOUSTIC reappeared with the same cover, but it had different tracks. Usually labels put out the same album with a different cover; this was bad marketing indeed. GIANTS OF DANCEBAND HIGHLIFE, featuring Tempos, Ramblers and Professional Uhuru went into heavy rotation on my system. The TANZANIA SOUND and an equally vital double dose of KENYAN MUSIC: BEFORE BENGA followed. Another Hugh Tracey set from the mid-fifties, KERESTINA: Guitar songs of Southern Mozambique (with a colour photo, for a change, on the cover, of a Congolese guitarist! taken by Ken Braun), appeared in 1995. Roberts' passion for African folk music was infectious, as well as his evident dedication to finding the best Highlife music. He told The Los Angeles Times in 1987, "I don't care how esoteric it is, but it's got to be terrific. Not this 'you-can't-hear-it-and-it's-terribly-performed-but-it's-really-very-interesting-because-it's-the-only-winkle-gathering-song-to-come-out-of-southeastern-Sussex' attitude."
OM put out a sampler CD (MBUKI MVUKI OMCD17). Inside there was a photo of JSR at the zoo. I was floored -- he could have been my double! [Top right]
Roberts was always far ahead of the herd, so far in fact that many of his records came and went before anyone realized their importance. He anticipated the craze for Highlife and Funk with a whole series of West African reissues. IGNACE DE SOUZA presented the work of a West African musician in a new series, humourously called "The Great Unknowns." He anticipated the fanatic work of Guenter at Popular African Music, Samy at Analog Africa, and Miles at Soundways. He found compilations were much more profitable and in the mid-90s we got the glorious MONEY NO BE SAND (1960s Afro-lypso, Pidgin Highlife, Afro-Soul and Afro-Rock) with many classics including the Garage-Thrash classic "Jane" by the Junkers, DADA KIDAWA (Classic dance hits from Tanzania) with Kilwa Jazz Band, NUTA, Cuban Marimba and others, I'VE FOUND MY LOVE featured more 1960s Ghanaian guitar bands, TELEPHONE LOBI (even more giants of danceband Highlife!), then to Nigeria for two single-artist anthologies: Godwin Kabaka Opara's Oriental Brothers' DO BETTER IF YOU CAN and Orlando Owoh's DR GANJA'S POLYTONALITY BLUES; two YORUBA WOMEN OF THE DRUM graced the penultimate release & LUCKY STARS & ROSY MORNINGS (The 60s Ibadan Juju Scene) was the last release I know of.
I heard that I.K. Dairo or E.T. Mensah sued him for royalties and this was rumoured to be the cause of the demise of the label. A music industry insider told me: "Despite his good intentions and love for the music, he didn't quite seem to grasp the notion that the owners of the music should get paid. This got him in big trouble and was a major reason the label closed down." From what I know all his recordings are out of print. A French label, Night & Day, licensed some of his tracks and put out a great double disc set called HIGHLIFE HIGH-UPS in 1996. So once again we got to hear Charlotte Dada's brittle version of the Beatles' "Don't let me down," the Ramblers' ska cover "Ride your Donkey," the Archibogs' "Hold me tight baby," and "Akwantu" by the Professional Beach Melodians. When I heard that I decided I needed a new career. What better way to earn your living than strolling down a beach strumming a guitar?
Richard Henderson writes:
When it was decided that Ilka and I would move upstate from Manhattan to a stone farm house in Kripplebush (if anyone asks, you can use my time-worn definition: "It's Dutch for 'mucus membrane'") all I could think about was that I'd be within range of the guy who put out the Africa Dances album. I stared at maps, figured out the route, then introduced myself over the phone and invaded the Original Music barn within two weeks of being settled in Ulster County. Being forward paid off in this case: Original Music became a big part of my life in upstate New York in the seven years that would follow. I can't count the number of lunches I had with John and Carl and Raissa in the kitchen 'in the front house.' I remember looking over and seeing John's valve trombone during those lunches, but I don't think I ever heard him play it.
John had one big heart attack circa 1990. Anne phoned me to relay as much, telling me that John was in ICU at Rhinebeck. At the time, I owned a clerical dickey (bought at a uniform supply shop. Clerk: "Are you a minister?" RH: "Yeah." Clerk: "OK."). I pulled it out of the drawer and put it on under a black suit and went to the hospital early in the day. It's amazing, the places that fake priests can get into, where only immediate family might be allowed ordinarily. There was John, in bed with tubes seemingly connected to his every orifice. It was clearly an effort for him, not to hemorrhage with laughter when I walked in. Later, I brought a computer to his room. The same staff members who were practically genuflecting when I showed up earlier now were looking with deep suspicion at this guy in a T-shirt lugging computer components into John's room. I should have thought ahead on that one, maybe worn summer-weight liturgical togs.
Generally speaking, John was fun to be around. He drove me crazy at intervals, being as opinionated as the day is long and more than a little oblivious when you'd least expect it, but I was grateful for my dialog with him, for the friends that he introduced me to, for the opportunities that he allowed me -- to master his records, to design packaging, even compiling and annotating a 'greatest non-hits of Original' CD that he gave me carte blanche to organize. When became apparent that I should up sticks and strike out for California in 1992, the Original gang threw me a picnic in the back yard of Anne's and John's farm, gave me a handful of disposable wide-format cameras and a bottle of tequila, wished me well and sent me on my way. I thought often about that gesture, and about playing ping-pong with my friends in Original's barn filled with records and CDs and cassettes, as I drove across country towards a deeply uncertain future. Sitting alone in an Econotel in Oklahoma, a glass of Original Music's bequest in my hand, I started to feel a bit better about the whole thing. All the same, I knew what I had left behind.
I am sorry that John has hopped the twig and joined the Choir Invisible. Anne, who helped John through some bad patches and who was never less than sweetness incarnate, has lost her husband and I'm sorry about that, too. But mostly I'm sorry that I will no longer hear John's slight lisp as he trumpets a new favorite or dredges up yet another memory of working for UNESCO or of recording women who sang as they rolled cigars in the Dominican Republic. It should be enough that he was there first, with the best music, and changed much and many by being so. Better than that, he was a good egg. Now, as then, when I hear Rochereau sing, or when I ponder the weirdness of an Indian film soundtrack, or when I'm certain that this Haitian band had to have owned records by that Congolese group who undeniably played Trio Matamoros records at their parties, I hear John's voice in my head.
There you go,