Written at the time of filming by Jeremy Marre
This was an exciting and creative time for reggae music in Jamaica. It had only recently begun to make its presence felt internationally and was spawning a great variety of talent on the island and overseas. The year was 1977.
Since the making of this film, much has been written about reggae. It has been analysed and reanalysed, filmed and re-filmed. But back in 1977, apart from Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come, few films had been shot about reggae music, and so it felt like a pioneering effort to organise the first documentary on the island that related the music to its society.
A year before, I had the good fortune to film some of reggae’s finest British musicians in a film titled British Reggae . This had included the first generation of Jamaicans who came to Britain in the 1950s to find work, as well as their children, like the band Aswad. But I wanted to get to the heart of the music. I had become increasingly tired of the way music was presented on television then. It was either high art, consumer pop or, it was shunted off into late-night world music territory it was shunted off into late-night world music territory. Too much was set up, too much was safe. This film should be different. This was a time when reggae music itself was still relatively unknown, both in the pop charts and among mainstream record buyers in the UK and the USA. I remember trying to find (without success) some Wailers records in New York. I did meet and talk to Jimmy Cliff , however, and determined to try to get to Jamaica and make a film about the wealth of music being born and recorded there, as well as the close relationship of that music to the history and social realities of the island. In the end, since none of the television companies we approached were in the least bit interested, we had to borrow from the bank and flew to Jamaica with a tiny budget and a box full of 16mm film equipment.
Getting to film on the island, at that time, was not easy. Political gang wars, street violence and the continuing conflicts between the socialist Prime Minister, Michael Manley, and the right-wing opposition leader, Edward Seaga, had thrown the island into greater ferment than ever. Any film that was likely to portray the realities of Jamaican life was not looked upon kindly by its bureaucracy. The government departments which issued visas and permits allowing foreigners to film only wanted the ‘high art’ or the ‘folklore’ portrayed as their culture, and these represented the very cultural distortions I needed to escape from. When Jimmy Cliff called reggae ‘the cry of the people’ he warned me this would be a very difficult documentary to make. He was right.
We were forced to offer the visa department a phoney film script based largely on calypso and jazz, virtually avoiding reggae and the realities it described. Reggae was, quite simply ‘unacceptable’ to the Jamaican establishment. I had an uncomfortable week or so hanging about, waiting for the arbitrary decision-making to be finalised and the official paperwork to be completed. Then I spent days on the stoop of Tommy Cowan’s ‘music ranch’ in Kingston (which was shortly afterwards burned to the ground by frustrated musicians or police). There I met the legendary Jacob Miller of Inner Circle, The Abyssinians, Gregory Issacs and Ras Michael with his Sons of Negus. It was a time of little work or recognition for most reggae musicians, so there was a lot of lounging about, rolling giant spliffs and waiting for something to happen. Among the most difficult was Gregory Isaacs who chose to threaten almost every visitor with offensive language and a rusty knife. By contrast, Jacob Miller and the two Lewis brothers – highly extrovert musicians known as Inner Circle – piled me into their battered silver-grey Mercedes Benz and took me up to stay with them in Kingston’s ‘Beverley Hills’.
It was said at the time that Jacob Miller had a ‘direct line’, not to God but to Prime Minister Michael Manley and Manley himself was making full use of the reggae stars: he had already tried to conscript Bob Marley to perform on his political bandwagon – though Marley chose to distance himself from the bloody infighting of Jamaican politics. Michael Manley had plastered the ghetto walls of Trenchtown and Jonestown with clenched fist images of himself above the title ‘Forward Together’. Other slogans like ‘Heavy Wonderful’ and ‘Heavy Manners’ were painted across record shops, bus stops and even the surrounds of the red prison. There, gun or drug offenders were sent to suffer in a sort of red agony – every prison cell, every table and chair, every cup and saucer was painted bright red, the theory being that the colour would deter offenders from further crimes by the discomfort afforded the eyes.
Michael Manley , like many other politicians in developing countries, used the popular street music to spread his message. One reggae number was played incessantly, enveloping him and his supporters in a wall of rhythmic sound:
Dupe them with the microdot.
Socialism no fool
No, socialism no fool
We have them under manners,
Heavy, heavy manners
Michael Manley no fool
Socialism no fool.
As a reward for the top artists’ commitment to his politics, Manley made vague promises about legalising ganja and offering a square deal to the musicians who had suffered at the hands of the unscrupulous record dealers and recording companies. But if Miller and the Lewis brothers, by moving up into high-class Kingston, had isolated themselves from the Trenchtown that gave birth to the music they played, they still believed in the power of their music to do good, to voice problems and frustrations and to unify the people through a common language and rhythm. It was a sad day for Jamaican music when, in 1978, that silver-grey Benz, which the whole city of Kingston loved to recognise and wave to, finally drove ‘at knots’ off the road and smashed down a mountainside. Jacob’s funeral was a national event. A day of mourning was held for the sweet-natured singer who had tried to unify his land by combining Manely and Seaga on his own reggae platform.
In those heady days of 1977, with visiting American record producers from CBS and Warners arriving to discover what reggae music was and how best to exploit it, Jacob Miller and the Lewis brothers had sat on the porch of their new home and knocked out the latest of their hit numbers. Miller, at that time was a bigger name on the island than Bob Marley, (who had by then left as Island Records’ great ambassador for reggae music). Jacob swung heavily in a rope hammock, lighting and relighting spliffs as he worked his way through the lyrics. His ‘manager’, Tommy Cowan, would hastily scribble down the words while the Lewis brothers helped him out with a thudding bass line:
Me say sing them songs of culture
Me say sing them songs of live.
Forwards ever and backwards never
‘Now we need the next verse.’
Songs for the people to unite
Teaching them not to fight
‘Serious thing, this!’
Come manners must turn to discipline.
‘Order in the court!’
That’s what justice should bring.
‘Man like it!’
A couple of days later we persuaded them to hold a free show at ‘Tastees’ – a fast food pastry maker – on a busy main street of Kingston. The show was preceeded by old enemies meeting, fists flying and a few stabbings. Jacob Miller rushed on stage appealing for calm and peace. ‘Rastafari’, he shouted, ‘Selassie rule the business.’ The reference was, of course, to Haile Selassie who Rastafarians regard as Jah or God. At the time, many singers and musicians tied their hair into locks and espoused the faith of Rastafari.
Meanwhile, in a local church of the ‘Ethiopian Federation,’ reggae hymns were being sung. One of the songs was ‘Sattamassagana’, a hauntingly sad melody about the lost homeland, which the legendary group, The Abyssinians, had written. We were lucky enough to record them performing that number within the corrugated iron walls of an Ethiopian church. While children rattled dustbin lids and screamed outside, The Abyssinians contrived the most perfect vocal harmonies, accompanying themselves on rough, borrowed guitars. Their song had been imitated and recorded by many, but never with such intensity and simplicity as this. We watched and filmed, enthralled.