Sierra Leone Journal
Dispatches from Pre-War Freetown and Beyond


Original Thought
John Storm Roberts

TIVOLI, NEW YORK—John Storm Roberts is in rare form as he chatters over the hiss of a skillet full of sizzling breakfast eggs. The day before, he’d treated me to a cook’s tour of his mushrooming Original Music mail-order house—an eclectic one-stop for the world of music corporate record giants scorn. This morning he’s tendering tips on the art of brewing tea: tea pot goes to water kettle; the water must be kept boiling as it’s poured. Just like corn, he admonishes, water should go to field to cook the ear as it’s picked.

I’d often wondered about this man. When reading his books about the interplay among African, Latin, and American music, I would try to imagine their author in much the same manner that one conjures up a picture of the faceless baritone crooning news headlines on the car radio. Was he Caribbean perhaps? this commentator on black music. A misnamed Brazilian explaining the Latin flavor in American music? Like the radio announcer who, when seen by his public for the first time, looks nothing like they had expected, Roberts is neither black nor Latin but rather an Englishman transplanted to the rural serenity of the Hudson River valley.

Here, on a seedy (at least until the county’s tax re-assessment is complete) ten acre farm, Roberts deals in the world’s music in the company of a wife, three dogs (one uninvited), two ducks, two cats, one parrot, and an eighty-three year old mother who talks of her life “out here” as if New York is still some distant corner of the British Empire. He has committed the scene to verse:

There’s a bunch of goddam weirdos
On the Dutchess County line,
They never play a decent tune
Like My Darling Clementine,
They’re heavy into ragas
Instead of rock and roll,
And blaring Tantric trumpets
Is their idea of soul.

Roberts is, of course, the chief weirdo—a role he assumes with relish. He is of medium height and build with a slight paunch and tufts of gray-tipped hair that bespeak his fifty-one years. His sharp eyes dance behind a pair of spectacles as he rattles off witty monologues to his dogs. With his mustache covered stiff upper lip and crisp speech, he exudes the aura of an English lord.

At the entrance to his manor sits a grayish blue farmhouse in various stages of renovation. Out back is a ramshackle structure that serves as a garage, and behind it, a drafty red barn neatly trimmed in white that is the headquarters for Original Music. Inside, where hay and horses have been supplanted by shelves crammed with books and records from Pakistan and the Pacific, Congo and the Caribbean, amid stacks of cartons and an array of electronic gadgets, Roberts conducts his business. “If it’s hard to find, we’ve got it,” he’s fond of saying, and to prove it he writes a quarterly catalog brimming with material local record shops refuse to stock. He also produces records, re-releasing some of the world’s musical gems selected from his fabulous collection of rare classics.

“It was really my parents’ fault,” he told me one evening in an attempt to explain how he’d arrived at this musicological station. “When I was thirteen they gave me a radio and a record player that then would only play 78s....And I don’t remember what they actually bought me, but they either bought me or turned me onto people like La Niña de los Peines the flamenco singer. And they would say things like, ‘Gee calypso is really nice,’ and I would go off and ask if there was such a thing as a calypso record.”

In the early fifties he attended London’s Westminster School, an old-line private secondary school, where he got involved with traditional jazz and blues. For the most part, children of the English elite attended Westminster, and among them Roberts found some with tastes similar to his own. Westminster was a “bunch of inquiring minds,” he deadpans. “We were just people who read about what we’re interested in. So we got Rudi Blesh’s Shining Trumpets on the jazz scene and so on.”

From Westminster he moved on to Oxford to study languages—he speaks French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Swahili. “I got a scholarship to Oxford,” he says as if it’s nothing special. “I essentially was on the track where it would have been somewhat surprising, since I’m not dumb, if I hadn’t. I mean, you know, I went to not only an expensive but a good (secondary) school. I mean good in the sense of academically good. And although I goofed off to some extent, I put in the effort at the last moment.”

Throughout his Oxford days in the late fifties, Roberts began to meet people from Britain’s colonies, Africans and Caribbeans who migrated to London. A Jamaican friend introduced him to lilting mento-calypso sounds of the islands and to New Orleans rhythm and blues rockers like Shirley and Lee. He encountered West African highlife through Ghanaians and Nigerians, and traditional African music on Gilbert Rouget’s Music and Dances of Occidental Africa, an album recorded in 1952 in the old French West Africa around the area that is modern day Guinea.

After a disastrous two term diversion into law at his father’s behest, Roberts graduated from Oxford, then married, and began a series of jobs as a journalist. “I had started an awful comic newspaper when I was twelve which ran the statutory two editions,” he recalls. “And when we were fifteen we’d started a stultifyingly solemn jazz magazine which ran two editions. So looking back I had been, although it hadn’t crossed my mind at the time, [I] was definitely moving into the right area.”

Roberts’s African connection was cemented in 1963. “I was working for the Middlesex County Times,” he says. “I had no intention of going anywhere. And I opened the job section in the Daily Telegraph one Friday, which is where the journalistic jobs were offered, out of curiosity. I was waiting for somebody to give me something to edit, you know. And there was a job advertised for the East African Standard....And I applied for it and got it. And I mean it was one of those serendipitous things.”

A loud, low-pitched barking from outside triggers a louder, higher-pitched barking inside, interrupting our conversation. A black Labrador called Midnight, the uninvited third dog of the farm, has come looking for the female miniature poodle Roberts is wisely keeping inside. Roberts drags the agitated poodle away from the door and after shouting a few insults manages to restore calm.

The East African Standard of Nairobi, Kenya, was owned by a family of British settlers. Like most other white owned businesses, the Standard was afflicted by white flight as independent black rule loomed. British capitulation had been forced by a bloody battle for Kenya’s rich highland farms, farms on land belonging to the Kikuyu people but controlled by white settlers. Although the rebels—so-called Mau Mau, a name they refused to accept—were defeated militarily, their struggle left the settlers divided. British colonial authorities restored black political freedom, and independent, black-ruled Kenya emerged.

In November of 1963, three weeks before independence, Roberts, his wife Jane, and an infant son packed off to Nairobi. They were clearly bucking the trend as the workhorse Comet airliner ferried them across the Mediterranean through Cairo and Khartoum and on south, but they felt little apprehension since many of their friends were Kenyans who would be assuming positions in the new government.

The pages of the Standard attempted to reflect the revolution in Kenyan society. Roberts, with his ear for extraordinary music, did his part by writing features and record reviews about African music. A steady volume of records was being produced in Nairobi by a conglomeration of small record companies. “Many of them were back street companies rather like the ones in Jamaica on Orange Street in Kingston except that a lot of them were Indian run,” he explains. Most were store front record shops with a small studio at the back for recording. Musicians would play clustered around a single microphone which fed their songs to a monophonic tape recorder. The tapes were then sent to London to be mastered and pressed into records.

“Talking to these men,” Roberts wrote of his encounters with African musicians, “you realize an old familiar quality—that of the musician whether American jazzman or Flamenco guitarist. It is a quality difficult to define, but unmistakable. Partly it stems from obedience to disciplines slightly at variance with those of the general public. Partly from belonging to a very tight-knit brotherhood which for self-preservation’s sake cannot become too in-turned, but which must beware of commercial pressures which might distract from musical values.”

For Roberts, life in Kenya seemed agreeable. The music was to his liking, and the Standard published all he wrote. He began to pick up a new language because, he says, “I was naive enough to assume that when you went to Kenya you learned Swahili which is not what other Europeans did.” He thought he might actually be understanding the place well enough to write a book.

While still in London he had submitted a novel to Eyre & Spottiswoode, an English publishing house. “I kept getting these four page encouraging rejection letters,” he says, “so I kept re-writing the damn thing. I was very good at getting very enthusiastic rejection letters from senior editors....Anyway the guy suggested when he heard I was going to Kenya that I might consider doing a non-fiction book.” From Nairobi Roberts wrote the publisher proposing a book to be called A Land Full of People. “The rationale was that in 1963 or 4, when I got the contract to do it, Kenya was thought of as either a land full of rather alarming politics or a land full of wild animals. So the theme was that Kenya is not a land full of interesting game or of alarming politics but of people.”

In Africa, Roberts writes in the book which was published in 1967, “Nearly everything is in a fluid state of experiment, and experiment in any part of the world is bound to have repercussions of one sort or another in the world at large. Moreover, Africa today is the result of a long and fairly thorough period of meddling by one civilisation with another; it is so to speak a trial run for the world-wide readjustment and breakdown of cultural compartments which is already in progress, and which—if mankind does not succeed in putting a nuclear stop to it—is likely for better or worse to continue at an ever-increasing pace.” He spurns the sensationalism that usually surrounds reporting on Africa to focus on the Kenya he saw from within, “a more or less arbitrary yet cohesive collection of peoples whose concerns both individually and collectively are much the same as those of any other part of the world.”

Three years after he arrived, a bout with viral pneumonia brought Roberts’s stay in Kenya to a halt. He recovered back home in London and landed a job with the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Swahili language section where he worked as a producer and language translation supervisor.

In 1970 he moved to New York at the invitation of Aaron Segal, an old acquaintance from Nairobi. Segal was editor of Africa Report and needed someone to manage the magazine’s production while he concentrated on writing and research. Roberts took the position and eventually succeeded Segal as editor. It was during this period that he made his first music field recordings. “It started out,” he says, “as one of those, ‘We might as well take a vacation that we can tax deduct and go and do a little research and buy some books and see what happens.’ And then, ‘Well we might as well take a tape recorder.’” Not only did he get a tax deductible trip, he recorded a wonderful album of music from Haiti, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic for Nonesuch Records’ Explorer Series called Caribbean Island Music.

While at Africa Report, Roberts also found time to write his second and most widely acclaimed book, Black Music of Two Worlds. Based, in part, on a thirteen program series about African music he had produced during his BBC days, Black Music of Two Worlds has become the standard reference work on the evolution of black musical styles. In it he writes, “It is important to get away from the idea—a hangover from the old ‘Dark Continent’ nonsense—that African music was for centuries cut off from the rest of the world; that it existed in some limbo or cultural Garden of Eden, unsullied by outside influences, until the colonial era, when it was raped by outside forces; and that it has never been the same since. In fact, Africa has always been in contact with other parts of the world.”

With that, he sets off to trace black music on both sides of the Atlantic from traditional African and its encounters with Europe and Islam, through slavery’s wrenching upheaval and its impact on music both in the Americas and back home in Africa. Of the Afro-American music born of slavery he writes, “It has sometimes been suggested (in a natural revulsion to the old racist theory that black musicians, having nothing worthwhile of their own, created their superb music as if by magic entirely out of scraps taken from their white rulers and neighbors), that Africans in the New World fought against white musical influences, trying to keep the music of their past as pure as possible. But the evidence is against this theory. African musicians and those of African descent in the Americas preserved and developed their African heritage, but they also latched onto the new musical experiences they encountered, took from them whatever suited them, and made both what they took and what they already had into something their own.”

Of modern African music—inspired in part by western forms and bane of traditionalists—which is now making its way across the Atlantic, he observes, “The root of all African pop styles is a blend of reinterpreted traditional—or at least local—elements with any foreign ingredients that may enhance them (besides, of course, impressing people as desirably ‘sophisticated’). In practice, these foreign elements are almost all Afro-American—even many of the apparently non-Afro-American influences have themselves been influenced by black music. Therefore, modern African pop music is a good deal more than a simply ‘Westernized’—hence presumably neocolonialist—music would be. In fact, it contains a high degree of Africanism, direct and indirect, and completes a very satisfactory black-music circle binding together the Old World and the New.”

In what is perhaps a comment on the publisher’s marketing effort more than anything else, Roberts describes the book as “an instant underground classic, defined as a book you have to steal from the library if you want to find a copy.” But despite poor promotion and distribution, Black Music of Two Worlds clearly established his credentials as a music critic and historian.

Roberts left Africa Report in 1973 and began to freelance. “I just kind of blundered into it,” he says. “If you ever think about doing anything it is clearly a lunatic idea and you’re not going to go anywhere.” He wrote often for Village Voice, specializing in Latin music, and covered rhythm and blues for High Fidelity. An unpublished book recounting the exploits of fictional black American pianist Red Salter evolved into a script for what Roberts calls “one of the more-forgotten films of 1976,” Countdown at Kusini. His story was set in the Kenyan port city of Mombassa, but the film was shot in Lagos, Nigeria. “He wasn’t paying attention,” Roberts says of the film’s director and star, Ossie Davis. The film makers “liked it because it was unusual, and by the time they’d finished re-writing it to suit people who they needed to try and get money out of, it wasn’t terribly recognizable.” Nevertheless, Roberts was paid for his effort, no small success for a writer.

That same year, Broadcast Music Incorporated commissioned him to write a history of Latin music for its quarterly magazine, The Many Worlds of Music. The article inspired Roberts’s third book, The Latin Tinge, in which he contends that Latin music has been the “greatest outside influence” on the evolution of popular music in the United States. “Virtually all of the major popular forms—Tin Pan Alley, stage and film music, jazz, rhythm-and-blues, country music, rock—have been affected throughout their development by the idioms of Brazil, Cuba, or Mexico,” he writes. “Moreover, these Latin ingredients have gained in strength over the years: not only does the standard repertory contain a significant representation of tunes of Latin-American origin or inspiration, but the whole rhythmic basis of U.S. popular music has become to some extent Latinized.” He recounts in rich detail the blending of Amerindian, European, and African elements that produced the tangos and rumbas and mambos which eventually insinuated themselves into the United States.

Remainder copies of his books along with a Roberts produced compilation record album called Africa Dances led to the formation of Original Music. It began in 1982 in Brooklyn as a partnership between Roberts, whose first marriage had ended in divorce in the mid-seventies, and his second wife Anne Needham. “The reason we started it was because we had these copies of Africa Dances kicking around in the basement and we had this vague idea that maybe we’d give The Latin Tinge and Black Music of Two Worlds a bit of a boost,” he explains. Mail order, it seemed, was the best marketing approach, so he put together a one page brochure and, armed with a donated mailing list, began to solicit customers. “It makes sense,” he says. “There are people interested in this stuff, but they’re scattered....Mail order is the appropriate way of marketing something which has a national audience which is a small percentage of the whole population.”

Using money from the sale of their Brooklyn house, the couple moved to the country in 1983 to begin to build their business in earnest. From a one page brochure featuring five books and one African record, the Original Music catalogue has grown to a quarterly publication of some fifty pages filled with offerings of books, records, and videos from around the world. The business even threatens to show a profit, but for the moment Roberts still finds it necessary to write freelance articles, and Anne works full time as an alcoholism counselor.

“The thing about Original Music,” he explains as he wanders over to admit the large black dog that has been persistently sniffing around the door, “is that it uses: see I’ve had long writing about music experience. I have long editing experience. I have cutting tape with a razor blade experience from the BBC. I have credit, what they call in Britain ‘street cred,’ with the reviewers and people. I have a lot of knowledge about a lot of music other than the black music, because although I was writing about black Diaspora music: I mean when I was fourteen and fifteen I was listening to Portuguese and 78 rpm recordings from the Columbia Music of the Orient series and all that. And I had an Umm Kulthum record from Egypt which I’d bought for six pence when I was fifteen. So moving to the world music was very logical in terms of my interests.”

Logic is perhaps part of it, but a sense of duty seems implicit. Roberts has written that “art is fundamental to the continuing process of self-definition in any society.” By exposing that art outside the ethnic or cultural or .political group that inspired it, the ignorance that breeds prejudice is eroded. For Roberts, with his pristine collection of rare records, its dissemination becomes a moral obligation. Besides, he gets to listen to great music surrounded by adoring animals that greet his excruciatingly dry one-liners and his comments on their intelligence with equal admiration. And there’s ample time to swap stories with other urban refugees, artisans and Wall Street bankers, in the pizza parlors of nearby Tivoli and Red Hook. While he strives to live up to what he claims is the Oxford credo, “have fun, make money,” one suspects that Roberts is mostly having fun.

This article first appeared in Folk Roots, no. 74 (vol. 11, no.2), August 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Gary Stewart



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