“Mento Music: Jamaica, Belafonte, and the Golden Age”
For decades the Jamaica Cultural Development Council (JCDC) has held a Festival Song Competition in celebration of Jamaica’s Independence. The JCDC has also featured contests for Jamaican Mento Bands. Authentic Jamaican music was promoted early on, by plan, to help to build Jamaica. In his doctoral dissertation on Mento music, Neely describes "A Better Village Plan" developed by the Pioneer Clubs which produced "Jamaica Welfare’s Song Sheet #5" (2008, p. 205). These song sheets helped to spread a musical message throughout Jamaica and helped to influence Jamaican music to present date.
The documentation and communication in the form of sheet music, provided songs to the citizenry of Jamaica like “Linstead Market,” “Mango Walk” and “Manual Road.” The sheet music was reminiscent of the "tracts" sold on the street over two decades prior by a famous Kingston street duo known as "Slim and Sam." These tracts were the written music to be played by families and friends, often in the form of parlour music. The "Jamaica Welfare’s Song Sheet #5" even included songs written by Slim and Sam and were the songs that were to be the training tools for Mento bands in competition. According to Witmer (1987), the sale of tracts by Slim and Sam were quite significant, “… with Slim and Sam and early twentieth century itinerant songmen, we are dealing with a genuinely indigenous Jamaican urban popular music expression.” These songs were uniquely Jamaican, unlike a prior attempt described by Neely (2008, p. 201) by Jamaica Welfare in the 1930s to relate much more English and American songs like "My Bonnie."
As Mento bands refined their own tunes, they integrated the sheet music into their final product for presentation at community gatherings, in hotels, and in the 1950’s onto vinyl. Many of these songs have been played and played by The Skatalites in more "modern day" recordings.
Jamaican Mento music entered the scene after Trinidadian Calypso music’s popularity in the 1920’s and 30’s. One of the earlier Jamaican Calypsonians is Lord Fly. Garnice (2013) references a 1948 Jamaica Gleaner article that documents Lord Fly as active in the 1920's where he worked with George Moxey at The Silver Slipper Club in Kingston, Jamaica. Fly sang and played the saxophone and was one of the very first artists to record for Stanley Motta. As a featured artist, Fly commonly recorded and performed with The Dan Williams Orchestra up to the approximate year 1952. [This is where the genius of the website “Mentomusic.com” comes into play. In his careful documentation, Garnice (2013) communicated with the grandson of John Dan Williams who revealed that Dan Williams is the grandfather of singer Grace Jones]
In the 1950’s Lord Flea continued Mento’s momentum as a guest on national television in the U.S. The show was NBC's “Perry Como Show,” which aired on Saturday night February 9th, 1957. Flea was billed as "Lord Flea's Calypso Combo." Just a month later, Como was singing the “Banana Boat Song” on that same show. Lord Flea was hugely popular in the Golden Age of Mento in the mid 1950s. In 1956, Billboard magazine described Flea's talent: "Flea has a dynamic drive with the attention-getting sides. These can stir attention at all levels. But these two sides, performed by one of the most authentic and commercial groups around, could put many to shame" (1957, p. 58). This article hailed the success of the Capitol Records single "Shame Shame Señora" which had as a b-side, "The Naughty Little Flea." Dennis Howard (2011) describes the introduction of jukeboxes into Jamaica after 1955, "jukeboxes were scattered in bars all over Kingston." As a result, Jamaicans were exposed to the talents of their own with a new vehicle.
As Lord Flea was creating his own place in music, Harry Belafonte was next in line to push both Jamaican folk music and Calypso to a larger audience. Belafonte was born in New York in 1927 and when his parents separated, he moved to Kingston, Jamaica to live with his maternal grandmother. His mother Melvine Love had Harry return to New York in 1939.
With the first gold record in history in 1956 for the album "Calypso," Harry Belafonte soon became known as "The King of Calypso." The title of "king" for Belafonte was considered an insult to many Trinidadians and to Calypsonians like Lord Melody and Lord Kitchener who had earned their titles through organized competitions during Carnival in Trinidad. Supporters crowded into tents to watch the talents of their favorite Calypsonian who both wrote and sang their own music and displayed their talents by creating lyrics on the spot during competitions.
Belafonte scored hits on the Billboard charts and became hugely popular singing the songs of these Calypsonians. An example is "Boo Boo," which reached number 11 on The Billboard charts. This song was penned by Lord Melody and was crafted through years of trial and error in live performances. Belafonte was not the only one to sing “Boo Boo,” the song had been sung by many artists over the years, including The Monarchs. Belafonte’s charisma, talent, and timing is displayed on a 1957 episode of NBC’s Nat King Cole Television Show where Belafonte and Cole sang “Boo Boo” as a duet. The performance was candid and full of infectious energy.
Eventually the paths of Lord Melody and Harry Belafonte had to cross. In a 1986 interview from the film “Calypso Dreams,” Melody describes his first meeting with Belafonte: “I met him on the street and I said to him, I say, ‘Hi Belafonte.’ And he stood up. First time that man ever see me. He say, ‘Who are you?’ I say, ‘Melody.’ He said, ‘The Lord Melody?’ I said ‘Yes.’ He said ‘Come with me.’ And from that time to about you know, six years ago, we was totally married!” (2003).
Lord Burgess (Irving Louis Burgie) was a writer for Belafonte. Burgess wrote Belafonte's signature tune, "Jamaica Farewell." Burgess also wrote the version of "The Banana Boat Song" (reworked from the original Mento folk version) that Belafonte popularized. This version of "The Banana Boat Song" reached number five on the U.S. Billboard Magazine charts in 1955. Ironically, Burgess himself was born in New York in the United States. Burgess is an important connection to Belafonte with the written Jamaican folk music lyric.
Burgess grew up in a Jamaican section of New York and he studied at Julliard. Lord Burgess was a singer himself and appears on many recordings. There is an excellent album on Stinson Records (SLP 42) entitled "Calypso Serenaders" which showcases Jamaican, Haitian, and other folk music of the Caribbean. One tune on this album is "Rum and Cocoanut Water," which features the pennywhistle of Herbert Levy. The entire song is laced with the pennywhistle. Lord Burgess also utilized Levy on his album "The Father of Modern Calypso" and Belafonte was joined by Levy on his November, 1960 CBS Television performance "Belafonte: New York 19."
With the influences of Burgess, Lord Melody, Levy, his own Jamaican bloodline, good looks and luck, Harry Belafonte's contribution to Jamaican Folk music mushroomed in the 1950's. Lord Fly had set the track and Lord Flea established a youthful backdrop to Belafonte's sophisticated presentation of Jamaican Folk music.
The conflict over the use and authorship of the Calypso and Mento folk music continued to follow Belafonte. In a 1986 interview in the film “Calypso Dreams” (2003), Belafonte provided an explanation:
When this “King of Calypso” stuff came out, the Trinidadians went crazy. Boy, they went nuts! “Ya call yourself “The King of Calypso” and you never come here and you never go up into competition. You never do jump up. You never go into the tent. You never do nothin’ and you tief (sic) the music and you call yourself King? How can you do that?” And I said “You’re absolutely right! I’ve never been in the tent. I’ve never competed. I never thought I could. I never wanted to. Those who possess the Calypsonian art are men of remarkable gifts and there is a speciality to it that I’m not privileged to embrace. The fact that I’ve been called The King of Calypso was not my manufacturing. Deal with those who market and sell you goods that you buy every day. What I did was to use the environment of Caribbean lore to put us on the map at another level that I thought was instructive and creative for us. And in that service if I’ve offended you, then I beg your forgiveness.”
Dunn, G., Horne, M., Schwartz, M., Thiermann, E. (Producers), Dunn, Geoffrey, Horne,
Michael. (Directors). (2003). Calypso Dreams [Motion Picture]. USA: Pulse
Garnice, Michael, (2013). Lord Fly. Retrieved March, 15, 3013 from
Howard, Dennis, (2013). Punching For Recognition: The Jukebox as a Key Instrument
in the Development of Popular Jamaican Music. Retrieved March, 15, 3013 from
Neely, Daniel Tannehill. (2008). “Mento: Jamaica's Original Music”: Development
Tourism and the National Frame. (Doctoral Dissertation). New York University.
Nielsen Business Media, Inc (23 February 1957). "Billboard". Retrieved 15
Witmer, Robert. (Spring-Summer, 1987). "Local and Foreign": The Popular Music
Culture of Kingston, Jamaica, before Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae. Latin American
Music Review/Revista de Musica, Latinoamericana, 8(No. 1), 1-25.
(Exerpt from an upcoming feature on Lord Sassafrass)
R. Lowe February, 2013
It was 1986 at 2:00 in the morning, the night was especially hot and without a moon. Sassafrass was driving a motorcycle through the outskirts of Western Kingston with Ginger Tea, his hype man riding pillion. A hype man is a person who cheers on a performer at a dance which encourages the crowd to join in. This was not Sassa’s area, he was moving through a neighboring area, hoping to pass without drawing attention. In the darkness, Sassa steered left around a corner and Ginger Tea was steady leaning and looking right, at some activity on the corner. This caused the motorcycle to lose balance and wobble. Hitting the brakes, the bike came to a halt. Immediately, two men approached the bike. As they approached, the shorter, stockier man turned his head and exclaimed, “Hey Sassafrass! Ya gone foreign and mi nah hear ya voice again! Come chat pon the sound fe me.” The short man motioned over to the corner where Ginger Tea had been looking and Sassa could hear the music coming from beyond the zinc fence. Although Sassa was feeling kind of “boomy” (apprehensive/jumpy), there was pressure to comply given that he was not in his own area, but was being shown some decency.
Once inside the yard, there was a crowd of people moving in the darkness. A small set of lights were strung in the corner and on either side, Sassa and Ginger Tea could see a sound system with individual groups of men. This yard had two neighborhood sounds competing and Sassa immediately recognized the dj working the mic on one of the sounds, it was Gregory Peck. Sassa comments on many of the dance goers, “Them nuh really know Peck. So I stand up beside him to support him.” As Sassa settles into position, Gregory Peck turns to him and in his clear voice over the speaker boxes he shouts out pure attack lyrics against Sassa, trying to kill him! This was Peck defending his area as he was the local favorite. Quite likely that Peck wanted bragging rights of killing a hot dj who was scoring on the charts. Peck had not yet recorded much and had not yet made impact on the music scene, but he was ready for a fight. Peck then proceeds to run through a few riddims aggressing toward Sassa in relation to his recent time spent in New York, him being fat, and any other crafty insult he could manufacture. Sassafrass was almost knocked over, “I come there to support this guy and he try to kill mi man! Being a dj, ya have to be great to go into another dj area.”
Once Peck had his time on the mic, the crowd recognized that Lord Sassafrass needs to make his response and they beat the fence. At this point Sassa’s hype man Ginger Tea grabs hold of the mic and shouts to the crowd, “We nuh mix wid dutty bungle! All weh we deal with a nice n deacent peeeple. Hear dis, a strickly one, one. One me dealwid tonite people. Ecko Mnott one, Gentrees one, Sassa one! Come dung now Horseman.” Standing next to Ginger Tea, Lord Sassafrass takes hold of the mic and djs his song “Pocomania Jump,” “Poco jump, poco jump, make we do the poco jump…grow a Marveley inna one tenement. Month end come an me couldn’t pay mi rent…” Sassafrass commented, “The place tun over.” Sassafrass was able to depart that night with his pride, but was still struck at how Gregory Peck attacked him without provocation. Sassa recalls, “The little bwoi a try.” The next day, he reasoned with Echo Minott about the incident. Echo said, “Yeh a kill im wa kill u, a bus im waa bus, weh u tink? Yu was like dat bak in a de days. Yu want piece a everybody. Yu wrenk and feisty.” Ironic that it was Gregory Peck that followed Sassa’s Poco lyrics lead and later recorded one of his most recognizable songs “Poco Man Jam.”
On South Camp Road in Kingston, there is a saying - "Labour for learning before you grow old. For learning is better than silver or gold." These words have been repeated for generations by the nuns and Alpha Band Directors of Alpha Boys School. This learning involves musical instruction and many students have converted their musical education into gold - some more successfully than others.
Beginning in 1892, Alpha Boys School's musical education has produced highly skilled musicians. Musicians like Joe Harriott (saxophone), Winston "Sparrow" Martin (Drums, keyboards, trumpet), Johnnie "Dizzy" Moore (trumpet), Cedric "Im" Brooks (Saxophone, flute), and Bobby Ellis (trumpet) all had their skills tapped by the bandleaders and producers of Jamaica in the 1950s and 60s. Today's youth at Alpha are ready to test their skills. Today's generation of Alpha is Sykie Campbell who at age 14, recorded with Coxsone Dodd on the Studio One album "Come Dance With Me." Sykie plays drums, percussion and xylophone and during the day walks the same dirt path to the playing field that 16 year old Don Drummond walked when he attended Alpha in the 1940s. Before her death in 2003, Sister Mary Ignatius Davies worked with Sykie Campbell. Sykie recalls his time with her: "I've been at Alpha a long time. She'd always say, ‘Lickle man, one day you're gonna be that person that's going to be tall and be a big man.' She was that type of person that show love every time she see you."
The abilities of the youth at Alpha have not gone unnoticed over the years. Like a professional football coach recruits, the bandleaders and producers of Jamaica have recruited at Alpha for musicians. Sonny Bradshaw recruited Joe Harriott and Wilton Gaynair. Actually it was Alpha
School's Sister Ignatius that suggested Alpha student Joe Harriott to band leader Sonny Bradshaw. Coxsone Dodd recruited Cedric Brooks, Bobby Ellis, Vin Gordon, and Headley Bennett. In a 1991 interview, Coxsone Dodd commented about his first recordings in the late 1950s and his searches for talent, "Rhythm and Blues became obsolete because of Rock and Roll. Rock and Roll didn't [go] over in Jamaica too strong, so we decided to start doing our own stuff. First of all we're lookin' for a good voice, delivery, and willingness to learn." Band leader Eric Dean recruited Rico Rodriguez, Tommy McCook, and the great Don Drummond from Alpha School. In a 2002 interview, Sister Ignatius commented on the excitement that Don Drummond created: "Even though he was still in school, he was almost the number one trombonist in the island. When the band went out on Alpha engagements, a lot of musicians would go and listen to him. Band leaders used to come ‘round and listen."
Today's Band Director (since 1989) is Winston "Sparrow" Martin - an Alpha graduate himself. Mr. Martin continues the Alpha tradition by not only giving back in his role as band Director, but by assisting past Alpha Boys professionally. Mr. Martin comments, "I have a group of past Alpha boys who play at different functions, they do recordings, they travel abroad and go to places like France, Germany, Italy, to perform Jamaican music. I think it's a good thing to expose them and show them that the world is large and there are so many things you can do that will enhance you to be a better person."
Youthman Sykie Campbell represents the future of Alpha - talented, capable, and driven. Sykie Campbell recalls his parting with Sister Ignatius: "I can remember when I went to the chapel. Before she died, she said: ‘Lickle man, you have grown into a big man' and I laughed with her. I remember those words clearly." Decades before, it was Sister Ignatius that introduced Joe Harriott to band leader Sonny Bradshaw. It may be that Sykie Campbell will receive his recommendation from Band Director Sparrow Martin. From here it is "upward and onward!"
Educating the young men at Alpha Boys School is no easy task, but the outcome is youth with skills to survive wherever they may go in life. Where music is concerned, discipline teaches Alpha students how to play an instrument, to read music, to compose music, and to arrange music. Education is the key. When a musician is taught to read and write music, the possibilities are limitless. These great heights are expressed through accomplished musicians like Tommy McCook, Joe Harriott, and Don Drummond who are respected around the world for their musical genius.
The impact of Alpha is seen in the 1930's London, England music performances by Bertie King on clarinet and saxophone. King worked with the Leslie Hutchinson Band in London - playing, writing, and arranging musical numbers. King made his return to Jamaica in the late 1950s and formed the 14 piece Bertie King's Royal Jamaicans, playing as JBC Radio's studio band. Like Stanley Motta and Ken Khouri before him, King arranged for Jamaican music to be pressed onto 78 speed records in England by Decca Records. Early 1950's Jamaican Mento music was recorded by Alpha graduate Babe O'Brien when he worked with George Moxey's band on tunes which were recorded at Stanley Motta's Studio. Babe O'Brien also played with Moxey at The Silver Slipper Night Club in Kingston. Alto saxophone player Joe Harriott attended Alpha as a youth and traveled to England in 1951. Three years after his arrival, Harriott recorded his first full length album as the Joe Harriott Quartet entitled "Cool Jazz with Joe." On trumpet, Oscar Clarke first attended Alpha in 1914-15 and as an adult toured the U.S. with Jazz legend Louis Armstrong's orchestra. Being that Clarke played the trumpet like Armstrong, it is likely that he was part of a large orchestra that utilized multiple instruments. It is unclear as to if Clarke worked with Armstrong before or after the memorable visit of Louis Armstrong to Kingston in May of 1957. Armstrong greeted thousands of Kingstonians that year when he played and sang at a free outdoor show. Alpha School overflows with graduates - many of which are not commonly known. These graduates often worked as freelance musicians, but Alpha has also produced great singers - Alpha formed a Boys Choir in 1917. Owen Gray attended Alpha School as a youth continuing his singing as a tenor at church. Desmond Dekker attended Alpha after his mother passed away and his father desired a proper education for his son. Soon after graduation, Desmond was auditioning at Coxsone Dodd's Studio One. Other students include Winston Francis, Tony Gregory, Johnny Osbourne, and even Yellowman.
One of the most influential graduates of Alpha is Thomas Mathew McCook. McCook became interested in the saxophone after he saw his brother Frank playing. In response, his mother who worked at The Bournemouth Club enrolled him at Alpha in1939 (The Bournemouth Club was one of the first small clubs in Kingston and was originally called "The Bournemouth Bath"). It was not until 1940 that McCook began playing tenor saxophone under the instruction of Alpha School's bandleader George Neilson. McCook left Alpha in 1953 when he accepted an offer by Eric Dean to play at The Bournemouth Club. The same Tommy McCook went on to form The Skatalites band which played a critical role in the development of the uniquely Jamaican music: Ska. It took a full year of work by Coxsone Dodd to encourage Tommy to play for Studio One as The Skatalites. Tommy was first approached by Coxsone in 1962, but turned Dodd down. In 1963 he accepted the offer and assisted in the formation of The Skatalites. At that time mentor Sister Ignatius was looking on with a smile: "I heard them on the radio station and we also heard them practicing because sometimes they would come up here [Alpha School] and practice. Sometimes they would practice down by the sea - Bournemouth, and we would take the children down there for a sea bath." For the past 45 years Ska has been copied and duplicated throughout the world and is still building steam. It was no coincidence that when Ska was hitting big in England in 1981, Alpha graduate Rico Rodriguez was supplying the much needed Jamaican flavor with his trombone work on the Clash's #1 song "Ghost Town." The origins remain uniquely Jamaican with the Alpha Boys School signature stamp.
Rich Lowe, 2007
In 2004, singer Fanton Mojah burst onto the scene with a poor people's tune called "People Hungry." This song supported the ghetto youth who were under stress and pain over the most basic need - food. "People Hungry" made the connection with people all over the world and Fanton Mojah has continued his defense of the poor and needy. Being relatively new on the scene, Fanton Mojah's full impact is still in development. We do know that this artiste has already had significant impact, but his future path can be related through his music origins, his family life, and his musical philosophy.
An early link with music for Fanton Mojah occurred when he was growing up in St. Elizabeth and visited Apple Valley Park for a dance. Apple Valley Park is in Maggoty, St Elizabeth and is surrounded by Jamaica's longest river - The Black River. At this dance, Professor Nuts and Papa San performed and left a lasting impression. Fanton commented in an interview: "The first artistes mi really hide and go watch - Professor Nuts and Papa San. I usual thief outa my house as a lickle youth go watch dem. I wonder if one day I go come to be like these persons wey mi like. Cyaan forget one of mi favorite songs dem time. Ya have the one wey (General) Trees say: ‘Minivan people control Jamaica, one driver a dozen conductor!'" Fanton further describes how he expanded his time in the street, by staying with his grandparents: "We lef gone a grandma and grandpa. We come to love the street. We love to know what going on in the street. With grandma and grandpa, those are the time we really get to go out and look to see wha a gwaan. Whether a dance or a party. Around Daddy, we can't lef the yard! Daddy have ya under strict rule." At present, Fanton's father is preparing land in St Elizabeth for proper farming. Fanton comments, "We try to put in an acre of banana now in St Elizabeth, mi an mi old man. My old man down dere cutting down the place now to start all of this farming. My old man is a man weh grow up inna de bush and we come see him as a powerful man."
Fanton originally left the country for Kingston when an uncle made an offer for Fanton to do some work and earn some money. Upon moving to Kingston, Jamaica Fanton worked in a furniture refinishing shop where he sanded down furniture in preparation for stain and varnish. Fanton was always searching for contacts in the music business, so in his spare time he would pursue musical contacts. It was Papa Jaro's Dub Store that became a central focus. Fanton comments, "Kilamanjaro studio de near. Mi is a man who leave the business and waan know aritistes, so always pon de lookout. Lunchtime me stop sand down furniture and go look pon artists. Ya might see Leroy Smart pop on more time, Hammermouth, Ninja Man an' Garnet Silk." During this period, Fanton began singing under the name "The Mad Killer." He never recorded any formal releases under this name, but he did cut sound system dubplates. Under a later nickname of "Phantom," Fanton Mojah did begin recording songs in the studio. Close friend and singer Zareb (formerly known as "Singer Flasher") recalls Fanton's early visits to The Dub Store, "[Fanton Mojah] is a man love come a the studio. So the link made an' it real from that time."
Fanton Mojah is a music lover and can track the history of artistes and sound systems. In a recent conversation, Fanton was able to site chapter and verse on the sound history and differences between Exodus Nuclear sound and Exodus 4x4 sound. Exodus Nuclear is run by Gary Exodus and his father Romie. This sound has been in operation in different forms for a number of decades. With a similar name, Exodus 4x4 is a completely separate sound run by Father Duss. Some of this knowledge comes from years of working with Kilamanjaro Sound. From the connection made at The Dub Store, Fanton would also move with "Jaro" sound and work with Jaro by setting up speaker boxes and running wires. A good portion of this day-to-day work was built on a passion for reggae music. Fanton comments that, "Music make the people dem feel free and secure their mind." The message in the music can also be controversial. There is strong disagreement on the issue of the production and sale of guns. Fanton was firm in his distain for the large companies that produce so many guns, like Smith & Wesson. Fanton commented, "Babylon need fe implement a ting would cut out war, violence, and crime by stop building guns, bombs, [that] make destruction. If I did have the power to lock down Smith and Wesson factory, I would lock it!" In the video of the Mojah tune "Corruption," a police is shown mashing up a vendor's fruit stand. We discussed how lyrics can be sensitive and if Fanton is cautious on how he addresses issues, "Mi a bun dem. A corruption a crack up pon dem. Ya can't stop the people dem food a sell on the roadside to help dem kids. If you don't sell it on the roadside, you build a nice place an' give them. Set up somewhere properly. Something convenient wey them can sell an' the youth can eat. Babylon system never really take time and set thing for the youth. Them start bun fire an' say mi really start get inna trouble for these things, but it natural. It cannot hidden under the plastic under the cellar."
When listening to music by Fanton Mojah, you may hear him singing in his raspy voice, he may dj, and at times he may stop singing abruptly and talk for a section of a recorded song. In whatever form, Fanton has established a style that is based on a love of music and a distinct social consciousness. The direction from the start, was connected with that early anthem "People Hungry" and Fanton Mojah has continued moving forward with that essence of ghetto music.
Ricky Villa, original owner of La Benz Sound System.
LaBenz Sound, Selector, Jigsy
I first met Jigsy in the mid 1990s when he was working as selector and mic man for Labenz Sound. The sound had just arrived in Cleveland, Ohio as an attempt to cool out from activities in Jamaica. Ricky Villa (Father LaBenz) had decided to make the move from the "LaBenz Corner" in Jamaica to Cleveland, bringing with him his right hand - Jigsy. When Ricky Villa was moving, you could count on seeing Jigsy.
Well before he joined LaBenz, the very first sound that Jigsy worked with was Sharp Point. He then moved to a little community sound called Love Stone. His biggest break was when he left to go to a sound called Lionhouse. The next step brought him to LaBenz sound which was headed up by Sir Ricky Villa.
As many Clevelanders know, Ricky Villa died tragically around the year 2000. The death of Father LaBenz created a challenge for future for LaBenz Sound. Jigsy commented on the passing of Ricky Villa, "Taking up music and jus' put on the turntable, just see Ricky Villa doing it. Couldn't move with that. Even now I play certain type of music an' it touch my mind and feelings, even my heart. One time my friend say, ‘What happen to you?' an I just say, ‘Cho! You wouldn't even understand.' It reflect remembering my friend standing up beside me playing music and mi a talk. Dem tings is a reflection sameway." In 2002 Jigsy left Cleveland for Jamaica.
Some time passed and about three years ago, I started to hear about this selector in Kingston by the name of "Jigsy." Friends told me that this was Labenz's Jigsy, but I responded confidently in telling them that this was not the same Jigsy... but it was! Cleveland has a thriving Jamaican community and reggae music activities are plentiful, but we really have (arguably) not had any local/regional artistes buss big... until Jigsy. Jigsy has had a top ten tune with "Jigsy Dance," the dance itself is quite popular, Jigsy is the lead selector with Danga Zone's Jamaican Sound, as the selector for Danga Zone Jigsy has appeared at Fully Loaded, Elephant's Birthday Bash, Reggae Sum Fest (along with many others), he has led weekly dances with "Bembe Thursdays," produced new artistes music releases.
I spoke with Jigsy about his move to Jamaica in 2002 and asked what his first move was. "I was single playing LaBenz. I never had no help. Mi just try to take mi career to the next level by playing the music an' match up with the rest of the selector in Jamaica. Ca' you know down there live fire with sound system and selector. You haffe really good to stand out. It cost mi a whole heap of night's rest. Mi nuh get to sleep. We party every night - 24 hours. We have events every night from Sunday to Sunday. Mi no have no time for anybody. No time."
A key move was the connection with Danga Zone Sound and Jigsy provided some background on that first association. "It take a while, it was like a journey. Mi link up with them about 2003, going into 2004. Then comes a little change back in my life ca' I lose my best friend an' it take a whole heap from me fe get back pon track. Go through mi journey sameway and things don't really happen overnight. It's like this, I'm here in Kingston and those dudes are in Montego Bay. It's like three and one-half hours away from where I live. Them (Danga Zone) just create a sound. These friendly clash goin' on in MoBay. They want them sound to the next level. They want somebody who can deal with the sound the way they want. Them guy's talkin' to artristes. The artistes - which is my friend, New Kidz and Ninja Kid was there when all the men talkin' and say they want a selector. So mi flash right in them mind. They call me an' mi say, ‘Mi really don't want to play nobody's sound mi waan do mi own thing.' Mi take the bus from Kingston (to Montego Bay - home of Danga Zone Sound), big it up with the people. The first time them see me workin' sound inna MoBay, they say, ‘This really a different type of youth.' From there we jus' take it to a next level an' just bring it come a town where all the competition at. As a sound system ya have to have competition. We just match up with all the Kingston bad sound and be outstanding. From there Danga Zone jus' took off."
by Rich Lowe
Jamaican singer Elijah Prophet has built a solid foundation of reggae music singles over the past eight years. Now this Rastafarian youth who grew up with Garnet Silk, is ready to release his second album entitled "Soldier with a Cause." Elijah's first album was "King of Kings" and was released out of Germany on the Pow Pow Record label. This latest album offers a mix of reality lyrics and excellent musicianship as all tracks are performed by the six-piece roots band called The Uprising Band. In a recent interview, Elijah Prophet shared some of his experiences in recording his latest album with Tru Musik Records, "As soon as I came back from a European tour in 2007, the manager and the bass player from The Uprising Band came for me. They ask me if I'm interested an' I say sure! We start workin' from then. Soldier with a Cause album is different from the past album. All the riddims are not done by computer. I have the time to sing the songs. Things I don't like, I can take out of the song and redo the song again. I have the ability to do anything in the studio." The first single to be released is "Rainy Night In Summer." Although it sounds as though it may be a love song, it is a reality tune that describes two lovers hearing gunshots at night. These gunshots are from a neighbor's house and that neighbor has been killed by the police. The rain continues to fall as the two lovers pause to wonder who has died this night, so close to where they rest. To add to the moodiness of this track, this single also employs the atmospheric tenor saxophone of Dean Fraser. Elijah comments about the reality behind "Rainy Night," "It definitely portrays what happen in the garrison area, which we call ‘the ghetto.' Police tend to abuse a lot of innocent youth in the ghetto - not that every youth in the ghetto is innocent still. For instance, one man shoot after police, police will kill everyone in this side." The image of the neighbor lying in bed with his woman, hearing the gunshots, relates to a pattern of conflicting images in Elijah Prophet's music where he sings of "Johnny." We asked Elijah, "Who is Johnny?" "Johnny could be anybody. There's a Johnny who was a friend of mine who died violently. He wasn't a badman, just a hardworking guy who have a license gun and they kill him for the gun. All other "Johnny's" to me are anybody who try to do something different from the others. Johnny is someone who find himself in a sticky position at the moment." A prior single "Peace Party" also tells the story of the death of an innocent youth. "'Peace Party' was something I saw with my two eyes. These guys have wars for months, years. They say, ‘Let's sign some peace treaty.' The moment they sign the peace treaty, that's when everybody start to die. These guys say, ‘OK, now we can catch Mr. Johnny anywhere we want him because he think everything is OK.' That's how it go on and on and on." The Uprising Band has been together for five years. They work out of Rockfort, near Mountain View, by Kingston Harbour. Although this is a six-piece band, there are 30 or more people who comprise the Uprising "camp." In addition to the release of Elijah Prophet's "Rebel with a Cause," The Uprising Band has completed successful tours with singer Gyptian in Barbados and South America. The Uprising Band has additional albums coming out by Len Hammond, Easy Wayne, and a Dennis Brown tribute album by Fred Locks. Elijah says, "The Uprising Band is musically crazy. They have such genius. Everybody play their part, that's the nicest thing about The Uprising Crew." The Uprising engineer, "Volume C" provided his view on working with Elijah Prophet, "Elijah Prophet have a vibe - it natural. It's very easy for me to work with him ca' he's very experienced and he get a lot of exposure worldwide. There's a great energy, a nice spiritual energy." In closing, Elijah reflects (in present tense) on advice given to him by Garnet Silk: "Garnet is always a straight forward person. I love a person who don't play when it come to his work. Garnet always say, ‘Listen Elijah, no matter what - you have to do what Jah send you here to do.' An' I believe that 100% - rasta must be a rebel with a cause."
by Rich Lowe
Jamaican recording artist Lord Sassafrass (Michael Johnson) was born in Maverley, Kingston, Jamaica. Sassafrass is best known as a dancehall Reggae dj with the Black Scorpio Sound System. On Black Scorpio Sound, Lord Sassafrass introduced the world to General Trees, the entire Horseman Crew, "keeping a dance" lyrics, Obeah lyrics, and great live dj clashes with artists like General Echo, Johnny Ringo, and Nicodemus. Sassafrass went on to record the top selling album "Pocomania Jump" on Black Scorpio Records, controlling the number one slot on the charts with "Poco Jump." He recorded other great songs like "Jamaica Way," "Murder She Wrote" (with General Trees), and the enormous hit "Step Up In Life" (with Barrington Levy). Sassafrass left a distinguished trail of recorded music and live dancehall sessions as he moved from Jamaica to New York, and to his present location in Canada. In the mid 1960s Sassafrass began his musical education with Dj Wicked in Spanish Town and on Chika Sound System, but really cut his teeth in the early 1970's on Soul Expert. Desmond, the owner of Soul Expert, recognized his early talent and introduced Sassafrass to the recording studio. Their first session in 1977 resulted in Sassafrass' first song, "The Story of Roots." Soon after Sassafrass began work with Lee Perry ("The Upsetter") and recorded the classic "Green Bay Massacre" on the Upsetter record label. Sassafrass continued to sharpen his skills in during this classic era of 70's Jamaican Dancehall at Bamboo Lawn, Three-Piece Lawn, and The Student Union at The University of the West Indies. In the 1980s, Lord Sassafrass worked with Emperor Faith, Socialist Roots, Virgo, Killamanjaro, King Majestic (A St. Thomas Sound with a young Supercat and Early B), Black Star, and New York sounds, GT High Power and Third World Sound. Being a school friend of Jack Scorpio, it was a natural for Sassafrass to join up with Black Scorpio Sound. At the Black Scorpio Yard at 30 Headley Avenue, Sassafrass kept the crowds jumping with lyrics to last well into the morning. Enter General Trees. Trees was an apprentice at Caymanas Park horse race track in Jamaica. With horseracing lyrics in abundance, Sassafrass and Trees worked in combination. Often one added harmony as the other dj'd, which brought something new to the dancehall. The duo also used two microphones simultaneously. This combination was exciting in the dancehall and attracted huge crowds that would block off roads entirely. And Sassafrass and Trees knew how to cultivate the crowd. At one dance, Sassafrass brought the excitement to a new level when he rode a horse into a dance clash with the great General Echo. Much of Sassafrass' musical history is seen in the live dance. Similar to the career of Brigadier Jerry, Sassafrass was entertaining in an era of live djs, where recorded music was secondary to the live dance. Sassafrass maintained his focus on the Thursday night gathering at the Black Scorpio yard. He gathered his Horseman Crew: General Trees, Echo Minott, Papa Screw, and Shuka Shine. "Reggaemusiclovinpeople" from all over were drawn to the sound and drank plenty of Heineken and Guinness throughout the night. Obeah is a form of black magic. Sassafrass became known throughout dancehall as the "Obeahman," introducing "obeah" lyrics into the dance. Sassafrass' area is Maverley and there are four or more Pocomania Churches throughout Maverley. In the early 1980's Sassafrass worked with Bunny Lee to record the self-titled "Lord Sassfrass" album. This entire album was recorded at King Tubby's Studio in Waterhouse, Jamaica with Jammy's as the engineer. As Sassafrass says, "King Tubby was there at all time, he never leave that studio." Jammy's went on to open his own studio, "Jammy'$." In the mid 1980's Sassafrass spent time in New York, while working on his second album "Pocomania Jump" for Black Scorpio (with the help of advance money from Byron Lee). While in New York, Sassafrass worked on the GT High Power Sound, Papa Moke, and Third World Sound. It was through these sounds that Sassafrass was exposed to artists like Carlton Livingston, Lone Ranger, Mikey Jarrett, Nicodemus, Lui Lepke, and Peter Ranking. Sassafrass and many of these artists kept the parties going until early morning at Galaxy Ballroom, The Starlight, Colonial Mansion, The Reggae Lounge, and The Biltmore. At The Pepper Box, Sassfrass clashed against Johnny Ringo countless times. Sassafrass comments, "Any time Ringo see me, him start dj against me. Mi kill that all the while." As his "Poco Jump" song was topping the charts in Jamaica, Sassafrass was able to be a dominant player in New York and Kingston simultaneously. As Sassafrass enters his fourth decade in reggae, he has earned the respect of his peers and even his enemies. For example, a long-standing competitor with Black Scorpio Sound is the great Killamanjaro Sound. In a 2011 interview, when asked about Black Scorpio Sound, Papa Jaro was first to mention Lord Sassafrass: "Sassafrass was actually the teacher for General Trees. He was very exciting and he could make some lyrics that could make you laugh and have fun!" Recently, Lord Sassafrass has released new tunes "Don't Wait Too Long," "Sassafrass.com," and "Swine Flu." In 2010, he toured Europe with Jack Scorpio and Echo Minott and is planning another European tour in 2011. His work today carries out the tradition he started almost forty years ago - a sound that is completely unique and his own.
Rich Lowe WRUW Radio