The West African Rhythm Brothers: The Sounds of Black London

by Marc Matera

This guest post is part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta. UC Press authors share insight into their research and stories that reflect this year’s conference theme, “Global Migrations: Empires, Nations, and Neighbors.” We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for new posts every day between now and January 10th.

Black London Cover

A couple of months after the release of my new book, Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century, I heard “Egbe Mi” for the first time. It was the theme song of London’s most popular African band during the late 1940s and ‘50s, the West African Rhythm Brothers. The band, which figures in my book, recorded the track but never released it. In 2015, it appeared on the compilation, Highlife on the Move, and I could finally get my hands on it. Although the song is beautiful and compelling, it’s easy to see why it wasn’t released previously. The lyrics, sung by bandleader Ambrose Campbell, consist of the group’s roster. The song’s Yoruba-language title, “Egbe Mi,” means “my club,” “my society,” or “my group.” It is the type of song intended for a live performance setting. Obviously, the title refers to the band itself, but it also indexes a much larger collectivity of Yoruba-speakers and the more ephemeral community of band and audience in the space of London nightclubs where blacks of all classes and from across the Atlantic world congregated.

Like “Egbe Mi,” Black London links the migration of people and ideas, the formation of political affinities, and spaces of daily interaction, offering an urban micro-history of transnational networks of anticolonialism, a walking tour of black anticolonialism in the imperial metropolis. London was not only the center of the British Empire, but also a place where movements for colonial freedom converged and a site of black intellectual and artistic production and political organizing. As the South African writer Peter Abrahams observed, “London was the critical point of contact where Pan-African, socialist and anti-colonial ideas were shared and enlarged.” Intellectuals and activists from the colonies “shared classes, meals, parties,” and much more, and in the process, they “got to know each other and each other’s problems intimately and personally.”[1] Quotidian encounters and activities yielded expansive political imaginaries and rerouted lives.

Far from simply responding to British caprice, black artists and agitators espoused conceptions of Africanity built from their cultural resources. While demanding full rights as citizens of the British Empire, Nigerians in London drew upon a conception of Yoruba identity that had developed since the 19th century through on-going transatlantic exchanges between the continent and the Americas, especially Brazil. The general secretary of the Camden Town-based West African Students’ Union (WASU), Ladipo Solanke, traced a long history of intra-African cultural exchange, including a capacious history of Yoruba-ness, which animated the WASU’s call for a self-governing regional federation and its commitment to black internationalism in general.

“Egbe Mi” conjured these wider horizons and layers of identification, as if suggesting the interactions within the club extended this long history of black Atlantic mixture. The West African Rhythm Brothers frequently performed at the WASU’s events and, like a generation of largely Afro-Caribbean jazz musicians before it, built its reputation in Soho’s clubland. When Campbell arrived in Britain, his abilities on the guitar were limited, and he took up the instrument in a serious way only after he began taking lessons from the Trinidadian virtuoso Lauderic Caton, whom he honored as a respected elder and forebear in a Yoruba ceremony when they met. Many of the group’s recordings, including “Egbe Mi,” feature the Barbadian horn players Willy Roachford and Harry Beckett. In sum, as the band’s sound became more self-consciously “African,” it became progressively more diasporic in its influences. In this way, black musicians in London also traced a history of connections between people of African descent and formed new ones, articulating a black international in sound.

[1] Peter Abrahams, The Coyoba Chronicles. Reflections on the Black Experience in the 20th Century (Kingston: Ian Randle, 2000), p. 36.

Marc Matera is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, coauthor of The Women’s War of 1929: Gender and Violence in Colonial Nigeria (2012), and author of Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century (UC Press, 2015).

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