Music, politics and Brixton – an unbeatable combination at The Ritzy

Now showing at the Ritzy is Summer of Soul, a documentary set in Harlem, New York, but with great relevance for Brixton. Simone Richardson went to the outdoor launch …

Ritzy events manager Laura Mills asked two Brixton DJs to help launch Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).

Claudia Wilson, whose Pure Vinyl record shop is on Ferndale Road, and Cyndi Anafo of the Handson Family and organiser of Brixton Village Lates, were the DJs.

The film is a documentary based on the legendary 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which promoted Black pride.

Part music film and part historical record, it is created around the festival which was composed of six concerts in the summer of 1969, in Mount Morris Park– now Marcus Garvey Park – in Harlem.

Unlike the near-contemporary Woodstock festival which took place only about 100 miles away and became world famous, and despite an audience of 300,000, the Harlem Cultural Festival was largely overlooked.

Footage of it was never shown to mass audiences – until now.

Summer of Soul includes never-before-seen performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and more.

The documentary is directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. In his film, some of the artists who headlined the festival give their own personal opinions as they watch themselves 50 years later.

Laura Mills, who has worked at the Ritzy for 12 years, knew immediately who she wanted to launch the film.

“I already had it in my mind that I wanted those two to DJ,” says Laura. She had no doubt that they would want to as well.

Cyndi and Laura booked the market stalls used for the launch as a team too.

The film was released last Friday (16 July) and is playing at least once a day throughout this week,

“If it is popular then it may stick around longer – and I hope it does!” says Laura

Joining Cyndi and Claudia outside The Ritzy were Papa Scotchie, selling Jamaican flags and shirts and more, and Paul James Lecky, selling t-shirts and sweatshirts of his own creation.

man with market clothes stall
Papa Scotchie

Sound engineer for the event was Roger Bascho-George, helping to start the summer for real.

“It was great to be asked to play,” said Claudia. I had read about the film and was really excited as this was about the music I grew up with.

“I wanted to play those records the people of Harlem would have had in their homes in 1969 – and we had here in Brixton too.

“I was born on Saltoun Road, so playing at the Ritzy always feels like home.”

“Being asked by Laura to play really pleased me as I have been collecting 60s and 70s soul records by artists like Nina Simone and Gladys Knight for a long time.

“I felt like it would be the perfect opportunity to play my own collection. 

“I understand how hard it has been in the past year for everyone, but we need to encourage more outdoor events.”

Claudia plays her soul collection

Records and t-shirts from Pure Vinyl were being sold at the event by a young man called George Howard who has enjoyed working for Claudia two years.

“People got to meet there and I love working in music that I have learnt about,” he said.

“I like how they’ve used loads and loads and loads of footage of some of the actual festival in the film,” he added.

Laura is looking forward to organising more summer events outside The Ritzy

“I wouldn’t have done half as good a job if it wasn’t for Cyndi – the myth, the legend!” she said.

“I barely organise any events without her these days.

She’s an incredible DJ and one of the best promoters/event organisers around. She also runs Brixton Village Lates – among other events. We make a good team.”

Cyndi on the decks and dancing

“I always love working with Laura at The Ritzy,” Cyndi responds, “so it was doubly special to be a part of this event.

“Brixton has always had major parallels with Harlem, socially and politically, and so it seemed poetic to have this pre-screening event here.

“I loved the film very much, but hated how sadly relevant the issue of historical erasure is concerned.

“Bravo to director Questlove for unearthing this must-see important archival footage.”

Cyndi “absolutely loves” Brixton – “even with its not-so-favourable changes that have been a hard knock to a lot of the working class indigenous community.

“It is an area I feel most relaxed in and have many favourite places including, in no particular order, The Satay Bar, The Lounge Bar and Three Little Birds.

“Obviously as curator of Brixton Village Lates – free three-times a day, weekly music events that take place in the market – I also enjoy frequenting these.’’

Laura Mills has travelled from Bournemouth to Brixton – family’s origins are in Poole and Gosport on the South Coast.

“I moved to Brixton and have worked at the Ritzy – now being an events manager – for 12 years – since July 2009.”

She now lives in Nunhead – “It’s cheaper,” she explains, adding; “I also love being near Peckham and Deptford which have a similar spirit to Brixton – and are also all being gentrified.”

man selling t-shirts
Paul James Lecky

Laura loves working with Upstairs at The Ritzy, the cinema’s events and live music space

“That space is my baby,” she says. “Most people who play up there have become my friends.

“I can’t wait to welcome them back in, and for their feedback. They’re excited to be back too!

“At the Ritzy and in Brixton, the things that make me love it are the people and the music. Simple.”

Laura is thankful that she was furloughed during lockdown – “and incredibly, gratefully, fortunate.

“My partner and a lot of my friends are musicians/promoters/sound engineers etc – so I saw how financially challenging it was to not have that furlough safety net and felt very lucky.

“With all the free time, I made my parents proud and got into gardening … who knew?!’’

Of Summer of Soul, she says: “What’s not to love? It’s incredible. The footage is both beautiful and powerful, but I especially love that Questlove didn’t shy away from the political aspects.

“It wouldn’t have worked without it and I am just glad it’s finally being shared.”

Summer of Soul is showing at The Ritzy until Monday (27 July). Call 020 7326 2615 to book.