Ska Takes Center Stage at the Palace Theater

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This is the interior of the Palace Theatre today in downtown Kingston. It’s hard to imagine that this outdoor movie theater was once not only host to some of the most legendary Jamaican ska and music artists, but this is the very stage that launched their careers. The Palace Theatre was home of the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, a talent show akin to American Idol or The Voice.

Vere Johns was a theater manager. After serving for many years in the newspaper industry, Johns turned to offering crowds a variety show on nights when the spaghetti westerns and musicals weren’t flickering through the tropical nighttime air. The idea for a variety show came from Vere Johns’ second wife, Lillian Margaret May Johns, who thought that entertainment competitions would bring in extra money on off nights. The competitions took place here at the Palace Theatre and because the show was so successful, it was then replicated at the other theaters Johns managed, the Majestic, Ward, Carib, Queens, Gaiety, Ambassador and others.

The Vere Johns Opportunity Hour featured dancers, instrumentalists, vocalists, comedians, and even performers on bicycles as well. Ten acts appeared on each bill and admission was less than a shilling. Vere Johns auditioned performers each Tuesday and Thursday at 3 p.m. Winners were selected based solely on audience approval—who received the loudest applause at the end of the night won the show. Needless to say, this form of selection allowed plenty of opportunity for corruption, such as packing the house with one’s own friends or supporters, or paying off people to clap for a chosen artist. After the artists performed, Vere Johns stepped onto stage and held the cash prize of two pounds over each person’s head until the audience responded with the appropriate level of applause. Sometimes after a performer won, audience members approached the winner in a threatening manner to demand part of the spoils. If a performer won or came in second place, they returned the next week to perform again, so the corruption continued. Winning the popular talent contests assured success in the musical circuit. The experience was done more for the exposure than the money.

So who are these legends who got their start here on this stage? They include Desmond Dekker, Alton Ellis, John Holt, Laurel Aitken, Bob Andy, Derrick Morgan, the Wailers, and Anita Mahfood. In 1997 Derrick Morgan told me, “I started at the age of 17 at a talent show in Jamaica at the Palace Theater by imitating Little Richard, singing ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Jenny Jenny’ that night at the contest. At the contest I sang first. From there, there was a comedian in Jamaica called themselves Bim and Bam and they started taking me around doing stage shows. That was in 1957.”

The stage at the Palace Theatre today should be a museum, a landmark to the music launched here, but instead it is in a terrible state of disrepair. While on this spontaneous tour of the interior in February of this year, the owner told me that there is a remote possibility they will remodel the theater, but it is more likely it will be razed due to safety concerns and expense. The original movie projector is still in the projection booth, a relic of the past, but the ghosts of the early ska era still flicker on the stage, and in our hearts and minds.

Spies, Gun Slingers, and Gumshoes. American Film in Jamaican Ska.

guns of navarone

Here is an advertisement for Guns of Navarone from the Daily Gleaner, January 19, 1963. Certainly it inspired The Skatalites and Don Drummond to create their classic ska version of the American film’s soundtrack. American movies were incredibly popular in Jamaica during the 1950sand 1960s, as were all types of American culture and media, especially music. Spaghetti westerns with tough cowboy stereotypes, and spy movies were favorites. In addition to “The Guns of Navarone” which was a seminal hit for the Skatalites, so too was the James Bond theme, “Dick Tracy,” and “Lawless Street” which was made after the 1955 western movie, while “007 (Shanty Town)” became a big hit for Desmond Dekker in later years. “Bonanza Ska” was a ska version of the classic television theme song played by Carlos Malcolm and his outfit. “Duck Soup” by Baba Brooks was a song in honor of the Marx Brothers’ 1933 movie of the same name.

Byron Lee & the Dragonaires even appeared in the Bond movie Dr. No, the first James Bond movie, which came to film in Jamaica. The Dr. No soundtrack included Byron Lee & the Dragonaires tunes “Kingston Calypso” and “Jump Up,” which they performed in the film as the house band in a scene set in a club. The club in the Dr. No was known as Pussfeller’s bar but they were actually filmed at a hotel and yacht club at Morgan’s Harbour which was located on the main road to Palisadoes airport (renamed to Norman Manley International Airport).

The Daily Gleaner on January 16, 1962 boasts the headline, “Dr. No Team Arrives.” Ian Fleming had already visited the island as early as 1948 and fell in love with the land and its people, eventually calling it home, so it is no wonder that he chose Jamaica as setting for his first film. The film stared Sean Connery and Ursula Andress. The article stated, “Many Jamaican actors will be used in the film. They Include Reggie Carter, ‘Miss Jamaica’ Marguerite LeWara, Eaton Lee, and others. Monty Norman, who is to write the music for the film, will use local bands as far as possible. Director Terence Young will be interviewing local artists at the Copacabana club tomorrow evening, for the cabaret scene.”

As a side note, the following month, musician and orchestra leader Carlos Malcolm and guitarist Ernest Ranglin filed a monetary claim suit in the Supreme Court against the production team, claiming that “he was engaged to compose and write musical scores and supervise the recordings, while Mr. Ranglin claims he was engaged to look after the arrangements.” It is not known what the outcome of that suit was, but the film was premiered in Kingston at the Regal and Carib Theaters on September 17, 1963.

The role of American film in early Jamaica ska is important. Scholar Joseph Heathcott writes, “Such songs reveal the close affinities ska musicians felt to liminal male characters—tricksters, spies, cowboys, private dicks—as well as the ongoing media and commodity ties between Jamaica, Britain, and the United States.”  The incorporation of such imagery in ska and rocksteady only grew and evolved in the English and American incarnations of ska in the subsequent decades as they were interpreted through new eyes.

Can you think of more Jamaican-era ska or rocksteady references to American film? Comment here.


Music Is My Occupation

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The Jamaica Defense Force Band (JDF), or as they are commonly referred to, the military band, plays here last February at Hope Gardens in Kingston where I was fortunate enough to see them play under the direction of maestro Albert Hird. There were three bands where boys could play for a paycheck in this arena—the Jamaica Military Band, the Jamaica Regimental Band, and the Jamaica Constabulary Band. The military band was, and still is, a prestigious band where a large number of Alpha Boys gained employment after graduation. In the earliest years at Alpha, Walter S. Harrison became a drill sergeant at the school, appointed by the Jamaican Defense Force, and he even served as the inaugural bandmaster for one year but continued on as drill sergeant through the mid-1960s. As a result, there was a strong connection between Alpha and the military and after graduation from Alpha, boys frequently took positions in the West Indian Regiment which became the Jamaican Military Band after independence. Band boys trained at Alpha either went into the military bands, which provided a manageable living, or they entered into the jazz club circuit, and so orchestra leaders scouted at Alpha to fill their seats.

A number of pioneering ska artists got their start in the military band. Trumpeter Johnny “Dizzy” Moore served in the military band until he decided to leave over his refusal to cut his dreadlocks. He served for three years though and was discharged because he was “not amenable to military service,” and he then went into the club circuit. Saxophonist Lester Sterling also gained employment with the military band before he too left for a chance to play different tunes in the clubs. Sterling and Moore were in the military band at the same time.

Dr. Sandra Mayo writes in her article “A Sound Legacy” of the Alpha and military band connection. “With its emphasis on discipline, and through the development of its music programme and cadet unit, Alpha has served as a training ground for Jamaica’s military. . . . As a feeder institution to the military bands, Alpha through its music programme not only instilled values of discipline, uniformity, and respect for authority and good citizenship, but also prepared students for industrious lives.”

I asked Mr. Hird this past winter about how many of his band members were once students at Alpha. He had them demonstrate through a show of hands. About 75% of the men raised their hands and many said they were taught by Bandmaster Winston “Sparrow” Martin. We think of Alpha as an incubator for the bands that recorded, like the Skatalites and the like, and the clubs and orchestras, but the military band was also, and still is, a way that Alpha Boys went upward and onward.


Rude Roots


Here is a photo I took of the gorgeous and talented Pauline Black on September 14th, 2013 at RiotFest in Chicago where Selecter performed. She is amazing, her vocal range is impressive and what a show-woman! Because my blog focuses on the foundation of ska, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about the link between bands like Selecter and the others of the 2Tone era with the roots of ska.

During their set, Pauline and Gaps sang some of their classics that brought the Jamaican foundation into the UK in the 1980s, and by performing them on stage today, they still are reminding the next generation of the foundation. “Carry Go Bring Come” was a Justin Hinds original, trombone solo by Don Drummond, of course, and what a masterful one it is! “Too Much Pressure” included a little segue into “Pressure Drop,” the Toots Hibbert classic. Plenty of 2Tone bands paid homage to their ancestors and breathed new life into these tunes.

Why did they do this? Well, first of all, they liked the sound. When the West Indian immigrants ventured over to what they thought were greener pastures on ships like the Windrush, the immigrants brought with them their culture and their music. This music, when played at house parties or clubs in the West Indian neighborhoods, was a way to remember home, a force of comfort in the land where rental signs brazenly stated they weren’t welcome–No Irish No Blacks No Dogs. Unemployment was rampant and white working-class youth suffered the effects. They lived in the neighborhoods where the West Indian immigrants played their songs from home, and so the sound leapt into new ears and was seen through new eyes. The message was the same–pressure, oppression, racism, struggle–but the sound was changed, blended with the British genres that surrounded this era–punk, rock, pop.

Styles were also adopted and adapted–scooters, hats, sharp suits, shortened pants with white socks and black shoes. And the culture was adored too–the rude boy, which was actually a very dangerous and deadly gangster in Jamaica, was turned into a badass in Britain, a character.

The following is a list of either cover songs or interpretations of Jamaican originals released on the 2Tone label. Since the days of 2Tone, the tradition to cover or be inspired by the Jamaican ska greats has produced thousands of songs:

The Specials:

Gangsters, inspired by Al Capone by Prince Buster

A Message to You Rudy by Dandy Livingstone

Too Much Too Young, inspired by Birth Control by Lloyd Charmers

Guns of Navarone by The Skatalites

Longshot Kick De Bucket by The Pioneers

Liquidator by Harry J Allstars

Skinhead Moonstomp by Symarip

Rude Boys Outa Jail inspired by Rude Boy Gone A Jail by Desmond Baker & The Clarendonians

Too Hot by Prince Buster

Monkey Man by Toots & The Maytals

Stupid Marriage inspired by Judge Dread by Prince Buster

You’re Wondering Now by Andy and Joey and later The Skatalites

Enjoy Yourself by Prince Buster


The Prince inspired by Earthquake by Prince Buster

Madness by Prince Buster

One Step Beyond by Prince Buster


The Beat:

Ranking Full Stop inspired by Pussy Price by Laurel Aitken


The Selecter:

Everyday (Time Hard) by The Pioneers

My Boy Lollypop inspired by Barbie Gaye and later Millie Small

Carry Go Bring Come by Justin Hinds

Murder by Leon & Owen & Drumbago All Stars


The Bodysnatchers:

(People Get Ready) Lets Do Rocksteady by Dandy Livingstone

Too Experienced by Winston Francis

007 by Desmond Dekker



Oh Carolina by The Folkes Brothers

Easy Snappin’  by Theophilus Beckford

Do The Reload inspired by Green Island by Don Drummond

Don’t Stay Out Late by Lord Creator

That Man Is Forward inspired by Joker by The Duke Reid Group

* Source: “Under the Covers.”

Skanking with Sister Iggy!

sister ignatius turntable

This is Sister Mary Ignatius Davies turntable! It is in the collection at the EMP Museum in Seattle, donated by Sister Iggy herself. Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, also known as Sister Ignatius or Sister Iggy, was crucial to mentoring, educating, and raising the boys at Alpha, and she single-handedly shaped the course of music with her passion and devotion to her boys. She was born in Jamaica in 1921 in Innswood, St. Catherine. She came to Kingston as a child where she attended Mico Elementary School and then became a student at the Alpha Academy, which was the girls’ section of the institution. Sister Ignatius became a member of the Sisters of Mercy, or a nun, shortly after her graduation from school since she felt a calling to their way of life and she started serving at the Alpha Boys School in 1939.

Sister Iggy, once described by Pierre Perrone, a reporter at The Independent, as “bird-like” because of her diminutive stature, had a great love for music. It was because of her passion for all kinds of music that the band program prospered. The band program at Alpha Boys School had long been established back in 1892 as a drum and fife corps, and then bolstered in 1908 when a Roman Catholic bishop in Jamaica donated a number of brass instruments to the school. The same year, Walter S. Harrison became a drill sergeant at the school, appointed by the Jamaican Defense Force, and he even served as the inaugural bandmaster for one year but continued on as drill sergeant through the mid-1960s. As a result, there was a strong connection between Alpha and the military and after graduation from Alpha, boys frequently took positions in the West Indian Regiment which became the Jamaican Military Band after independence. Music taught during these times was solely classical. But under the leadership of Sister Ignatius, the band program grew since she saw the opportunities in music for her boys after they left Alpha. The band program also grew in Sister Ignatius’s years because music was her passion.

It is quite a sight to imagine a petite nun in her full habit, spinning records at a DJ’s turntables, music pumping from the huge speakers for the boys who danced to the hits, but that’s exactly what Sister Ignatius did on many occasions at Alpha Boys School to show the boys the varieties of music they could play in the clubs to earn a living. “She build a sound system, we call it Mutt and Jeff. The reason for that, the people who used to play the music, one man was very tall, the other one is very short, so we call it Mutt and Jeff,” says Sparrow Martin, bandmaster at Alpha and former student. Sister Ignatius bought her sound system from Mutt and Jeff who were sound system operators, modern day DJs. Davy attended Alpha Boys School and returned to emcee events. With the blessing of Sister Iggy, Davy had the Alpha boys at the woodshop create his cabinets and his friend, Leighton Geoff, created the electrical components of the amplification system from parts and knowledge Geoff gained in his employment at Wonards.

After Davy decided in 1964 to leave the life of the sound system behind to spend more time with his wife and their eleven children, he sold his entire set, equipment and music, to Sister Ignatius who added the records to her already-large collection. Sister Ignatius had hundreds of 78 and 45 records in her collection—everything from classical music to speeches by Malcolm X. This collection was built from not only Davy’s additions, but Sister Ignatius would regularly send her students, such as Floyd Lloyd Seivright, to purchase records from local record shops, giving him money for the acquisition and a list of her selections. Sister Ignatius recognized the potential of the music for her boys. Of the music that would soon develop in Jamaica and take over the world, largely the result of the talent at Alpha Boys School, Sister Ignatius once said, “I knew it was not going to stay in Jamaica only.”

Sparrow Martin recalls his days as a student when they all listened to her tunes. “So she would come on Saturdays and she would have a whole lot of record, you name it, classical, jazz record, pop record, all kind, Latin, American, European music, Cuban music, and mento music, and she would say, ‘Okay today we are going to listen to classical music,’ and she would take out Beethoven, Bach, and she says, especially to the band boys, ‘Listen to your classical music.’ Then she’d say, ‘Okay, I’m going to play jazz for you today,’ and she’d play jazz music. Then she’d play Cuban music. Now we don’t speak Spanish but she would take Spanish music from Cuba and she’d say, ‘Listen to the drums, listen to the bass, listen to how they play saxophone.’ She would sit down with you so you have the interest,” says Martin. And Sister Ignatius even took up her instrument from time to time. Vocalist Owen Grey says, “Our teacher, Sister Ignatius, she was a musician herself because she could play the saxophone, she could play the flute, and she was very strict.”

Read more about Sister Iggy and her impact on the life of Don Drummond in Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist. For more information, click the “Ska Books” link above.

Tonight! Marguerita and Don Drummond

june15 1955 don and margarita

There has been much speculation about how and when Anita Mahfood, stage name Margarita or as it is spelled here, Marguerita, and Don Drummond met each other. Some say it was in the Wareika Hills, but there is evidence they met long before that. Here in this June 15, 1955 advertisement in the Daily Gleaner, we see that Don Drummond and Margarita appeared together on the same bill and it is the earliest proof of their performing together. They performed in the same evening of entertainment which was the order of the day–entertainment after movies, between movies, on the outdoor or indoor stages, featured a variety of acts–dancing, comedy, pantomime, and yes, music.

In 1955, those musicians on the bill weren’t playing ska. Performances like these in the early and mid 1950s, even the late 1950s, were largely jazz or American R&B, or calypso. Janet Enright performs here with Don Drummond and the two were good friends from the get-go. Janet was a female jazz guitarist and Don Drummond took good care of her, like a little sister. And we also see Roland Alphonso on the bill too, another skilled jazz instrumentalist who would go on to perform in the studio and stage with Don for the next decade and in the Skatalites.

This advertisement and the placement of Don and Anita in the same place does not suggest at all that the two started a relationship as early as 1955–not at all. Anita would have been only 16 at this point, in fact she had just turned 16 the day before this ad appears. Four years later she would marry boxer Rudolph Bent and have her first child, although not in that order. Still she would continue to perform on bills like this, on the stages of the movie theaters, in virtually every club in Kingston, commiserating with her fellow performers, like Don Drummond and years later, when they grew close in the Wareika Hills, a relationship was kindled–to a devastating end.

Read the details of their lives and relationship in my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist,

Ska’s Next Generation in Jamaica

addis ababba

Take a look at what the Alpha Boys Band is learning to play–Addis Ababba, written by Don Drummond! I visited the Alpha Boys School for the first time in 2011 and again this year and Band Director Sparrow Martin is always challenging his boys with music of the greats, like Don D, as well as classical, band music, jazz, and all types of music. This sweet boy, Kadeem who was 12 in 2011, had no idea that Don Drummond had written this song when I stopped by to watch him practice. When I asked him, “Do you know who wrote this?” and I told him Don Drummond, he realized that one of his own, an Alpha Boy just like him, had become a composer, a world-renown music, a national hero despite the horrors of his life.

Sparrow continues to foster his youth at Alpha. He himself was an Alpha Boy since he was 10 years old and has served as band leader since 1989. “You must play with me, mon!” he tells the boys and he leads them with his small electronic keyboard or drumsticks on the back of a metal chair. At the encouragement of the late great Lloyd Brevett, Sparrow has founded Ska Rebirth, a group of Alpha Boys who have graduated from the band and shown exceptional skill. They perform many of the Skatalites original songs. Sparrow says, “What we are doing here is not just starting a band. We are starting a movement, one which will bring back the original sound of ska from its roots and home, Alpha boys school in Kingston Jamaica, and spread it once again across the entire world. This is the real SKA Rebirth!!”

I had the pleasure of hearing them practice in February 2013–let me tell you, they are amazing! They were surprised I recognized the songs–can you imagine!? But Jamaicans many times don’t have an appreciation for the past, the foundation ska, like many others around the world do. Ska is called “granny music” or “the oldies” by Jamaican youth who prefer to listen to dancehall. But the music of the Skatalites is begin given a “rebirth” by Sparrow and others like Jamaica Music Museum Curator and Founder Herbie Miller, and Historian and Tribute to the Greats Founder Kingsley Goodison. The music of Don Drummond and the Skatalites continues on!

To hear Ska Rebirth’s killer take on a classic Skatalites tune, visit Ska Rebirth Song and like them on Facebook, Facebook Ska Rebirth

Skanking Models



Skanking models–no, that’s not a rude put-down, it’s the description of a photo spread from Mademoiselle magazine, September 1964. This issue featured a six-page spread of models “doing the ska,” complete with some text that makes the dance, and hence the music, sound like the newest hippest thing. Here are a few excerpts from the text:

“What’s it like in the discotheques these nights? There’s a new dance, the Ska–like the Game, set to music.”

“The Ska-step, Riding the Horse.”

“Where the music goes round and round (on records), where the dance is the thing and the Ska’s the limit, what’s going on. Rowing the beat, one of the characteristic steps.”

“The step–pulling the rope–another subdivision of the Ska.”

“The basic ska and a far-from-basic dress.”

Any link between the date on this vintage article and the timing of the World’s Fair in New York? You betcha! This article was part of the push from Jamaican officials (Edward Seaga) to promote Jamaican ska, and therefore Jamaican culture and tourism. The person standing behind the cameraman on all of these shots, teaching these models to skank, is none other than Ronnie Nasralla, he told me himself. Nasralla said they also performed with their troupe of Jamaican ska dancers, including Jannette Phillips when she wasn’t performing at the Peppermint Lounge, and Sheila Khouri Lee, before she became wife of Byron Lee, on American Bandstand and at hotels and clubs all up and down the east coast. Performing music for these stints was Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. The dance, “the Ska,” was nothing like the “skank” during the 2Tone years when the pogo and other forms came into the mix, but it was a dance with “steps” designed to capitalize on the success of similar dances, like the frug, the twist, the watusi and others.