Reggae month requires us to tell reggae’s story
Reggae Month 2023 is on in earnest with concerts, parties and other musical extravaganzas unfolding across Jamaica, in South Florida and elsewhere in the Diaspora. As the celebrations unfold with the clicking of glasses and the presaging of well-crafted speeches by members of the island’s political class, spare a thought for the work done over the grinding-out period that actually established Jamaica’s footprints in the sand that got us here. It would be equally instructive to reflect on the battering’s suffered by many as the authorities, at the time, resorted to the use of force to dissuade many of our youngsters from becoming involved with music, especially in the early 1960s.
Independence and self-awareness and the two Jamaicas
The embrace of political Independence from Great Britain in 1962 provided a marker for Jamaicans, many of whom saw this development as a part of the opening of the gates of self-awareness as a people and of Jamaica as a nation state charged not only with responsibility for governance, but also with charting a course/direction for our developmental path as a people. In hindsight, it became clear that the Jamaica that emerged from the independence process never involved everyday Jamaicans and those who piloted the process had very little connection with the social psyche of the Jamaica that existed beyond Drumblair/St Andrew, and downtown now identified as the two Jamaicas.
Jamaica’s music chronicles its stories and struggles
For, there was a Jamaica in which the governing class resided, and a separate Jamaica in which the governed lived. Nowhere else reflected this disparity as did Western Kingston and from a political standpoint, nowhere else had the number of votes as did Western Kingston. In my book Top Rankings – A Chronicle of the Origins of Jamaican Badness I have delineated the birth and development of the “local badman” and the immersion of a huge swath of our people into acceptance of these situations. For it is impossible to expect that having fertilized the development of a kind of negative culture over the years to expect it not to eventually produce its real impact, a point made by Toots Hibbert in his classic 1969 hit “Pressure Drop” an anthem that said to the country “… we are all responsible”.
The Jamaican griot
The management and control of communities became commonplace as a political tool between 1963 and 1976, thanks to Edward Seaga and his antithesis Michael Manley. During this period the practice of “benefits politics” became normative, and a key component of its maintenance was the local “Don” or “Top Ranking.” Again, the area of the greatest impact was Western Kingston and those caught up in the tornado produced by this debacle were ordinary Jamaicans who were residents in these communities and whose only desire was to make a living and to find a place where they could raise their families. John Holt captured these sentiments beautifully in his epic “Tribal War” (circa 1976 Channel One) as did Junior Murvin in the Anthem “Police and Thief”.
The underground economy
Reggae music was therefore birthed as a vehicle to express the resentment felt by a huge swath of Jamaicans who the “system” did not represent. Again, mainstream, or uptown Jamaica chose to ignore these voices through the refusal of radio stations to play this music. Consequently, the music developed its own outlet, thanks to the dance hall and the sound system movement finding oceans of space in a Jamaica with a rapidly developing underground economy, as ganja cultivation and export brought in bundles of US dollars that needed to find a way into the regular economy. Enter the modern stage show/dancehall promoter and that, too, is another story.
The dance hall and the sound system had been around for decades and existed as a space similar to the Bournemouth Beach Club and Glass Bucket where the big bands such as Byron Lee entertained upper- and middle-class Jamaicans. Downtown developed its dance halls as well, and Forrester’s Hall, Chocomo Lawn where the great sound systems Coxsone’s Downbeat, Duke the Trojan, and Tom the Great Sebastain entertained the downtowners playing the music that would never receive airplay on local radio stations.
The rise of King Tubbys
By the mid-70s the music had changed and, as stated earlier, the songsters were more prolific and the lyrical content more potent. Junior Byles’ “Curly Locks” and “Beat Down Babylon”; Bob Marley’s “Concrete Jungle” and “Trench Town Rock” challenged the system and called for recognition of the everyday people but nothing changed. The music turned inwards, and its faster beat reflected the anguish boiling within. Sound systems became the music outlets via regular dances…The great Oswald Ruddock (an engineer) built the formidable King Tubby’s High Fidelity sound system and as a new record producer, burnt acetates for artistes and made versions for himself to play on his own sound, some of which he offloaded to other sounds to use at sound clashes.
The ‘feeling nice’ culture
Tubbys gave birth to Ewart Beckford (U-Roy) who ‘niced-up’ the dances with his ‘fast-talking’ over the versions giving birth to the modern DJ. Thus, was born the ghetto entertainment channel where weed, and later cocaine, became an integral element of the “feeling nice” culture. To protect these market channels, the guns normally engaged by the politicians became part of that “protective” landscape and the mechanics to provide cover for the ubiquitous “promoter” giving further relevance (or) for want of a better expression, a quasi-legitimization of the local “bad man”. Some of these promoters with their “new money” became record producers and dictated (to the lesser known more influenceable artistes) the type of songs to be recorded and released. Much of this music was for the local dance halls and was never destined for “airplay”, demonstrating the principle of “he who pays the piper, (literally) calling the tune.”
By 1979/80 the music had again begun to change, and the conscious lyrics of the enlightened singers had become too tame and sterile for the younger, fun-seeking crowd. Bob Marley had become an icon and his message music had become global. Ghetto youth who revered Marley and the likes of Dennis Brown still wanted more. That was on the way…
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