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Johnny Folarin in Interview

Originally from Nigeria, conga and bongo master Johnny Folarin has lived in London since the late fifties. His wide ranging career covers stints in the house band at London’s legendary Flamingo club in the early sixties and a big contribution to the Anglo-African music scene that exploded there in the late sixties and early seventies.

Johnny played a significant part in the band Carmel’s success in the eighties, and also drummed on Bronski Beat’s Age Of Consent. More recently, he has contributed congas and bongos to Thorne’s The Contessa’s Party CD and to Richard Barone’s (formerly of the New York band the Bongos….) single Opium Of The Masses.

Johnny was interviewed by Mike Thorne Thursday March 7 2002 at Survival Rehearsal Studios, Acton, London, after sessions for The Contessa’s Party.

Mike Thorne: When did you start playing congas? How did you learn?

Johnny Folarin: I started playing congas when I was about eleven. A friend of mine was playing bongos, and I used to go and watch him. After the practise, I’d go home to where there was a long table where my aunt was selling food. When they finish, and I haven’t anything to do, I’m banging what I’ve heard from my friend on the table. I wanted to play bongos, so then my friend was teaching me. Practically. My family wanted me to do something else, but it was music I wanted to do, bongos I wanted to play. So I ran away from home to go and stay with my friend and play. I was lucky to meet a man who said, ‘Oh, very good, come and join us.’ I was playing with a very different band. I would play with Bobby Basin, who was very popular in Nigeria then, popular everywhere then, a very good guitar player. He put me through everything, said, ‘Come and join my band,’ and that’s how I start.

When I was 18, I was playing with different bands. One with a friend of mine, a good trumpeter, We were playing high life, playing jazz. A very good trumpeter, he would sing like Satchmo. Then I left him to join another band, called Roy Chicago, one of the popular bands in Nigeria back then. That was the last band I played in before I came over here.

What brought you to England?

While I was playing, I was working Johnny Folarin on the drumsin Government House. I worked for the colonial Governer General. One is called James Slobos the one I worked for last. The uncle said to me, ‘See what is happening in London.’ Then, you could easily come here, there’s no way of saying ‘You got to have a visa, you got to have this and that.’ And I come, I like it. And I stay. And, going out, I met some of my friends, a trumpeter, a drummer, who I’d known in Nigeria before. Now they’re all over here. They’re very, very good and have formed a band called the African Jazz Messengers. They were looking for a conga player. I haven’t even got a conga……! So I telephone my friend in Nigeria to send mine for me. Send me conga this and bongo here.

We played in the Flamingo [seminal London blues club of the early and mid sixties, host to early Rolling Stones, Long John Baldry, Georgie Flame and most of the prominent contemporary English blues followers]. I play with some American band first, then James Brown, Elvin Jones…….the last band was in ’69, the blind one, what is his name….the blind singer……..? Stevie Wonder.  He came, playing the Flamingo too, and we support. It was the first time I see a blind man playing conga and singing! Then, there was another Nigerian boy that played congas for them. He is called Jimmy Scott. I think he is passed away now. I say, ‘Oh can I play?’ He was playing conga and I was playing bongo. Right away, Stevie Wonder knows something is wrong, something is different. So he played till he finished he asks Jimmy Scott, ‘Did you play conga and bongo?’ He say, ‘No, my friend plays.’ He says, ‘What’s your name?’ I say, “Johnny.’ He says, ‘No, you have to have an African name.’ I say, ‘My name is Ayinde Folarin.’

And that’s it.

We begin to practise and form a group called Asagai, with Dudu Pukwana. Then we were doing fine, doing well, ’69, seventies. In ’70 we play at Ronnie Scott’s, upstairs, when it was just opened. [The club founded by tenor saxophonist Ronnie Scott continues with jazz-oriented artists to this day, despite his suicide in 1996 at age 69. A second room Upstairs At Ronnie’s, featured African-oriented music through the seventies.] Elvin Jones was there, too. Everybody can dance, all this jungle dance, our native music. Elvin Jones was downstairs, they haven’t started playing yet, heard what is going on upstairs, says, ‘This is very nice native music.’ Then he just says to the drummer, George, says ‘Can I do something?’ Then he was just on the timbale. Wonderful.

That’s how I start, carry on like that. Then around ’72 an American boy came from Italy, liked what we were doing, and wanted us to be his backing group. We travel to Italy, playing his music, our music, Asagai music. Then came back, traveling round France and Spain, playing Afro-rock (as we called it then). Then as this is going on, we’re not together. When things are going on……we break up.

The sixties was such a fruitful period for African music in London, the two cultures meeting……

It was very good, sixties to seventies. African music was going like that, but we didn’t promote our music like the reggae people. I remember Rolling Stones, they were called although they were not known then. I knew Mick Jagger because he would always come to our house in Archway, Tottenham Park area [north London] with a Nigerian drummer who he liked. He always played very good drums. I’ve got a room about this big [small]. He asked what I would like to do, but I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. So there’s another tenor player from Nigeria who came. The first big gig he had in Hyde Park [London], on a big truck……everything was going together sixties, seventies for African music.

Then, all of a sudden, reggae…….Mick Jagger is one of the first to say, ‘Reggae will never get anywhere.’ He said that in front of me. The others say, ‘Regga begins to go up.’ ’70 or ’71, we reform Asagai. Jimmy Gaff, Elton John’s manager (with who they’re having the problem now), he was one of our managers. Elton John, Rod Stewart, they could play anywhere, to do what they wanted to do. We go along to Birmingham, Nottingham, to back Rod Steward. Now they are big……..we are nobody.

African music has returned to fashion, but the African scene in London is quieter than it was……

Yeah, it is quiet. I remember the time, seventies to eighties with Fela [Ransom-Kuti]. I played with Fela a little bit, because when I used to play he was coming up and asking me to join him. But he was playing a different kind of music, playing piano, jazz, Afro-rock, just in a small club. But the band I was working with played a bigger, disco-like place. The money you’re going to make on stage is more than your wages, because you’ve got a talking drum man. When he call him, this man, he call the talking drum man, put the money on his head, this and that. We all share it.

But then you wound up playing with three people from Manchester.

Carmel: The Drum is EverythingYeah. I was watching telly one day, and I saw a lady with a friend of mine called Isaak playing with this band. I say, this band is good, this girl has got a good voice. The next day, he rang me, says there’s a band needs a bongo player, and they’re doing something in Dulwich [south London]. A popular, free concert, are you interested. I say yes. And I was working in the [Trafalgar Square] post office then. I take some days off, come and practise, and we do it. And they ask me to join their band. I do, and I play for Carmel from ’82 to ’87, I think. I liked the band. Everybody there was friendly……drummer, bass player, Carmel….they were the band, but they hired us to back them up. It was nice. They were nice people.

And that was another good overlap of African and European music…

Then we play African and European music. Then I met Mike Thorne, introduced me to Bronski Beat. I like what they are doing too, but I am with Carmel, I don’t want to lose Carmel. If I want to go with Bronski Beat, they are happy to take me. But I like what Carmel is doing. I stick with Carmel. Then Carmel break up. And I haven’t played since then.

But then with Bronski Beat you were playing with machine drums. But there’s a lot in common between West African music and techno, not least of which is the four-on-the-floor [a kick drum on each of the four beats of a bar].

There is. Bronski Beat was doing something African too. But Carmel is more. Before we start with Carmel, we play our own music, like African music. We start with jazz, too. Then some of Carmel’s songs used African rhythms. It was very nice.

You know, I don’t like the music they are playing now. The music going on now, they’re making people up. Machine doing everything, no-one practising to do anything now. All the practise now is to dance. Without dancing, without video, nothing goes nowadays.

So you don’t go much on sampled congas?

Johnny FolarinNo. Because sampled conga sounds good….one….but all the phrases that come into my head if I’m playing with a band can’t be done with a sample machine. Unless I play it, when they can sample it and the engineer can do anything he wants with it. I like live conga because the slap, with the drummer playing….we may be playing some funk, Afro-rock with drummer, bass player….a drummer gives me a kick, guitar gives me a kick, bass player gives me a kick. When they play something I like, maybe playing for eight bars, 16 bars, I can do whatever I like, even this of yours from New York that I play to…..very good drum patterns which give me little bits of kick.

What other music do you feel drawn towards?

I listen to what they are doing now, but I still prefer old music. Although what you [MT] are doing now, it’s nice music, it’s dance music. But all these boys….they make them, all these people who know nothing about music. Or they say to them, ‘You’re no good, you’re not this, you’re not that.’ They bring some people who don’t know anything, not even how to sing. Practise, practise, make a band, make a group… hear them two minutes and then they break up. Look at Mick Jagger…..he’s still going on. Elton John…..still going on……some Beatles still going on. Because they work hard on their music. Nobody makes them. The bands nowadays, they are ready-made computer music. Some of them can bring them to work with a guitar, but it takes a lot of time to get everything right, because they don’t know anything about chords. If you bring a guitar to some of the singers I’m hearing today, there will be a lot of problems.

How do you think that the commercial music scene here is different from Nigeria’s?

No, it’s different. Here, if you’re not a ‘commercial’ band…..that’s what brought us back [down] around the seventies. We would go and play somewhere in concert…..when we finish, they don’t want the main band, but we never get anywhere, because the record company, the producer, the television, they say that the music is ‘not commercial’. We never get anywhere. Now, anybody can make music….all these boys that I’m seeing now. Good luck to them, but I don’t want to be part of that.

So what might be next?

I don’t know. With this thing [points to lap-top computer which is recording the interview], you can’t tell. Anybody can do anything they like.

What do you think are good interactions between the computer and ‘natural’ instruments?

I think the reason that people are using drum machines and computers is that they can have a very powerful sound. Say if you would go to a recording studio, you use 24, 36 [tracks]…..on the computer everything is quickly done. But in the olden days it was very hard to get that kind of sound with a lot of bands. You can use a computer to set up a very big band. You can get the sound of a very big group more quickly than when you are doing sound checking…trouble all the time. You want to play for about 45 minutes, you do sound checking for about an hour and a half, because the engineer can’t get right away what he wants. You have to be there playing…blap blap blap…..test that, test this. But I don’t mind that, once I’m playing with somebody.

It’s hard work dealing with natural materials, isn’t it?

It is hard. That’s why I don’t go too much against the computer……the computer helps a recording company to make some things quickly, so they don’t have to pay much money….they got to make that money for themselves.

With congas, it’s so delicate how you make the drum and arrange the drum to get a special or particular sound…

Yes, it is, it takes time. A friend of mine made African talking drums. He was playing in the group that I was, so any time he was making them I would go and watch. Then one day I said I want a conga drum, he says OK. He says if you get the body, I will do the rim, everything for you. So I learned from him. When I came over here, that’s how I met Natal [innovative manufacturing pioneer of African drums based in London[. I was working in Shang-Kidd, a factory making wallpaper. I was just walking past and I saw his shop, what’s he doing there, can I go and have a look…..then I went in, met Natal, saw conga he’d just finished, just did my hand like that [plays figure with nails, hand inverted]. He says how do you do that, I say you play very good, it’s nothing, you are from our side, but he says I can’t do that. I explain you just put your fingers together like that, one-two-three. That’s how we become friends. So he has to do some rim, he has to put on the skin, so I say, ‘I’ll do that for you.’ And I did it. So the first conga drum I bought from Natal has the fibreglass sound. It’s very good. And he gives me it almost free. And around then in the seventies, he was selling it around £90 ($200) a pair. So he gives me for £40 because I help him. When I bought my congas next it was about £900 ($1800) with the bongos. Still it was £500….he was a very good man to me then.

Johnny FolarinConga drums look very simple, but they’re some of the most expensive to buy…

Yes, especially this [gestures to Natal pair in studio]. They’re making one now, what is it called……a lot of conga are coming from Cuba, this and that, you can get them for four or five hundred pounds, but it’s not the same quality as this Natal conga.

It’s a shock to see the best congas made of very non-ethnic fibreglass...

Yeah. It is a shock to me, because my conga, they sent me from Nigeria, it’s just an ordinary one. There’s no rim. This one you peg, not like this….you peg them [the skins] down until you get the sound you want. I was playing them one time in Ronnie Scott’s, and a tenor player from America heard me. I said that I liked that kind of conga because it was original. He said, did I want to sell it, I said no. Then he offered me £250 ($500), I say no, then he offers me £300 (#600). This is 1971. That’s a lot money for me then. So one of my friends, Humphrey (he’s a tenor player too) says I’m stupid not to take it, you can buy for that money the one you like. So I buy Edmundo Ros bongo, and another kind of conga, and then I change to Natal. It’s not very hard to make. The only thing for me that is hard is the fibreglass….I don’t know anything…..but the wood, the rim, I know how to do that.

The traditional conga takes skilled carpentry to put the wood together…

When my friend did this for me, it only took him, maybe, half a day, because he’s a carpenter who knows all about these things. He just takes them out and puts them together like that……and that’s it. The only thing I know how to do……the Nigerian conga then, you don’t put a rim on it. Take rope like that, I don’t know how you do it, you hammer the pegs until you get the sound you want. When you’re finished, then you’re pegging back. With this one, I tune it with the spanner. We don’t use spanner, we use hammer. But everything is changed now, and in Nigeria they don’t use that. They come over here to buy conga drum.

Nigerians come to London to buy congas now?!

Like my boss I say who taught me everything (he’s dead now), he would always come here when he had a drum shop in Nigeria (and he has a club too). He always came here to buy from the drum store in Denmark Street [London’s Tin Pan Alley, base of instrument shops and music publishers], Rose Morris. And he has a very big drum shop, and many people have got drums from him now. They don’t use much native conga unless they’re native drummers, people who play really native music.

How do you describe the difference between conga playing, say, Cuban style and congas African style?

Cuban style is still African style, but they modernise it a little bit. What I’m doing is maybe a simpler way. When I go do-do, they maybe go [more complex]. If I want to play like a Cuban, I can because I can play a conga drum, I can put on a record and I can learn and practise it. But I have to be better than them if I do it. But for me I would rather play my style than Cuban style. There are places in Cuba where they don’t play the salsa sound….all this so-called salsa we call Latin music many years, 40 years ago. Then, Congolese are playing it. In the Congo, that was the kind of salsa they’re playing here now. People have heard this music for many years. It’s not news to me. But some of them are very, very good. Because these boys, they don’t just play badabada, they play some funk…..I have some videos which I watch every day at home. But for me, I just like my…….jungle music.

Johnny Folarin When salsa becomes simpler, it heads back to Africa, doesn’t it?

Yeah, but everything comes from Africa. Everything. Jazz comes from Africa. Only the Englishman brings it and polishes it. That’s after. I wasn’t taught how to dance jazz, I wasn’t taught how to dance salsa…….it’s a rhythm that comes within me. One day, Carmel was here, we were playing salsa. My sister brought her daughter, only seven years old. They were struggling to dance, then she saw me playing, said oh uncle that is salsa….then she was dancing. Did she learn how to dance? I said no. You pull into it. You see mam and dad dancing…….if you dance the way Africans move, you can dance to Cuban music too. Everything comes from Africa. No problem for me. I like salsa. I’d prefer it to all this ‘young people’ music now. There’s nothing there for me…..jabalajab lajabala….doesn’t do anything for me. But yours, you’re doing now, the last music you played… sent me back home properly, because it’s simple, like native African music. I like it very much. Play this in Nigeria, oh mama mia, see all the African women moving their backsides like this to it…’s easy!

We could look at acid jazz. Before that arrived, musicians would be complaining. Now we find an electronic base with jazz performance over the top of it.

Yes but I don’t think a computer can do anything with jazz because it’s very complicated. When you’ve played jazz….the jazz players are playing different patterns….the drummer is going [complex]. The producer of modern music doesn’t want too much style [detail]. They just want dum dum dum and that’s it. Jazz is not like that. I have a few friends… came from Nigeria and came into where we were playing. He never practised with us. He just said, Humphrey, man, what key are you. You don’t need to ask, a good tenor player, a good trumpet player just, ‘What key.’ That’s how we are in Nigeria. But youy can’t do that here. When you see a musician, playing not so well, you’re finishing and saying, ‘We don’t want him here.’ We don’t do that in Nigeria. Once you’ve asked, and you played something that gave somebody a good feeling, you don’t……..the English boys, I don’t know, maybe it’s jealousy, too arrogant, or they think someone’s trying to play them out. I remember a friend from Mali (he’s a drummer). He can play bongo too, and I was playing conga drums, he was on the bongo, playing something that I liked. One of the English boys playing the bass he says oh no, he’s pushing me, taking me off the beat. That was after we finished, he said I don’t want someone to jump into something we don’t practise, I said that makes you not a good musician, because this man is not throwing anybody anywhere. He’s following what you are doing.

That wasn’t very tactful…

I didn’t say it on the stage! I said it in the dressing room. I said: this is where we are, this is how we play. And as far as I am concerned, and I asked everybody, ‘Did he throw you off the beat?’ No, everybody was clapping. He must be jealous of everybody clapping after he was taking a solo and doing everything. We talk straight in Nigeria. When you practise, there are still many mistakes. Someone goes [ba-bbom], which means, you’ve made a mistake, you’ve cocked it up. But you do it in a nice way. We stop and start again. We don’t fight. We always come, straightforward.

There was a track we did with Carmel, All In The Game, which started off with a very simple conga pattern against which you played. That worked very well…

It worked well, but it was because Carmel wanted a real conga. Otherwise I wouldn’t be there.
[But it worked really well. I had understood that you played the original conga machine pattern so we started with you playing it. That didn’t work. But once you played live against the machine pattern…..] Yeah, yeah, I’m not going against it totally, the only reason I don’t like it is some just don’t care whether the conga drum fit in it or not. They just want their own pattern from the machine, and done with it.

In playing electronic drums, do you get the best of both worlds, the performance and the sound?

Yeah, you’re right. I’m not totally against it because sometimes….when I had finished playing with Carmel, people would say, come and play with me. We sit on the stage somebody playing the sample. They say you play and follow it. Then they say because you are not doing too much, we can’t afford to pay you, we can’t afford to do that. For me, it’s not the money that’s important. If I see a band today who want to form a group, say, ‘Let’s practise’…….I would give it a chance. But there’s nothing like that any more, everybody wants quick money.