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REGGAE, REGGAE, REGGAE

ImageMr Locksley Gichie is a man with an extremely firm handshake, an air of modesty and a hat full of locks. In Harlesden – as Gerry from Hawkeye Records (the only reggae shop left) says – ‘everyone knows Locksley’. Everyone that is of a certain age who knows about reggae.

That’s because Locksley was the guitarist in the Cimarons – they got together in 1967 because they all went to the youth club at the Methodist Church in Tavistock Rd – and they became Britain’s first home-grown reggae band. As well as backing musicians for everyone from Bob Marley to John Nash and Ken Booth to Toots and the Maytals.

“I came over from Jamaica in 1962 when I was 12,” he says, “my mum came over three years earlier and got work in a factory. My dad who was a printer came over for six months then went back. Two of us were with mum, the other two kids stayed in Montego Bay. This was when the UK was doing big promotions over there to get workers. At that time, it was easy to get a job in Harlesden. You could leave one factory if they weren’t treating you right, then get work in another one the next day.”

In the 70s, NW10 was heaving with bits of the reggae business. Trojan Records – the biggest indie label that Chris Blackwell co-ran, until he went off to form Island Records – was in Neasden where  Willesden County Court is, Palmer Records was in Craven Park Rd and was a record shop and a record label, Jet Star and there were lots more. Hawkeye, of course, is still there and has the marvellously opinionated Gerry, behind the counter.

I wonder what they sell these days? Is it newer stuff by younger artists? “We sell reggae from Jamaica and the UK,” says Gerry, “but also R n’ B, Soca, Mento and some surprising CDs. Like Jim Reeves’ Christmas Songbook because old folks used to hear his songs at Xmas and they want to hear them. And Fats Waller’s ‘Write Letter Myself A Letter’ but we’ve got CDs from newer rappers like Gappy Ranks too. He used to come into the shop when he was a young boy, he tormented us and now look at him. But we also have had a staple diet of artists like Dennis Brown and Prince Buster.”

And then he has a little bit of rant. Something that is not unusual, by all accounts. About computerised music and modern musicians who take old tracks, feed them through computers and pretend they’re making new music. “There’s a track by Damian Marley called ‘Welcome To Jamaica’ and it’s a version of a Sly and Robbie-produced track called Reggae World by Ini Kamosa. You lose all the feeling when you lose the instruments,” he says with his voice at full volume.

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At this point, a gentleman wearing a fetching red, gold and green shirt with pictures of the Emperor Haile Selassie on it, wanders in. To much acclaim. Turns out it’s Vivian Jones, the lovers rock singer. ‘Sugar Loaf, Sugar Loaf,’ says Locksley trying to remind me of Mr Jones’ most well-known number.

But Gerry is already on to Bridge Park Leisure Centre, – his voice rising again – where Hawkeye promote monthly music evenings. “We get 70 year olds coming out for a bit of music, they haven’t got anywhere else that provides this,” he says, “and it was supposed to be for the community,  but now they’re charging higher and higher prices. Trying to push us out. It’s somewhere where the older members of the community can enjoy themselves away from the younger ones.”

And the monthly Apollo – in Willesden on the first Sunday of the month – night which has been going for 30 years. “It’s run by Geoffrey Palmer, one of the three Palmer brothers who used to run Jet Star records in the 70s,” says Gerry before putting on an old Mento& R n’ B CD which is on Trojan records. “Mento precedes calypso, then there was ska and reggae, but lots of those singers looked to the old R n B singers like Otis Redding.”

Somehow Bob Marley comes into the conversation. Gerry erupts. “Reggae had so many people before him. He’s not the only reggae artist. Look, look, I’ll show you a picture where he had no locks and no spliff. And play you some of the tracks before they became commercialised. When they were still roots.” And out comes the original ‘Trench Town’ with all the huge bass intact.

Gerry is on a roll. Out come more records, he rates. Black Heart Music by Bunny Wailer is one. Meanwhile Locksley is telling me about his time backing Bob. “It was 1974 before he’d got a deal with Island,” he says, “Bob was joyful person but he made us understand that we couldn’t mess around. When he got his deal he wanted our rhythm section to tour the US with him. But we loved the Cimarons and wanted to stay in the band. We were the foundation in the UK for reggae, other bands like Aswad were inspired by us.” Oh and turns out Locksley used to rehearse with Bob in his house up the road in Neasden.

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And then there is a local revelation for me. The guy – white long locks, kindly face, runs JJ’s Wine Bar over the road and the Jerk Chicken shop over the road – I met a couple of years ago with Dawn Butler when she was our MP, turns out to be a reggae star who was called King Sounds and used to play with Ken Booth. Well, well, well.

As we’re walking down Craven Park Rd and Locksley is telling me the tale of the Cimarons. “In the 70s, we played the 31 Club which was in a basement on the hill at Stonebridge. Later it became the Apollo.  There was also Burtons on Cricklewood Broadway where all the best sound systems used to meet up and all the latest music from Jamaica was played so that’s where we were inspired,” he explains.  I ask him about the shebeens in those days. “On a Saturday night we’d all get dressed up and wander around until we found a party in someone’s house. I remember the first carnival in the early 70s when it all started building up on a Thursday night.”

Locksley is a self-taught guitarist. Delroy Wilson, Arton Ellis, Ken Booth, the Heptones – they were all were formative for him.

I wonder if he’s ever looked at his genealogy?  “My grandmother was a maroon which means she  came from free slaves, those that broke away from the boats and lived freely, whilst my grandfather was from Puerto Rico and had freckles just like you. He was a boat maker, he made yachts. Jamaica gets its strong energy from all those free slaves whose spirits remained unbroken.”

Starlight was the other record shop that endured but recently it has also closed. Although Gerry maintained earlier that Popsie, the owner, would re-open. We just passed its sad shutters, when Locksley points out another shop where they used to buy their suits. “It was called Marcus’ and we used to get red, brown and yellow mohair suits for wearing on stage. They were great.” And they used to get their equipment just down the road too. As well as swordfish and ackee from the famous Mr Patty.

“On Mondays, all the musicians used to meet up at Palmer Records (now a shop called Hair Control) because they were booking agents and we all got paid. In those days, I was getting £9 an hour which was a lot, I was doing sessions for other people. I was young so I squandered it on clothes and clubs.”

The Cimarons had some momentous times. In 1969, they were the first reggae band to go to Africa. “We went to Nigeria and Ghana,” he says. “They went crazy for us. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think it would explode in that way. We were so successful, all the artists like Jimmy Cliff who came over from Jamaica wanted us as their backing band. Jimmy Cliff taught us how to be disciplined. He used to say, ‘we can be friends again after 5’, in other words when the work is done.  From Toots and the Maytals, we learnt spirituality, they were on a spiritual high when they sang.”

As we pass Odeon Court, Locksley tells me that the band used to go and see Westerns there when it was a cinema. “Robert Mitchum was a favourite, and Lee Van Cleff,” he says.

The mention of ‘high’ makes me think of ‘ganga’ so I ask the question. “We didn’t start smoking until about 1974 when we were recording all day and night. It kept us awake and really helped the music flow so sweet and got us so creative. But it was proper weed not rubbish. Sometimes I’d do a guitar solo and wonder how I’d done it. At that time, we’d smoke in the street and the police wouldn’t understand what we were doing. It wasn’t banned at that time.”

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They were on Top of The Pops supporting Ken Booth, they played Belfast when no-one else would, they were the first reggae band to play Japan, a private plane was hired to fly them to do a gig in Cork one day when they had a night gig in Manchester and they managed both. Paris loved them. They were number one in Jamaica with a cover version of Talking Blues by Bob. But it was all over by 1977.

“Reggae was so big and then the music industry pulled the plugs on us. We couldn’t get radio play. Thatcher came in and closed down the venues like Top Rank where we played. Trojan Records went bust. I carried on being a session musician and we re-formed the band a few times,” he explains.

But there is news. The Cimarons are coming back in their original format – most of them live still around Harlesden. “Through the internet, we’ve discovered that we’re actually still popular in Europe so we’re setting up a tour,” he says with such hope…

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