×
Home Music Music News

The Wild Side of Paradise

Steaming with the Rude Boys, the Rastas and Reggae

Market, Kingston, Jamaica

Market in Kingston, Jamaica on August 2nd, 1973.

Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty

Kanhai holed out, got caught in the covers. Just when things were looking good, little Kalicharran was still there, he was punishing the loose ball, and even with Fredericks gone and Lawrence Rowe out of the match with a broken toe, it was beginning to look like the West Indies might just snatch the Third Cricket Test from the merciless Australians on the last day in Trinidad and everybody in Jamaica was hanging on Rohan Kanhai, the captain—every transistor on the island was tuned to Trinidad, and just about everybody has a transistor in Jamaica or if he doesn’t he’s well within range; they’ve got them strapped to their handlebars, up in the cane fields they dangle from the sugar cane, the keen rudies walk around downtown Kingston with little Sonys held up tight against their ears—all plugged in, the whole island hooked up and listening to the cricket.

After Kanhai went, Clive Lloyd never really hit his stride, Kalicharran missed his century by three or four measly runs, and the team folded between lunch and tea. Australia won again. You could talk all night about it, argue about bringing back Garfield Sobers, the West Indies’ classiest cricketer of the Sixties, about the residual colonial elitism which prevents kids from the streets ever getting within spitting distance of the West Indies selectors, even though any kid playing cricket in the dirt with three twigs and a broken paling will tell you he could devastate the Australians single-handed. …

But they can take a loss in Jamaica and shrug it off; they’re used to it, they’ve been let down and shut out all their lives. Anybody on the street will tell you it’s been that way for 400 years, they’ve been pushed and shoved and left to their own dangerous devices, and there’s a lot of menacing talk going around shantytown about the pressure. About how you can push a man just so far, lean on him for just so long, slam too many doors in his face and then the pressure’s going to peak and short—circuit and a man is going to have to turn around and cut somebody’s throat. Everybody down here in paradise is carrying a knife, everybody, even the kids.

But as soon as the cricket winds down, Bulldog the Rude Boy lights up a splif the size of a sno-cone and the music comes on again, the reggae, something by Bang Hugh and the Lionaires called “Rasta No Born Yah,” Number Ten this week, and everybody all over the island’s plugged into the same shuffle, the same stutter guitar and choppy drums and, most of all, the bass. All over the island windows are shifting in their sills and cups are rattling in their saucers and the gold fillings are humming in Bulldog’s teeth, and one way or another everybody from the two-year-olds crawling in the garbage in Ghost Town to the 135-year-old Rasta out at the beach awaiting the imminent apocalypse, everybody’s got the beat, the upbeat, everybody’s all hooked up to the common throb.

Nearly two-thirds of the people in Jamaica can’t read or write, so all they know is what they’re told, what they hear—and they hear it on the radio. Tell a farmer up in the Cockpit Country that there are men riding ’round in golf carts on the surface of the moon, and he’ll laugh. He’s no fool, he’s not about to credit such a rash and ignorant blasphemy. But if it’s on the charts, if he can hear Big Youth or The Scorpion fussing and hollering and skanking over the bass line, telling about the moon—shots, then it goes down easy. If it’s on the charts in Jamaica, it exists. If it isn’t, then it’s just hearsay—some alien, suspicious, irrelevant and hostile reality fraught with shameful deceptions like birth control which any street Jamaican knows is a lot of rass disguising a barbaric plot to kill off the black race—and he isn’t falling for it.

The music, the reggae you’ve been hearing here and there when a loose one slipped through customs and showed up in Cashbox, the kind of feel Johnny Nash gets close to but never quite grasps belly to belly—the music is the root language of the Jamaican poor, and just about everybody in Jamaica is dirt poor and downtrodden.

It’s what the besieged Jamaican middle class used to write off as a raggamuffin music—”reggae,” Bulldog says, is just an uptown way of saying ragga, and ragga is just a lazy way of saying raggamuffin, or rather not saying it, flinging it back rude. Which sounds OK and may or may not be strictly true because there are no facts in Jamaica, everybody has his own version of everything. But whatever it’s been called, ska, bluebeat, rocksteady, reggae—it comes redraw, rude and ragged out of the shanty—towns of West Kingston. Wretched little ghettoes like Ghost Town and Trench Town and Greenwich Farm and the Dungle, where all the pressures threatening to hemorrhage Jamaican society meet and combust in a slow burn that might any day boil over into riot and revolution and slaughter in the streets.

So far though, mostly what happens is a couple of Rude Boys get ripped on Red Stripe beer and too much ganja and the pressure starts to nag and one of them turns nasty and they start cutting each other. Or else they go cut somebody’s uncle, some Chinaman who runs a bar, anybody, it’s pure free-form desperado violence and mad-dog anarchy. Just the other night some Johnny Too Bad came through Ghost Town doing 90 down a one-way street, and the police gave chase and the kid spun the car into somebody’s living room, seized a sleeping two-year-old as a shield and came out shooting everything that moved. He shot six cops before they mowed him down. The pressure got him.

He was most likely some Christian kid from the country who’d hit shantytown with high hopes and all he found was too many hungry people living in oil drums and garbage cans and fruitcrates and one-room plywood outhouses with nothing inside except a formica dinette suite and a glass cabinet for the family china and a radio blasting. For West Kingston, literally, is a garbage dump. It used to be a fishing village outside of town, and then the city started reclaiming the harbor and they turned it into a dump. Pretty soon the Israelites appeared—lost tribes of dirtpoor, unemployed, homeless losers and scavengers and boogooyaggas and vagrant Rastas—the “sufferers” they call themselves, the pariahs of paradise. They all started living there, in the stench and rot of it all; they built shacks and huts out of cardboard and plywood and rusty old iron and the place spread like a disease till now it’s a teeming suffering tropic slum. In the Sixties the bulldozers came in, the builders chased the squatters off Akee Walk and put up a few concrete highrises, but already they look like they’re getting ready to fall down and bury whole families alive. West Kingston remains a bomb-site landscape of live garbage and boxwood and unlikely tropic greenery. It’s Jamaica’s dirty secret, a few acres of simmering living hell deep down in the heart of paradise, and nobody who doesn’t live there ever goes near the place if they can help it. Chances are you’d get killed. The police travel in packs.

The best thing to do is to run with the rudies. Hustle and swagger and thieve and hang out all day long outside the betting shops all over downtown Kingston where they take bets on English races as well as the local track at Cayannas Park. Across the street some store-front record shop with massive battered speakers on the street will be pumping out the stuff, Big Youth and the Heptones and the Wailers and the Maytals and Desmond Dekker—the reggae you’ve been hearing about, the throb of the island, the dead-simple tribal upbeat that’s so easy nobody else can play it, only illiterate Jamaicans. And if they’ve got a horse running, or maybe there’s a game of dominos going on and somebody just made a big play slamming the domino down on the tabletop with a savage oath, all the rudies get into the spirit of it and they all start snapping their fingers. Not just a quick painless flick, but a vicious whipping crack that requires perfect timing and long loose joints and bony knuckles so that their fingers hit with the sharp crack of bones splintering. The louder the better. Across the street, at the New York Record Mart, they’re playing an old one by Desmond Dekker:

Rudie got soul
Yeah, rudie got soul
When I sing my song, you’d better
move along
Because rudie got, rudie got soul …

What they used to do a few years ago, when there were still tramcars careening around downtown Kingston at 40 and 50 miles an hour, the keen rudies like Bulldog used to play a kind of chicken where they’d wait for a number nine tram—with the number nine in the speed regulator which meant the driver was in the spirit of the thing and the tram was all wound up and going as fast as it could, much too fast for safety—and they’d leap on and off at high speed. Sometimes they’d leap off one tram onto one coming the other way, or else they’d leap on and off and on and off again until they just caught the last bar. There was even a guy called Peter Loire who won a lot of bets doing it backwards—and he was so deadly cool he held a white rabbit in his hands the whole time. If you missed, of course, at 40 miles an hour, you’d hit the street and break every bone in your body; a lot of tram-hoppers got mangled pretty badly, quite a few died on impact —that’s what made it such good sport. Anything, any crazy stylish risk, any way to be better than the last guy, to outshine him, to run faster or jump higher or fuck longer or smoke more dope or argue a fine point of natural history with more diabolical cunning and bombast, to stretch your cool and never crack to the point where you could stop traffic with the sheer authority of your image and kill flies with the ferocity of your concentrated gaze—to be the coolest Johnny Too Bad on Beeston Street. That’s the day-to-day showdown in shantytown. That’s how they work off the pressure. You could get killed. But there’s nothing else to do.

The Rude Boys are the hustlers and ratchetmen and small-fry superflies of West Kingston. They haven’t been to school and they can’t get a job and a lot of the time the reason they can’t get a job is because they don’t want to work. They don’t care. They’re too smart for their own good—they’re busy hanging out dancing to the jukebox and working off each other’s act and just generally putting themselves about, looking for an opening. Now and then they catch a ride over the mountains to Montego Bay and move a little ganja to the college kids, maybe link up with some neurotic bitch from New York and take her breath away.

They’re living on the edge, dancing in the dark, trying to stay one step ahead of the pressure. Now and then, often enough to keep the rudies’ hopes high, one of them gets through, a Rude Boy makes the charts, goes international. All the top reggae singers, Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker and Bob Marley and the Wailers and the Maytals, all of them, they all came out of West Kingston. And now there’s a movie out, The Harder They Come, the first Rude Boy movie. T

hey turned out for that. When it opened in Kingston to a celebrity audience that included the new prime minister and most of the cabinet and ranking Kingston society, the rudies turned out in such jubilant force the doors gave in. They packed the Carib theater till the PM was sitting three to a seat, and everybody stripped down and got high and it was a hell of a hot night. The Harder They Come does for the Rude Boys what Rehel Without a Cause did for juvenile delinquents and Easy Rider did for acid-eating paranoids and Shaft did for Harlem. It’s the story of a boy from the hills who hits town, gets stung, can’t get a break, stalks the ghettoes till he flukes a chance to cut a record and ends up with 20 bucks for his trouble—that’s the way the music business works in Kingston; till now it’s been strictly a crapshoot operation at the mercy of one or two local highrollers who control the charts, and if you defy them, as Jimmy does in the movie, then you don’t make the charts and you don’t count. So he gets a Honda and starts running ganja. But the ganja business is just as stacked against the guy who does the job, the police run most of it, and the profits are just as securely locked up at the top. You can’t win in Jamaica, the pressure’s coming down from everywhere, sooner or later it’ll get you. Jimmy buys a gun. And this is the part the Rude Boys love, when Jimmy turns outlaw, kills a couple of cops, makes fools of everybody, and all of a sudden the word’s out, his record’s a smash, he’s Number One, top of the charts. He’s out there, on the edge, with a gun in either hand and he’s hauling ’round the lawns of the Sheraton-Universal in somebody’s white Cadillac convertible and still they can’t catch him and the whole island’s tuned in and plugging for him. They get him in the end, they eliminate him altogether—they just cut him off the air. But the audience never sits still for the denouement in Jamaica. By the time the final shootout comes, when Jimmy’s at the top of the hill hiding out and the cops are at the bottom of the hill, and this time the people don’t bother to warn him because what he doesn’t know is he’s off the charts and may as well no longer exist—by then the rudies are in the aisles and feeling good and ready to reggae.

The Harder They Come was written, produced and directed by Perry Henzell, a white Jamaican. It’s a brash and turbulent movie, Jamaica’s first, one of those heroic independent efforts that took two perilous and frustrating years to make. Actors kept getting shot. (You can’t take a camera into West Kingston without checking with the rudies first.) What Henzell was trying to do was tell a true story that dignifies the identity of the street Jamaican and exposes the cruel indifference he’s up against. Not because he’s any kind of slum-crazy revolutionary, he’s not, or at least he’s unwilling to be. He’s right out of the Caribbean ruling class; his grandfather ran the cane fields of neighboring Antigua virtually single-handed and his father sat on 26 boards of directors in colonial Jamaica controlling thousands of acres of sugar and banana plantations. But Perry’s got a lot of friends right down at the bottom line in shantytown and they’re going hungry and they can’t get a cab license if they can’t come up with $300 for the right man—every day friends of his are getting exploited and abused and just generally spit on by a crooked and heartless Establishment. He’s done it, The Harder They Come is a scorcher, but what he’s done even better is to guarantee the Rude Boy’s celebrity on the street. He’s made each and every trigger-happy’ hustler and ratchetman in shantytown proud to be a public enemy.

* * *

Bob Marley missed The Harder They Come. He’s seen it up close. He’s been making records for nearly ten years on and off. The Wailers must have had 70 or 80 singles out and just about every one of them made the charts; Marley wrote “Stir It Up” and “Guava Jelly” and taught Johnny Nash everything he knows about Jamaican rhythm, but he’s still down in Ghost Town sitting ’round half-naked and flat broke. He’s probably the most gifted street poet on the whole scene because he gets it first-hand—and the thing about reggae is that it’s always been upbeat shantytown blues, the songs are storm warnings from the suffering Israelites crying to be heard after 400 years of slavery and neglect, and Marley pleads their case better than anybody. Songs like “Slave Driver” and “Concrete Jungle” sound sweet and catchy, but they’re as bitter as wine gone to vinegar. He sings in a loose rheumy way, the guitar player plays lovely sinister atmospherics, and the whole thing is so stylish and goes down so easily you might miss the message first time through, you might miss the dire threat—

Every time I hear the crack of a whip,
My blood runs cold,
I remember on the slave ship,
How they brutalized my very soul—Slave driver,
The tables have turned,
Catch-a-fire,
You’re gonna get burned …

Bob’s been burned and cheated and spun out and spit on so many times it’s a wonder the pressure hasn’t got the better of him by now, but it hasn’t. They can’t touch him. He’s a Rasta. And the Rastas don’t even speak the same language.

It’s not just the inscrutable Jamaican patois. That’s the dialect—a matter of mischievous and insolent tropic scansion that sounds like 17th century gutter English back to front and fed through a mangle. But the language of the Rastas is a matter of attitude. It’s pure unfettered speech. “I and I,” they say, meaning you and me, meaning we’re all in this together. You can never tell if a Rasta’s telling you lies or whether he’s just gone off the rails without a map into the psychic rapids of Upper Niger consciousness or whether he’s just plain touched by the sun. He can’t tell either and he doesn’t care. The Rastas are operating on a completely different metaphoric level according to a secret deranged logic that makes perfect sense only if you abandon all reason. It takes a while to get the hang of it. It’s a state of mind.

You’ve got to see through the facts here, because the facts are mad. The Rastafarian brotherhood surfaced in Jamaica about 40 years ago in the wake of Marcus Garvey. Garvey was a fire-breathing Jamaican evangelist who went ’round Harlem in the Twenties prophesying the coronation of a black king in Africa who would redeem the lost tribes and carry them home. It’s all in the Bible, in Revelations, Chapter 5, verses 1-10, and when Haile Selassie was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, the Rastas in Jamaica recognized him as Ras Tafari, the one true God of the prophecy, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Conquering Lion of Judah. Or just Jah. Haile Selassie’s flattered. He’s not a modest man, but he’s never acknowledged his divinity, on the contrary he’s been trying to phase the whole thing out. The Rastas appreciate the political niceties of his diffidence, but they worship him regardless. And they want to go back home to ancestral Africa where they belong.

Until that big day comes and it probably never will, they consider themselves to be exiles stranded in Babylon. So they take no part. They have disenfranchised themselves, they don’t vote, they don’t get counted in the census, they reject the whole sprawl of Jamaican society as it has rejected them. They are pariahs.

The early Rastas kept to the hills and the remote black sand beaches of the south coast—mad half-naked hermits caked in mud with their hair sprouting in thickets and tangles stiff with grime and running with lice. When they came to town and started raving in the streets, they scared the living daylights out of people. They were penniless black vagrants with no stake at all in the capitalist mobility of Babylon and they took pride in it. They beat their empty stomachs. They flaunted their poverty and that made the middle class mad. Somewhere in their midbrain it made them uneasy and that uneasiness grew as the Rastas got wilder and filthier and their numbers increased and they were making a bizarre public display of pissing on everything upward that the middle class believed in, rejecting wholesale their entire earthly existence, and upsetting the children, leading them astray, turning them on to the dread ganja. The middle class has got a lot of Mercedes and fully staffed hilltop villas at stake in Jamaica, even a guy who runs a filling station has a couple of maids. So they panicked. They busted the Rastas for everything. They became the scapegoats and the whipping boys of a frightened society—a black African society with a light tan middle class hooked on the conventions of a white colonial aristocracy and losing ground. The Rastas, on the other hand, were going back to Africa—proud to be black, glad to be hairy and half-naked like the East African tribesmen they saw in magazines. They plaited their locks in greasy imitation. And there were more and more of them.

You didn’t have to do anything too drastic to go Rasta if you were down in the dirt anyway, so it was a good cover for a lot of thugs and spies wanted by the police. Rasta offered an alternative outcast nationality beyond the law. They gave shelter to fugitives because they were fugitives themselves. Whenever some Chinaman got cut or a building caught fire, the police blamed it on the Rastas. The pressure backfired though. They just closed their ranks. When a bunch of black revolutionaries from America moved in in the early Sixties and tried to take charge of the Rastas and recruit them for guerrilla warfare, they found they’d badly misread the movement. A couple of English soldiers got shot, there were isolated shootouts and one gang of apache Rastas wasted a small town near Montego Bay and chopped up a few people with machetes. Official retanation was brutal. But it was all a false alarm. The Rastas are revolutionaries, that’s why they’ve got Jamaica spooked, but they’re not getting ready to come pouring down out of the hills waving machetes and sack the Sheraton-Universal. The Rasta revolution is on a completely different level. They reject violence altogether. They have simply defected.

The orthodox litany is the softcore of Rastafarianism. They do insist most passionately on the divinity of Haile Selassie, they do ache and yearn to go back to Africa and they vigorously deny the evidence that those few zealots who actually did make it to Ethiopia in the Sixties are finding the parched deserts of their ancestors a bit grim and inhospitable. But Ethiopia, in truth, is just somewhere over the rainbow, a spiritual nationality, and it doesn’t matter that chances are they’ll never get there. The dream of redemption is all the nourishment they need to support them in their day-to-day rejection of Babylon. Like the Christian heretics and martyrs of the Middle Ages, their agony feeds and fortifies them.

They profess a strict Nazarene code of conduct: They don’t drink booze, they don’t eat meat, they live communally and share what they’ve got, they never beg and never steal. They do their Christian best to be upright and compassionate Samaritans. And they smoke about a pound and a half a week each. The smoke never clears. They don’t let a pause go by without loading up the cheloom for an almighty lungful of the sacramental weed. They smoke so much ganja they understand each other.

And when you’ve got half a dozen Rastas out at Cunchyman’s shack at the beach, all fired up and arguing full steam about something they can really get their teeth into, like whether or not electricity is more powerful than lightning—something deep and fraught with metaphor like that so they can really cut loose and rave and rhapsodise—another night we were discussing whether or not a shark is faster than a porpoise— anything at all really. Once they get going the Rastas hit sustained heights of pure lunatic rhetoric that’s so fluid and has such sheer velocity that eventually your earthbound linear systems pack it in, and your eyes begin to play tricks, and your tongue feels like a lizard and if you don’t pass out cold on the floor, you begin to realize that what Perry Hanzell says is true: The Rastas run Jamaica. They are the black conscience of paradise.

* * *

An ax can kill 13 men, Cunchyman says. It will still be sharp after 13 men have chopped wood with it all their lives. But Cunchyman captured an ax, he says, and hung it on the wall and it rusted away. The Rastas, by such simple enigmatic equations, have freed themselves from earthly care. Cunchyman lives like a wild animal on a beautiful stretch of deserted paradise miles from anywhere, and nobody can touch him. He has rejected rejection. He came upon this spot out here about 15 years ago—he was walking along the beach one day smoking a splif and he found a piece of plywood lying around so he stuck it up against a palm tree and called it home. He’s got a woman and a couple of kids now, so he’s put up something more permanent—a thatched lean-to, just a couple of rooms and an outdoor fireplace and a radio. He cooked us dinner: Parrot-fish fried in coconut oil and a fish stew that had 34 different species of seafood in it; he’d walked 16 miles that afternoon to make sure he had all the things he needed. When he’s feeling a little uncomfortable, he says, he swims straight out to sea as far as he can, till he’s fighting for air and his arms are like lead and his toes cramp up, and then he sees if he can get back alive. He gets a good laugh out of that; he rocks back on his haunches and laughs fit to burst. He gets a good laugh out of everything. “Peace and love,” he says when you meet him; that’s the Rasta greeting, it has been for 30 years.

The Rastas are imaginary beings. They are exiles, not just from a distant and misunderstood past, but from the grim and banal realities of the present day as well. They live in the imagination. And the imagination is immortal. “

When you check death,” says Cunchyman, “how you feel?”

“We don’t check death,” says Bob Marley. “It’s life I leadin’. If I good all through then I live life everlastin’. When death see we, death flee.”

Jah-man, one of Cunchyman’s neighbors out at the beach, reckons he’s 135 years old and never felt better.

The sad part of it is the city’s building a road out here, it’s already just a couple of miles away. Cunchyman will move around the next headland to another beach, but sooner or later the road will come that far too and he’ll have to move again. And Jamaica’s a small Island. The Jamaican economy feeds on tourists who are so bored and so wired up and twisted they’re willing to spend a hundred dollars a day to see how a barefoot illiterate like Cunchyman can live for free and be happy, eating off the trees and out of the sea, in perfect sync with the tides and the winds and the stars in the sky.

“You need us more than we need you,” says Perry Henzell. “And the tragedy is that by the time you’re prepared to come to us to learn how to relax and be happy, every pressure in our society, from government, from media, is telling us we must get to where you were 20 years ago, and that’s exactly where we’re going to be.”

The main vein of the Jamaican economy these days is not sugar, not bananas, not even tourism. It’s bauxite. They use it to make aluminum. Bauxite is dirt. They’re not just selling space on the island, they’re selling the island itself, the very earth, for a few cents a ton.

* * *

Bulldog’s flies are open. It’s the heat. The heat plays hell with zippers in Jamaica, or maybe it’s the manufacture. Whatever it is, half the rudies and Rastas hanging our in Bulldog’s backyard are sitting around with busted zippers, and their flies are agape and bulging with one-eyed trouser-snakes.

“Soon-come,” says Bulldog, dead serious, drawing himself up into a ferocious posture, flaring his nostrils—the George Foreman Effect—”Revolution soon-come.” But nobody’s holding his breath. Nobody’s getting up first thing in the morning and mixing up molotovs and working at the mimeograph. It’s too hot. Jamaica is just 17 degrees, 43 minutes from the actual Equator and in the summer the sun fries the streets till the asphalt starts to bubble and erupt and crack at the seams, and the dirt and zinc dust and nameless industrial vapors hang in the air and sting your eyes, and down in Ghost Town you choke. The heat’s so fierce it wilts the spirit, every move is just a little bit more of an effort, particularly when a man’s cross-eyed and paralyzed behind a pound a week of some of the smoothest and most narcotic ganja on earth. Anything urgent is going to have to wait until tomorrow. In the tropics, time lags, distends, makes no sense. Soon come is soon enough.

When they dance, they dance in languid, pelvic slow-motion. That way you can dance all night, and all the next day, and all the next night, and then what you see is some cool rudie belly-to-belly with a la-la girl and he’s got two bottles of Red Stripe in his back pockets, and two in his hip pockets, and one in each of his hands hanging real comfortable over her shoulders, and she’s got her arms around his neck holding another two. They’re there to stay. When they start dancing to the Sound System in Jamaica, they don’t stop till they’re so far gone into some kind of transcendental tropic coma they can’t feel a thing, way out past the pressure and the frenzy.

Raw reggae throbs. It doesn’t build, there’s no real bridge, there are only two or three chord changes that’ll work — it just keeps on throbbing, rough and gummy and monotonous. It’s the most carnal kind of body music, because the rhythm’s all on the upbeat. The whole band’s playing the upbeat, and the drums and the bass are way out in front thumping it hardest of all. Paul McCartney’s been onto Jamaican rhythm for years, since “You Won’t See Me” and “Ob-La-Dee Ob-La-Da,” and here’s how he explains it:

“When the kids in Jamaica first got to hear Chuck Berry and the rock & rollers, they never had any way of seeing the artist perform because they never went to the islands and there was no TV. So the drummers had to make up what they thought the records were doing. Now with rock & roll the main beat is the off-beat, which we do on the snare and which is the loudest thing the kit does. I think the first drummer on the island to get a kit from a catalogue is sitting there listening to the thing and they hear this big noise and they know the bass drum is the loudest drum in the kit. Now I think what he’s done is to lay the off-beat on one, two, three, four. He’s got the emphasis on the second beat, hence one two three four. He’s figured it out that way and ends up like a left-handed drummer or someone who doesn’t technically know. He’s got the same rhythm and the same result, but back to front.”

So it’s back to front, and it’s slow-motion. And it throbs. Relentlessly, raw reggae works on the marrow and the membrane and the glands and juices and probably the pumping ventricles and cardiac valves—there’s no escaping it.

To take the strain, you need speakers, huge piles of custom-wired, hand-tooled, 100-watt speakers four-feet-square, lethal enough to boom out the foghorn on the Eddystone Light. You need a dozen speakers, and half-a-dozen 1000-watt amps—not for sheer volume, but for the bass, to get the bass so powerful it’s a force of nature. All this ungainly electronic weaponry, all set up in a dirt yard in Ghost Town for the big night of the week.

Sound System night, when all the Rude Boys break out their slinky gear, those hats, and superfly mop-caps and the ten-gallon Rasta beanies in Ethiopian red, green and gold, and they all jam and crush into the yard with crates of Red Stripe and dance. The really boss rudies come hauling up on their Honda 50s, or if-they’ve really hit the main vein selling ganja, they might be on S-90s. There are perhaps a hundred Rude Boys and Rastas and a dozen la-la girls. They don’t take their women anywhere much in Jamaica, they just leave them home and bang ’em when they’re horny. The girls don’t even get to smoke too much ganja; the Rastas say it’s wasted on women, so mostly the girls take it in their tea. The la-la girls are the loose poon—saucy ronnettes who can’t stay away. Everybody mostly dances on his own. That way everyone is dancing together, all banged out on ganja, cool and arrogant and supple as saplings, all in sync, going back to Africa. Sound System is how it all got started. In the old days, in the Forties and Fifties, Jamaican music was strictly soundtrack for paradise—background music for the swaying palms and silver sands and azure seas that make Jamaica so easy on the eye. Suave swing, the Glen Miller Effect, just the speed for the swank north coast resort hotels around Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, and, swankest of all, Frenchman’s Cove, where even back then they had the last word in luxury suites going for three and four thousand dollars a week. There were a couple of pretty classy Latin orchestras, Wiley Lopez had one, and he still plays golf clubs and north coast lounges. And there was a lot of decaffeinated calypso, all the songs that made Harry Belafonte what he is today. Calypso, in fact, is the music of Trinidad, where they carnival, and Jamaican calypso, what’s called mento, is tamer stuff. But even the mento back in the Fifties upset the Protestant Church, which is very obstinate and very powerful in Jamaica, and most of the best stuff, the rude stuff, went ’round hand-to-mouth. There was no record industry to speak of.

Down on the street, the kids were listening to the radio, to Fats Domino and Sam Cooke and the Coasters and the Drifters and all that low-rent ghetto R&B. And they weren’t allowed in most places, there was nowhere to go and nothing to do, so when some clever devil got together a couple of speakers and a bunch of 45s and started running all over Kingston and way up the country putting on backyard disco dances, Sound System caught on fast. Soon there were a lot of them and there still are, traveling DJs piling on more and more wattage and fighting over private stashes of hot 45s, each one trying to blitz out the other. It was war. Duke Reid used to arrive at his dances in flowing ermine, a mighty gold crown on his head, a .45 in a cowboy holster, a shotgun over his shoulder and a cartridge belt slung across his chest. He was gorgeous, gold rings on every finger and thumb, the perfect gaudy imagemelt of Hollywood gangster and highcamp aristocrat that the Rude Boys go for. He’d have himself carried through the throng to his turntables. And then he’d let one go, the latest Lloyd Price, a rare old Joe Turner, and while the record played Duke would get on a mike and start DJing, going “Wake-it-up! Wake-it-up!” and “Good God!” and “Jump shake-a-leg!” and just generally mixing things up—turning the whole thing into church. A very close-knit tribal kind of spontaneous combustion. There was no stopping them.

Soon you had a wide-open, reckless kind of mayhem with legendary operators like Duke and Prince Buster and Sir Coxsone and a lot of one-nighters all called King or Count or Pope or something grand like that, all out there fighting for the action. Till they all got about as much sheer wattage as the human body can take without actually beginning to back up and go out of joint, and then who rated and who pulled the kids was who had the hottest records. In there, as the whole Sound System scene peaked in the early Sixties, the record business took off. Pirated American pressings with the label scratched off so that the competition wouldn’t know what it was or where it came from changed hands for $15 and $20 a copy; Prince Buster and Duke Reid were forever scooting off to America on buying trips, looking for scoops—but it was all going so fast, there just wasn’t enough product to feed the need. And ’round about then, the end of the Fifties and the beginning of the Sixties, American pop went limp. So it wasn’t long before the Sound System men started getting hold of a one-track or maybe a two-track and making their own records. It was easy. All they wanted was the rhythm. Duke was right there in his liquor store, Treasure Isle Liquors, in the thick of downtown Kingston, sitting pretty in his wiremesh cashier’s cage making change. All the talent he needed was right outside the door, hanging out with nothing to do.

It was “ska” then, it was more of a shuffle with the staccato guitar accentuating the upbeat, four to the bar—just a lick. They say an old guitar player called Lyn Tait came up with it first, but somebody else will tell you different because there are no facts in Jamaica, only versions. It was what the Rastas were playing in West Kingston. That lick on top of a ton of bass and drums. And the drums go back to Africa, to the voodoo drums of the Eboes and Corromantes who came over on the first Spanish slave ships 400 years ago. They started out doing mostly a lot of American hits, but they couldn’t play all that well, so they all had this upsetter, back-to-front kind of feel.

What would happen is someone like Duke or Coxson Dodd would literally pick up a bunch of Rude Boys and Rastas off the street corner, some band like the Soul Vendors, and give them, say, 20 bucks to cut everything they knew—Chuck Berry stuff, Fats Domino stuff, anything. It was all ammunition, to keep the Sound Systems pumping. You couldn’t get the records in the stores, there were just a couple of acetates and they were kept well hidden, they had no labels, they were just Duke Reid tunes or Prince Buster tunes. They hardly bothered with vocals—just the track and the DJs would do the rest live.

This was around 1962, when Jamaica became independent, and the government had a big patriotic push going to find a national Jamaican sound. There it was, pure goo, down in the dirt in West Kingston and coming up like yeast, rooted in the tutti-frutti of American R&B and the double entendre of calypso and the weird apocalyptic imagery of the Rastas and the Pentecostal voodoo of hillbilly hot gospel and spin-off cults like Pocomania.

Pocomania means “little madness,” but a little goes a long way, and when the Pocomaniacs are really feeling in the spirit and the drums start to get to the marrow and the membrane, they jive and shout and testify and get so filled up with righteous heavenly electricity they commence to talk in tongues and fall writhing to the floor crying holy unto the Lord. There’s a lot of folk religion up in the hills in Jamaica, all kinds of spirit worship and polyglot superstitions. Some of them go back to Africa; some of them, like the widespread rumors of mermaids frolicking in the deep pools in the hills, appear to be purely Jamaican apparitions. There are witches and necromancers out there, and restless duppys on the prowl—not ghosts exactly, but a man’s shadow that rises up three days after his burial, dusts off, and goes on the haunt. A duppy guards the Spanish Jar, a legendary treasure buried in a huge earthenware jar, but he can be tempted by the sacrifice of a white cock. Not so the Old Hige. Nothing stops her when she sheds her skin and goes courting. She comes at night in the shape of a great ball of fire and sucks the blood of her sleeping lovers.

Last year, when Michael Manley was running for prime minister against the incumbent Labor government, he took to the hills in his shirtsleeves carrying a long staff—the Rod of Correction he called it, with which he swore to drive out the demons—and the five-acre farmers and dirt poor and downtrodden turned out in throngs wherever he went, chanting Joshua! Joshua! and Manley held out the Rod and cried, “When I look at my people, my heart bleed!” and the people strained to touch the Rod, to feel the almighty power, and Manley wept and cried, “It is love!” He also made a record, a reggae thing called “Better Must Come,” pitching power for the people, with a chorus singing in the background and the bass thumping. It made the charts, Number One. He was elected with the biggest majority in Jamaican parliamentary history.

And Clancy Eccles, who produced “Better Must Come” said:

“We knew we were more powerful than the politicians. The people hear us on the radio every day. If Michael gets lazy, don’t believe that we won’t start hitting him.”

* * *

Back in 1962, reggae was ska, and it was still underground, still strictly for dancing. Then Prince Buster put out a couple of his real crowd pleasers, some of his own, and he gave Duke Reid maybe ten dollars for a couple of his, and they sold out right away. Quite a few people saw the light.

Ken Khouri, who’d had it all to himself, cutting calypso over at Federal Studios, started releasing ska. Eddie Seaga started West Indies records. But it was Chris Blackwell who saw it all coming and got there first. Blackwell, like Perry Henzell, is another refugee from the polo class, the son of a plantation owner, and at the time he was running a joint out on the Spanish Town Road called the Ferry Inn, and just generally staying close to the action. He started a label, Island Records, and he made the first ska hit in Jamaica, a song called “Little Shiela” by a kid called Laurel Aitken. He prospered, because he was farsighted enough to pay everyone a little better—he paid the sessionmen $20 instead of the usual $5, so he got his pick of the best musicians around.

The Sound System men were still packing them in and always will be, but the action now was in the record end, and anybody who could come up with the ready cash to buy some two-track time and get a record pressed could get in on it. The talent was lining up: There were Rude Boys and Rastas all over with a tune they’d written, and nobody was bothering about contracts or royalties or any of that. The producer had it all his own way. He took all the risk, he paid the DJs to get it on the radio, and he took all the credit and all the money. It was wide open. It was a lot like the rock and roll game in the Fifties.

Jimmy Cliff hit shantytown about that time. He’d come from a little village called Somerton up in the hills above Montego Bay—when he was a nipper he used to get a ride down to the hotels there and dive for pennies for the tourists getting drunk on banana daiquiris. His dad meant for him to go to technical school in Kingston; he did for a month or two until he picked up the etiquettes of shantytown and started running with the rudies, hitting the Sound Systems, looking for an opening. He did a record for a small operator, Count Boysie, called “Daisy Got Me Crazy,” and another one for Sir Cavaliers called “I’m Sorry”—he didn’t get a penny but they got played loud. Jimmy could just casually take a pull on his bottle of Red Stripe at the Sound System and ask the brother next to him how he liked the sounds, and when the brother said it was a boss sound Jimmy could cock his head back and close his eyes for a moment like the tune was really carrying him off, and then snap out of it and say, yeah, man, that’s me—and crack a big warm smile as the brother went green with envy. One of the reasons a lot of the Rude Boys got burned so often by the shotgun producers was because they didn’t care, they’d never heard about royalties anyway and they weren’t going to sit still to be told, should anyone have felt obliged to bother, they were happy to take ten dollars and get back down to shantytown and put themselves about—they were after the instant karma more than anything else. It meant a lot.

Third-time-lucky, Jimmy walked into Beverly’s record store and ice cream parlor late one night when they were closing with a song he’d made up called “Beverly’s” and he hammed and scammed and finally talked the owner into going into the record end. His name was Leslie Kong, and he put out a song of Jimmy’s called “Hurricane Hattie” and it went to Number One. Jimmy was just turning 15.

And Leslie Kong went into business. He was a Chinese, and it’s the Chinese who are the shrewd boys in Kingston. They run a lot of the banks. When you go into any kind of bigger shop there’s always a Chinese in the cashier’s cage, doing it all on an abacus. The record business was a gift. Kong had a string of hits with Jimmy and Derrick Morgan and Eric Morris and the Maytals, he became one of the three or four highrollers in town. He was a quiet type, he never spoke much, never bent a boy’s ear about all the overseas royalties coming in, he just smiled his unfathomable smile and helped Jimmy out when he was skint. But the pressure got him in the end. He dropped dead, heart attack, at the age of 38, fell into his soup bowl over lunch, just when he had the whole thing covered. He wasn’t a thieving hound, he just took sensible advantage of a wide-open local boom. It’s understood in Jamaica that cricket’s one thing and business is another thing altogether; you’ve got to be a bit of a crook, that’s the sport of it.

Eddie Seaga moved up, too. He made the Labor Cabinet, and when ska surfaced he saw to it that the government got behind it. He sent Byron Lee to the World’s Fair.

Byron Lee and the Dragonaires were a class act, playing the north coast lounges, doing “Yellowbird” and “Island in the Sun” and the rest of it, sleek and suave and not too loud. Eddie called, and Byron took the band down to shantytown for a week or two to get the feel of it, and then they went off to New York on this big official pitch for the international market. Jimmy Cliff was on the show as well. But the whole thing froze in the cold, the Dragonaires found you can’t start playing back-to-front overnight, and nobody took much notice. Once again, it was Chris Blackwell who got there first.

By then, he’d done some adding up and he noticed that he was selling more records to the stranded West Indian communities in England than he was in Jamaica. So he signed up Jackie Edwards and Owen Gray and a couple of others and made a deal with Leslie Kong and Duke Reid and a couple of others to lease their stuff, and moved to London. He rented space in Kilburn Road, and started showing up at all the West Indian record shops, cutting in on the monopoly competition, Bluebeat. In 1964, back in Kingston he found Millie Small. She was all eyes and elbows and shrill as a Shirelle. He brought her to London, and “My Boy Lollipop” did the trick. It was the first big ska hit in England and America.

It’s been on the charts in England on and off ever since, like a running novelty. Blackwell started another label, Trojan, and locked up 90% of the stuff coming out of Kingston, and then he ran into Steve Winwood and went on to bigger things. The Trojan Empire took care of itself, under the watchful eye of Blackwell’s old landlord down the Kilburn Road, a Jamaican-Indian called Lee Gopthal. Ska didn’t get a lot of airplay, the studios in Kingston were pressing the first take to save time, and quite often the mix would leak or the actual grooves would go crooked and double back, but Trojan was getting it wholesale, and Gopthal could easily afford to move batches of chartbuster LPs for less than two dollars a copy at the checkout line at Sainsbury’s and Mac Fisheries. By now, Sound System had come to the damp and sunless basements of Peckham and Brixton, London was full of homesick Rude Boys pushing barrows in the markets and working on the buses, and even though ska didn’t always show up in Melody Maker, the West Indian community alone ate it up like starving Israelites.

And this was when the dirt-poor white trash bovver boys down the Mile End Road in the East End started putting the boot in. It had gotten to the point where they’d had about all they could take of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and simpy acid-eating faggots taking 20-minute feedback solos: You couldn’t dance to it, you couldn’t grind to it, and it wasn’t the kind of stuff to get you in the mood for a good punchup after the pub. They cut their hair, hitched their jeans up high above the ankles so you could get the full menacing visual of their cherry red bovver boots, and they came out bashing heads. It was a spontaneous prole backlash and it must have been a bad moment for a lot of unlucky hippies blissfully tripping out in Hyde Park when they looked up from their contemplation of the inside of a pomegranate or something and saw the skinheads, coming to kick their faces in. The skinheads, normally, weren’t fond of coloreds either: They bashed up Pakistanis as a matter of course, but they took to ska for the beat and started hitting the Sound Systems and the West Indian clubs—white Rude Boys shoulder to shoulder in Mr B’s and the A Train with the displaced Rastas and rudies of shantytown. It was a brief romance, an accident of rock & roll history quite like the white teenage discovery of ghetto R&B in America, and as soon as the pansy photographers started snooping ’round and Terence Stamp cut his hair, the skinhead backlash was over. But it pushed the Trojan sales, and took ska out of the strictly black market.

In Jamaica, the beat came back a little, slowed down. They had an especially hot summer one year around 1966 and the music started coming out humid, dense, so gummy you could throw it against the wall and it would stick. They phased out the horns, the bass took over as percussive lead, and they called it rocksteady. The songs were getting better too. Toots of the Maytals fell foul of somebody and got busted for ganja, so he wrote a song called “54-46” which was his prison number; his hernia erupted and he had to go to a hospital, so he wrote one called “Pain in My Belly.” They were still covering anything they liked that was selling in America, but people like Marley and Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker were stretching out and writing some good torrid stuff, quite lewd some of it, if you could penetrate the patois. The real porn only made the British charts once, a song called “Wet Dream” by Max Romeo, and the BBC panicked. But reggae is naturally carnal, any cool rudie down in Bulldog’s backyard reckons he’s packing at least 12 stiff inches and he can come ten times a night, maybe 12, and still give a good grind. So porn has always sold well, stuff like Lloydie and the Lowbites doing “Shitting on the Dock of the Bay” and “Sper-my Night in Kingston.” And the homesick lamentations and religious grammar of the Rastafarians was coming through, The Wailers and the Melodians were talking about King Alfa and the Rivers of Babylon. In 1969 Dekker came out with “The Israelite” and sold five million copies world wide. Nobody knew what it was about, but it got to Number Six in America. The beat picked up again, became reggae, and Trojan boomed. They had as many as 50 subsidiary labels going at one time. Blackwell had signed up Jimmy Cliff not long after Millie, but Jimmy had been sidetracked and misled and frustrated in England, he couldn’t get a hit, and he’d ended up in South America for a couple of years. He went back to Jamaica, to Dynamic Sound, and cut “Wonderful World, Beautiful People.”

* * *

Byron Lee’s face clouds over. He’s sitting back in his swivel chair behind his desk at Dynamic Sound Studios talking about the early days, when he found ska in the gutter and gave it class, when he used to get out on the road more with the band and wasn’t encumbered by all this capital growth. Dynamic is the biggest game in town today. That’s where the Stones and Cat Stevens and Elton John and Leon Russell and all the other bright sparks from England and America have been working lately; it’s where Paul Simon cut “Mother and Child Reunion.” Byron started out four-track five years ago, went to eight-track 18 months ago, and now he’s just put in close to $100,000 worth of 16-track gear into both the top and bottom studios. Apart from recording facilities, Dynamic cut their own acetates, stamp and press all their own product and a lot of outside stuff as well, they make cassettes and cartridges, print their own labels (and Dynamic has more than a dozen different labels because they put out so much stuff that any given week they’re likely to have as many as half-a-dozen records on the charts, and if they were all on the one label it would look like—a monopoly). All this in one big compound patrolled by armed guards and enclosed in barbed wire to keep out the madmen and the kids who still show up every day looking for an opening. Dynamic does their own Caribbean distribution, and they distribute as licensees for most of the American majors. It’s a complete system, a fully functioning independent economic nation, and Byron Lee the bandleader is sitting on top of it talking about how things have changed in town. He’s got 19 artists signed now, and they all get wages against royalties to keep them fed and stop them being tempted to do a quickie over at Harry J’s or Randy’s across town. It’s not the wide open scene it used to be.

Warner Brothers records is moving in, and pumping money into the scene. They’ve signed Jackie Edwards and Ernie Smith and the Maytals as well as Jimmy Cliff. Over in the big pink mansion house on Hope Road, Island is putting cash in advance into the Wailers; Bob Marley has the run of the place. And Chris Blackwell and Denny Cordell have set up a new label, Mango, just to put out reggae in America. You can feel it, everybody’s on their toes, Kingston’s the hot spot this summer, all over town, at Harry J’s and Randy’s, they’re all thinking maybe this is the year, if Johnny Nash can sell two million copies of “I Can See Clearly Now” in America, maybe reggae’s going to sweep the nation—but then maybe what Cunchyman says is true, maybe Americans don’t know how to move slow, maybe they won’t know a good thing when they hear it….

A&M is sitting on an album that Jimmy Cliff cut in Muscle Shoals three years ago that’s one of the most versatile high-flying performances you’ve ever heard. He’s down in Kingston now, cutting for Warners, and President Mo Ostin calls Byron every other day to make sure he gets everything he wants. Chris Blackwell produced the new Wailers LP himself, called Catch-A-Fire, and it’s getting a high-budget international campaign. The heat is on.

And Bob Marley is sitting ’round half naked at Harry J’s, smoking a splif the size of a sno-cone, and he and this other Rasta are all over each other like they do when they get into Upper Niger consciousness. They start wrestling almost, slapping each other, jabbing each other in the belly—and he doesn’t care if he ever gets out of shantytown. His head rests with Jah. This oldtime DJ’s hanging around, trying to muscle in, and he asks Bob if he minds if he watches him record and Bob says no, he doesn’t want him standing ’round watching him, and the DJ says, well, he didn’t mean that, not stare at him, and Bob says look here….

“It look like you want to find out where I head rest. You goin’ ’round all kind of corner tryin’ for smart me to find out where I head rest. But if you want to find out where I head rest, just come and ask me where I head rest. If you want to know where I head rest, I head rest with Jah.”

Newswire

Powered by
Close comments

Add a comment