In the same way that, for some, a picture paints a thousand words, it’s music, that for me is the conduit that transports me to other places, other times and other lives.
Whilst cataloguing the audio recordings of the Tiger Bay Collection from the Butetown History and Arts Centre oral history project I was lucky enough to stumble across a recording of Tiger Bay local and renowned jazz guitarist Victor Parker. The occasion was Victor’s birthday sometime in the mid-seventies (although his age and the actual date have been lost somewhere along the way). On the recording Victor and his band are found whiling away the afternoon in The Quebec Hotel on Bute Street, treating the assembled drinkers, dancers, singers and swooners to a free and easy, laid back run through their repertoire of jazz standards, blues and modern folk. It’s far from an organised, structured concert, the lengthy gaps between numbers see to that, but this relaxed format allows us to eavesdrop of the chatter of the crowd. The laughter, the snippets of gossip and fragments of tales, the layers upon layers of indistinct chat all make for one of the most evocative recordings that I have encountered throughout the whole collection.
Original Shelf Mark Identifier: 101-0021-024 : Catalogue Number: UNLW023/605 in Tiger Bay ‘Lectures and Events’ collection
Granted, this didn’t give us any hard and fast information, there were no detailed descriptions, stories or recollections that we may usually look for in a valuable oral history archive, it is without doubt that any factual, reasoned debate or discussion was the last thing on the minds of the attendees. However, it did offer us something different, something that an interview or a vox-pop never could. The hour and a half of this recording captures and evokes all kinds of imagery, memory and feeling. I’m old enough to remember the 1970s, and I am also able to remember afternoons just like the one captured here (albeit in my case it would have been traditional Irish folk music in a Mancunian shebeen) – but if I close my eyes and listen, I can still feel that 70s afternoon filling my senses. The scratchy polyester itch of my shirt collar, a thick fog of cigarette smoke stinging my eyes, the acrid breath of a companion who had maybe drunk a little too much, and then that clear easing of tensions as people drank, relaxed, danced and sang along to the vibrant, seductive rhythms of the band in the corner of the room. It all seems a lifetime ago, but this recording transports me right back to those heady days in an instant.
Image: from Tiger Bay – Victor Parker YouTube
That is the beauty of oral histories, and in particular audio archives; the written word may well provide a clear, distinct understanding, a route through imagination to empathy, but recordings like this will, for many spark memories of times long gone, and bring them all back, so vividly, in an instant.
A structured interview will often be interesting, important and offer a whole range of vital information that could otherwise have been lost with the passing of time, but a recording like this, which goes such a long way to evoking imagery and prompting memory is unparalleled. To me, above and beyond any number of structured discussions, this recording tells us as much, and maybe even more about how the community in 1970s Tiger Bay filled their leisure time and let down their hair.