Through stories of musical innovation, distribution and enjoyment, this series ‘Roots, Rhythms and Records’ celebrates the impact of Hackney’s African and Caribbean communities on music in the borough and beyond. This week we are exploring music and the Windrush generation.
What role did music play in the lives of the Windrush generation?
Caribbean communities settled in Hackney in large numbers from the 1960s onwards. For these early generations, music helped with some of the challenges of life in a new country.
Life in Britain was not easy for people of Caribbean heritage. Music provided an escape from discrimination and racism experienced in daily life. It gave people opportunities to make a living and for personal expression.
A radiogram was central for family and social gatherings in the home. Great care would be taken in selecting the records to play so the right kind of atmosphere was created. The radio and record player provided a means of entertainment in the home, at a time when many did not feel welcome in Hackney’s bars and clubs.
The Blue Spot radiogram was considered the best by the Caribbean community who moved to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. The ‘Barcelona’ model had a radio and record player with integrated drinks cabinet beneath for entertaining. It was capable of receiving radio signals from as far away as the Caribbean.
We were in a time where – you know, the “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs” – so we couldn’t just go anywhere, and there wasn’t so many people who would hire their venues to us, not that we could afford it. So a lot of our dances and our blues were in our own homes. So this is the music culture that I come from, and I miss, and I love so much.
But my parents, I’m glad to say, they bought their house, which was unheard of in the sixties and seventies. And my father used to say to us, “This is our house, nobody can tell you what to do in this house.” And we’d be jumping, playing the music, and we’d be jumping. But we only understood as adults, the power of what he was saying. That you couldn’t jump outside the house, you couldn’t be your fullness outside the house, no matter what.
Ngozi Fulani, Hackney Museum 2018.54
Religious belief was important for many in the African and Caribbean communities. Jim Reeves and other religiously inspired music was often listened to on Sunday afternoons at home after church.
Country and Western music was popular across the Caribbean because American radio stations could be picked up on the various Caribbean islands. Western films, often with singing lead actors, added to the popular appeal.
My birth parents sent for me. They were already living in the UK for the Windrush time where they came for betterment of themselves and family. Coming here was a complete surprise, cold, grey, no sunlight and just horrid…
I was not hearing my culture music anymore, it was Sunday music. We didn’t really play music during the day or anytime in the week. They had to go to work and we were in school.
Sundays when it was clean-up day and your spiritual days good old Jim Reeves never stop playing, Ace Cannon they were the top two. My dad he had his guitar strumming his guitar too and so we have a little sing along on Sundays as well.
Yaashanti, Hackney Museum 2018.83
Where did the Windrush generation listen to music?
Hackney was a melting pot of the different English-speaking Caribbean islands. Venues for social gatherings were central to establishing strong networks and helping people feel at home.
Music gatherings such as blues parties, shebeens and family get-togethers were regular features. They provided chances to enjoy music, socialise, and share a cultural connection to the countries people had left behind.
Shebeens were gatherings or parties where alcohol was sold without a licence. They were often in people’s houses and then gradually grew to be in venues of their own.
Blues parties usually played a variety of music such as Ska, Rocksteady, Soul and Reggae. They took place in private houses, and would often continue throughout the night into the following day.
We had to find ways of alleviating the stress. Because you know those were the days that people worked a long week, and lots of overtime – as much as they could get during certain periods of time as it provided itself. So naturally people wanted somewhere where they could let their hair down and relax, and get rid of the stress that they incurred during the working week. So we had to find ways of creating this.
And one of the ways was what you used to call ‘Blues Party’ – which was a pay party. And it was held in a house. And it was covered by a ‘Sound System’ – who would move their equipment into this house. And people would pay – I’d call it a nominal sum – to enter. They would sell beer etc, and whatever they could think of as being something for making a little bit of money…
Newton Dunbar, Hackney Museum 2011.21
Coming soon! In the next installment of our series exploring African and Caribbean music in the borough, we’ll be exploring the vital role of local record shops in the community and launching music careers.
Content for this blog featured in the exhibition ‘Roots, Rhythms & Records The sounds and stories of African & Caribbean music in Hackney‘ at Hackney Museum 2 October 2018 – 16 March 2019.