Roots Rock Reggae – Page 3

Jimmy Cliff Sly and Robbie
Jimmy Cliff Sly and Robbie

The next day, we were given protection for our trip to Trenchtown. His name was Bunny, a thickset gangster with a six-gun, heavy scars on both sides of his face, dreadlocks and, of course, mirror shades. He was dressed in black leather and, while riding his Honda motorbike, smoked joints wrapped in old brown newspaper. Bunny was in with one of the political gangs fighting in Trenchtown . We filmed amid the burning houses, the screaming fire engines, the pistol shots and the ever-present thudding bass line of reggae that boomed from the houses and giant sound systems. Suddenly, we were confronted by an advancing band of heavies who pointed guns at us.

We turned confidently to Bunny, only to discover he had vanished. At the time there was – perhaps justifiably – an obsession about the power and presence of the CIA, who were seen by many Jamaicans as responsible for many of the ills that had befallen their island. The gunmen insisted we were American agents. We denied it. They threatened to shoot us unless we proved otherwise. I said I was from Camden Town. They did not believe me. Chris, the cameraman, explained he was from Yorkshire, where Freddy Truman came from. The gunmen hesitated, lowering their weapons: ‘Freddy Truman – him a wicked fast bowler, man!’ From being the enemy, we had become heroes, and were given a new escort out of Trenchtown.

Trenchtown has an almost mythical role in reggae music: it was where Bob Marley and The Wailers lived and first performed their music. Marley’s ‘teacher’ was, by common consent, Joe Higgs who had coached many young hopefuls – including Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer – in phrasing, control, and intonation. He was modestly unwilling to talk of his relationship with Marley when we met him.

‘Music is a matter of struggle. It’s not good that it’s known you’re from Trenchtown because it’s quite evident that the less fortunate people are distributed in that area. Music originated from confrontation, so the roots really is from struggle. Reggae is a confrontation of sound. Reggae has to have that basic vibrant sound that is to be heard in the ghetto. It’s like playing the drum and bass very loud. Those are the basic sounds. A classical reggae should be accepted in any part of the world. Freedom, that’s what it’s asking for; acceptance, that’s what it needs, and understanding, that’s what reggae’s saying.

‘There was a time when music was emphasising more on the rhythm – in Ska, Rocksteady – but to break it down, to bring it down to a proportionate pace is to put the attraction not on the music but on the message. It’s the message that really matters.’ That was Joe’s concise analysis of the changes reggae had gone through since the early days of Jamaican Independence and the Ska music that had accompanied it.

In the evening, Joe sat outside his house beneath an almost full moon: ‘You have a certain love come from hard struggle, long suffering. Through pain you gird yourself with that hope of freedom, not to give up…’ He sang the most beautiful of his compositions called ‘There’s A Reward For Me’.

Every day my heart is sore
Seeing that I’m so poor.
I shall not give up so easy.
There’s a reward for me.

Around Joe’s house were burned-out shacks and rubbish dumps piled high with the skeletons of cars and trucks. Beyond them stretched the waters of the Caribbean glittering in the moonlight, and beyond them the domes of giant petrol tanks in which the multinationals stored their oil. In the dawn light, men, women and children scrabbled amongst the rubble and dug amongst piles of offal and litter in search of anything eatable or of value. Posters proclaimed ‘Rob the rich, not the poor’.

Several Jamaican officials later criticised us for the bleak imagery shown in the film. But shooting quickly under pressure, the images seemed almost to select themselves. They were what the lyrics spoke of. They were what the musicians talked of. They were the realities of daily life.

In the next days, we drove up through the lush green mountains to Ocho Rios, at the time a resort of empty hotels, workless waiters and frustrated musicians. The boss around Ocho Rios was Jack Ruby, a tough, bearded, straight-talking record producer who was famed throughout Jamaica as a talent spotter. A weekly procession of young hopefuls came down from the hills to Jack Ruby’s house, where they waited for hours outside the gates for a hearing. On the day we visited, there were solos, duos, trios, with and without guitars, some accompanying themselves on matchboxes or newspapers or just tapping their feet: an incredible variety of real talent able to conjure up lyrics of meaning and harmonies of sweet subtlety out of their lives in the hills. If Jack Ruby liked what he heard, he would take the aspiring young reggae stars down to Kingston for a session in a recording studio.

The studios were cheap and had a fast turnover. Many people in Jamaica were illiterate or semi-literate; others simply did not believe what they read in the newspapers controlled by the government or other powerful interests. So music, especially recorded music, played a vital role in spreading street news. Anyone, any toaster, could go into a studio and rap out a record about some particular grievance, violence or feud. The record would be out on the streets the next day and then carried by one of the travelling ‘sound systems’ all around Jamaica. At dances and parties in every corner of the island, toasters like U-Brown and U-Roy not only played these records but dubbed their own lyrics over them as a sort of comment on the news. This was recorded music playing a traditional role: of the troubadour, of the African ‘griot’, but now updated by the thudding bass from the sound systems and the amplified tones of Jamaica’s top toasters.

In stores like Randy’s, reggae musicians and the buying public came to check out the records. In fact, it was the only way they could assess how many were being sold – royalties were a reward still largely unknown in Jamaica. Randy’s was a water hole for musicians. It was here I met Big Youth , another famous toaster of the late 1970s, whom I was later to encounter in a hotel room in Nigeria when he was hiding out from gangsters.

Because of the political violence in Kingston, the lack of money and the dangers of going out at night, there was little live music at that time. People stayed home, shuttered their windows and locked their doors. Nor was dealing with musicians exactly easy in the atmosphere of paranoia. Jimmy Cliff finally consented to be filmed only if we bought him either a refrigerator or half a carpet. We chose half a carpet. Some of his musicians then decided that because we came from abroad, we must somehow be connected with the actor Clint Eastwood whose spaghetti westerns they adored and whose cool style of killing was much admired. They had read in Playboy magazine that Clint was earning a million dollars a movie. So at the last moment, with tape recorders and cameras in place, we had to postpone filming for another day, while we painfully bargained the musicians down from a million dollars each. Also accompanying Jimmy that day were Jamaica’s best: the great Sly Dunbar on bass guitar and Robbie Shakespeare on drums. Jimmy Cliff had skilfully depicted the life of a desperado musician in the film The Harder They Come. He told us about his own life: how he used to dive for tourists at the Montego Bay resorts when he was 14 and how he was paid just 12 cents for his first record, ‘Daisy Got Me Crazy’. He finally got himself signed up by Island Records and made ‘House of Exile’ and ‘Struggling Man’, both vividly portraying racial and social problems by this intense and gifted singer.

But Jimmy had now moved on through Christianity and Rastafari to Islam, and was trying to fit his music into a broader perspective of life – the spiritual as well as the physical: ‘People say justice is a notion, but it’s something real for me. There’s so much injustice going on in this business: I don’t intend that I alone can fight the battle. But I would like to see some justice done. Get paid for what you’re due. People don’t feel no form of guilt if they use you and you’re ignorant of that fact. So part of my job is to say what I know. To put people on their guard. I don’t want to be the pawn on the chess board – to be pushed around by whoever’s playing. I want to be the pusher. To control myself and give opportunity to less fortunate people who are now in the position that I was once in.

‘I went to England because I believed I had a mission to complete there. But I had to move around a lot of barriers I wasn’t used to. The racial thing really got me down. It was the first time I had come upon that. And working with white musicians – there was a big mental conflict for me getting on with them. We have a spiritual side to us which is the highest part of us and that must be developed: my work is now along those lines. That’s how I feel about this music. It’s really to do with the people, not politically but spiritually. That’s how I see reggae. It’s the cry of the people.’

We left Jimmy and his musicians jamming in his garage beneath the palm trees on his front lawn, and made our way to the greatest of all record producers in Jamaica: the inimitable Lee Perry, nicknamed Scratch. The studio adjoining his house was called the Black Ark and had images of Haile Selassie and the Lion of Judah painted around it in Rastafarian colours. Inside, Scratch, together with Junior Murvin, The Upsetters and the Heptones were waiting for us. ‘Drum and bass, drum and bass’, cried Scratch dressed in red boxer shorts, rasta hat and yellow T-shirt. ‘That’s the rhythm of the ghetto, drum and bass, with the lyrics of the street.’ He and his musicians, with much good humour, had written a number specially for our filming:

The chalice is burning
The cameras are rolling
Getting ready for the show
Play on Mr Music.

Scratch’s equipment filled his tiny control room: the walls decorated with the photographs of artists he had recorded, like the early Wailers, whose records displayed the rhythms and harmonies of a genuine creativeness and musical innocence that was soon lost in the superstardom imposed on ‘brother Bob’. Marley had recently revisited Scratch to record two versions of a single called ‘Smile Jamaica’, another musical attempt to improve the image the island presented to the world outside. In fact, Bob had recently been machine-gunned at his home, but his life was saved by his agent Don Taylor who hurled himself in front of Marley and caught some bullets in the back.

Before the end of our trip, we filmed The Mighty Diamonds and U Roy in concert and Third World, with whom we were invited to eat cucumber sandwiches on the lawn of the Foreign Minister’s colonial dwelling. For me it had been a frenetic few weeks, working by day, negotiating and organising by night, aided by an incredibly supportive team of Chris Morphet on camera, Jeff Baynes as assistant and Bob Bentley as sound recordist. When the film was edited, it was met by a barrage of indifference. I still remember the purchased programmes officer at the BBC looking at the enormous variety of artists and rhythms and remarking: ‘The problem is, it all sounds the same. It’ll never catch on’. Crisis followed crisis, until finally the film was bought for a pittance and shown on the BBC. Then it won some major prizes and was shown by television stations and in cinemas across the world. This success encouraged me to carry on making a whole series of films that were based on the role of music as a mirror of developing societies– music as a mouthpiece of the frustrations, dreams, histories and aspirations of communities around the world. We called that series ‘Beats of The Heart’.

By Jeremy Marre

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