As far as musical social histories of the capital go, this latest two volume set of songs and instrumentals in the ongoing series devoted to London could hardly be bettered and should certainly be viewed as as a valid means of chronicling what has over time become the most cosmopolitan city in the world in terms of its demographic make up. Flash back to the 1950s when there was a large-scale immigration taking place of citizens from the Caribbean and to a lesser extent from West Africa. The musicians emanating from these regions of the world constitute the majority of participants on this wonderfully put together and beautifully illustrated compilation with original photos, labels and album covers (many from the personal collection of writer Val Wilmer) of the era and engage in some early fusion of styles, doubtless influenced by virtue of their migration to the capital by being exposed to new musical styles outside their native lands. Thus Ghanaian Buddy Pipp and his highlifers explore Latin music themes on the sumptuous instrumental ‘Sway’ featuring none other than Jamican alto saxophonist Joe Harriott while Jamaican trumpeter Dizzy Reece forsakes his horn for a brief percussive breakdown. One of the most compelling numbers is ‘Mambo contempo’ by Nigerian percussionist and band leader Ginger Johnson.
Of course the spoken word is a powerful tool in expressing daily life and is no more a potent weapon than in the hands of the masterly calypsonians of Trinidad (and to a lesser extent their Jamaican counterparts). Lord Kitchener engages in some witty social commentary on both ‘My wife went away with Yankee’ when US soldiers were based in the Caribbean islands and on sporting matters on ‘Cricket umpires’. Travel is a recurring theme on this compilation and during the 1950s the deluxe form of crossing the Atlantic was by luxury liner. This is the subject of Lord Beginner’s depiction of a journey from Southampton to New York on ‘The dollar and the pound’. One major advantage that London had over the musicians mother country was the relative quality of the recording studio and a key individual who crops up as engineer on several recordings and later as a seminal figure in modern British jazz is Denis Preston. His attention to detail ensured that the calypsonians in particular were captured in premium musical surroundings and consequently their music has been preserved for posterity. Old friends from previous volumes in the series return such as Cab Kaye and Ambrose Campbell and their inclusion makes for a vibrant and cohesive whole.
For left-field music the Fitzroy Coleman quintet offer an instrumental in ‘Uncle Joe’ that sounds incredibly prescient since the clarinet has all the hallmarks of the then nascent Columbian cumbia genre that took on board jazz influences. Elsewhere Jamaican vocalist Lila Verona enters double-entendre terrain on ‘Big instrument’ which surely takes a leaf out of the early blues recordings of one Dinah Washington. It is left to calypsonian the Might Terror to extol the virtues of living in a new country in ‘Life in Britain’, a sentiment that is worth bearing in mind with the recent and tragic political events in London in the last few weeks.