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Interview: Black Roots (Part 1)

Interview: Black Roots (Part 1)

Interview: Black Roots (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Franck Blanquin - Comment

"Bristol is a funny town. It looks calm and collected but deep down it is one of the most racist towns in England"


Many reggae artists have sung songs with revolutionary intent. But sometimes when you check their output as a whole it becomes clear that they were really just entertainers who supplied social commentary or cultural fervour because it was the ethos of the time.

Not so Bristol’s Black Roots. Formed in 1979 they gained a loyal following based on the clout of their live shows and the impression they made on radio disc jockey John Peel.

Their bottom heavy, strictly roots sound might have seemed staid and unchanged compared to the creative flights of Birmingham’s Steel Pulse or London's Aswad - but they didn't care. They ignored the prevailing trends away from Rastafari reality and fought to maintain their independence from corporate interests, even if that meant making music part-time for their entire careers. In fact when the group stopped being active in the 90s it was not so much a dissolution as a practical hiatus until the musical and economic climate and their family situations allowed for a return.

And what a return it has been. Reissues on Makasound and then Bristol Archive Records sparked enough interest for them to record again. 2012's politically charged On the Ground album and its 2013 dub companion showcase a band who have lost none of their prowess or passion. Now they are getting ready to release a new long-player, without Bristol Archive’s involvement.

Angus Taylor disturbed rhythm guitarist Jabulani Ngozi, his singer/percussionist brother Kondwani and singer Errol Brown one summer afternoon as they were watching the cricket. They very kindly conducted this two part interview where they give their own much needed perspective on their long and defiant existence and the music it bore.

Black Roots

How did you come to leave Jamaica? How did your families settle in Bristol?

JABULANI: Well that started with our parents. They emigrated from Jamaica in the late 50 to early 60s and came to Bristol. Then after a while once they settled here they sent for us to come over from Jamaica.

You were living with grandparents?

JABULANI: Grandparents in Jamaica. I came to England when I was 11. Me and my brother came over the same time. November ’65.

ERROL: I came in ’66. I was 14 then.

How did you feel about moving at that kind of age and to England just before winter?

ERROL: It was a bit strange for me. I was crying that I wanted to go back because it was all dark and I come from the sunshine and it was not what I expected.

JABULANI: And all the houses looked like factories with the chimneys. When I saw the smoke coming out of the chimneys I thought they were all factories!

What kind of work were your parents doing here?

JABULANI: My father worked in construction – he was a builder. My mum was a nurse. She worked in the Bristol Royal Infirmary, Ham Green and Manor Park hospital.

ERROL: My mum worked for the BRI and also Wills Tobacco Factory – it was just my mum alone.

What was Bristol like growing up in the late 60s and early 70s?

ERROL: Rough! We couldn’t walk on the streets. If we did walk the streets we had to walk about four or five of us down St Pauls and down Governor Road. My mum used to say “You can’t go down there”. So we all stuck together as a unit and that was how we survived.

Black Roots - Errol BrownKONDWANI: St Pauls at the time we came here was mainly a built up area – it was all shops and all runnings. It’s not like what you see now. It was a lot of people on the road where as it’s quietened down a bit.

JABULANI: Mainly the Greeks and the Italians were prominent in the area in the early days. They were the ones who owned all the shops – hardware shops, clothes shops – they were the ones doing all the business. Now you see it is the Indians and the Pakistanis.

Where did the Greeks and Italians go?

JABULANI: Who is to tell? Because Bristol is a funny town. It looks like it is calm and collected but deep down Bristol is one of the most racist towns in England in my experience. Because in those days if your parents got to the positions where they could buy a house and the next door realised it was a black coming in – everybody would sell up and move and in a couple of weeks’ time you would see every house up for sale! Maybe that’s what happened? They just moved on somewhere else – further into the countryside.

How big was your group of friends at the time?

JABULANI: We were from the Caribbean so it was a natural thing to get together and go somewhere. Even if we were going to the park we would walk from one house and by the time we’d reach the park you’d have maybe 30 of us going to the park! As we walked we’d call each one from their house. That’s how it’s always been – even in Jamaica.

What was your first experience of racism?

JABULANI: In school. One day we had a history lesson. The teacher was Mr Keithwell – I’ll never forget him. We were talking about Africa and he was saying to us that Africans live in mudhuts and wear grass skirts and all kinds of things. Where I come from in Jamaica is a Rasta community and as a young youth walking past they used to sit down and give you a little bit of knowledge of your history. The teacher was saying we were only slaves so I said “What happened before we were slaves?” He said “Your history began and ended with slavery”. I said “No man. I was taught in Jamaica that we were the first race on earth”. He said “No, WE were the first people on earth”. It carried on like that and through lack of knowledge – as an 11 year old youth I couldn’t really explain myself and confront him and get my point over because he was more well educated and more fluent with words - he could use a lot of words and play the word game and make me look a fool in front of the class. That was my first experience of racism.

I said “What happened before we were slaves?” The teacher said “Your history began and ended with slavery”

So Rasta came to you long before you came to Bristol?

JABULANI: Rasta came to me a long time from in Jamaica because I had been seeing the Rasta community in Jamaica from when I was a youth. They encouraged the younger kids – they didn’t bother with the elders like my parents – they always tried to educate the younger kids. My sister and me used to go down there because they grew a lot of fruits – paw paw, sugarcane, mango – on their property. In mango or paw paw season we would come from school and they were always at their gate passing us things and speaking to us about our history and who we are. This man called Wesley Banton. He was the first one who told us we are from Africa. I never knew where Africa was. They said “No you’re from Jamaica. You are not Jamaican. Jamaica belongs to the Arawak Indians. You were brought here way beyond your borders in Africa. I wondered “Where is this place Africa?” It wasn’t until I was 16-17 that I understood more of what Africa really is – when I started to research it myself. He must have died now because he was a big man when I left him in Jamaica. If he’s alive now he must be near a hundred.

ERROL: My experience was in my first job I ever got. I can see it now. The foreman said to me “You’ll be working with that guy over there” and when he introduced me the guy said “I’m not working with him”. The foreman said “Why is that then?” and he said “Because he is black”. That stuck in my head ever since. I suppose the guy was just illiterate because about six months or less after he wanted to be my friend when he saw that I was a human being. A couple of the other guys were alright but this particular guy didn’t want to know. In the end he came round. I just rose above him. I would speak to him and then he started to know me better. It was just blindness. He was just blind. I was about 15.

Jabulani and Kondwani - you changed your names. How did that decision come to you?

KONDWANI: In life when you grow up you just want something to reach out to. I found that in the religion I was with so that’s why I changed my name.

JABULANI: When I was about 16-17 I was searching to find who I am and where I am from. To find out where you start you have to find and know yourself. So the first thing I found was the name I had was a slave master’s name. The only way I could know myself and find myself was to find myself an African name. I chose to find myself a Nigerian name and then I started to look within Africa for where I was from and who I was and I found that the majority of us came from Ghana on the west coast of Africa. And I knew most Ghanaians – none of them were known as Errol Thompson! (laughs) Thompson is a Scottish or a Welshman’s name. I am not a Welshman – no disrespect to the Welsh still!

The only way I could know myself was to find myself an African name

You are a fan of Errol Thompson the engineer from the Mighty Two though right?

JABULANI: Go deh man! A wicked engineer that! Joe Gibbs and Errol Thompson I grow up on as a youth in Jamaica and England!

KONDWANI: The majority of music we had was mixed by them.

JABULANI: Great engineer that man. As well as Scratch Perry.

How did the three of you gravitate to music?

JABULANI: It was the same thing I was saying about communication and gathering and unity together. First of all we all used to play dominoes in a cellar in St Pauls under a coffee place. Previously we all used to be in other little bands. But all that band business was kind of put aside because it wasn’t doing anything. We were just doing cover versions and playing out now and again – sometimes you got paid and sometimes you didn’t. So we gave that up and were just playing dominoes when the bass player said to us one day “Why don’t we just start back again to do something?” I said that if we were to start again we would have to be positive and serious and start to do our own material. Because we had done cover versions for a year or two and it had just faded out. But if we started from scratch and built it then something might hold until the end when it would bear fruits. That was how Black Roots really formed.

What cover versions did you used to play in your old bands?

Black Roots - Jabulani NgoziJABULANI: We used to play a lot of Bob Marley, John Holt, Toots and the Maytals. The rocksteady music from ’67 time – we used to play a lot of that style. 54-46, Prince Buster One Step Beyond and Al Capone. We used to play those kinds of cover things because they had a live sound. They were records but they were live so when you played them live everybody would get up and dance.

What other bands and sound systems were around in Bristol at the time?

JABULANI: There were a lot of sound systems around. High Priest, Ajax, Count Neville, Duke Reid, you had Stillwater and Commander from Easton, you had Enterprise, all kinds of different sounds. For bands you had Untouchables, Atlantic Rollers, the Lurks, Private Number. We’re talking about the earlier times now, those were the ones who were around from those days.

What kind of music were the sound systems playing when you started playing in the band?

JABULANI: Mainly roots music. Big tunes from that time were Wage of War by Joe Higgs, you had the Upsetters and – what was the name of the brother who went funny in his head?

Junior Byles.

JABULANI: Junior Byles. Then you had Burning Spear, Yabby You, Gladiators, Johnny Osbourne, Itals, Heptones. Lots of man.

You formed in 1979. Was what they call dancehall making waves at all or had it not reached over from Jamaica by then?

JABULANI: Never came into existence yet. Dancehall came in the late 80s I think.

The meaning of the name Black Roots is very clear. But why did you choose such a direct and simple name?

JABULANI: In ‘79 when we were just forming we made the decision that we had to do a lot of research and make the content of our lyrics help the people find out a lot more about our history. That’s why we said Black Roots because many of the songs we wrote were written around our experiences and the experiences that we read and our little knowledge that we had through history. But with everything that’s gone through history, there’s a lot that black people of our age group and before or after didn’t even know. Most black people in those days didn’t know who Lumumba was. Some of them didn’t even know Marcus Garvey. So we took it on to try to open their eyes to our great leaders.

Where did you do your research? What sources of information were open to you at the time?

JABULANI: We used to have an organisation called URIA.

KONDWANI: Nyabinghi.

JABULANI: And Nyabinghi order. We used to gather.

KONDWANI: Every Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

JABULANI: Thursday was the evening that we had history discussion. So I might go in there and one man might be reading the philosophy of Hi Majesty, one man might be reading the biography of Solomon, that man might be reading something about Moses.

KONDWANI: It was just like a book club.

JABULANI: Then we’d reason about what we’d read about. Because not everything you read is truth. You have to read and reason and pick and fight.

KONDWANI: Everybody would have a different opinion so we’d sit down and reason and get to the point of it.

The students took to us and flocked to us

When did you start looking at what you were doing, in terms of live performance, and start thinking “We’re getting a real following here”?

JABULANI: After we did our first mini tour. We had a little tour of the college circuits. When we started out we used to play once every month. We’d get a job at say 100 Club on Oxford Street in London, the next month we might get a job over in Salisbury. The next month might be in Dingwalls. But what happened was, once we started to get a following, we did the college circuit. We played student unions right up and down the country – Wales to Scotland. We did all the universities and then we got to realise that. Because when we first went we had a little bit of people following us but the second time they called us back the following year and then every year they called us back – it started to look like, yeah, something is there. The students they took to us and flocked to us. Even until now – we’ve still got some of them as loyal fans up until now.

Which bands did you tour with in those days?

Black Roots - Kondwani NgoziJABULANI: Back then we did the college circuit with Pauline Black. Another time with Steel Pulse. We did the college circuit with Matumbi. Another time Linton Kwesi Johnson. Then in ’82 we did a European tour with UB40.

But it was also common for reggae bands to tour with non-reggae acts. Did you have this experience?

JABULANI: Kajagoogoo.

KONDWANI: Yeah but they never used to be big in that time. At Dingwalls.

How important was the support of John Peel? You recorded Peel Sessions more than once.

JABULANI: You don’t get a man like John Peel any more. John Peel just saw music. He didn’t see a face, he didn’t see colour, he just saw music. Music John Peel dealt with. We sent him our first EP – our first record called Black Roots with Tribal War, System, Bristol Rock and the Father – and John Peel played it about 3 times on the radio station that week. Then he got his producer to phone us up and book us for two Peel Sessions and then he said on the radio “If anyone wants to see what a real reggae band is like – check these guys out from Black Roots in Bristol. Through that one thing he said we got a tour in Holland, a tour in Scotland, a tour in Ireland, in Sweden. Just one word from John Peel. So we have a lot of time for John Peel – even though he’s not around anymore - but we still bless John Peel. And not only us – he did a lot for a lot of independent bands.

You don’t get a man like John Peel any more. John Peel didn’t see a face, he didn’t see colour, he just saw music

You made a 1983 appearance on the TV show Rockers Roadshow with Mikey Dread – and gave a tribute the slave Scipio Africanus as a reminder of the history of slavery in St Pauls.

JABULANI: Rockers Roadshow was a thing on Channel 4 done by Mikey Campbell, who if you know about reggae he is one of Jamaica’s originals. So he was over to do this thing and he invited us and some other bands like Talisman and Bunny Marrett were there. That was the first time in a while that we had played in Bristol so we decided to pay tribute to Scipio because he was one of the first rebellious slaves within the struggle in Bristol. We knew that he got dead and buried up in Henbury cemetery so we tried to make people know that yes, he’s dead but he is not forgotten. Because if it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be here. He was the one that started the first rebellion. In 1980 when they had a riot in Bristol the newspapers said it was 400 years since the first slave uprising. Because the riot they had in Bristol they said it wasn’t so much of a race riot, it was a war against class. And that was the same kind of war they had in the 18th century. Even the local peasants joined in with the rebellion of the slaves. It was the same in 1980 because the local community joined – even though it started off with the police and the blacks it ended up with the whole community against the establishment.

What was the reaction to the TV appearance?

JABULANI: Anything you do when you go on the television it will raise your profile another notch so it gave us a bit more exposure in the music world.

Did you get major labels coming knocking like they did for Matumbi, Reggae Regulars and Steel Pulse?

JABULANI: A lot of them were coming but at the same time they were coming with strings attached. For a band called Black Roots it’s hard to be called Black Roots and then you sell out and do something completely different. Black Roots doing “I love you darling, darling I miss you” – no.

They wanted you to make some cod soul tunes?

ALL: Yes!

JABULANI: And they said we are too political and hard-core so we would have to tone down a notch. So we just said “Thanks but no thanks” and did our own label.

It’s hard to be called Black Roots and then sell out and do “I love you darling, I miss you”

Which labels courted you?

JABULANI: We were signed to EMI for a little while through Mike Collier who was an A&R man and got us a deal with them. But we never really signed the contract – Mike signed it with them. We couldn’t go down the road they wanted us to go down – we would have had to change the name of the band! (laughs)

Your self-titled first album on Kick Label 1983 and your second album On The Frontline 1984 – you produced them yourselves.

JABULANI: We did most of the things ourselves but hired in an engineer to work with us.

How did you come to record the theme tune to the TV sit com Front Line on BBC?

JABULANI: Our bass player, who is no longer with us now, Derrick King, was friends with the writer who was a fan of Black Roots. He wanted us to do the theme for a pilot he was going to do so we did the theme and went to Television Centre in Hammersmith to watch the pilot which got commissioned as a six week series. That was just through a friend of a friend and a fan.

Was that helpful to you at all?

JABULANI: That was pretty helpful because the BBC released an LP, In Session, and that was one of our biggest selling albums to date. It goes to show you that if you have the mechanism around you and the financial power and the radio growth you will sell music. It is the same tunes we were doing for years and the BBC only did that one thing.

What did you think of the Frontline programme?

JABULANI: The programme was a bit cheesy but it’s entertainment innit! (laughs) In my eyes it didn’t justify what Rasta stands for and it never justified what a black police man would do. It was just a man writing not from out of anything but just out of his head. He didn’t do any research, he just wrote. That’s why it only did six episodes. If he had done a bit of research it would have done ten!

How did you see your progression over the course of your first three albums?

JABULANI: Every time we released an album we saw an increase in sales and in status in the music business. For instance when Toots and the Maytals came over the agent wanted us to support them. They saw you build up a little following and you’re selling music so you must have something to contribute and so doors open.

What was Toots like to perform with?

JABULANI: Toots is one of my fans from morning man! I love Toots since I was a little youth in Jamaica. He always gave us encouragement. He’d say “Gwaan do what you ah do. Mek sure say you no change what you are doing”.

Toots was recently hit by a bottle on tour.

JABULANI: Yes, but you have those kind of mad people all about the place. It can happen to anybody.

Has that kind of thing ever happened to you on stage?

JABULANI: The first we played in that rock festival in Reading around ‘84 or ‘85 they never heard too much hard core reggae so they were whistling but they never threw no bottle. We had somebody throw a beer can once.

ERROL: It was in Cornwall.

KONDWANI: You just don’t take any notice of it. You just carry on doing your works.

JABULANI: Once you’ve been through the system those little things are trivial to you. You see worse than that already.

Read Part 2 of this interview here.

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