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The Bamboo Club: The iconic St Paul's venue we mustn’t forget

Hosting artists such as Bob Marley, John Holt and Desmond Dekker, The Bamboo Club in St Paul’s was one of the first venues in the UK to cater to a diverse audience.

By Matilda Sunnercrantz Carter, Third Year Music

With its Carnival first being held in 1968, the neighborhood of St Paul’s in Bristol has been a multicultural hotspot for decades. With more than ninety-one languages spoken in the area and many stories to be told, the stories told about The Bamboo Club seem to hold special significance in the community. In fact, St Paul’s Carnival used to start at The Bamboo Club before taking on the streets. In BBC Radio Bristol’s 2016 documentary Beautiful People: The Bamboo Club Story, we get an insight on how the club came to be and countless wonderful anecdotes from people who loved the club dearly.

Founders Lalel and Tony Bullimore felt that there was a need for a diverse and welcoming venue. With Lalel being Jamaican and Tony being English, they faced a lot of prejudice in a time when interracial relationships were frowned upon. Despite the number of pubs and clubs scattered across the UK, these environments weren’t welcoming to people of colour. With a big dream to change that, Lalel and Tony took it upon themselves to create a safe space for the growing African-Caribbean community in Bristol. In a 2016 Interview by BBC Inside Out West, Lalel explains how she felt going to your average English pub or club at the time:

“The treatment wasn’t nice. Because you’d walk in there and no-one would talk to you, they’d look at you strange, so you weren’t comfortable, so you didn’t bother to go.”

On the 28th of October 1966 they opened The Bamboo Club on 7 St Paul’s Street by Portland Square. This would become the start of one of the most iconic and fundamental parts of St Paul’s history today. Being the first UK venue that Bob Marley ever performed at, the club became one of the “it” places to perform for many Reggae, Bluebeat, Rock steady and Ska icons such as John Holt, Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff to name a few. Frankly, a mindblowing list of names. Desmond Dekker performed at the club only three days after he had been announced as the first Jamaican man to be number one on Top of the Pops with his 1969 superhit “Israelites”. The club became all the rage and everyone was talking about it. They would also host nights where local bands could perform, giving everyone an opportunity to gain recognition.

Yet it is important to note that The Bamboo Club wasn’t only a place of performances and dancing, it truly became the heart of the African-Caribbean community, whilst also welcoming whoever wanted to be part of it. The people cared for the club, it was a place to be free and appreciate eachothers differences, whilst sharing their love for music and the community. Tony explains how Bamboo wasn’t a place where they could make fortune.

“When clubs were charging down in the Centre a pound to go in, we were charging five shillings. Our club was very much a social club for the community.”

Hosting annual Christmas parties, the club wasn’t only a place for parties but a valuable spot for families to gather. In Michele Curtis’ 2016 article A People’s History of St Paul’s published by The Bristol Cable, we find that The Bamboo Club hosted five bars including Caribbean restaurant, “The Orange Grove” and The Cave Bar for dominoes and darts. Bamboo was also the headquarters of the Bristol West Indian Cricket Club and their football team. And last but not least they housed theatre workshops for the community to engage in, giving everyone something to enjoy at The Bamboo Club.

'The Club is a West Indian club but is not solely for West Indians,' says Tony Bullimore in a BBC interview from the 60s.

However it wasn’t all that easy for The Bamboo Club. With the oppression and racism people of colour faced in the UK during 60s and 70s, it was inevitable for the club to endure some challenging times. With police constantly circulating the club and parents frantically calling them to stop their kids from attending the venue, there was a bit of a divide across the city in the attitudes towards the club. With the Bristol Bus Boycott towards Omnibus in response to their refusal of employing people of colour happening only three years earlier in 1963, Bristol was still deeply affected by racism and segregation. At this time, you can understand how important The Bamboo Club’s existence was to the community that cherished it dearly. Whilst it’s important to note that there’s still plenty of work needed regarding these issues in Bristol today, what Lalel and Tony achieved with the club is a crucial chapter in the journey to dismantling racism and segregation in the city.

The club soon grew to become a venue hosting anyone who held similar beliefs and values as the artists that were known to perform at Bamboo. In BBC’s Beautiful People: The Bamboo Club Story, it is explained that despite punk having a completely different sound to the usual Bamboo sound, it as a genre held the same drive, attitude and spirit. It was rebel music with the same will to empower the people and let their voices be heard. The iconic punk band Sex Pistols were booked to perform on the 21st of December 1977, only a few days after tragedy would strike the club.

On the 19th of December 1977 The Bamboo Club would unfortunately face a tragic and abrupt end. After Lalel and Tony had left the club for the day they received a call with the heartbreaking news that the club was on fire. It completely burned down along with valuable photography of the artists that had performed at the venue, Tony’s personal collection of over 15 000 records and much more, leaving The Bamboo Clubs legacy in the hands of the people lucky enough to have experienced it. The Bamboo Club was unfortunately never rebuilt. Therefore, these stories told by the many people who experienced The Bamboo Club are not only interesting to hear, but also what keeps the memory of the iconic club alive decades later. I think it’s important that we keep telling these stories and learn about the fascinating history which lies within the cities we live in. Go ahead and support your local venues and cherish what makes Bristol so special. The city would simply not be the same without our rich culture. And if you ever pass 7 St. Paul Street, take a minute to spot the blue plaque honouring its legacy.

Featured Image: Courtesy of The Bristol Post

Did you know about this iconic Bristol venue?