Musician and DJ Alberto Umbridge discusses a bygone Brixton with Simone Richardson, along with the allure of Congolese music, and how lockdown prompted him to invest in an ultrasonic record cleaner
As a small child, Alberto Umbridge was a regular visitor to Brixton with his mum.
“I’d sometimes be dropped at the Town Hall to partake in its Saturday morning Tufty Club sessions, while mum schlepped around Morleys, Bon Marché, Woolworths and, of course, its luxurious market.
“Later on, I visited Clouds [The Ram Jam Cub before and Fridge after] and hung out at the two Fridges as well as, of course, its squats, and had occasional forays into its glorious Frontline.
“My elder brother also spent quite a few years working for Pride and Clarke when they dominated almost the entire length of the Stockwell Road.”
Alberto left school with “minimal qualifications,” he says. “My main education was the school of life.
“I learnt my trade through punk, which was supposed to be the end of rock and roll, but sadly only ended up perpetuating its mythology.
“I began playing in bands largely because of punk, enjoying the power of rock music, but not its associated machismo nor posturing.
“Years later I ended up playing in a Congolese band for seven years.
“That was where I properly cut my musical teeth.
“Our first show was at the Brixton Vox [which used to be below Brighton Terrace], we also regularly headlined at the Mambo Inn in the old Loughborough Hotel.
“Oh, and we once headlined at a glorious open air Mambo Inn picnic on Streatham Common.
“As a multicultural, multi-race ensemble, natch Brixton loved us.”
Alberto later gained an O level in Japanese, a BTEC in graphic design, A BTEC assessor qualification and an MA in ethnomusicology at London University’s SOAS [formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies].
He adds: “I am a former Scarman Community Champion for my radio work”.
With all this educational versatility in mind he says: “I think my real education in all things was understanding that (in my case anyway) education is always lead by the heart.
“Keep your ethics and scruples close, but want something badly enough and fate largely works in your favour. Of course, sometimes you’ll pick up some crap too, but that’s just part of the process I suppose.”
His music taste developed into “listening and absorbing Congolese music when, by an utter fluke, I was invited to join a new ensemble forming in 1990.
“When the project ended in 1997, along with a Congolese friend – Koffii – without any prior experience we approached the radio station Resonance FM.
“After a one-off broadcast, we began our weekly show called “Nostalgie Ya Mboka” (nostalgia for home).
“The show focuses upon the pop musics of the two Congos between the late 1940s and up to and into the 1990s.
“For many years my friend and I held a bilingual transmission, ping-ponging between English and Lingala.
“Sadly, my friend’s health declined and he passed a few years ago and so I continue alone.”
Rumba and soukous had drawn the two together. Alberto recalls: “Our hope was always to provide nostalgia though music to exiled Congolese people and to provide a window for young Congolese growing up here to know a little more about their roots.”
Creating the show and the work around it helped Alberto through lockdown.
“I bought a very cheap manual record cleaning device and spent the next few months cleaning and restoring my Congolese 7” singles.
“I was shocked at the results. A few months later I decided to go one step further, scraped together all of my pennies and bought a proper ultrasonic record cleaning machine.
“Of course that meant that I then had to redo all the work I had undertaken but … hey ho.
“Subsequently I went through all of the Congolese vinyl, followed by my Latin, punk, post-punk, 80s Japanese techno and electronics and pretty much every piece of vinyl sat in my home.
It’s a great way to avoid getting tied into spirals of depression and conspiracy theories, not that there’s not some strange shit going on … when we have a self-serving Billy Bunter clown as prime minister.
“How do I cope? I just do what I do and hope for the best, and usually one way or another it sorts itself out.”
Now living away from Brixton in central London, Alberto enjoyed a recent visit to Pure Vinyl on Ferndale Road and meeting the “lovely Claudia” there
“Perhaps the greatest gift Brixton offers,” says Alberto, “is interaction – always was and still is.”
That’s especially the case, because “I am generally disappointed in London these days. To do what I do I need purpose.
“Although I live very central, I honestly can’t think of the last time I felt inspired to stroll through the West End.
“But Brixton is a different story. I truly enjoyed my recent visit. Natch, it’s not the same place as when I was a kid, but it’s only the faces that have changed. Its heart is still just as big.”
“Now in its nineteenth year, Nostalgie Ya Mboka remains the only show dedicated to the older musics of the two Congos,” says Alberto.
“It’s broadcast live – currently pandemically pre-recorded in my front room and forwarded to the station in advance.
“The show is quite unique and has many listeners worldwide, not least in Africa, where some of the many treasures held in our archive have long been lost.”
Tune in on Saturdays at 1.30-2.30 on Resonance 104.4fm (resonancefm.com).
This coming Saturday’s show (27 November) will include a celebration of the music of guitarist Bongo Wende, who died recently.
Listen to him playing with Orchestra Stukas …