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A Sparrow, a Rose and the Empire Windrush at London’s Barbican

A Sparrow, a Rose and the Empire Windrush at London’s Barbican

A Sparrow, a Rose and the Empire Windrush at London’s Barbican
November 07
14:24 2018

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First Windrush was a ship, the HMT Empire Windrush, a troopship taken from Germany in 1945 as a prize of war. Then it was an event: shorthand for the arrival in Britain of immigrants from the Caribbean in 1948. Then, more recently, it was a scandal: shorthand again for the injustices meted out to the Windrush generation by a Home Office set on managing immigration by means of a hostile environment. Now it is a concert, curated by the Trinidad-born, south London-based poet Anthony Joseph, to be held at the Barbican in London on November 17.

“Windrush,” says Joseph, “needs to be celebrated in a way that is joyous and that shows the contribution that people have made rather than concentrating on the politics that have been dominating it. People of that generation, how have they changed Britain? How have they made the UK what it is?”

This is an ambitious prospectus for a two-hour concert. The programme is intended to represent successive waves of immigration. At the top of the bill are two veteran Calypsonians. “It’s a huge show,” Joseph says. “We’ve got Calypso Rose, who’s the queen of calypso. We’ve got the Mighty Sparrow, who’s the king of calypso, so we’ve got the king and the queen. It’s a real coup to have them both together in a major show like this at the same time.”

Calypso Rose, the ‘queen of calypso’ © Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

The presence of these artists from Trinidad and Tobago is an assertion that Jamaica is not the only island. “Traditionally the Caribbean diaspora has been seen as a homogenous group that has been dominated by Jamaicans. The Windrush generation is not just Jamaican.”

Hence the very Trinidadian Calypso. “Prior to the early ’60s calypso was the main black music,” Joseph points out. “Reggae has always been very pliable, very versatile music.” This is not entirely a compliment. “Whereas calypso is revolutionary. It was born out of a strong sense of resistance and social critique. It’s been harder for calypso to shake that off and become all fun and games. Even the jump-up-and-dance, there’s a bit of critique in there.” He sings a snatch of Black Stalin’s “Burn Dem”, which consigns colonialists from Columbus to Thatcher and Reagan to hell. “It’s like a bad uncle.”

Joseph recently wrote a novel about the calypso titan Lord Kitchener, research for which included a lengthy interview with the Mighty Sparrow. “Sparrow is probably my favourite artist — the artist I’ve learned most from as a writer and as a musician. Sparrow has had a lot of problems with his back catalogue. It’s rich and it’s vast and it’s beautiful, but it’s been tied up in contractual stuff and it hasn’t been able to be re-released and reappraised. And that’s killed his career.”

The Mighty Sparrow, c.1970 © Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Joseph is keen to tell a story about the political currents that run within the culture. “What I’ve tried to do is represent a whole spectrum of Caribbean artists that had a socially conscious edge. Brother Resistance is a poet in the mould of Linton Kwesi Johnson, who does a poetry called rapsoul which is a kind of spoken-word militant calypso. We’ve got Ayanna Witter-Johnson, who’s a cellist and dancer. We’ve got Gaika, who’s a young UK artist with Windrush heritage. He would describe himself as an electronic artist.”

The overall line-up will tell the story through, opening in the Caribbean. “Windrush is the pivotal point where it changes from the Caribbean to London. And Kitch is the pivot, because he was on the boat and sang ‘London Is the Place for Me’. I’m going to trace that connection there.” The other artists “represent that whole chronology. Brother Resistance is synonymous with the late ’70s-early ’80s period of the UK — the Brixton riots and so on. Sparrow is representative of the ’50s and the ’60s. Cleveland [Watkiss] is representative of the ’80s and ’90s. Gaika is a representation of where we might be going now.”

The look of the concert is also important. Video artist Derek Richards will be “pinpointing certain political events. The plan is to accompany them with readings from iconic works, like Samuel Selvon [Trinidad-born author of The Lonely Londoners], George Lamming [the Barbadian author of In the Castle of My Skin], Claudia Jones [mother of the Notting Hill Carnival], people like that. I’m going to read some stuff from Kitch, the novel.”

Another central element will be a suite composed by the jazz saxophonist Jason Yarde (who is also the musical director in Joseph’s own band), incorporating black British musical classics. When we speak, Joseph has not heard a note of this, but has confidence in Yarde, whom he considers “one of the greatest musicians I’ve worked with, able to do anything”.

Anthony Joseph, poet and curator of the Barbican show

Joseph himself moved from Trinidad to London to escape a tyrannical grandfather. “Part of being a Caribbean person is about travelling, is about moving, going out. There was always an idea that I would go to America, I’d go to the UK and get a better life.” He started a rock band and then returned to poetry, still working with musicians. “Because it’s rare to find a poet that’s doing stuff with a live band, it reminds people of the golden era, of Gil Scott-Heron, of Linton.”

He muses on his ambitions for the concert. “Success looks like the audience to be real representatives of that whole trajectory of history I’m trying to tap into. I would love to see a younger side of the audience. I know a lot of people of my age and over [he is in his early fifties] are going to come out for Sparrow and Rose, but I’d like to see a lot of people in their forties and thirties and twenties coming out for Cleveland and for Gaika. I’d love to see a coming together of that whole spectrum.”

While Joseph is keen to showcase the Windrush generation’s contribution — “What did they sacrifice and what have they given?” — he insists that it will not be a solemn occasion. “It has to be a show that people listen to for two hours and say it’s fun.”

‘Windrush: A Celebration’, Barbican, London, November 17, barbican.org.uk

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