The Complicatist : Music Gonna Shock You Like Electric

Celebrating Jamaica, and 50 years of independence

by Gordon Campbell

In square kilometers, Jamaica is less than one tenth as big as the North Island. Set it down locally, and it would stretch lengthwise from Taihape to Wellington and across, from Taupo to Napier. The fact such a small nation has produced so many great athletes and musicians is extraordinary. It rather puts in the shade any claims by New Zealand to be punching above its weight on the world stage. Reportedly, even the Queen Mother liked ska music.

Unfortunately, Jamaica is also something of an economic and political basket case, mainly thanks to foreign meddling in its economy. In the 1970s, these interventions fed into the gun violence by gangs affiliated to the two main political parties, who doled out patronage among Kingston neighbourhoods such as Tivoli Gardens. The island’s internal politics are feudal, the external politics neo-colonial.

Unfortunately, Jamaica caught the eye of the International Monetary Fund during the 1970s after its most dynamic political leader – Michael Manley – fell afoul of Washington, largely due to his socialist rhetoric and some tentative attempts by him to negotiate a better deal for Jamaica from the foreign mining companies that are still plundering Jamaica’s bauxite reserves. The story of the IMF prescriptions and their devastating effect on Jamaica’s rural economy was told ten years ago in the film Life And Debt and has been well summarized here by Linton Kwesi Johnson.

Jamaica won independence from Britain in 1962. Fifty years on, this column celebrates some of the great music from Jamaica. This is not a Reggae’s “Ten Greatest” list, just some examples of the island’s genius – and I guess the fact such a list doesn’t include anything by Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Big Youth, Junior Byles, Gregory Isaacs, Augustus Pablo, I Roy, the Congos, Capleton or King Tubby makes a point about the creative wealth we’re talking about here.

1. U Roy “Hat Trick” ; Dave and Ansell Collins “Monkey Spanner”
From 1972, with the trailblazing deejay U Roy at the height of his game, plus some early use of the Moog synthesiser. ‘ Music gonna shock you like electric!.” No doubt. Plus :

Way down all over the world as I will play
Coming down sweet to Jamaica way from-a London town
You got to be the wailing ground
Sayin’ I’m no Beatle clown
And you can see what I’m really puttin’ down
Because I will tell it you baby baby baby…
Keep me on the scene, ‘cause I’m a big youth..”

Not forgetting ‘Scooby dooby dooby doo’…’ The backing group is probably the Vulcans, who recorded some Moog synthesiser reggae tracks on Trojan during the early 1970s, and had a minor hit called ‘Star Trek.’ 1972 was also the year for the” heavy, heavy monster sound” of Dave and Ansell Collins, and this great, danceable follow-up to their breakthrough hit “Double Barrel.” Definitely one for the Queen Mother.


2. Jolly Brothers : “Conscious Man”
Two mellow tracks. “Conscious Man” is a Lee Perry production, and while the melody, delivery and sentiments of the song are all exquisite (“Just be a conscious man when you fall in love/ Try to be a conscious man”) the underlying rationale is otherwise…. Woman, that evil temptress, will lead you onwards to physical and moral ruin. So, is this one of the most beautiful reggae tracks ever recorded, or a rank piece of misogyny – or both at once?

3. Perfect : “Hardcart Boy”; Hero : “ In the Ghetto” A lot of Jamaican music comes filtered through a ganja haze, slackness sex lyrics, or suffering in Babylon. “Handcart Boy” contains none of those things. It is just happiness incarnate, a tale of young love conquering adversity and the class system. Hero’s “In The Ghetto” is somewhat darker, but equally uplifting. Both were hits during the early 2000s.


4. Buju Banton : “ Murderer”
“Not An Easy Road”
“ Place Too Bloody”
“ Driver A”
During the mid 1990s, Buju Banton seemed to have the charisma and musical genius to succeed Bob Marley on the international stage….but unfortunately, he had a related talent for self destruction. These days, he is inmate Mark Myrie in Florida’s Federal Correctional Institution serving a ten year sentence (for conspiracy to deal in cocaine) that won’t see him free again until 2019.

He’s left behind a wealth of fantastic music. For starters from the mid 1990s, there’s a performance of “Murderer” on the Jools Holland show in Britain, a track from the outstanding‘Til Shiloh album. BTW, those dancers wafting around amusingly behind him on this clip are not hobbits, he’s just a very tall guy. Then there’s “Not An Easy Road” which now seems prophetic in ways he probably didn’t imagine at the time. Moving into the 2000s, he hooked up with Anthony Cruz for “Place Too Bloody” a politico-dancehall smash. Finally, “Driver A” was probably Buju’s biggest hit in the decade before the US authorities – after a couple of misfires with hung juries and mistrials – finally convinced a jury to put him behind bars in Florida last year.



6. Culture : “Marriage in Canaan” “Natty Never Get Weary”
The late Joseph Hill of Culture had an extraordinary voice, reminiscent of Joseph Shabalala, the leader of the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. On “Marriage in Canaan” he offered a pop version (with flute !) of nyabinghi drumming (a la Count Ossie, Ras Michael etc) while his “Natty Never Get Weary” is an irrepressible commitment to survival. I particularly like the line where Hill sings “ I was standing on a corner reasoning with two daughters, reasoning about equal rights and justice…” As you do.


7.. Anthony B : “ Fire Pon Rome”
Sizzla : “Life’s Road” and
Jah Cure : “Trod in the Valley”
Three terrific tracks from performers steeped in the strictly traditional Bobo version of Ras Tafari, and wearing the distinctive white turbans that go with it. Anthony B’s 1996 single “ Fire Pon Rome” is a great pop song and a fine piece of declamatory politics aimed at the Vatican, no less. It was banned for a time, from the Jamaican airwaves for also naming a few local targets of corruption. The other two tracks are more pensive songs. “Life’s Road” was among the first hits in Sizzla Khalonji’s prolific career, while “ Trod In The Valley” was the breakthrough song for the immensely talented Jah Cure, before his career was interrupted by a long period of imprisonment.


8. Ethiopians : “Promises”
Bunny and Ricky: “Freedom Fighter”
During a heady period in the 1970s, the Caribbean region produced several ill-fated left-wing political figures, from Michael Manley to the most tragic of them all, Maurice Bishop in Grenada. During the 1972 election campaign, Manley became strongly identified with Joshua in the Bible, and would travel the country armed with the Rod of Correction (see Proverbs 22:15) vowing to beat out corruption. The Ethiopians weren’t buying any of it. “Promises” is a terrific political song, and it warns against the danger of trusting any politician who has never been hungry: “Promises, promises on a full belly/they’re leading the children to a land of make believe..”

Incidentally, “Promises” was produced by Winston Riley, the veteran producer (and one time leader of the Techniques) who died in February from the effects of a gunshot wound suffered in the wake of a home invasion. Riley, among a raft of other things wrote “ Monkey Spanner” (above) and created the famous” Stalag 17” rhythm that in one of its many incarnations, provided the template for Tenor Saw’s massive hit “ Ring The Alarm.” The Bunny Rugs and Ricky Grant track “Freedom Fighter” is another Lee Perry production, and it references the Junior Byles hit “Beat Down Babylon.”


9. Pablo Gad “ Sad Mistake “
Owen Gray “Natty Bongo”
Despite 50 years of independence, Britain’s links to Jamaica remain surprisingly strong. Here’s Prince Harry ( with his clothes on) dancing up a storm to a Bob Marley song in Jamaica recently.

Anglo- Jamaican entrepreneurs like Chris Blackwell of Island Records have played a major role in the music’s development, as has its audience in Britain – which includes everyone from skinheads to the Queen Mother to the Jamaican migrant community, and their children. British-based reggae artist Pablo Gad first hit in 1977 was “Blood Suckers” but the solid “Sad Mistake” recorded a few years later has always been my favourite track by him. “Bongo Natty” was also a hit in Britain for the veteran singer Owen Gray, and is a great example of the ‘flying cymbals’ stepping style that producer Bunny ‘Striker” Lee made omnipresent during the late 70s, especially in his hits with Johnny Clarke.


10. Niney “ Blood and Fire”
Toots and the Maytals “ Sweet and Dandy”
Finally, if I had to pick two tracks to illustrate both the darkness and the light of Jamaican culture, these two would be them. Niney the Observer’s great 1970 track has become such a recognized part of global pop music that P.J. Harvey used it as the lynchpin for the best track on her recent This Is England album. On the other side of the coin, the Maytals’ track is a burst of sunshine shot through with a funny, perceptive lyric about wedding day nerves and social expectations. This is a great clip of the Maytals performing it live too, from The Harder They Come film. Here’s the lyric :

Etty in the room a cry
Mama say she must wipe her eye
Papa say she no fi foolish
Like she never been to school at all
It is no wonder
It’s a perfect ponder
Why they were dancing in that bar room last night.

Johnson in the room afret
Uncle say he must hold up him head
Aunty say she no fi foolish
Like a no time fi him wedding day
It is no wonder
It’s a perfect ponder
Why they were dancing in that bar room last night.

One pound ten for the wedding cake
Plenty bottle of cola wine
All the people them dress up in a white
Fi go eat out Johnson wedding cake
It is no wonder
It’s a perfect ponder
Why they were dancing in that bar room last night…

To this day, Jamaica is still dancing and still harshly divided, as it struggles to deliver on its promises to its people.