Tessanne Chin’s connection to ska is much more than just her birthplace of Jamaica—it’s her family lineage! Tessanne Chin’s mother (and father) were in world’s first all-girl ska band—The Carnations! I don’t want to disclose all the information that I have uncovered, as The Carnations are featured in my upcoming book Songbirds: Women in Ska. I have interviewed Christine Levy (Tessanne’s mother), Christine’s ex-husband and sole boy in this “all-girl” ska band Richard Chin (Tessanne’s father), Margaret Wong, and Marie Crompton-Nichols and have exclusive photos of this group from family photo albums, but here’s some history that led to the launch of Tessanne Chin’s huge career!
Never heard of The Carnations? That’s because they never recorded and only played live, so perhaps you remember seeing them back in 1966, playing at clubs in Kingston like the VIP Club, the Flamingo Hotel, the Myrtle Bank Hotel, Club Havana, and in Ocho Rios at Club Maracas and the Brown Jug, to name a few. Perhaps you remember when they became The Avengers and added a few men to the lineup and their shows at the Ding-Ho Club (formerly Club Havana) and the Golden Dragon, playing alongside Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. But let’s step back to those early days when Tessanne Chin’s mother, Christine Levy, took up the trumpet and joined her schoolmates to form this interesting group.
Levy was in high school when she began playing the trumpet in the Excelsior High School Band. They performed at school functions, the Manning Cup, an inter-school soccer tournament at Sabina Park, and during independence celebrations throughout Kingston. It was through this school band and through Levy’s knowledge of her instrument that she learned of an opportunity to perform for another new band that was forming—but this one was different than the Excelsior High School Band. In fact, this one was different from any other band that existed. It was an all-girl ska band.
The members of the new all-girl band, The Carnations, included Levy on trumpet and vocals, Ingrid Chin on bass guitar, Jean Levy on steel guitar, Margaret Wong on lead vocals and congo drums, Althea Morais on keyboard, Marie Crompton-Nicholas on guitar, Pam Mosely on guitar, and Richard Chin on drums. Richard was a male in the all-female band and was the brother to Ingrid Chin, the two who put together the entire band. Christine later married Richard. Christine’s mother served as a chaperone for the girls when they played at clubs, but it was Richard who performed alone at times. Why? Because Christine’s mother removed the girls from sets when the exotic dancers performed—dancers like Madame Wasp and Margarita herself. Christine’s mother, Tessanne’s grandmother, found the performances too risqué for teenage girls, although Richard says he didn’t mind them so much!
Richard Chin (Tessanne’s father) had an uncle who helped steer Richard’s career in music. Richard’s uncle was none other than Kes Chin of Kes Chin & the Souvenirs! The ska family tree has many branches and strong roots, my friends! Kes Chin & the Souvenirs was a popular club act, ska with a Latin flavor featuring Chin, Denis Sindrey on guitar, Lowell Morris on drums, Peter Stoddart on keyboard, and Audley Williams on bass and steel guitar. Richard’s father and Kes’s brother, Keyoung Chin, managed The Carnations.
Christine and Richard passed their love of music on to their children, especially Tami and Tessanne, their two youngest daughters. Richard and Christine built a music studio called “The Underground” in their family home and they taught the girls to follow their passion in life. As a result they both have successful musical careers. Tessanne toured with Jimmy Cliff as a backup singer for three years before going solo and opening for Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle, and Peabo Bryson. She has collaborated with Shaggy and on December 17th was crowned the winner of The Voice. Tami, who spells her last name Chynn, has toured with Shaggy as a backup singer and collaborated with Sean Paul, Beenie Man, and Lady Saw. She opened for the New Kids on the Block on their 2008 tour, she has performed on a Pepsi commercial, and she wrote a song that Jennifer Lopez has recorded, “Hypnotico.” She is married to dancehall artist Wayne Marshall and she also designs clothing.
Here comes my shameless plug. My book, Songbirds: Women in Ska, will feature these women along with many other pioneering women who have been gracious enough to share their stories with me—women like Millie Small herself, Yvonne Harrison, Patsy, Janet Enright, Calypso Rose, and numerous others, so stay tuned in 2014 for this book, which is underway. My others, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation, and Ska: An Oral History are available at skabook.com or amazon.com.