Monthly Archives: October 2014

Gladys McGee

Gladys was involved with the Basement Writers from around 1974 and lived near Watney Market. She wrote a lot of poems about life in Wapping and Shadwell. She wrote and gigged and was known for her forthrightness and humour.

Whilst not a ranter she did gig with us and was a genuine working class voice.

gladys mcgee

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Remembering Michael Smith

Remembering Michael Smith
October 10, 2013
This is an old piece published in Woofah magazine issue 4 in 2010 but written in 2008 to mark 25 years since the death of Michael Smith.
*I had a beer with Angus Taylor and he’s kindly let me copy this from his website. Angus is a music journalist and reggae fan: http://www.angustaylor.com

On Friday 19th August 1983, the Jamaican Daily Gleaner carried a report on the death of a Kingston performance poet. An incident had taken place two days earlier in Stony Hill, to the north of the capital, as Jamaicans celebrated the birthday of political activist, Jamaican National Hero and Rastafarian prophet Marcus Garvey. Michael Smith had been approached by three un-named men, who objected to him heckling the JLP government’s minister of education at a nearby meeting. As the argument escalated, Smith was “hit on the head by a stone thrown by one of three men” and died.

At the time, Jamaican political violence was in decline following the infamous elections of 1980. In its pointless and wasteful snuffing out of a young life, this murder was no different from all those that had gone before. What marked it out was that only one year previously, Michael Smith had cut his debut album of music and poetry for Island Records. It had been produced by the Brixton poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, engineered by Matumbi mastermind and lovers rock pioneer Dennis Bovell, and backed by a UK reggae supergroup comprising members of Aswad, Matumbi and The Dennis Bovell Dub Band.

The album was called Mi Cyaan Believe It and had not made a huge impact commercially. Compared to the accessibility, political singularity and unchanging voice of Smith’s mentor Johnson, it was a sprawling mixture of words, sounds and music, delivered in a variety of styles and wildly differing voices – and spoken in defiantly thick patois. Yet for those willing to embrace its thorny language and jagged, contrary nature, it stands up as one of the strongest debut records ever made.

Michael Smith was born in Kingston in September 14th 1954, the son of a mason and a factory worker. He began writing poems in his teens, performing them in community centres and later at political rallies, before representing Jamaica in the World Festival Of Youth And Students in Cuba. He attended the Jamaican School Of Drama, graduating in 1980 with a Diploma Of Theatre Arts. By that time he had already cut his first record, Word, a 12 inch featuring the afro-jazz-roots collective The Light Of Saba and Count Ossie’s drummers. The songs featured, Mi Cyaan Believe It and Roots, would reappear in a different form as two of his LP’s more abstract creations.

The European poetry scene beckoned. In 1982 Michael gave an electrifying reading at the International Book Fair Of Radical, Black and Third World Books in Camden. He also appeared in an Arena documentary entitled Under Westminster Bridge, and toured with Black Uhuru to promote Mi Cyaan Believe It before returning to Jamaica, indelible success seemingly within his grasp.

After his death, Michael was quickly forgotten. The album was never reissued, and both It A Come, a posthumously published book of poems edited by the Jamaican poet and academic Mervyn Morris, and Morris’ own Making West Indian Literature, which contained an interview with Michael, are now out of print. No one was ever tried for his murder, and in January 18th 2002 The Jamaica Observer interviewed the JLP spokesperson for culture, Olivia Babsy Grange who downplayed any political motivation for its occurrence. The same piece also stated “there have also been charges that Smith was set on by members of the community after news of the sexual assault of a minor surfaced”. No further evidence of this was supplied.

In an attempt to celebrate his life, 25 years after his tragic end, I spoke with both Linton Kwesi Johnson and Dennis Bovell about Michael, his art and what might have been had he lived.

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON

How and where did you meet Michael?

I met him in Jamaica. I went there to do a couple of gigs with Peter Tosh in 1979. He had heard about me and came to the house where I was staying to see me.

What were your first impressions of him?

He seemed like a kindred spirit. Some one who was very serious, socially engaged, politically non-committed, but socially engaged and generally on the left of politics in Jamaica.

Was he Rasta? A Marxist?
Well he identified with Rastafari but he saw himself more as an anarchist really. I think he identified with anarchism. He was anti-authoritarian. He identified with Rasta but I don’t think he would have called himself one.

How did you come to work with him?

Well he saw me as this big time poet in England who had the keys to open the doors of success for him and he tried to morally blackmail me to help in whatever way I could to get him over here! So the first opportunity I had I got some of his poems published in Race Today magazine, released his first record he had put out in Jamaica in ‘78 – Mi Cyaan Believe It and Roots – and got him invited to the International Book Fair: Radical Black and Third World Books.

And how did you come to work on his LP Mi Cyaan Believe it?

Well he bought a cassette with him with some stuff he had been working on with Ebo Cooper from the group Third World, and more or less asked me to get him a recording contract. So I went to Island and I spoke to Chris Blackwell who was the owner of Island Records in those days and persuaded him to sign up Michael to the label. He was reluctant at first because he figured they couldn’t really handle more than one poet on the label and he had me already. He thought that that was enough but I persuaded him and then Dennis Bovell and I produced the record.

What was the process of making record like?

Very trying at times. Because I didn’t realise at the time that Mikey was mentally ill. He would be very suspicious of people, suspicious of my co-producer Dennis, suspicious of the percussion players, and at one point he almost wanted to fight me in the studio. I just put it down to his eccentricity. But I found out later he was ill. Later people realised. He was friendly with Jamaica’s top psychiatrist and that’s how we knew. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia I think.

Did you find out much about his writing process?

No not really no. At the house where he was staying in London he left bits of paper all over the place but I don’t know what his writing process was like. He did write things down and he would also talk into a tape machine but Mervyn [Morris] would know more about that than I would.

How do you think the album stands up today?

I think it’s a great album, it’s a shame Island didn’t do anything with it. They were so bloody stupid that the guy died and they just let the record die with him. It would still be selling now. People are always phoning up my office or sending us emails asking how they can get hold of it. It was really very stupid not to see that they were onto something that could make money.

What was your personal favourite of the tracks he made?

I guess it has to be Mi Cyaan Believe It because that’s his classic poem.

How did you feel on hearing of his death?

I was shocked. I was completely shocked and very saddened by the news you know? It came like a bolt from out of the blue. I don’t remember where I was… I think I was in London actually.

Why weren’t his killers brought to justice?

They did find some people… they did find the killers but they couldn’t prosecute them because no one would come forward to give evidence. But nothing came of the case I think because of a lack of witnesses.

What do you think actually happened and why?
I think he must have had an argument with these guys and stones started flying and he got hit by one and died. I don’t think it was an assassination though. I think it was just a confrontation that ended in his death.

What do you think Michael could have achieved had he lived?

Well God knows really because he was certainly one of the most extraordinary poetic talents to have come out of the Caribbean at that time! He could definitely negotiate the verbal contours of Jamaican speech in a way like nobody else could. And he was a brilliant performer – a very electrifying and engaging performer. He had huge potential.

He had so many voices in his poetry…

He was coming from a drama background. He studied at the Jamaican School of Drama. Some 20 years after his death I met some guys who were at drama school with him who claimed to have co-authored a couple of Mikey’s poems but who knows? I know that Mikey as a drama graduate was therefore able to bring a dramatic theoretical dimension to his poetry. He was an immensely talented person who had a lot to say about the human condition in Jamaica at that time.

DENNIS BOVELL

“I first heard of Michael from Linton. It was Linton’s idea to do a collaboration with Michael’s poetry and music.

My impression of him during our meeting was that he was extremely knowledgeable about poetry and was able to make comparisons between life in Africa, Europe and the Caribbean that were striking…

Making the album Mi Cyaan Believe It we had the LKJ formula as a foundation to build on. We had different sections of the London Brotherhood of Session Musicians. Mixing members of groups like Aswad and Matumbi with the likes of Rico Rodriguez, Steve Gregory and also members of The Dub Band – John Kpiaye, The Tenyue Brothers (Patrick and Henry). The project was realised in my own Studio 80 where we had hit upon a new reggae sound during the LKJ Making History album. I think around that time I had also been working with Fela Kuti in the same studio and Ruyichi Sakamoto of Yellow Magic Orchestra. Compared to other projects, this album has to be the one we were obliged to compete with the composition of the music for ‘Trainer’ which was demo’d by Third World. We loved it so much that we copied the original bass line and drum pattern before adding Steve Gregory’s flute lines. ‘Trainer’ is my favourite track on the album. My memories of my contribution are faded but I remember constructing bass lines and horn lines together at LKJ’s house before going to studio.

The album stands in the top five of all reggae-poetry albums alongside those of LKJ, Mutabaruka and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze. Excellent poetry!!!

When I heard of his death, I was horrified. Had he lived he most certainly would have been part of the change the world for the better movement.

The one thing that the world should know about Michael Smith is that HE WAS BARBARICALLY MURDERED and his MURDERER(S) are sadly STILL AT LARGE !!!! May he rest in peace”.

michael_smith

Attila the Stockbroker – Live in ’86

Written from memory in 2014 from a diary entry that should have been made in 1986 but didn’t.

Well last night turned out to be a bit of an odd event/gig.
A couple of weeks ago I saw a poster in town advertising a gig by the ranting poet Attila the Stockbroker. I have a couple of his recordings on cassette and one on that Cherry Red compilation and I have seen him a few times on the telly so I thought “Why not?”.
He seems like an interesting chap and his views and opinions, whilst not entirely in line with my own more anarchistic ways of thinking, seem pretty sound to me. The odd thing is that it was advertised at the local Polish Club – Dom Polski which isn’t far from me so a nice easy walk.
Dom Polski was set up [I believe] some time after the Second World War as a social venue adjacent to the Polish Church of SS Stanislaus and Lawrence to accommodate the influx of Polish refugees during and after the war. I have been there to parties and the odd gig and it has a decent sized stage with those theatre curtains and all. Surprised it isn’t used more for gigs being honest.
I talked to a few people and there were a few of us going. Its best to try and support stuff like this as it encourages other bands to play here and maybe some more ranting poets. Who knows.
So a few people came round and we walked up together and paid our £1.50 to get in, and having saved a few quid from my dole money meant I could have a few beers as well. Oh and Dom Polski also happens to be quite cheap on the beer front – a bit like a Working Man’s club. Just before we left to walk up there someone asked if I was sure it was at Dom Polski and not The Black Lion. I assured them that this was what I had seen on the poster and thought little more about it. The Black Lion was more likely to have been the venue or even the Roadmender, but that’s a big venue to fill with a ranting poet.
Anyhow. We walked into the club and I was surprised, to put it mildly, by the low turnout. I guess there were maybe twenty or thirty people there. And in the large room we all looked a bit lost. The bar staff seemed a bit bemused by it all too. Not sure how much the Polish bar staff knew about English Punk Poets or the motley assortment of punks and alternative/bohemian types who had decided to infest their club for the evening.
We had a couple of drinks and I expected more people to turn up. But only a few stragglers drifted in and a couple of Polish lads who, again, seemed more than a little bemused by events.
There was a general rumour going round that the gig was actually taking place at The Black Lion and I think a few people actually left us to go down there and find out. I was adamant that the gig would take place here and wasn’t leaving. I do confess that I was somewhat relieved when Attila actually turned up or made his appearance on the stage. We all [20/30 of us] stood up and walked towards the stage as Attila tuned up and generally got himself ready. He was peering out at us early on from underneath a hand to shield his eyes from presumably the bright disco type lighting in the venue.

polski

[This is a more current picture of the venue taken from http://www.polishnights.com but it gives you an idea of the kind of venue it is/was. It seems it hasn’t changed much as this is exactly how I remember it!]

Attila played a song or two, gave it a bit of a rant on the poetry side and then stopped. He had realised that for whatever reason he was playing to a pitifully small crowd and he began to chat with us a bit. And then he made a decision saying words to the effect of its pointless me being up here on this massive stage in a huge room. I’m coming down and perform in the bar for you guys if that’s ok? [I may be misquoting the bard here as by this point I was a little jolly from alcohol and a pre-gig joint or two].
So we all shuffled back to our tables, placed down our pints and waited whilst Attila came over and set up in our midst. It was very intimate and Attila was certainly much happier. He ripped through his set and did a few covers as I recall. Notably Ace of Spades on his little Mandolin and all the time staring down upon us were the disapproving images of previous Catholic Popes. It was quite a surreal event but great fun and I think we were singing along to the songs we knew before the end [Or maybe that is poetic license by me?].
I’m not a massive fan of the chap but I do really enjoy what he does and I hope he continues to do it for years to come. He was certainly very much a good egg. He could have walked off in a huff at the poor attendance. He could have acted like a prima donna. But he didn’t. He spoke to us, engaged with us, danced around playing his Mandolin and walking between tables and generally was having a laugh. He seemed happy to be performing to a small audience and he joked and quipped between he poetry and his songs. All in all it was a great gig. Small and intimate. The only piece of his I knew with any real conviction was “A Bang and a Wimpey” which he performed with some gusto spitting out the words rapidly like machine gun fire.
Attila chatted with a few people after the gig and had a pint or maybe two and then made his way home. I wonder what he made of it all?
All in all it was a great gig. Thank you Attila the Stockbroker.
[Text taken from Not Just Bits of Paper to be published later this year as a sequel to Tales From The Punkside available from Amazon or direct from eBay.co.uk]

Greg Bull

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Sister Nancy & Papa Madoo

NME 11th December, 1982

Lewisham Rennell Hall

Like Princess Diana, Jamaican DJ Sister Nancy also appears to be something of a trendsetter with her latest hair-do – with many SN clones abundant in the audience.
Tonight Nancy and her MC companion Papa Madoo are here to display their lyrical skills in Lewisham’s Rennell Hall, a portion of a modern shopping precinct, set in this semi-suburban environment.
Officially the dance began at 8pm, but as usual it wasn’t until 11pm that the show possessed an atmosphere, even if DJ Tony Williams did keep us occupied with his ear-blasting usage of a 40K rig.
At around midnight Sister Nancy and Papa Madoo (whose fine release ‘Another One Bite The Dust’ is still unobtainable in the shops) entered the dance accompanied by their back-up band Freedom Fighters, who, as well as reciting many popular rhythms, included much original material.
Madoo has one unique feature which distinguishes him from many of his DJ counterparts . . . he can sing! Sister Nancy is also a fine singer, but her screamish toastin’ can be rather irritating.
Being hailed as a new superstar in her homeland JA, she’s top of a new breed of female DJs. She’s causing disturbances here as well, with her current releases – and even more with her rope-like haircut.
Nancy and Madoo are two of many DJs spending this winter in Britain – they must be mad. Also here are Nicodemus, Captain Sinbad and Mr ‘Three Piece Chicken And Chips’ Rankin’ Trevor.
With Yellowman over here too, it should be a rankin’ Christmas.

Dominic Kenny

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