Generation Windrush demanded records - Migrants catalysed the local record industry
As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20 vision. In the case of Babylon (1980) which is now – four decades after its first screening – acknowledged as a certifiable classic, the adage applies. After its release in the United Kingdom in the late 1980s, and a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival the following year, Babylon did not enjoy a theatrical release in the US – until March 2019.
For the opening of Cinema Paradise (more affectionately known as Portie Film Festival) at the Ambassador Theatre in Trench Town, patrons were treated to the digitally remastered, high-definition version of the film – restored from the original camera. It was hoped that as the images get cleaner and the colours brighter, the audience’s eyes would open to see clearly how the Windrush generation played a major role in kick-starting Jamaica’s music industry.
No US Distribution
Following the screening, the audience were privy to a panel discussion including Brinsley Forde, star of the film and founder of reggae band Aswad; Martin Stellman, screenwriter; and Junior Lincoln, musicologist and cultural anthropologist.
Stellman reasoned why the film’s reception was lukewarm upon its release. He believes that some of the more mainstream, conservative critics were confused by the content. But that didn’t halt other reports’ critical acclaim. “Franco Russo (director), deservedly, was given by his peers the Evening Standard award for best new director. So, in some quarters, there was some recognition of it,” the screenwriter said. Impressive as it was, that award didn’t assure Babylon’s distribution in the US market.
He continued: “Even though it was recognised by the film industry because of the award, the traction wasn’t there because there was that kind of institutionalised thing about the material that was available to tell the stories about black people – it just wasn’t there.” Babylon was still seen by the UK audience, and had a lasting impact on some viewers like Idris Elba, who last year celebrated his directorial debut, Yardie (2018).
“So it’s interesting that the next generation, they saw what was going on. So people like Elba who had grown up with Babylon, they all decided ‘UK, no way. We’re going to America’,” Stellman observed.
Sound or Gramophone Systems
Accompanied by the National Youth Orchestra, featuring Edna Manley College students and conducted by legendary musician Ibo Cooper, Forde took centrestage as the final presentation of the opening. The impressive instrumentalists expertly supported the seasoned singer, who closed the opening in a manner pleasantly reminiscent of the film’s end. In the film, Forde plays a disenfranchised young man who takes refuge in South London’s underground sound system culture – and who keeps singing despite law enforcers hammering down the basement door.
Lincoln observed that it was the practices of such transplanted, disenfranchised youth that informed the initial framework for developing Jamaica’s record industry.
According to Lincoln, who emigrated to England in 1959, the only thing Jamaican youngsters had to hold on to in that foreign land were basement parties, and other varied approaches to retaining island flavour – like cooking curried lamb in the absence of goat meat. “We didn’t even have a sound system. It was a [gramophone]. So the younger kids grow up with that culture, because it was the only thing we had to hold on to as Jamaicans. If you check the history, our record producers did not make records to sell back as an industry. It was made for a sound system to have a tune over the other one”; a fact he observed was reflected in Babylon’s discourse.
“But then, Jamaicans who emigrated to England were the ones who started to buy records and send the monies back to the producers, who, in turn, started to make more records.” And so the consumer cycle began.