Now that the dust has settled and I have had a chance to muse on what we actually did over the past three years, culminating in the Afro-Sonic Mapping exhibition at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, I want to take a gulp and express deep gratitude, firstly, to my studio crew: Julianne Cordray, Kahori Furukawa, Trevor Morgan, Jordane Maurs, and Stephane Gaultier; and to the HKW crew: Anselm Franke, Agnes Wegner, Paz Guevara, and Lisa Deml. Coz without these key players, the dream would not of been realised.
We had an amazing program with brilliant lectures by luminaries such as Fred Moten and Greg Tate — to mention just two. Big thank you to those of you that were here in Berlin and gave your support. Thanks to the amazing support of HKW, I was able to keep my promise to all my collaborators in Luanda and Salvador da Bahia and invite them to Berlin to perform in the concerts. For those of you that were unable to attend, please know this: you only missed chapter 1. Chapter 2 is in the making.
P.S. If you happen to be in Paris this Thursday, Nov 28th, please come to the Cosmopolis #2 Exhibition at the Centre George Pompidou. At 8:30pm I am giving a solo sound performance of LATITUDE, which is the experimental album created in the rubric of Afro-Sonic Mapping. Looking forward to seeing you then.
It was a great pleasure to have Kiluanji on board at the opening talks and performance of the Afro-Sonic Mapping exhibition at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. But hey, it’s only natural really, considering we’ve been friends for ages; been in many group shows together; and have discussed the obliteration of postcolonial tropes into the wee hours of the morning in New Orleans; or whilst sipping Ginja in the square near Rosssio in Lisbon.
I was very fortunate that Kiluanji was in Luanda when I arrived there last year to begin the Afro-Sonic Mapping project. We conducted this interview after a long lunch. He took me on a little tour, which eventually led to his Luanda gallery where, I must admit, I had the warmest and most congenial first meeting with gallery owners that I’ve ever had –Mex and Jardel are the best. Kiluanji’s friendship, knowledge, generosity and hospitality are always greatly appreciated. I look forward to returning to Luanda — hopefully next year. We are in the early stages of discussions on the logistics of an Afro-Sonic Mapping exhibition at the Jahmek Gallery. Meanwhile, sit back and absorb this very enlightening interview.
It was very cool to be with MC Sacerdote here in Berlin after not seeing him since we collaborated on the tracks for the Afro-Sonic Mapping album (as yet unreleased). He flew into cold Berlin from the Luanda summer season with a T-shirt – not even a hoody. But we set him up with some warm attire. It was quite amazing coz he never once complained about the cold.
In this last interview that I conducted with Sacerdote on my very last day in Luanda, he candidly speaks about the experience of working with the wax cylinder phonograph recordings, what he experienced on first hearing them and the obligations he felt to creating the tracks we built in his studio. I look forward to seeing him again in Sambizanga, Luanda in the not-too-distant future.
Greetings, to those of you that were unable to attend the Afro-Sonic Mapping opening – let me tell you, you were missed. For those that were there: well, you were a wonderful audience and played an important role in creating what can only be described as an amazingly relaxed and friendly atmosphere. On Oct 31st, I did a conduction (real-time composition) with an ensemble of seven musicians. On Nov 1st, the Afro-Sonic Mapping Band debut was witnessed. The band – apart from four guests – consists of musicians and vocalists that I met and collaborated with in Luanda, Angola, Salvador da Bahia and Lisbon, Portugal. I would like to thank all of them once again, and thank you and the very accommodating and patient HKW team: Agnes, Anselm, Paz, and Lisa. It was a great experience. And to you, dear followers, I very much hope to see you on Nov 17th for the closing talks and my premier performance of LATITUDE – a composition conceived and partially recorded during my Afro-Sonic Mapping voyage. A limited edition vinyl record with scented inner sleeve is available at the HKW bookstore and Motto Books Berlin. Here are some images from the opening events and quick tour of the exhibition. Much Gratitude, Satch.
What Butch Morris invented and offered this planet is a unique subversive music vocabulary — one that breaks all pre-conceived notions of both creating experimental improvised music and the art of conducting large ensembles.
He wrote a sonic alphabet that liberates the musician to explore her or his most inner core of virtuosic creative expression, whilst adhering to a number of hand and baton symbols — eighty-five in total. An open invitation to deconstruct all previous formal conditioning. You gotta learn the rules before you can break ’em, is the prerequisite to all forms of improvisation.
Butch was a friend of mine; Butch was a bon vivant. He loved great wines and cigars, culinary delights and fine clothes. On stage, he was the dark ninja, the tyrannical maestro. When Butch took center stage dressed in black, he would clutch his baton close to his chest and in a gruff voice say C’mon, make it strong; and if you got it wrong, he would shout at you, even throw the baton. He was the ultimate perfectionist, who guided musicians into waters of the unknown – enabling them to realise the eternal possibilities of ensemble improvisation.
As a musician in Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, I was shouted at and often left rehearsals with a stiff neck. But working with Butch – in fact, being played by Butch — was such a revelatory and liberating experience, especially when we recorded The Rites1, and later that year played it at the Summer Stage Festival in Central Park, NYC.
I will never forget the very first time I experienced a conduction: it was upstairs at Tonic the Jonn Zorn-owned Lower East Side club, which supported avant-garde, creative and experimental music. I was in the audience, and as I recall, there were around fifteen to twenty musicians huddled on stage in the ensemble. Christian Marclay, the visual artist, was on turn tables. I was in the audience with Michaela Angela Davis and Trevor Schonmaker. I was dumbstruck. The experience was akin to when I first heard John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix. I was transported — transported to another galaxy — and at one point, the conduction sounded like Butch was sculpting forms in a massive swarm of bees. Butch Morris was a manifestation of sonic hybridity rooted in Blackness.
In a 2008 NPR Radio interview with Farai Chideya, the question of how his music could be categorised was asked and he responded thus:
I’m a Jazz musician, I know what I am and this is what I do — I do conduction. And it doesn’t matter whether the music you think I’m playing or professing is jazz or not; it’s kinda not my problem. I work with classical musicians, Japanese, or Turkish traditional musicians, Jazz, Funk or Pop musicians. I’m still showing everyone the same signs.
Each conduction is a terra nova of real-time composition. Nothing is to be repeated unless you receive the symbol to repeat what you just played (eg., ‘memory 1’). To be an element in a conduction ensemble is to be led, to be played — which takes a lot of trust. In fact, one must surrender to the unknown. All gravity is removed. One is projected into limbo-ness: you glide, you’re in flotation mode without a parachute.
I’m listening to The Rites while I’m writing this post. The multiple galaxies that this conduction explores are once again dawning on me. It’s the utter non-predictability that remains fresh on each listening. The music literally traverses industrial turmoil, Baroque Blues, New Orleans Kikongo cyber Klash places and spaces.
In the same NPR interview, Farai Chideya asked Butch, How did you get started on the path? He replied:
Why I started doing this in the first place is, I realized there is a great divide between what is notated and what is improvised and I wanted to understand what that divide is.
I wanted to hear twenty-five people play like a Jazz trio; I wanted to have that kind of combustion spontaneity and momentum and condensity.
I thought about conduction ten years before I even started practicing it.
I didn’t want to do it with one community; I wanted to bring a lot of communities together. Sure, it incubated in the Jazz and free music communities, but I realized that if non-improvisers wanted to do this I could incorporate all of them into the ensemble.
Butch Morris is the epitome of Afro-Sonic Mapping — that’s what he did. His conduction methodology is a radical cartographic approach into diverse sonic realms with a foundation planted firmly in the fertile soil of the Eternal Afro-Sonic Signifier. He sailed fleets into unknown subversive terrains. May his baton, like a celestial sextant, lead us into more expansive, experimental, radical plateaus and plains.
Gratitude and obeisances. RIP Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris.
1 The Rites: Burnt Sugar, Pete Cosey, Butch Morris, Melvin Gibb, Vijay Iyer, Stravinsky, 2003, Avantgroid music and pixelworks.
In late August, I was invited to participate in Ai Confini tra Sardegna e Jazz festival with Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber (FYI, I’m one of the original members). It was a great reunion. The concert, which included elements of conduction, was a revisitation of Porgy and Bess — the Miles Davis / Gil Evans rendition, that is. After the concert, I had the great pleasure of meeting Daniela Veronesi, who befriended Butch in New York on a break after finishing her PhD studies. Daniela attended a number of Conductions in both NYC and Italy and was very instrumental in ploughing through decades of diaries, which eventually led to her editing Butch’s book The Art Of Conduction.
Daniela kindly granted me an interview for Afro-Sonic Mapping, so please sit back, absorb and enjoy.
I was very fortunate to be in Paris in July, linking up with old friends: like Guillermo Brown, a great drummer and composer visiting from Los Angeles; the Paris-based effervescent and brilliant curator, Raina Lampkins-Fielder; the notorious Paris-based Mike Ladd — poet, writer, composer and rapper vocalist; the celebrated Saul Williams, composer, slam poet, vocalist extraordinaire and ex-Paris citizen, now based in LA; and Samantha and Mario Caldato — Samantha a Brazilian ceramics artist and Mario the brilliant producer of Seu Jorge and Beastie Boys, amongst many many others. The Caldatos are based in Los Angeles and have recently launched Amor — a non-profit record label.
Amor is, in fact, an embassy of cultural resistance and production. Mario recently produced Jupiter & Okwess in the Amor Los Angeles recording studio. Jupiter & Okwess is based in both Kinshasa and Paris. Jupiter Bokondji (born 1965 in Kinshasa) has a long history in radical, subversive, woke music. Jupiter’s adolescence was partly spent in Berlin, where he experienced both GDR East Berlin and the West — as his father was a diplomat stationed there. This Cold War period experience is an integral element in the ethos of his eclectic fire brand music, which boasts multiple guitar lines that lace and dance over and in complex crisscross rhythms, all rooted in a strong multi-Congolese identity.
Der Neger is the name of one of his earlier bands, which was formed in Berlin. Jupiter & Okwess’s current headquarters is a house in a suburb on the outskirts of Paris. Their next door neighbours, who are very close friends of the Caldatos, hosted a BBQ in their and the band’s honour. We, the guests, were so lucky to be able to get our dance moves on to the band’s vibrant grooves. Yes, Jupiter & Okwess played a short set in the garden, which catapulted us all to another stratosphere. Watch out for their upcoming album on the Zamora label. And watch out for the upcoming Amor label release of Orquestra Afro-Brasileira.
My many encounters with Latasha Nevada Diggs, hanging in my Berlin studio to contemplate her Ebonic morphs into Edo-period Japanese and multi-patois linguistics.
It all leads to Africa. We’re in this triangle space, right, and each point has its individual vocab, she said.
Yeah, twenty years on, me and my good friend Latasha are still discussing and experimenting with the binary interweave of the word and sonics. We started our friendship back in 2001 as band mates in Burnt Sugar, the Arkestra Chamber. That was in NYC on the eve of 9/11. She was one of the first vocalists I experienced all looped out in a loop station, plus the other pedals she was tweaking as she sung, screamed, cried and sermonized in the whirl of Butch Morris-esque conduction (real-time composition) loosely sketched from the baton of Greg “Ironman” Tate.
Yeah, those were the early days of Burnt Sugar’s unabashed forays into terrains of improvised non-predictability, and those are the days I count as my most erudite and mind-bending, sans drugs. Sonic moments where we fifteen musicians were lifting each other as a melded mass into trodden and untrod spaces – quite often a Miles-meets-Maggot Brain space with a tinge of Barok and Karnatic raga to aptly glide into a dark groid urban bashment beat.
That encapsulates the situation in which I met my good friend Latasha Nevada Diggs, so please enjoy Part 1 of our interview.
Satch Hoyt: You know this interview is for my blog, Afro-Sonic Mapping: Tracing Aural Histories via Sonic Transmigrations, so I’m actually looking at black narratives from a sonic perspective. Obviously you were in the UK at a very important period – a transitory period. And there were a lot of amazing musicians coming through. Would you like to talk a little bit about some of the musicians that you met and what was sonically going on in that particular period of the ‘60s?
Margaret Busby: Well, I’ve talked about my late ex-husband, Lionel Grigson – he was a jazz musician. He played trumpet and piano. After he graduated, he was involved with the university jazz group. In London he used to play at this place called the Troubadour on Old Brompton Road; a lot of musicians came through his group and played there. In fact, just down the road from that place was a pub, which was actually a gay pub, but it had a West Indian session on Sunday at lunchtime, I believe. So, a lot of West Indians came through.
SH: Did you know Joe Harriott?
MB: Yeah, I knew Joe Harriott. I was also thinking the other day about this Trinidadian, David “Happy” Williams, who actually used to play with Lionel. He went to the States and ended up playing with Cedar Walton for decades. Freddie Redd was also in London at one time; there was also Alexis Korner – so, blues and jazz musicians. Fela’s fusion was also going on. Actually, I published a book about Fela in 1983 – called Fela, Fela: This Bitch of a Life.
SH: Who wrote that book?
MB: A Cuban friend of mine called Carlos Moore. He was in Paris for a long time – that’s where I first knew him.
SH: What period was that?
MB: The ‘60s.
SH: That’s when James Baldwin and Richard Wright were there, as well.
MB: Yes. There were a lot of expatriate blacks in Paris in that era; they were all connected. There was Carlos, there was a Jamaican called Lindsay Barrett, who’s a writer and wrote about music – he’s still a friend of mine.
Back in the ‘60s, I also saw Black Orpheus and fell in love with Brazilian music. In fact, I started to learn Brazilian Portuguese just because I loved the music and wanted to understand the lyrics. I remember one song seemed like the beginning of a novel; it started: “I’ve got the marks of her teeth on my arm.”
SH: All of those instruments in Brazilian music – the berimbau or the cuica – are actually Angolan instruments, which is quite amazing. I was in Luanda last year working on my project. I’m actually looking at the way the music left the continent; I’m arguing, in fact, that the slaves acted as portals and carried this mnemonic network of sounds over to the Caribbean basin and the Americas. Then, amalgamations occurred in New Orleans with French classical music, creating jazz in Congo Square and so on and so forth.
MB: And then going back to Africa.
With Randy Weston over the decades. Left: with Randy Weston, ca. 1983; Right: Fatou Weston, Pam Weston, Chris Calhoun, Randy and Margaret Busby.
SH: Exactly. For instance, with Franco and the rumba in Congo. Or with Fela studying here, then going to America, meeting the Black Power Movement, and then his music becoming politicized, as well as all of the jazz influences that occurred.
MB: Well, even with people like Randy Weston. In fact, one of the early books I did – around 1970 – was by Valerie (Val) Wilmer and it was called Jazz People. It featured interviews with about a dozen jazz musicians, including Randy. Actually, one interview she had done was not quite an interview – it was with Miles Davis and went like this: “When I said later, baby, I meant later.” That’s what she got from Miles.
Then we did another book by her later – which was just reissued last year by Profile Books – called As serious as your life. The title is a quote from McCoy Tyner, who had said, “Music is not a plaything; it’s as serious as your life”.
SH: Do you have a Miles Davis story?
MB: I heard him in London. I think the last time I heard him was not long before he died. I used to go to Ronnie Scott’s a lot and I heard a lot of good people there. It’s funny how in those days you took things for granted; like, you’d just hang out with Freddie Hubbard after a gig, or whatever. I was sharing a flat with my sister in Belgravia and Freddie and his then-wife would come by. I actually used to write song lyrics, as well.
SH: Who did you write song lyrics for?
MB: For my husband and his band. The singer Norma Winstone also sang some of my lyrics – lyrics to something called “Some Time Ago”. Norma recorded it, as well as some Brazilian singer. In fact, by chance I came across a CD and there was this singer, singing my lyrics – I’m not sure how she found them. So, not a lot was recorded, but I used to write a lot of lyrics.
SH: What about the Brotherhood of Breath – did you know those guys: Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo and Mongezi Feza?
MB: Yes, of course. Abdullah Ibrahim is also a friend of mine. A lot of them played in a jazz club – the Jazz Cafe. Happy Williams played with Lionel; Philly Joe Jones, the drummer, was in London for ages. He used to hang out with us. There were quite a few who came through London at that time.
Satch Hoyt: You – Allison & Busby – along with New Beacon and Bogle-L’Ouverture were the pioneers of black publishing; you were at the vanguard. What, in your assessment, is the state of black publishers and writers in the UK right now?
Margaret Busby: Well, at the moment, I suppose there are more black writers published than previously.
SH: But what about the material that’s being published? Because what you were printing in that early period were giants like C.L.R. James and Sam Greenlee.
MB: The thing is, they weren’t giants at that time. Nobody wanted C.L.R. James or Sam Greenlee.
SH: Regardless of whether anybody wanted them, C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, for instance, was the book on the Haitian Revolution.
MB: In retrospect it is. But then, why was he out of print? If I were still publishing, there are many things that are out of print that I could reprint. What happens a lot is that it’s about fashion. I’m also always stressing the need for more black people involved in publishing – whether in autonomous companies or within the mainstream, because there are still very few people in the mainstream companies. You can say there are more books published, but then it’s about who’s choosing those books and why they’re choosing them. They’re picking those books because that’s their view of what African literature should be. And yet, the buzzword these days is ‘diversity’, or ‘inclusivity’ – everybody’s talking about it. But why talk about it? Just do the right thing. Also, what happens when you have these initiatives? They talk about publishing more books by working class writers, or BAME – I hate that word – ‘Black Asian Minority Ethnic’ writers. It’s all virtue signifying. The industry itself hasn’t changed.
And yes, there’s a need for more of us to actually want to be in publishing. Often, I’m at events or on panels and I ask the audience how many people want to be a writer, and everybody’s hands go up. And then you ask who wants to be a publisher and nobody’s hand goes up. But you can do both; it’s not as if you have to choose. You just have to be involved; otherwise they get to decide that you can come in the door. We have to be there at every level, whether it’s on the newspapers, etc. Otherwise, who chooses to review your show or my book? Who are the gatekeepers? We need to be part of it, so that there can be other perspectives. That way, everybody ends up benefitting. You want a richer literature, a richer artistic community. You don’t want everything to be narrowed down to just a small voice or coterie of people that are all thinking the same way. It would be very strange if you walked down the street and everybody looked exactly the same, spoke the same, or wore the same clothes. How boring would that be? But sometimes you feel that’s how it is. I can still go to a publishing party where I’m the only black person. And it’s not as if they even notice, because that’s the way it is for them – that’s the norm.
SH: Well, hopefully we will see a big show of hands next time you start asking that question about who wants to be a publisher.
MB: I hope so. That’s why, in the ‘80s, I was part of an initiative called GAP (Greater Access to Publishing). We were campaigning for more diversity within the industry. We had seminars for black women that wanted to get into publishing – showing them how to write their CVs. We had seminars with career officers in order to get them to suggest publishing as a possible career to people. It’s necessary for people to see that there are people like them within other industries; otherwise, why would they think they belong there? I know people who have become publishers because they knew I was there. Otherwise you’d think: well, that’s an industry that’s totally white; I’m not allowed in there.
SH: Who do you think are the bright literary black stars on the horizon now?
MB: There are so many – there are 200 in my book: New Daughters of Africa. The point of doing this book was to show in this list of 200 that you may recognize some names, like Zadie Smith, but you may not have heard of all the others, even though they’re worth reading. And why haven’t you heard of them? Because they just let one or two of us through and they get the promotion and the publicity and everybody else is just lucky if they get published. It was the same with the first book, Daughters of Africa, because in those days – in the early ’90s – you would have thought there were just three black women writers: Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. I wanted to say that they’re great, they’re in my book, but actually, here’s another 200, and they date back to ancient Egypt. The subtitle of that was: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Decent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present. In this new book, as well, since it’s ordered by decade of birth, I wanted to make sure there were a few representatives from the 19th century, or even earlier, to show that we didn’t all just happen in the 21st century. There actually were literate, creative black women writing way back. So there is a handful from that earlier era and then the most recent of them were born in the 1990s. It’s just to show there is a breadth, there are links, and there are batons being passed and people who influenced others. It also shows that people are different, but there’s also a collective shape.
SH: You’ve done that in this book.
MB: Well, I’ve done this, but I could do another one tomorrow with a completely different set of names. I asked someone who was interviewing me recently if they could do a book of just 200 white women, or European women – everybody from Jane Austin to J.K. Rowling – and if they would be satisfied with just 200. Of course they wouldn’t. So why should we say that there are only 200 women of African decent? There are many more. I started with a spreadsheet of hundreds of names.
SH: How did you curate down to 200?
MB: There’s nothing scientific about it. Again, I’m not saying that the people in this book are the only ones that deserve to be showcased, or that these are somehow better than those that aren’t in there. If you did an anthology it would be a completely different selection. It’s the same with prizes. When someone wins a prize, it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily scientifically better than everybody else; it’s just who the judges have chosen on that particular day. So it might have been people that I knew, people whose email addresses I had, people who were suggested by other people; some people replied, some people didn’t reply, others missed the deadline. There are many reasons why the people who are in there are in there. But it’s not deliberately excluding anybody. I mean, left to me, this book would be 10 times the size.
SH: So, there’s going to be another 5 volumes?
MB: Well, If I could do it, and if it was something seen to be profitable by the publishers, of course I’d do it. I’m really pleased with it and everybody in there deserved to be in it, but I can’t stop thinking about all the people that are not in it.
Last week I was in London – invited to attend the private view of Get Up Stand Up Now, a seminal group exhibition at Somerset House, in which I’m delighted to report my work is also present. Yes, right there alongside many wonderful, groundbreaking artists. The exhibition, curated by Zak Ové , is twofold: an homage to his father’s oeuvre and a 50-year survey of black creativity in the UK. It was there at the opening that I had the honour to be introduced to the very gracious Margaret Busby by our mutual friend Maureen Bryant. A portrait of Margaret hangs in a conspicuous place in the exhibition – it was taken by filmmaker-photographer Horace Ové . They are friends and have been since the late 60s. Her work, like Horace’s, is the stuff of legend. They were the early Black British way pavers – the pioneers that picked up the baton from the likes of C.L.R. James, and along with Stuart Hall, John La Rose and Kamau Braitwaite, amongst others, laid the foundations of what we now call Black British Culture. Please read the interview I had the immense pleasure to have with Margaret in London last week.
Satch Hoyt: Margaret, I’d like to know a little bit about your background. I know you were born in Ghana.
Margaret Busby: I was born in Ghana; my mother was born in Ghana; my mother’s mother was born in Ghana. My father was actually born in Barbados. When he was a baby, they moved to Trinidad and so he grew up there. My father was bright and he won the Island Scholarship to come study medicine in Britain. He became a doctor in Ireland, and then, once he qualified, he became a GP in East London in the 1920s. Then, in 1929 he migrated to Ghana. My mother’s father was born in Dominica, and he came to Britain in 1899 to study law. He was a delegate to the first Pan-African Conference in 1900. Then he migrated to Ghana in 1902. So when my dad went in 1929, he gathered at the Dominica House, which was the name of my grandfather’s house in Ghana – like all the others did – and that’s where he met my mom.
SH: Were you there during the advent of independence?
MB: I was away at school at the time of independence. The West Indians that came there were quite often doctors and lawyers, and they all practiced in the rural areas, where there was no medicine – no treatment for people. So, because my father was a doctor in the bush, there were no schools where we were living. My father wanted my brother and sister and I to get a proper education, so we went to Britain to get our schooling.
SH: Where did you go to school in Britain and how was it for you going to school there in that period?
MB: I went to school in Sussex. It was an international school, but I think my sister and I were the first black people. By the time we left, I had friends from Liberia, Trinidad and other places. My mother had problems finding us a school, though. I remember she told me that she had tried to get us into some school somewhere and was told that they didn’t mind, but it’s the parents of the other children who would. It certainly was that era in which black people were a rarity. After I went back to Ghana and did my A levels, I came back and went to university in London when I was 17. Even then, it was still hard to find places to live. It was that era of “sorry, no blacks or Irish.”
SH: Where were you living at that time in London?
MB: I lived at one time in a hostel. One time I lived in a private hotel, which was the only place I could find, and so I had to choose between getting a bus to college or eating, because I couldn’t afford to do both. Another time, I had some short-term place in a flat with some actress; yet another time, I was in the YWCA. At another point, I had a boyfriend, who I later married – he was an English musician and was at college in Cambridge. His name was Lionel Grigson. In fact, he was a professor of jazz at Guildhall. So, at one point I remember going up to visit him and had to stay with him, because I had nowhere else to stay. It wasn’t an easy time to be black in Britain.
SH: And to be a woman in that era…
MB: I think it’s only in hindsight that you see things like that. When I started publishing, I was at university. There was a friend of mine who I had known since school days – she was having a party because her first book was being published, and she was also about to get married to somebody at university. I was invited as a friend of hers, and her fiancé had invited his friends. So, at this party, I was introduced to someone called Clive Allison, because I was doing things in publishing at my college and this guy was, too. He asked what I was going to do when I graduated. And I thought I might go into publishing. And so we said, well let’s start a publishing company. We actually conceived it when we were both still at university. Later, we graduated and really did start it – Allison and Busby. But he was a white guy and I was a black woman, and so, of course, everybody assumed that he was in charge.
SH: In that era, what was Allison and Busby predominately focused on in regard to your program for publishing works? Was it quite radical?
MB: It was radical. In fact, somebody said to me once that you never knew what Allison and Busby was going to do next, but you knew it would be interesting. It was doing things that nobody else was doing. We were young and we didn’t have any experience, didn’t have any money, didn’t know what the conventions were, and didn’t know how many copies to print. We also didn’t have any distribution, so, we’d stop people in the streets asking if they wanted to buy a book. That’s how we started. And we both had to get jobs doing other things to subsidize ourselves. I had a major program on the African Service at BBC, and I got another job with some publishing company. By then, I was married to Lionel, and so a friend of his was in Mykonos and bumped into this African American, Sam Greenlee. Sam had this novel he had tried to get published and nobody on either side of the Atlantic wanted it. It had been turned down by maybe 40 people. So, this friend of Lionel’s said that he knew somebody who started a publishing company, and he sent Sam to me. The manuscript was about the CIA, which didn’t want to be accused of not having any black people working for them and so employed this guy – who sat by the door – so that they could show they integrated. Meanwhile, this guy learns all the tricks and is plotting a revolution in Chicago. So we thought, this is really a good political thriller-satire and we ought to get this serialized in the national newspaper. We then sent the manuscript to the observer telling them that we’re about to publish this first novel and we’d like you to serialize it. Of course, we didn’t know the conventions or we wouldn’t have sent it to them. But they sent it back saying, “you ought to know, we don’t publish fiction, and if we did, it wouldn’t be a black power first novel like this.” But that’s not the end. Not knowing any better, we sent it back to them saying, listen: you’re wrong. And they ended up extracting it. So that was the first novel we ended up publishing in March 1969: The Spook Who Sat by the Door. We were doing things that we wanted to do, and things nobody else wanted to do. We reprinted things that had gone out of print, for example.
SH: Can you name a few of those books?
MB: My dad had been at school with C.L.R James in Trinidad, so he was a family friend. I knew he was out of print, so I started publishing with three collections of selected writings and then went on to publish The Black Jacobins, his major book, which was out of print. And Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, which C.L.R. hadn’t published before – a lot of them. We published a lot of African Americans: H. Rap Brown’s Die Nigger Die; Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama.
SH: Any black women writers published in that period?
MB: Yes, we published black women writers. We published Rosa Guy; we published a Nigerian woman called Buchi Emecheta, who went on to become very successful. It was a mixture of things that we just wanted to do and that no one else was doing. We just went for it. There was a kind of camaraderie with John La Rose’s New Beacon Books, which started in 1966. That was the first black publishing company in this country. Allison and Busby was the second black-headed publishing company in 1967. And then there was Bogle-L’Ouverture, which was cofounded by Jessica Huntley and Eric Huntley in 1969. Those were the three main black-headed publishers in that era. And there was a lot of collaboration; we shared printers, artist Errol Lloyd designed covers for all of us. Then, the international book fair of radical black and third world books came out as a collaboration with New Beacon and Bogle-L’Ouverture. So, there was a lot of crossover between what we were all trying to do. Some things were more successful than others, but we just went on from there.