Date: 24th June 2016
Interviewer: Juley Smith
Technician: Vicki Carter
Topics List: Vicki Carter
Audio timings – 02:10:34
For video timings see Jamal Ali video Topics List
00:00:00 Born in Guyana, northern tip of South America, in village called Henrietta. Father was builder/ carpenter/ road builder and ‘jack of all trades’. Very strict – especially about education. Not rich, but middle class, children did well, especially the girls. 4 boys and 8 girls. Huge family and also extended family in the village. Grandmother sang a song ‘Open your door let cousin come in’ – an inclusive community. Born in 1940. Christened Clifford Adolfus Agard.
00:07:20 Mother called Esther Abrahams, maiden name Agard – she came from Joka (sp?) in Dutch Guiana. A bright woman, she was the clever one in the family, Jamal Ali (JA) got talent from her. Everybody called her Ma, when she left the village and moved to Georgetown then to New York still they called her Ma. Even the President of Guyana called her Ma.
00:09:35 Charismatic father known as King Agard – real name Charles Augustus Agard. Grew up with the status of father being known as King. Ancestry was African. African Guyanese were slaves but Indian Guyanese came to work. After slavery was abolished the Africans said ‘Stuff the work on the farm, let’s go to the city’. ‘When you read Malcolm X at the time he said revolution was about land: the landlord against the landless.’ Family had land, but it’s gone. When father died family moved to Georgetown then to New York. Didn’t know what happened to the land. Most Africans have left Guyana now.
00:14:45 Other family members. Father’s family were builders. Also had farmland with rice which brought in money. JA would help out with everything, but JA was the delicate child so always spared the discipline. JA was a good boy and always followed instructions. Brother Clifton Emanuel did not follow instructions; he got into a lot of trouble. There was a lot of drama in the family.
00:19:19 8 sisters: Evelyn was in dance, Amanda was a head-teacher, Joyce died when young: Joyce and he were close. His political voice began to grow when Joyce died of typhoid, Doctor had to make a 20 mile trip and he got drunk down the road so did not save Joyce. JA carried the anger for a long time. Only one hospital and no transport: you start asking questions – why did my sister have to die? Political situation in Guyana grew out of dispossession. Unelected Governors held the power, appointed by the Queen such as Sir Alfred Savage and could suspend constitution as they did when Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan were active [founders of Guyanan Progressive People’s Party in 1950]. Compares to political situation of Divide and Rule in Africa. Same thing happened in Guyana over struggle for independence: they locked up Jagan [and the Party split along racial lines].
00:26:33 Mother was Christian and insisted that children went to church. JA was into the church: liked ritual and services. JA took Christian line. Father was not a proper Muslim but went to pray. Mother did not allow Quran in house. Father not a good Muslim: he drank, he was ‘King’ and people did not tell him what to do, he was leader of the pack.
00:28:54 Education. JA did well in school. Went to Anna Regina Senior School with Boody Bendon – first cousin whose father was called ‘Rotten Rope’ because he could not hold his drink. JA read poems, Wordsworth etc but no access to Black literature. Father insisted that JA read out poetry as an entertainment for relatives and strangers who visited. Father liked it that JA could memorize the poems and JA would get a clap at the end.
They had one cinema, you had to have permission from parents to go. One time JA went without permission and climbed up ladder to get back into house. Father was waiting with a soaked strap. Saw mainly Indian films and Westerns, Roy Rogers. Rajkumar and Nadira – world-famous Indian actress at that time.
00:35:42 Remembers Rome Olympics. In London met Mohammed Ali met at a hotel in Victoria when Norman Beaton’s son Ray was to give him something. Has a photo somewhere and they had a bit of rapport together – both called Ali.
00:37:23 Parents were ordinary people they liked Burnham who split from the PPP to form the PNC (People’s National Congress). JA was staunch PNC member, at age 12 was already a secretary and then later in London. JA fell out with them, over corruption in the party, wrote from London and said they should change. (Burnham was thieving money from the people he had money in Swiss bank, said to be $20 million.)
00:40:55 First full-time job was Laboratory Assistant at huge local rice factory age15, grading the rice. JA was good at figures. Took book-keeping lessons from Pitman’s College. Then went to live in Mackenzie where they produce Bauxite: a better job, more money, producing aluminium from Bauxite. This was his first job as an accountant. From aged 16 he was with Wages Department, stayed 3 years and rose to chief payroll clerk.
00:46:09 London. In Mackenzie JA was staying with favourite aunt – they went to England. JA was left alone and needed guidance. Decided to follow aunt and uncle to ‘land of milk and honey’. Everyone wanted to go to London. Guyanese wanted to come to the Motherland as well as other Caribbean peoples. JA came on a banana boat, got seasick.
00:49:50 JA reads verses from The Mudland – Poem about Guyana, part of a book he’s been writing it for 20 years in London. It’s about diaspora, rootless wanderings, sense of missing something. Trying to finish the book, but it always needs more work. Rhythms constantly changing. Conflict of form, naturally he is a poet – Farrukh Dhondy even would not give JA a job because he said JA was a poet.
00:55:16 Wrote first poem in 1969, JA was an assistant accountant in the American Army. Came to London in 1960 and worked for British Railways as a wages clerk, but had day release to do qualifications – Ordinary National Diploma. Wanted to do HND, but needed to study full time, so got a grant. There JA met Errol Brown from Hot Chocolate, studied together at West London College. Norman Beaton, Eddy Grant and Carmen Munroe all from Guyana, all knew each other. Also Ian Hall – he promoted stuff and had connection to the royal family. Princess Margaret came to something at the Commonwealth Institute in the late 1970s or 80s
00:59:31 Germany & Turkey. After a lot of failures in England, to get better pay, he took job with the Americans in Germany. (People asked why as JA was radical and a loudmouth) but the money was good. Didn’t speak German, in the middle of this base, with 50,000 people. but JA felt lonely and had nowhere to go. JA wrote poems and felt anger. Most soldiers were Black, but they were ignorant about Malcom X and James Brown and Venceremos and stuff like that. Then the CID (Central Intelligence Dept.) got onto him and came to his place and arrested him in his office. Back in America they thought JA was a bad motherfucker. 1969 to 1970 JA would read to the soldiers until the authorities got too overbearing. Went to live with Turkish people when they chased JA from the barracks. Conditions were bad. So he came back to Blighty.
01:04:33 Back in London. It was circumstances that drove JA to writing; the environment, attitude and racism. As JA came off the boat in UK, people called out ‘monkey, monkey’. Experiences of people he hung out with all feeds in to his writing. JA was badly beaten up in Harrow, with two other brothers, both Bajun, with his first month’s pay from working for British Railways. ‘We went to pub near where they worked and all of a sudden all hell breaks loose, bottles and glasses. Police just told them not to go back to the pub, said last week they had to pull an axe out of one of you fellows’ heads’. They didn’t even take him to hospital. It’s these experiences that fed into his writing. It’s serious business. Black Feet in the Snow was written about 1971/72. JA predicted that there would be a riot and then there was. Have to learn from experience what is happening.
01:10:12 RAPP: Radical Alliance of Poets and Players. Most of the radicalism in literature was coming out in America, in H Rap Brown. JA liked Bob Dylan. Radicalism came from Angela Davis and Soul on Ice [by Eldridge Cleaver], Black Skin White Masks by Frantz Fanon: lots of influence on JA who was reading a lot of books. Influence became reality and artistry. JA got moans and groans of Black community and brutalisation of Black community and had a certain amount of consciousness. JA had difficulties with his contemporaries. Tell it like it is, real people real things. Black Feet in the Snow is about a real thing that was happening. Sometimes you have to tell about the reality of what is going on
01:13:30 The Long Angry Lament was a programme from 1971 which Rudolf Kaiserman (aka Rudolf Braithwaite), T Bone Wilson and JA launched a programme at the Polytechnic near Baker Street working with Drama Department: 3 poets, different sections. There were drums, a celebratory thing. It was published by Race Today [he thinks]. Compared in a review to a reading by white poets at the ICA which was called pale by comparison JA and group were like a riot. T Bone and JA did lots after that. JA was one of the founders of RAPP. Met at houses and spent lots of time at The Black People Information Centre in Ladbroke Grove. Used to rehearse there, JA did the verbals. Shango Baku was a sidekick. There were several musicians involved.
01:17:51 The Radical Alliance of Poets and Players started with a radical movement, explaining and telling people, expressing their community. Community theatre, communicating direct – a dialogue. They were radical and called a spade a spade. There was a lot of abuse happening to people like him at the time. Much more inter-mixed now. Performed around the country at the Commonwealth Centre [Institute?] and at Edinburgh Festival – JA was there 3 times, universities, colleges. It ended for him around 1974; there was a personality clash. He asked the musicians to leave the stage: they were playing out of tune and smoking dope while dancers and everyone was waiting to rehearse. JA was professional in attitude.
01:21:57 Black Theatre of Brixton [previously Dark and Light Theatre]. JA left and ran into Norman Beaton who was at Dark and Light Theatre with Frank Cousins and his wife. Norman was a Director of it and he wanted JA to be one too, but they resisted. They did not like the word radical in his work so they did not want JA. Norman insisted but FC wanted Rufus Collins, dancer, choreographer and good director: everyone at Black Theatre of Brixton learned their craft from Rufus, he ran the Living Theatre and directed Air (sp?) with Marsha Hunt. Norman insisted he wanted JA and so JA became Artistic Director but rejected the name Dark and Light so it became Black Theatre of Brixton. He had seen their work earlier e.g. Norman Beaton directed Anansi and the Strawberry Queens in 1974 around December. Eddy Grant was in that and Shango Baku. Eddy Grant became popular again then after his work with Norman.
01:26:16 Worked at Temba on Exodus which JA co-wrote with Alton Kumalo from South Africa, he was radical too ’so radical he’d boss your head!’ He JA and they worked well together and JA got paid! With RAP they got grants and money from the door, but no real money. With Black Theatre of Brixton, JA wrote all the plays and never got any money: Dark Days and Light Nights; Black Feet in the Snow: Black by Night; The Twisted Knot; Jericho; Bunkers for Theatre Centre- their first Black writer, on a Nuclear theme. Norman Tebbit told parents not to let their children watch as Theatre Centre were a bunch of communists. Made the evening news. And Exodus for Temba. Bunkers script is at Rose Bruford College.
01:31:48 Wrote Slipping Into Darkness for Black Theatre Co-operative with Malcolm Fredericks. A poem play with Calvin Simpson, JA had already done the play with WACAT [centre in East St, Southwark NOT WAC – Weekend Arts College in Camden]. JA worked there for 3 years off East Street in Southwark. JA wrote a one-hander about the plight of a man ranting to himself, struggling with bills, paying the rent, pressure. It was part of his history like everything he writes. JA was a country boy and that experience comes into everything. Slipping into Darkness (BTCo-op) toured in Spring 1988 and was on tour for 2 years, even went to Holland. Brief discussion of Malcolm Fredericks and JA working as writer-in-residence with BTCo-op with upcoming writers
01:37:54 JS quotes Norman Beaton’s Beaton But Unbowed. NB admired and respected JA and his writing. Norman had finesse and charisma: they gelled. Went to a lot of clubs in the West End, drinking places. They often met at a Sloane Square pub near the Royal Court, Ronnie Knight’s club — Barbara Windsor’s husband in Charing Cross Road and places like Macready’s, a writers place, and they went to bad clubs too – with dancing nudes. Went to Oscar Peterson’s – calypsonian. At Black Theatre of Brixton, Norman would support them e.g. doing a chapters from Blues for Mr Charlie by James Baldwin but he was very busy e.g. in The Black Mikado in West End. Rufus Collins was there and he brought forward the technical thing and JA did the admin and writing and they had workshops every evening.The process in the workshops was training actors and actresses, Rufus did this and they had other actors and choreographers, they had a complete thing going on. They encouraged people to do everything and trained them to do everything – write, direct, do lights – very inclusive. When JA was working with WACAT in Southwark at the community centre. He bought Linton Kwesi Johnson to read down there and Norman too. Ran that for 3 years.
01:45:51 Jericho was an expensive show, started in Black Theatre of Brixton under auspices of ethnicity. Rufus Collins was doing different things, working too many places so JA directed it. Patrick Paterson was doing the music said ‘You wrote it so you can direct it’. Brilliant reviews they called it a ‘Reggae opera’. JA brought in radical things, dance into poetry and poetry into dance, street-fighting, stick fights, music. It enlightens people, not the art form but revolution or evolution through the art-form as a weapon against oppression.
01:49:08 Black Joy. Rufus and JA were different kinds of people. He was American he saw things as an integrated form. JA thought there was a black rhythm. He was gay so his whole movement was different from JA’s. JA would say the hard form was different. People lined up and came from far away to see it. The Times said it was brilliant. JA only earned money from Black Joy: he got £20,000 from BFI.
Black Joy went to Cannes film festival . JA did not like the way it was directed in some places and Anthony Simmons the director and he had fallen out over it. JA had to defend the movie as it was his movie, made from a stage play- Dark Days, Light Nights, features Yvonne Agard (Sibihan’s mother, now Grimm – she was in the BT Brixton company) Did play, directed it himself; Rufus had gone to Keskidee Centre by then. Shown in West End, somewhere, a small place. Anthony Simmons [AS] came to see it, JA refused to see him, then while it was playing at Belgrade Theatre AS saw it and JA decided to take the chance on letting him make the film, but there were always problems. But there will always be things that white people do not understand. Problems of working with other people than yourself from a different culture telling you how black people behave, talk, leads to conflict. It takes so much out of you. Problems with communication. AS worked with Peter Sellars, AS gave JA many scripts and he taught him how to write a film script, how to do treatment and synopsis and script. Always want to learn. JA got reviews from all over – US, Nigeria and ended up going there to work in films. Discussion of Horace Ove.
02:00:26 Difficulties of doing the work with no funding – going to Arts Council for money they end up delivering 2 ranting poems, while NB does James Baldwin’s Going to meet the Man.
JA reads some poems.