Damon Albarn and His Adventurous Honest Jon’s Label


The most mysterious song I’ve heard all year is by a Londoner named Ben Simmons. Appropriately, the track shows up on iTunes as “[Blank],” as if technology itself couldn’t figure out just how to classify this inscrutable sound: He starts off seemingly emulating Dada sound poetry, huffing and puffing like a pregnant man going into labor. Originally recorded as a 78-rpm single for the Zonophone label (which, incidentally, recorded the Reverend J. J. Ransome-Kuti—Fela’s grandfather), this big-bad-wolf incant from 1929 was concurrent with the recording sessions of blues daddy Charley Patton, not to mention Marcus Garvey’s appearance before the League of Nations. In the heart of the British Empire, Mr. Simmons, a native of Ghana, was recording Yoruba chants. But his work was deemed unreleasable at the time.

And yet, as empire has waned, here he stands, breathing anew in the 21st century. This revitalization comes courtesy of London’s Honest Jon’s Records imprint, which trawled the EMI archives to unearth a handful of such sides for its recent Living Is Hard: West African Music in Britain, 1927–1929 compilation. The label itself describes Mr. Simmons’s output as “uncompromising possession music,” a term meant in the best possible way.

For those uncertain as to what “possession music” might sound like now, Lincoln Center will present Honest Jon’s Revue, a “chop-up” (Nigerian slang for “feast”) of current artists on the label’s roster, including everyone from Tony Allen (the driving force behind Fela Kuti’s monolithic Afrobeat) to Malian musicians Kokanko Sata, Lobi Traoré, and Afel Bocoum, with Gotham’s own Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Southern soul belter Candi Staton, and L.A.-based songstress Simone White also performing. In addition to the solo sets, the ensemble will then perform with Damon Albarn, who, alongside his work in Blur, Gorillaz, and the Good, the Bad, and the Queen, helped co-found the Honest Jon’s label in 2002.

Since 1974, Honest Jon’s Records has had a storefront on bustling Portobello Road in the Notting Hill district in West London, trading in reggae, West Indian, African, and other disparate sounds. Despite being at the peak of his fame as the frontman for Blur and a leading voice of Britpop’s resurgence, Albarn was not so different from the generations of mods and rockers who had record-shop epiphanies in Honest Jon’s crammed aisles. “It was in the early ’90s that I started going in there,” Albarn tells me from England, where he and the musicians are practicing for their London debut. Albarn recalls how he’d sneak into the shop in search of the headiest dub-reggae sides he could find: “But I didn’t really talk to anyone there till the late ’90s. I’d just buy a record and then scuttle away.”

When Albarn did finally gather the courage to speak to a clerk (who doesn’t know how intimidating that encounter can be?), the HJ folk began to turn him onto new sounds. “They had been recommending a lot of African music to me,” he recalls, which coincided with his trip to Mali in August of 2000. Taking his handheld recorder with him, Albarn began to play with whoever he came across on his travels, including Bocoum and kora master Toumani Diabaté, compiling hours of raw material. These tapes were to become Mali Music, Honest Jon’s first release. Since then, the label—run primarily by Mark Ainley and Alan Scholefield—has done a little bit of everything. It helped revitalize the career of Candi Staton, who had languished in obscurity after a one-off disco hit. Her contributions to gritty Southern soul in the ’60s were all but forgotten until Honest Jon’s compiled her early sides. And it also unearthed the staggering, Sun Ra–inflected roots-reggae music of former Studio One trombonist Cedric Im Brooks and the Light of Saba ensemble.

Yet Honest Jon’s most vital work has been in documenting the music made by Britain’s immigrant communities over the past century, detailing a musical heritage that thrived in the shadows of the empire. From its compilation of tuff and Casio-bleepy early British dancehall, Watch How the People Dancing, to its ongoing London Is the Place for Me series, the label has documented how calypso, jazz, reggae, and other music forms were reconfigured in London’s downtrodden ghettos. Treasures abound in this series: There’s calypso crooner Lord Kitchener’s piano figure approximating the chimes of Big Ben on the title track of the series (as well as his insouciant plea to his paramours to stop stealing his wife’s frilly unmentionables), alongside songs detailing the queen’s coronation and the general election. Fifty years before Chuck D.’s claim about rap being CNN for black people, calypso was telegraphing the news of the day back home, and vice versa: “They were like magazines sent from the West Indies to the U.K.—it was magazine music,” Albarn enthuses, before clarifying: “It’s better than Hello Magazine or OK Weekly, at least.”

And Honest Jon’s has extended its work beyond the homeland, presenting compilations of piquant Cubano music recorded in New York City in the early ’70s, as well as the early recordings of Louis Hardin, a/k/a Moondog. Gotham’s most infamous blind, Viking-attired, homeless composer of the 20th century, Moondog was a touchstone for the likes of Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsburg, Steve Reich, Animal Collective, and others, not to mention Albarn himself. “Anyone could get into Moondog,” he enthuses. When I remind him that Lincoln Center isn’t far from Moondog’s old stomping ground, he perks up: “Now that you say that, I think I’ll try to cover one of his tunes!”

But as to what the evening’s chop-up might sound like, even Albarn—who has been game enough to form bands with his school chums, Malian street performers, and cartoons, as well as the godfathers of punk and Afrobeat—is in the dark: “I don’t know yet. I promise you, I’ll try and find out. But the nature of that sound is impossible to predict, really. It might well be a disaster. It’s possible.”

Damon Albarn and the Honest Jon’s Revue perform July 12 at Lincoln Center