Happy Skalidays!


The winter holidays are upon us, so why not take a look at holiday traditions in Jamaican culture and how these relate to ska? Then, make sure to get your vinyl ready because I have a fairly comprehensive list of holiday-related Jamaican tunes, some ska, some post-ska, for your festive parties! I’ve also included a few clips throughout to keep you dancing as you read!

First of all, here is a little primer on holiday traditions and history in Jamaica, which is very important to ska history, as you will see. Much of the showmanship and competition found in the music industry in Jamaica today and throughout the last century can be traced back to the pomp and swagger of the Caribbean festivals where music and performance combined in a flamboyant display of prowess. These festivals, Carnival in Trinidad, and Jonkunnu in Jamaica, were celebrations that took place during the height of the Great Revival (spiritual traditions that stemmed from African religions–Pukkumina, Zion, Kumina, etc.) and continue today. Jonkunnu in Jamaica has its origins in the Carnival celebration in Trinidad, which, in turn, had its origins in the Masquerade celebrated by Europeans. Carnival began at Christmas time and lasted sometimes until Ash Wednesday. Celebrations included feasting and processions through the streets, the biggest of which took place on Shrove Tuesday, or the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.


These processions were called canboulay, a derivation of the French words cannes brulees, which translates as burning canes. Slaves carried burning canes as torches to light the way during the night when a plantation owner’s crops caught fire. Slaves from nearby plantations were summoned to help extinguish the fire. Taken to the field by a driver with a whip, the slaves carried flaming torches to light the way. Canboulay processions draw elements from these events, utilizing participants with whips who emulate the slave master, masked characters representing people and animals, in an entertaining lampoon of life. The content of these processions, these marches, were serious, but the tone was lighthearted and enjoyable.

One of the main displays in canboulay during Carnival is kalinda. Kalindas were stick fights, similar to the art of dula meketa in Ethiopia or mousondi in the Congo, and were tests of strength and skill. During Carnival, a group or band of some two dozen men were led by a “big pappy” who directed his crew through the streets until they encountered a rival group. In a spirit of camaraderie and competition, each group threw out boasts to one another, stating their prowess and challenges frequently set to song which was called kalinda, since the warlike song and the stick fight itself were part of the festival procession. Fighters chose their sticks carefully, visiting a region in Trinidad called Gasparillo to select a stick made of Baton Gasparee wood. They then prepared their stick by singeing it over a fire until the bark came off, then they rubbed coconut oil into the wood. The stick was ready to use and when horns or empty bottles were sounded, the bands assembled accompanied by instrumentalists, singers, and dancers who performed a dance called a belair, or bele. The display involved the participation of all and the boasting was competitive in a respectful, boisterous, convivial manner. This spirit of competitive camaraderie continued in the days of sound system clashes in the 1950s and 1960s as producers attempted to one-up each other to appeal to the crowds. And ska recording artists, following the lead of the big pappies, also threw down challenges to each other to boast of their talent–Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster is a classic example, as are the boasts and challenges between producers like Coxsone, Duke Reid, Prince Buster, and King Edwards.

Due to the perceived threat of riot and revolt, canboulay and kalindas were banned by the government and police. The masks used by characters in the procession were also banned in festivals in 1840 by the British governor. Drums and fiddles, associated with Africa, were considered heathen and therefore instruments of the devil, plus they were loud and disturbing late at night. Open letters in local newspapers called the revelers “savages” and spoke of celebrations as “orgies” full of “crime” and “barbarism.” The people resisted, but they were squashed by military troops and were forced to either conform to the establishment or they simply adapted the festival in ways to elude the establishment.

In Jamaica, this festival was called Jonkunnu, named after John Conny, a powerful leader of the Guinea people in the early 1700s. The British spelled his name John Canoe, hence the name Jonkunnu. The white planters allowed their slaves to celebrate this secular festival which took place during the Christmas season. Elaborate street parades began on the island as early as 1774. Like Carnival, Jonkunnu involved masked characters. Performance and music always went hand in hand. The leader of the festival wore cow horns, a cow tail, and sometimes carried swords or wore a mask with tusks. This character was John Canoe. Other characters included those mocking the military, aristocrats, police, sailors, the devil, Horsehead, Jack-in-the-Green, Pitchy-Patchy, Belly Woman, Warrior, Red Indian or Wild Indian, Koo-Koo or Actor Boy, King and Queen, and Red-Set and Blue-Set Girls. These characters did not remove their masks in public, nor did they speak or sing.

Those who did provide the vocal and instrumental accompaniment for the procession included a band of drummers, bamboo fife, banjo, and metal grater performers. Tambour-bamboo bands also provided percussion by banging together lengths of bamboo or using one to knock on the ground. Since they were hollow they produced varying tones. Soon musicians sought other items for their percussion as well, especially since the stick bands were prohibited by the British government. Participants used household items such as spoons, bottles, and metal pans. In Trinidad, this progression soon led to the use of oil drums which were crafted to produce different notes and tones, and the steel bands were born. But everyone was a participant. Jonkunnu was not a spectator event. Everyone performed, everyone played, everyone danced, and this custom was always a part of the people’s music.

The Burru, a group of men who became influential to ska musicians through their association with Rastafarianism, emerged during the days of slavery on the island. Bands of Burru, African drummers, were permitted by slave owners to play drums and sing for the workers in the Jamaican fields to raise the slaves’ spirits—not for emotional reasons, but to impose more productivity. After slavery was abolished, the Burru could not find work and so they congregated in the impoverished areas of Kingston. Their drumming style, like the African vocal styles, exhibited a call-and-response format with a drum leading the rhythm, followed by “licks” from the answering drums.

Each Christmas season, the Burru men gathered to compose their own music with words about local events or about people in the community who had committed an act of wrongdoing. They worked on these songs starting in September and then on the holiday they traveled throughout the community, in a procession not unlike Jonkunnu, going from home to home, playing their bamboo scraper, shakka, and rhumba box for percussion, singing their songs which were intended to purge the evil of the previous year before the new one began. Although the music was composed during the months previous to the event, they also improvised on the spot, a practice that musicians continued in the decades that followed. Because the Burru were mischievous in their songs, and because they lived in the slum areas of the city, they were mistakenly considered by many to be criminals or undesirables. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Burru came to live with the Rastafarians at camps throughout the island’s mountains, especially in Kingston, and the music of the Burru combined with the spirituality of the Rastafarians, as both groups found solace together from society’s rejection. These camps became a refuge for musicians as well during the ska era since they were a place for uninhibited musical communion, a place for performance without restriction or limitations, and a place for retreat from the hardships of oppressive life. The Burru drumming became a part of ska music as Prince Buster recorded “Oh Carolina” using Count Ossie and his drummers who were informed by the Burru tradition.

So, how can you enjoy this tradition this holiday season? Well queue up a little ska, rocksteady, and reggae–here is a list I compiled using the Roots Knotty Roots database, thanks to good friend Michael Turner. If you prefer something more contemporary, I would recommend Toasters Christmas Ska which is a killer selection of 11 holiday songs and it is available on colored vinyl from Jump Up! Records here: http://www.jumpuprecords.com/christmaska/

Here’s one of my personal favorite holiday selections from the incredible Byron Lee and the Dragonaires album Christmas Party Time in the Tropics–super fun stuff!

And for those who want to bring a little island flavor to the snow, here you go!

Admiral Bailey, Christmas Style

Al Vassel, Happy Christmas

Albert Morrison, Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Alton Ellis, A Merry Merry Christmas

Alton Ellis, Christmas Coming

Amlak, Christmas Is Here

Angela Stewart and U Brown, Gee Whiz It’s Christmas

Aquizim, Merry Christmas

Arcainians, Christmas In Jamaica

Barrington Levy and Trinity, I Saw Mommy Kiss A Dreadlocks

Black Crucial, Christmas Time

Black Pearls, Babe In Bethlehem

Black Pearls, Christmas Joys

Bob Marley and The Wailers, Christmas Is Here

Bob Marley and The Wailers, White Christmas

Boris Gardiner, The Meaning Of Christmas

Cables, Christmas

Cables, Christmas Is Not A Holiday

Cables, White Christmas (When Christmas Is Here)

Carlene Davis, White Christmas

Carlene Davis and Trinity, Santa Claus (Do You Ever Come To The Ghetto)

Carlos Malcolm and His Afro Jamaican Rhythm, Good King Wenceslas

Carlos Malcolm and His Afro Jamaican Rhythm, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Carlton Livingston, Long Cold Winter

Cassandra, What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas

Cedric Bravo and Rico Rodrigues, Merry Christmas

Charmers, Merry Christmas Blues

Charmers, Long Winter

Chatanhoogatin, Christmas Reggae

Cimarons, Holy Christmas

Cimarons, Silent Night White Christmas (Medley)

Claudelle Clarke, Franking Scent and Merry Christmas

Coco Tea, Christmas Is Coming

Cornel Campbell and The Eternals, Christmas Joy

Count Lasher and Lord Tanamo, Christmas Time

Culture, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Cutty Ranks, Christmas Time

Danny Dread, Winter

Dennis Brown, Trinity, Dhaima, Mighty Diamonds, Christmas Rockers

Denzil Dennis, Christmas Message

Derrick Harriott and The Tamlins and Joy White and Reasons and U Brown, Christmas Songbook

Desmond Dekker, Christmas Day

Desmond Tucker, Oh Holy Night

Devon Russell, After Christmas

Diane Lawrence, Have A Merry Christmas

Diane Lawrence, Ring The Bell For Christmas

Dicky Roots, Christmas Rock

Dillinger, Christmas Season

Doreen Schaeffer, Wish You A Merry Christmas

Eek A Mouse, Christmas A Come

Eric Tello, A Child Is Born (When A Child Is Born)

Father Richard Ho Lung, Christmas Mento

Frank Cosmo, Merry Christmas

Frank Cosmo, Merry Christmas

Frankie Paul, Christmas Time

Gable Hall School Choir, Reggae Christmas

Gaylads, Christmas Bells Are Ringing

Gladstone Anderson, Lights of Christmas

Glen Adams, Christmas Rock Reggae

Glen Brown, East Christmas Song

Glen Ricketts, This Christmas

Granville Williams and Orchestra, Santa Claus Is Skaing To Town

Granville Williams and Orchestra, Silver Bells

Heptones, Christmas Time (Give Me)

Home T 4, Rock It For Christmas

Home T and Trinity, Dub It For Christmas

Hopeton Lewis, Happy Christmas

Horace Andy, Christmas Time

I Roy, Christmas Dubwise

Inventor and Studio One Band, Caribbean Christmas

Iron Phoenix, Natty Dread Christmas

Jackie Edwards, Bright Christmas

Jackie Edwards, White Christmas

Jackie Mittoo, Christmas Rock

Jackie Mittoo, Joy Joy (Ghetto Child)

Jah Walton, DJ Christmas

Jamaican Folk Singers, A Christmas Carol

Jamaican Folk Singers, John Canoe Medley (Christmas A Come, Tenk Yu For De Christmas)

Jays, Dancehall Christmas Medley

Johnny Clarke, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

Judge Dread, Christmas In Dreadland

Judge Dread, Merry Christmas Mr. Dread

Junior Soul, Christmas Party

Karl Bryan, Christmas Version

King Everald, Santa Claus

King Kong, Nice Christmas

Kingstonians, Merry Christmas

Kojak, Christmas Style

Laurel Aitken, Rock Santa Rock

Lee Perry and Sandra Robinson, Merry Christmas Happy New Year

Little John, It’s Christmas Time

Little John, Save A Little For Christmas

Lord Creator, Merry Christmas To You

Lord Kitchener, Party For Santa Claus

Lord Nelson, Party For Santa Claus

Lucy Myers, Christmas Day

Maytals, Christmas Season (Christmas Feeling)

Maytals, Happy Christmas (Christmas Song)

Mel Turner and Souvenirs, White Christmas

Methodist Male Voice Choir, A Christmas Medley

Methodist Male Voice Choir, Silent Night

Michael Palmer, Christmas Time Again (Happy Merry Xmas)

Michael Powell, Christmas Time

Mikey Dread, Herbal Christmas Gift

Miss Misty, Merry Christmas

Mr. and Mrs. Yellowman, Where Is Santa Claus

Mutabaruka, Postpone Christmas

Neville Willoughby, Christmas Jamaica

Neville Willoughby, J.A. Xmas Day

Nicodemus, Winter Wonderland

Nora Dean, Merry Christmas

Norma Isaacs, Christmas Time

Norman T Washington, It’s Christmas Time Again

Norman T Washington and Lloyd Clarke, Happy Christmas

Nyah and The Sunflakes, Merry Christmas

Nyah and The Sunflakes, White Christmas

One Blood, The Christmas Present

Pablove Black and Bagg, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Palemina, Faith D’Aguilar and Cedric Brooks, Santa Ketch Up Eena Mango Tree

Pat Rhoden, Christmas Song

Pat Rhoden, It Must Be Santa Claus

Phillip Fraser, Rub A Dub Christmas

Raymond Harper, White Christmas

Reuben Anderson, Christmas Time Again

Rhythm Aces, Christmas (C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S)

Richard Ace, Christmas Reggae

Rio Guava, Christmas Day Is Coming

Robert French, Have A Merry Christmas

Roman Stewart, Christmas Affair

Roman Stewart and Glen Brown and Dean Beckford and Charley, Christmas Song

Ruddy Grant and Sketto Richard, Christmas Blues

Ruddy Thomas, Roots Christmas

Ruddy Thomas, What A Happy Christmas

Rupie Edwards,                 Christmas Rush (Christmas Parade)

Sammy Dread, Christmas Jamboree

Sheridons, Merry Christmas (And A Happy New Year)

Sheridons, Silent Night

Shorty The President, Natty Christmas

Sir Jablonski, Merry Christmas Day

Sonie and Pretty Boy Floyd, It May Be Winter Outside

Steve Golding, Strictly Rock Christmas

Sugar Minott, Christmas Holiday

Sugar Minott, Christmas Jamboree

Sugar Minott, Christmas Time

Tappa Zukie, Red Rose (Archie The Red Nose Reindeer)

Teddy Davis, Christmas Bells

Tim Chandell, Christmas Time

Tony J and The Toys, Christmas Dragon

Top Grant, A Christmas Drink

Trinity, Video Christmas

Trinity and the Mighty Diamonds, Christmas Carol

Triston Palmer, Christmas Jamboree

Tyrone Evans, International Christmas Medley

Ugliman, Christmas Boogie Christmas Is Here)

Vibrators, Merry Christmas (Merry Christmas Is Here)

Wain Nelson, Christmas Time

Wain Nelson, Santa Claus

Winston Groovy, Merry Christmas

Winston Jones, Joyful Christmas

Zoot Simms and Roy Robinson, White Christmas

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