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World Music Features

Misty in Roots

By Garth Cartwright
Published March 14, 2006

Roots Controller is Misty’s first new album in 12 years and their debut on Real World. “We never really considered America before,” admits the group's Poko. “Our focus was always on taking the music back to Africa."

Summer twilight descends on Southall and Walford “Poko” Tyson is pointing out landmarks across this most multicultural of West London boroughs. Southall is largely West Asian although Poko observes a growing Somali community. Once Southall hosted a large West Indian community and it is from this that Poko’s legendary reggae band Misty In Roots arose.

Poko points out a building in which Misty once rehearsed, an old cinema they turned into a dancehall. Then we stop by the site of what once was Misty’s squatted Arts Centre. Here they ran their People Unite label, a kitchen for the poor, and provided space for community activists. Then on April 21,1982 police stormed the building.

“It was the time when Margaret Thatcher was pursuing a law and order agenda,” recalls Poko, “and the police had free license to do what they want. We were lucky there were local lawyers in the building. Otherwise I don’t want to consider what might have happened to us.”

Lucky? Not exactly: the band’s manager had his skull fractured by the police and Misty members were jailed or locked into the legal system for two years. The Arts Centre was demolished.

“It was rough times,” notes Poko. “The police were out of control back then. In 1979 they beat to death a New Zealand schoolteacher, Blair Peach, in an anti-fascist protest in Southall, and no policeman ever charged.”

            Poko points out a paving stone commemorating the Centre and Peach. Southall may be quiet this evening but the return of Misty In Roots means these urban griots will again be singing of London sufferahs.

Roots Controller is Misty’s first new album in 12 years and their debut on Real World. Among its many strong tunes is “Cover Up” (available on GLOBAL RHYTHM’s September 2002 free CD), in which they sing of Stephen Lawrence, a gifted black teenager murdered by a gang of white youths while waiting for a bus: The police, through a mix of incompetence, racism and corruption, arrested no one. This so enraged Lawrence’s parents they tackled the British establishment using only their crusading courage and anger. They got results, forcing an investigation that found the British police guilty of “institutional racism” and leading to reforms in many public service sectors.

“We were never inactive,” says Poko. “We play concerts and tour and keep the old albums available. But it is hard work running your own label. We’ve known Real World since WOMAD [World of Music, Art and Dance festivals, begun by Real World chief Peter Gabriel] began 20 years ago. We’ve played plenty of WOMAD concerts, never lost contact. So when it came to issuing