Any small, independent business that has managed to survive in Central London for over 60 years must have something special about it.
Warren Street’s Sterns Music began life as a makeshift record store in the back of an electrical shop in the 1950s, and grew to become the biggest distributor of African music outside of Paris and the continent itself. While it has rolled with the punches over the years, and grown and shrunk with the times, it remains rooted to the northernmost reaches of W1, providing a cultural anchor in an ever-changing area.
The story begins in 1953 at Stern’s Electrical Supplies on Tottenham Court Road. The owner began accepting records as payment for work done for customers, many of whom were African students attending local universities such as UCL. Their bin of records — which heavily featured hard-to-find records brought over from Africa by these students — soon started garnering a lot of interest, and so the owner decided set up a makeshift record ‘shop’ at the back of his premises.
Across the next thirty years, it became a focal point for African music in London and a highly-regarded hidden gem for any discerning record digger who had an interest in this booming ‘scene’. John Peel was a regular in the final years at its original location. When the lease for the shop was up, and the owner decided he wanted to call it a day, it seemed this much-loved treasure trove was doomed — until three entrepreneurial fans stepped in.“I became really interested in African music after a year in Ghana, and used to continue my interest and check out the latest releases at the original Sterns shop at Tottenham Court Road,” recounts Dutchman Robert Urbanus, one third of the Sterns’ saviours.
“When I heard that the owner was going to retire, I got together with two friends [Don Bayramian from Armenia and Charles Eamson from Ghana] and bought the name and remaining stock.” So it was that in April 1983, Sterns Music was born as a dedicated shop in neighbouring Whitfield Street, complete with a full ‘outdooring’ ceremony in the street with a troupe of Ghanian drummers and dancers.
The shop became an increasingly important focal point for African music lovers in London, with Friday afternoons seeing the space crowded with the African diaspora, musicians, DJs, journalists and anyone else with a passion for the music. Sales boomed upstairs, while in the basement a sound system, TV and sofas created a social club vibe. In these pre-internet days when few column inches were given over to non-Western genres, such communal spaces were vital for anyone wanting to know more about the music.
Along with the name and the stock, the trio also gained access to the shop’s considerably sized mailing list, and to several West African record dealers. They soon set about forming connections with Paris-based distributors, crucial to help them tap into the francophone market whose releases were generally the most popular.
They fell into the distribution game themselves, signing deals with key labels in Africa and France, and set up their own Sterns Africa label the same year the shop opened. Within five years of opening their new premises, they had become the biggest distributor of African music outside of the continent and Paris.In 1993, the lease expired at Whitfield Street and Sterns moved to its current location on Warren Street, which provided the operation with a truly unique setup. “Just by chance there was an opportunity to move into the old Barclays branch. There were two bank vaults in the basement. I have no idea how they were installed, but it was obviously impossible to remove them again, so they came with the premises.”
While the street-level storefront has since given way to a grocers and off-license, Sterns remains locked in the vault, with shelves heaving with the weight of yet-to-be-digitised master recordings from African studios, old stock and some of Urbanus’ record collection.
With everything available at the click of a button these days, there’s little need for a Sterns shop to exist like it used to. Back then, though, it was absolutely crucial.
“I suppose we did provide a ‘service’, insofar as we always tried to have the latest releases available. If someone knew that Sunny Ade had released a new album in Nigeria, there was a good chance we would already have it in stock. At the same time the purpose of the exercise was to bring the music to a non-African audience. That was definitely one of our objectives. Once we started our label we started working with a lot of London-based African musicians.”
Over the years the label and distribution arm have followed and helped to further popularise burgeoning scenes from across Africa. From the highlife movement in Ghana and Nigeria, to the rumba Congolese of Zaire and Congo-Brazzaville, Sterns has been at the very heart of helping these genres and their artists flourish on a global basis.
“Right now, for the European audience, it’s still Mali which generates the most interest. Ali Farka Toure died, but musicians like Toumani Diabaté, Salif Keïta, Oumou Sangare, Amadou and Mariam, Bassekou Kouyaté and Songhoy Blues, still do well with record sales and touring.”
Sterns’ other main focus is Brazil, both in classic and contemporary sounds, covering everything from naturalised hip-hop to classic samba sounds.The old Sterns shop’s proximity to key radio stations also helped to bring the sounds of Africa to a wider audience, and their role in doing so should not be understated. “An interest had developed in music of other parts of the world and BBC DJs like John Peel and Andy Kershaw, and Charlie Gillett of Capital Radio — which was then still in Euston Tower — used to drop in,” says Urbanus.
Musical royalty were occasionally known to grace the store too. “I remember coming back from lunch with the great producer of African Music, Ibrahima Sylla and finding Tito Puente going through the racks. That blew his mind. One of his heroes!”
Urbanus — who lives above the Sterns premises to this day — says his main memories of early days in the area are of “second-hand car dealers, standing on the corners of Warren Street with mobile phones the size of bricks!” He maintains that the closing of their shop was not due to increased rents or gentrification of the area: “more related to the changes in the record industry (from physical to digital)”.
Sterns recently entered a new chapter, with the launch of Sterns Edits, a dance-focused label launched in partnership with London DJ and producer, Ben Gomori. Each release sees Gomori rework material from their vast catalogue — which stretches back to 1960 — reinterpreting it for modern house/afro-house dance floors.
With the second release out now featuring two re-edits of Burkina Faso’s biggest musical export, Amadou Balaké, it looks set to brings the sounds of Sterns to a whole new generation and audience. It’s another sign of the label’s ability to roll with the punches and keep with the ever-changing times.
So next time you take the escalator down at Warren Street station, pay close attention and you might feel some of those African vibrations that have been pulsing through the area for over sixty years.