Over the past few months we’ve been looking at the city’s current state as a home and breeding ground for creativity. Those of us with a vested interest in music and its development want to see musicians and artists protected and valued, and given the tools to progress their careers. We also want to see the flourishing of spaces where people can come together and talk, dance, socialise and enjoy the things they hold dear. One of the key things needed for this is space: as we noted in last month’s issue, a number of live music venues and clubs have faced difficulties operating within the current creative and commercial infrastructure of the city. But with an increased awareness of these issues at a local level, and the Agent Of Change Bill being supported in government, it shows that progress is being made. Cities need noisy people, and those people need space to be noisy.
Venues, clubs, studios, workshops and bars where people are free to gather, think and create are the kind of places where the seeds of movements, large and small, can germinate. They offer freedom to explore ideas, and can bring a sense of togetherness. Occasionally you lose track of just how powerful this idea is, but only if you forget to look. All around us there are buildings that have been many things to many people, each with different stories to tell. One such building is Hardman House, which has recently been reduced to a pile of rubble. Its remarkable story reveals that it played a vital role in Liverpool music’s recent history – and gives us some insight into the kind of things we need to bear in mind as we go about building the city’s future. We can learn a lot from the hole it leaves behind.
Halfway up Hardman Street there is now a jagged gap where Hardman House once stood. Closed and derelict for years, the building was built around the former St. Philip’s Church in 1882. After World War II it became Atlantic House, a social centre for sailors from around the world; but for music lovers, Hardman House is significant because it was the home of Club Corinto and the nascent Africa Oyé.
Entered through a set of double doors covered by a rather flash canopy there was a standard bar setup on the ground floor, and some rather tatty ‘hotel’ rooms on the top floor – I guess the sailors needed somewhere to sleep it off. It was the middle floor, accessed through a central staircase, that made Hardman House special – think The Conti/Kazimier, only more so. With a capacity in the region of 300 (records showed 436 tickets on one occasion), the venue had a huge, sprung dancefloor, overlooked by a large comfortable bar area at the back and a full stage – proscenium arch intact – with a DJ area in one wing and a band room leading off the other.
From 1988 to 1996 this was the home to the monthly Club Corinto. It is perhaps a little hard to imagine in these Brexit/Trump-dominated times, but in the 80s Liverpool was home to a number of radical initiatives and Club Corinto grew out of this. Liverpool had been twinned with the Nicaraguan Pacific coast port of Corinto, and leftwing activists in the city had formed Merseyside Nicaragua Must Survive in support of the Sandinista rebellion against the Somoza dictatorship. The club was started in order to fundraise for Merseysiders who wanted to head to Nicaragua to work on projects within the community of Corinto: in fact, Club Corinto’s first DJ, Pete Hudson, the guy who started the Latin/African/soul format of the club, soon disappeared to Nicaragua never to return! This was the period in which ‘world music’ was to make its mark, and the DJs – who included Paul Harnett, Kenny Murray, Jim Mathias (a Northern Soul student more into Quadrant Park rave than Womad) and myself – played a mix of salsa, Latin jazz, boogaloo and, above all, Zairean soukous to a mixed audience of lefties, trendies and students, with a 2am curfew – oh, what fun we had!
Building on the success of Club Corinto and the growth of interest in world music, club nights became interspersed with live shows (at that time it was still easy for African bands to get entry visas to the UK), with the mighty Thomas Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited (Zimbabwe) the very first. They were soon followed by Orchestra Virunga (Kenya/Zaire) and Sierra Maestra (Cuba) – these were all world class acts; Juan de Marcos Gonzalez of Sierra Maestra went on to become the musical director of Buena Vista Social Club. Africa Oyé emerged out of these great live shows, and in 1992 the first Africa Oyé Festival kicked off with Kenyan band Simba Wanyika onstage at Hardman House. They arrived after midnight after their flight from Nairobi had been delayed: a sprint from Manchester airport, a bottle of rum, and a storming set followed. Many, many great bands followed over the years: Oumou Sangaré from Mali and Zairean supergroup Soukous Stars stand out. The bands loved the venue as did the thousands who came through the doors – for many, that fabulous dancefloor has never been bettered. But, all good things come to an end and when the building was sold in 1996, Club Corinto embarked on a wandering existence first to the Irish Centre (now derelict) and then The Flying Picket (long gone), before finally calling it a day in 1998.
I guess every generation of clubbers and music lovers have their special moment: the coming together of the overtly political Club Corinto with the explosion of interest in world music – and then Africa Oyé – in the brilliant setting of Hardman House was one of those. Thanks to all the fabulous people who put so much into making it such a joyous experience.