Music and movies (Reggae)

In 1995 a group of young French film makers showed a side of Paris, a city known for culture & romance, that few tourists or cinema-goers had seen before. “La Haine” (The Hate) is about the lives of young working class youths living on the grim estates, the “banlieues”, on the periphery of the city. It is a cold eyed, beautifully filmed, life in a day of 3 friends in the aftermath of a riot. The opening credits set the tone.

Despite the disruption, even devastation, in your own neighbourhood there’s a sense of empowerment for a community involved in a riot. People who burn & loot act out of frustration, seeing themselves excluded from & discriminated against by those who make decisions which affect their lives. In 1981, even though I lived in the area, I had little involvement in the Brixton riots. I am white, I had a job, I could walk the streets at night without fear of police harassment, it was not my fight. The people I knew who were out on the streets felt that a point had been made.  The racist policies of the police would not stand, it was time to get up, stand up.

“La Haine” captures that time when choices are to be made. A youth with an attitude knows that getting hold of a gun changes his optionsHis friend, sick of violence met with violence, knows that it is time to speak his piece. It’s a gritty, grainy movie, as tough as it needs to be. Writer-director Mathieu Kassowitz captures the cultural & racial mix of modern France while we also got to see the talent of Vincent Cassell for the first time. In 2008 Cassell had his de Niro moment in the double header “Mesrine” movies. Those of us who had followed him since “La Haine” knew that he was one of the great cinema actors of his time. The dread, beat & blood of “Burning & Looting” establishes this uncompromising, militant & modern European movie.

In 1990 I had that riot of my own when a massive demonstration against the Poll Tax was, at first, badly supervised & then physically attacked. As we fought & won running battles with an outnumbered police force there was an exhilaration around Central London. I felt no desire to damage property or to steal from shops but I did want to assert my right to live in my own city on my own terms. The defeat of the police, violent defenders of an unpopular government tax, made the world look a little different when we walked through the middle of our city the next day. We did not know it at the time but our first female Prime Minister was taking her first steps as a dead woman walking that day.

Now your English skinhead movie is obviously not going to be as serious as the bloody French one. It sure isn’t “American History X” either. The opening montage of “This Is England”, a 2006 masterpiece by Shane Meadows, has plenty of social division, violence & war with enough footage of the recently deceased instigator of social disintegration & conqueror of the Falklands. There’s also Roland Rat, Space Invaders, Rubik’s Cube & a Royal Wedding. The shiny distracting baubles waved before us while those who create the wealth by their labour get shafted. I could spin you one about bread & circuses, about how nothing has changed in 30 years but I could put it no better than our Scorsese of the English provinces, “This Is England”.

So while “54-46 Was My Number” has Toots & the Maytals singing about life in prison it is not chanting down Babylon. It’s a dance yourself dizzy, skinhead boot stomp. Now your roots reggae hits the hips as well as the head but your Ska is more don’t think just dance. & that’s no criticism. British youth cults have always had their own dance music. The Ska revival of the early 1980s excavated & made its own great sounds. I can say little about “This Is England”, a film set in 1983 with a connection to such wonderful earlier British films as “Kes” &  “Scum” while still apposite to the personal & political in the 21st century. It has got to be seen.

Some time in 1970s Birmingham, in an off-Broad St fleapit (the Futurist ? Anyone ?), I saw Perry Henzell’s film “The Harder They Come”. Handsworth had come to the city centre. A packed audience, raised on Dirty Harry Callahan & Bruce Lee cheered Jimmy Cliff as rough, tough, survivin’ Ivan in a gritty, fresh vibrant snapshot of Island Life. Any chat about reggae in movies has to include this great film & a soundtrack LP in everyone’s Top 10 list. But…don’t watch that , watch this.

Director Ted Bafaloukos went to Jamaica to make a documentary about reggae culture. “Rockers” (1978) was given a thin Bicycle Thieves meets Robin Hood storyline & was released at the pictures as a drama. Studio One drummer “Horsemouth” Wallace starred in this cool, intimate portrait of life in JA, Gregory Isaacs, Big Youth, Robbie Shakespeare & others may not be the best actors but are great musicians.

This outstanding clip captures one of the island’s legends. Winston Rodney, known as Burning Spear, is one of reggae’s most spiritual artists, his connection to Africa in both his lyrics & his rhythms closer than most. Here he performs an acapella version of “Jah No Dead” a song from the “Social Living” LP, one of the outstanding run of records he released. To see the young Spear, to hear his sinuous passion. Well praise the divinity of your choice that someone was around to point  camera at this incredible performance. me, I’ll go with Jah because if Burning Spear believes that Jah lives then I’m not arguing. Nominated for best musical performance at the Academty Awards ? In our dreams.

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Down At The Sombrero Club (Jamaican Soul)

The James Bond theme tunes are still a big deal. It is only a couple of weeks ago that Adele picked up an Oscar for “Skyfall”, the latest in a series which ,I must admit, I kind of gave up on when Sean Connery quit. The very first Bond movie “Dr No” (1962) is the only one of the films to have 2 opening themes. The well known John Barry composition is there & alongside it is “Kingston Calypso”, a tune by the premier big band in Jamaica, Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. As a better British actor than those who have played 007 would say, “Not many people know that” !

Byron Lee & the Dragonaires were a very adaptable & professional unit. They gigged in Kingston’s tourist hotels & backed the US stars who visited the island. Jazzers who turned their hands to calypso, rock & roll, R&B,whatever style was required. When Ska became popular they were on that too. In 1964 the island’s head of Social Welfare & Economic Development Edward Seaga organised a showcase of Jamaican music to perform at the New York World’s Fair. Seaga, a future Prime Minister who had sold his record label to Lee, chose the Dragonaires as the backing band. Incredibly, this is how that show looked & sounded.

Oh Yes ! The Blues Busters, “the Jamaican Sam & Dave”, who hit big 2 years earlier with the Lee produced “Behold”, a startling slab of ska-soul. I only discovered these boys a couple of years ago & I love their stuff. The sound of a penny dropping as the influence of US vocal styles would obviously be around. I just had not heard such a raw sound in ska before. Out of my way, I need to be near the front for this ! The ‘Busters, Philip James & Lloyd Campbell, will lift you at any time. “I Don’t Know” is just one of a set of great singles which switched easily between ska & soul. The 26 track Trojan anthology includes the 1967 sessions in Muscle Shoals when they tried to make it in the US.

And what about this clip? The Sombrero Club in Kingston, 1964 is buzzing, the clothes are sharp & the dancing is just the ticket. The nearest I ever got to this was nights down Gaz’s Rocking Blues in Wardour St. Off to the time machine. Set the controls for the heart of the ska !

The emerging Jamaican recording scene intrigued a young man who had spent his childhood on the island & in the UK. Chris Blackwell was involved in the production of “Dr No” but turned down an opportunity in the film business to concentrate on music. In 1962 he transferred his label to the UK intending to sell to the niche market of West Indian immigrants. He took with him his discovery, a young talented singer/songwriter, Jackie Edwards who helped out around the fledgling Island label. In 1964 Blackwell produced an international hit with the teenage singer Millie Small. “My Boy Lollipop”. This financed an expansion of Island & he signed Birmingham R&B band the Spencer Davis Group. 4 singles were released with minor success before the breakthrough with 2 successive #1 records in the UK in 1966. These hits were not  soul-blues re-makes but new, upbeat pop songs written by Jackie Edwards.

“Come On Home” is from a 1965 LP  & is as sweet as. Maybe the strings are too sweet but Jackie was writing such good tunes at this time & this is Jamaican soul at its best. Jackie was always sweet anyway. His militant 1976 tune “Get Up”, the inspiration for the Clash’s “Revolution Rock”, is cool & honeyed despite the angry lyrics. His own version of “Keep On Running”, that first hit for Spencer Davis, is a stomping floor filler. Jackie continued to record, leaving Island in the late 60s, Chris Blackwell made his label into the world’s leading independent record company. He did more to popularize reggae music than any other individual. Jackie Edwards played his part in establishing Island as more than just a vehicle for the obscure records of the Caribbean & American R&B.

Back to the Sombrero Club for more of that 1964 showcase. The best of Jamaican music had gone to the World’s Fair. Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster & Millie “lollipop” Small among them. Apparently there was a little friction between the “uptown” Dragonaires & the new, less sophisticated singers. The cabaret calypso confections were now a colonial curio. This newly independent country was confident & was finding its own voice. Here, out of Coxone’s Studio One are Raleigh, Jerry & Toots, the Maytals. Jamaica’s star vocal trio. I love the trio tradition in Jamaican music, the Wailers, Culture, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru (& Wailing Souls, Heptones, Mighty Diamonds, it’s a fine list).

After winning the first ever Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Contest the Maytals carried the swing through the decade. They did not add the “Toots &” until 1971. To see as well as hear the teenage Toots perform is such a treat. With the boys gathered around one microphone there is less of the showmanship of his later shows. There does not have to be because his husky, gospel-tinged voice is just beautiful. I have written about Toots before here. It was 1976 before Toots sang “Reggae Got Soul”, those of us who had heard his records knew that thing already. Here is “Sweet & Dandy” again just because it will make you happy.

Well, there is no time machine so I’m grateful that I am able to see these great performances, this music that went from ska to rock steady to reggae &  always had true emotion, honesty & soul. One Love !

When It Drops, You Gonna Feel It (Toots And The Maytals)

I first saw Perry Henzell’s  film “The Harder They Come”  in a rammed Birmingham cinema. It was loud, proud, colourful, smoky and so was the movie. Any technical flaws in this low budget film are more than off-set by the energy and imagination shown in telling  the story of Ivan (Jimmy Cliff), a Trenchtown rude boy who sees his only options for escape to be music or crime. Jamaican and Caribbean culture was making its contribution to British cities in the 1970s but West Indians were almost invisible in the mass media. This vibrant, compelling film put Jamaica on the big screen and got it right first time. It also had one of the great soundtrack albums. There was a lot of good music  from Jamaica and they picked some good ones.

“Sweet and Dandy” by the Maytals was the winner of the 1969 Jamaican popular song festival. Through the 60s they were one of the vocal groups who transposed the gospel-soul of the Impressions into gospel-ska. They were bang on the progression to reggae and were the biggest group in Jamaica. This song is so upfull, dance along, sing along, just feel it. I love it.

The Maytals became Toots and the Maytals. Toots Hibbert is a natural showman and a deal with a major label meant plans for him to be the next reggae superstar after Bob Marley. “54-46 That’s My Number” was written about some time he served in prison and has been a highlight of his live shows for just ever. Here, on a 1975 USA tour, the band funk around while Toots is a ball of energy and power.  Toots never sold shed-loads of records. The music seemed to be made for an international market when cutting edge reggae made in Jamaica was the way to go. No matter, “Funky Kingston” and “Reggae Got Soul” are still pretty good records. Toots had enough good songs in his back catalogue to ensure a great show.

From that run of 60s tunes I have chosen the sincere, soulful ska of “True Love” because, now that I am old, I find this straightforward tune to be so affecting and effective. When I worked on the construction sites Toots and the Maytals’ “Greatest Hits” was a surefire winner with everybody, every time. “Pressure Drop”, “Monkey Man”, even the John Denver cover “Country Roads” all sung with that warm,raspy, passionate vocal lift a person’s spirit in a life-affirming way…that’s a good thing, yeah ?