Ronnie Nasralla still celebrating ska!

Ronnie Nasralla with his Order of Distinction that he received in 2013. Photographed in Nasralla's home by Heather Augustyn on July 25, 2015.

Ronnie Nasralla with his Order of Distinction that he received in 2013. Photographed in Nasralla’s home by Heather Augustyn on July 25, 2015.

 

This is the legendary Ronnie Nasralla, of Ronnie & Jannette fame, the two who taught the world to do the ska at the World’s Fair in New York in 1964. He is proudly showing his Order of Distinction that he received from the Jamaican government in 2013 for his contributions to music. He showed me his beautiful award on July 25, 2015 when I visited him in his home in Georgia to talk about his life and career. What a sweet man!

Among the topics we discussed were his days managing, and he revealed to me something that was not shocking, but still, it was incredible to hear from the mouth of someone who was there, who experienced it. Nasralla told me, “I was managing artists, Byron Lee, Blues Busters, The Maytals, and Eddie Seaga said to me that all these artists were being used by these producers. They were giving them like a penny for a record, if I could take them over, manage them and help them with recording, and so I said, ‘okay, I’ll do it.’ So I took over the artists and I recorded them and paid them twelve times more per record, and the downtown producers who were recording these artists threatened to kill me. He threaten me. He had four men threaten me. Coxsone Dodd.”

He also talked of his childhood and family and the fact that he is involved in many of the arts, such as theater and he paints as well. Here are a few of his paintings that are hanging on his wall.

Paintings by Ronnie Nasralla on the wall of his home. Photo taken by Heather Augustyn on July 25, 2015.

Paintings by Ronnie Nasralla on the wall of his home. Photo taken by Heather Augustyn on July 25, 2015.

Ronnie Nasralla with his art in his home on July 25, 2015, photo by Heather Augustyn

Ronnie Nasralla with his art in his home on July 25, 2015, photo by Heather Augustyn

 

He talked about discovering a female vocalist. Nasralla said, “There was a downtown bar I used to go into regularly, upstairs, and Boasie (Phillip James) said to me, ‘Ronnie, how is girl be like that downstairs that can sing?’ I asked him to have her come up so I could hear her and he brought up this girl and she sang for me. She said she couldn’t sing in front of me, she would sing behind the door. She sang from behind the door and I couldn’t believe it, she was so good. Marcia Griffiths. I wanted to use her on Byron Lee’s Christmas morning show and I asked Byron to use her and Bryon says no, he can’t use her, they are full. I said, ‘Byron, just use her on one song,’ and he said, ‘Okay, tell her to come.’ So I got my first wife, she was a hairdresser, to fix up her hair and I got a gown for her and she went on stage and she brought down the house! She sang ‘Born to Lose,’ and brought down the house and everyone called encore and she sang it a second time because she didn’t rehearse a second song. I started Marcia Griffiths. When I got my Order of Distinction, she was there and she said, ‘Ronnie, you started me. You got me where I got to.’ And I’ll never forget it.”

Heather Augustyn showing Ronnie Nasralla a photo of him dancing with Arthur Murray's wife, showing her how to do the ska, at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. Photo by Linda Martin, July 25, 2015.

Heather Augustyn showing Ronnie Nasralla a photo of him dancing with Arthur Murray’s wife, showing her how to do the ska, at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Photo by Linda Martin, July 25, 2015.

 

Ronnie Nasralla also told me how he came up with the different dance steps that he designed based on the moves he had seen at Chocomo Lawn in downtown Kingston, moves that he taught to crowds at the World’s Fair in New York in 1964. I have written about this many times and you can read more here and here and here and here. But Ronnie Nasralla regaled those long-ago days once again this past week to me, with a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eye. He said, “Jannette danced at school with my sister. And when I went to promote the ska with Eddie Seaga, I asked her if she would do it. Eddie Seaga, we were very close friends, she was very close with my sister, he said there was music in Western Kingston where he comes from, he said it’s called ska, and I should get Byron to promote it. So I said, ‘Byron can’t promote it if he don’t know it.’ So he said they are having a dance at Chocomo Lawn and Eddie Seaga said, ‘Watch what the people are doing and see if you can come up with a brochure for people to dance the ska.’ So I mingled with the people and danced with them and came up with a brochure in about two weeks time and I give it to Eddie Seaga and he sent ska all over the world.”

When I told Ronnie Nasralla that people today still love ska all over the world, he didn’t believe me! Downtown, uptown, race, class, countries, ska knows no boundaries. Ska was created downtown through the ingenuity of the Alpha Boys and their colleagues, championed by the ambassadors of ska, like Ronnie Nasralla, Byron Lee, and Eddie Seaga, and the world has been dancing ever since! What a debt of gratitude we owe these originators and exponents of ska!

Ronnie Nasralla with Heather Augustyn, July 25, 2015. Photo by Linda Martin.

Ronnie Nasralla with Heather Augustyn, July 25, 2015. Photo by Linda Martin.

Eddie Seaga, former prime minister of Jamaica, with Heather Augustyn in February, 2015. Photo by Julianne Lee, Byron Lee's daughter.

Eddie Seaga, former prime minister of Jamaica, with Heather Augustyn in February, 2015. Photo by Julianne Lee, Byron Lee’s daughter.

 

 

More Margarita!

I have been going through Star newspaper archives over the past year and came across these two photos of Margarita, Anita Mahfood. For those who have read my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, you will know the book is almost just as much about Margarita as it is about Drummond. She was also the impetus for my writing Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music because she is a classic example of a woman whose value has been largely unrecognized. She was tenacious, charismatic, talented, and powerful.

From an advertisement in the Star newspaper, February 17, 1960 for the "Let's Rock" show at the Palace Theatre.

From an advertisement in the Star newspaper, February 17, 1960 for the “Let’s Rock” show at the Palace Theatre. 

From the Star newspaper, July 16, 1959 in a pictorial review of "The Big Beat" show at the Palace Theatre.

From the Star newspaper, July 16, 1959 in a pictorial review of “The Big Beat” show at the Palace Theatre.

So when I came across these two photos, I was like a kid in a candy store, seeing two new images I had never before seen of this woman I idolize. And I was even more astounded when I read two accounts of her performances, which I think are indicative of two aspects of her performances–the sensuality, and also the danger. Neither can possibly mention the aspect of Margarita that I am most interested in, which can only be recognized through the eyes of looking at her historical impact, and that is her role in helping drumming and Rasta musicians come to the mainstream, by crossing from the camps into the upscale clubs. Therefore, Margarita was crucial to the evolution of what would become reggae.

Here are the two reviews of her performances, and the later is the more chilling.

From the Star newspaper, January 3, 1959, “Xmas Revue–good to the last tune.” “Curvacious Marguerita, fittingly costumed, did a spot of rhumba dancing ‘shimmying’ that had the girls holding down the boyfriends in their seats and the wives daring their husbands to look.”

From the Star newspaper, February 19, 1960, “A Bit Overdone,” by Archie Lindo. “. . . Marguerita, nicely costumed, didn’t do very well. It appears that she was a bit scared of the boys up front who threatened to climb on stage during her number.” Margarita performed with other artists such as Rico Rodriguez, Totlyn Jackson, The Jiving Juniors, The Downbeats, Laurel Aitken, Girl Satchmo and others. The event was hosted by C.B., or Charlie Babcock. It is interesting to note that in the Let’s Rock advertisement on March 16, 1960, the following month, Margarita is not on the lineup. Nor was she on the line up in May of that year. Perhaps her experience in February kept her away, but this is also the year that she had her daughter, Suzanne, so perhaps her pregnancy could also be a reason. She had previously appeared at this show, so it is curious why this was the last, at least for a while, that she performed on the bill.

I would also like to draw notice to the fact that both reviews acknowledge Margarita’s costume. Zola, Margarita’s niece who adored her aunt, told me that Margarita made all of her own costumes herself. She taught herself to sew, just as she taught herself to dance. What a phenomenal woman.

‘Be Original’ is Stranger Cole’s Advice

stranger stary april 14 1964

From the Star newspaper, April 14, 1964

 

Stranger Cole. Love this man. He is then, an original, and now, an original. Looking dapper in this Star newspaper article on April 14, 1964, Cole talks about how he chose not to follow the style of the American rhythm and blues singers. Sure the style influenced him, as it influenced the style of the music he was singing, but what Cole is likely alluding to is that many other vocalists patterned their style so much after singers like Shirley & Lee and Sam Cooke and others. Here are the words of the article:

“More young Jamaican vocalists should emulate ‘Stranger’ (Ruff and Tuff) Cole by refusing to copy the singing style and vocal arrangements of American singers. ‘When I started out I thought that I could be more popular if I imitated one of the American blues singers. Now I am glad that I changed to a style of my own,’ he says. ‘I think that success comes by being original.’ The 19-year-old Kingstonian–real name Wilburn Cole–has attained a position of prominence since he made his debut three years ago. Unlike most other local singers, ‘Stranger’ was not influenced by friends into starting his career. ‘I just felt that I could sing well enough to please the people and then I started out,’ he says. Cole has made over 50 recordings, the two most popular of which are: ‘Ruff and Tuff’ and ‘When I call your Name.’ Each has sold over 10,000 copies. His recordings, ‘Hey, Hey Baby’ and “Hush, Baby,’ are currently on the local hit parade. He was not alone in his second hit. Patsy, of Derrick and Patsy fame, severed her connections with Derrick Morgan and teamed up with Stranger for ‘When I Call Your Name.’ Cole also sings with Ken Boothe, writing the words for his songs. He is assisted with musical compositions by bandleader Babba [sic] Brooks and pianist Gladstone Alexander. Cole, who hopes to perform in America, has appeared on several stage shows around the island with impresario ‘Sir’ Anthony Cobb. He will appear on the Cat’s ‘Trinidadian Spectacular’ stage show at the Odeon on April 19.”

Stranger certainly did go on to perform in America, and all over the world! As he loves to say, “More Life!”

 

Having a beer with Stranger in Kingston in February, 2013.

Having a beer with Stranger in Kingston in February, 2013.

The Presidents

Star Newspaper, January 8, 1963.

Star Newspaper, January 8, 1963.

Not every band made it during the fruitful days of ska. Some bands who performed live but never recorded disappeared from history like a ghost, only to whisper that they once existed. Case in point is a band called The Presidents. I have only been able to find two articles on this group, one an advertisement and one bearing a photograph of the band. I can find no evidence of them ever recording. They, like many other bands that come together in youth and dissolve as life happens, were really just kids when they formed, as referenced in this article from the Star Newspaper on January 8, 1963. The caption reads, “They call themselves The Presidents, but they could well have been The Youngsters or The Teenagers. However The Presidents is their name and they are one of the newest bands to hit the local music scene. Just over two months in operation, the average age of the band is a little more than 15 years. From left to right are guitarist Carley Simon, Bobby Demercado (leader) and Phllip Chen. Back row (left to right) Bill Pitt, percussion, Francis Chen, percussion, Sidney MacFarlane, drums, vocalists Peter Dawes, Richard Kirkwood, and Neil Dalhouse, Clive Morris, trumpet and Sidney Smith clavolin.”

presidents 11 4 62

Daily Gleaner, November 4, 1962.

This advertisement above must be from one of The Presidents’ first public appearances, if the Star article is correct that the band had formed two months prior. This show occurred two months prior and the names are relatively the same in the lineup with the addition of a saxophone player, Rupert Williams.

What ever happened to these musicians? Did they grow up and move into other occupations? Is Phillip Chen on bass the same Phil Chen that became the world-famous bass player with Jimmy James & the Vagabonds, the Vikings, Bob Marley, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Jackson Browne, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, Jerry Lee Lewis, and countless others before being awarded the Order of Distinction from the Jamaican government in 2014? If anyone has any further information on these young guys, please add to the discussion below!