Ginger Johnson ‘African Party’ (Freestyle Records) 5/5

ginger-johnsonWhen the full story of African music and musicians in post-war Britain is finally told, a large space will have to be made for Ginger Johnson. Alongside the great Ambrose Campbell, Johnson was a pivotal figure in black British music of the later 1940s and 1950s. The contribution of African musicians remains a relatively unsung feature of the musical culture of the 1950s, and the impact that drum and percussion masters such as Johnson and Campbell had on British jazz and indeed the nascent pop scene is both poorly understood and much underestimated (as indeed is the extent of their influence within with the burgeoning 1950s Caribbean music scene, particularly in mambo and calypso bands).
Johnson played with both Ronnie Scott and with the ground-breaking Afro-Cubists lead by Kenny Graham, as well as working with Edmundo Ros. His Haverstock Hill nightclub, the Iroko Country Club, was a hub for African musicians in London, and a plethora of future African and Caribbean greats would pass through the ranks of his own bands, Fela Kuti and members of Cymande among them. By the middle 1960s he was held in universally high esteem as a versatile master drummer, skilled in both African and Afro-Cuban styles, but he recorded very little as leader – the only long play releases under his own name are the exceptionally rare Contemporary Mood 10” on Melodisc and 1967’s African Party. Both have been unavailable since original release, and so Freestyle Records reissue of African Party is an overdue reintroduction for one of London’s less familiar musical masters.

African Party has long been sought after by those in the know, and for good reason: it is an unadulterated blast of West African percussive intensity, thickly layered and motoric, finished by heavy duty brass and reeds. Unlike many similar albums of its era, it is without notable compromise and does not tip its hat to either mainstream musical fashion nor to the softer mores of the exotica crowd. In its purity of sound and intention, it is probably closer to the deeper African recordings that appeared on labels like Melodisc in the 1950s, though the extra depth of the late 60s production sound give it a noisy heft that few of them muster. Fundamentally, the record showcases Johnson’s furiously uptempo brand of highlife jazz, well seasoned with calypso and afro-cuban flavours. The record is bursting with energy and verve, and while overwhelming sonic sensibility is naturally West African, the tracks are in profound melodic and rhythmic conversation with the music of the Caribbean. There are precious few British recordings which illustrate this Afro-latin overlap as directly, and in that sense African Party is a classic of the post-Imperial diaspora – a record which emerges from the vigorously crisscrossing pathways and routes of African and Caribbean music in global transit.

Francis Gooding