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cluttered roots

Posted by Ras_Adam 
cluttered roots
February 24, 2013 06:08PM
CLUTTERED ROOTS - Jamaican music needs its history; lack of documentation waters down rich tradition
Published: Sunday | February 24, 2013 0 Comments
Clancy Eccles
Clancy Eccles
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The lack of proper and precise documentation of the dates and times of occurrences in Jamaican popular music during its embryonic stage has presented a challenge to musicologists and journalists attempting to disseminate relevant historical data.

Truth be told, there were very few individuals at the time who considered precise documentation an important aspect of music recordings. Producers were mainly concerned with getting the final product out as quickly as possible, while singers' anxiety to hear their recordings on the radio, simply blinded them to the importance of recording the actual dates that those recordings were done.

Important occurrences, like the change in the beat from ska to rocksteady, from rocksteady to reggae and from reggae to dancehall, and the first respective recording that ushered in each change, were never precisely documented and this resulted in several performers laying claim to being the first to record a genre-defining track.

The fact of the matter is, each time Jamaican music went through a transition, there were various musicians and singers experimenting with the beat within a close time frame.

Jamaican popular music, in fact, went through five stages, beginning with ska (1962-1966), rocksteady (1966-1968), early reggae (1968-1974), roots reggae (1975-1983), and dancehall (1983-present).

With respect to rocksteady, Roy Shirley, dubbed 'The High Priest of Reggae', claimed that in 1966, he did the first rocksteady recording, titled Hold Them, for producer Joe Gibbs' Amalgamated record label.


In an interview with me, Shirley said he was trying to create a new slow type of sound in which the bass line would 'drop', this in the midst of the fast, hectic ska rhythm. But he was experiencing difficulty doing so, until receiving the inspiration from a Salvation Army band he heard, strumming up a beat along Orange Street in Kingston.

"Most of the songs … at that time had three and four chords; Hold Them only had two chords. Using these two chords, it gives the music more beat," he claimed.

Shirley referred to his new beat as 'one drop', which gave birth to rocksteady.

Almost simultaneously, guitarist and music arranger Lynn Taitt was working on a song to record for the man who would later be the 1970 Festival Song Contest winner, Hopeton Lewis.

He was quoted as saying, "Hopeton Lewis came to the Federal Studios in 1966 with a song called Take It Easy, and I find the beat was too fast, so I told him, 'let's do this one slow', and as it got slower, it had spaces to do something with. So I put in a bass line and played guitar in unison with the bass. That was the first slow song."

Producer Bunny Lee, another contender for being the person who started rocksteady, claims his production of People Get Ready To Do Rock Steady, performed by Slim Smith, Derrick Morgan, and Ken Boothe - who he called Uniques - was the first song with a true rocksteady feel.

Derrick Morgan's Tougher Than Tough, a song done in support of the rude boy for producer Leslie Kong's Beverley's record label, and Alton Ellis's double - Girl I've Got A Date and Get Ready Rock Steady - done for producer Duke Reid, also had legitimate claims to the crown, but there was never any precise documentation.

As the reggae era dawned in 1968, the controversy over who was first in this genre continued. The Clement Dodd-produced Nanny Goat by Larry Marshall and Alvin Leslie was perhaps the most notable. Dodd claimed he returned from overseas with some gadgets that helped to create the change from rocksteady to reggae.

"It was like the guitar on the delay, meshed with the organ shuffle," he was quoted as saying.

Another Dodd production, Baby Why by the Cables, was also a strong contender.


On another front, Stranger Cole, one of ska music's early ambassadors, claim that Bangarang (1968) was the first reggae song.

Produced by Bunny Lee, the song had its genesis in Joe Gibbs' studio, where Lee and saxophonist Lester Sterling were working on a remake of the Kenny Graham Afro-cubist original, Bongo Chant, and Cole was called in to do some vocals.

Another producer, Clancy Eccles, claimed he not only did the first reggae song, Feel The Rhythm, but was the first to use the term.

According to one story, Eccles and two fellow producers were at a dance, when Eccles, who was an excellent dancer, called out to a so-called 'good-time girl', words to the effect, "hey streggae, come make we reggae", and somehow the term stuck.

As we retrace our steps to 1966, we observe another important period of Jamaican music that was never properly documented and, I daresay, has seldom been mentioned.

That period saw the emergence of several recordings that could never be labelled ska or rocksteady, but seemed to have both ingredients. Falling into this category were Delroy Wilson's Dancing Mood, Riding For A Fall and Ungrateful Baby; Peter Tosh's I'm The Toughest; The Wailers' Dancing Shoes and What Am I To Do; The Ethiopians' I'm Gonna Take Over; The Gaylads' You'll Never Leave Him; Prince Buster's Too Hot; The Tartans' Dance All Night; and Alton Ellis' Blessing Of Love.

But perhaps the most telling piece in this era of transition, was one that was on the lips of almost every Jamaican in 1966 and 1967 - Bob Andy's I've Got To Go Back Home, which was an anthem of enormous proportions, it being the first call for repatriation in Jamaican popular music.

The inspiration behind the song has oftentimes been misleading, and Andy sought to set the record straight in a 2005 radio interview with me.

"The morning when this inspiration visited was a morning like none other. I smoked some herb and had a vibe, and I went around the piano. All I had was the brass section in my head, and went to Bobby Ellis and hummed it to him, and he, with his orthodox musical knowledge, did the rest. I had just started to delve into 'Rastology' and felt a national weight on me, and it was like a vision I saw of people trodding home," said Andy.

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