Night at the Casablanca: DJ Keith Murrell on Cardiff clubbing history and Van Morrison

By Ben Miller | 31 October 2014

Singer and DJ Keith Murrell is one of the creators of Night at the Casablanca, a performance marking the 10th anniversary of the Wales Millennium Centre. Here, he looks back on the significance of the former music venue in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay

A black and white photo of the outside of a tall urban building during the 1970s
The Casablanca, Cardiff Bay (July 1990)© Nick Sarebi
“The Casablanca Club, or Casa B, was a Cardiff institution. Beginning life as a Bethel Chapel where Ivor Novello was allegedly baptised, the building on Mount Stuart Square became a Butetown landmark and, from 1965-1985, housed one of its last and most notorious nightclubs.

From its heyday in the 60s and 70s to its demolition in the late 1980s, the Casablanca’s fortunes mirrored the rise and fall of Cardiff’s famous coal port: once ‘the biggest and most prosperous coal port in the world’.

A photo of a man singing into a microphone
Keith Murrell performing at The Casablanca© Courtesy WMC
The link between the diversity of the Butetown community at Cardiff’s docks, commonly known as Tiger Bay, and Cardiff's maritime heritage seems straightforward enough and perhaps something to be celebrated: but there are also less pronounced, more profound matters to consider.

Crucially, prevailing attitudes and legislation  of the day dictated that 'alien coloured seamen' would only be employed handling 'dirty' cargo such as coal.

Compounding this, naked racism following the First World War literally forced these 'coloured' seamen and their families to remain within the boundaries that defined the Butetown area for generations to come.

I was born in Butetown in 1957, and have lived here ever since. My own immediate family history includes migrants from Barbados, Philippines, Norway and England – as well as 'genuine' Welsh ancestry.

My mother had four half-siblings whose father was from Formosa (Taiwan). Through marriages and co-habitation I had uncles and in-laws from Ireland, Somalia, Egypt, Jamaica and the US.

None of this was particularly remarkable when I was younger: childhood friends had parents and grandparents from India - later to become Pakistan and Bangladesh - the Yemen, Sudan, Spain, Poland, Malta, Italy...and of course many of these children had 'mixed' heritage just like me. 'Mixed' names like Steven Mohamed or Samantha Wickramsinghe wouldn't raise an eyebrow.

A photo of a man singing into a microphone
Maxi Priest was one of the names who entertained the legendary club© Eva Rinaldi
Clearly I'm biased, but I would have to say that the 1970s and 80s was a dynamic era right here and across the world.

Music was a driving force for me back then: I vividly remember walking through the streets and hearing something different every other or house, before the days of mega hi-fi.

It was just pleasant strains of jazz, soul, calypso, blue beat – even a bit of classical every now and then.

The nightclubs, the carnival, jamming on the park, sound systems on street corners – whatever perceptions or prejudices might abound about the area, Butetown's status as the place for music and nightlife was consolidated throughout this period.

The Casablanca was at the centre of this. Originally just another after-hours drinking club, it went on to become the biggest centre of R 'n' B outside of America.

The Casa’s ‘golden years’ began during the 1970s, when High Society Sound System took up residency at the club.

Society had come to Cardiff from Ladbroke Grove and the custom-made equipment was a cut above any other local music set-ups at the time. They played mostly new reggae music, including pre-release and dub plate mixes that nobody else was playing.

A key figure in the Casa’s musical history is John Grey: DJ at the club from the latter part of the 70s to the early 80s.

A photo of the inside of a packed modern theatre
The Donald Gordon theatre at the Wales Millennium Centre© Wales Millennium Centre
The Casablanca was open seven nights but usually only busy at the weekends, which meant that resident DJs like John and myself had the chance to play to our own musical tastes instead of needing to keep the dance floor busy.

Club regulars were mostly our own friends and contemporaries with similar musical tastes. We created our own ‘scene’ from this, which further established the Casa B as an alternative venue for many others from around the city and beyond.

John brought more of a funk and jazz flavour - particularly while Karl ‘Bra’ Johnson was managing the club - again playing music that would not be heard elsewhere in Cardiff.

‘Bra’ Johnson also broadened the spectrum music at the club, with much more emphasis on live bands – staple R&B, such as Red Beans & Rice, Mickey Gee, Snatch It Back and a few local new wavers like Moira & The Mice and Reptile Ranch.

It was also during period this that Welsh language bands like Bando, Endaf Emlyn and Geraint Jarman were introduced to the Casa.

As well as the regular locals, Bra also brought in a number of UK bands in a similar variety of genres: such as Steve Marriot’s Packet of Three, Stray Cats and a young Spandau Ballet.

He also introduced ‘themed’ sessions at the club – student nights, Rock and Roll nights – which further broadened the musical offering and the clientele. But the club still catered for reggae tastes with visiting sounds from Bristol, Gloucester, Nottingham and elsewhere.

Of all the bands playing at the Casa, the most ‘important’ was also the least well-known: The Outsiders began as something of an alter-ego for a group of musicians working a residency at an up-town nightclub in Newport playing disco hits of the day all night.

They started playing informal sessions on Sundays at the Paddle Steamer Pub, jamming on ultra-complex funk-jazz tunes of Chick Correa, Billy Cobham, George Duke and so on.

The afternoon jams soon extended into evening sessions, drawing a significant following from the local community and other musos across the city and eventually moved to a regular spot at the Casa.

The band’s name was itself was a pun on the notion that outsiders were not welcome in the Casa. Through a number of line-up changes, the band became known as TV Eye.

The core musicians were Arran Ahmun  on drums, Richard Dunn and Pino Palladino - all highly regarded on the local music scene and well-known in the local community.

Pino in particular has achieved international recognition, including playing with The Who at the US Superbowl half-time show. All three were also involved in the developing Welsh Language music scene at the time.

Following Bra Johnson’s tenure as manager, Frankie Johnson Snr (no relation) took over. Frankie was a seasoned club entertainer and the bookings reflected this: with ‘veteran’ artists such as Ronnie Scott and Jimmy Ruffin appearing at the club at this time.

One night in the 80s one of the doormen came to tell me that Van Morrison had ‘popped in’ for a quiet drink after a gig in Newport – the club was pretty empty and at first nobody paid much attention to him.

The promoter knew Frankie well and somehow it was suggested that Van the Man would do a song or two. It was then suggested that I should join him. It was an open-mic night and I’d already sung a bit earlier.

At first I was a bit reluctant but I was assured by the doorman and other DJ that they would also do it – so after a few minutes of fussing around and wondering what to sing and where to stand we got on stage to howl along with Van.

After a few bars of the intro I realised that the only people not on the stage were Frankie, Van’s promoter and the barmaid – everybody else in the club was in the group singing You Send Me. Van didn’t do a second song.

The Casablanca continued to lead the way throughout the early 80s – it was one of the first venues in Cardiff to feature house music, before the term was even recognised; reggae became the main, but not exclusive, genre, with performances from artists such as Pablo Gad and Maxi Priest.

Despite this and its status as a listed building, the Casablanca was eventually demolished during the 1980s to extend a car park which had developed to its north.

There is scarcely any reference to this period in the telling and retelling our history here in Butetown.

It's as if the area jumped from canals and cobblestones to a decrepit carbuncle in swish Cardiff Bay with no other evolutionary stages in between. So it’s important to celebrate the Casablanca and its part in the history of Tiger Bay.”

  • Night at the Casablanca will be the Wales Millennium Centre's first official 10th anniversary performance, taking place on November 1 2014. Book online.

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I spent many a night at the Casablanca. It was a great club: everyone was friendly, loved the music. Such a shame it was demolished.
Later on, I was fortunate to work in the community and I'm still missing it. I've been following the towers project. Reading Mrs Campbell's account of how she became a teacher was a revelation.
I used to dance with Tony Paris who was a doorman at the Casa and I was moved to tears by his account of his wrongful arrest and imprisonment.
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