Jamaica: Journey of roots reggae – From Sugar Farms to Abyssinia

The history of the people of Jamaica is a microcosm of the history of the entire Americas – “founded” by the Europeans and populated by migrants from three continents with the Europeans coming in as landowners and the Africans and Asians coming in as the labourers.

From the sugar farms, came slow rural folk music styles like mento – one of the most famous mento songs is Jamaican Farewell by Harry Belafonte. As settlements became urban, music evolved as dance halls, clubs and urban hang out places mushroomed. Also as influences from New York and London started coming in, musicians of Jamaica saw themselves in a position to establish a new genre altogether. Ska and rocksteady evolved along with imported genres of jazz, samba and rock & roll. In this whole mix, Reggae music evolved from Jamaican styles of ska and rocksteady. The presence of Indians (through indentured labourers in the late 19th century) has also been a big influence in all the different Caribbean music styles. Later, reggae and Indian forms of music merged through the work of migrant communities in the UK.

The characteristic reggae beat was first recorded in the 1960s with an appropriately named band called The Pioneers credited with the earliest recording. Reggae music is and was always a dance hall phenomenon. It was controlled by the DJs, jamming the beats with random sounds. But the origins of reggae lay in folk music where the importance of lyrics was always paramount. As Jamaica progressed post independence, reggae musicians found themselves with a new way of expression.

This transformation of the genre happened when a whole army of Rastafarians took to the music form and made it a medium of expression. Big Bob was one of them. Perhaps the most famous. And according to American music critics, he was possibly the most profound and artistically sound.

One of Bob Marley’s classics is Sun is Shining, used by Ten Cricket as background theme song for its broadcast opening sequence for cricket broadcasts from the West Indies. Recorded by Bob Marley in 1971, it was covered in 1977 by Black Uhuru and it hit the charts again.

Sun is shining, the weather is sweet, ya
Make you want to move, your dancing feet
Who, to the rescue… here I am
Want you to know ya
Where I stand, know, know, know, know.
When the morning, gathers the rainbow
I want you to know, that I’m a rainbow too.

What Bob Marley pioneered was roots reggae – where the songs explored the roots of the Jamaican people – in Africa. Jamaica’s African heritage, both West African (physical origins) and East African (spiritual origins), resonates in these roots reggae songs. Songs that bring alive Jamaica flow into songs about Jah (Jehovah) and King Selassie (Haile Selassie) which in turn flow into songs about Rasta (referred to as dreadlocks in most songs).

In this post, we will not discuss Bob Marley. One single person, however influential, cannot define a genre. It requires a whole generation of musicians to work on this genre, produce some excellent exhibits or specimen musical works.

Bob Marley was a great ambassador for reggae and roots reggae of Jamaica. And also the worst. For the outside world, there does not seem to be anyone else in reggae music apart from Bob Marley. The nearest one gets is UB40. Or maybe The Police. Duckie Simpson of Black Uhuru says

“You notice, whoever sings reggae, apart from reggae singers, sells. But when guys from Jamaica sing reggae, it never sells. When UB40 or The Police do it, it’s great.”

We will listen to the music of three pioneering bands who balanced roots and dance hall beautifully, while living in the shadow of Bob Marley and Burning Spear – Inner Circle, Black Uhuru and Third World.

All the three bands are contemporary of each other. They began in the early 1970s where all bands start from – clubs and hotels of Kingston. The demand for more and more dance music – in clubs, on radio, on television – meant that they had work.

But these were not mere drum bangers and hip shakers. They were thinking artists. Duckie Simpson says, “.. I’m not the type who goes for DJ music. I strictly go for lyrics. I’m a songwriter, so when I hear stuff that’s not put together properlythen I don’t really go for it.

All three bands combined popular tunes and rhythms with thought provoking lyrics.

Inner Circle

Inner Circle, which had begun life in 1968, went through multiple personnel changes before got Jacob Miller, a strong vocalist and even stronger songwriter, and in the late 1970s, Inner Circle got themselves a recording contract. A bunch of albums and couple of US-Europe tours later, in 1980, only Bob Marley was more popular than Miller and Inner Circle. In 1977-8, one big hit of Inner Circle was Tenement Yard. While its rhythm has become iconic, the song itself is a lament or maybe a mild protest.

Dreadlocks can’t live in privacy
Anything him do, old near-guy see
Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su-su-su-su

Till 2015, smoking marijuana or ganja was illegal in Jamaica. This meant people had to do it in their privacy. But the poor people living in tenements did not have their space to practice their religion. That is worthy of protest. Courts of various countries have barred the Rastafari people from carrying their herb stocks around causing, what the Rastafari call, oppression.

Jacob Miller died in 1980 in an accident and the remaining Inner Circle members, the Lewis brothers, moved to Miami from where they continue to work. Their 1987 song Bad Boys got picked as the theme song for COPS.

Why did you have to act so mean?
Don’t you know you’re human being?
Born of a mother with the love of a father
Reflections come and reflections go
I know sometimes you wanna let go

The special thing in the song is that, while it looks quite innocuous and preachy, there is also an empathy for people who may be have floated into crime because of poverty and economic desperation.

Black Uhuru

Black Uhuru gets their name from the Swahili for freedom. In that they follow the footsteps of Burning Spear in using Swahili imagery for their name. Their personnel changes resemble most bands of the era. Only Duckie Simpson remains as the constant member from start to present. Over the years, they had many members including Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and the ethereal Sandra “Puma” Jones

One really deep song by Black Uhuru is What is Life? From their Grammy Award winning album Anthem. The lyrics go something like this:

What is life? I try to see.
What is life? It’s unity.
What is life? I try to feel.
What is life? It’s really real.

Another song from the same album is the Black Uhuru Anthem where songwriter Duckie Simpson refers to the Rastafari faithful as the “living dread” and rhymes it with the “living dead”, referring all the other people.

Third World

Third World and Inner Circle had a lot of common members including Bunny Rugs and Stephen Coore. In 1977, they published an album 960 In The Shade. The title song referred to an incident in 1895 called the Morant Bay Rebellion where over 500 people were killed by the British either through military action or through execution. In the song, the songwriters write:

You caught me on the loose,
Fighting to be free,
Now you show me a noose,
On the cotton tree,
Entertainment for you,
Martyrdom for me.

These songs were, of course, very popular in Jamaica. But international fame required them to cross over. Third World got international fame when they did a number of cover versions like Now That We Have Found Love (The O’Jays) and live shows with Stevie Wonder who loved their song Journey to Addis. Stevie Wonder wrote a song for them called Try Jah Love which is a very syruppy American pop song.

In 1988, came Hurricane Gilbert. Willie Stewart, the drummer, was one of ther long standing members. He says that 1988 was a life changing year for him and most Jamaicans as Hurricane Gilbert tore through the island. Stewart says in Bordowitz’s Noises of the World:

From the whole thing we got a very important message. Your home is within you. You can’t get a physical structure and say, that’s your home, because that can be broken up.

Jamaica was going to rebuild the country fully. The world has to take theat structure from Jamaica. Say that we are going to rebuild a new, musical sound/

In 1989, the song Forbidden Love saw Third World go beyond dreadlocks, Jamaica and Jah and they were writing about love in a verySufi sort of way.

When I look into the mirror I see someone
Who’s life will never be the same again
‘Cause they say that what we found forbidden love, love
And the question we are up against

Dance Hall Poetry

In a very weird way, I find all these reggae bands very similar to our own Bappida. Ostensibly dance music, the songs themselves were extremely poetic with deep messaging embedded in them. When you listen to dance songs in a dance hall, you are not paying attention to the lyrics at all. In fact dance hall music is not supposed to have any lyrics. But these songs draw your attention, like Bappida’s disco songs which had some heavy lyrics.

Roots reggae takes you to the milieu of Jamaica, both physical and mental, and you are vicariously living the lives of the Rasta on the streets of Kingston or on the ridges of the Blue Mountains or in Addis Ababa. To close this piece, it would be apt to go to Bob Marley and his epic Roots, Rock, Reggae.

Feel like dancing, dance cause we are free
Feel like dancing, come dance with me
Roots rock reggae, this a reggae music

Reggae Playlist

I have created a playlist of 11 reggae songs here: They are:

  • Jamaican Farewell, Harry Belafonte, (cover traditional)
  • Long Shot Kick de Bucket, The Pioneers, 1968, considered the first reggae recording
  • Sun is Shining, Black Uhuru, 1977 (cover of Bob Marley)
  • Bad Boys, Inner Circle, used in COPS
  • Tenement Yard, Inner Circle / Jacob Miller, 1977
  • What is Life, Black Uhuru, 1983
  • Black Uhuru Anthem, Black Uhuru, 1983
  • Now That We’ve Found Love, Third World, 1978 (cover of The O’Jays)
  • 1895 (960 in the shade), Third World
  • Forbidden Love, Third World
  • Roots, Rock, Reggae, Bob Marley and the Wailers

“A Sparrow Falls” by Wilbur Smith (and also “When the Lion Feeds” and “The Sound of Thunder”) – and a look at the narrow perspectives often held in conflicts

After a long time, came across a piece on Wilbur Smith whose books I once used to devour. Very nice read here.

Books, Films, Travel. A world of words; words about the World

These three novels form the original Courtney trilogy, an epic saga that has subsequently grown to more than twice that number of novels including both sequels and prequels to these original three.

This trilogy focuses mostly on the life of Sean Courtney (born c 1862 and not to be confused with his great-grandson, the later Sean Courtney) and covers several historical events.  The time span is approx 1875 to 1920s and Sean’s life includes involvement in such historical events as the Zulu War (1879); the gold rush in Transvaal of the 1880s; the Boer War (1899-1902); the formation of the Union of South Africa (1910); the First World War (1914-1918); and the beginnings of the wildlife conservation movement in the early 20th Century.

SPOILER ALERT: please note that this post does reveal some details of the story (although there is also  a considerable amount of the story that is not…

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A great piece on looking at professional football as a means of production and how it shapes the way people play the game. The South American world view towards football is, indeed, very different from that of England. Further, in Europe itself, the English (and the Scottish and the Welsh and the Irish) way is radically different from that of the continent.

In South America, football combines both a means to a livelihood, a ticket to escape poverty as well as a means of human expression. Some of the greatest footballers of the continent have also been the most artistic and indeed influential footballers of all time – Pele, Garrincha, Maradona, Forlan… And most of them have come out of humble backgrounds playing football on the streets before finding opportunities for club and country.

Luis Suarez is, in that context, a journeyman from the continent.

One can also look at African and Asian football and footballers using the same lens.

A Pertinent Riot

I attended a Shakespeare lecture yesterday in which my lecturer gave a Marxist reading of The Tragedy ofJulius Caesar. According to Karl Marx, a German philosopher, individuals in society are shaped by their ‘mode of production‘, or the unity of the productive forces and the relations of production. Marx believes that this combination of labour, materials instruments etc. with the social structures which regulate the relations between humans in the production of goods affects how an individual exists with society: what they are depends on what they produce, and how they produce it.

Whilst I listened to this theory being applied to the play, I was reminded of an interview I saw on Goals on Sunday before the Liverpool v Manchester Unitedgame a couple of weeks ago. Gus Poyet, manager of Brighton FCand Uruguayan national appeared on the sofa on the show…

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Aung San Suu Kyi

June 16, 2012 at Oslo:

A positive aspect of living in isolation was that I had ample time in which to ruminate over the meaning of words and precepts that I had known and accepted all my life. As a Buddhist, I had heard about dukha, generally translated as suffering, since I was a small child. Almost on a daily basis elderly, and sometimes not so elderly, people around me would murmur “dukha, dukha” when they suffered from aches and pains or when they met with some small, annoying mishaps. However, it was only during my years of house arrest that I got around to investigating the nature of the six great dukha. These are: to be conceived, to age, to sicken, to die, to be parted from those one loves, to be forced to live in propinquity with those one does not love. I examined each of the six great sufferings, not in a religious context but in the context of our ordinary, everyday lives. If suffering were an unavoidable part of our existence, we should try to alleviate it as far as possible in practical, earthly ways. I mulled over the effectiveness of ante- and post-natal programmes and mother and childcare; of adequate facilities for the aging population; of comprehensive health services; of compassionate nursing and hospices. I was particularly intrigued by the last two kinds of suffering: to be parted from those one loves and to be forced to live in propinquity with those one does not love. What experiences might our Lord Buddha have undergone in his own life that he had included these two states among the great sufferings? I thought of prisoners and refugees, of migrant workers and victims of human trafficking, of that great mass of the uprooted of the earth who have been torn away from their homes, parted from families and friends, forced to live out their lives among strangers who are not always welcoming.

December 10, 1991 at Oslo:

Although my mother is often described as a political dissident who strives by peaceful means for democratic change, we should remember that her quest is basically spiritual. As she has said, “The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit”, and she has written of the “essential spiritual aims” of the struggle. The realisation of this depends solely on human responsibility. At the root of that responsibility lies, and I quote, “the concept of perfection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if not to the end, at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitation… “. “To live the full life,” she says, “one must have the courage to bear the responsibility of the needs of others … one must want to bear this responsibility.” And she links this firmly to her faith when she writes, “…Buddhism, the foundation of traditional Burmese culture, places the greatest value on man, who alone of all beings can achieve the supreme state of Buddhahood. Each man has in him the potential to realize the truth through his own will and endeavour and to help others to realize it.” Finally she says, “The quest for democracy in Burma is the struggle of a people to live whole, meaningful lives as free and equal members of the world community. It is part of the unceasing human endeavour to prove that the spirit of man can transcends the flaws of his nature.”

‘Nuff said.

A Good Example for Air India

The Hungarian national airline Malev closed down. In an advisory to passengers, they write:

Dear Passengers
Concerning your travel, we suggest that you ask other airlines about their offers or, if possible, you choose an alternative method of transport.

The reasons for closure – bankruptcy. The last day of the airline, as described in this post, is quite evocative. And the outpouring of nostalgia and support seems quite interesting. But after 60+ years of service, that is bound to happen

Closer home, maybe Air India which is in a similar financial state can regain its icon status by significantly cutting down or even closing down. And starting afresh in a new form, new model, new strategy.

Will its closure evoke the same responses? My living memory tells me yes: the airlift of people stuck in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion (135,000+ people, over 450 flights, almost 14 flights a day, August 1990) , the regular Hajj flights, the flights to the remotest of areas like the North East, the Maharaja, the biriyani from the Taj catering service, the iconic Air India building in Mumbai, etc. It would also mean the end of the Air India football team, currently 9th in the I-League.


From Africa – Hope and Horror

Two stories from Africa that I came across last week generated contrasting emotions.

This story from Congo suggests that 48 women are raped every hour.

The study, carried out by three public health researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute at Stony Brook University in New York, and the World Bank, was partly financed by the US government and based on figures from a nationwide household survey of 3,436 Congolese women aged 15 to 49 in 2007.

The figures showed 12% of women had been raped at least once and 3% of women across the country were raped between 2006 and 2007. About 22% had also been forced by their partners to have sex or perform sexual acts against their will. The study also revealed alarming levels of sexual abuse in the capital, Kinshasa.

The UN has called the country the centre of rape as a weapon of war

Elsewhere in Nigeria, this story about journalists creating their own free space is extremely inspiring.

SaharaReporters was created to be liberating tool for communities under siege from tyranny and oppression. By asking citizens to “report themselves,” our idea was to create both a news platform and, more importantly, a media movement making use of a wide range of technological innovations in order to freely exchange information – especially information that liberates and expands our democratic space.

It takes a lot to express oneself. But the cost of staying silent is even more disastrous.

The world according M Gaddafi

Gaddafi gave an interview.

“All my people love me. They would die to protect me,”


Sometimes breaking into English from Arabic, he repeated claims that al-Qaida was behind the uprising and said that young people involved in it had been given drugs, which were now beginning to wear off.

Those who were under the influence of the drugs had seized weapons, but his supporters were under orders not to shoot back, he said.


Gaddafi described Barack Obama as a “good man” but said he appeared misinformed about the situation in Libya.

“The statements I have heard from [Obama] must have come from someone else,” Gaddafi said. “America is not the international police of the world.”

Delusional says US.

And UK might do a Poland. arming the opposition forces (or the Libyan renegades from Gaddafi’s perspective).

Big Boys Part 2

Continuing from the post about many of the Big Boys coming back into the limelight, the Middle East and North Africa area is seeing all its Presidents-For-Life getting or in the process of getting the boot. Tunisia. Yemen. Egypt.

No idea whether this is genuine or not but Friday’s protest in Egypt had a manual. It’s titled “How to Protest Intelligently”!

Amidst all this, we have a communist successor who loves his punt.

Incidentally, all the above countries which have self-proclaimed rulers for life (and / or have handed them down to their successors in their respective families) are officially called “Democratic Republic”.

The Big Boys are back in town

Baby Doc.“because I know the people are suffering”

China has a new big boy, keywords to use “boring” “average intelligence” “princeling” .

And Putin gets his own mountain peak. In Kyrgyzstan. Mount Putin at 4,500m will stand between Lenin Peak, 7,134m and Mount Boris Yeltsin, 3,500m.

And North Korea wants a “sacred war of justice of Korean style“.

And Jose Mourinho is unhappy that no one calls him a Big Boy.


The Noble Nobel Laureates

Development of in-vitro fertilisation. Robert Edwards.

When IVF developed in the late 60’s and early ’70’s the Roman Catholic church responded with a letter which clubbed it along with contraceptives as disturbing the natural purpose of marriage (union & procreation).

Long and non-violent struggle against human rights violations in China. Liu Xiaobo.

Liu’s wife, after coming back from visiting her husband in jail, is put under house arrest (or “de facto detention”), her mobile phone smashed and out of communication with anyone.

Cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat. Mario Vargas Llosa.

A forum in Cuba says that he should have got the award many years ago when Llosa was a writer and not a leftist apostate politician, a reactionary ideologue of our times.

Church. China. Cuba. ???