Nubian Life

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Nubian Life Resource Centre
Awarded on 16 June 2003 by
London West Learning and Skills Council

Harris Berlin

"They were considered to be normal dances back then in the West Indies, and when I came to the UK it was no big deal as I already knew them, so when the record came on I knew exactly how I was going to dance."

Harris Berlin
Harris Berlin

Harris Berlin talks to Seymour Nurse at the "Nubian Life Resource Centre" about how he was dancing to Jazz, and other styles of music back home in Jamaica and the UK during the 1950s/60s, in a very special interview.

It is a real honour to be in the presence of such noble souls who paved the way for our generation, for they sacrificed so much, and experienced some extremely challenging times when they came to the UK during the 1940s/50s/60s. My deepest gratitude goes out to these Elders, and the Ancestors/Ancestral Lineage that they came through.
Seymour Nurse

Seymour Nurse: Can you tell me when you first came to the UK, and what kinds of dancing you were into?

Harris Berlin: I came over to London from Jamaica at the age of 21 in 1962. When we came to the UK we had a mixture of music ranging from Calypso, Jazz, Bluebeat, Merengue, and Ska, etc... and this was in 1962. I mostly used to dance Jazz, Afro-Latin/Merengue, Skanking, and I even did a bit of Ballet too.

S.N: Can you tell me about the parties that were occurring during the early 1960s in London?

H.B: I used to go to House parties which we called "Pushing". Some of these House Parties were so full, and there were other times when we would have a hall. There was one regular session I remember that happened weekly in a basement in Parsons Green. We danced to all kinds of music there, including Jazz, and had our own sound system too. The Djs played the music, as there were no bands.

If I wanted to check out bands, I would go to the "Stampers" in Brixton. I would also go to other types of clubs that played Jazz, like the "Roaring Twenties" in London. This was the place where I met the singer/pianist Georgie Fame. I remember meeting him when he was just starting out. He was influenced by "Ska" music, as he used to visit Jamaican Cafes down The Grove (Ladbroke Grove, West London).

S.N: My father Vincent (who will also be writing a piece for this site) told me about the "Blues Parties", and other 'underground' sessions that were taking place in London during that period. Did you travel to parties outside of London too?

H.B: Yes, I travelled to Sheffield, and other places where they had black communities. I used to play cricket, which connected me to these areas. We would arrange coach trips to travel there.

S.N: Were you collecting music from overseas?

H.B: Yes, members of my family would bring back certain Jazz records that we didn't have over here when they made trips to America. We used to have music sessions everynight at home playing records. I just remembered a Jamaican DJ called Rowe who had his own sound system as well, but he went back to Jamaica... he was a dancer too.

The Djs at the House parties were bringing their own records and spinning them out. They used to buy records from Cambridge Road (London). We used to have guys come around our houses selling records. They would travel all over London. If I heard a tune that I really liked at a party but couldn't find it, I would get the Record Dealer to find it for me.

S.N: Which did you prefer dancing to, live music or records?

H.B: I preferred dancing to records.

S.N: What kind of Jazz dancing were you doing at these sessions/parties?

H.B: Well, we would dance to Jazz in different ways. We would do Afro-'Latin Jazz' or 'Rhythm & Blues (Rock & Roll)' moves to it, something like that. We would mix the dance styles depending on what the Dj played. I would mix some Jazz moves with Skank and Blue Beat too, but that would depend on the tune and atmosphere. People would do their own thing. I used to enter Dance Contests when I was back home in Jamaica, so I knew what I was going to do when I went out on weekends.

S.N: That is interesting, as some older dancers that I know make a direct connection to 'Skanking', and the 'Jazz-Fusion' dance style that came out of London. So you were already mixing it up when you were in Jamaica before you came to the UK.

H.B: Yes, that is where I learnt these dances. They were considered to be normal dances back there in the West Indies, and when I came to the UK it was no big deal, as I already knew them, so when the record came on I knew exactly how I was going to dance. It wasn't just in Jamaica, things like this was happening in Barbados, and the other Islands too with the mixture of music we had.

S.N: I was dancing to Jazz from the age of 12 in 1979/80, which was something new for our generation, but I always remember my mother Janette laughing at my twin brother Gary and I, saying that she was doing those moves as a child in Barbados, and that it was nothing new, just slightly changed.

H.B: We were doing that way back, way back!! I was doing these dance moves to Jazz records when I was 12 years old too as a boy back home in Jamaica. We danced to all the musics, including the stuff with Afro-Latin beats in the late 50s as well. I even remember when someone used to come to town and play music in a shop. Well, actually it was a dance hall in the back of the shop. People would be dancing in there at times when it was raining. People from all around the area would would come to dance there, and this was in the 1950s.

S.N: I remember attending the Nubian Life Christmas party last year, and watched in awe as I saw Mr Dias (a West Indian gentlemen in his mid-late 70s) on the dance floor effortlessly performing the Soul and Funk moves I've seen over the years, and he had more style and charisma now than most of the dancers I've watched in the Clubs. So what is your generation's take on our generation producing something new?

H.B: We just laugh!

S.N: Because you were doing the same thing?

H.B: Because we were doing it better!!! (Harris and I are in fits of laughter here)
We did that before and threw it away long time, for we picked it up, and threw it away! I find it hilarious that people are surprised to hear that we were listening, and dancing to Jazz in Jamaica at that time (1950-1960s). In my opinion, the dancing was better back then, but I can see where it came from when I watch the younger dancers.

We used to call the dance, "Codrill Jazz" (a derivative/version of the
"Quadrille Dance". Louise Bennett, the Jamaican folklorist, educator and activist, covers the history of the "Quadrille" dance)
, that's what some people were calling it at that time, "Codriil". When you heard that music they would say,
"Hear Codrill!", then you would go on and dance.

S.N: I have to say that whenever I speak to an older dancer, they will always mention a dancer form an older generation that inspired and influenced them, and their inspiration will do the same thing, and so on... so it always goes back a generation... Who were your favourite Jazz artists?

H.B: I did not have a special artist, I just danced if I heard a record I liked. I would sometimes ask about a certain tune I heard. I also liked dancing to uptempo
Fats Domino stuff too, and all those boys. But as I said, I heard the record but didn't take too much interest, as I would be gone...

S.N: Beautiful! I know so many dancers that can relate to what you just said. Did you base your dancing on the old American Jazz dancers?

H.B: No. I had seen them dance in films and on TV, but we did our own thing, and style as we went along. I used to practice my dancing by putting on the radio or records at home.

S.N: How did you dress when you went out dancing?

H.B: Casual, but smart. I wore slacks, and sometimes I wore jeans with shoes and shirts that had style. I dressed well, and wore clothes that were comfortable to dance in.

S.N: Did you used to hang out with a group of dancers?

H.B: Yes, we had a group of dancers that went out together, just like what youngsters do now. There were a few guys and a couple of girls that went to parties together. We behaved ourselves, and didn't get into fights. We used to do dance routines, and practice them at home to do at the club/party. We used to really enjoy the music and dance.

S.N: Those sound like some very special times for you. When do you feel that things started to change, and that a different vibe was coming in?

H.B: In the 1970s. It did not have the same feeling as what came over from back home in Jamaica. The music changed... You know, Black people, once they hear a particular kind of music they've got the groove straight away, they are in the groove, they do their own thing, you do your own thing. Different artists came in and messed up the music. The beats changed.

S.N: What would you say was your favourite period for dancing?

H.B: Back home in Jamaica, before I came to the UK. It was a different vibe, and the girls danced much better over there too!! (smiles)

S.N: It has been a real pleasure talking to you Harris.
Much appreciation for the interview.

H.B: Thank you Seymour for your interest in our culture and roots.

Harris Berlin & Seymour Nurse
Harris Berlin & Seymour Nurse

A Tribute to the true 'Old School' Dancers
"There is nothing new under the Sun... just that which has been forgotten."

This is priceless footage from 1942, featuring the voices of the Mills Brothers. From one perspective it can be said that this shows a dancer "B-Boying/Breakdancing to Jazz"
(an acapella version of the Jazz classic "Caravan"), as he performs a typical B-Boy solo (at 1:46 minutes) by doing a 'Toprock' into a backflip, then a half 'Swan Dive' into
'One legged Swipes'.

The legendary Tip Tap & Toe in 1937. These were their regular routine moves used for performances, so it would have been very interesting to see what else they produced when they were jamming in other environments.

Sammy Davis Jr & Co performing some 'Floor/Drop Moves' in the 1940s
(at 1:30 minutes).

The dazzling Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker performing moves associated with the
'Electric Boogaloo' and 'Body Popping' in 1930.

Truly outstanding dancing from Whitey's Lindy Hoppers in 1941.

Mabel Lee is one of my favourite singers/dancers, as she has a real sensuality and flair within her movements. This performance is from 1945.

Bill Bailey doing the 'Moonwalk' in 1955 (at 2:03 minutes).
Dancers back then were performing moves that would have shone in modern day
Jazz Rooms, but one also has to take into account the fact that they were making music/rhythms (Tapping) with their feet at the same time, which is often taken for granted.

The wonderful Bessie Dudley and Florence Hill dancing with Duke Ellington
and his Orchestra
in 1933. I just love Bessie's (the lady dressed in white) 'funky' movement at 0:30 minutes.

Great vibe, and energy in The Flamingos performance of "Jump Children"
(my favourite version of the song, featuring an exciting sax solo) from 1959.
The dancers (at 1:20 minutes) lay down some 'Half Split' combinations normally associated with Soul/Funk/Northern Soul dancing.

Here we see an example of B-Boy/Breakdance moves combined with Jazz
at 0:11 minutes. They perform the B-Boy/Breakdance routine move where one dancer swings upside down around the other dancer's neck, before going into a Jazz spin and 'Half Split'. At 0:19 minutes there is a dynamic move where the dancer performs the classic
'Fusion drop move spin' (putting the foot behind the knee, and dropping to the floor on the sole of the foot).... with a skipping rope!!!

Another early example of a 'Jazz Dance' group performance featuring some great footwork techniques and style from the fabulous Four Step Brothers.

The Four Step Brothers performing again several years later in 1955, and having
a lot of fun with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They are older here, but can still dance so well. Incidentally, even though Jerry Lewis is messing around, he does a well known 'Tutting' (Body Popping) combination at 5:15 minutes.

Great group routine from The Four Hot Shots in 1937 at 3:20 minutes. At 3:40 minutes you can see them doing a B-Boy/Breakdance 'Foot Flick' into the very popular
Northern Soul 'Swipe' into 'Half Split' move.

The revered Nicholas Brothers (with Cab Calloway in 1943) have been a huge inspiration to many modern day Jazz dancers who have modelled themselves on the more traditional style, and it is very clear here where they based their moves and style on in this striking piece.

Cab Calloway displaying his raw and unique style of dancing at 2:36 minutes.
He performs the Jazz Fusion "Frisbee" Glide at 3:13 minutes.

One more special addition....

I have always said that the London 'Jazz Fusion' Dance style resembled the Afro-Brazilian Samba (Semba). Here is an exquisite example (particularly from the child dancing on the left) in one of my favourite films, "Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro)" from 1959, featuring the Jazz Room classic "Samba De Orfeu".


Copyright 2012 © Seymour Nurse