February is Reggae Month in Jamaica which features the Institute of Jamaica’s “Grounation” event hosted by the Jamaica Music Museum. This event is always enlightening with lectures, music, film, and reasoning. This year’s series looked at the sociopolitical, creative, and artistic response to developments and their consequences since Jamaica gained independence in 1962. Today they talked about the oppression of the Rastafari, the Coral Gardens Massacre, and Bob Marley
The Jamaica Music Museum houses a number of crucial artifacts, but top on my list is the accordion used by Adina Edwards. Read about her in Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, as well as the blog post here which contains a chapter excerpt on her life and career:
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
In the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving on November 24th this year, a holiday that according to history.com was designated by Abraham Lincoln. “In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.”
So in honor of this holiday when people from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon will break bread together with family and friends in a tradition of community, love, and unity, let us give thanks, and skanks, with some Jamaican tunes of thanks. Here’s a selection of songs of thanks, and though the artists may be thanking and praising Jah, we too can celebrate this spirit this time of year and always, by being kind to each other and embracing one another in love and unity. Feel free to chime in below and add yours to the mix–after all, that’s what this post is all about.
It’s December, and so the winter holidays are right around the corner. It’s a time of celebration, so why not celebrate Vere Johns, that Santa himself whose show, the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, gave the world a gift by launching so many musical careers?! Here is our Santa, or a sketch of him, in 1961 in the same newspaper, the Star, where he had his column in which he discussed various aspects of Jamaican culture and life–everything from politics to medical care to labor issues to the mistreatment of the “bearded men.” The column was called “Vere Johns Says” and he always spoke his mind, sometimes eliciting readers to write in their opposing thoughts and maybe throw a barb or two.
In the column from which the illustration above was taken, Johns weighs in on the “gifts” that he would like to give to local leaders in the year before his country would gain their independence. And when I read about the “referendum” I can’t help but cue up Lord Creator’s “Independent Jamaica” in my musical mind.
This is a pretty typical Vere Johns column, and I think it’s interesting in light of the independence on the horizon. On the “crossroads” Jamaica certainly was during this time. And Vere Johns was involved as conduit or a discriminator and analyst of the events, just as he was with the musical acts that came across his stage. He presented this cultural revolution as it was happening, a conduit of the music that would go on to change the world.
Here is Vere Johns and his wife, the lovely Lucille whose idea it was to host a variety show on the stages of the movie theaters the Johns managed.
This is the same Lucille Johns who appeared with Margarita (Anita Mahfood) in the film “It Could Happen to You” which I had the pleasure of sharing with Margarita’s daughter last week. Incidentally, Margarita won the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour herself in 1952 at the age of 12. Below is an excerpt from my book Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music that sheds a little light on this powerhouse couple.
Ask any vocalist from the 1950s and 1960s where they got their start and they will often tell you that they either participated in or attended the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour. This talent show was responsible for launching the careers of a great percentage of Jamaican vocalists during the time when studios were looking for talent. It was a test, a rehearsal, a springboard for further success. They began the show in April, 1939. After the first show, Lucille told a reporter, “Everybody wishes to be a singer,” and she was nicknamed “Lady Luck.” The Daily Gleaner, July 25, 1939 gave a review of the Opportunity Hour series which had just wrapped up for the season. It stated, “At the close of Friday night’s finals of the popular all-Island ‘Opportunity Hour’ at the Palace Theater, Mr. Vere Johns and his popular wife ‘Lady Luck’ received tremendous compliment for their very laudable efforts of unearthing the talent of Jamaica in the entertainment world and for the undoubted success achieved. . . . with the close of the ‘Opportunity Hour’ we say to Mr. and Mrs. Johns ‘THANK YOU!’ We hope Friday night’s close will not bring an end to such fine efforts. We hope that with Friday night’s close the work of unearthing Jamaica’s talent will continue by this pair, and we hope that by their effort bigger and greater things will be achieved for Jamaica in this respect.” If ever there was a statement of prophecy, this was it.
Music historian and journalist Roy Black said of the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, “It goes without saying that stars such as Millie Small, John Holt, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Alton Ellis, Hortense Ellis, The Blues Busters, Derrick Harriott, Derrick Morgan, Lascelles Perkins, Higgs and Wilson, Bunny and Scully, Laurel Aitken, Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards. Jimmy Tucker, Girl Satchmo, Lloyd ‘Sparrow’ Clarke, and musicians Roy Richards, Charlie Organaire, and Rico Rodriguez, who all came under his wing, played significant roles in shaping Jamaica’s popular music. They came in droves – hopeful actors, dancers, tricksters, singers, kneeling at his feet for an opportunity to become popular entertainers. There was hardly a performer who grew up in Kingston who didn’t come into his fold. To them it seemed that only one man held the key to the door of success. The city’s famous theatres – The Palace, at the corner of East Queen Street and South Camp Road; The Majestic, which faces Maxfield Avenue from the Spanish Town Road intersection; and The Ambassador, along Seventh Street in Trench Town – were the venues that Johns found logistically convenient to host these shows. The events took on a carnival atmosphere following auditions held mainly in the hometown of the aspirants. With the winners being decided by crowd reaction, competition was fierce and intense.”
Black describes how the idea for the talent show came about. It was a team effort with his wife who also acted as emcee of the events alongside her husband. Black states, “According to Colby Graham, who did extensive research on Johns, the idea for a Vere Johns talent show was born out of a request by the boss of the Savannah Journal newspaper with whom Johns worked, to devise a strategy to boost attendance at cinemas. With the help of his wife, Lillian, they came up with the idea for the show which began in Savannah, Georgia, in 1937, before the couple moved the event to Jamaica in 1939. In the late 1940s, he began a long-running STAR newspaper column ‘Vere Johns Says,’ mainly on the topic of music. But half the story has never been told as, in the 1950s, Johns added another dimension to his already illustrious career where he was a talent scout, impresario, journalist, radio personality, elocutionist and war veteran, by venturing into the world of movies. He played roles in the 1955 adventure thriller Man Fish, which also featured Eric Coverly, and returned a year later in the 26-minute documentary, It Can Happen To You, in which he played the role of a father of two sons who had syphilis.” That film was the same documentary in which Margarita (Anita Mahfood) portrayed a rhumba dancer who performed in a club as patrons watched and caroused with one another.
Not only did Vere Johns encourage other performers to have a career through his talent show, but he himself was a performer on stage and screen. He even dressed up as Santa Claus at some of his holiday shows. He and Lucille performed a comedy radio show in 1943 called “Razzle Dazzle.” Lucille was also a stage actress, “Lady Luck,” who conducted the talent show band and sang at the talent performances. In 1940 on New Year’s Day, Lucille danced in a troupe that performed a production of “Show-Boat,” which was described as a vaudevillian presentation. An article in the February 18, 1941 issue of the Daily Gleaner states, “The cast of ‘Pagan Fire’ stage presentation at popular Majestic tomorrow night is hard at work and will be ready to give of their best. They comprise the following: Mrs. Vere Johns (Jungle girl)—returns to the Jamaica stage and will be seen in two dance specialties . . . Vere Johns (Chief Crandall)–veteran actor and director in a stirring dramatic role. . . . ‘Pagan Fire’ is an original playlet by Mr. Vere Johns. Place: Kango Isle in the South Seas. Production and direction by Mr. Johns, dance sequences by Mrs. Johns.” In 1943 Lucille Johns wrote a play called “Fool’s Paradise” that was directed by Vere Johns. It was performed at the Ward Theatre and was billed as “A Rich Action Packed Drama of Our Every Day Life in 3 Acts.”
Lucille and Vere Johns had served as supporters, mentors, and directors to the Caribbean Thespians, a group of actors from various theaters around the city. An August 5, 1941 Daily Gleaner article stated, “Vere Johns, well known locally for his many talents, has been heard only too infrequently in the one role in which he excels as a truly great artist. Vere Johns is a Shakespearian actor of extraordinary power. His grip and understanding of the dramatic possibilities of the Shakespearian tradition will amaze and delight his audience, sustaining at the same time the lyrical beauty of the Elizabethan English,” showing that both Vere and Lucille were greatly involved in the theater community.
Another article from the Daily Gleaner on June 22, 1939 with the headline “Play at Palace,” detailed another one of the plays presented by the Johns that Lucille herself had written. “’When a Heat Wave Hit Breadnut Bottom,’ a one-act comedy written by Mrs. Vere Johns and directed by her husband, and in which both took leading parts, was presented, at the Palace Theatre last night to a very appreciative audience. Like their ‘Opportunity Hour’ progammes, this presentation was a further endeavour of Mr. and Mrs. Vere Johns to present to the Jamaica public, Jamaica talent, and they succeeded in no uncertain way in this respect. Throughout its 40 minutes duration, the presentation was followed with interest, interspersed with the applause of the audience. Apart from Mr. and Mrs. Johns, outstanding performers in the play were little golden-voiced Frederick Stanley, who sang three very delightful songs, little Lester Johns (son of Mr. and Mrs. Vere Johns), and Ranny Williams, who as Tom, the headman of Mass Charlie’s (Mr. Vere Johns) plantation did justice to his part.” Lucille and Vere also had at least one other son, Vere Johns Jr., who went on to emcee in 1984 for the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour where Bunny and Scully performed. This event took place at the Odeon Theater and Vere Johns Jr. was billed as the “Ace from Outa Space.”
Here is a link to the article I cite from Roy Black, the legendary music columnist: VERE JOHNS
I always thought they called him Easy Snappin’, not because his song was arguably the first ska song, but because Theophilus was too hard to say! Kidding of course, but I would like to take some time to look back on Easy Snappin’, or Theo, or Theophilus Beckford, that talented pianist to whom we really owe a debt of gratitude. He helped to launch a genre.
Theophilus Beckford was born in 1939 in Trench Town, the same neighborhood that gave us Bob Marley, Alton Ellis, Hortense Ellis, and even DJ Kool Herc! His father was a skilled pianist but Beckford learned to play piano in school and was also self-taught. He performed in the style of the popular artists of the day—American R&B like Roscoe Gordon and Fats Domino. But he didn’t start recording in this style since the only real recording being done on the island at this point was from Stanley Motta who recorded calypsos. So Beckford recorded for Motta on a number of calypsos and as the recording industry developed when Ken Khouri established Federal Records, Beckford was able to develop the style he loved—American R&B which evolved into ska.
Many will argue that “Easy Snapping” was a boogie shuffle tune, and there is something to be said for that. But Easy Snapping features a more punctuated piano rhythm that is less slippery than the shuffle beat, and it also features brass, so it can easily be argued that it is the first ska song. Some say that it is neither R&B nor ska, it is somewhere in the middle, so it a way it is the Lucy of evolution, the missing link. Whatever your take, it is evident that this song, and this artist, are essential to the creation of ska and the genres that follow.
“Easy Snapping” was recorded for Coxsone at Federal Records in 1956 for Studio One’s first ever recording session. Michael Turner writes in Beat magazine in 2001, “The song was recorded for Coxson Dodd in 1956 at Federal studio, but at the time recordings were pressed onto soft acetate for sound-system use only. Three years later the commercial release of records in Jamaican began . . . ‘Easy Snapping’ was released late in the year and its lazy intonation and emphasis on the offbeat made it a massive hit, and presaged the development of a unique Jamaican sound.”
The song was an immediate hit and stayed on the charts for 18 months. It was also released in the UK on the Blue Beat label. Of course, Beckford received no royalties from this song even though it was used in a European jeans commercial later on. The song on Coxsone’s Melodisc label is credited to Theophilus Beckford, Clue J and His Blues Blasters while the Blue Beat version is credited to Theophilus Beckford, Clue J and His Blues Blasters, Trenton Spence and His Orchestra. The B side of both releases was the tune “Going Home.” He recorded others for Coxsone as well as Simeon Smith who was better known as “Hi-Lite.” He performed piano as a studio musician for hundreds of recordings. According to Mark Lamarr, “As pianist in Cluett Johnson’s Blues Blasters and as a session musician, he played on countless cuts for Prince Buster, King Edwards, Leslie Kong, Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd.”
Growing frustrated with receiving no pay from Coxsone and others, Beckford established his own label in 1961, King Pioneer, and he released many of his own tunes—perhaps the first DIY guy! He became producer on his label for artists such as Frank Cosmo, Daniel Johnson, Keith Walker, Lloyd Clarke, Wilfred Brown, the Greenbusters, the Meditators, the Pioneers, Toots & the Maytals, and Eric Monty Morris & Patsy Todd on the duet “Don’t Worry to Cry.” Michael Turner writes, “Approximately 50 songs came out on this label between 1962-66, and most of these were strong works exhibiting the many styles and flavors of ska.”
In later years, after ska and rocksteady and reggae was considered “oldies music” or “granny music” by Jamaican youth when dancehall took over, Beckford was able to eke out a meager living by performing at gigs anywhere he could find. “Things are rough on my side and I am surviving through the will of God and the love for the music,” said Beckford in a Jamaica Gleaner article in 2000. “Today as I listen to music on radio and sound system and recognise that I created some of these tunes. I feel strongly that I am not given full recognition for my work.” A year later, Theophilus Beckford was dead.
On February 19, 2001, Beckford went to resolve a dispute with a man in Callaloo Mews. After leaving the residence, the assailant “chopped” Beckford in the back of the head with an axe, according to the Jamaica Gleaner, and he was killed. His son Lloyd stated, “What kind of society is this where a 65-year-old man can be so brutally murdered and to think that it is someone who is well known and has contributed to the development of his country.” Certainly, Beckford has left a legacy. He is to be respected for his contribution to the development of the Jamaican music. The Guinness Book of Who’s Who in Reggae credits Theophilus Beckford with creating “the feel and soul of ska.” Let’s give credit too.