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Handsworth Evolution: music documentary
Steel Pulse
Birmingham reggae band Steel Pulse still play regularly around the world

Handsworth has produced many much loved Reggae bands and musicians including Steel Pulse and Musical Youth.

In a radio documentary called Handsworth Evolution, musicians and singers take a trip down memory lane.

Presented by Robin Valk, Basil Gabbidon, Apache Indian and others talk about the significance of Handsworth to Birmingham's music scene.

From the Ska and two-tone era to the rise of sound systems and house parties.

The evolution begins

During and after the second world war there was an influx of West Indian workers brought to the UK, this is when world renowned jazz musician Andy Hamilton came to the UK. He was among the first West Indian residents that settled in Birmingham areas such as Handsworth, Balsall Heath and elsewhere.

Andy Hamilton
At 92 years old Andy Hamilton can still be heard playing his sax across Birmingham

At 92 years old Andy Hamilton still plays regularly around Birmingham and has done for over 60 years with a wide variety of musicians including musician and record producer Muff Winward.

Muff Winward: "The black musicians that started up in Birmingham were first generation and it was very reggae rather than RnB, it took another 20 years before their children came along and made a multi-cultural difference.

"Whoever piled off the boat and turned out to be musicians, those were the guys we met. Andy being a classic example who was playing around then. We met him many times on our gigs because he was a jazzer and we played in many jazz clubs."

In the 50s, calypso had already had a polite appeal to white audiences, things then changed in the 60s when genres like ska and two-tone broke out and became popular with white teenagers. This time led to the rise of the ska and two-tone bands in Birmingham and Coventry.

Reggae vibes

Basil Gabbidon
Basil Gabbidon still plays on the Birmingham music scene

Towards the end of the 60s a more roots heavy music started coming into the UK spearheaded by Bob Marley. The sons and daughters of the first generation West Indian and Jamaican immigrants growing up in Birmingham were exposed to this music.

Steel Pulse were the very first homegrown UK reggae band coming out of Handsworth. Like UB40, Steel Pulse are a big international name and are still touring today. Steel Pulse was formed in 1975 by school mates who attended Handsworth Wood Boys school.

Basil Gabbidon was one of the founding members of Steel Pulse, he is still a key member of the Birmingham reggae scene and still regularly performs and tours today.

Basil Gabbidon explains: "It was around the same time when there was a lot of stuff on TV about starvation in Africa, that woke us up to a consciousness and we thought the best way to spread the message of unity and awareness was through music."

In due course new bands and solo performers started to emerge from Handsworth such as Musical Youth, Pato Banton, Apache Indian and others.

Apache Indian: "There was a record shop I used to walk past on Grove Lane, Handsworth and reggae used to play out, I loved the sound and used to buy the records, I got into Bob Marley in a big way."

Sound systems

Ruby Turner
Ruby Turner, one of the UK's finest Soul Singers

Along with the new breed of reggae bands a whole new world of musical creativity was being exposed by the sound systems. The emphasis for the guys that ran these sound systems wasn't about the big hits, it was about playing something that another system didn't have.

Throughout the late 70s and 80s blues house parties across Handsworth were ruled by the sound systems.

Ruby Turner reminisces about her childhood days going to blues parties: "Blues parties were where you used to hear all the dub plates, it was the sounds systems that were happening that made the vibe in the community. That's how we heard about a lot the stuff that used to come out of Jamaica. They were great days.

"Each sound system had their own territories and they were well known, it came to a point were you had the Coxon system, Wasffia and all the others - they would play against each other to see who had the best dub plate. It was like clash of the titans, it was great."

Music makers

Soho Road in Handsworth is a very multi-cultural shopping street, as Asian communities moved into the neighbourhood between the late 60s and 70s their children listened to a wide range of music and eventually become music makers themselves.

Sound Systems
Wasiffa sound system were big on the Handsworth house party scene

Handsworth born reggae artist Apache Indian still works in Birmingham supporting all genres of music, back in the day he was a sound system expert: "I got involved in the sound system culture, I couldn't sing or dance but I had all these records.

"In the park they used to string up all these big speaker boxes, turntables and generators it was amazing. I was this little Asian kid that used to go around with all the sounds. I learnt the whole art of setting up a sound system it was like a hobby."

Jamaican roots

Handsworth wasn't just about roots reggae and sound systems, there were also some exceptional gospel choirs including the Majestic Singers and many fine soul singers including Jackie Graham and Ruby Turner.

Ruby Turner said: "I guess in a way it was a West Indian way of capturing what Jamaican was all about and what was missing in our culture here. They created it in Handsworth to relive what was going on in Jamaica."

Handsworth Evolution on BBC WM

Listen to the full Handsworth Evolution music documentary produced and presented by Robin Valk for Birmingham Heritage on Thursday, 30 December, 2200hrs on BBC WM.

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