Ska: A Bum Steer


We all know those crabby old people that complain that the music is too loud, that rock ‘n’ roll is devil music and corrupting the youth, that the youth who listen to it are mindless and all on drugs. It has been said for decades, for every new creation that hooks the masses, like rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues, soul, punk, heavy metal, and it was certainly said about ska.


One of the factors contributing to the complaints of ska and rocksteady and its corruption of the youth is that in Jamaican culture then, as it is now, there is a stratified class system—the uptown and the downtown. I was stunned to witness this myself on my trips to Kingston and I assure you, it is not a schism created by musicologists for the sake of expounding on why ska never took off across the world the way it should have. This is a topic I address in my books and will continue to write about in my work. However, what I want to address here is one way that schism manifested in a couple of Daily Gleaner articles I found from 1968 that try to lend scientific reasoning to the abhorrence for ska by the upper class, the intellectuals, the crabby old people.


Why is this important? Because today we think about the popularity and success of ska in Jamaica during this era—the producers and the sound system operators who drew in the fans and sold the hits and the radio that finally caught on and started projecting Jamaica’s new sound that would develop into rocksteady and reggae and dancehall, that the world would embrace eventually allowing Jamaica to be known for its musical culture. Twas not always like this. It, like all things Jamaican, was a struggle, even among its own. And the fact that it was embraced and funded, no less, by the newly-formed government was even more suspect. We have heard about some of these struggles, financial and otherwise, but here are some other fascinating reasons, given by columnist Thomas Wright and an anonymous responder, why ska was once called a “bum steer.”



Candidly Yours . . . Thomas Wright from the Daily Gleaner, August 16, 1968



The idiot repetitiveness and bad taste of the lyrics find and the musical illiteracy of the kind of performances produced for our Phony Fiesta are bad enough, but from the purely physical point of view the greatly amplified level at which so much of the stuff is played is worse.


This column has long maintained that the amplification, of this so-called music by sound systems, to say nothing of the distortion caused by the overloading of the loudspeakers, is destroying the musical ear of our people. It now turns out that it is also destroying their hearing.


Not only in Jamaica. Time Magazine of August 9th reports that otologists are finding that youngsters are going deaf as a result of blasting their eardrums with electronically amplified rock ‘n’ roll. The human ear is a remarkable mechanism and can protect itself very effectively in ordinary circumstances. Indeed the human body as a whole, having evolved for millions of years with everything else in nature, has developed means of neutralizing, detoxifying, and fighting every hostile poison or external element that attacks it.


Synthetic poisons

THE TROUBLE IS that the last 50 years or so, and particular the last 25, have seen the rapid development of a number of things which are quite new, and not known in nature. A good example is provided by many of the new synthetic pesticides which catching the human liver unawares, so to speak, without suitable enzymes for their destruction are exceedingly dangerous. This also applies to some of the new synthetic drugs. What it comes to is that given a great deal of time, the human organism will eventually evolve a protective mechanism against anything. What it can’t stand is the sudden surprise of something entirely new, or of something old, but in a new intensity.


New sound intensity

OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS the human ear has suddenly been called upon to cope with an intensity of sound which has never had to experience during the whole period of its evolution, and against which in consequence, it is relatively defenseless. This era of intense noise began with the coming of industrialization and the noise in factories and modern technology has now produced noise-makers ranging from city traffic, to pneumatic riveters, to jet engines. Another of these new noisemakers is, of course, electronically produced amplification.


Noise can be measured in decibels. A decibel is an arbitrary unit based on the faintest sound that an average person can hear. Ordinary conversation has a level of about 60 decibels. Every increase of ten decibels means an increase of sound intensity by ten times. A 20 decibel rise means an increase of one hundred times and a 30 decibel rise means a thousand fold increase.

A jet plane 100 ft- away produces 140 decibels, a pneumatic riveter, 130 decibels, and rock music with amplifiers played at the kind of level now prevailing, produces about 120 decibels or one trillion times more than one decibel, the least audible sound. “With these amplifiers,” says Dr. Robert Feder, an ear specialist quoted by Time, “the noise becomes nearly intolerable.”



TIME ALSO GIVES an account of some research done by Dr. George T. Singleton and Dr.

James Jerger. Dr. Singleton and his research team tested the hearing of ten young people before a dance. Then the investigators went to the dance hall and found the noise intensity to be about 107 decibels in the middle of the dance floor, peaking to 120 decibels near the band which was, of course, using electronic amplifiers. After the dance, they tested the hearing of the young people again. All had suffered temporary hearing impairment, with an average loss of 11 decibels. One boy showed a loss of 35 decibels, mostly within the frequency range of human speech.


Dr. Jerger tested the members of a five-man combo which also used amplifiers. One player had suffered a 50 decibel loss. Three had also suffered permanent hearing, damage, though none was older than 23.


Why do young people like to deafen themselves? Time quotes a Florida teenager. “The sounds embalm you. They numb you. You don’t want to hear others talk. You don’t want to talk. You don’t know what to say to each other anyway.”



SO IT IS IN THE PROCESS of destroying their hearing, the people who drug themselves with noise are, in fact, indulging an idiotic mindlessness which is perfectly expressed by the “music” to which they listen and the withdrawn, jerky and primitive movements with which they dance to it. It is no accident that that real devotees dance away all by themselves. The roots of this dancing can be seen in any mental home amongst a certain category of the mentally disturbed.


La trahison des clercs

YET IN JAMAICA as elsewhere, this kind of thing is commercially encouraged; for the good reason that there are vast fortunes to be made out of it by the purveyors of the “music” and the amplification. Here at home, it is part of our Phony Fiesta, part of the organized and commercial corruption of good taste and good sense on the principle that if you cannot give people bread, well, give them circuses. There are excuses for the vulgar and the ignorant but when our intellectuals who ought to know better defend it all by every argument from those based upon false democracy to specious pleas about “our African heritage” this is the true “treason of

the clerics.”


We have borrowed, as I have said before, the worst aspects American society and poorly done at that; the advertising and commercial exploitation, the most elementary forms of pop music badly and tastelessly performed, the deliberate sacrifice of standards for the purpose of courting popularity, all held against a background of hooliganism, or near-hooliganism, the facts of which we try to suppress. And all this in the name of celebrating an Independence whose significance has not yet been grasped by hundreds of thousands of our people for the simple reason that most of our politicians have corrupted even the idea by selling it as a bonanza and delivering a bum steer.


Candidly Yours . . . Thomas Wright from the Daily Gleaner, August 31, 1968.


Sound Systems

FOR VERY MUCH the same reasons as above, the police take little effective action against sound systems. But here, I believe another factor enters into it, and this is that the average policeman likes the filthy noise of sound systems, having been brought up to them, and fundamentally believes that anyone who complains is being unreasonable. The following letter, from a correspondent who wishes her name withheld, has been chosen from eight complaints received this week alone.


“I was so grateful when you wrote about sound systems again, and the ‘music’ they produce. I am living in a better-classed suburban housing scheme, and it is unbelievable what we and our neighbours have to suffer from this uncivilized ‘Rock Steady’ noise. It starts from Friday afternoon and goes right on unto Saturday night, well into the small hours. This so called music comes from a settlement at least half a mile away where a man runs an open dance yard. Yet,  sound is such a peculiar thing that there is apparently no sound barrier, and we seem to get the full blast of it.


Although it is forbidden by law, the police are either unable or unwilling, or both, to cope with it, or it is for some sinister political reason that they don’t want to do anything in the matter. Are only those people who indulge in that kind of entertainment protected in this Island because of their majority? After all, the politicians make their comfortable living from the heavily overburdened taxpayers.


Your article about the sound systems in the same column some time ago where you said that the civilized people will be driven out of the Island, not because of high taxes, the lousy telephone service or the lousy power service, but because of the nuisance of the sound systems is indeed right. But alas, it is not always so easy to do so, although out of sheer despair, one would like to.

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