Memories of Chocomo Lawn

From the Daily Gleaner, June 23, 1964

This week I am asking for you, the reader, to share your memories of Chocomo Lawn, should you have the experience in your past. Even better, if you have photos of Chocomo Lawn, then or now, I would be very interested in hearing from you. This site was a “ground zero” of ska, as were other sites such as Forrester Hall, Orange Street, Brentford Road, and many more. Chocomo Lawn was/is in West Kingston and was the headquarters for Edward Seaga during his early years in politics. In a Daily Gleaner article on December 23, 1967, Seaga held a holiday party for thousands of children in West Kingston, and he held the fete at Chocomo Lawn. The article read, “About 4,000 children were given a Christmas treat at Chocomo Lawn, Wellington Street, on Thursday afternoon sponsored by the West Kingston Constituency Committee and the Hon. Edward Seaga, Minister of Finance and Planning. This was the fourth Christmas treat for children of the area since Monday. Mr Seaga assisted by Miss Veronica Carter handed out the gifts at all the treats. Mr. Seaga announced that a special feature of this year’s Christmas treat for the constituency application forms for admittance to two youth camps for boys in the area
between 15 and 16 years were available at the constituency headquarters. To close the series of treats a special dinner for 1000 old people of the area was given yesterday afternoon, Supt. Joe Williams of the Denham Town Police was special guest.”

Years before this charitable gathering, Seaga, had come to West Kingston as a site of culture where he would study and cultivate the music–music of the revivalist religions (kumina, pukumina) and ska. In a Jamaica Observer article on March 21, 2004, former Kingston mayor Desmond McKenzie recalls this era at Chocomo Lawn. The article states, “A decisive turning point in the lives of the residents, particularly the young people in Western Kingston, came with the arrival of Edward Seaga, McKenzie remembers. He would make an awesome impression on them and under his tutelage some would rise to national prominence, notably “Babsy” Grange, Daphne Hurge, Samuel Dreckette, the late reggae superstar Dennis Brown, Winston Bopee who was lead guitarist for We the People band, the Techniques, among others. Seaga had entered West Kingston on grounds that he was researching culture and revivalism in the area. . . .  They were also thrilled by the way Seaga could move to the beat of the revival drums. Seaga eventually bought out Victor’s Pop Band that gave birth to the Techniques. Many young Jamaican talents were nurtured there. Young upcoming stars such as Jimmy Cliff, Marcia Griffiths, Delroy Wilson, Count Prince Miller and the like played at Chocomo Lawn, the cultural centre that Seaga developed. Such was the reputation and prestige of the place that ‘anybody who was anybody played the Chocomo Lawn.'”

One of these “anybodys” was Byron Lee & the Dragonaires who came to Chocomo Lawn, along with Ronnie Nasralla, to learn about the ska. Until then, like most other bands on the island, Lee and his group were playing in the American rhythm and blues styles that were popular at dances and in clubs. Other bands, like Carlos Malcolm, performed jazz. Each club, each studio, was an incubator of sounds from the Caribbean, America, and Africa, but at Chocomo Lawn, the scene was ska and Seaga encouraged his friends to come for a listen, to help spread this new sound. In a Daily Gleaner article, October 25, 1980, the writer chronicles a celebration of Seaga’s imprint on the culture. “Mr. Seaga mentioned such names as Jimmy Cliff, Ken Boothe, Stranger Cole, Toots and the Maytals, Hortense and Alton Ellis who he said always frequent Chocomo Lawn in Western Kingston — the place where ska was born. He said that as Minister of Finance and Planning in the JLP government, he tried to popularise ska internationally allowing Jamaica to be known as a country of creative people. After the ska, he said,
there was the rock steady, then reggae from which super stars like Bob Marley were born. Mr. Seaga said that Jamaican music today was acclaimed internationally, ‘It began as a little seed planted at Chocomo Lawn in Western Kingston, nurtured into a bigger tree and blossomed so that the entire world can see its beauty,’ Mr. Seaga said. Mr. Seaga paid tribute to Byron Lee and the Dragonaires who were celebrating 25 years in the music field. He said they have helped to spread Jamaican music abroad more than any other artistes in the country.”

Though I’m sure the above text will cause some debate. For every person who claims they are the one who started ska, there are an equal amount who feel they know who started it. This is good! This speaks to the passion of the music! There is ownership and pride! So those who may have memories to share of one of these sites of creation, Chocomo Lawn, please share your thoughts here and if you have photos, please contact me at haugustyn@yahoo.com. I am researching this time period and would very much like to hear your oral histories!

You can read more about the connection between Chocomo Lawn and ska here.

5 comments

  1. Hello Heather, I’m so happy to see and read your column about Choco Mo Lawn.
    Let me begin by saying I was born in western Kingston at the hospital they called
    Victoria Jubilee Hospital AKA Lineen across from Kingston Public Hospital.
    I grew up on Regent Street which was my first home a couple blocks from
    Wellington Street where you find Choco Mo Lawn. Close to Choco Mo, on
    North Street near Spanish Town Road another dance hall named Carnival.
    Those two places was visited by myself and my friends in my teenage years.
    The sound systems that played at those dance hall were mainly Coxson &
    Duke Reid. The very first time I heard easy snappin was at Carnival and the
    first time Prince Buster unveiled Oh Carolina it was at Carnival on Duke Reid
    Sound. I remember When Millie came back to Jamaica for the My Boy Lollipop
    Independence Show she went to Choco Mo for an appearance, I was suppose
    to join her there but I didn’t get the message in time. I had a lot of good time
    there, good memories.

  2. Roy, this is wonderful! I love hearing first hand stories! Can you tell me what it looked like there? Was it a large grassy area, a park, surrounded by buildings? Were there hundreds of people there, thousands? Were they dressed up? Where was the sound system or stage and how did that look? Thanks so much!

    • Hi Heather, As far as I can remember it was just a simple dance hall the dance area was paved and I think a few tenants were living in that yard as we use to call it.
      Back then if I remember correctly Cho co Mo was surrounded by homes it wasn’t
      considered a main dance hall mostly midweek dances along with Carnival lawn.
      The main dance halls were Forrester’s Hall, Kings Lawn, Jubilee Tile Gardens,
      and in the east end I remember Success Club, Coxson would play there often.
      There was also a Sound System goes by the name of V Rocket played exclusively
      in the east end. Jubilee was situated on King Street just north of North Street matter a fact I use to be a dance promoter in my young days[LOL] yes I kept dance at Forrester’s Hall, Jubilee & Gold Coast. Gold Coast is on the beach in Bull Bay.

      • Hi Heather, As far as I can remember it was just a simple place and the dance area was paved. I think a few tenants were living there if I remember correctly. It was mainly used on Midweek not on weekends
        because the weekend dance halls were -Foresters Hall, Kings Lawn &
        Jubilee Tile Gardens. I was a dance promoter back then so I would
        keep dances at -Foresters Hall & Jubilee. Roy Panton

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