During the 80’s and early 90’s the Jamaican Tourist Board ran a series of t.v. and radio ads that prominently featured a slow mo, over produced version of Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’. The t.v. ads were accompanied by the expected barrage of exotic images featuring tourists frolicking on white sandy beaches drinking fruity cocktails while gazing longingly at each other beneath a gorgeous sunset. After seeing this, for years to come I always thought of Jamaican music as the soundtrack to a carefree lifestyle that had no connection to the inhumanities of slavery and imperialism which shaped much of what is now known as Caribbean culture.
That carefree archetype got turned completely upside down for me sometime around spring 1993 when my pal/creative collaborator/Dulaney High School class mate Jon Woodstock invited me over to his mom’s house check out a new pile of records he’d just bought or borrowed. For Woodstock and me, and our band mate Cory Davolos, listening to music together was an essential activity as common as band practice or brainstorming for band names and lyrical subjects*. Many a mind boggling musical revelation came to light whenever I’d get a phone call or hear some school lunch room chatter from Cory or Jon that began with a line like,”Aw man, you GOTTA hear the record I just picked up!”
The ‘must-hear’ record that Jon had been hyping this time was an album by Bob Marley and The Wailers. Once Jon slipped this tape into his stereo the music that came blasting out was not the kind of vacation music I remembered from the cheezy Jamaican t.v. ad. On the contrary, it was fast, jaunty, and angular yet also loose and organic with vocal harmonies from a quintet who sounded like a high energy teen gospel crew. This record was a collection called ‘Birth Of A Legend’. It showcased Bob Marley’s first early 60’s recordings most of which were done in a brash ska style with lo-fi distorted sound quality. These recordings also featured a dissonant but swingin, horn laden band made up of masterful Jamaican musicians called The Skatalites**. Their back-up provided the perfect accompaniment for Marley and co.’s over-the-top performances.
Among the record’s highlights was a crackling take of the song that nearly ruined my appreciation for the Jamaican sound:
“One love! One heart! Let’s get together and feel alright!”
Unlike the sugary rendition I’d heard on t.v., the early version of ‘One Love’ burned with desperation and ecstatic release. This music was anything but laid back.
The concept of ska as an Afrocentric product of the early 60’s was also a shocker for me. Before Jon played me these Marley ska recordings I was under the impression that this style of music was a relatively new, predominantly white British off shoot of the 80’s new wave rock movement thanks mostly to the mainstream media’s embrace of the band Madness, a London crew who were unarguably the most popular ska act of the 80’s.
In its original unvarnished form, ska certainly had little to do with rock. The nascent pop music of Jamaica was a panoramic snapshot of imperialism’s odd cultural melting pot. In early 60’s ska American jazz and r’n’b, doo wop, gospel music, mento, African drumming, and various white and Latin American pop forms all came together just as the British colonial rule of Jamaica began to fall apart. Independence would soon become the ultimate destiny for all native Jamaicans and the new vibrant sound would usher in their new vibrant political era.
Once again, my perception of ska was shattered when I discovered that the entire genre was infused with such a politically progressive context. Just like the early American folk blues and Appalachian music that I’d been loving many years before I even knew what ska was, initially Jamaican music possessed the exclusive provenance of the oppressed, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, the African diaspora. All of this minutiae first came to my attention thanks specifically to two young Towson ska fanatics who I’d befriend only a few months after Jon Woodstock introduced me to Bob Marley’s ska work. The two teens were Dave Willemain and Bob Phair – the pair who would soon become the founding members of The Preschoolers, the first and wildest American ska band I’d ever heard who had roots firmly planted in the early Jamaican pop sounds ala the young Marley, The Skatalites, Lee Perry, etc.
Dave and Bob absorbed as much information about Jamaican culture as they could and, with the fervor of proselytizing missionaries, shared their deep understanding and respect for this unique milieu with whoever had an even moderately similar interest in such things – as gifts for close friends and fellow artists they made exhaustive mix tapes compiling mega obscure Jamaican recordings from the 60’s and 70’s all culled from their extensive personal record collections; Dave would often lend out and reference Stephen Davis’ influential 1976 book ‘Reggae Bloodlines’; they’d give lengthy/informal lectures on the Caribbean political milieu and its connections to the greater negative consequences of world imperialism including much of what had inspired the Save Our Cities, Save Our Children demonstration in the United States which they’d both been part of in 1992.
Ultimately, The Preschoolers were the first artists I ever met who sought to annihilate evil with a gigantic, cacophonous, booty shaking, ska-fueled dance party tailor made to level the foundations of imperialism. Maybe they didn’t consciously try to do this, but, for better or worse, my awareness of a world where joyous creativity and political discourse could intertwine in perfect harmony came to life in the early 90’s thanks to this eccentric bunch of suburban teens and the irresistible dynamism that charged their embrace of Jamaican culture.
TO BE CONTINUED…
*Lengthy documentation of the work I created with Jon Woodstock and Cory Davolos (as well as more details about the work of The Preschoolers and many other TGA artists) can be found via Towson-Glen Arm Freakouts vol.’s 1 and 2.
**The Skatalites were one of the first bands ever to perform ska music. A comprehensive run down of their historic achievements in the earliest days of Jamaican pop can be found here: http://jazztimes.com/articles/14829-jazz-to-ska-mania