The floors of the Old Billingsgate Market were quivering beneath my feet. And, given that the venerable London building dates back to 1875, when they used to build things that were solid, it was obvious something momentous was taking place.
My heart was pounding, too, in a way I hadn’t experienced for more than thirty years, when I found myself at an open-air reggae dancehall session in the late Jack Ruby’s yard in the Jamaican north coast resort town of Ocho Rios. On that occasion, the sound that had my heart thumping against my chest came from a bank of something like eight gargantuan speakers at the rear of the yard.
At Billingsgate — in what was once the world’s biggest fish market, just down the River Thames from London’s Tower Bridge — the source of the reverberation was also music-related: a bass guitar being coaxed to what must have been its decibel outer limits by a man widely regarded as the founding father of British reggae: Dennis Bovell.
The event was the first evening of a three-day festival of African and African-related music, one of hundreds of cultural events being staged in conjunction with the 2012 London Olympic Games. It was only the second occasion when I’d had the privilege of attending a concert by Linton Kwesi Johnson, the great dub poet widely regarded as the voice of black Britain, and as always LKJ was backed by Bovell and his fabled Dub Band. The first was in a club setting in Vancouver in the late 1990s, and while that was an excellent concert, catching up with them on their home turf was truly special.
The partnership between Bovell and LKJ goes back more than three decades, and between them they’ve created some of the most deadly and deadly serious reggae music in the history of the genre, with virtually all of their collaborations reflecting the struggle for racial equality for black people — particularly those of Caribbean descent — in the United Kingdom.
For Bovell, who was born in Barbados in 1953 and came to England twelve years later, the association with LKJ is the best-known chapter of a storied career that stretches back to the early 1970s, when he formed the pioneering British reggae band Matumbi. Since those early days, his career has seen him in the roles of sound system pioneer, composer, sound engineer, and producer, and he has worked with a remarkable cross-section of musicians, among them Fela Kuti, Alpha Blondy, Ken Booth, I-Roy, Janet Kay, Steel Pulse, the Thompson Twins, Rico Rodriguez, the Slits, Bananarama, and Madness.
Among Bovell’s many claims to fame, at one time he was the bass player on no fewer than eighteen numbers in the UK reggae charts. To get just some idea of the extent of his influence on British reggae, I can unreservedly urge Caribbean Beat readers to beg, borrow, or steal — or, better still, buy — a superb compilation album produced by Bovell and released in 2000, Don’t Call us Immigrants. It chronicles, musically, the struggle of young black Britons in the 70s and 80s, with outstanding tracks by well-known groups such as Aswad, Steel Pulse, Black Slate, Reggae Regular, and Misty in Roots — and, of course, Matumbi, along with equally fine but lesser-known artists like Lion Youth, Tabby Cat Kelly, Trevor Hartley, African Brothers, Pablo Gad, and African Stone.
But it is as one of reggae’s most accomplished bass players and band leaders that Bovell is best known, and it struck me time and again at the Billingsgate concert that I was privileged to be seeing and hearing men who are not only outstanding artists, but whose music — like much of the best reggae — has played a significant role in the history of the society they live in.
It would obviously be something of an exaggeration to say that British reggae wouldn’t have happened without Dennis Bovell. It’s no exaggeration at all to say that it wouldn’t have happened the way it did, and wouldn’t be happening the way it still does.
One of the saddest tasks I’ve encountered in the thirteen years or so I’ve been writing this column has been paying tribute to some of the great Caribbean musicians who have left us. None has brought greater sadness than the tragic passing of the prodigiously talented St Kitts artist Masud Sadiki.
I was honoured to count Masud as a friend, and — like just about everyone in St Kitts — I still find it hard to believe that he has left us, at least in the physical sense, at the age of thirty-seven.
As a singer-songwriter, Masud was a truly extraordinary talent. His lyrics, like all great reggae, were positive and uplifting. His melodies grabbed you and stayed with you. His stage performances were vibrant. And his seemingly ever-present smile lit up any room, any occasion. He was also musically adventurous, and only a couple of years ago threw his hat into the soca arena with considerable success, performing under the name Stitch in Time.
One of Masud’s great concerns was domestic strife, and in 2010 he was one of a handful of regional artists chosen to represent the United Nations campaign to end violence against women, performing in Palestine, Panama, and the United Kingdom.
In a recent interview with a Kittitian newspaper, Masud was asked what he wanted his musical legacy to be. His response: “I want my music to inspire people, make them feel good. Once I’ve accomplished that I’ll be in my grave smiling.”
Mission accomplished, Masud. RIP.