Ska, Ska, Ska! Jamaica Ska!

world fair

Here they are! The Jamaican delegates to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, ready to head to Palisadoes Airport on April 16, 1964. From left to right in the front we have Jimmy Cliff, Eric “Monty” Morris, and Alphonso Castro. Standing from left to right is Prince Buster, Linda Jack, Roy Willis, Sonia Blake, Byron Lee, Janet Phillips, Carol Crawford, Ronnie Nasrala, Beverley Neath, and Ken Khouri.

The photo was taken at Issa’s, a high-end department store similar to Macy’s. The Issa family were a big business family in Jamaica with branches in not only retail, but real estate, hotel, and tourism industries. The Issa’s originally came to Jamaica in 1893 from Bethlehem, Palestine. The first two Issa’s to come to Jamaica were Elias Issa and his son Abraham Issa in 1893. The father and son team first visited the World Fair in Chicago, the Columbian Exposition, before coming to Jamaica on a ship named the Arabian Prince. They were a wealthy family from the start with the equivalent of $5 million dollars today in their pockets when they began on the island. They established the House of Issa in 1894, a company that specialized in dry goods and industrial goods, which later went on to purchase the famous Myrtle Bank Hotel in 1944, the site of many jazz and ska concerts. The family company then built Ocho Rios’ first modern hotel, Tower Isle, another site of many ska-era concerts. This hotel is now the Couples hotel, opened in 1978. They also opened Negril Beach Village, later known as Hedonism II. It is easy to see why the connection between the Issa family, involved in tourism, and Eddie Seaga, Minister of Culture, was important to spreading the word of ska.

The connection of the Issa family to ska was more than just the support of the World’s Fair crowd and Seaga’s endeavor. The Issa’s were also involved in the juke box industry, owning and operating the machines in rum bars all over the island. An article in the Daily Gleaner in 1958 says that a juke box owned by E.A. Issa in Montego Bay was damaged when a man punched it after it jammed and his record wouldn’t play. Juke boxes were critical for entertainment, for bringing money into drinking establishments, since virtually no one, except for the wealthy, owned their own phonograph. Vincent Chin, better known as Randy’s, got his start this way, through Issa’s. He worked for Issa’s, as many did during those days, including Ken Khouri of Federal Records, and he drove around from rum bar to rum bar, taking out old records and installing the new ones. After the old ones were of no use to Issa’s any more, he bought them from Mr. Issa at a cheap rate, set up shop, and then sold the American R&B tunes to the public who had slowly started to acquire their own phonographs from places like Times Store, or Issa’s.

Issa, Seaga, Khouri–say what you will about the monied families in Jamaica during the early years, but love them or hate them, without their support of the creativity coming from downtown, ska may not be where it is today, nor the music that followed. What are your thoughts?