Tucked away in a terraced house perched on the slopes of the West Hill neighbourhood is housed one of Brighton’s – and possibly the UK’s, most impressive collections of reggae music. From top to bottom its walls bulge and strain with vinyl from every era – from ska and rocksteady in the 1960s, through 1970s roots reggae, right up to contemporary dancehall. It is all lovingly archived by John Masouri, who’s mission for over 30 years as one of the world’s foremost reggae music journalists, been to document the constant stream of creativity and musical innovation coming out of Jamaica.
John has been writing about Jamaican music since 1988 but his love for the music goes back to his upbringing in a working class area of Nottingham during the 1960s where he was introduced to ‘shabeens,’ also known as ‘blues parties’ – all night house parties playing ska and early reggae on huge, neighbourhood-shaking sound systems.
Blues parties were like entering another universe. ‘You’d go in there, into these very small confined spaces, like in one of these two up two down terraced houses. And the music would be very loud, it would be very dark, just the light of the amplifier valves lighting up in the darkness. The sweat, the condensation on the walls – and also the music.’
At that stage John had no idea the music would take him on an epic journey of a lifetime, it was just a place where the kids who didn’t fit in anywhere else felt at home. ‘I had no intention of playing the music or being involved with it at that time though, it was just purely to be there to soak in the atmosphere. It felt like a safe space, in essence.’
After a period working at the Tate Gallery in the early 1970s, John came down to live in Brighton in 1976 and helped to kickstart the city’s vibrant reggae scene, which still continues to thrive. ‘I loved Brighton ever since I first came down here on a visit. It just felt like this is where I wanted to be. When I moved down here, very quickly I went looking for reggae music and I went to this place called the Alhambra on the seafront, and people said that downstairs in the basement there was reggae music.’
The venue downstairs was known as The In Place and there he met and befriended Brighton’s now legendary first reggae sound system, King Tafari Love. ‘At the same time punk was happening, so there’d be punk upstairs at the Alhambra and reggae downstairs. There was the Top Rank Suite, the place where Dennis Brown and all these people would play, Black Uhuru, Gregory Isaacs. That was a guy called Colin Matthews who worked at Brighton Art College, he was the promoter, he used to bring down a lot of those acts. Aswad, Misty In Roots, these people were always down here.’
In the early 1980s as a DJ John helped to bring the atmosphere of those early Nottingham shabeens he’d attended to Brighton (well Hove, actually) with support from one of the city’s most feared gangsters. ‘In those days I was playing with a sound system called Field Marshall Hi Fi. There were about five or six of us. But playing out was difficult, you needed places to play. And reggae music was never all that popular with proper venues, because of the crowds, because there were too many ganja smokers in the crowds, so that was always a constant factor. But then to our rescue came Nicholas Hoogstraaten who was Brighton’s notorious landlord.
Hoogstraaten would give us these basement flats. He’d say ‘you can play in here and do whatever you like’ and he’d charge us some money like a hire fee and then he’d come and collect it at about three in the morning and he’d sweep in with his big long coat and his ‘assistants’ and they’d take the money.’ Frequent visitors down from London would be visiting MCs over from Jamaica such as Mikey Dread and Barrington Levy.
Talking about those early Shabeens John remembers, ‘we all had young children, so the children would come to the blues parties so we’d put mattresses down in a room upstairs and they’d all pile in there when they got tired and go to sleep. We’d have ‘ital’ (Jamaican for ‘wholesome’) food, jerk chicken and all of that, of course Red Stripe and Heineken to buy there, it was totally illegal of course. We charged about two pounds on the door or something, some token amount on the door an then was selling food and drinks, they were great social occasions. It went on for several years.’
John’s son Felix grew up in that atmosphere, which eventually led him to take up his father’s mantle. ‘He started at the age of four. We would set up the sound system gear and he absolutely loved it, he would chat on the mic in the warm up. I have a cassette with him aged 4 chatting on a mic, all nonsense. But he loved the experience of being around it. I could trust him putting on records, putting on vinyl from a very early age, he had this respect for the whole process. He loved the music, we used to nurse him to sleep to reggae music when he was a baby.’ Now in his 40s, Felix started his own dancehall reggae night at the Volks when he was just 19, playing the latest fresh sounds from Jamaica every week.
He continues to work as a live music promoter with his company Global Beats, who have brought such acts to Brighton as Mykal Rose, Yellowman, Eek-A-Mouse, Horace Andy, Kobaka Pyramid, Jah 9, Morgan Hertiage, Misty In Roots as well as Public Enemy and Roy Ayers. ‘His contribution to the Brighton reggae scene is very much greater than mine because he’s put on so many club nights and he’s put on so many artists,’ says John.
The pair now work together on a radio show on Brighton’s community station 1BTN FM with an emphasis on new sounds coming out of Jamaica. ‘We decided to do a show called Run The Track for 1BTN that showcases contemporary music. We rarely play anything that’s older than a couple of years and most of what we play is just a few months old. Mainly roots and vocal music. But its nice that father son thing. I enjoy doing the shows with him a lot and I learn a lot from him.’
John continues to write about reggae music. Simmer Down is his book about the about the pre-fame early days of Bob Marley and the Wailers in the 1960s published on his own Jook Joint Press. Steppin’ Razor: The Life Of Peter Tosh (Omnibus Press) is the first full length biography of the former Wailer and revolutionary firebrand. Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers (Ominbus) is about the post-Marley Wailers, brilliantly documenting the legal wranglings of his group after Marley’s death. Look out for Felix and John’s shows on 1BTN FM.
John Masouri is now embarking on a series of anthologies curated from over 30 years of writing about Jamaican music entitled Reggae Chronicles, published via his own independent Jook Joint Press imprint. The first of these is Rebel Frequency: Jamaica’s Reggae Revival, which focuses on writings from the previous decade, up to and including 2019. This will be followed later this year with The Marley Files: One Foundation, a look at Bob Marley’s legacy since his death, featuring in-depth interviews with Damien, Stephen and Ziggy Marley. They can be purchased direct from johnmasouri.com