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Top Brother

Top Brother

Issue 9 Jan / Feb 2005

Top Topham's path to Islam was never going to be conventional. Except, that's not necessarily how he sees it: "If it is to be, it is. Whatever your gifts, whether you're a dustman, or a top London accountant! I don't relate it to musicianship".


A Blues guitarist born from the same womb of modern British music that produced the likes of The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin, Top Topham found himself catapulted into the limelight as one of the founding members, and the lead guitarist, of The Yardbirds at the age of just 15.

"I became aware of Blues, and traditionaljazz, through my father. My father, anex-sailor, used to tap-dance and made abass from a tea chest for me. He was anunfulfi lled musician. The Blues was fullof mystery, depth of emotion. It movedyour heart. I fi rst wanted to play drums,they were too expensive so I settled for anunplayable Russian packaging crate thatlooked like a guitar!  

”‘Top’ Topham’s path to Islam was nevergoing to be conventional. Except, that’s notnecessarily how he sees it: “If it is to be, itis. Whatever your gifts, whether you’re adustman, or a top London accountant! Idon’t relate it to musicianship”.

A Blues guitarist born from the samewomb of modern British music thatproduced the likes of The Rolling Stones,Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin, TopTopham found himself catapulted into thelimelight as one of the founding members,and the lead guitarist, of The Yardbirds atthe age of just 15.

‘The Yardbirds’, taking the name fromCharlie Parker, who was known as ‘Bird’,formed around a group of friends, who spent their evenings after school experimentingwith instruments and tryingout various tracks after winning boxesfull of records from a shop in Chicago.Their passion for collecting records meantthe discovery of many artists otherwise unknown in the UK at the time.

“I’d never heard of B. B. King. If you never heard somebody, and you put it on and listen to that guitar, it’s like being taken to nirvana!” [ from Blues in Britain]

Having grown up in Kingston’s hotbedof talent, Topham was at the forefrontof discovering and nurturing a British version of Rhythm and Blues (in the traditional sense) at a time when the music scene was still developing behindclosed doors.

“There was no access to music really;or it was in very small pockets of people,who were involved with ‘Ban the Bomb’marches, which my parents did go to. My parents were unusual actually. They readKerouac and all those kinds of things.‘Bohemian’ was the word!”  

However, with The Yardbirds turningprofessional, and unable to commit, hewas replaced by Eric Clapton and insteadtook up his place at Epsom Art School tostudy Fine Art. He has since been eternallylabelled the ‘gone-but-not-forgotten’original lead guitarist, or “the mysteriousfourth man of The Yardbirds”, as onereviewer coined it.

After four years at Art School, TopTopham’s main passion still lay in music,and in 1966, he became a full-time musician,indulging in all that that world had tooffer. “By 1968 I was burnt out, and had asignifi cant dream, offering me two pathsin life: one down, one up. I related thisdream to leaving music and undergoing asearch for enlightenment.”

After looking at Buddhism, KrishnaConsciousness, among other things, Tophad a fortuitous meeting one day outsideWatkin’s Bookshop in London’s West End.“I happened upon a man whom I knewfrom Kingston years before, and I foundmyself saying, “You’ve got what I want”. He guided me towards the work of Gurdjeff,Ouspensky, and Subud.” Tophameventually found himself at the Subudcentre just walking distance from wherehe’d grown up.Having been exposed to the teachingsof Subud’s Indonesian founder, the Qadirishaykh Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo,affectionately known as ‘Bapak’ he attended a spiritual gathering where he realised that he had to embrace Islam.

“After much suffering physically, and three years later, I became aware from within that for me becoming a Muslim was God’s will; however, I resisted it for a while, being uneasy with the cultural aspects. Through various stages, I eventually converted at the Islamic Cultural Centre, before it was the present mosque, with Imam Darsh.”

Having taken on the name ‘Rasjid’, meaning “one who is rightly-guided”, Topham’s conversion was unfortunately marred by contracting a life-threatening disease, which put a momentary stop to his musical career, and many opportunities passed him by. But, he philosophises: “I’m sure it was meant to be. It was like I’d been cleansed and then Islam was able to really take hold. That was really what that experience was about. I think all my badboy ways had been thoroughly cleansed!”

While newly-named Rasjid Topham started to carve out a new career in the interior design world, rumours began to circulate on the music scene that ‘Top’ Topham had died. It was much to everyone’s surprise when it was discovered years later that in fact he was still alive and kicking; he’d simply become a Muslim!

Rasjid Topham became one of Britain’s leading interior designers, with a client list that included Adam Ant, Richard Branson, and numerous Middle Eastern bigwigs. Distracted by a new career and the responsibilities of family life, along with developing other passions for archery, butterflies, bird-spotting and photography, Blues had begun to play less of a role in the Topham household.

“Life’s direction changed, I was looking after my children, and fulfilling one’s life obligations, and there actually wasn’t room for music. I can actually say that up until the age of 40, when I got back into it, my children had no idea that I had ever been a musician. It was a total surprise to them!” Father-of-ten Rasjid had also begun to find it difficult to reconcile his inner life with “singing about that kind of ‘downhome’ lifestyle”. “I think there was a conflict there. However, for me, because I’m not a singer, I’m not singing those words, I’m actually playing notes and for me it’s about the emotion of the note. Perhaps that’s the way I’ve been able to kind of get round it.”

Years later, now doubly-armed with an extra Javanese name, “Sanderson” (meaning, “one who likes to help others”, which, he says, he’s still working on), Topham has found himself back on stage with the lead singer of the current Yardbirds line-up, John Idan. With a new album just out this summer, ‘The Top Topham Band With Jim McCarty’, and another due out at the end of the year, has there been a change of heart, or was music only ever on hold?

“For 17 years, through fear, I had pushed aside and neglected a gift Allah gave to me.I am no longer frightened of the shaitan within that world. However, denying that gift was wrong. Let’s say it was put on the back burner for a while! It was fantastic coming back to it. It was a bit like the converting to Islam, I resisted it in a way.” Topham explains this ‘fear’ that he had attached to the music world with reference
to a Blues song by Robert Johnson. “He tells the story about the crossroads, when he makes a deal with the devil; I have met people in the business where you think, you could make a choice. It really is like selling your soul; if you do there are rewards. I sort of relate it to Jesus on the mountain, when he was offered the world by the devil. What does that mean? It means there’s a choice.” In fact, Sanderson Rasjid Topham discusses the music industry with contempt, and is even ruder about the current batch of ‘musicians’, calling their music “empty, shallow and terribly temporary”. The life of the musician, too, appears to be no bed of roses.

“Performing on stage is like the effect of a drug; if people have tasted that, their egos become in such a way that is not based on reality; and why confront your ego when your situation in the world is one of power? I don’t think it’s an enviable position to be in.”

While all of his children are showing signs of musical talent, Topham jokes that he is secretly hoping they’ll become accountants. “Being a musician is hard; I think it’s a dog’s life actually.” Despite all this, the pull of Blues is such that neither Topham, nor many others, have been able to keep away for long.

While legend B. B. King, in his famous track, ‘Thrill Is Gone’, sings, “You done me wrong, baby, and you’re gonna be so sorry some day…”, Topham argues that ‘Blues’ is not always about “times are tough”.

In fact, Blues, he explains, was originally minstrel music, but soon became a melting pot of Islamic music, African traditional music, as well as adopting influences from the various communities in the American South at the time (which included Native American, French, Celtic, among others). This cocktail of influences can be explained by the fact that the “musicians would travel and sing about their lives”.

He explains his passion for it: “It’s something to do with the delivery and tension within it when you’re playing. That same feeling I’ve experienced in Morocco, and I’ve actually experienced it in Indonesia too…”

In fact, these parallels between Blues and the Muslim world go further. When asked about the various jazz and Blues musicians who had become Muslim over the years, Topham’s response is, “there were so many of them, I wouldn’t know where to start.”

From Art Blakey to Dizzy Gillespie’s room-mate, Oliver Mesheux (who became Mustafa Dalil); from Kenny Clarke (who became Liaqat Ali Salaam) to Sahib Shihab, a pioneer of the European jazz scene, and who appears to have been the first jazz musician to have converted to Islam.

Topham, although himself perhaps a ‘white’ anomaly, relates much of this wave of conversions to the Black Power movement; but summarises simply, “I think through Islam there was their identity. It was a way to have, in simple words, real dignity. I think that was the attraction. Islam gives you dignity.”

Though undeniably a Blues purist, Topham himself has played with a number of Muslim musicians, from ex-Strawbs drummer, Haroun Coombes, to a Sufi tabla player. Even now his experimentation with sitars occasionally lets loose on the strings of his Fender ‘Strat’. “I do experiment, acoustic music, moody jazz, music that I feel I can touch other musicians I play with; and the audiences.”

Now able to re-enter the music world confident in himself as a Muslim, Topham feels Islam has changed his style somewhat. “I think it’s become much subtler; it did take a long time to achieve any kind of clarity; it’s just being conscious of the fact that you can play in such a way that can touch people’s feelings.”

Plans for the future? : “I will always carry on playing; but whether I want to commit that down to something which is lasting. I prefer live [performances] really; I prefer that moment. And you don’t know what’s going to be lasting; everyone years ago thought Abba was a total embarrassment, and I still do; and yet their popularity is beyond belief. Somebody bought me tickets to see Mamma Mia a couple of years ago, and I had to go in disguise in case somebody saw me!” Outspoken to the last. But, then, that’s the Blues.



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