Brixton is that rare thing in South London, a city-village with a unique counter culture. It has the resources to step up to any pretentious North London suburb: distinctive buildings and town planning (Lambeth Town Hall, the Tate Library, Windrush Square), a vibrant commercial community based around the passageways of the market, and well known cultural landmarks (the Empire, the Ritzy cinema).
And it’s a place that’s genuinely thriving. The deep Afro-Caribbean roots in the area still set the tenor of Brixton life, but it also feels increasingly diverse. It is a haven for hipsters a little less up-themselves than their Shoreditch counterparts, a home for young professionals and a base for other immigrant groups. There are concerns that the area is gentrifying, with city workers nabbing the nice houses and organic delis springing up in the market. But there should be no fears that Brixton is going to become the next Notting Hill. There are few decent places to eat out, it’s often uncomfortably busy and the council is solidly Old Labour.
To the business in hand. Last night, four local venues hosted Oxjam, a small part of a city-wide month of concerts to raise money for Oxfam. In typical Brixton style, the music was scheduled until 6am in the morning. On offer was hip hop (Dogstar), post indie (The Windmill), Afro beats (The Rest is Noise) and folk and blues (Upstairs at the Ritzy). Sticking closely to Culture Capital’s remit, I headed for the latter two venues.
Two very different acts entertained out the small but packed-out space at Upstairs at the Ritzy. First up Nigerian-English singer Bumi Thomas. A tall, striking young woman, Thomas sang original soul songs in a pert little set. Accompanied by two guitars and djembe, her music was light and compact. Her voice had a husky quality along the lines of Tracey Chapman and Erica Badu, and her songs were of a similar mid-tempo style.
The following blues jam could not have been more different in tone. Ahead of the next set by veteran bluesman Sonny B Walker (left), four guys got up to play some of the dirtiest live blues imaginable. At the head of this quartet was a young guitarist and singer (whose name I caught as Brett McLoughlin, but I might be wrong), who looked like a wide boy, but played and sang like John Lee Hooker’s ghost. His guitar playing was raw, sparse and energetic and his vocals were low and swaggering.
The subsequent performance by Sonny B Walker (with the same group of backing players) was inevitably a little disappointing after such an remarkable interlude. But Walker’s harmonica jamming with another player raised some cheers, and the Deep South vibe rolled on.
It was then time to move onto The Rest is Noise, arriving shortly after local band Yaaba Funk (right) took to the stage. This local multi-racial ten-piece band play a high octane blend of Afrobeat, Highlife and funk. Horn-heavy and propelled by a well populated rhythm section, Yaaba Funk got quite a groove going. The band’s sound is directly drawn from James Brown and Fela Kuti and so a lot of character was needed from front-man Richmond Kessie. A natural showman, he didn’t let the side down, urging his players on. A well practised set from a classic gigging band.
A DJ set from Secousse Soundsystem rounded off the night at The Rest is Noise. With four venues and dozens of bands and DJs playing, it would have been impossible to cover all the Oxjam bases, but with full houses and a diverse crowd, it did appear to be a successful event. With pubs like the Hootananny, Music Bar and White Horse not utilised for the ‘Brixton Takeover’, as it was styled, perhaps there is room for expansion next year.