JFK and Ska

busta

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22nd reminded a friend of mine of ska. Intrigued, I asked him why. He responded with the songs that are related to the JFK assassination and, because I am not a record collector nor a matrix cruncher, I hadn’t been able to see the forest for the trees. Michael Turner of the Roots Knotty Roots database complied this list of ska songs related to the assassination:

Bongo Man “Jack Ruby Bound To Die (Kennedy’s Grave)”

Dee’s Group  “President Kennedy”

Roland Alphonso and His Group “Tribute To Kennedy”

Don Drummond  “JFK’s Memory”

Roland Alphonso and Lester Sterling “Lee Harvey Oswald”

Don Drummond  “Lee Harvey Oswald Junior”

Roland Alphonso and His Group “Jack Ruby (Crime Wave)”

It made me curious, what did Jamaica think of the JFK assassination? How did this newly independent nation experience the death of this leader? Here’s what I found.

The Daily Gleaner on November 26, 1963 wrote of Sir Alexander Bustamante’s reaction as the prime minister of Jamaica during this time. It was a story that ran on the Associated Press and Reuters newswires.

Sir Alexander Bustamante, prime minister of Jamaica, said today the assassination of President Kennedy means “we have all lost a true and great friend.” Sir Alexander, the ranking man of the Caribbean at the funeral services for Kennedy, arrived in Washington early today. He was given top protocol position for the nations south of the border, some of which have constitutional provisions restricting travel of their chief executives outside the country. Mexico, for example, forbids its president from leaving the country without specific approval of Congress. In some others internal political conditions may have been a factor. The Jamaican leader, tall and impressive despite his 79 years, seemed deeply moved by the death of Kennedy. “In Jamaica we all loved him and anyone could see it in the faces of the people,” Sir Alexander said. “Jamaica is a true and loyal friend of the United States and the West.” The little Caribbean island became the newest independent nation in the Western hemisphere in August, 1962 in a ceremony witnessed by Lyndon B. Johnson, then Vice-President of the United States and Prince Margaret of Great Britain. Sir Alexander came to know Johnson well during the Jamaican visit and had met Kennedy on various occasions, the last in June of this year when the Jamaican came to Washington on an unofficial visit. Despite the unofficial character of his trip, however, Kennedy received him at the White House and expressed a desire to visit Jamaica someday. The prime minister said government offices and schools in Jamaica closed today in official mourning for Kennedy.  “Our mourning, however something more than official,” Sir Alexander commented “The people of Jamaica mourn the passing of a true friend of our country, and today stores and businesses in Jamaica, although under no official requirement to close, have done so in tribute to the man whose memory we have all come here to honour on this sad day.” Sir Alexander was a prominent figure among the mourners later as the funeral procession left the White House grounds. Wearing a long tailed grey coat and a black armband he hurried to catch up with the other foreign dignitaries. He had apparently been cut off briefly as the mourners began their solemn walk to the cathedral.

manley

The leader of the opposition, Mr. Norman Manley, who had just served as prime minister of Jamaica and left office about a year and half prior to the assassination, had been in Philadelphia with his wife on business when the assassination took place. He issued the following statement in the Daily Gleaner on November 26, 1963.

It was a sad but moving and unforgettable experience to be in America on Friday and there the last two days. I was at the great Concert Hall in Philadelphia listening to their famous orchestra when the news of the assassination of President Kennedy came. The conductor soon announced that the concert would stop and we were all silently agreed. Outside there was an atmosphere of shock and grief and many were weeping as they went their ways. Everyone has felt it deeply. The driver in the taxicab, the waiter at the table, the businessmen in the conference room, all alike showed how profoundly this has hurt and amazed and disturbed them all. It was like when Abraham Lincoln was shot there almost exactly 100 years ago. It is natural that comparisons are made since Lincoln will for all time be remembered as the champion of freedom and today men associate Kennedy’s name with his fearless stand for civil rights and human freedom. Already men begin to measure the stature of a man as the President who first and best embodied the concept of America as a young man thrust into world leadership. It is true to say that not only has he been the greatest presidential champion of freedom in America since Lincoln lived but also since he had begun to give America a new dimension to American political life in two vital and important ways. He was consciously shaping the American mind to understand and accept her place in the modern world and as one of the two great nations in world leadership today. And he had begun to make the young people of America aware of the importance of political life and right judgment in political images and willing to contribute to their country even at the cost of personal sacrifice. I had the privilege of meeting him and I know that he was deeply interested in the West Indies and in Jamaica. Indeed, I was astonished at his quick grasp of our problems. We have lost a good friend.

Of particular note is coverage in the Daily Gleaner of Fidel Castro’s comments on the assassination. This story also ran on the wire, so it is likely that the U.S. also reported on the story, but Jamaicans likely had additional interest due to the geographical proximity and cultural importance of Cuba to Jamaica. Of course there are also links between Cuba and ska, and Castro and ska, but perhaps another day for that conversation. Here is a section of the in the November 25, 1963 issue of the Daily Gleaner  with the headline “Kennedy Carried World to Brink of War—Castro:”

The Cuban Prime Minister told his people by radio and television that despite Kennedy’s “hostile . . . policies toward us” the news of his assassination is “grave and bad.” “People feel repugnance to such a slaying because we should not consider this method a correct form of battle,” he said.

Dozens of  articles also appeared about local community groups expressing their condolences and their responses to the event, such as tributes and closures. Correspondents from towns across the country wrote their official statements of mourning and visits of town officials to Kingston were postponed due to the death. Certainly the events in the U.S. have always had an impact on American culture in a number of ways—even the death of John F. Kennedy. From destruction comes creation, and in the case of the JFK assassination, the musicians contributed to the conversation with their compositions.

Enjoy a listen–Don Drummond’s JFK Memories, one of my personal favorites.

Pick It Up, B-Boys! The Toasting/Hip-Hop Connection.

My good friend Michael Turner recently found and posted the above rare clip of King Stitt toasting on his Roots Knotty Roots page and I wanted to pass it along and write about it here. This particular clip interested me because I have been researching the link between toasting and early hip hop and wanted to take a few minutes to elaborate and solicit your thoughts.

As Buster Brakus notes in this clip, the backing band is Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. He notices Carl Brady on percussion who is a life-time member of Byron Lee & the Dragonaires and possibly Marvin Brooks on tambourine. Brakus says that Clancy Eccles told him that Eccles and King Stitt performed a lot with Byron’s band.

What interests me most is toasting as an art form. Count Machuki first began toasting for Tom the Great Sebastian and then came to work for Coxsone since he was skilled at attracting a crowd and keeping the crowd. Machuki says that he was so desired by the crowds that they were disappointed at the recorded version of the live performance, solidifying the concept that ska is very much a live experience. In The Rough Guide to Reggae, authors Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton quote Count Machuki. “There would be times when the records playing would, in my estimation, sound weak, so I’d put in some peps: chick-a-took, chick-a-took, chick-a-took. That created a sensation! So there were times when people went to the record shop and bought those records, took them home, and then brought them back, and say, ‘I want to hear the sound I hear at the dancehall last night!’ They didn’t realize that was Machuki’s injection in the dancehall!”

“Toasting was developed by the sound-system operators,” writes Mohair Slim. “To emphasis the music’s rhythm, the DJs chanted staccato noises over the top of the instrumental tracks that were the staple of the early dancehall. A common technique was the rapid-fire repetition of words, like “ska-ska-ska” or “get-up-get-up-get-up” also employed were locomotive-noises (“ch-ch, ch-ch, ch-ch”), hiccups (“he-da, he-da, he-da”) and grunts. Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd and Byron Lee all utilised toasting to accentuate the fervour of their records.” The clip above is evidence of Byron Lee using this art form. Classic Skatalites tunes like Rocket Ship and

Legendary historian and artist Clinton Hutton says the toasting had a deeper impact on the power of the sound system. “The mike gave the voice reach and agency. The deejay could talk to the fans in the dancehall as well as to the persons outside of the dancehall. He could advertise the next dance and venue that the sound system would be playing at. He could praise the sound system owner/operator and help to brand his name and enterprise in the minds of the people. The disc jockey could dedicate a song or songs to a specific person or group of persons. He could announce the names of persons going off to England or coming from prison. Yes, he could really ‘wake the town and tell the people,’ to use a line from Daddy U-Roy. He could cover the weaknesses in a selection with live jive, with toasting, with scatting, with bawl out.”

I would argue that toasting is the grandfather of hip hop. It is evident that those who either participated in or witnessed the activity of toasting in the 1950s and 1960s Kingston, at the sound system dances brought this cultural phenomenon to the shores of the United States where it then evolved into hip hop traditions. In the 1970s, hip hop began when a disc jockey by the stage name DJ Kool Herc began hosting block parties in the South Bronx. He, like the Jamaican predecessors, toasted over the music to encourage the attention of the participants. Hip hop toasting then evolved into adding musical flourishes to the music, utilizing two turntables to create percussive effects like scratching and looping, and it then evolved into rapping completely as a vocal, rather than a few words over the existing soundtrack, and vocal percussive effects, beatboxing. Hip hop culture spread to communities throughout New York and then the world in the 1980s. 

Scholar Joseph Heathcott notes the origins of hip hop culture in Jamaica. “Taking shape on the playgrounds and street corners of the South Bronx, hip-hop was from the first moment a popular cultural practice that stretched across borderlands, linking the local to the transnational. Not coincidentally, hop-hop erupted in the one American urban neighborhood with the highest concentration of Jamaican labor migrant families: the South Bronx. . . . Islanders imported with them to the South Bronx highly developed musical and electric performance cultures centered around the mobile sound system. If ska had filed to gain a purchase on the American music scene, and if reggae was only beginning to establish its credentials, it was the sound system and dance hall culture that ultimately made sense on transplanted soil. Where Jamaican genres of music only penetrated American markets obliquely, Jamaican performance practices provide enteral to the creation of hip-hop.”

Is it possible that DJ Kool Herc knew of these Jamaican toasting methods? Most definitely. DJ Kool Herc, whose real name is Clive Campbell, was born in 1955 in Kingston, Jamaica where he lived until he was 12 years old, during the height of the sound system era. He came to the Bronx in 1967. His first gig was DJing his sister’s birthday party and he did as he learned, filling the break sections of the song with toasting to keep the audiences going. This is not to say that DJ Kool Herc was merely imitating the originals, and indeed he was innovative by incorporating the turntables themselves in future gigs to create additional techniques that became separate from the ska genre and a part of the hip-hop genre, but credit is due the first toasters—Count Machuki, King Stitt, and Sir Lord Comic.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this connection. Please share your knowledge of vintage toasting and the hip hop link with me as I continue to research this fascinating musical evolution.