Monday, 21 September 2009

DJ Cass pumps Cardiff's musical blood

Cardiff has a lot in common with Liverpool; the nasal accent and musical veins pumped with rich international blood from the docks.

It was multicultural before the word was invented, open-minded and open-eared.
Cass - he doesn't answer to a second name - was a docklands boy when the words had some meaning, long before they called it The Bay and cleared the streets for the politicians and the performers; even before Dame Shirley gave some exotic sheen to saying you came from Tiger Bay.

Of mixed heritage - Welsh, Barbadian, perfect Cardiff - his mother sang in pubs while he made his first pennies running record parties in his back room.

"We put down an oil cloth and I made a money box in school," he recalls, still living in a musical world as he returns to Dj-ing after twenty years off - the oldest spinner in town.

The Scouse wind that swept round the world in the early 1960s caught young Cass too. He'd moved to Ely and started to hang round with his new neighbours, Dave and Don, and pick up new sounds - biker music like the Shangri Las - and when Dave started drumming with bands Cass tagged along and helped lump the gear.

Their scene revolved around the brothers' back room and music, music, music.

Cass flitted from job to job; a photography firm, a supermarket, tea boy on a building site - he remembers returning from lunch to find the place deserted; everyone and everything gone, the terrible news from Aberfan had come on the radio and they'd simply picked up their gear and gone to help dig out the dead and the injued.

Day jobs might have been dull, but by night he searched out Cardiff's music scenes - picking up on blue beat, then ska, Motown and psychedelia.

"I'm open-minded," he says, "if a record gives me that feeling, if it makes me sit up or makes me tap my feet then I like it and I'd be thinking I can play that - I'd go and get an import album for one track, and then you hear something else to follow up."

Living in Cathays in the mid sixties he spots a guy unloading guitar cases across the road and gets talking - he ends up roadying for Jan's Crowd, meeting one of his two great musician friends in drummer Robert 'Congo' Jones as the band expand their reputation - first the Cardiff circuit, then the Valleys too, then it's Bristol, London, Newcastle.

His other great pal, whose bands he worked with was Tich Gwillam - the Welsh Jimi Hendrix, whose party piece as a feedback drenched Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau - an extraordinary guitarist and 'priceless as a friend' according to Cass.

"Jan's Crowd split up, but half the band became the house band at a place called Gino's," he explains, "and that's where I really started with the Dj-ing. They'd put records on after their sets, and I said 'I can do that', then someone stuck a microphone in my hand and said 'talk'."

He started to see a way to make a few quid from what he loved, setting up at the Checkmate Club in Caerphilly.

"It was successful because of the music," Cass says. "I was playing something away from the norm - soul, Motown, reggae, psychedelic rock - and turning people on to new stuff, like Earth Wind and Fire when they first came out."

He was soon working for Draig Promotions, who booked Cardiff bands on tours from offices in Severn Road.

"Someone came in one day and said there's a job in Munich, you can go if you want, and I just said yeah, then I went home and freaked out."

Freak out or not Cass, who'd never left the country, found himself and spinning discs around acts like Boney M and AC/DC, and making a success of his eclectic sound in Germany.

Back at Cardiff's Casablanca, and broadcasting on CBC - the station that became Red Dragon - he continued seeking out new sounds: early R 'n' B, jazz and jazz funk - Louis Jordan, Bullmouth Jackson, Stanley Clarke, The Average White Band, Billy Cobham and Art Blakey.

"I've been buying records for 20-25 years," he says, surveying a collection that can be measured in yards more easily than discs - he doesn't have a vinyl vault, he has a vinyl home.

"It's several thousand," he says, "I've got 1,000 to 1,500 disco records alone."
For 20 years that collection was a joy only to Cass and his friends - he always wants to share a tune.

But now he's back DJ-ing in public again at a venue with a musical history as rich as his own, and a favourite stage of Tich's .

"This, it's like radio," he says, "I can play what I like."

And he does, and what a range - Frank Zappa, Miles Davies, Dubside of the Moon, Steely Dan, Lee Scratch Perry, Led Zeppelin, Spirit, Burning Spear, The Doors, John Holt the reggae crooner, The Upsetters, Prince Buster, Howling Wolf, Otis, the Markays, the Barkays. Atlantic Soul, Stax and Motown. Ska and Blue Beat. Reggae, Blues, Jazz and Jazz funk. Psychedlia, those 50s r and b greats from the Casablanca, you name it.

You can catch Cass on Friday nights at the Royal Oak - 200 Broadway - Cardiff's famous old boxing pub.


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