Margarita–Ambassador of Reggae

Margarita.

 

I have long continued the argument that Margarita was a champion, an ambassador, of the Rasta drumming that would go on to become the foundation for the reggae rhythm, and without her, it is possible that reggae would not be the same today. I have found now evidence in the Star Newspaper that furthers this argument.

In my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the Greatest Trombonist, I write: Her relationship with the brothers and sisters in the hills was strong, and so when she performed one time on stage, she refused to dance without the accompaniment of Count Ossie and his group, which were once known as the Rastafarian Repatriation Association of Adastra Road in Eastern Kingston and later became known as The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. Verena Reckord writes, “The group got its first legitimate stage break in the late fifties. It was an occasion when the late, famous rhumba queen Marguerita (Mahfood) insisted that she would not appear on a Vere Johns variety show (Opportunity Knocks) at the Ward Theatre on Christmas morning unless Ossie’s group was on the bill. Johns was wary then about using Rastas on his show, but Marguerita was his star attraction. He had no choice. Count Ossie and his drummers were hired. They were a hit. They soon became regulars on Vere Johns’ show and other functions.” Margarita was the one who introduced Rasta music into mainstream culture, as well as the jazz musicians who accompanied them which is why Miller calls her a “seminal figure in the island’s musical and cultural growth.” In Helene Lee’s work The First Rasta, Brother Royer, a member of Count Ossie’s camp, credits Margarita with helping Rasta music come to the mainstream through her tenacity. Despite Norman Manley’s demand that “Anywhere you see Rastaman, you have to lock them up,” Margarita refused to perform unless Count Ossie and his drummers performed, and it was only after the “people got crazy about the new sound,” says Royer, that Rastas were from then on welcomed onto stages. “Great girl! Our Helen of Troy!” said Royer of Margarita. She was more like the Josephine Baker of Jamaica.

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From the Star Newspaper, August 22, 1961.

So imagine my delight when I found an article in the Star Newspaper, August 22, 1961 that mentioned the exact performance that Reckord referenced! The article reads: African Drums at Palace Hour. Fans who attend the Palace Theatre tomorrow night will see and hear for the first time on a stage Count Ossie and his African Drums, the band whose sounds have taken Jamaica by storm. They will also hear the famous “Carolina” which held the Number One spot on the Hit Parade for son long. Featured in the fast moving “Swingaree” which will be presented between two full length films at regular prices will be: The renowned Blues Busters fresh from the North Coast, the famous Wilfred Edwards, golden-voiced Lascelles Perkins and top favourite Hortense Ellis. Coming in from Montego Bay will be Phonso the Great. For variety there will also be Creative Dancer Margarita, Caribbean Rhumba Queen Yvonne Davis 9Just back from Nassau), whirlwind dancers Pam Pam and Colleen and Jamaica’s leading comedian, the inimitable Bam. The Drum sounds will also feature songs by Skitter and Winston and trombone selections by Rico Rodriques. All roads will lead to the Palace tomorrow night. –C.A.T.

From the Star Newspaper, August 28, 1961.

From the Star Newspaper, August 28, 1961.

The performances were a hit with crowds of the Palace Theatre, according to a Star Newspaper article on Monday, August 28, 1961. The article entitled “‘Swingeree’–A Big Hit,” reads: Upwards of 2,000eager fans thronged the Palace Theatre last Wednesday night to witness the first appearance of Count Ossie and His African Drums, with some of the island’s top entertainers. Scores had to stand and hundreds were turned away. The show was good to the last drop and every item was a winner from Compere Vere John introduced the opening number to Wilfred Edwards’ last song. First came Lascelles Perkins with two numbers and he was followed by Pam Pam & Colleen in a whirlwind dance number. Then Hortense Ellis gave out with “I am not a know it all” and got two encores, after which Count Ossie and the Sounds took over. The fans rocked to the favourite ‘Carolina’ sung by Skitter & Winston, swayed with Rico and his soulful trombone, moaned with Bobby Gaynair and his golden sax and enjoyed “Babylon gone.” Comedian Bam kept the audience in stitches for about eight minutes. Hit of the evening was the dance done to the curvesome Margarita to the beat of the African drums in colourful costume. She received an ovation. Then came the Blues Busters and the audience just wouldn’t let them go even after three numbers. Caribbean Rhumba Queen Yvonne (Electric Eel) Davis also made a tremendous hit with the fans as she gyrated in superb rhythm. Finally Wilfred Edwards closed the show with three favourite selections. ‘Swingeree’ featuring Count Ossie & His African Drums will be seen at the Odeon Theatre, Half Way Tree, tomorrow night at 8.40 o’clock between two great films. It will also be presented at the Gaiety Theatre on Thursday night at the same hour. Supporting stars for these two shows will be The Blues Busters, Margarita, Hortense Ellis, Pam Pam & Colleen and top Comedian Bam. –C.A.T.”

Credit is due to Prince Buster for first recording the drums of Count Ossie that formed the backbone for reggae, but credit is also due to Margarita, Anita Mahfood, for bringing these drums to the stage, where their sounds mixed in the air, knowing no boundary between upper and lower classes. Until this time, and long after this time, the Rastafari were persecuted and considered the outcasts of society. But Margarita championed their cause and their creativity. She used her status as a headlining dancer, a woman from a wealthy family, and her talent to help bridge the class divide by introducing their sounds to the stage. Just a few days later, on September 8, 1961, a photo of Count Ossie and his drummers appear with the caption “Bearded Sounds.” The following month an advertisement for a show at Adastra Gardens appears for Count Ossie, calling his sound “Strange Music from Africa.” All of this was amid article after article of horrible treatment of the Rastafari, headlines claiming they burned babies as a sacrifice, were lunatics, and were murdered, were common during these years. Here are a few of them, and only a few, from 1961 and 1962:

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I post these to put into context what Margarita did by supporting the drums of Count Ossie. She took a great risk. Prince Buster may have brought the drums to the studio, but Margarita brought them beyond the hills, beyond Orange Street, to the audiences that viewed the Rastafari as these articles present them. She was a true renegade and a heroine and we owe her a great debt.

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