Hard Man Fe Dead


Prince Buster recorded one of his most famous tunes, Hard Man Fe Dead, in 1966. The following lyrics detail the humorous tale of a man who is, to quote one of my favorite movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “not dead yet.” The mourners prepare for his burial with nine night, so I thought I would devote today’s blog to a discussion of the nine night. Before I do, here are the lyrics to that classic tune, Hard Man Fe Dead:

You pick him up, you lick him down
Him bounce right back,
What a hard man fe dead! (Hard man fe dead!)
You pick him up, you lick him down
Him bounce right back,
What a hard man fe dead! (Hard man fe dead!)

Them seh, the cat’s got a nine life
But this man got ninety-nine life, cause…
Them pick him up, you lick him down,
Him bounce right back,
What a hard man fe dead! (Hard man fe dead!)

Them boil one pot of chocolate tea.
And all the fried fish they caught in the sea
They also got six quart o’ rum
Saying that they waiting for the nine night to come

The last time I heard them say
That this man was dead (this man was dead)
They find him black eyes
And them lay it all upon his head (the man was dead)

Now the procession leads to the cemetery
The man all a howl, Don’t you bury me,
You pick him up, you lick him down
Him bounce right back,
What a hard man fe dead!

(Hard man fe dead, … hard man fe dead)

/Instrumental interlude/

Them boil one cup of chocolate tea
And all the fried fish they caught in the sea
They aso got six quart o’ rum
Saying that they waiting for the nine night to come

The last time I heard them say
That this man was dead (this man was dead)
They find him black eyes
And them lay it all upon his head (‘pon his head)

You should see them goin’ to the cemetery
The old man holla howl, Won’t you bury me?
Them drop the box and run,
What a whole lot o’ fun!
What a hard man fe dead! (hard man fe dead)

You pick him up, you lick him down
Him bounce right back,
What a hard man fe dead! (Hard man fe dead!)
You pick him up, you lick him down
Him bounce right back,
I am a hard man fe dead! (Hard man fe dead! … Hard man fe dead!)

Nine Night is a death ritual that stems from the revivalist religions and revivalists believed certain rituals had to be followed out of respect for the deceased otherwise they would return through obeah to torment the living. The first night featured the wake, the second and third days were the funeral and the remaining days brought visitors, but the ninth night highlighted the entire ceremony with singing and feasting until morning. A memorial service may occur on the anniversary of the departed. Nine Night is still observed by many Jamaicans today, even if they have no association with a revivalist cult.

Dr. Rebecca Tortello, contributor to the Jamaica Gleaner writes in her article “”A Time to Die: Death Rituals,” about the ritual of Nine Night. “It was important that the rituals were followed in a particular order so as not to offend the dead and ensure the spirit’s safe journey back to God. In African belief the self has three components – the body, the spirit and the shadow or duppy. Once the body is dead and the spirit began his/her journey to God, the duppy or shadow could live on and wreak havoc for the living if not given due respect. Long ago, it was believed that the spirit would return to Africa and therefore sometimes messages were sent to loved ones in activities that occurred during the nine-day period which gave the living the time to ensure that the spirit understood that it should depart from its home. Technically, the nine night is the period of mourning after death that culminates in ceremonies involving food and dancing on the ninth night. Following Christian custom, the soul’s ascent to Heaven is emphasised while African traditions call for more emphasis to be placed on placating the spirit of the dead person. Religious ceremonies tend to be staged first so as to ensure that the dead understands that it is time to leave his/her old home. If this is not done the spirit is said to haunt the living,” writes Tortello.

As a side note, Steely & Clevie’s “Nine Night Version” features a rhythm used in Pukkumina, one of the revivalist religions. Also, Dinkie Minnie was a function that was held to cheer up the family of the dead person or to banish grief and was performed by Miss Lou (Louise Bennett) during her presentations. She explains, “The Dinkie is eight nights after the death. From the first night to the eighth. The Ninth Night is a more religious ceremony. The Dinkie Minnie is to keep the family from grieving. And the number eight is definitely significant.”

A Daily Gleaner article I found on April 4, 1936 with the headline “Nine Nights After Death” and the explanation, “Being an account of the goings on at “Nine Night” Ceremonies when a proper and final adieu is said to the duppies at beloved but deceased ones” (By JACK O’KINGSTON),” is not only a detailed description of the Nine Night ritual, but a glimpse into the culture of the time and the haughty perspective of the writer. It is not only an examination of Nine Night, but also a study into the attitudes that shape the lingering harms of colonialism and classicism. It’s long, but I feel well worth the read.

Mr. O’Kingston, (if that is his real name!!) states: “Without doubt, the oldest and most popular of all African ceremonies carried out in Jamaica is “The Nine Night.” Not even all of the better class Jamaicans have found it possible to do away with this ceremony. In the wattled hut on the hillside, in the (unreadable) structure in the suburbs; great Jamaicans and small, with one and all, the “Nine Night” is an institution. There is the “Set Up” too, when close friends sit with near relatives all through the night following the departure of one from this world to the next; but this ceremony is sometimes passed over. No one is worried if a “Set Up” is not kept up; but to fail to hold a “Nine Njght”—such a thing is just not done. In the better class home the ceremony is not carried out with any rigid attention to ritual. Friends and relations gather in the drawing room, play the piano, sing softly a few hymns, look and act piously until midnight when a psalm is read, a prayer said and a farewell hymn sung in the apartment in which the deceased breathed his or her last. After that, innocent card games, jokes and idle chat among the young; a pipe and current topics among the old, pass away the time for an hour or two. Then quietly, one by one, sometimes in twos, the mourners disperse, never saying good night, for legend says it is the illest thing to say when leaving a “Nine Night.” So they drift off until only the homemates are left; and they also take to their apartments in like mysterious manner; and the doors and windows are closed-one after the other without haste. Then the lights, one by one, in this room and that, go out even as the people went, until it seems that darkness, step by step is gradually coming on, till, with the last existinguished light, thick shadows settle down upon the house of mourning.

THE REAL THING With the peasant folk, however, it is a different thing, as a fact it is The Thing— rites and rituals from beginning to end. The humble Jamaican looks upon the type of “Nine Night” kept up by the better class as “a pyah-pyahting,’” which means that it is woefully and completely lacking in the true dignity of a real honest-to-goodness-”Nine Night.” Indeed no real “Nine Night” can be held in a house. The proper thing to do is to spread a large tarpaulin on high sticks over the better portion of the yard in which the deceased lived, put a little table in the centre of this make-shift tent, arrange as many rough seats as possible under the canvas and throw the gates ajar. Of course the room to which the deceased lived and died must be left unoccupied, the bed immaculately spread, and a small table covered with a spotless cloth in one corner. A dimly burning lamp sends its feeble rays from the centre of the little table, while a pint of finest old Jamaica rum makes company for the lamp. The stage is thus now set, and waits, but not for long, upon the players who begin coming in from around seven o’clock. The first and principal performer to appear on the scene is the character known throughout “Nine Nightdom” as “de leadar.” There are scores of these leader chaps. They know “Nine Night” procedure, from A to Z. Not always can they read, but the right hymn and Bible passage are always, as one might say, at their fingertip. They know by heart every hymn from the front cover of Sankeys to the back page of Dr, Watt’s Hymnals; and every verse in the Bible dealing with the departure of human soul to the Great Beyond. These “Nine Night” officials have an uncanny instinct tor smelling out the location of “Nine Nights.” Hold your “Nine Night” in the depths of the sea or in the bowels of the earth and they will be there in numbers. The first one to arrive and take the chair which is set at the table in the centre of the tent will be the leader, and as the position carries with it a surprising allowance of rum, fried fish, bread and coffee, it is not necessary to describe the intensity of the “World War” that is fought ere the chair is taken.

HOWLING SUCCESS. A “Nine Night” is never a poorly attended ceremony. No matter how unpopular the deceased, how unknown, his “Nine Night” is always a howling success. Indeed there are persons who take up their stands near by the May Pen and other cemeteries and count the corpses that pass daily, ask diligently after the place from whence they come and count the days so as to be present at the “Nine Night.” Others there are, too, who walk about at night with ears pricked up and heads cocked like a bird of prey, listening, listening for the plaintive wail expressed in song that tells there is a “Nine Night” on. Still others there be too, who, on hearing of a person stricken ill enquire regularly of neighbors how fares the ill one. Yes, they even gather on the streets close to the “sick yard” and sing in “Nine Night” fashion such hymns as “On the Resurrection Morning,” “Sleep on Beloved” and “There is a Better Land,” because “it call de adder duppies fe come fe im.” After a couple days of mourning even the real mourners await with a thrill “The Nine Night,” Yet it is they, the close relatives of the deceased who carry the burden of the expenses. They must provide rum aplenty, fried fish, bread and coffee if there is to be any “Nine Night.”

AND NOW IT STARTS. “De Leadah having called for “Ardah frens” begins to track out the first verse of a hymn. Somewhere in the crowd a voice raises the tune; then altogether in one great inharmonious roar things get underway, women screeching loud, long and wrong, men bellowing in awful raucous tones. Everybody trying to outdo everybody else in volume, content to sacrifice every vestige of melody. A few such hymns and “de Leadah” calls out “Sola,” he really means that some person is to track out his or her own favourite hymn and sing all the verses while the crowd joins in the chorus. At the command “Sola,” a score or more persons leap to foot and there is a confused “tracking” of favourite hymns until “de Leadah” appoints who shall sing. Words cannot describe the screeching of the female or the roaring of the male which follows as the singer shows off on the crown how much he or she knows about fancy singing. Things follow this count of perfect inharmony until the leader, making a noise with his throat, announces that that section of his make-up is “dry.” That proclamation is a kind of code meaning “Time to pass around the rum.” The leader’s throat noise is at once echoed and re-echoed. So cups and cans, glasses and every imaginary drinking convenience are produced and rum is served plentifully. To the leader goes a half-a-pint. Throats are no longer “dry” and so the grand disharmony is resumed and vociferously continued until tea time (around eleven). By now there are no starving wolves, no vixen with a dozen yelps; indeed, no creature anywhere in the universe with a

GREATER AND MORE RAVENOUS desire for eatables than The Group huddled by choice under the limited confines of that tarpaulin. Scores and scores of small fishes go up to the entrance of wide and rapidly moving mouths, and in a split second vanish from view forever. Junks of bread share similar fate. Cups and more cups of hot coffee disappear before even the steam can pass off them. Half an hour passes in this vain effort to satiate the appetite of the “Nine Nighters.” Then when everyone is fully satisfied that there is nothing left to eat around, a droll lament is sung as the opening of a new phase of the ceremony. During this half hour until midnight only very important songs are sung. They are sung as softly as “Nine Nighters” can sing, which is just a wee bit below “FF.” Close to 12 o’clock they sing “Good Night, Good Night, Good Night” at the close of which plaintive tune the leader gets up and states, “Frens, de fambilr af de dead is gwing to leave we an gadder in de dead-room an discharge de dead; de res’ of we mus stay wey we is.” This announcement was expected, waited for. The close friends and relations of the deceased move towards the room in which the deceased expired. This room has been kept inviolate since nine days; to-night the bed is covered with spotless linen. On a table in a corner is a small lamp and a pint of White rum. The closest male relation to the deceased present, is selected. This selection always causes numerous male persons to vie with one another to establish claim as next of kin. When the matter is finally settled, if there is not a fight, the elected one calls out the words of a hymn which is sung in a low, dirgy sort of way, as if the singers were

SINGING IN THEIR SLEEP. Then they bow their heads and the leader leads in prayer. It is a kind of patent prayer. The same is said on every occasion with a little variation here and there, but the idea is never changed. The leader prays standing while the others kneel voicing their agreement with what is prayed by long grunts, sighs and low wails. Then the master of these quaint ceremonies takes hold of the sheet on the bed, pulls it off and tosses it to the floor. The mattress in like manner is treated. Then the bed laths are gathered in a bundle and thrown to the floor with a racket—the bed remains a mere skeleton standing in the little room. A lath is then taken and used

TO BEAT THE BED THINGS on the floor as though some evil person or thing sheltered between its folds. Finally the Master of Ceremonies takes hold of the pint of rum. By right the greater portion of the liquid spirit is to be sprinkled at the four corners of the room and the bed frame, some thrown through the window and a small quantity swallowed by the Master of Ceremonies. But this worthy “Nine Night” official usually reverses this order of things. On gulping down three-quarters of the pint of liquor the Master of Ceremonies calls the deceased by name, Say—”Obediah Wilson, you is discharge from dis ‘ouse in de name of de fatha, de son, an’ de Oly Gose.” The group sings “Good Night, Good Night, Good Night” and as the tune ends voices are heard cheerfully saying “good-bye, Obie, Good-bye.” Then led by the now staggering Master of Ceremonies the little group files out into the yard under the broad canvas to play dominoes, play cards, tell Nancy stories, ask for the (unreadable) riddles, sing popular songs, make love, gamble, fight—and on a certain occasion in Smith’s Village—Murder.”

Jimmy Cliff Teaches How to Do the Ska

jimmy cliff skank jimmy cliff skank2

During Jimmy Cliff’s live sets, and on his latest album Rebirth, he sings about his rise through the genres of Jamaican music. Here he shows the audience in Hammond, Indiana on July 16, 2014 how to “do the ska,” moves that were promoted by Ronnie Nasralla. I have written about this section of history before, but it bears repeating.

Ronnie Nasralla told me how he came up with the dance during an interview with him last year. “Let me tell you how it started. One day, Eddie Seaga, who was my close friend, called me. Eddie Seaga was friends with my sister. He was my sister’s boyfriend and he used to come by my house and I help him with his political campaign. Advertising was my forte. So I did all the advertising for the government, Eddie Seaga at that time. I help him with all his promotion. He told me he heard a music that was breaking out in Western Kingston called ska and he asked if I could promote it for him, so I said, ‘Well, I’d like to learn about.’ And we organized and I said, well Byron Lee is the best person to promote it. So we get together with Byron Lee down in Western Kingston and I learned the ska music. Eddie organized a dance at the Chocomo Lawn in Western Kingston—it’s an outdoor nightclub. And Byron played there and all the ska artists performed with Byron and it was a sensation. He [Seaga] said to me, ‘Ronnie, move around the crowd and see what they are doing on the dance floor and see if you can come up with a brochure about how to dance the ska. So I did that, saw the people dancing around and came up with a brochure about a week after, how to dance the ska, give them different steps in the ska, and something that they could use to promote ska worldwide. That brochure was used by the government, they put it in all the record albums and it was sent all over the world and I was asked to go to the states and promote the ska with somebody and I got Jannette Phillips to dance with me. Jannette was a dancer, a belly dancer, a friend of my sister. We took pictures doing the different steps and the brochure was produced and given to the government and it was put in all the ska albums.”

Here is an example of that now-famous how-to that Jimmy Cliff brings to his audiences show after show. Yes, my friends, the history is still alive and well!



Hurricane Charlie

hurricane charlie headline

Typhoon Neoguri in Japan this week had me thinking of Hurricane Charlie which swept through Kingston and Jamaica in 1951. Why? Because talking to Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton, the great Alpha trumpeter two years ago when researching my book on Don Drummond left me with a vision so real that every time I hear of a tropical storm I am reminded of a young Don D. and a young Tan Tan caught in the middle of that ferocious hurricane that spared their lives.

hurricane charlie 9 4 51

Tan Tan told me his memories of the pre-ska days at the Colony Club performing with the Eric Deans Orchestra and that night that Hurricane Charlie came to pass. “Eric Deans was society. No poor people could come there. It’s just the lawyer, barrister, and tourist, mostly tourist. It’s an exclusive club. You have to have money to go in it. We used to play six nights a week—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. A lot of American tourist used to come there, every night. In those days a lot of American tourist used to come. It’s the club they come to first, they go to Glass Bucket after. Eric Deans was the best band in Jamaica and we play the same music that was played in America—Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Harry James, everything. The music we played is America music. There was no ska in those days. Nobody know what was ska or reggae. There was the storm in 1951 in Jamaica. We went to work at the club and we knew the storm was coming. They say, okay, there is no club tonight because the storm is coming, to go home, right? Then we were riding, coming down South Camp Road to go home and then the storm gets worse, but we were lucky, it was just coming, so he ride over to his house and I ride to Alpha.” Not wealthy enough to have phones to notify them not to venture out, both were fortunate to survive the wrath of the deadly storm that killed more than 250 people. The storm even destroyed two buildings at the Alpha Boys School and four students there died.

Advertisement from the Daily Gleaner, August 24, 1951

Advertisement from the Daily Gleaner, August 24, 1951

If you have memories of Hurricane Charlie or thoughts on this event, please comment below—would love to hear input.

The following is an excerpt from the Daily Gleaner, August 20, 1951, which gives an account of the wrath of Hurricane Charlie–pretty dramatic writing too, if I might say:

First positive information of its near arrival was the gentle west wind which blew up at about 9.15 Friday evening. Only A few minutes it blew. Then it drifted away. Fifteen minutes later the hurricane came. It hit with full fury from the very first. It pounded with sudden force unleashing all its power with one huge roar which levelled Port Royal and destroyed the Palisadoes Airport installations as it pushed its way across the leaping mountainous sea to crash through Kingston, ripping roots, uprooting giant trees, snapping steel and telegraph posts like so much matchwood. Ten minutes of such ferocity was sufficient to paralyse the city, knocking out electric and communication, blocking transportation. And while the headwinds rushed across and out of the near devastated city touching points here and there in St. Andrew to go pounding through Sp. Town and on across the countryside, the circular winds came in to throw ships off their moorings and up against the Palisadoes road and the airport runway and to complete the damage that had begun.

The hurricane reached its greatest intensity in the first forty-five minutes then kept a sustained and always dangerous strength for the next three hours. After 1.30 on Saturday morning the winds lessened appreciably but the driving rain increased the horrors of the darkened storm-lashed night and women and children huddled screaming in rain-washed wall corners, some thinking of those whom they knew to be dead, while others prayed for the dawn.

The Palisadoes Airport was levelled and such eastern Kingston and lower St. Andrew districts as Springfield, Bournemouth Gardens, Mountain View, Eden Gardens, Blown’s Town, Passmore Town, Franklin Town, Rollington Town, and Vineyard Town were so badly mauled that it appeared as though a giant hand had moved among them during the night ripping the roofs from off the houses and crumbling the weaker ones.

But all other sections of the city from east to west, below and above East Queen Street stretching north to a line passing through Cross Roads from Cockburn Pen to Mountain View Avenue and Old Hope Road there was a concentrated damage which made it impossible for comparisons to be drawn between any sections of the city.

Only in central lower St. Andrew in an area running just above Half-way Tree was damage kept to a minimum. In all other sections of the Corporate Area, few buildings escaped damage and the loss in furniture and home furnishings cannot be estimated.

Most of those dead were killed by collapsing buildings but seven were drowned on land and 16 in the harbor.

Independence Ska

From the Daily Gleaner, July 14, 1965

From the Daily Gleaner, July 14, 1965

Today is the Fourth of July, the day when Americans celebrate their independence from Great Britain. So in keeping with this theme of independence, I would like to devote today’s blog post to Jamaican songs of independence, and what better place to start than the Jamaican National Anthem itself and during a conversation with Graeme Goodall, engineer for Federal Studios, he told me how this song was recorded. The national anthem was first publicly performed by the Jamaica Military Band at the Lyndhurst Methodist Church Hall just a few weeks before the independence ceremonies. The song’s words were written by Father Hugh Sherlock and the music was composed by Mapletoft Poulle and his wife, Christine Alison Poulle, although many accounts have Robert Lightbourne involved in the composition as well and the confusion over the true composer comes down to politics. Goodall recalls recording the national anthem and says that Captain Ted Wade, who was in charge of the Jamaica Military Band, brought the band to the studios in army trucks. “I told him, no problem, we’ll record them in the parking lot,” said Goodall since they couldn’t all fit in the studio. As Goodall began running microphones to the lot and then taking sound levels back in the control room, he noticed a problem. “There was traffic outside on Four Shore Road, Marcus Garvey Drive,” he says. But Wade radioed the military who responded by blocking off each end of the road and the recording went off without a hitch. They recorded the up tempo march version for the A side and a slower vocal version for the B side and worked all night to press 100 copies complete with a label printed with the new Jamaican flag. The records appeared one on each parliament member’s desk the next morning by 9 a.m., as well as a copy for RJR and JBC.

From the Daily Gleaner, July 31, 1964

From the Daily Gleaner, July 31, 1964

There were plenty of other songs that celebrated independence and plenty of independence celebrations that featured ska music. The Hotel Flamingo hosted Sonny Bradshaw & His Combo for “exciting music for dancing” to “celebrate independence at the poolside terrace.” The Carib Theatre hosted the “Independence Showcase” with such ska musicians as The Blues Busters, Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, Keith ‘N’ Enid, Derrick Morgan; Derrick Harriott, Jimmy Cliff, and Hortense Ellis, among others. The Deluxe Theater was host to the “Independence Ska-Ta-Rama” with the Skatalites, Derrick Harriott, Lord Creator, and lucky ticket holders even won “free cases of Red Stripe Beer”—quite a juxtaposition to the tea served at the uptown celebrations!

From the Daily Gleaner, July 31, 1964

From the Daily Gleaner, July 31, 1964

Here are a few Jamaican songs that celebrate independence, for Jamaica and for other countries. This list is compiled using the superb Roots Knotty Roots database and feel free to add your Jamaican songs that celebrate and reference independence all over the world. Oh, and make sure to enjoy a Red Stripe (or two), and a cheeseburger, while you put on a few of these fantastic tunes!


  • Al T. Joe’s “Independence Time Is Here (Rise Jamaica)” in 1962 for Lindon O. Pottinger on his Gay Disc and Dice labels
  • Alert Bedasse and Trenton Spence Orchestra’s “ History and Independence” released in 1962 for National Records
  • Alert Bedasse and Trenton Spence Orchestra’s “Let’s Celebrate” released in 1962 for National Records
  • Baba Brooks’s “Independence Ska (Pussy Cat)” released in 1965 for Duke Reid on the Treasure Isle and Island labels
  • Basil Gabbidon’s “Independence Blues” released in 1962 for Coxsone Dodd on the D Darling label and the same year on the Blue Beat label
  • Joe White and Chuck Joseph’s “One Nation” released in 1966 for Sonia Pottinger on her Gay Feet label
  • Derrick Morgan and The Blues Blenders’ “Gather Together (Jamaican Independence Song)” released in 1966 for Coxsone Dodd on the Studio 1 label and in 1966 on the Island label
  • Derrick Morgan’s “Forward March” in 1962 on Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label and on the Island label, and in 1972 on the Punch label.
  • Dicky Ranking’s “Nice Independence” released in 1983 on the Typhoon label
  • Freedom Fighters’ “Independence Jump” released in 1961 on the Melodisc label
  • Jackie Opel’s “Independence Anniversary” released in 1963 on the Beverley’s label for Leslie Kong
  • Jimmy Cliff’s “Miss Jamaica” released in 1962 for Leslie Kong on the Island and Beverley’s labels and Phil Laing’s version of the same song in 1980 on SWSK Sound King
  • Junior White’s “Free Up The Collie Weed For Independence” released in 1981 on the Thoroughbred label
  • Kalabash’s “Independence (Take Steps)” released in 1976 for Victor Crichlow
  • Laurel Aitken and Freedom Fighters’ “Guyana Independence” released in 1959 for Dada Tewari on Caribou and released in 1961 on Melodisc
  • Lord Brynner’s “Trinidad and Tobago Independence” released by RCA in 1962
  • Lord Creator’s “Independent Jamaica,” a calypso for Vincent Chin in 1962
  • Lord Rose & the Beachcombers’ “Independent Jamaica” in 1962 for Ken Khouri’s Calypso (Kalypso) label
  • Papa Biggie’s “Jamaica 21st Independence” released in 1983 for HBC Productions
  • Prince Buster’s “Festival (Independence Time)” released in 1966
  • Prince Buster’s “Independence Song” released in 1962
  • Prince Buster All Stars’ “ Independence ’65 (Happy Independence) released in 1965
  • Rico Rodriguez’s “August, 1962” released for Prince Buster in 1962
  • Roy Alton’s “Dominica Independence” released in 1977 for Sonny Roberts
  • Shoc-Wave’s “Dominica Independence Fever” released in 1979 on the Arawak label
  • Skatalites’ “I Should Have Known Better” also known as “Independent Anniversary Ska, released in 1965 for Coxsone Dodd on the Studio 1 label in 1966 on the Island label
  • Stranger Cole and Patsy Todd’s “Love In Independence” released in 1965 for Prince Buster
  • Terry Nelson’s “Welcome Independence” released in 1966 on the Halagala label
  • Winston and Bibby’s “Joy Bells For Independence” released in 1962 for Coxsone Dodd
From the Daily Gleaner, July 14, 1965

From the Daily Gleaner, July 14, 1965

Happy Birthday Dragon–Byron Lee

Byron Lee on left in yellow jacket in Dr. No.

Byron Lee on left in yellow jacket in Dr. No.

In celebration of Byron Lee’s birthday today, I devote today’s blog post to this masterful musician, businessman, marketer, and family man. Byron Lee, through ska, put Jamaica on the map. In an interview with Sheila Khouri Lee, widow of Byron, she said to me, “Byron Lee and the Dragonaires today is more than just a band, it is an institution, it is a part of our culture and a part of our heritage.” I couldn’t agree with Sheila more, and so let’s learn a little more about Byron Lee who passed away in 2008.

byron lee nov 19 1957

I will devote a chapter to Byron Lee’s strong, talented, and business-savvy wife, Sheila, in my upcoming book which is nearly complete, Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, but for this post, let us read the following article was written by David Katz for the Red Bull Music Academy in March 2013:

Byron Lee was undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the history of the Jamaican music industry. As leader of The Dragonaires, one of the island’s top show bands since the early ’60s, Lee helped build the careers of dozens of vocalists, including Jimmy Cliff, The Maytals and The Blues Busters, and was instrumental in raising the profile of ska. He later established Dynamic Sounds, then the best-equipped recording facility in the Caribbean, where excellent material was recorded by Bob Marley, The Melodians, Junior Byles and countless other Jamaican greats, as well as Paul Simon, Roberta Flack and The Rolling Stones.

As if that wasn’t enough, Lee staged Jamaican concerts with leading calypsonians and soul stars during the ’60s and ’70s, before swapping dancehall for soca in the mid-’80s, and was also instrumental in bringing Carnival celebrations to Jamaica. He received over 120 official awards for his achievements, most notably being granted the Order of Jamaica.

Yet some found Lee controversial. Many of Jamaica’s black ska originators have consistently complained that Lee appropriated their creations, angry that the Dragonaires were chosen to back the ska delegation that performed at the 1964 World’s Fair. Claims of political nepotism have been levelled, and disapproval of his penchant for MOR. Furthermore, most accounts of Jamaican music describe Lee as “Chinese” and dismiss his ability to play “authentic” Jamaican music. Similar criticism has never been directed against Mikey and Geoffrey Chung, renowned roots players of Chinese origin, nor the Hoo-Kim brothers, whose Channel One studio scored huge reggae hits in the ’70s. The Chin family of Randy’s/VP fame have also largely avoided censure.

That “Chinese” label is problematic in Lee’s case: His maternal grandmother was a woman of part-African descent, from the Jamaican village of Auchtembeddie, whose family still practiced traditional forms of African cultural expression such as Jonkunoo and Bruckins during Lee’s youth. Some point to social class as the bigger factor: Lee was definitely “uptown.” Issues of race and social class continue to be fiercely debated in Jamaica. The often privileged social status accorded minority groups with origins in Asia, Europe and the Middle East has naturally resulted in tremendous resentment, yet the complex nature of intertwined class and race elements make these issues difficult to generalise about where Jamaica is concerned.

In any case, the family moved to Kingston when Lee was eight years old and settled in the posh Mountain View Gardens district while he was still attending Mount St Joseph’s, an elite Catholic boarding school. He discovered music there through a nun’s intervention: “I used to torment the girls, so she said, ‘If you promise me that you will not hassle the girls, I will give you music lessons free,’ and that’s where I learned to play the piano. All of a sudden music became more important to me, and then, when I came to Kingston, that gave way to football.”

At St George’s College, he became a star football player, and after one successful match in 1956, Lee created an impromptu vocal group with fellow students to perform at a school victory dance. The following year, The Dragonaires officially formed with Lee as bassist and bandleader. Their recording debut, a version of Doc Bagby’s organ-and-sax instrumental, “Dumplins,” was produced by Edward Seaga at the end of the ’50s.

It was not until the Dragonaires’ appearance in the 1962 Bond film, Dr. No, that Lee felt they had made it, however. “The high point of my life was to be in the first James Bond film. I am proud of that because all the young people who watch the James Bond series can remember seeing us; it goes on forever, and the parents will tell their son or daughter, ‘I danced to that band.’”

Following the Dr. No guest spot, The Dragonaires solidified their reputation as the island’s most prominent band by staging a series of gala concerts across the island, supporting Ray Charles at the National Stadium and Ben E. King at the State Theatre. And after Seaga introduced him to ska, The Dragonaires backed many of the upcoming stars of the day. “Jimmy Cliff, Stranger & Patsy, Prince Buster, The Blues Busters, Millie Small, all these artists worked through the first couple of years of ska with us.”

I asked Lee about the charges laid against him, concerning his alleged appropriation of ska and his supposed initial dislike of the form. “Totally untrue,” he insisted. “We knew nothing about ska until Seaga sent us down there; it was being played on the western [Kingston] sound systems, but it was not played on the radio stations because they wouldn’t accept the quality: the guitars were out of tune, the records were hop, skip and jump, so when I made ‘Dumplins,’ it was the first stereo record that really got played. Ska, I helped to bring it up. I didn’t find it, nor did I originate it, but by bringing it out, we made famous, and gave the market to The Skatalites and all the people who were playing ska. Eddie Seaga was the politician whose constituency ska was in; he knew that the music need help, and he wanted to be the Minister of Culture who said, ‘I have given you a music from the ghettoes of Kingston to celebrate our sovereignity of independence.’ So in 1962, he sent us down there to study the music. Ska was always there before us, but it was sort of kept down in the ghetto. It wasn’t recognised by the people mid-town and uptown who could afford to buy it. So I took it to the people who could afford to support it.”

The music’s status was raised a notch when Atlantic Records’ founder Ahmet Ertegun visited Jamaica, aiming to launch ska in the USA. The result was ska cut for the American market and a chaotic set of live dates in New York, which inspired Lee to build Dynamic Sounds, the studio of choice of the late ’60s and early ’70s. “When my tour went to America, I saw the technical improvements; we saw how eight-track was coming, so I decided to go back and build a studio. Dynamic Sounds was the studio that had 90% of the things happening here: all the stuff when Leslie Kong was alive, Bob Marley, Toots and The Maytals, The Maytones, The Gaylads, The Melodians. We had four A&R people working as in-house production for us: Lee Perry, Bunny Lee, Tommy Cowan, who did Eric Donaldson’s ‘Cherry Oh Baby,’ and Boris Gardiner, and I used to produce with Neville Hinds, who used to co-direct and arrange. Lee Perry had tremendous talent. Out of all the producers we had worked with, his ear for a hit before it was actually recorded, he had that gift in his head. We had in-house engineers…. [and] we trained a lot of engineers too; most of the people came from nowhere, and we gave them the opportunity to learn.”

After the mid-’70s peak, when Lee played on The Maytals’ Funky Kingston album and brokered their contract with Island, rival studios like Harry J, Channel One and Joe Gibbs became more prominent, but Dynamics was never abandoned, with Bob Marley even recording “Blackman Redemption” there in 1979. However, when Jamaican music began drifting towards dancehall, Lee returned to the pan-Caribbean party music he’d promoted in the ’60s. A few years after he was awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government in 1982, he concentrated on soca almost exclusively, scoring the smash hit, “Tiny Winey” with Montserratian soca singer Hero in 1984, and later enjoying another huge success with “Bacchanal Time,” recorded in 1993 with Trinidad’s Super Blue. He went on to back most of the leading soca performers at concerts held worldwide.

In 1990, Lee brought Trinidad’s Carnival culture to Jamaica by launching the annual Jamaica Carnival. Again, only Byron Lee would have considered such a thing. Carnival is a strictly Catholic beast, and Jamaica’s culture is far more Anglican/Protestant than that of the islands in which Catholicism took hold via extended colonial domination by the French and Spanish. But as noted earlier, Lee was himself the product of a Catholic education, so perhaps the influence helped convince him Carnival would be successful in Jamaica.

Additionally, his long association with the calypso and soca scenes of Trinidad gave him firsthand experience of Carnival’s potential for bringing people together – as well as its prospective income generation. However, Jamaica’s annual Carnival event somehow ended up being aimed at the upper-class elite and foreign tourists, whereas Carnival in Trinidad has been embraced by everyone and is historically more associated with the working class than anyone else.

In Lee’s view, though, Carnival was simply part of the same cultural continuum that gave rise to calypso, soca, reggae and ska. “It’s in our blood,” he told me. “Even today, if you play soca, the people who are really reggae enthusiasts will feel good. That’s why they love Carnival so much, because in their blood and in their heart and soul is the brown bread of the African music, which is the sound of the congas and the rhythm of soca and calypso.”

Regardless of the controversies, Byron Lee’s incredible career remains unparalleled in the history of the Jamaican music industry. Through the ’90s and into the new millennium, Lee continued a grueling tour schedule, even after reaching his 70th birthday in 2005. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer the following year, and, after a partial recovery, he went back on the road, and continued performing until just a few months before his death, at the age of 73, in November 2008. The diverse manner of his involvement in music, as well as the huge number of hits he was responsible for, has left an immense legacy.

Miriam Makeba–Mama Africa and Jamaica

miriam makeba From the Daily Gleaner, November 26, 1967

miriam makeba
From the Daily Gleaner, November 26, 1967


I haven’t blogged in the past two weeks because I have been in South Africa and Swaziland. While there, I picked up some great South African jazz from Zacks Nkosi, Sipho Hotstix Mabuse, the Manhattan Brothers, and Dennis Mpale, and of course some Lucky Dube, but I also found plenty of Miriam Makeba still making the rounds. So I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about the legendary Miriam Makeba and her impact on Jamaican music.

Zensi Miriam Makeba, known as Mama Africa, was born in 1932 in Johannesburg where today there is a street named after her. She was jailed with her mother, a Swazi, when she was an infant and her father, a Xhosa, died when Makeba was just six years old. Like many vocalists, Makeba began singing in her school choir and she started singing professionally with the Manhattan Brothers in the early 1950s before joining an all-female group, the Skylarks.

It was in 1956 that Makeba produced perhaps her most well-known hit, “Pata Pata.” This song, and here is one of the Jamaican connections, was covered by Millicent Todd, better known as Patsy, who recorded it for Sonia Pottinger in 1967 as “Pata Pata Rocksteady.” Patsy also recorded “The Retreat Song,” or Jikele Maweni, another Miriam Makeba song that is sung in the Xhosa language. The lyrics tell of a vicious stick fight.

Like Jikele Maweni, Makeba’s lyrics were typical love songs crooned by women during the 50s and 60s. Instead, Makeba’s songs were political and social commentaries on the Apartheid government in her homeland. They also celebrated Africa with content on culture and folklore, sung in the Xhosa language instead of Afrikaans or English which was a bold move during these years since the government forced the Afrikaans language on its citizens to the point of death (the Hector Pieterson massacre of over 600 school children in 1976) as a way of exerting power over and oppressing the black Africans. As a result, Makeba was banned from her country, forced to live in exile for years. When Makeba traveled to the United States to further her career, her mother died and so Makeba returned home for her funeral. She was denied entry. From 1960 until 1990, Makeba lived in exile. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he encouraged Makeba to return home which she did.

Photo by Heather Augustyn, June 2014

Photo by Heather Augustyn, June 2014

In an interview with Roger Steffens in 1988, Makeba said, “I’ve always been branded as a political singer. I never set out to sing politics; I just happen to come from a country that is oppressing my people. And I grew up under that oppression. And so I sing about my own life and the lives of my people. . . . So, the strength I get is from my people. And I get if from my mother and my father and my grandmother . . . and I get strength from all the people who have given me their love in different countries.”

Makeba was married five times to such men as fellow South African legendary musician Hugh Masekela and Black Panther Stokley Carmichael. She has won a Grammy Award in 1966 for her work with Harry Belafonte, and she has worked with such artists as Paul Simon, Nina Simone, and Dizzy Gillespie. She has appeared on the Cosby Show (now if that’s not success, I don’t know what is), and she has performed for John F. Kennedy’s birthday, as well as Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium. She died in 2008.

Another Jamaican connection to Miriam Makeba is that Makeba actually came to Kingston to perform for adoring fans in 1965 and again in 1967 and 1973 during her exile. Makeba visited countries all over the world during this time. In 1967 she performed with The Paragons, The Jamaicans, and Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. She also performed at a charity ball at the Myrtle Bank Hotel, invited by Edward and Mitzy Seaga and Byron Lee. She returned in 1973 to perform and met with P.J. Patterson who was the Minister of Industry and Tourism (prior to this he was the attorney who defended Don Drummond in his murder case, and after this he became prime minister). Patterson paid tribute to Makeba for her struggle for the recognition and dignity of her South African people and the excellence of her art. It was at this time that the Jamaican government also revoked the order prohibiting Stokely Carmichael from entering Jamaica, an order that was made in 1967.

From the Daily Gleaner, December 9, 1967

From the Daily Gleaner, December 9, 1967

Why was Makeba so popular in Jamaica? Perhaps because she sang of common themes—themes of Africa, oppression, struggle, and survival during a time when the message needed to be heard the most. She celebrated her people, and as a result, her people celebrated her back. We all still celebrate her legend today, every time we put on one of her tunes. I am proud to have played her music for my young children who now sing along with her songs, although they may not know the language or its meaning. What they do understand is that universal language of music and so we pass it along to the next generation.

miriam makeba2

Here is an excerpt from the article from the Daily Gleaner, December 3, 1967 with the headline “Miriam Makeba to Return to the Regal.”
THE EXCITING Miriam Makeba — “The Voice of Africa” — returns to Jamaica with her world renowned troupe to give two performances in “The Miriam Makeba Show” at the Regal Theatre in Kingston this week Saturday. The two shows scheduled for 7.00 and 11.30 p.m. will also include a special contingent of specially selected Jamaican artistes including Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Hugh Falkner who recently won the coveted Best Singer Award in the 1967 Brazilian World Festival, Archie Lewis, Louise Bennett and The Jamaicans. The fascination of her eloquent voice, the warmth of her quiet humility, and the charm of her personality have combined to make Miriam Makeba the first South African songstress to attain international stardom. She has been referred to as “a high voltage star,” a typical example of the work camps, the bush villages and the city slums,” “a highly disciplined performer with a chic sophisticated style,” “a totally untutored performer with the stark simplicity of a primitive style and a natural feeling for the jazz idiom,” “a deliberate, very refined artiste,” Makeba, it seems, is all things to all people. Her repertoire, ranging from African songs in Zulu, Swazi, Xosa, Sothor and Shangaan languages and dialects to melodies sung in Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, Yiddish, Indonesian, and English, often features one of the most spectacular vocal effects in contemporary music, her famous Xosa click songs. In these, the featured sound has been variously described as something like “uncorking a bottle,” “the quick brush of sandpaper on sandpaper,” “two sticks striking against each other,” “the click of castanets,” “a glottal click and tribal panting,” “the explosive sound of a locomotive,” “the quick click of ‘tsk’ of tongue against palate,” and other bits of imagery that fall somewhat short of the actual, sound of the Xosa click songs. The unique star has only one suggestion that might help in categorising her. “When people ask me what I sing like,” she says, “the best I can do is tell them, ‘Come and hear me.’”

Here is columnist Harry Milner’s review of the show in the Daily Gleaner, December 11, 1967 with the headline, “The Velvet Voice of Africa.”
Last time Miriam Makeba came to Jamaica she gave a concert; this time her ”Show” was closer to cabaret….very much more polished, with a greater emphasis on presentation and considerably shorter. She wore two different costumes, both with a Nefertiti-style headdress, the first a glorious white creation in which she was a truly regal presence.
Happily, this time, she was not suffering from the appalling microphone system that marred her last appearance, and her voice came through, using her own “mike” as clear as a bell and as soft as velvet. As before, her programme was sufficiently varied, though this time there was a little more emphasis on songs of protest, such as the lovely “The Answer is Love” and Jeremy Taylor’s exciting song from the South African revue, “Wait a Minute, A Piece of Ground,” (which is a sort of potted history of her country ) and “When I Pass On”; but still her most exciting music remains the Xosa and Transkei wedding and tribal songs that she has made so indisputably her own. She included also her amusing “Poor Old Man” and also a fine Brazilian work. Her performance would have been a complete triumph had there had not been a slight misunderstanding just before the break in her show. Miss Makeba was apparently unaware of the terrible acoustics of the Regal, and she pitched her voice too low when introducing her songs for those in the far stalls or the balcony to hear. A few of the audience called on her to speak up and this she looked upon as a breach of courtesy. It was all very unfortunate as the crowd really loved her, and I think that they were quite as hurt as her by this unfortunate and jarring incident.
Milton Grayson who sang three numbers, whilst Miss Makeba changed came into a rather changed atmosphere, but soon won the audience back with a gloriously strong voice in “A Cuban Lament” and Cole Porter’s “So in Love.” Harmony was restored, while the two artistes brought a real party spirit to the Johannesburg “Patta Patta” urban song and dance . . . so we all parted good friends and Miriam Makeba received the hearty ovation that she deserved.
The first half of the show in which Jamaican artistes and Adam Wade performed was spoilt by bad “miking,” which was particularly hard on Archie Lewis with his “Old Man River” and “Edelweiss.” Archie somehow got hold of the worst one of the two microphones. Adam Wade was luckier, and his three numbers, including “Julie on My Mind” and fast soul offering went over well. Of the local trios The Paragons were much more successful than The Jamaicans, who in one of their numbers sounded abysmally Alabaman. Byron Lee accompanied this half of the show well, but musically Miss Makeba’s threesome was a great deal more pleasant with a very sensitive Brazilian doubling up on guitar and accordion. Miss Lou, as the “Voice of Jamaica,” immediately preceding Miriam Makeba as “The Voice of Africa,” was at her cozy best.

Sonia Pottinger–Phenomenal Woman

Sonia Pottinger and Tony Verity

Sonia Pottinger and Tony Verity

The death of Maya Angelou this week made me think of a Phenomenal Woman in Jamaican music who will be featured prominently in my book Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music that will be available this summer. Maya wrote, “Men themselves have wondered / What they see in me. / They try so much / But they can’t touch / My inner mystery. / When I try to show them / They say they still can’t see.” These words were personal to Maya, but they were about all of us women, and certainly about this Phenomenal Woman, Sonia Pottinger.

I was amazed when researching Sonia that articles on many of the important men in music appeared in the newspaper archives, but nothing on Sonia. Not unless you count the articles on her wardrobe. There were plenty of articles on the style of dress that she wore to social events, but nothing on her business success. She was a female producer, the first female producer, in a sea of men, in a man’s world. It was ruthless in the fight to establish identify in post-colonial Jamaica, and there were many victims. But Sonia was no victim. When her husband, record producer Lindon O. Potting, was unfaithful to her (certainly not uncommon for a record producer), she left him, divorced him, and took over the business. Phenomenal Woman. She grew the business, she treated artists with kindness and fairness. She heard their talents in a way that was unique to a woman. She had a woman’s touch. This is precisely why many artists, plenty of women but also plenty of men, came to Sonia as a producer. They trusted her. To understand what that really means is impossible without recognizing the climate that existed during this era in the music industry. It was every man for himself. Sonia was a Phenomenal Woman.

I would like to post this article that Howard Campbell wrote when she died. It gives some more biographical information about her. Perhaps to truly know her is to listen to the artists that she produced. You can hear her legacy in the recordings.

From the Daily Gleaner, November 7, 2010, written by Howard Campbell, Gleaner Writer:

SONIA POTTINGER, who blazed a trail as reggae’s most successful female music producer, died Wednesday evening at her St Andrew home. She was 79 years old. David Plummer, the youngest of Pottinger’s four children, told The Gleaner that his mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in recent years. He did not say if it caused her death. Bornin St Thomas, Pottinger was introduced to the music business by her husband L.O. Pottinger, an engineer who had relative success as a producer in the mid-1960s. She went on her own during that period, scoring a massive hit with Every Night, a ballad by singer Joe White. Pottinger had considerable success in the late 1960s with her Tip Top, High Note and Gay Feet labels. She produced Errol Dunkley’s debut album, Presenting Errol Dunkley, and hit songs by vocal groups like The Melodians (Swing and Dine), The Gaylads (Hard to Confess) and Guns Fever by The Silvertones. In 1974, Pottinger bought the Treasure Isle catalogue and operations of pioneer producer Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid. She had even more success in the era of roots-reggae, producing chart-toppers by Marcia Griffiths (Hurting Inside and Stepping Out of Babylon) and Culture (Natty Never Get Weary). Errol Brown, Reid’s nephew, was engineer for many of Pottinger’s productions in the 1970s. He said she was no pushover in the studio.
RESPECT “She loved the music … loved it too much,” Brown said. “She knew what she wanted in the studio, and had a lot of respect for the musicians.” Musicologist and sound-system operator, Winston ‘Merritone’ Blake, said Pottinger was a sharp businesswoman in a male-dominated field. “She did her thing differently. She was always very dignified,” Blake said.
Pottinger is the latest death in local music. Singers Lincoln ‘Sugar’ Minott and Gregory Isaacs, two giants of lovers rock reggae, died in July and October, respectively. Sonia Pottinger is survived by three of her children: Sharon, Ronette and David as well as 11 grandchildren.

The Monkey Tambourine Tree

The Monkey Tambourine Tree that once stood at Alpha Boys School.

The Monkey Tambourine Tree that once stood at Alpha Boys School.

I am beyond excited to write this week’s blog post! I have stumbled across a photo of the Monkey Tambourine Tree, also called the Dibby Dibby Tree, that once stood at the Alpha Boys School. I was looking through some old issues of the Jamaica Journal that I recently purchased off of ebay for the fun of it, and located in the May-July 1987 issue was an article titled “The Search for Africa’s Baobab Tree in Jamaica.” This photo appeared on page 6, and I thought, could this be the tree? The one that Don Drummond practiced under that I had been told about by various Alpharians? I posted my inquiry on Facebook and had my hopes confirmed–this is the tree!!!

My friend Ronald Knight who was an Alpharian and a member of the band says, “Yes it was. We used to do our musical theory lessons under it every morning, the buildings you can see was where instruments were kept. And to the right of the tree,out of sight was the printing & bindery buildings. It brings back some memories , that tree ….” Alpharian Charles Simpson confirms, “Its back of the printery and binding shop right of the old band room,” and Rico Rodriguez also agrees, this was the tree!

Why is this so exciting for ska fans like me? Well I would like to talk about it by including the following information which is an excerpt from my book in the chapter entitled, The Monkey Tambourine Tree. Had I discovered this photo before it was published, this certainly would have been included in the chapter. I get chills thinking of Don D practicing as a child under this tree. I can picture him there, I can almost see his ghost.

From Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist:

How did Don Drummond develop such musical skill at such an early age? Certainly Reuben Delgado had a big hand, Drummond’s classmates and mentors like Carl Masters had a hand, but truthfully, it was Drummond himself who took the opportunity he was given and made the most of it. Instead of playing games like other boys, instead of going to class to further develop his math or reading skills, Drummond spent time, on his own, under a tree, practicing. Winston “Sparrow” Martin recalls Drummond’s discipline for music when they were both students at Alpha. “I came here when I was nine years old and Don Drummond was on his way out. He was a man who liked to stay by himself. There used to be a tree by the band room when I used to be here called the Monkey Tambourine Tree and he used to sit there practicing, or if he not practicing he would be looking at a piano book. He practiced the trombone out of a piano book, because the piano has the melody and the harmony so you practice that and he would play the part of what the piano played. On the piano you have something called the treble section and the bass section so he would play the bass section,” says Martin. A monkey tambourine is a specific style of wood tambourine. The tree that Martin and others referred to as the Monkey Tambourine Tree was also called the Dibby Dibby Tree by Sister Ignatius and others after a slang term meaning bad quality.

Winston “Sparrow” Martin channels Don Drummond playing the trombone where the Monkey Tambourine Tree once stood. Photo by Heather Augustyn

Winston “Sparrow” Martin channels Don Drummond playing the trombone where the Monkey Tambourine Tree once stood. Photo by Heather Augustyn

Headley Bennett also remembers Drummond practicing and studying under the Monkey Tambourine Tree. “We meet him at Alpha. He never used to play games with us. He just sit under the tree and watch the games. And he used to read a lot. He used to read a lot about leaders, like the Russian leaders and German leaders. He used to read those kind of books. And I used to look at him and tell him that I don’t really understand those books. He need the knowledge, you know? But they were too high for him, for his age, you know. He was around 14 or 15 years old and we were the same age. We played cricket, football, baseball. He sat under the tree and watched us. And he always smilin’, you know? When we see him under the tree he smiled. He used to practice more than any one of us. When we finished class at three or four o’clock, he practiced every evening when he’s not watching games. He practiced very hard, more than us. We were in the band together with Reuben Delgado. He was a very strict band leader. Drummond was quiet. You could not get him to talk too much. He don’t want to discuss nothing. You don’t have to talk about nothing at all. He used to read a lot, that’s how he tried to gain more knowledge,” says Bennett. It was during this time that Drummond was fitted for glasses since he was found to be extremely nearsighted. His glasses were very thick, like magnifying glasses.

Martin says that Drummond even began skipping classes to practice on his own and the administrators allowed it since he was so skilled at music. Walking the path on Alpha’s campus from an area of overgrowth and debris that used to house the old band room, Martin recalls, “When he was going to school, we take our instruments from here and walk to the practicing area. But when we leave the practicing area and come back to put all the instruments away, Don don’t put his instrument away yet. He sit down under the tree and practice, so when the bandmaster come in, Mr. Delgado, he would still stay there, with his instrument but he would have the piano music in his hand.”

Bandmaster Winston “Sparrow” Martin gestures to where the band room stood during Don Drummond’s time at the school. Photo by Heather Augustyn

Bandmaster Winston “Sparrow” Martin gestures to where the band room stood during Don Drummond’s time at the school. Photo by Heather Augustyn

Drummond spent time studying classical music in the classroom, but on his own he listened to jazz on the radio and he started to compose songs of his own. “Don Drummond didn’t want to play classical music, he wanted to play jazz music and he practice jazz music, so a lot of guys do that when they’re older, they want to go into jazz, the Louis Armstrong, the J.J. Johnson, all these type of jazz musicians we used to hear about,” says Martin.


From the Daily Gleaner, November 17, 1968

From the Daily Gleaner, November 17, 1968 advertising “Tonight popatop at Ding-Ho Club.” Perhaps a reference to the drinking contest–as in “pop a top” off the bottle, or a nod to the popular style?

This week we take a look at the short-lived style called “Pop-a-top” which existed from around 1968 to 1970. It seems that Derrick Morgan was the originator of this style, or so he says, which features an upbeat tempo in some tunes, in others is slower. The feature that makes it pop-a-top is the keyboard. It is, what I would describe, a sound like a carnival carousel—not a calliope, but the organ. Other have identified the sound as a “bubble organ.” It is a novelty style. It was neato, didn’t last long, and you can really only listen to it in small doses.

Here’s what I was able to gather historically about pop-a-top. The only editorial I could find in the Daily Gleaner archives didn’t come from the era of poptop, but from years later in an article about Derrick Morgan. “By 1968 . . . Morgan was responsible for the hugely successful pop-a-top series of songs, when the rhythm of his re-recorded version of Fatman was extensively used.” So perhaps it was around 1968 when this phenomenon started, and it seems to have ended completely by 1970, as far as I can tell.

Here’s what Derrick Morgan told me back in 1996: “You have to remember, ska music is a foundation. What is ska? It is the guitar and the piano. That is what you call ska. And rocksteady is the same guitar and piano but it is the bass and the drum that changes and make it slower and we call it rocksteady and still we didn’t like the name rocksteady and we try for another one. We try for another one. ‘Pop-a-top, pop-a-top,’ you know? We tried that one but it did not last long. I only made ‘Fat Man’ with pop-a-top rhythm. It took off a little in England but it didn’t last for long so we have to go ahead looking for another name,” says Morgan who then spoke about reggae.

I have learned after a healthy debate on the Pama Forum, that the term “pop-a-top” comes from a Canada Dry commercial at the time that may have inspired the style of music. Pop a top means to pop the top off the bottle, or as some have pointed out, to pop the pop tab off the can. Some music aficionados are careful to point out that this was not a genre, not a subgenre, and instead was a style of reggae or maybe nothing at all. You be the judge. I am throwing this out there for discussion which is why I include it as a blog post, not a scholarly dissertation–it is fascinating to me, and I hope it is for you too! Have a listen and chime in below.

Here is a list of pop-a-top tunes compiled by my great friend and collector Si Gains (thanks Si!). Have a listen and add yours to the list:
Sour Ofrus, “East Me Up Officer” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoCPDSZmoYE

Andy Capp “Popatop” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ts-TrLH2PEw

Derrick Morgan “Fat Man” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZ8InkIPgXQ&list=PLR9vn98_oC5o9efhMwGVVkfhPa9v6cwDu

Ernest Ranglin “Pop-A-Top” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXALNnfNsSE&list=PLR9vn98_oC5o9efhMwGVVkfhPa9v6cwDu

Fitzroy & Harry “Pop a Top Train” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsZFD6Rl1g4&list=PLR9vn98_oC5o9efhMwGVVkfhPa9v6cwDu

The Maytones “Billy Goat” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIra8QTbKgs

Joe Gibbs and the Destroyers “Nevada Joe” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=315LlD3oqm8

The Creations “Mix Up Girl” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cey-8dIRdII

Also, Foundation Ska fans and friends – I’m giving away a pair of tickets to The Apple Stomp on May 31 and June 1 at Irving Plaza in New York! Time to go crazy and skank the weekend away to the music of ska heavy hitters The Toasters, Big D and the Kids Table, Stubborn All Stars, Five Iron Frenzy and many more!

Just share this post on Facebook and Twitter for your chance to win a weekend pass to  NYC’s best ska festival. One lucky winner will be chosen on May 21- don’t want to take a chance? You can buy tickets now at http://bit.ly/AppleStomp

Ezz Reco, Boysie Grant, and Beverly Mills & The Launchers

Ezz Reco

Before Millie Small hit the UK big with her hit “My Boy Lollipop,” Ezz Reco (birth name was Ezzard Reid but could there be a cooler showbiz name than Ezz Reco?!), Boysie Grant, and a woman named Beverly along with a band called The Launchers broke into the British market with Jimmy Cliff’s tune, “King of Kings.” Cliff had recorded his iconic song in 1963 and Ezz Reco did it in the UK in 1964. The B side of Ezz Reco’s version was a song called “Bluebeat Dance” to try to capitalize on the blue beat trend, and they also recorded “The Bluest Beat,” “Please Come Back,” “Little Girl,” all in 1964 for Columbia, and then in 1968 recorded “Return of the Bullet” and “ZZ Beat” on Blue Cat.

Ezz Reco & The Launchers, as they were billed, toured with Roy Orbison and were joined by Jamaican saxophonist Johnny Hope. Reco was a drummer and both Boysie Grant and Beverly Mills were vocalists. On Ezz Reco’s page of the playbill for the tour it reads, “What does Blue Beat sound like? It’s a lazy, medium-tempo sound, with a slight blues inflection. Front-line instruments, playing behind the vocal, stab out riffs on the beat with the insistent thump of a locomotive tackling a gradient. How did Blue Beat happen? Explains Boysie, “Back home in Jamaica we were dancing the Twist long before Chubby Checker was leaping about. By the time it became popular all over the world it was stale for us and we started looking around for something else. We have a gathering called pokamania [sic]—a revival dance—where the congregation shuffle their feet and shout eh-eh-eh-eh on the beat behind the preacher’s sermon. It’s a movement we have been doing for generations and from this grew the Blue Beat dance and the music to fit it.”

Kind of an interesting history, don’t you think?! Talk to 100 people and you will get 100 versions as to how it all started, but there is something behind the history—the connection to folk music is critical, and the connection to American rhythm & blues, so it definitely has some validity.


Boysie Grant also chimed in on blue beat’s popularity in the Daily Gleaner on March 17, 1964, the first article that the newspaper had published about ska despite the fact that it had existed for some time. But ska, you see, was a “downtown music,” until Byron Lee and the Dragonaires bridged the class divide. In the article entitled, “The Ska Hits London—but they call it blue beat,” (the text of which can be read here: http://skabook.com/foundationska/2013/12/origins-word-ska/) Boysie Grant appears with Ezz Reco in a photograph that is not preserved well enough to reproduce here, but the caption reads, “Here are the two men in the hit parade, Boysie Grant with the small moustache and brown hat and Ezz Reco with the big moustache and black hat. Boysie does the lion’s roar at the beginning of ‘King of Kings.’ Ezz has lots of gaps and bits of gold in his smile. He used to be a boxer, is a very cheerful man and laughs the whole time. Boysie is delighted that his native Jamaica is producing something other than rum. ‘Ezz and I,’ he says, ‘Ezz and I are the greatest and the prettiest and the most authentic.’ They will soon be joined in the hit parade by a girl called Millie. She sings ‘My Boy Lollipop.’”

I am wondering if the Beverly who sings with this group, Beverly Mills, is the same Beverly that Kenroy Fyffe told me sang with him in the Spanishtonians on “Rudie Get Plenty” and others (not “Stop That Train” which is misappropriated to them but is actually the Webber Sisters). Kenroy couldn’t remember anything else about Beverly including her last name and didn’t know of any other recording she did, so if anyone knows anything about Beverly Mills, please contact me.

I wanted to also include an article in the Daily Gleaner that appeared on August 16, 1971 with the headline “Boysie Grant is Alive!” as an example of early death hoaxes, just when you though the internet was the culprit!! Kidding, but the article is interesting. It states, “Boysie Grant, rumoured to have died in 1958, breezed into the GLEANER, offices on Tuesday, ‘large as life and very much alive and kicking.’ Some old timers on the entertainment scene may remember Boysie from back in the 50′s when he played the stage shows night club circuit, and held a 15-minute slot on radio as leader of the vocal group the ‘Four Keys.’ He was also a member of the “’Ivy Graydon’s Orchestra.’ He left Jamaica in 1955 for Connecticut, USA to check out what opportunities the States had to offer. He remained there for only a year before going on to England, and a tour of the Continent with the Perez Prado Show. Returning to London after three months, he played the hotel and night club circuit. In 1963, Boysie did his first recording on a 45 rpm — “King of Kings/Blue Beat Dance” with another Jamaican vocalist Beverley Mills, and backed by Ezz Reco and the Launchers. Ezz Reco, leader of this group, then exponents of the “Blue Beat,” is Jamaican ex-boxer Ezzard Reid, who migrated to the UK more than 20 years ago. Boysie is said to have been one of the first promoters of Jamaican music in England — the Blue Beat is an adaptation of the Ska. He now does solo night club performances, singing mainly ballads, blues and soul numbers. With regard to the rumour about his alleged death, Boysie says that he has no idea how this began. By now, he says, most of his friends must at least be convinced that he is very much alive —“they took a lot of convincing though,” he said with a smile. He was accompanied here by his wife, the former Mary Lundy a Jamaican nurse residing in England. Boysie says they plan to remain in the island for an indefinite period.”

Here’s a link to that tune, “King of Kings” so you can hear Boysie do the lion roar, look out Katy Perry! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6_IbY4cLLU