Like this boat racing across the ocean, we set out to reconnect with the kindred spirits of our dismembered past. Those we thought had been lost to history.
I met Sheikh Gueye and Wanjiku Kiarie in London during the summer of 1980. Sheikh was a poet and a brilliant multi-lingual scholar from Senegal. He was on his way to Paris. He decided to stay. Wanjiku, a Kenyan actress was performing at Keskidee Centre, then a centre of excellence in Black British theatre. I was a graduate student at the London School of Economics, moonlighting on literature and high doses of music and poetry.
We called ourselves, “The African Dawn”. It was meant to be symbolic but the impact was immediate and sensational. Suddenly, the ecstatic sounds of ancient drums reverberated inside us, evoking streams of poetic verses that spoke powerfully to our history and contemporary experience.
We were miles away from home but there was something strangely familiar about the cold stare of London’s dazzling lights when night fell. The more we delved into our historical relationship with the imperial city, the more we realised the importance of being here. Those were heady political days when Westminster grappled with the twilight days of British colonialism and Apartheid in South Africa.
Tucked away in the brightly lit streets of London’s West End was Africa Centre which became the unofficial cultural headquarters of Africa. We rented a small office on the second floor and probably spent more time there than in our own flats.
Those were exciting days. Particularly inspiring were the deep conversations with legendary creative icons like Dennis Brutus, Louis Nkosi, Gylan Kaine of The Last Poets, Ngugi Wa’ Thiongo, Micere Mugi, Mac Tontoh, Kwame Ampadu and leading lights of our generation – Danbudzo Marechera, Imruh Bakari, Mahmoud Jamal, T Bone Wilson, Ben Okri, Pitika Ntuli, Rauf Adu, Merle Collins, Eugene Skeef, Jacob Ross, Kwate Nee Owoo, Nana Amo, Smiley Culture, Nana Danso Abiam and others.
The poets quickly gathered, composing and improvising on the go, sometimes with little time to even write down the stanzas. On stage, the words gushed forth like torrential rain, as soon as the music started. Could be Mbira, Hosho and box guitar or clapping from the audience.
A multiplicity of kindred spirits gathered under the iconic banner designed by Nadir Tharani of Tanzania, in joyful performances and conversations
At the time, Wala Danga, African Dawn drummer, also carved a niche for himself as “Africa’s Number 1 DJ” and music promoter. He brought to Africa Centre leading African stars like The Bundu Boys, Thomas Mapfumo, Kanda Bongo Man, and Fan Fan. It was also the time Jazzy B organised Soul II Soul raves at Africa Centre.
African Dawn received critical acclaim and won awards but nothing came close to the sheer joy of lighting a passionate flame for social justice evoking the beautiful fusion of dramatised poetry and music.
We started recording our poems and eventually released LPs on our own label, AD Records. Initially, we struggled. We were novices in advanced recording technology of the time. We also came to realise that the task of achieving the delicate balance between the poetic voice and music was not the forte of many recording engineers.
Luckily, we struck gold when we met Lindell Lewis, producer of Reggae hits of the 1980s by artists like Judy Boucher, Caroll Thomson, and Dennis Brown. Lindell was a really nice guy and genius on the mixing board. He was always willing to try out new ideas and miked African percussive instruments to good effect. He loved startling us with Reggae dubs on African drum waves!
We marketed and sold most of our LPs at performances. We also managed to make them available in some High street music shops through alternative distributors like Rough Trade and The Cartel.
In between recording and performing, we organised workshops, talks and exhibitions. The response was equally sensational. One of our most memorable workshop sessions took place at the Abeng Centre, opposite the Brixton Police Station on the night of the 1981 riots. In hot pursuit by the police, some of the rioting youth ran into our poetry and music workshop and pretended to be drummers!
Sheikh Gueye died in Senegal in September 2009. Before then, he had spent eventful years in East Africa. Hopefully soon, Sheikh would be duly recognised as one of Africa’s most sensational and accomplished poets.
Wanjiku emigrated to New Zealand during the mid-1980s. True to the original vision, other kindred poets joined the family as regular performers and guest artists. There were always ecstatic reunions and sad goodbyes.
It’s a great honour to release these tracks from African Dawn’s unique back catalogue. There will be more! It is important though to note that these tracks are not relics of some bygone age but living testimony to a creative movement that is as relevant today as when it first burst onto the scene.