African History Month UK 2023 Closed With Event Highlighting Jamaican Music Pioneer

The new information provided by Cleon Roberts about the life of her father Sonny Roberts, in whose memory CivicLeicester and BBM/BMC ( Music Congress) screened excerpts of BTWSC's 'Brent Black Music History Project' DVD, is worth being checked out.

African History Month UK 2024 Closed With Event Highlighting Jamaican Music Pioneer


On October 31, to round off African History Month 2023, CivicLeicester and BBM/BMC ( Music Congress) screened excerpts of BTWSC’s ‘Brent Black Music History Project’ DVD. The Zoom event, CivicLeicester Presents Brent Black Music History Project Review, ended with Cleon Roberts, daughter of one of the video’s featured contributors, providing an expansive talk about her father, which included new information not even in her presentation on her father’s legacy.

Watch this space for information about when the recording of the event goes online.

Jamaican-born Sonny Roberts emigrated to Britain in the 1950s and ended up becoming a pioneering record producer, records retailer, record label owner and the founder of Planetone, possibly the first African-owned recording studio in Britain.

The DVD celebrates the north-west London borough of Brent’s unique black music history. Roberts, a carpenter by trade, found a lucrative sideline building the speaker boxes for London’s emerging sound systems in addition to running his own Lavender sound system.

However, what set him apart was founding his Planetone recording studio and record company in 1961 at 108 Cambridge Road in Kilburn. Roberts recorded several Jamaican musicians and artists at the studio, such as trombonist Rico Rodriquez, songwriter and pianist Tony Washington, and The Marvels vocal group.

Roberts was instrumental in making 108 Cambridge Road a music industry hub which particularly supported the emergent Jamaican music industry. Because as a result of Roberts introducing Chris Blackwell, who had recently relocated to London from Kingston, Jamaica to his landlord, Lee Gopthal, an Indo-Jamaican accountant whose father emigrated to Britain on the Empire Windrush, Blackwell moved his Island Records operations to Gopthal’s premises.

It was from here that Island released Jamaican calypso and ska records, such as Lord Creator’s ‘Independent Jamaica’ in 1962 and it was in Roberts’ studio that Washington rehearsed Millie, whose London-produced 1964 release of ‘My Boy Lollipop’ provided Jamaica’s first global hit record!

More was to come from the Kilburn premises, when Blackwell and Gopthal later joined forces to re-launch Trojan Records, which became the world’s biggest reggae company. Before the company crashed in 1975, it delivered several UK hits for Jamaican artists such as Bob and Marcia, Jimmy Cliff, Nicky Thomas, The Maytals, the Harry J All Stars, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Upsetters, Desmond Dekker, and Dave and Ansel Collins – the last two acts topped the UK charts with ‘Israelites’ and ‘Double Barrel’ respectively.

In the early 1970s Roberts moved to another part of Brent, Harlesden, where he opened the Orbitone record store and label. In addition to reggae, he popularised other Caribbean genres such as soca and released the earliest Arrow records in Britain. He also produced highlife and Afrobeat by artists such as the Nigerian band The Nkengas, and released highlife records by Ghanaian artist Gyedu-Blay Ambolley.

In 1987 Roberts’ production of Judy Boucher’s ‘Can’t Be with You Tonight’ reached number two in the British pop charts. Roberts returned to Jamaica in 1997, where he got into farming, and died of throat cancer in 2021, aged 89.

Co-organised by CivicLeicester, the Zoom meeting consisted of the screening of Brent-based BTWSC’s Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Brent Black Music History Project’ DVD, which covers artists, producers, record labels, radio stations, sound systems, shops, buildings and other musical connections to the north-west London borough.

Contributors of the video include Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee, who talks about another important Brent company, Pama Records, which was founded by the Jamaican Palmer brothers. This company served as an alternative outlet to Trojan for Jamaican producers looking for UK releases. Led by Carl Palmer, the company changed its name to Jetstar Records and became a leading distributor of reggae. Along with the several record shops and labels dotted around Harlesden, Jetstar helped make its base in Harlesden the heart of reggae music in Britain.

Following the screening of excerpts from the DVD, the project lead and video director, historical musicologist Kwaku, talked further about the history with CivicLeicester’s Ambrose Musiwiya.

This article will be updated with the link once the Zoom event is posted online.

Top photo L-R: BBM/BMC ( Music Congress) founder Kwaku presents the 2003 BMC Foundation Builders Award to Sonny Roberts.

Kwaku is a historical musicologist and the UK Convener of International Reggae Day