Ska Supporter Edward Seaga Dies

I was sad to learn that Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga died yesterday on his 89th birthday. Though not a fan of his politics to say the least, I do admire his passion, dedication, and support of Jamaican music–especially folk music and ska. His contributions to Jamaican culture are undeniable.

My most recent book, Operation Jump Up: Jamaica’s Campaign for a National Sound, revolves around Edward Seaga as a prime mover in promoting ska as a way to shape Jamaica’s newly-independent identity. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Seaga in February, 2015 when Byron Lee’s daughter brought me to his office at the University of the West Indies Mona.

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Mr. Seaga is a complicated character. He was a champion of his people, deeply loved them and was devoted to them, but he also was ruthless. He, in many ways, embodies Jamaica and its many facets and dichotomies.

The following is an excerpt from my book that tells of Hon. Edward Seaga’s beginnings and his support of Jamaican music:

… Edward Philip George Seaga, born in 1930 in Boston to Jamaican mother Erna Alleta Maxwell and Lebanese-Jamaican father Phillip George Seaga. He was born in Boston since both of his parents resided there after marrying in the city. But they soon returned to Kingston, Jamaica when Edward was just three months old and he attended school at St. James and Wolmer’s High School. Edward headed back to Boston to attend Harvard and graduated in 1952 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in social relations, a field that would serve him well in many ways.

As part of his research as a student, Seaga channeled his curiosity and interest in Jamaican folk music and traditions and studied the people of rural Jamaica, recording it and producing it for an album by Folkways for the Smithsonian Institute. Seaga says this was not popular with his family, particularly his father. In his induction as a fellow of the Institute of Jamaica on May 1, 2006, Seaga told the crowd, “My father could be heard at the breakfast table grumbling loudly as I replayed the tapes of the revival sessions I attended the night before. He repeatedly asked my mother in an audible voice, ‘Is this what I sent him to Harvard for?’” And Seaga told NPR’s Michel Martin on December 27, 2012, “They didn’t think good of it at all. My mother had to protect me from my father. He thought he had wasted his money. But it turned out, eventually, that it had a link to political life, and that’s how I got into politics because that study that I did eventually made me realize that there was work to be done in the folk society of the country and in helping the people who are poor.”

Seaga lived on the west side of Kingston and saw the value in both recording the traditions and music of his people, as well as representing and empowering them. “During more than three years in Buxton Town, St. Catherine, and in the inner-city community of Salt Lane in West Kingston, and elsewhere, I had living in these areas experienced life not as a visitor seeing to capture some basic understanding with a few photos for testimonials, but as part of the community, experiencing the widest forms possible of participation in everyday life. I collected folk tales, folk music, participated in nine-nights and digging sports, played ring games, attended a great many revival spiritual functions, and, in short, was immersed and ‘baptized’ in the folk culture of Jamaica,” he says in his book, Edward Seaga: My Life and Leadership. The record for the Smithsonian took him three and a half years to make since he was also studying and researching in these communities. As a result, Seaga became close to his people, including Malachi Reynolds, “Kapo,” the Zion Captain and the most prominent of Zion revivalists in Jamaica; as well as Imogene Kennedy, known early on as Sister B and later as Queenie, an African Kumina Queen. Seaga says in his book, “We would greet each other with a ‘malembe, malembe buta munte,’ a salutation in a language of Angola, the country of origin of the Kumina people.”

queenie
Imogene “Queenie” Kennedy. Jamaica Journal, Sept. 1978.

When Seaga recorded this folk music, it led him to involvement in the newly emerging recording industry in Kingston and further developed his fascination with Jamaican popular music, which evolved from these folk traditions. “I had also become involved in the emergence of Jamaican popular music, which borrowed some of the idioms of traditional music. In 1959, as a manufacturer of records at that time and a promoter of Jamaican music, I produced on vinyl the popular hit ‘Manny Oh’ created by Jamaicans—sung by Higgs and Wilson, written by Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards. The song had won a Vere Johns Opportunity Hour contest,” Seaga says in his book. “Manny Oh” was released by Seaga after he produced a popular recording by Byron Lee on a label Lee had established for himself. “Dumplins” was a cover of a song by American keyboardist Doc Bagby.

manny oh

“Dumplins,” like “Manny Oh,” was pressed at West Indies Records Limited, or WIRL, a record manufacturing plant located on Bell Road in the Industrial Estate of Kingston. Seaga built this plant after finding little success distributing his folk music LP. “When the album was out in about ’56,” he told David Katz in the book Solid Foundation, “I was interested in having the material exposed to people—what’s the use of doing research and nobody knows about it? I took it around to music stores—Stanley Motta’s on Harbour Street, KG’s at Cross Road and Wonard’s on Church Street—but they weren’t too interested. It was a little bit too way out for them. Then they asked me if I could import other types of music for them, which I did. They wanted stuff like Pat Boone and Nat King Cole, but there was also a very strong interest in rhythm and blues music …” So Seaga began importing records, which was his foray into the music industry. “I became an agent for Columbia, Atlantic, ATCO, Epic—probably more labels than anybody else. Then I had a manufacturing operation and there was only one other manufacturer, Khouri—Federal Records, but he was more interested in calypsos and mentos. He started two years before me, but they were manufacturing for the tourist market,” Seaga told Katz. The Seaga recording sessions took place at RJR, while the production took place at WIRL which was officially founded by Edward Seaga in 1958. The relationships Seaga established with other record labels would prove crucial in the coming years in the promotion of Jamaica’s music—the same music Seaga had started to record and the same music he heard in his home district at soundsystem dances at Chocomo Lawn.  

Seaga saw that there was potential for music to put Jamaica on the map after he heard the music in West Kingston at Chocomo Lawn. This was the same area where Seaga lived and was the district he represented when he was appointed by founder of the Jamaica Labour Party, Sir Alexander Bustamante, to the Upper House of the Jamaican Parliament in 1959, three years before independence. In February, 1959, Edward Seaga wrote two articles for the Daily Gleaner that discussed the reality of independence and seceding from the West Indies Federation. One consideration that Seaga discussed in these articles was the cooperation of the United States, should Jamaica pursue independence. Already, the United States and its cooperation and support was on Seaga’s mind. He would continue to operate with this mindset throughout his career, and certainly in the years post-independence.

Seaga was elected by the constituents of West Kingston to Parliament in April 1962 where he was then appointed to the Cabinet as Minister of Development and Welfare. In this position, Seaga was charged with all areas of planning, social development, and culture. Seaga recognized that during an era when Jamaica was literally breaking the bonds of colonialism leading up to independence, Jamaica needed to embrace its own identity more than ever before. There was a “… need for greater self-identity as a people, following on the heels of Garvey’s teachings of the need for greater self-identification as a race,” wrote Seaga in his book, Edward Seaga: My Life and Leadership.

One way that Seaga sought to showcase Jamaican culture to the world was through an exhibition of Jamaican arts and crafts at the Jamaica Reef Hotel Arcade in Port Antonio in December 1964 after a year-long program spearheaded by the Craft Development Agency. Seaga organized this program because he saw a market for the arts and crafts, including works “in needle and straw,” with merchandisers in the United States. He visited arts and crafts centers throughout the island to enlist and train artisans for the program. Again, it was a push to put Jamaica’s music, arts, and landscape in the minds of American marketing outlets. That same month a delegation from Jamaica hosted an exhibition in the Rotunda of the Bronx County Building in New York with “arts, crafts and industries of Jamaica with photographs, posters and publications,” according to the New York Amsterdam News on December 26, 1964, in addition to “Calpyso music which includes the new Ska tunes and many of the original folk tunes of the British West Indies.”

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Another way Seaga sought to promote the Jamaican identity was through the creation of his Jamaica Festival. Centered around independence, the first annual Jamaica Festival took place in August 1963. Seaga chose Byron Lee to produce the final show. Competitors vied for honors in a number of categories, including ska singers, ska composition, ska dancers, ska band, mento singers, and mento band. They were also organized according to region—eastern, western, southern, and northern. It took place at venues around the country in Kingston, Christiana, Ocho Rios, and Montego Bay. Seaga continued the festival each year after and in 1966 brought the Popular Song Competition into the offerings. Seaga’s meetings of the Parish Festival Committee were broadcast on JBC and RJR so the public was aware of his agenda to promote the Jamaican identity through music and the arts. Seaga says, “Festival Song Competition was to preserve Jamaican music. The folk music of the country wasn’t being focused on. It wasn’t being used and I wanted to bring it back and give it a platform and I did and all the schools took up that challenge teaching the children and choral groups and that sort of thing and they held the contest in July of every year to select the best group. In the beginning it was natural for the winner of the song competition to go on to do records.” Toots & the Maytals won the first Festival Song Competition in 1966 with “Bam Bam,” with Byron Lee & the Dragonaires performing backup. The song was a raging hit. Seaga also stated that the Jamaica Festival was a way to provide a “major national vehicle promulgation of Jamaican arts and culture.”

The rest of my book discusses in great detail the campaign that Seaga spearheaded with his friend, advertising executive, and music/dance aficionado Ronnie Nasralla, as well as Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. Other efforts include those by Carlos Malcolm and His Afro-Jamaican Rhythms; a tour of teachers to the U.S., Mexico, and Canada with Lynn Taitt; a tour of the U.S. with The Ticklers, and, of course, the 1964-1965 World’s Fair in New York with Millie Small.

Bob-Marley-joins-the-hands-of-Michael-Manley-Edward-Seaga

Perhaps one of the most recognizable examples of Edward Seaga’s work with music is found here, in this iconic photograph by Adrian Boot that captures Bob Marley’s message of unity, on April 22, 1978 when he brought political foes Edward Seaga (JLP) and Michael Manley (PNP) together on stage at the National Stadium in Kingston during the One Love Peace Concert to join hands in an attempt to quell the violence that had gripped the country.

In the words of Bob Marley at the moment of that monumental event on stage,” I just want to shake hands and show the people that we’re gonna make it right, we’re gonna unite, we’re gonna make it right, we’ve got to unite.” Clearly, these words still resonate today–for Jamaica, for the world.

Read more on Edward Seaga on my previous Foundation Ska posts below:

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