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Jamaica is a small country in the Caribbean, 146 miles wide and populated by fewer than three million people. Nevertheless, it has exerted a more powerful hold on international popular music than any nation besides England and America. From Prince Buster to Burning Spear, Lee "Scratch" Perry to Yellowman, Bob Marley to Shabba Ranks, reggae music is one of the most dynamic and powerful musical forms of the twentieth century. And, as Lloyd Bradley shows in his deft, definitive, and always entertaining book, it is ...
Jamaica is a small country in the Caribbean, 146 miles wide and populated by fewer than three million people. Nevertheless, it has exerted a more powerful hold on international popular music than any nation besides England and America. From Prince Buster to Burning Spear, Lee "Scratch" Perry to Yellowman, Bob Marley to Shabba Ranks, reggae music is one of the most dynamic and powerful musical forms of the twentieth century. And, as Lloyd Bradley shows in his deft, definitive, and always entertaining book, it is and always has been the people's music. Born in the sound systems of the Kingston slums, reggae was the first music poor Jamaicans could call their own, and as it spread throughout the world, it always remained fluid, challenging, and distinctly Jamaican. Based on six years of research — original interviews with most of reggae's key producers, musicians, and international players — and a lifelong enthusiasm for one of the most remarkable of the world's musics, This Is Reggae Music is the definitive history of reggae.
'Being part of the crowd at a big lawn, like at Forresters' Hall down on North Street, when a big sound system was playing was probably the greatest feeling in the world to any Jamaican kid. But if you had aspirations to make music then it was magical. It was ... It was awe-inspiring.'
Derrick Harriott is now a prosperous music-business entrepreneur, with a family-run record store in Kingston's Constant Spring area and an international CD reissue operation specializing in his own reggae and rocksteady recordings and productions. But from the late 1950s through the next two decades, he was among Jamaica's most consistently successful artists, one of the very few to progress through R&B, ska, rocksteady, reggae and dub producing international hits for himself and others with total conviction. While this dapper-looking fifty-something won't need much coaxing to get up on stage to rock a crowd, if you really want to get his attention ask him about his downtown teenage years. His face creases into a misty-eyed smile.
'The sound system dances were where the ghetto people came to enjoy themselves. No airs nor graces, just be among your own people. This was a big attraction. Sometimes there was trouble, but, back then, more often there wasn't. It seem like to be a teenager in Jamaica during that era was the best thing on earth. The people would have on their best clothes — when it come to dressing up nobody can look fine like the ghetto people — and you would have a drink or whatever and hear the very best music. Itmade us feel real good about ourselves. Like we could do anything.'
This was back in the first half of the 1950s, and even then a sound system was more than just a cliff face of speaker boxes, each big enough to raise a family in, powered by amplification of apparently intercontinental capabilities. It was, quite literally, the community's heartbeat, which meant that the dance was always going to be more than simply somewhere to be. In fact, to introduce the sound system as 'a mobile disco', or even 'a mobile disco with attitude', would be to do it, its operators and this new wave of post-war Jamaican youth an enormous disservice.
A reasonable UK comparison to what the sound systems meant to Harriott's and subsequent generations would be Britain's football teams, because in downtown Kingston practically every youngster followed, or ran wid, a sound. Home and away, because when your guys played out in an area other than your own, your presence and your vocal support would be counted on. And if it was a sound clash, with two rival outfits slugging it out by playing alternate records and the victors being whoever won over the bigger, noisier part of the crowd, then to stand up for your sound system was a matter of honour. You were standing up for your area, your friends, your good name.
And by that time it had become second nature.
The idea of blasting music from the radio or a record player — the best in American R&B or hot jazz — through a configuration of open-air loudspeaker cabinets became popular in the mid-1940s as a way of enticing passing trade into bars and shops. Indeed, the reason the first sound-system rigs and, later, established dances were called 'sets' was simply because the equipment evolved from large radio and gramophone sets. And as a marketing device these rambunctious methods worked; to such a degree that by the end of that decade the music often became the main reason to visit whatever establishment. After all, with transistor radios not yet part of life and cabinet model wirelesses being beyond most pockets, it was the only way for so many Jamaicans to hear any professionally produced music.
Within ten years or so, the sound system had become a social phenomenon in its own right, and its operator, the sound man, one of the biggest men in his area. Outdoor dances kept by the extravagantly named likes of Tom the Great Sebastian, V Rocket, Count Smith the Blues Blaster, Sir Nick the Champ, King Edwards or Lord Koos of the Universe evolved from merely one more form of urban entertainment into the hub around which Kingston's various inner cities turned. For the crowds that flocked to wherever the big beat boomed out, it was a lively dating agency, a fashion show, an information exchange, a street status parade ground, a political forum, a centre for commerce, and, once the deejays began to chat on the mic about more than their sound systems, their records, their women or their selves, it was the ghetto's newspaper.
Absolutely vital, though, was the economic effect. Dances put on by ghetto men brought new money into the immediate and wider community as people came from out of town or other parts of the city, with money to spend. While this wasn't an enormous amount per head, the numbers involved made a worthwhile total; and besides, proportionately speaking, anything extra was a big improvement. Nor was it just the promoters and operators who were earning: a whole satellite system of ancillary trading occurred, making sure a percentage of that cash ended up in wider local circulation. The streets surrounding any major venue would be lined with hot-food tables offering jerk pork and chicken, patties or fried fish, and push-cart men arrived loaded up with fresh coconuts, sugar cane, bananas and mangoes. It was a rare thing for these vendors not to sell out. Likewise the flatbed drinks trucks, which would lurch up bearing teetering stacks of Red Stripe or Heineken beer and soda crates, supplying the bars inside and outside the arenas. Then, at the far end of this musical food chain, schoolchildren with any degree of nous would be up before sunrise, collecting discarded bottles to return them to the factories for the penny deposit on each.
It's been said that sound-system dances existed only to sell beer. That was never ever true and, with great dismissiveness, it removes any notion of passion and inventiveness from the sound men to imply that the shifting, culturally cutting-edge sound-system phenomenon was driven by outside-the-ghetto big businesses. Of course there were the mutual benefits enjoyed by the sound systems and the drinks trade. Jamaica's Red Stripe brewery built itself up and kept going thanks to the business it did in the dancehalls back then. And, later, Red Stripe, Guinness, Heineken and the larger rum distillers became actively involved in promoting sound-system events — as they still are today. Also, it's no coincidence that the two men who did most to elevate and sustain the situation as the next era's front runners both had liquor-sales connections before they got into music. Coxsone Dodd's family owned liquor stores, as did Duke Reid himself — in fact the first advertisements for Duke Reid's services read, 'For the best in sound and liquors see Reid's Sound System and Liquor Store for Clubs, Bars, Parties and Home.' It was an additional dancehall-related income that allowed them to survive and expand beyond what was achieved by the original operators.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Critically, while these communal and personal fiscal advantages meant that sound systems were there to stay, the defining aspect of them as the crux of ghetto life was that they were cultural, as opposed to being merely a culture.
In an environment where any emerging indigenous — i.e., black — artistic or social expression was either discouraged to the point of being stillborn, drastically diluted in the name of artistic sophistication or blanded out to appeal to white tourists, the sound system had been created by and for Jamaica's dispossessed. Thus it would always thrive so long as it remained their exclusive property. To reiterate Derrick Harriott's point, there was a huge sense of self-worth involved here: a warm night inside a big lawn's bamboo fence (clubs were so named because most of the action happened on the grassed-over area outside the actual hall), under the starry Caribbean skies, was about as good as life — anybody's life — could get. When the sweet smells of jerk chicken, bougainvillaea and collie weed swirled around your head, you could feel the hottest R&B jump-up vibrate through a cold bottle of beer, and cut some crisp steps with a big-eyed daughter ... it was enough to overwhelm anybody. To the point at which it didn't really matter what you didn't have for the rest of the time, because right there, right then, at the sound-system dance, you had it all.
Different areas had different systems, an idea of turf that was taken entirely seriously as far as sound clashes were concerned. However, lively as these cutting contests might have been, they were largely good-natured affairs with audiences out to enjoy themselves. Serious crowd violence was rare (it came later, and then at the instigation and orchestration not of the audience but of some of the more colourful sound men). Of the first generation of significant systems, Tom the Great Sebastian set up camp at Luke Lane and Charles Street, King Edwards controlled the Maxfield Avenue/Waltham Park area and Count Smith was in Greenwich Town. All this was happening in an area which was no bigger than a small London borough, but which accommodated an extraordinary number of venues. Forresters' Hall, where lodge meetings were held, and Kings Lawn on North Street were separated only by Love Lane; both had huge outside areas and would take crowds of four figures. Liberty Hall and Jubilee were both on King Street, yet each could pull in several hundred people on the same night. Dancehalls such as Pioneer in Jones Town, Carnival on North Street, the Red Rooster on Tower Street, The Success Club on Wildman Street and Bar-B-Que on Fleet Street in East Kingston had three-hundred-plus capacities. Cho Co Mo on Wellington Street, though, with its huge lawn out front, was the biggest, easily accommodating a couple of thousand, with a good deal more just outside the fence grooving on the music.
Dances were on most nights of the week, with weekend functions lasting through to the next morning. Many of the smaller places held afternoon sessions — it wasn't unusual for kids to be coming from school, get kinda sidetracked by the music, sneak in, lose track of time and expect a beating when they eventually did get home. Then there were the Sunday outings to the Palm Beach, Gold Coast or Hellshire Beach to the west of Kingston or, more popularly, to the beaches along St Thomas Road to the east of the city. This is the road that runs to Bull Bay (if you turn right when you come from the airport road, that's St Thomas Road), and on the beach side were a Series of purpose-built 'clubs'. These were fenced-off open-air areas, with large concrete floors on which the sound system would be set up, and there would be a purpose-built bar area. This way the equipment would stay well away from the sand, but as the dance floor went down to the beach itself the patrons could take full advantage. By far the best along that stretch was the Palm Beach Club, which had trees and shrubs planted around the dance floor with tables placed among them, and little huts woven out of palm leaves to create secluded chill-out spaces. Sound men would organize coaches to pick up from pre-arranged ghetto corners from quite early in the morning, and whole families would come out with picnics, with the serious ravers arriving much later to keep the dance going until Monday morning. And to imagine that British teenagers in the late 1980s thought they invented all-night open-air raving!
But more than just being a lot of fun, or even culturally correct, these sound-system sessions changed Jamaica and its relationship with the rest of the world for ever. It was the continuous stream of exciting, imported American R&B records they generated that gave birth to Jamaica's highest profile, most valuable and as yet inexhaustible export: music. Because, in the mid-1950s, entirely due to the sound systems, the country began to go music mad and something serious had to happen. Quickly.
Eyes shining now, and slapping an index finger on the shop counter to force his point across, Derrick Harriott takes up the story.
'What happened was the musical thing was real widespread, but only among a certain sort of people. It was always a downtown thing. But more than just hearing the music, the equipment was so powerful and the vibe so strong that we feel it. Like when we were dancing you were actually part of it. It was ours, and so many of us wanted to do something to contribute to it. Check and you'll see that of the wave of Jamaican musicians that started making original music the majority of them would have been at sound systems back then, soaking it up and feeling how the people would love a good song.
'It's easy to see how they were inspired. Which is why, once the sound systems started making a big impression back in the fifties, five years later there was such an enormous amount of youngsters wanting to make music. There was much more music coming out of Kingston in the early sixties than should be expected from a city that size.'
Tom the Great Sebastian's was the most important sound system in the first half of the 1950s. Most veterans agree that his was the original Big Rig, with the most powerful amplifiers and the biggest number of speaker cabinets — or 'houses of joy' as they were called, in reference to their unit size. Close behind in terms of power and prestige were V Rocket, King Edwards, Sir Nick, Nation, Admiral Cosmic, Lord Koos, Kelly's and Buckles. And the rhythms that carried the swing at their dances were very different from the well-mannered tunes wafting across the local airwaves courtesy of Radio Jamaica Rediffusion.
To appeal to as many people as possible, radio played it safe by leaning towards the insipid. A ghetto crowd, however, out to enjoy themselves on Saturday night, wanted to dance until they dropped. Any sound man worth his title couldn't be doing with the conventional Jamaican airplay hits and only the most soulful would do: the fieriest R&B, merengue or Latin jazz; the bawdiest mento; the deepest ballads. Naturally, Jamaican radio wouldn't touch the sound-system specials, no matter how popular they proved with the people, because the airwaves at that time were controlled by middle-class types who aspired to 'dignity' and looked upon anything too wild — too black — as bordering on the savage. Most crucially, though, if the sound systems played the hits then they'd all have the same records, and where would be the sport in that? In the pressure-cooker competition of the dancehall, what gave an operator the edge over his rivals were records that nobody else even knew the name of, let alone owned. This was the rare-groove scene in its purest and most original form, where you'd go beyond the beat to a place in which exclusivity and obscurity were the only yardsticks.
And audience appreciation, of course, which would be instant and unreserved. One of the major attractions of going to a sound-system dance was the chance to participate with some mad noise. Records unique to a particular operation — which assumed a kind of trophy status — or old favourites would be greeted with a big cheer as the dancers settled down to bust their moves. New records that made the place really come alive would end with a barrage of shouts to Lick it back, or Wheel and come again — an occurrence that could be repeated dozens of times, as long that tune continued to move the crowd. If a record was wrong, though, and the crowd didn't like it, they'd make themselves felt just as lustily — you'd hardly be able to hear the music for the booing and the operator had to change it. Double quick! A feat in itself, because those guys only ever used one turntable, therefore cross-fading was out of the question. It was done like this: one hand would hold the next record between the third and little fingers and the palm; the other hand would lift the needle from the offending disc; the first hand could then be moved over to pluck that record from the turntable using the thumb and index/middle fingers, and drop the other one on to the centre-dome all in the same movement. A flick of the wrist. Snap! Then the other hand would replace the needle.
There was always much more of a connection between a Jamaican deejay and his crowd than the idea of a disco or nightclub might imply. A good dance would be a group experience; a mutual-appreciation society between deejay and disciples. The crowds would join in singing favourite or exclusive-to-that-set cuts and the operator would kill the volume on choruses to let them do so. It was proof of a system's popularity in a manner that could be heard all over the area, thus vital for the sound man's standing. In return for such a boost the sound man had to live up to his hype. Hence the spectacular stage names, the flamboyant behaviour, the sense of showmanship that went beyond simply spinning tunes and a continual supply of the best, the most exclusive and therefore the most prestigious music. It was out of these self-contained cycles of give and take that the sound-system scene's inherent partisanship evolved.
This immediate response to music kept the deejays close to the people and meant that the records offered on sound systems were always popular choices. When a record really kicked, the average sound man would work it to death while he set out to find more just like it for future use, but all that this would achieve was to keep him running on the spot. Essentially, this was a short-term proposition. Although it was absolutely vital to let a hot tune run its course, an audience expecting to hear it several times a night, the real challenge came in anticipating what that same crowd would want next, and advancing the music on offer to just such a point. To keep moving on was the only way to maintain continued audience interest, and so build a lasting career. Thus, the dances became testing grounds for new styles of music as well as new records, and the people were always closely involved with how things developed.
In this respect, everything that is Jamaican music today can be traced back to those first sound-system operations — it's important to recognize it was a status quo in place even before there was anything that could be called Jamaican music. Today, more than forty years later, the sound system remains the mainstay of the Jamaican music industry, since nearly all the island's top producers have their own systems, or exclusive links to one. Thus musical evolution remains, quite literally, by popular request.
Such proximity to the people and the need constantly to reinvent itself at this pace meant that Jamaican music, although then based on an American form, would find its own personality sooner rather than later. As it was, less than ten years after sound systems became big news, Jamaican music had forged an identity so strong as to be completely unrecognizable from its original form. It was, however, instantly identifiable all over the planet, and so culturally distinct that it couldn't be made — with any credibility — by anyone with no Jamaican blood in them, or who hadn't been totally immersed in the culture.
But to get from a Denham Town yard dance to a vibrant international recording industry, you must, as so often in Jamaica, take the scenic route.
During the first half of the 1950s, the Jamaican economy was undergoing yet another series of extraordinary upheavals. In fact, it was as near to booming as it ever had been, with a 10 per cent year-on-year Gross National Product growth up until 1957, which for the rest of the decade only slowed to 7 per cent. Sugar and bananas were premium exports, but what was making the difference was the long-haul holiday market opening up as a fashionable upper-bracket pursuit for both Europeans and Americans. This meant the international aluminium industry was in overdrive, as the commercial airline business took off and passenger planes had to be built, while exotic destinations for travellers had to be found. Jamaica was well equipped to service both these demands.
Bauxite, the chief mineral source of aluminium, was present in abundance in Jamaica's red soil, and between 1950 and 1957 the island was the world's largest supplier of said mineral as such companies as Alcan, Reynolds and Alcoa staked claims on the country's interior. During the same period, vast stretches of the north coast were turned into building sites in a concerted bid to meet the need for luxury hotel rooms. Subsequently, there was rapid job creation in mining, construction and the tourist trade. Also, because most of the money behind these operations came from US-owned multinational corporations, the Jamaican Treasury got a boost when the buoyant yankee dollar replaced the weaker pound sterling as its crutch of choice.
Emigration played a big part, too, there being what amounted to an exodus of skilled and unskilled labour. During the 1950s, immigration to the UK, Canada and North America was virtually unchecked — because Jamaica was then a British colony, her citizens were actively encouraged to go to the UK. They had no problem entering Canada, either, as it was also a British colony, and even after the USA introduced immigration controls in 1952, Jamaicans could get into the States on the British immigration quota, which was always undersubscribed. Over a quarter of a million people, or, astonishingly, about one-tenth of Jamaica's population, left for those three destinations during the decade. To this must be added the enormous number of seasonal, short-term agricultural labour contracts — cane cutting a speciality — taken up by Jamaicans in the American South. So, as long as Jamaican jobs were being quit for a chance in one of a choice of Promised Lands, there was less competition for the new vacancies at home.
A significant knock-on effect of this mass emigration was the regular sending home of cash by relatives working abroad, producing new incomes out of, quite literally, nothing. Although this factor has never been taken too seriously — perhaps because there are no official figures — in the tenement yards and the rural cabins, a few pounds arriving from London every month could mean the difference between eating or not, sending children to school or otherwise, and must be counted as a significant contributor to those boom years.
Politically, things were upbeat as well. In 1955, Norman Manley's PNP had come to power on an increasingly appealing independence ticket, and proceeded to push hard in that direction. By 1958 Jamaica's bauxite wealth was such that, in competition with oil-rich Trinidad, it was confident enough to undermine the solidarity of the West Indies Federation (an economic cartel of Caribbean islands plus Guyana and what was then British Honduras) with an escalating gung-ho bullishness. All of which produced a widespread sense of national optimism; a factor which, if you were sitting on the dirt floor of a cardboard shack in Jones Town, was probably of far greater significance than your actual fiscal improvement.
It is true that there was a certain amount of economic-boom moolah trickling down the hill to a certain amount of ghetto people, which, probably for the first time, allowed them disposable income. And yes, some conditions had improved after the hurricane of 1951 left many homeless, resulting in a programme of municipal housing which provided for the building of small, modular, cement dwellings with kitchens and inside plumbing — the 'government yards' or the 'concrete jungle' that Bob Marley would write about in years to come. But the downsides of all these improvements were ominous.
Excerpted from THIS IS REGGAE MUSIC by Lloyd Bradley. Copyright © 2000 by Lloyd Bradley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Foreword by Prince Buster||xv|
|Part One First Session|
|1 Boogie in My Bones||3|
|2 Music Is My Occupation||22|
|3 We Are Rolling||49|
|4 Message from the King||63|
|5 Train to Skaville||88|
|6 Strange Country||111|
|7 What a World||133|
|Part Two Simmer Down|
|8 Soul Style||157|
|9 Dance Crasher||179|
|10 Mix It Up||198|
|11 You Can Get It If You Really Want||232|
|Part Three Studio Kinda Cloudy|
|12 Pressure Drop||263|
|13 Wake the Town, Tell the People||288|
|14 Dubwise Situation||308|
|15 Dreadlocks in Moonlight||336|
|16 Ah Fi We Dis||370|
|17 Trench Town Rock||396|
|18 Warrior Charge||422|
|19 Sipple Out Deb||457|
|Part Four Fist to Fist Days Gone|
|20 Ring the Alarm||485|
|21 Kid's Play||501|
|22 Johnny Dollar||518|
|23 Healing of a Nation||531|