Statements on the Ska impasse
This is the companion piece to last week’s post, Dissension in the Ska Camp, where we find artists responding to the hub-bub created between Prince Buster and Ronnie Nasralla over how ska was promoted in the U.S., specifically at the ska gala in New York at the Shepheard’s Club in April, 1964. Ronnie Nasralla, Roy Willis, Roy Panton, Alphonso Castro, Sir Lord Comic, and Eric Monty Morris all weigh in on this article, Statements on the Ska impasse from the Daily Gleaner, Sunday, May 3, 1964.
But before I do, I just want to take a moment to say why I think these articles are significant today. There was then, as there is now, controversy or conflict over the downtown ska and uptown ska, and Jamaican culture lends itself well to this sort of schism with such stratification of the classes. Having just penned my biography on the great Don Drummond, this class conflict plays out in his life to tragic ends, as I argue in the book. Simply, he was not able to achieve the recognition he deserved, travel to other lands, nor receive the treatment for mental illness that would have perhaps saved him and Margarita, because he was a “downtown musician.” But I am also intrigued by Byron Lee & the Dragonaires and their contributions to bridging this cultural divide, working the music from a different angle to benefit the country in ways that cannot be measured. I prefer to look at all sides of the development of ska, the musical side, the business side, the political side, the struggles and challenges—all this imbues the music with more validity. It is important.
And the fact that this debate still continues, online in blog posts like this, with fans over a pint between sets at a show, in scholarly circles, shows that it is and important conversation, now as it was then. This article addresses the debate, not in terms of what hindsight has shown us, that it may have well been a class divide issues, but that it was a manufactured fight—between the artists and Prince Buster, that rabble-rouser we all know and love!
I’m going to start this article where it ends though, with a poem that appears in the text:
Music for the People
Today let us all join hands in a ring
The praises of Ska
To all the doubters, the critics, the curious, I say “Ho!”
Don’t you think we should all be patriotically proud
And shout it aloud
To the world around
That Jamaicans have found
Their music and dance National?
Now be rational:
How can there be anything sinister
In a Minister
Laying down a cultural flag!
In Black River, Trench Town, at Half Way Tree, at
Shepheard’s in New York, Ska hold sway,
The twist, we are told, is passé
So get with it, be cool, get in the swim!
And even if you should break a limb
Dancing to the “Wash-Wash” or “Sammy Deaad”—
Never mind . . . Jamaican culture forges ahead.
Those who said the lack of a National Music and resented it
Have done the obvious thing: invented it.
And if some folks still refuse to stand to the Anthem at a movie
There’s a solution as simple as it is groovy:
Let’s follow the lead of “Sammy Dead,” “Wash Wash” an’ all
And produce a Ska version of our Anthem National,
Who knows where it all may end!
But worry not, my friend,
The Ska is here to stay and we are doomed to hear it played
At least until it begins to slide off the U.S. Hit Parade.
–by “Penny Wallie”
Without further ado, here is the rest of the article:
The editor, Sir—In order to clear up a fast-developing situation that may lead to our new Jamaican musical sound being killed on the very brink of world recognition, I am enclosing statements by various individuals connected to Ska one way or the other.
Among the statements are statements by some members of the group which went up to New York recently on the Government sponsored promotion of Jamaican Ska.
I would like to give my personal views on Jamaica Ska. First of all, I would like to deal with the Gleaner’s article “Dissension in the Ska Camp” which appeared on Sunday the 26th. It is quite clever from this article that both sides were interviewed by as a senior member of the group which took part in this promotion in New York, I would like to clarify certain points for the benefit of the Jamaican public and of the many devotees to our tremendous national sound—Ska.
I would like to state that the tune, “Sammy Dead” sung by Eric (Monty) Morris and accompanied by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires was the tune that impressed the New York promoters, Paul Marshall and Roland Rennie, as having the most potential as a lead-off to the promotion of Jamaican Ska.
Because of this tune and the tremendous presentation of Jamaica Ska at the Glass Bucket on Friday the 3rd April, the two American experts, Mr. Marshall and Mr. Rennie, who had come out here on the invitation of the Government to investigate the possibility of Ska being “sold” to the rest of the world, recommended that a Jamaican group of dancers be asked to immediately fly up to New York to lead off promotion of Jamaican Ska.
Naturally, the tune “Sammy Dead” was given more projection since this would be the first Ska record to be released in the United States. However, other tunes sung by leading Jamaican artists, namely Stranger Cole, Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, and Jimmy Cliff were also presented on the night of the 15th April at the Shepheard’s Club.
Prior to the demonstration of the dance done to these records, all the dancers were introduced to the invited guests verifying his association with these Ska records all the singers present. A sample of “Sammy Dead” which labelled equal billing for Eric Monty Morris and Byron Lee, was presented along with the story of Jamaica Ska to all the invitees.
With regard to the presentation of the dance, I must say that with the exception of two members of the Jamaican team, did a marvelous job of selling the Ska dance to the Americans present. One member, Prince Buster, who strayed occasionally with a dance that was part Twist and part Ska, was clever enough to get out of a question to put to him by a top reporter—“Isn’t that a cousin of the Twist?”—by saying that Ska music makes one want to do all types of dancing.
However, this was not detrimental as the rest of the group was able at all times to put their presentation of Ska in such a colourful fashion that Prince Buster’s occasional Twist or other members’ occasional Wobble, was completely overshadowed.
The article went on to say that “Wash Was” has every claim to being truly Jamaican, for it is inspired by one of the basic Jamaican show dances—the wash day scene. This is far from accurate. Basically, “Wash Wash” is two American tunes “Lucky Old Sun” and “Old Man River.” Secondly, it was recorded in England by an English Band and called the Blue Beat. “Blue Beat” which is fast developing as a British sound is already losing its Jamaican identity.
Compare this to the tune “Sammy Dead” which was projected in New York. This tune is a Jamaican digging song. It is sung by one of our leading Jamaican singers and backed by one of our leading Jamaican bands. As stated by the top American promoters, it is the only Ska tune that might make the opening for Jamaica Ska in the rest of the world.
Now let me appeal to Jamaican artists and lovers of entertainment. Let us not fight among ourselves and lose a golden opportunity for our country and the benefit of our talent. Instead, let us work together as a team and for the first time gain financially and otherwise from something of merit which is truly Jamaican.
I am, etc.
12 Lady Musgrave Road
April 29, 1964
Sir Lord Comic of 33 Alexander Road, Whitfield Town, Kingston 13 says: As a local Ska M.C. for 1964, in my opinion Wash Wash is an imitation Ska cooked up by Prince Buster and the Blue Beats. It is not really a Ska done by Jamaicans. It’s some kind of beat they are trying to catch and call it Ska, but where I am concerned about Ska, “Sammy Dead” is the new Ska beat sung by our top artist, Eric Morris, and backed by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires and for a long time in record releases, “Sammy Dead” is expected to be the first million-disc of Jamaica.
Roy Willis from 33 Pink Lake, Kingston 14 says: I was one of the dancers selected to go up to New York and I want all Jamaicans to know that what was said in the papers about trouble in New York is not true, as all of us that went up to New York were presented properly and although I did not dance on the Friday night, Mr. Nasralla explained to me the reason for this which I clearly understood. I would like to appeal to all Jamaicans—let us not try to kill Jamaica Ska when it is getting somewhere fast, but assist it by working together to help all of us and our community.
Roy Panton of 77B Beeston Street, Kingston 14 says: I would say that all Jamaican singers should give credit to Mr. Byron Lee and Mr. Ken Khouri for making such a great move in promoting the Jamaican National Sound known as the ska to the United States. That is a move that should have been made for a long long (unreadable). Let’s face facts, the Ska was created from a long time and didn’t reach anywhere far, but at this present moment I can’t see what good it is coming to. First to begin with, we all see where a group of dancers were sent to New York to represent the dance of the ska and they were very successful on the tour because the sound was appreciated in New York and I don’t see why we should be fighting among ourselves. Instead, we should be happy that our music has got a foothold in the American market. The other thing is that the record Ska hit “Sammy Dead” backed by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires and sung by Eric Monty Morris was selected by a New York recording company will be the first Ska to be released in America. I would say it is a direct Ska contract to what Prince Buster has said. As far as I can see, this is a big chance for us Jamaican artists of getting somewhere and I think it is a disgrace for another Jamaican artist to try and project himself by crying down his fellow singer’s tunes.
Alphonso Castro of 13 Waltham Park Road, Kingston 11 says: Although Prince Buster come to say that I am a sissy man because I am spying on him. I am an artist in Jamaica—a dancer—I don’t business with recording and I went up there on behalf of the government to see the dance, the Jamaica Ska. As far as I can see, Prince Buster was not cooperating with the rest of the dancers. As a member of the Jamaican group that went up to New York to promote Ska, I would like all Jamaica to know that the presentation in New York went over beautifully and I cannot see how anybody can make reports that some of the other artists did not have a clue about Ska dancing as everyone gave very good account of themselves. I have been dancing for many years and I had the honour of being among the first of JBC TV to present the Ska and I must say that the group that went up to New York could not have been a better one as they certainly sold the Ska. In fact, I go on to say that the newcomers gave a better account of themselves than the old-timers. I think that this is a great thing that is happening in our country and that all our singers, musicians, and entertainers should stop fighting among ourselves and work together and make success for all.
Eric Monty Morris of 42 Asquith Street, Kinston 12 says: I read in the Gleaner that my tune “Sammy Dead” was not a Ska according to Prince Buster who all the way up on the trip to New York kept telling me that Byron Lee and the rest of them were trying to humbug me, and now I realize that this was not so, as Byron has made such a nice arrangement with Capitol, that I stand to make so much money as Byron if my record becomes a (unreadable) Prince Buster only wanted to promote himself and kill me as he tricked me into posting with him doing the Wash Wash only to promote his tune and turn around and kill mine. He did not tell me that this picture would come out in the Gleaner and I would now like the people to understand that although my name was left out in one of the papers, I realize that this was an error because I have seen the record now and seen my name along with Byron’s. I would like to tell Mr. Prince buster that I don’t see why he should be the only big Jamaican singer of Ska when I nearly threw away an opportunity like this by listening to his stories. I have been singing Ska long before Buster and I think it is full time that I get a break and I see I can now get it with “Sammy Dead.” I am very ashamed of Prince Buster and I would like him to know that he nearly made me lose out on a big opportunity.