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Brent’s Windrush Generation: West Indian front rooms, reggae and positivity

a photo of a passport and two passport photos

Courtesy Brent Culture Service.

Zerritha Brown, Cultural Operations Manager and Artistic lead for Windrush 70, Brent’s Pioneering Windrush Generation community exhibition and events programme, talks about West Indian Front Rooms, Reggae Music and the moving stories of the Windrush generation

I’m second generation Windrush and it seems that every conversation I have with anyone of Caribbean descent of that generation – all of them remember being in their front room.

For the Caribbean Community the front room became a place of pride because it showed in some way that they had ‘made it’. But it was also a safe place for them to entertain – because they couldn’t go out into the clubs, pubs and bars due to the racial tensions of the time.

The more conversations we had with people, the more we thought: ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could recreate the West Indian front room like the one Michael McMillan did at the Geffrye Museum?  We didn’t want to do it by ourselves, but in conjunction with the community – and they have come forward, worked with us and loaned us objects. Some of my personal family objects have gone in there too.

The team and I actually like to go and sit in the front room we have now created at the museum and reflect, because it feels like a home. It evokes so many memories of what my childhood was like, and my mum – who has only seen the pictures – says that it looks exactly like the house I grew up in and where all the parties and the socialising and meeting people happened.

When we were putting the room together, we took people inside to look at it and their reaction was always the same – their expressions really took our breath away because immediately they were taken back to that time. The front room was a happy place.

When the first wave of the Windrush generation came over a lot of them thought the streets would be paved with gold, and although many of them had qualifications back home they found they weren’t valid in the UK and they faced great hardships finding jobs and places to live.

a photo of a recreated front living room

The West Indian Living Room. Courtesy Brent Culture Service.

Some of the stories that came out of the people we spoke to reflected how back in the Caribbean they had sunshine, they had big houses, they had back gardens where they could take a mango off the tree, they had all this space to play and run around and when they came to the UK they were living in a room with three or four different families.

That’s why the front room was so important. It was a place of pride, comfort and security and showed you had built a future for yourself, your family and your children. And the front room was where you were going to entertain and bring everybody in.

The most important thing in the front room was the radiogram, and one of the first things people talk about when they see the room is the ‘gram’, it was such an integral part of the front room.

So Reggae music is an important part of the Windrush story and an important part of the heritage of the borough. I also have a personal connection to this because my dad was among one of the first contingents that came over in the seventies to promote reggae music.

In the 1950s you had people like Lord Kitchener who had arrived on the Empire Windrush and whose music was very calypso influenced, but the late sixties saw the emergence of reggae in Jamaica.

You started to see the emergence of new artists – Bob Marley obviously – and as Trojan Records, which was part of Island Records, started to grow and the music became more popular, you started see more reggae artists come over to London.

A lot of them came to Brent because Trojan Records’ head office was in Neasden Lane, and many of the reggae artists that came over recorded their songs in recording studios in the borough. There were also a lot of record shops and record labels in the area so you can really see that journey of performing, recording and pressing the records which ended up in the local shops and were then played in the front rooms.

“The role London played in reggae music in the 1970s is something that is only just being celebrated again”

My dad came over with Dave and Ansel Collins, whose hit song was Double Barrel. Dave is a very good family friend and he has been interviewed for this project. He remembers being in Jamaica and getting a phone call from Trojan Records saying “you need to get over here as your single is heading to number one”. He came over and within a week it was number one in the charts.

Many reggae albums were recorded in Brent, but the role London played in reggae music in the 1970s is something that is only just becoming realised and celebrated again.

But there are many stories that have emerged from our interviews with local people. There’s Allyson Williams MBE; she was awarded her MBE for outstanding contribution to the development of midwifery services in London. She came to the UK in 1969 from Trinidad and Tobago and trained at the Whittington Hospital, Highgate – 16 out of the 32 on that course were from Trinidad and Tobago.

a photo of the inside of an old Trinidad and Tobago passport

A Jamaican passport with the line: ‘British Subject: Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies’. Courtesy Brent Culture Service.

Mr Norman Mitchell, who is 97, came over in 1955 and moved to Brent in 1957. He got his MBE for services to the community because he set up WISCO, the West Indian Senior Citizen Organisation, a community organisation supporting the elderly. His daughter is Elizabeth Mitchell, who was in Boney M.

There’s a dancer called Namron who arrived in Brent in 1959 and in 1961 joined the Willesden Jazz Ballet. In his seventies now, he is still performing and touring with a show at The Library at Willesden Green in the autumn.

It’s been really moving and some of the stories have really struck a chord with me.

“I think it’s important to remember that the Windrush generation were invited… they were part of the UK”

One of them came from a person who came here when she was ten-years-old. She talked about the trauma of leaving the Caribbean and coming to the UK at a time when London’s streets were full of smog. As a child she did not understand what the greyness was, why it was so cold, why they were all living in one bedroom and why no-one liked them.

Another thing I found out was how many of Caribbean people weren’t welcome in churches – and how they had to worship in their front rooms. That led to the explosion of black churches.

I think it’s important to remember that the Windrush generation were invited. They were part of the colonies. My mum’s passport, which is on display, is a British passport. It says colony of Trinidad and Tobago because they were subjects of the UK. In one the community sessions that we organised someone said: “We were taught to love the mother country only to find our mother didn’t love us.”

Nadia Nervo, a photographer whose work investigates the relationship between photographer and subject and who often works with strangers to explore the nature of how connections are formed, has taken intimate portraits of Brent’s Caribbean community to offer an insight into their daily lives and experiences and to give a face to these stories. Amongst those stories you will find a lot of positivity – a kind of triumph of the Caribbean spirit.

This is the local community’s story and I hope we have done it justice.

Zerritha Brown was speaking to Richard Moss

Brent’s Pioneering Windrush Generation runs until October 29 at the Library at Willesden Green. Entrance is Free.

A series of Windrush70 events accompanies the exhibition. For further see the Brent Council website.

venue

The Gallery at Willesden Green

London, Greater London

Brent Artist’s Resource is an artist led voluntary organization funded in 1984. We aim to: serve the cultural needs of the people of Brent and North West London, provide a supportive environment for artists in their professional development, create opportunities to participate in the Visual Arts through exhibitions, workshops, mentoring…

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