Jak and I met in the imaginary casbah of African music in London during the 1980s. We both believed it was possible to renew faith in the power of African creativity for a better future, especially in music.
Jak loved Black music. He had photographed Fats Domino, Sarah Vaughan, Sun Ra, Bobby Mcferrin, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Art Blakey and many other leading lights of American Jazz. His portfolio also contained some great shots of Rod Stewart, John Lennon, Cat Stevens, Rollings Stones and many other icons of British Pop but I always felt African music occupied a special place in his heart. I did too, but then, I was a poet that heard music anytime I tried to conjure words out of thin air. I may also have had a stronger instinctive feel for the music. I was African after all. Jak was not. He was a white English boy, born and bred in London but possessed extraordinary humanity that was expressed beautifully in every photograph he took. As it turned out, Jak took some of the most iconic photographs of African musicians in London during the 1980s.
Africa’s Cultural Headquarters
I first met Jak at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. African Dawn had rented a small office on the first floor and started organising music and poetry nights and workshops. That was the early 1980s and the heydays of the Anti-Apartheid Movement when the call for Nelson Mandela’s release rang loudest from London. The magnetic city functioned as the “capital ” of the African freedom movement with Africa Centre as its unofficial headquarters.
The legendary bar and restaurant
The centre was on the iconic King Street, leading to the famous Covent Garden market. It contained offices, a hall for exhibitions, meetings and shows, fronted by a shop front. Over the years, the shop front was used as a book shop specialising in African literature and tourism or a place to buy high-end crafts and memorabilia. The focus of attention for most patrons and visitors of all descriptions was of course the restaurant and bar, both in the basement.
The evening Jak walked into the bar with his bag of cameras hanging by his side, it was swirling with intellectuals and activists of all sorts and the regulars – all drinking and chatting heartily or as was usually the case arguing about politics or culture. Jak was a teetotaller so he did not indulge in a pint but he “passed through” regularly, I’m sure for the revetting conversations. He joined our table.
I was with Dambuzdzo Macherera, the Zimbabwean writer and Sheikh Gueye, my friend and African Dawn colleague. There were a few others – Paul, an ex-Black British paratrooper and Danton, a Caribbean Jazz saxophonist who earned more money basking in Covent Garden. How he survived in London was a mystery because he always ended up at the bar. This evening, somebody plucked the courage to ask him how he did it as he counted his coins to pay for another round of beer.
Jak mentioned he had visited Ghana and taken some great photos. This started a conversation and a friendship that lasted decades. We met again the following day, in the hall upstairs. Our symposium on David Diop was in progress. Lewis Nkosi, the celebrated South African writer was the guest speaker. During the break, Jak overheard my conversation with Sheikh. We needed a photo urgently for City Limits, the weekly listings magazine. He offered to help.
During the photo session, Jak’s mind seemed to be on everything else other than the photos. What did our painted faces mean, he asked. How did the designs relate to our work and our stage performances? What was our story? He had taken photos of other performers with painted faces, he said – Fela Kuti, Joseph Jarman. Oh yes, Ensemble of Chicago… After a fascinating monologue sprinkled with questions.. well a deluge to be more precise, I felt obliged to respond even though Sheikh was the expert. He knew the complete story from African cave paintings depicting legendary performers to the importance of subduing egos as poets. He helped me paint different designs on my face for different shows.
For some reason I got frivolous. I told Jak I only bought into the idea because on stage it worked as a great disguise. I was shy. Jak laughed but kept snapping. He never said ‘cheese’. He definitely caught us unawares on this one!
After the photo session, we continued the conversation in the bar. What about the designs of African Dawn’s albums and posters? Who did them? Our friend from Tanzania, Nadir Tharani, I said. What do the images represent? The black face is for Africa, I said. The different types of artists depict our commitment to the unity of art forms. We are the griots with the message.
British Free Jazz Movement
Jak told lots of stories about the British Free Jazz movement that peaked during the 1970s. He was a great conversationalist. He spoke about John Lennon, Rod Stewart and a few others. His approach as a photographer was very unique, I soon realised. The stories the images evoked were equally important to him. It is a real pity that he never wrote down his stories. His books combining photographs and stories would have been bestsellers. Definitely more factual and realistic accounts of the lives of music icons and the industry as a whole.
Jak was spiritually an African griot. And it was clear to me that photography, his chosen medium gave him unique access closer to the truth. Jak always knew a lot more than he was prepared to talk about publicly.
African musicians and British Rock
After hearing him talk about the 1970s, what cemented our friendship and gave it deeper resonance was the belief that maybe it was possible to build more powerful synergies between African music and British rock and jazz considering the unique collaborations between musicians like Remi Kabaka, Rocky Dzidzonou, Kwaku Baah and Rolling Stones, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, and Georgie Fame. The history of both African music and western Pop – which is what much of the Jazz and Rock was reduced to – could have been very different. Maybe the 1980s could give us another chance?
Jak was a unique bridge between the 1970s and the 1980s. He became a leading photographer of African musicians during the 1980s because he had a great personality and also understood the dynamics that produce the waves of interest. It was a real joy to see his photographs in mainstream media or better still staring at me from the front pages. I jubilated and sometimes bought extra copies because I knew how hard an African image had to “fight” to get there, no matter the musician’s popularity.
Jak kept close touch with African Dawn and took most of our publicity photos and performances. He was also friendly with most of the artists in our network – Dade Krama, The South African Jazz Movement with Julian Bahula and the 100 Club crowd, Limpopo Club at Africa Centre run by Wala, reputed to be Africa’s Number one DJ and the regular guest musicians from Africa and London based; the Bhundu Boys, African Brothers, Thomas Mapfumo, Orchestra Jazira, Taxi Patapata, Pula Arts Kommune, Shikisha, Steel N Skin, Ekome, Lioness Chant. The network kept growing.
Shows and more shows
It was always a real joy to see Jak. He would come to say hello in our dressing room and end up chatting till we went on stage. We had a non-smoking policy in our dressing room so he enjoyed hanging around and chatting. He was a non-smoker.
World Music Controversy.
My friendship with Jak went through a tough patch when the “World Music” controversy broke during the summer of 1987. It started with the launch of a British media campaign that looked like some independent labels and industry people trying to pigeonhole African music for commercial gain. Rick Glanville at City Limits fired a shot at Folk Roots magazine, titled “Bullshit Detector’” “Anybody from the Third World is allowed to join through the paternalistic assumption of rudimentary, exotic and inaccessible qualities”. It obviously got the calculated response with a flurry of interviews from all angles.
Jak kept his professional hat on throughout. It must have been a tough call for him because most of the ‘World music’ advocates were his clients and friends. We continued to work together. Anytime we met during that time, humour won the day, as we tried to define what was “world” and what was “music”. He gave me some great photographs to illustrate the debate in my book ( Storms of the Hearts, Camden Press 1988) The chapter was provocatively titled, “is African Music Being Colonised?”
My friendship with Jak continued throughout the 1990s. He gave me another wonderful set of photographs for my book “Black British Culture and Society published by Routledge in 1999. He photographed Musa Mboob, the Gambian drummer for Chosan, the album I produced. Jak was at the Central Hall when I organised a major international tribute to President Julius Nyerere for Jubilee 2000.
I lost touch with Jak when I left London to set up a studio in Ghana in 2003. I contacted him again, two decades later when I invited him to join a creative arts forum on WhatsApp. Jak said yes even though he was not well. On the sidelines, we started what turned out to be a short but memorable conversation. Sadly, he died on 3 January 2020.
Towards the end, Jak wrote under semi anaesthesia. which true to his sense of humour, he described as “morphine blitzed,” I felt sorry for him and prayed he would get better. The conversations were starkly honest and evoked the depth of friendship between us. I thought they raised some pertinent issues around the joys and pain of creative practice but not sure to make them public. He said fine when I asked him. So, with his permission, here is the unedited conversation.
Jak 26 / 10 /2019 17:10
When you are in hospital after emergency neurological surgery on the spine, in a post-operative daze, pain and morphine blitzed, finding your ward neighbour, out of sight seems to be having a party past visiting hours, suffering. Then 3 days later, both in recovery, and he having discovered my connections to Ghana, introduced me to his then visitors today, Keith Shiri and Shaun, he being Nigel Watt with all those Africa Centre and West Africa magazine connections. My major exhibition on Ghana was at the AC before their time. Then talk of you and if African Dawn. And so it emerged that his visitor when I was hallucinating was Wala, who I did not see. Small world.
Kwesi 26 / 10 / 2019 20:51
Thanks, Jak. At moments like these, our memories speak powerfully to the links we forge out of love for the things we do. The memories run deep in our veins and our collective consciousness. We sing to them in our dreams. I still have fond memories of the London years. Your cheerful smile, your laid back but highly creative demeanour and oh that quintessential bag hanging on your side, always. The camera usually popped out first. I should say by the drop of the hat. I also remember the books, the magazines, photographs of Jazz musicians at 100 Club, the concerts, the interviews. Extraordinary images that remind us about the inherent beauty of the so-called ordinary. I remember the first photograph you took of African Dawn. I cherish the moment to this day. Jak, and more than anything I can say, I wish you a speedy recovery and thank you for bearing witness to testimonies that still linger on, anxiously before the break of the African dawn.
Jak 27 / 10 /2019 02:24
Thanks for your beautiful response Kwesi. Funnily enough, one of your reminiscences of me, that camera bag always hanging on my side, is likely the cause of my 20 years of back and neurological problems which have given the damage which is where I am now. We did not have health and safety those years back. The ever carried bag, just in case, of course, weighed my skeleton to one side causing damage. Not too much problem most of the time but on fast-moving demonstrations, and more so, working in intifada Palestine with 20kg heaving misalignment while running, now I pay!
Last night was added my carrying of not just the cameras but reel to reel recording equipment around villages in Ghana, and without a car. Ditto my ears from being next to PA’s photographing music. But it has been an interesting life, still is, and I am still smiling.
If you want to share on the group that is fine if it has value for you. I enjoy seeing what is happening and being discussed. Am impressed by the range and civility. In that is also great hope. But admit a slight feeling that I should hang back as I am not actually an African. At the same time, I love Africa, particularly Ghana and it’s all in my heart.
Kwesi 26 / 10 / 2019 12:52
Good day, Jak and hope you are better. I posted a post acknowledging your work our friendship and proposed I can help organize an exhibition of your Jazz and African music photos in Ghana!
Good response with some ready to help.. Your thoughts🙂
Jak 27 / 10 / 2019 16:14
First time and aside from the relation I am now suffering that I obviously overdid it! I have to take it very slowly little by little. The operation was fairly major and at that point, I had gone way downhill. That is not ‘it’. There will be a further treatment plan as I also have a lesion on my lung and a tumour was removed from the spinal cord. That is at the lab and I will be called to the hospital soon for the doctors’ team to present their findings and forward plan. Most likely I face lengthy radiotherapy as well as rehabilitation to regain mobility.
An exhibition in Ghana would be wonderful but a lot to organise logistically. My archive is in Malaysia including the remaining prints of the original Ghana exhibition and a box of assorted prints of a music exhibition I did in Slovenia in 2003. Getting good prints now is not so easy and I can no longer make the traditional way. Digital scanning is a nightmare with old film as it collects every blemish and bit of damage, not least deterioration and fungus all to be worked on in Photoshop. Such work has dominated my time for the past few years but I have only scratched the surface of my archive. And endless computer work had exasperated by back condition, now will need to be curtailed.
We can work something out. Also to mention, I made all those field recordings of traditional music in Ghana. I regret that a certain pushy opportunist woman convinced me to lodge it all with the National Sound Archive. However, this has at least meant it is preserved for researchers at the British Library. I have some cassette copies of originals as well as some edits. This could all go well to complement an exhibition in Ghana and make it more multimedia. Plus I would offer to speak rather a lot about my experiences of dealing with my material outside Ghana and particularly the reactions and ways Western companies sought to use, read that as exploit. I suspect that some of the music forms I recorded may no longer exist and it was part of my intention that this being some core cultural heritage it may be there for regain, development and cultural enrichment. Without the past, the future is lacking. I have much more to say but aside from my present difficulties and using a small phone to write I I on morphine which does not help!!!
Kwesi 267/ 10 / 2019 16: 53
Thank you so much, Jak. We shall go with your pace. To do this will be truly wonderful based on what is readily available. In your own time, you can provide a list of the photographs and sound recordings. On the basis of that, I can work on the logistics from here. And of course, see you in Ghana once again. In your own time
Jak 31 / 10 / 2019 17:41
It will not be easy but often from the greatest struggles to reach a summit the view can be wonderful. It would be great for me if we can do this, but I hope there could be some benefit for Ghana, its people and cultural heritage. I don’t see why not. I’ll keep you updated
Kwesi 31 / 10 / 2019 17:42
I look forward to hearing from you. Get Well!
The conversation broke off at the end of October 2019.
Jak died on 3 Jan 2020
All photos by Jak Kilby