AJ MC’ing at WOMAD (Photo: York Tillyer)

Following the shocking news of the death of Alan James in the early hours of Sunday 7th April 2019, we share Elizabeth Kinder’s feature on AJ from fR421. Summer 2018, as a small tribute.


From Uni social sec to Womad, from MC to Arts Council and EFDSS officer and artist management, Alan James knew a thing or two about making stuff work. Elizabeth Kinder followed his tracks.

“Punk came to Hull in 1977,” says Alan James, who was there. One week the audience at the University Students’ Union was sitting cross-legged on the floor swaying to Caravan, the next up and standing, pogoing to The Damned. Also, Stuart Cosgrove (who was reading drama) strolled in for the new term rocking straight-legged jeans. These two events might seem totally unconnected, if not quite to each other, then certainly to the subsequent profiles of folk and world music in the UK. But the impact they had on James set him on a path that would help positively transform the fortunes of both across the British Isles.

“You couldn’t buy straight-legged jeans in Hull; you’d have to get your mum to take your flares in,” he says. “So I moved to London.” And he cut his hair, inspired not so much by Cosgrove as by David Bowie. With the release of Fame in his Thin White Duke incarnation, “Bowie,” says James, “became a fashion icon in the way that Lemmy did not. Bowie made skinny men cool.” Thus James could step out on his continuing career as a man of the times, to play his part in shaping their accompanying soundtrack.

Before this sartorial and geographical shift James gained his degree in Politics along with the realisation of what he wanted to do in life. Handily, Hull had given him a brilliant grounding in the wherewithal to achieve it. In this the study of politics was instrumental. This had not so much to do with reading the philosophies of Gramski, Marx and Hegel that the course entailed, but with the time it left to do other things.

Thomas Brooman, Kanda Bongo Man and Alan James in Paris, 1983. (Photo: Mireille Gastaldi)

That these included smoking on the library steps and incurring short shrift from Philip Larkin is not key to subsequent developments. James taking up the post of Social Sec at a time when for most bands the university circuit was a crucial step on the ladder of success, is.

At Hull, Social Sec was not a sabbatical position even though it meant running a full-time business. It included learning how to write contracts, negotiate with agents and managers, organise staging, and generally do everything involved in promoting gigs, from putting the towels and rider in the dressing room (Lemmy’s first question leaping out of the van and onto the stage when pitching up late with Motorhead was, “Where’s the rider?”) to printing tickets and sorting out parking. It would not have been possible, says James, if he’d been studying Law or English.

In London James found his experience and newly acquired straight-legged jeans qualified him for a paid Ents. Officer job at ULU. “It was the time of The Slits, The Raincoats and Joy Division and you were short-changing the audience if you didn’t put at least three bands on a night (for an entrance fee of £2.50).” Under his tenure, pioneering post-punk bands like A Certain Ratio, Scritti Politti and Cabaret Voltaire ripped it up from the ULU stage along with Aswad, Misty In Roots, Jamaican dub poet Michael Smith, John Martyn with Phil Collins, Orchestre Jazira, Ekome and Culture. His love of Talking Heads – shared by his friend Justin Adams, who’d taken a break from studying at the Courtauld to operate the lights for the ULU gigs – led James to Fela Kuti. “I read a piece in the NME where Brian Eno was talking about Fela Kuti when My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts came out. I went straight round to Sterns on the Tottenham Court Road and bought Kalakuta Show.”

James was riding the crest of the wave of openness to all kinds of music and its interconnection with all sorts of cultural expressions, like art and dance and fashion, which he’d jumped on at Hull. There, as well as the sublime Motorhead gig, he’d staged shows by Heatwave, KC and the Sunshine Band, Deaf School, and Martin Carthy: “Silly Wizard, a brilliant Scottish party band, played at the Christmas ball. It was amazing. A time when music was less separated. People wanted to hear such a wide range: Northern soul, prog rock, punk, folk, reggae… you name it.” By the time he arrived in Hull, James’ personal taste also included the rock-blues of Little Feat, jazz-pop courtesy of Steely Dan, the art-punk of Pere Ubu, and of course Bowie.

A friend of his at Hull had a boyfriend at Oxford called Stephen Pritchard, who was on the team of the Bristol Recorder with Thomas Brooman et al. (fR413). Pritchard asked James along to the first meeting re. an idea called ‘Rhythm 82’, which was to incorporate music and dance from all over the world. “It became the first WOMAD. My role was to be tour manager for The Drummers Of Burundi.”

As they arrived during the summer holidays, James was able to take two weeks off work at ULU and meet them from the plane. “We supported The Clash at the Brixton Academy. We had a huge entourage, but the rider was six cans of beer and a couple of sandwiches. I was about to go out and buy everyone chicken nuggets and chips when Joe strummer popped his head round the door and said ‘Is that all you’ve got?’ and brought The Clash’s rider into our dressing room. Joe and Mick Jones stood in the wings and watched the drummers. He (Strummer) came to Womad a lot subsequently…”

That there were subsequent Womads after that brilliant inaugural but financially fatal gig is in no small part due to James. Another friend, Michael Morris, “was doing this thing called Rock Week at the ICA whilst I was at ULU. He promised me a Rock Week.” James, realising that Womad’s name was mud, knew they needed to get it back in currency. Instead of curating Rock Week he proposed they put on a proper Womad line-up at the ICA (which included Kanda Bongo Man’s UK debut and Jah Wobble), and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

That history continued in part to be shaped by James. During his four years at ULU he helped Womad and, in ’84, The Smiths’ tour of Ireland. The following year he moved to Bristol to work full-time for the festival. “I’d got the bug with the Drummers Of Burundi. I thought they were one of the greatest bands in the world.” His role was essentially to bring in the rock and pop artists and facilitate the connections between them and the artists from the rest of the world, from backstage football games to on-stage collaborations.

From the outset this was successful, as the release of Zimbo Live, (the B-side of Echo and the Bunnymen’s The Cutter), showed. When The Bunnymen’s drummer Pete de Freitas invited the Drummers Of Burundi to perform with them in 1982, he presaged in a way the later Real World recording weeks.

AJ and Karlo – Yu Fe Danse Sound System (Photo: Chris Rydeleski)

Living in Clifton Village and immersed in the emerging ‘Bristol Sound’, James hooked up with Karlo Smith, the son of a reggae promoter, to form a DJ outfit, Yu Fe Danse, playing African, Latin and reggae music. They landed a show on GWR radio and on the pirate Emergency Radio station on 99.9 FM. “Grant and Mushroom (Massive Attack) had a show and John Stapleton had a hip-hop show. We were all on the same circuit.” In Bristol then, as in London and Hull before, James found no segregation when it came to music.

In his DJ incarnation James travelled the world and supported artists such as the Bhundu Boys and Thomas Mapfumo, whilst playing regularly at Womad, with he and Smith becoming the house DJs. “It was brilliant. We’d play reggae one night, house the next,  the Whirl Y Gig crew would join and there’d be after hours at the Rivermead Centre and now it’s the Big Red Tent.” Although James hung up his headphones in the late ’90s, he brought them out again when Pete Lawrence asked him to DJ at the Big Chill, which he did for about ten consecutive years, playing folk, ambient, and film soundtracks.

The late ’90s DJ hiatus coincided with James accepting a job at the Midlands Art Centre (MAC) in Birmingham. Though loving life in Bristol, a more formal training in arts funding beckoned. In Birmingham he began Sounds In The Round in a 400-seat open-air theatre in the park. Along with shows by Ali Farka Touré, Olodum and Oumou Sangaré, James staged multi-disciplinary events, featuring various combinations of music, dance, comedy and theatre whilst honing his fundraising skills. These also enabled him to produce large-scale sound and art shows that included taking artists into the landscape and creating/curating installations in local parks. “It was nice,” he says, “to come back being able to programme a venue with a culturally diverse music agenda.”

In moving to Birmingham James returned to his birthplace, though not exactly to 207 Electric Avenue, the house that was home for his first eleven years. This address was now a stanchion supporting Spaghetti Junction. Following the compulsory purchase that allowed that to happen, the James family moved to Hagley in Worcestershire.

Arriving in the village James remembers having seen a hot-rod car, a Model T Ford driving through. “It was John Bonham. I then delivered his papers.” At home his parents were not listening to Led Zeppelin, preferring light classics, RAF marching bands and easy listening on the radio. Young James, passing his 11-plus, followed in the footsteps of Bonham’s band mate Robert Plant, to King Edward Grammar School in Stourbridge.

The town had a bohemian feel (that James traces to its multi-disciplinary art school), which reinforced an openness to all the sorts of cultural expression that he’d been absorbing at home. Along with the fare on the radio there was “World muzak on the telly. Manitas de Plata (father of two of the Gypsy Kings), was on Val Doonican. This was Saturday night mainstream TV; Sergio Mendez, Demis Roussos, Nana Mouskouri. Dad said, ‘You’ll like John Williams on Morecambe and Wise, but I liked Manitas de Plata better. They’d all just pop up alongside James Last with his Brazilian album, the South African kwela band Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes with the Tom Hark song, Argentinian tango and Abba.” He remembers loving the impact of hearing Martin Carthy’s Shearwater for the first time. “I was still at school. It was the fourth LP I ever bought. I looked it up. In a collection of about 4,000 records, it’s no. 4.”

This early exposure to music clearly planted the seed for James’ subsequent life and work. It also led, less successfully, to his joining a band at school. “I tried to play guitar, but although I could remember things and play by ear, at my school you had to read music before you were allowed to play an instrument. So I became the lead singer. At rehearsals everyone played softly and we could all hear each other. We did a show and I sang flat, because we didn’t understand you needed monitors.”

The early demise of a performing career was good news for his A levels. Passionate about writing and English, James applied to study politics because he didn’t think he’d achieve the requisite grade A in English. And when he did, he couldn’t change his course. This was good news for world music, and when he left his job at MAC to become Head of Contemporary & Traditional Music at the Arts Council in 2000, it was good news for folk.

He says, “When my boss, Hilary Boulding, asked, ‘What areas need investment?’ I said South Asian classical music and folk. Folk didn’t have funding. Folk clubs were closing, but a new generation of programmers with an interest in world, folk, and classical Indian music were coming into arts centres.”

This coincided with “a whole new generation of British musicians playing folk. Chris Wood, Andy Cutting, Eliza Carthy – a new generation were carrying the baton. Folk music moved into a new phase of regeneration in the early 21st century, helped by Arts Council funding, improved by a bigger budget and focus on the arts and culture from New Labour. Folkworks in the North East, pre the Newcastle University course, was an example of that and now in turn those artists are inspiring a new younger generation.”

Alan second right, with Ian Kearey, Shirley Collins, Ian Anderson and Ben Mandelson at Cecil Sharp House. (Photo: Judith Burrows)

One of James’ proudest moments, he says, “came from seeing Shirley Collins’ talk, America Over The Water in a Bloomsbury bookshop. I got in touch and suggested she turn it into a proper studio theatre show, which toured in 2005. I stayed friends with Shirley, she’s a dear friend.”

Having focused Arts Council funding on folk music, he left in 2006 to set up his own artist management, tour production and arts consultancy company. Within a year, in 2007 James was appointed chair of EFDSS, by which time the society had secured its status as a National Portfolio Organisation. These are recognised as representing some of the best arts practices in the world and funding is guaranteed for three-year periods, facilitating more effective long-term planning.

James was inspired to set up Hold Tight Management after Andy Cutting mentioned Spiro to him. “I heard The Sky Is A Blue Bowl and I thought it was incredible. I wanted to manage them.” James started working with Spiro around the same time he was producing the Imagined Village tour for Simon Emmerson, which for him brought a full-circle Martin Carthy moment. “I can distinctly remember a Martin Carthy solo show in Hull and I loved every minute. It was amazing again to see him with Imagined Village, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of songs and stories. I’m so glad to have met and worked with him”

Later asked to be the Executive Chair at the Welsh Music Foundation, James was part of the consortium that brought WOMEX to Cardiff in 2013. His involvement with Womex had begun almost twenty years before when he DJ’d at the 1995 event in Berlin and was later invited to be a juror at Womex in Gateshead whilst still at the Arts Council. But his work in Wales raising the profile of Welsh arts brought him to the attention of 9 Bach, who asked him to manage them too.

James says, “For me, working with 9 Bach as a Welsh language band, is fascinating.” His experience in world music has made him unafraid of the language barrier. And his Welsh experience has expanded his sense of the world wide web of human interconnection that has nothing to do with the internet.

There’s a Welsh word he says, hiraeth, that relates to a concept of our connection with the landscape of home, of missing something or someone. It’s melancholic and uplifting, like duende in flamenco, or saudade in fado or Bosnian sevdah. Another, anian, means nature, what you’re made of, your soul and bones and how you connect with others, “the gut feeling like when you meet someone and you know you’re going to be mates.”

But for James, most importantly, meaning is not in the language when it comes to songs. It’s in all other aspects of the music and is a means by which we can experience our interconnection with one another wherever we’re from. I just wish he’d get a job in mainstream media. He might help open up our increasingly closed-minded prevailing culture, its intolerance fuelled by resistance to programming music that’s not in English. (It’s not popular! Well it might be if we heard it.)

Still, in fRoots’ sunny wide-open spaces, that James didn’t think he’d get his grade A in the subject is something of which we can be glad.