Origins of the Word Ska

From the Daily Gleaner, April 3, 1963.

From the Daily Gleaner, April 3, 1963.

A documentary on the origins of the word “ska” cited an article from the Daily Gleaner on March 17, 1964 as the first printed mention of the word (You can view it here: However, I have found three instances that predate that source, thanks to Roy Panton. Why does this nitty-gritty matter? Well it is used by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as the source date, and so it is important to the nerdy etymological types, and I like to dabble in that area from time to time, but it is also important to those who study music history because, wait for it, wait for it . . . ska was originally spelled “SCA!”


In a recent conversation with Roy Panton, he said to me, “You know that ska was originally spelled S-C-A, don’t you?” Here I had researched and written about ska for years and I had no idea. I had to find out if this was true. So a search of the Jamaica Gleaner, through all kinds of irrelevant results as you can imagine, pulled up four instances of  “SCA,” three of which occur in 1963. One is above and here are the others, so you can see them too.

From the Daily Gleaner, October 6, 1963.

From the Daily Gleaner, October 6, 1963.


From the Daily Gleaner, December 8, 1963.

From the Daily Gleaner, December 8, 1963.

From the Daily Gleaner, May 22, 1964.

From the Daily Gleaner, May 22, 1964.

How did this happen that ska was originally spelled this way? Well I would venture a guess to say that it was an oral term before it was ever a written term, and that’s the way it sounds. I know from teaching my own kids a method of phonics so they could learn to read that the C and K both make the hard sound, and so it is understandable that SCA could be a spelling.


The first time the spelling “SKA” appears in print is indeed in the March 17, 1964 article cited in the documentary for OED officials, although, as the article notes, the genre had existed already for years. In fact, I, along with most historians, recognize the song “Easy Snappin’” by Theo Beckford as the first example of a ska song. When the word itself was first used, and how it came to represent the genre, is subject of much debate. I side with the argument that it is an onomatopoeia for the sound the guitar makes. There are other valid theories as well that are put forth in this documentary, and every Jamaican pioneer will give you their own take on it as well.


Below is the article from March 17, 1964 which I have typed under the image so it is readable, and I would also like to note that it is not until British colonial culture recognizes this genre of music that it is actually written about in the press. Interesting.

From the Daily Gleaner, March 17, 1964.

From the Daily Gleaner, March 17, 1964.


Daily Gleaner, Tuesday, March 17, 1964


The “Ska” hits London

–but they call it Blue Beat


By Maureen Cleave


I suppose we’d all reckoned without Jamaica. Since the failure of that embarrassing calypso which we were told could sweep the nation — the nation remained unswept—we have tended to rule out the West Indies altogether.

Nowadays we get our hits from conventional sources like singing nuns and the Salvation Army. But in the West Indies music has always been the things.

In Jamaica, for instance, they buy records before they buy food. At last they have come up with something called the Blue Beat. We are now buying it and dancing to it.


In the Charts

I wouldn’t say we were lapping it up in our millions but we are going for it in a big way. There’s a blue Beat record in the charts and the London and Brighton clubs are riddled with it.

What is it? You may well ask. It’s like slow, pounding, monotonous, primitive rock with a strong accent on the off-beat. It depends on the monotony for its excitement. It has a slight roll to it and give the impression of having been inexpertly recorded (This is because it Jamaica it often is inexpertly recorded).

You don’t so much hear the African influence as sense that it is there. The words are indistinct and mercifully disassociated from love and boys and girls. They are about animals or parents or children. King of Kings, the one in the hit parade, is about a lion. Others have titles like “Parents Do Not Provoke Your Children to Wrong” or “Honour Your Father and Mother.”


His score: 200

I got the story from a rather handsome young man of 26 with reddish hair called Chris Blackwell. He comes from Jamaica and arrived in this country two years ago. Since then he has released over 200 Jamaican records.

He used to pile them into his Mini Minor and flog them himself from record shop to record shop. Nobody ever played any of his stuff on the BBC or gave him much encouragement.

Now he has a white Jaguar and an office in Kilburn with piles of records climbing up the walls. Next week EMI takes over his distribution but Mr. Blackwell rather preferred it when the business was small. “It keeps it a fight.”

Towards the end of the fifties the Jamaicans got keen on rhythm and blues, particularly a record called No More Doggin’ sung by Roscoe Gordon. They got hold of this beat cheered it up a bit, added some cute lyrics and called it Ska—an onomatopoeic word for the sound the guitar made.

From 1959 onward this was all the rage. We called it Blue Beat here because of the label it was issued on. Cleverest of all the Jamaican producers was Prince buster, now 28. There was Carolina, Humpty Dumpty and his own song Madness in which he just sings the word Madness over and over again. These sold extremely well here and the whole thing started to catch on last summer.


Buster says . . .

            As well as Madness, the initiated few bought a lovely thing originally entitled ‘Yea Yea’ but re-named ‘Housewife’s Choice’ specially for the English Market.

            Prince Buster calls himself Prince Buster the voice of the People. He, Duke Reid, Sir Coxson, and King Edwards are the Jamaican names to conjure with. They are fond of titles.

            They treat the record like the eighteenth century lampoon. Prince Buster was once furious with a man called Derrek Morgan who left his employ to go to work for a Chinese competitor.

            Prince buster promptly sang a very insulting song called ‘Blackhead Chinaman.’ It went, “Are you a Chinaman, are you a black man.”

            Everybody asked themselves: “What’s Buster saying now?” and bought the record like mad.

            Quick as a flash came Derrick Morgan’s reply, a song called ‘Blazing Fire.’ It went: “you said it and you are a blazing fire.”

            Blazing Fire indeed. How very rude.

The Voice Winner Tessanne Chin and Ska? Big Time!

From the Jamaica Gleaner, November 5, 1966.

From the Jamaica Gleaner, November 5, 1966.

Tessanne Chin’s connection to ska is much more than just her birthplace of Jamaica—it’s her family lineage! Tessanne Chin’s mother (and father) were in world’s first all-girl ska band—The Carnations! I don’t want to disclose all the information that I have uncovered, as The Carnations are featured in my upcoming book Songbirds: Women in Ska. I have interviewed Christine Levy (Tessanne’s mother), Christine’s ex-husband and sole boy in this “all-girl” ska band Richard Chin (Tessanne’s father), Margaret Wong, and Marie Crompton-Nichols and have exclusive photos of this group from family photo albums, but here’s some history that led to the launch of Tessanne Chin’s huge career!


Never heard of The Carnations? That’s because they never recorded and only played live, so perhaps you remember seeing them back in 1966, playing at clubs in Kingston like the VIP Club, the Flamingo Hotel, the Myrtle Bank Hotel, Club Havana, and in Ocho Rios at Club Maracas and the Brown Jug, to name a few. Perhaps you remember when they became The Avengers and added a few men to the lineup and their shows at the Ding-Ho Club (formerly Club Havana) and the Golden Dragon, playing alongside Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. But let’s step back to those early days when Tessanne Chin’s mother, Christine Levy, took up the trumpet and joined her schoolmates to form this interesting group.


Levy was in high school when she began playing the trumpet in the Excelsior High School Band. They performed at school functions, the Manning Cup, an inter-school soccer tournament at Sabina Park, and during independence celebrations throughout Kingston. It was through this school band and through Levy’s knowledge of her instrument that she learned of an opportunity to perform for another new band that was forming—but this one was different than the Excelsior High School Band. In fact, this one was different from any other band that existed. It was an all-girl ska band.


The members of the new all-girl band, The Carnations, included Levy on trumpet and vocals, Ingrid Chin on bass guitar, Jean Levy on steel guitar, Margaret Wong on lead vocals and congo drums, Althea Morais on keyboard, Marie Crompton-Nicholas on guitar, Pam Mosely on guitar, and Richard Chin on drums. Richard was a male in the all-female band and was the brother to Ingrid Chin, the two who put together the entire band. Christine later married Richard. Christine’s mother served as a chaperone for the girls when they played at clubs, but it was Richard who performed alone at times. Why? Because Christine’s mother removed the girls from sets when the exotic dancers performed—dancers like Madame Wasp and Margarita herself. Christine’s mother, Tessanne’s grandmother, found the performances too risqué for teenage girls, although Richard says he didn’t mind them so much!


Richard Chin (Tessanne’s father) had an uncle who helped steer Richard’s career in music. Richard’s uncle was none other than Kes Chin of Kes Chin & the Souvenirs! The ska family tree has many branches and strong roots, my friends! Kes Chin & the Souvenirs was a popular club act, ska with a Latin flavor featuring Chin, Denis Sindrey on guitar, Lowell Morris on drums, Peter Stoddart on keyboard, and Audley Williams on bass and steel guitar. Richard’s father and Kes’s brother, Keyoung Chin, managed The Carnations.


Christine and Richard passed their love of music on to their children, especially Tami and Tessanne, their two youngest daughters. Richard and Christine built a music studio called “The Underground” in their family home and they taught the girls to follow their passion in life. As a result they both have successful musical careers. Tessanne toured with Jimmy Cliff as a backup singer for three years before going solo and opening for Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle, and Peabo Bryson. She has collaborated with Shaggy and on December 17th was crowned the winner of The Voice. Tami, who spells her last name Chynn, has toured with Shaggy as a backup singer and collaborated with Sean Paul, Beenie Man, and Lady Saw. She opened for the New Kids on the Block on their 2008 tour, she has performed on a Pepsi commercial, and she wrote a song that Jennifer Lopez has recorded, “Hypnotico.” She is married to dancehall artist Wayne Marshall and she also designs clothing.


Here comes my shameless plug. My book, Songbirds: Women in Ska, will feature these women along with many other pioneering women who have been gracious enough to share their stories with me—women like Millie Small herself, Yvonne Harrison, Patsy, Janet Enright, Calypso Rose, and numerous others, so stay tuned in 2014 for this book, which is underway. My others, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation, and Ska: An Oral History are available at or

Skaliday Traditions and Song Lists

Pitchy Patchy linoleum print by Heather Augustyn

Pitchy Patchy linoleum print by Heather Augustyn

The winter holidays are upon us, so why not take a look at holiday traditions in Jamaican culture and how these relate to ska? Then, make sure to get your vinyl ready because I have a fairly comprehensive list of holiday-related Jamaican tunes, some ska, some post-ska, for your festive parties!

First of all, here is a little primer on holiday traditions and history in Jamaica, which is very important to ska history, as you will see. Much of the showmanship and competition found in the music industry in Jamaica today and throughout the last century can be traced back to the pomp and swagger of the Caribbean festivals where music and performance combined in a flamboyant display of prowess. These festivals, Carnival in Trinidad, and Jonkunnu in Jamaica, were celebrations that took place during the height of the Great Revival (spiritual traditions that stemmed from African religions–Pukkumina, Zion, Kumina, etc.) and continue today. Jonkunnu in Jamaica has its origins in the Carnival celebration in Trinidad, which, in turn, had its origins in the Masquerade celebrated by Europeans. Carnival began at Christmas time and lasted sometimes until Ash Wednesday. Celebrations included feasting and processions through the streets, the biggest of which took place on Shrove Tuesday, or the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

These processions were called canboulay, a derivation of the French words cannes brulees, which translates as burning canes. Slaves carried burning canes as torches to light the way during the night when a plantation owner’s crops caught fire. Slaves from nearby plantations were summoned to help extinguish the fire. Taken to the field by a driver with a whip, the slaves carried flaming torches to light the way. Canboulay processions draw elements from these events, utilizing participants with whips who emulate the slave master, masked characters representing people and animals, in an entertaining lampoon of life. The content of these processions, these marches, were serious, but the tone was lighthearted and enjoyable.

One of the main displays in canboulay during Carnival is kalinda. Kalindas were stick fights, similar to the art of dula meketa in Ethiopia or mousondi in the Congo, and were tests of strength and skill. During Carnival, a group or band of some two dozen men were led by a “big pappy” who directed his crew through the streets until they encountered a rival group. In a spirit of camaraderie and competition, each group threw out boasts to one another, stating their prowess and challenges frequently set to song which was called kalinda, since the warlike song and the stick fight itself were part of the festival procession. Fighters chose their sticks carefully, visiting a region in Trinidad called Gasparillo to select a stick made of Baton Gasparee wood. They then prepared their stick by singeing it over a fire until the bark came off, then they rubbed coconut oil into the wood. The stick was ready to use and when horns or empty bottles were sounded, the bands assembled accompanied by instrumentalists, singers, and dancers who performed a dance called a belair, or bele. The display involved the participation of all and the boasting was competitive in a respectful, boisterous, convivial manner. This spirit of competitive camaraderie continued in the days of sound system clashes in the 1950s and 1960s as producers attempted to one-up each other to appeal to the crowds. And ska recording artists, following the lead of the big pappies, also threw down challenges to each other to boast of their talent–Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster is a classic example, as are the boasts and challenges between producers like Coxsone, Duke Reid, Prince Buster, and King Edwards.

Due to the perceived threat of riot and revolt, canboulay and kalindas were banned by the government and police. The masks used by characters in the procession were also banned in festivals in 1840 by the British governor. Drums and fiddles, associated with Africa, were considered heathen and therefore instruments of the devil, plus they were loud and disturbing late at night. Open letters in local newspapers called the revelers “savages” and spoke of celebrations as “orgies” full of “crime” and “barbarism.” The people resisted, but they were squashed by military troops and were forced to either conform to the establishment or they simply adapted the festival in ways to elude the establishment.

In Jamaica, this festival was called Jonkunnu, named after John Conny, a powerful leader of the Guinea people in the early 1700s. The British spelled his name John Canoe, hence the name Jonkunnu. The white planters allowed their slaves to celebrate this secular festival which took place during the Christmas season. Elaborate street parades began on the island as early as 1774. Like Carnival, Jonkunnu involved masked characters. Performance and music always went hand in hand. The leader of the festival wore cow horns, a cow tail, and sometimes carried swords or wore a mask with tusks. This character was John Canoe. Other characters included those mocking the military, aristocrats, police, sailors, the devil, Horsehead, Jack-in-the-Green, Pitchy-Patchy, Belly Woman, Warrior, Red Indian or Wild Indian, Koo-Koo or Actor Boy, King and Queen, and Red-Set and Blue-Set Girls. These characters did not remove their masks in public, nor did they speak or sing.

Those who did provide the vocal and instrumental accompaniment for the procession included a band of drummers, bamboo fife, banjo, and metal grater performers. Tambour-bamboo bands also provided percussion by banging together lengths of bamboo or using one to knock on the ground. Since they were hollow they produced varying tones. Soon musicians sought other items for their percussion as well, especially since the stick bands were prohibited by the British government. Participants used household items such as spoons, bottles, and metal pans. In Trinidad, this progression soon led to the use of oil drums which were crafted to produce different notes and tones, and the steel bands were born. But everyone was a participant. Jonkunnu was not a spectator event. Everyone performed, everyone played, everyone danced, and this custom was always a part of the people’s music.

The Burru, a group of men who became influential to ska musicians through their association with Rastafarianism, emerged during the days of slavery on the island. Bands of Burru, African drummers, were permitted by slave owners to play drums and sing for the workers in the Jamaican fields to raise the slaves’ spirits—not for emotional reasons, but to impose more productivity. After slavery was abolished, the Burru could not find work and so they congregated in the impoverished areas of Kingston. Their drumming style, like the African vocal styles, exhibited a call-and-response format with a drum leading the rhythm, followed by “licks” from the answering drums.

Each Christmas season, the Burru men gathered to compose their own music with words about local events or about people in the community who had committed an act of wrongdoing. They worked on these songs starting in September and then on the holiday they traveled throughout the community, in a procession not unlike Jonkunnu, going from home to home, playing their bamboo scraper, shakka, and rhumba box for percussion, singing their songs which were intended to purge the evil of the previous year before the new one began. Although the music was composed during the months previous to the event, they also improvised on the spot, a practice that musicians continued in the decades that followed. Because the Burru were mischievous in their songs, and because they lived in the slum areas of the city, they were mistakenly considered by many to be criminals or undesirables. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Burru came to live with the Rastafarians at camps throughout the island’s mountains, especially in Kingston, and the music of the Burru combined with the spirituality of the Rastafarians, as both groups found solace together from society’s rejection. These camps became a refuge for musicians as well during the ska era since they were a place for uninhibited musical communion, a place for performance without restriction or limitations, and a place for retreat from the hardships of oppressive life. The Burru drumming became a part of ska music as Prince Buster recorded Oh Carolina using Count Ossie and his drummers who were informed by the Burru tradition.

So, how can you enjoy this tradition this holiday season? Well queue up a little ska, rocksteady, and reggae–here is a list I compiled using the Roots Knotty Roots database, thanks to good friend Michael Turner. If you prefer something more contemporary, I would recommend Toasters Christmas Ska which is a killer selection of 11 holiday songs: But for those who want to bring a little island flavor to the snow, here you go!

Admiral Bailey, Christmas Style

Al Vassel, Happy Christmas

Albert Morrison, Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Alton Ellis, A Merry Merry Christmas

Alton Ellis, Christmas Coming

Amlak, Christmas Is Here

Angela Stewart and U Brown, Gee Whiz It’s Christmas

Aquizim, Merry Christmas

Arcainians, Christmas In Jamaica              

Barrington Levy and Trinity, I Saw Mommy Kiss A Dreadlocks

Black Crucial, Christmas Time

Black Pearls, Babe In Bethlehem              

Black Pearls, Christmas Joys

Bob Marley and The Wailers, Christmas Is Here

Bob Marley and The Wailers, White Christmas

Boris Gardiner, The Meaning Of Christmas

Cables, Christmas           

Cables, Christmas Is Not A Holiday          

Cables, White Christmas (When Christmas Is Here)

Carlene Davis, White Christmas                

Carlene Davis and Trinity, Santa Claus (Do You Ever Come To The Ghetto)

Carlos Malcolm and His Afro Jamaican Rhythm, Good King Wenceslas

Carlos Malcolm and His Afro Jamaican Rhythm, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Carlton Livingston, Long Cold Winter

Cassandra, What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas

Cedric Bravo and Rico Rodrigues, Merry Christmas          

Charmers, Merry Christmas Blues           

Charmers, Long Winter

Chatanhoogatin, Christmas Reggae        

Cimarons, Holy Christmas            

Cimarons, Silent Night White Christmas (Medley)            

Claudelle Clarke, Franking Scent and Merry Christmas   

Coco Tea, Christmas Is Coming  

Cornel Campbell and The Eternals, Christmas Joy

Count Lasher and Lord Tanamo, Christmas Time               

Culture, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Cutty Ranks, Christmas Time      

Danny Dread, Winter

Dennis Brown, Trinity, Dhaima, Mighty Diamonds, Christmas Rockers     

Denzil Dennis, Christmas Message            

Derrick Harriott and The Tamlins and Joy White and Reasons and U Brown, Christmas Songbook

Desmond Dekker, Christmas Day

Desmond Tucker, Oh Holy Night

Devon Russell, After Christmas

Diane Lawrence, Have A Merry Christmas

Diane Lawrence, Ring The Bell For Christmas

Dicky Roots, Christmas Rock

Dillinger, Christmas Season

Doreen Schaeffer, Wish You A Merry Christmas

Eek A Mouse, Christmas A Come

Eric Tello, A Child Is Born (When A Child Is Born)

Father Richard Ho Lung, Christmas Mento

Frank Cosmo, Merry Christmas

Frank Cosmo, Merry Christmas

Frankie Paul, Christmas Time     

Gable Hall School Choir, Reggae Christmas

Gaylads, Christmas Bells Are Ringing

Gladstone Anderson, Lights of Christmas

Glen Adams, Christmas Rock Reggae     

Glen Brown, East Christmas Song

Glen Ricketts, This Christmas

Granville Williams and Orchestra, Santa Claus Is Skaing To Town

Granville Williams and Orchestra, Silver Bells

Heptones, Christmas Time (Give Me)

Home T 4, Rock It For Christmas

Home T and Trinity, Dub It For Christmas

Hopeton Lewis, Happy Christmas

Horace Andy, Christmas Time    

I Roy, Christmas Dubwise

Inventor and Studio One Band, Caribbean Christmas

Iron Phoenix, Natty Dread Christmas     

Jackie Edwards, Bright Christmas

Jackie Edwards, White Christmas

Jackie Mittoo, Christmas Rock   

Jackie Mittoo, Joy Joy (Ghetto Child)

Jah Walton, DJ Christmas

Jamaican Folk Singers, A Christmas Carol                              

Jamaican Folk Singers, John Canoe Medley (Christmas A Come, Tenk Yu For De Christmas)                          

Jays, Dancehall Christmas Medley

Johnny Clarke, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

Judge Dread, Christmas In Dreadland

Judge Dread, Merry Christmas Mr. Dread

Junior Soul, Christmas Party

Karl Bryan, Christmas Version

King Everald, Santa Claus

King Kong, Nice Christmas

Kingstonians, Merry Christmas

Kojak, Christmas Style  

Laurel Aitken, Rock Santa Rock

Lee Perry and Sandra Robinson, Merry Christmas Happy New Year

Little John, It’s Christmas Time

Little John, Save A Little For Christmas

Lord Creator, Merry Christmas To You

Lord Kitchener, Party For Santa Claus                     

Lord Nelson, Party For Santa Claus

Lucy Myers, Christmas Day         

Maytals, Christmas Season (Christmas Feeling)

Maytals, Happy Christmas (Christmas Song)

Mel Turner and Souvenirs, White Christmas

Methodist Male Voice Choir, A Christmas Medley                                           

Methodist Male Voice Choir, Silent Night

Michael Palmer, Christmas Time Again (Happy Merry Xmas)

Michael Powell, Christmas Time               

Mikey Dread, Herbal Christmas Gift        

Miss Misty, Merry Christmas

Mr. and Mrs. Yellowman, Where Is Santa Claus

Mutabaruka, Postpone Christmas

Neville Willoughby, Christmas Jamaica

Neville Willoughby, J.A. Xmas Day           

Nicodemus, Winter Wonderland

Nora Dean, Merry Christmas

Norma Isaacs, Christmas Time

Norman T Washington, It’s Christmas Time Again

Norman T Washington and Lloyd Clarke, Happy Christmas

Nyah and The Sunflakes, Merry Christmas

Nyah and The Sunflakes, White Christmas

One Blood, The Christmas Present          

Pablove Black and Bagg, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen               

Palemina, Faith D’Aguilar and Cedric Brooks, Santa Ketch Up Eena Mango Tree

Pat Rhoden, Christmas Song      

Pat Rhoden, It Must Be Santa Claus        

Phillip Fraser, Rub A Dub Christmas

Raymond Harper, White Christmas

Reuben Anderson, Christmas Time Again            

Rhythm Aces, Christmas (C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S)

Richard Ace, Christmas Reggae

Rio Guava, Christmas Day Is Coming

Robert French, Have A Merry Christmas

Roman Stewart, Christmas Affair

Roman Stewart and Glen Brown and Dean Beckford and Charley, Christmas Song            

Ruddy Grant and Sketto Richard, Christmas Blues

Ruddy Thomas, Roots Christmas                                                                              

Ruddy Thomas, What A Happy Christmas

Rupie Edwards,                 Christmas Rush (Christmas Parade)

Sammy Dread, Christmas Jamboree                       

Sheridons, Merry Christmas (And A Happy New Year)   

Sheridons, Silent Night

Shorty The President, Natty Christmas

Sir Jablonski, Merry Christmas Day

Sonie and Pretty Boy Floyd, It May Be Winter Outside

Steve Golding, Strictly Rock Christmas   

Sugar Minott, Christmas Holiday

Sugar Minott, Christmas Jamboree

Sugar Minott, Christmas Time   

Tappa Zukie, Red Rose (Archie The Red Nose Reindeer)

Teddy Davis, Christmas Bells      

Tim Chandell, Christmas Time

Tony J and The Toys, Christmas Dragon

Top Grant, A Christmas Drink

Trinity, Video Christmas               

Trinity and the Mighty Diamonds, Christmas Carol

Triston Palmer, Christmas Jamboree      

Tyrone Evans, International Christmas Medley  

Ugliman, Christmas Boogie Christmas Is Here)

Vibrators, Merry Christmas (Merry Christmas Is Here)

Wain Nelson, Christmas Time    

Wain Nelson, Santa Claus

Winston Groovy, Merry Christmas

Winston Jones, Joyful Christmas

Zoot Simms and Roy Robinson, White Christmas

Nelson Mandela, Jerry Dammers, and JA History

mandela button

Since the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5th, I wanted to turn discussion to the connection between Mandela and Jamaican and ska culture.




Most ska fans will remember the glorious ska tune penned by Jerry Dammers of The Specials, “Free Nelson Mandela,” recorded by The Special A.K.A. whose lyrics are listed above. I always liked this song, but I also like the Chicken Song and I think the two remind me of each other a tad. The song charted at number nine in March 1984 and led to an awareness of the South African leader. It brought attention to a hero who was previously considered a terrorist by the Tory government in England. Dammers wrote the song after attending a 65th birthday concert at Alexandria Palace in 1983. The song was produced by Elvis Costello and The Beat’s Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger sang backup vocals, along with other vocalists.


One of those artists, Rhoda Dakar of The Bodysnatchers, The Special AKA, and Skaville UK, recalled her memories of recording this song in an interview on She says that she had fond memories of “recording ‘Mandela’ with Elvis Costello. I’m a huge fan of his and could barely speak to him, I was so starstruck. . . I am, of course, immensely proud of ‘Mandela’.”


Dammers helped to organize Artists Against Apartheid and was asked to head up a festival by Dali Tambo, the son of Oliver Tambo who was, at the time, the leader of the African National Congress in South Africa. The first concert, called Freedom Beat, took place on Clapham Common in London in 1986. Artists such as Peter Gabriel, Sting, Sade, The Smiths, and Big Audio Dynamite, Mick Jones’s new band since the breakup of The Clash, performed. Some 250,000 people attended the concert which was preceded by a march to the concert grounds. After the success of Freedom Beat, a much bigger concert was organized to celebrate Mandela’s 70th birthday, and so on June 11, 1988 a massive concert took place at Wembley Stadium. Some 72,000 people attended live at Wembley Stadium and more than 600 million people from 60 countries watched the broadcast on television. An enormous list of artists performed, including Stevie Wonder, Sly & Robbie, UB40, Harry Belafonte, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and Chrissie Hynde. Numerous celebrities attended and lent their support.


BBC News has run a fantastic article on Jerry Dammers and his role in Nelson Mandela’s fight for freedom. Of course in true Jerry Dammers’ style, he claims that “there was little awareness of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment before his song,” but that is debatable. Here is the article:


I want to post the lyrics here because I think they are tremendously important:


Free Nelson Mandela / Free, Free, Free, Nelson Mandela/ Free Nelson Mandela/ Twenty-one years in captivity/ His shoes too small to fit his feet/ His body abused but his mind is still free/ Are you so blind that you cannot see/  I say Free Nelson Mandela / I’m begging you/ Free Nelson Mandela / He pleaded the causes of the ANC/ Only one man in a large army/ Are you so blind that you cannot see/ Are you so deaf that you cannot hear his plea/  Free Nelson Mandela / I’m begging you Free Nelson Mandela/  Twenty-one years in captivity/ Are you so blind that you cannot see/ Are you so deaf that you cannot hear / Are you so dumb that you cannot speak/ I say Free Nelson Mandela/ I’m begging you/ Oh free Nelson Mandela, free/ Nelson Mandela I’m begging you begging you / Please free Nelson Mandela/ free Nelson Mandela/ I’m telling you, you’ve got to free Nelson Mandela.


Here is footage of “Free Nelson Mandela” performed on Top of the Pops:



Nelson Mandela first visited Jamaica on July 24, 1991. There was obviously great excitement about his visit and before he departed, Mandela visited National Heroes Park in Kingston where he laid wreaths at the shrines of Marcus Garvey, Sir Alexander Bustamante, and Norman Manley. The headline of the Daily Gleaner on July 25th stated, “Emotionally charged J’cans greet Mandelas.” The article stated, “Yesterday’s crowds in Kingston and the outpouring of emotion drew comparisons to the visit by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1967 [sic. Selassie actually visited on April 21, 1966]. People from all walks of life took whatever vantage points they could—tops of trees or buildings—to catch a glimpse of the Mandelas but heavy security and sometimes confusion over routes to be used left many disappointed though caught up in the moment of the historic visit. Thousands ringed Heroes Circle from about mid-afternoon even while Mr. Mandela was at Vale Royal for lunch and waited for more than three hours to see them. A crowd had gone to the National Stadium from as early as noon with hundreds taking water bottles and food and vendors camped around the ground as people marked out their positions. All the car parks were full spilling over onto neighbouring streets backing up hundreds of yards. To Rex Nettleford’s ears the people on the streets were paying their tribute by saying ‘Mandela’ as ‘Man de ya’ or ‘The man is here.’”


The article later says that poet and historian, Lorna Goodison, sister to musicologists Bunny and Kingsley Goodison, read a poem to the Mandelas. “It was tears at the Pegasus Hotel luncheon when Lorna Goodison read ‘The Bedspread,’ a poem about South African police taking into custody Mrs. Mandela’s bedspread which was in the colour of the ANC. Miss Goodison went through the poem with her eves closed and her face pained. At its end she burst into tears and was hugged thrice by the wife of the ANC leader who later spilled a tear,” read the article.


Minister of Foreign Affairs Senator David Coore who organized the visit said, “Nelson Mandela is a man who has become a symbol of resistance to oppression, a man who has symbolized the fight against the cruel injustice of apartheid, and a man whose courage and example has been an inspiration to the whole world. It is our way as a people in Jamaica and the Caribbean of saying to him that we appreciate and recognise what he has accomplished: that we have always stood with him and the black people of South Africa — the non-white people of South Africa — in their struggle against apartheid, and to let them know that that support continues and will continue until apartheid is totally abolished.”

Tommy McCook recorded a fantastic homage to Nelson Mandela in 1981 with his “Mandella” [sic. Mandela] and numerous reggae artists like Sugar Minott, Carlene Davis, Danny Dread, Jah Wally Stars, and Rupie Culture also paid their respects to the great freedom fighter and leader.




On another note, Music Producer and Island Records Founder Chris Blackwell, who launched the careers of Millie Small and Bob Marley, among others, hosted a screening of his new Island Pictures film Mandela at his Strawberry Hill property in January 1997. The film tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s struggle against the tyranny of Apartheid in South Africa and creates an important link between Jamaica and South Africa. Historian Rex Nettleford said that “Nelson Mandela’s story encapsulates a spirit not unknown to the Jamaican people which must have prompted Chris Blackwell to want to tell the story of this great man, no doubt with the echoes of ‘One Love, one heart, let’s get together and feel alright.’”


The film is available on Netflix. Here is an NPR story featuring Chris Blackwell that ran on the Mandela documentary in 2006: