The following is an excerpt from Beth Lesser’s
Rub a Dub Style: The Roots of Dancehall Culture.
All photos courtesy Beth Lesser.
The Early Days
In the early 1980s, when Dancehall hit the record markets abroad, many long time reggae enthusiasts were disheartened. Fans had been comfortable with roots music – Burning Spear, Bob Marley, Yabby You, Augustus Pablo, Culture. They felt they knew what reggae was. As most people understood it, reggae was music that carried a message. Reggae advocated change, overthrowing the colonialist system and lifting the suffering masses out of poverty. Reggae was the music that gave a voice to those who would speak out against a status quo that had traditionally silenced the voices of the poor. Young people around the world felt a firm affinity with this message. It resonated with their ideal of creating a world without war, oppression and commercialism.
U Brown, AKA Huford Brown, legendary Reggae DJ, performer & producer, undated photo.
But the mood in Jamaica had changed. The new decade saw a move away from reggae as reggae fans had known it for almost a decade. Many roots artists seemed to fade into the background as young unknowns arose to take their place. When Bob Marley, the undisputed king of reggae, died in 1981, many people felt that reggae had ceased to exist- that without Bob, there could be no reggae. In an attempt to keep his legacy and the music alive, efforts were made to name various bands and individual artists as his heirs to the throne. But the attempts were fruitless, because by 1981, the music had changed.
Papa Screw in front of Black Scorpio speakers, 1985.
The music that replaced roots reggae seemed, to the many disillusioned fans, to be trivial and devoid of deep meaning, lacking the potential to right the wrongs and injustices of society. All the brimstone and fire where gone. The new music of the ‘80s appeared materialistic. It was often sexually suggestive, sensationalist, focused on the excitement of the moment. A large group of former reggae supporters felt abandoned and moved away from the music. But many more new fans flocked to this exhilarating, provocative, bracing new form of entertainment. Jamaica was reclaiming its music and bringing back home. After years of artists vying for foreign exposure, reggae was becoming more purely ‘Jamaican’ than it had even been in its short history. Dancehall had arrived and was bringing big changes to the musical landscape.
The power of the Sound System
Jamaicans loved their music, and they liked to adapt anything new that came along as a way of accessing music – like radio, TV, personal record players and tape recorders. Jamaicans, at least in the ghetto areas, lived every day surrounded by music in a way that people in colder climates have never experienced. Music was there because people wanted it, and sought it out. In earlier days, before radio and personal stereos, people would stand outside record shops just to hear the new jazz tunes from the U.S.. Self-taught dancer Pluggy Satchmo remembers his youth, just after World War II, “We go out to the record store, Hedley Jones [Bop City], evening time and listen him play jazz and we used to practice dance. People coming from work used to see me, Pam Pam, Fish and the rest of little youth them that deh bout there a dance in the evening.”
Gemini Sound, Michael Palmer with Welton Irie & Squidley, 1984.
Pluggy and his friends would wander day and night in search of music. Even the Pocomania meetings provided some relief in the quest for melody and beat. “If you want fun, you have to go out there and listen the street meeting- people playing drum and singing revival songs. They have three drum and they preach and they tie they hair and they sing. And if there is no [other music], we go and listen them.”
Two other options were the ‘Garvey meetings’ and the massive funerals theUNIA (United Negro Improvement Association) held on Sundays in downtown Kingston. At the meetings, the representatives of the UNIA would dress in white with red, green and gold braids and military style decorations. A speaker would address the crowd, a military drum band played and the chorus sang songs of repatriation, of returning to Africa. On occasional Sundays, the UNIA held massive funeral processions that would wind their way through the downtown area. Those who agreed to give over their property or savings to the organization were guaranteed to be taken care of on passing away. They got a funeral worthy of a head of state, and the city dwellers would watch the grand parade, often the most exciting entertainment a Sunday had to offer.
Llyod Lovindeer, 1987.
While downtown ghetto-ites didn’t go into the more upscale clubs, they had access to live bands through the Coney Islands that would crop up on the weekends. Inside a designated area (like a “lawn”, as they were known), people would set up tables for gambling with dice. A band would play and people could come in for free and dance. At the time, the bands were playing American music of the swing era. That’s what Jamaicans wanted to hear. “Most of our habits come from the American music,” Pluggy remembers. “It make me a dancer – Ella Fitzgerald, Glen Miller, Mister Jordon, Louis Prima, Thelonious Monk, Gene Krupa.”
Chris Wayne of Youth Promotion Records.
Before the Second World War, big bands flourished in Kingston. According to Bunny Lee, “They used to play over some American tune like Sentimental Reasons. You used to have the bandstand in the nighttime – you used to go up there and hear them playing. [Jamaican] bands like Sonny Bradshaw and Eric Dean used to play at Beaumont and all them place.” But the war proved to be a fatal blow to the big band scene. The orchestras,
which contained as many as ten people, were decimated by the call to arms. Nightclubs shut down. As former Bop City owner, Hedley Jones explained, “Live music had all but disappeared in the city, most musicians having been absorbed in farm or munitions work, aiding the war effort in the USA, or engaged in the then growing North Coast Tourist Industry.”
Daddy Ants with 2 Track, 1985.
Beth Lesser and partner David Kingston first got involved with Reggae when they started a fanzine for Augustus Pablo’s organization Rockers International in 1980. Beth is the author of several books, including Rub-a-dub Style: The Roots of Modern Dancehall and The Legend of Sugar Minott & Youth Promotion. Purchase a copy of her book, or Download a free copy of Rub-a-Dub here.
Top featured photo featured Elfigo Barker in 1985.
If you are interested in supporting Jamaican vintage artists, JAVAA promotes the history of Jamaica’s
popular music in schools.
The Jamaica Association Of Vintage Artistes & Affiliates (JAVAA)
Oakton Park. Entertainemnt. Complex;
57 Hagley Pk. Rd.
Tel /Fax: (876) 908-4464