Ska: A Bum Steer

candidly yours

We all know those crabby old people that complain that the music is too loud, that rock ‘n’ roll is devil music and corrupting the youth, that the youth who listen to it are mindless and all on drugs. It has been said for decades, for every new creation that hooks the masses, like rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues, soul, punk, heavy metal, and it was certainly said about ska.


One of the factors contributing to the complaints of ska and rocksteady and its corruption of the youth is that in Jamaican culture then, as it is now, there is a stratified class system—the uptown and the downtown. I was stunned to witness this myself on my trips to Kingston and I assure you, it is not a schism created by musicologists for the sake of expounding on why ska never took off across the world the way it should have. This is a topic I address in my books and will continue to write about in my work. However, what I want to address here is one way that schism manifested in a couple of Daily Gleaner articles I found from 1968 that try to lend scientific reasoning to the abhorrence for ska by the upper class, the intellectuals, the crabby old people.


Why is this important? Because today we think about the popularity and success of ska in Jamaica during this era—the producers and the sound system operators who drew in the fans and sold the hits and the radio that finally caught on and started projecting Jamaica’s new sound that would develop into rocksteady and reggae and dancehall, that the world would embrace eventually allowing Jamaica to be known for its musical culture. Twas not always like this. It, like all things Jamaican, was a struggle, even among its own. And the fact that it was embraced and funded, no less, by the newly-formed government was even more suspect. We have heard about some of these struggles, financial and otherwise, but here are some other fascinating reasons, given by columnist Thomas Wright and an anonymous responder, why ska was once called a “bum steer.”



Candidly Yours . . . Thomas Wright from the Daily Gleaner, August 16, 1968



The idiot repetitiveness and bad taste of the lyrics find and the musical illiteracy of the kind of performances produced for our Phony Fiesta are bad enough, but from the purely physical point of view the greatly amplified level at which so much of the stuff is played is worse.


This column has long maintained that the amplification, of this so-called music by sound systems, to say nothing of the distortion caused by the overloading of the loudspeakers, is destroying the musical ear of our people. It now turns out that it is also destroying their hearing.


Not only in Jamaica. Time Magazine of August 9th reports that otologists are finding that youngsters are going deaf as a result of blasting their eardrums with electronically amplified rock ‘n’ roll. The human ear is a remarkable mechanism and can protect itself very effectively in ordinary circumstances. Indeed the human body as a whole, having evolved for millions of years with everything else in nature, has developed means of neutralizing, detoxifying, and fighting every hostile poison or external element that attacks it.


Synthetic poisons

THE TROUBLE IS that the last 50 years or so, and particular the last 25, have seen the rapid development of a number of things which are quite new, and not known in nature. A good example is provided by many of the new synthetic pesticides which catching the human liver unawares, so to speak, without suitable enzymes for their destruction are exceedingly dangerous. This also applies to some of the new synthetic drugs. What it comes to is that given a great deal of time, the human organism will eventually evolve a protective mechanism against anything. What it can’t stand is the sudden surprise of something entirely new, or of something old, but in a new intensity.


New sound intensity

OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS the human ear has suddenly been called upon to cope with an intensity of sound which has never had to experience during the whole period of its evolution, and against which in consequence, it is relatively defenseless. This era of intense noise began with the coming of industrialization and the noise in factories and modern technology has now produced noise-makers ranging from city traffic, to pneumatic riveters, to jet engines. Another of these new noisemakers is, of course, electronically produced amplification.


Noise can be measured in decibels. A decibel is an arbitrary unit based on the faintest sound that an average person can hear. Ordinary conversation has a level of about 60 decibels. Every increase of ten decibels means an increase of sound intensity by ten times. A 20 decibel rise means an increase of one hundred times and a 30 decibel rise means a thousand fold increase.

A jet plane 100 ft- away produces 140 decibels, a pneumatic riveter, 130 decibels, and rock music with amplifiers played at the kind of level now prevailing, produces about 120 decibels or one trillion times more than one decibel, the least audible sound. “With these amplifiers,” says Dr. Robert Feder, an ear specialist quoted by Time, “the noise becomes nearly intolerable.”



TIME ALSO GIVES an account of some research done by Dr. George T. Singleton and Dr.

James Jerger. Dr. Singleton and his research team tested the hearing of ten young people before a dance. Then the investigators went to the dance hall and found the noise intensity to be about 107 decibels in the middle of the dance floor, peaking to 120 decibels near the band which was, of course, using electronic amplifiers. After the dance, they tested the hearing of the young people again. All had suffered temporary hearing impairment, with an average loss of 11 decibels. One boy showed a loss of 35 decibels, mostly within the frequency range of human speech.


Dr. Jerger tested the members of a five-man combo which also used amplifiers. One player had suffered a 50 decibel loss. Three had also suffered permanent hearing, damage, though none was older than 23.


Why do young people like to deafen themselves? Time quotes a Florida teenager. “The sounds embalm you. They numb you. You don’t want to hear others talk. You don’t want to talk. You don’t know what to say to each other anyway.”



SO IT IS IN THE PROCESS of destroying their hearing, the people who drug themselves with noise are, in fact, indulging an idiotic mindlessness which is perfectly expressed by the “music” to which they listen and the withdrawn, jerky and primitive movements with which they dance to it. It is no accident that that real devotees dance away all by themselves. The roots of this dancing can be seen in any mental home amongst a certain category of the mentally disturbed.


La trahison des clercs

YET IN JAMAICA as elsewhere, this kind of thing is commercially encouraged; for the good reason that there are vast fortunes to be made out of it by the purveyors of the “music” and the amplification. Here at home, it is part of our Phony Fiesta, part of the organized and commercial corruption of good taste and good sense on the principle that if you cannot give people bread, well, give them circuses. There are excuses for the vulgar and the ignorant but when our intellectuals who ought to know better defend it all by every argument from those based upon false democracy to specious pleas about “our African heritage” this is the true “treason of

the clerics.”


We have borrowed, as I have said before, the worst aspects American society and poorly done at that; the advertising and commercial exploitation, the most elementary forms of pop music badly and tastelessly performed, the deliberate sacrifice of standards for the purpose of courting popularity, all held against a background of hooliganism, or near-hooliganism, the facts of which we try to suppress. And all this in the name of celebrating an Independence whose significance has not yet been grasped by hundreds of thousands of our people for the simple reason that most of our politicians have corrupted even the idea by selling it as a bonanza and delivering a bum steer.


Candidly Yours . . . Thomas Wright from the Daily Gleaner, August 31, 1968.


Sound Systems

FOR VERY MUCH the same reasons as above, the police take little effective action against sound systems. But here, I believe another factor enters into it, and this is that the average policeman likes the filthy noise of sound systems, having been brought up to them, and fundamentally believes that anyone who complains is being unreasonable. The following letter, from a correspondent who wishes her name withheld, has been chosen from eight complaints received this week alone.


“I was so grateful when you wrote about sound systems again, and the ‘music’ they produce. I am living in a better-classed suburban housing scheme, and it is unbelievable what we and our neighbours have to suffer from this uncivilized ‘Rock Steady’ noise. It starts from Friday afternoon and goes right on unto Saturday night, well into the small hours. This so called music comes from a settlement at least half a mile away where a man runs an open dance yard. Yet,  sound is such a peculiar thing that there is apparently no sound barrier, and we seem to get the full blast of it.


Although it is forbidden by law, the police are either unable or unwilling, or both, to cope with it, or it is for some sinister political reason that they don’t want to do anything in the matter. Are only those people who indulge in that kind of entertainment protected in this Island because of their majority? After all, the politicians make their comfortable living from the heavily overburdened taxpayers.


Your article about the sound systems in the same column some time ago where you said that the civilized people will be driven out of the Island, not because of high taxes, the lousy telephone service or the lousy power service, but because of the nuisance of the sound systems is indeed right. But alas, it is not always so easy to do so, although out of sheer despair, one would like to.

Statements on the Ska impasse

statements on ska

This is the companion piece to last week’s post, Dissension in the Ska Camp, where we find artists responding to the hub-bub created between Prince Buster and Ronnie Nasralla over how ska was promoted in the U.S., specifically at the ska gala in New York at the Shepheard’s Club in April, 1964. Ronnie Nasralla, Roy Willis, Roy Panton, Alphonso Castro, Sir Lord Comic, and Eric Monty Morris all weigh in on this article, Statements on the Ska impasse from the Daily Gleaner, Sunday, May 3, 1964.


But before I do, I just want to take a moment to say why I think these articles are significant today. There was then, as there is now, controversy or conflict over the downtown ska and uptown ska, and Jamaican culture lends itself well to this sort of schism with such stratification of the classes. Having just penned my biography on the great Don Drummond, this class conflict plays out in his life to tragic ends, as I argue in the book. Simply, he was not able to achieve the recognition he deserved, travel to other lands, nor receive the treatment for mental illness that would have perhaps saved him and Margarita, because he was a “downtown musician.” But I am also intrigued by Byron Lee & the Dragonaires and their contributions to bridging this cultural divide, working the music from a different angle to benefit the country in ways that cannot be measured. I prefer to look at all sides of the development of ska, the musical side, the business side, the political side, the struggles and challenges—all this imbues the music with more validity. It is important.


And the fact that this debate still continues, online in blog posts like this, with fans over a pint between sets at a show, in scholarly circles, shows that it is and important conversation, now as it was then. This article addresses the debate, not in terms of what hindsight has shown us, that it may have well been a class divide issues, but that it was a manufactured fight—between the artists and Prince Buster, that rabble-rouser we all know and love!


I’m going to start this article where it ends though, with a poem that appears in the text:


Music for the People


Today let us all join hands in a ring

And sing

The praises of Ska

To all the doubters, the critics, the curious, I say “Ho!”

Don’t you think we should all be patriotically proud

And shout it aloud

To the world around

That Jamaicans have found

Their music and dance National?

Now be rational:

How can there be anything sinister

In a Minister

Laying down a cultural flag!

In Black River, Trench Town, at Half Way Tree, at

Shepheard’s in New York, Ska hold sway,

The twist, we are told, is passé

So get with it, be cool, get in the swim!

And even if you should break a limb

Dancing to the “Wash-Wash” or “Sammy Deaad”—

Never mind . . . Jamaican culture forges ahead.

Those who said the lack of a National Music and resented it

Have done the obvious thing: invented it.

And if some folks still refuse to stand to the Anthem at a movie

There’s a solution as simple as it is groovy:

Let’s follow the lead of “Sammy Dead,” “Wash Wash” an’ all

And produce a Ska version of our Anthem National,

Who knows where it all may end!

But worry not, my friend,

The Ska is here to stay and we are doomed to hear it played

At least until it begins to slide off the U.S. Hit Parade.

–by “Penny Wallie”


Without further ado, here is the rest of the article:


ronnie nasrala

The editor, Sir—In order to clear up a fast-developing situation that may lead to our new Jamaican musical sound being killed on the very brink of world recognition, I am enclosing statements by various individuals connected to Ska one way or the other.

Among the statements are statements by some members of the group which went up to New York recently on the Government sponsored promotion of Jamaican Ska.

I would like to give my personal views on Jamaica Ska. First of all, I would like to deal with the Gleaner’s article “Dissension in the Ska Camp” which appeared on Sunday the 26th. It is quite clever from this article that both sides were interviewed by as a senior member of the group which took part in this promotion in New York, I would like to clarify certain points for the benefit of the Jamaican public and of the many devotees to our tremendous national sound—Ska.

I would like to state that the tune, “Sammy Dead” sung by Eric (Monty) Morris and accompanied by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires was the tune that impressed the New York promoters, Paul Marshall and Roland Rennie, as having the most potential as a lead-off to the promotion of Jamaican Ska.

Because of this tune and the tremendous presentation of Jamaica Ska at the Glass Bucket on Friday the 3rd April, the two American experts, Mr. Marshall and Mr. Rennie, who had come out here on the invitation of the Government to investigate the possibility of Ska being “sold” to the rest of the world, recommended that a Jamaican group of dancers be asked to immediately fly up to New York to lead off promotion of Jamaican Ska.

Naturally, the tune “Sammy Dead” was given more projection since this would be the first Ska record to be released in the United States. However, other tunes sung by leading Jamaican artists, namely Stranger Cole, Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, and Jimmy Cliff were also presented on the night of the 15th April at the Shepheard’s Club.

Prior to the demonstration of the dance done to these records, all the dancers were introduced to the invited guests verifying his association with these Ska records all the singers present. A sample of “Sammy Dead” which labelled equal billing for Eric Monty Morris and Byron Lee, was presented along with the story of Jamaica Ska to all the invitees.

With regard to the presentation of the dance, I must say that with the exception of two members of the Jamaican team, did a marvelous job of selling the Ska dance to the Americans present. One member, Prince Buster, who strayed occasionally with a dance that was part Twist and part Ska, was clever enough to get out of a question to put to him by a top reporter—“Isn’t that a cousin of the Twist?”—by saying that Ska music makes one want to do all types of dancing.

However, this was not detrimental as the rest of the group was able at all times to put their presentation of Ska in such a colourful fashion that Prince Buster’s occasional Twist or other members’ occasional Wobble, was completely overshadowed.

The article went on to say that “Wash Was” has every claim to being truly Jamaican, for it is inspired by one of the basic Jamaican show dances—the wash day scene. This is far from accurate. Basically, “Wash Wash” is two American tunes “Lucky Old Sun” and “Old Man River.” Secondly, it was recorded in England by an English Band and called the Blue Beat. “Blue Beat” which is fast developing as a British sound is already losing its Jamaican identity.

Compare this to the tune “Sammy Dead” which was projected in New York. This tune is a Jamaican digging song. It is sung by one of our leading Jamaican singers and backed by one of our leading Jamaican bands. As stated by the top American promoters, it is the only Ska tune that might make the opening for Jamaica Ska in the rest of the world.

Now let me appeal to Jamaican artists and lovers of entertainment. Let us not fight among ourselves and lose a golden opportunity for our country and the benefit of our talent. Instead, let us work together  as a team and for the first time gain financially and otherwise from something of merit which is truly Jamaican.

I am, etc.

R.V. Nasralla

12 Lady Musgrave Road

Kingston 5

April 29, 1964

sir lord comic 

Sir Lord Comic of 33 Alexander Road, Whitfield Town, Kingston 13 says: As a local Ska M.C. for 1964, in my opinion Wash Wash is an imitation Ska cooked up by Prince Buster and the Blue Beats. It is not really a Ska done by Jamaicans. It’s some kind of beat they are trying to catch and call it Ska, but where I am concerned about Ska, “Sammy Dead” is the new Ska beat sung by our top artist, Eric Morris, and backed by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires and for a long time in record releases, “Sammy Dead” is expected to be the first million-disc of Jamaica.


roy willis

Roy Willis from 33 Pink Lake, Kingston 14 says: I was one of the dancers selected to go up to New York and I want all Jamaicans to know that what was said in the papers about trouble in New York is not true, as all of us that went up to New York were presented properly and although I did not dance on the Friday night, Mr. Nasralla explained to me the reason for this which I clearly understood. I would like to appeal to all Jamaicans—let us not try to kill Jamaica Ska when it is getting somewhere fast, but assist it by working together to help all of us and our community.


roy panton

Roy Panton of 77B Beeston Street, Kingston 14 says: I would say that all Jamaican singers should give credit to Mr. Byron Lee and Mr. Ken Khouri for making such a great move in promoting the Jamaican National Sound known as the ska to the United States. That is a move that should have been made for a long long (unreadable). Let’s face facts, the Ska was created from a long time and didn’t reach anywhere far, but at this present moment I can’t see what good it is coming to. First to begin with, we all see where a group of dancers were sent to New York to represent the dance of the ska and they were very successful on the tour because the sound was appreciated in New York and I don’t see why we should be fighting among ourselves. Instead, we should be happy that our music has got a foothold in the American market. The other thing is that the record Ska hit “Sammy Dead” backed by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires and sung by Eric Monty Morris was selected by a New York recording company will be the first Ska to be released in America. I would say it is a direct Ska contract to what Prince Buster has said. As far as I can see, this is a big chance for us Jamaican artists of getting somewhere and I think it is a disgrace for another Jamaican artist to try and project himself by crying down his fellow singer’s tunes.


alphanso castro

Alphonso Castro of 13 Waltham Park Road, Kingston 11 says: Although Prince Buster come to say that I am a sissy man because I am spying on him. I am an artist in Jamaica—a dancer—I don’t business with recording and I went up there on behalf of the government to see the dance, the Jamaica Ska. As far as I can see, Prince Buster was not cooperating with the rest of the dancers. As a member of the Jamaican group that went up to New York to promote Ska, I would like all Jamaica to know that the presentation in New York went over beautifully and I cannot see how anybody can make reports that some of the other artists did not have a clue about Ska dancing as everyone gave very good account of themselves. I have been dancing for many years and I had the honour of being among the first of JBC TV to present the Ska and I must say that the group that went up to New York could not have been a better one as they certainly sold the Ska. In fact, I go on to say that the newcomers gave a better account of themselves than the old-timers. I think that this is a great thing that is happening in our country and that all our singers, musicians, and entertainers should stop fighting among ourselves and work together and make success for all.


eric monty morris

Eric Monty Morris of 42 Asquith Street, Kinston 12 says: I read in the Gleaner that my tune “Sammy Dead” was not a Ska according to Prince Buster who all the way up on the trip to New York kept telling me that Byron Lee and the rest of them were trying to humbug me, and now I realize that this was not so, as Byron has made such a nice arrangement with Capitol, that I stand to make so much money as Byron if my record becomes a (unreadable) Prince Buster only wanted to promote himself and kill me as he tricked me into posting with him doing the Wash Wash only to promote his tune and turn around and kill mine. He did not tell me that this picture would come out in the Gleaner and I would now like the people to understand that although my name was left out in one of the papers, I realize that this was an error because I have seen the record now and seen my  name along with Byron’s. I would like to tell Mr. Prince buster that I don’t see why he should be the only big Jamaican singer of Ska when I nearly threw away an opportunity like this by listening to his stories. I have been singing Ska long before Buster and I think it is full time that I get a break and I see I can now get it with “Sammy Dead.” I am very ashamed of Prince Buster and I would like him to know that he nearly made me lose out on a big opportunity.

Dissension in the Ska Camp

From April 26, 1964--"Something had to come after the Twist and it appears to be the 'Jamaica Ska,' just imported from the Caribbean island by dance lovers of New York's jet set. Here, at Shepheard's night spot, where the infectious new dance made its U.S. debut, lovely Carol Joan Crawford (left), Miss World of 1964, pays close attention to the dancers. The 'Ska' may be simply described as 'up-beat blues with a shuffle rhythm.' Its name evolved out of the sound of the guitar's up-beat stroke. Miss Crawford, who also hails from Jamaica, is currently touring the U.S. for the first time."

From April 26, 1964–“Something had to come after the Twist and it appears to be the ‘Jamaica Ska,’ just imported from the Caribbean island by dance lovers of New York’s jet set. Here, at Shepheard’s night spot, where the infectious new dance made its U.S. debut, lovely Carol Joan Crawford (left), Miss World of 1964, pays close attention to the dancers. The ‘Ska’ may be simply described as ‘up-beat blues with a shuffle rhythm.’ Its name evolved out of the sound of the guitar’s up-beat stroke. Miss Crawford, who also hails from Jamaica, is currently touring the U.S. for the first time.”

The premiere of the ska in America was controversial then, as it is now. I recently found an article from 1964 called “Dissension in the Ska Camp” that shows even when musicians were in the thick of it, it was a contested issue of who was included and who was excluded, who created it first and who was following suit. So I today I share this article that appeared in the Sunday Gleaner, April 26, 1964 that shows these topics were just as relevant and talked about then as they are now, even more so. The article has no byline so it is not evident who wrote the piece, but Ronnie Nasralla and Prince Buster chime in with their opinions.

First, let’s set the scene. Referenced in this article is the event at Shepheard’s Club, seen above in the photo. This nightclub was located in the Drake Hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan. It was a hotspot. It was hip and posh and cool. Big stars stayed at the Drake, including Frank Sinatra and Muhammad Ali and later Led Zeppelin and Slade. But Shepheard’s was also swanky and the hot dances of the day, like the Frug, were not only danced here, but unveiled here. So too was the Ska. Shepheard’s even produced a flyer called, “How to Do the Newest Discotheque Dances at Shepheard’s in New York’s Drake Hotel” with step-by-step instructions to dance the Jerk, Watusi, Frug and the Monkey.

The event at Shepheard’s Club was prior to the World’s Fair. This event was held in April, whereas the World’s Fair wasn’t until August of 1964. However, Jamaica’s tourism efforts began before the World’s Fair in anticipation of creating a buzz and capitalizing on the dance craze trend. You may remember the photo I posted with Arthur Murray’s wife and Ronnie Nasralla from this evening at the Shepheard’s Club, and above is another rare gem.

Without further ado, the article:

National sound hits New York but now the argument flares as to what it is and who started it!


LIKE a raging fire, the promotional tour of the Jamaican National Sound, the Ska, has started a smoldering in the underbrush of the Kingston music world from which this distinctive brand of music was born.

Everyone wants to prove who is the true exponent of the Ska and who originated it? What is the authentic style of the Ska dancing? Successful though the promotional tour to the U.S. was, enthusiastic though the reports which came back treat the appearance of a Jamaican troupe of dancers and artistes at the Shepheard’s Club, there is dissension in the camp.

Some artistes who made the trip say their sound was not promoted as much as certain other sounds. Some of the artistes say that some of the other artistes didn’t have a clue about Ska dancing and in fact did the Monkey, the Wobble, the Twist . . . anything but true Ska.

Reports from the other side say that the moves done at Shepheard’s were moves decided on and rehearsed for several nights, together, before the team left the island.

To the accusation that other records were promoted over others, we discover from Mr. Winston Stona of the Jamaican Tourist Board, a co-sponsor of the promotional venture that:

The junket to the Shepheard’s Ska dancing, backed up over recorded music. Shepheard’s is one of a current crop of New York Clubs called discotheques. In this night spot feature entertainment comes from records played on a large turntable, from an amplification booth much like the Jamaican sound system of the dance halls.

According to the Tourist Board spokesman, the promotional venture for the Ska, as suggested by Henri Paul Marshall and Roland Rennie, the music promotion experts who came to the island last month on the invitation of the Ministry of Development and Welfare, was that Ska records and not personal performances by the artistes, would be projected.

The records which were taken to Shepheard’s therefore, were a selection made on the suggestion of the experts who, on their visit to the island, listened to the work of various Ska exponents. The records chosen for promotion were the ones which the experts deemed most likely to catch on with the American public.

These records included the works of Prince Buster, Derryck Morgan, Eric Morris, and others known to the local Ska followers.

Why should there be dissension? Among the tunes featured at Shepheard’s was “Sammy Dead,” the old Jamaican folk tune restyled as Ska by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, featuring the voice of Eric Morris. Certain members of the troupe to Shepheard’s say “Sammy Dead” was promoted over other tunes.

According to Mr. Stona, “Sammy Dead” was actually played twice at the beginning and at the end of the programme of Ska records which he presented to the Shepheard’s audience.

It was also revealed that “Sammy Dead” which is to be released on a Capitol label in the States was specifically promoted on the request of Capitol records.

Prince Buster and the other early devotees of the Ska say this should not be so. And they throw in the argument that in their opinion “Sammy Dead” is not a true Ska tune and why should it be played even one more time than any of the others, which are reorganized as real Ska by the real Ska fans?

Prince Buster, who took the Ska to England where it is known now as the Blue Beat, was very expressive about this. He says he is one of the originators of the Ska and sees no reason why he and others, who worked together on the National Sound, should not have got as big billing.

But who really originated the Ska? As Buster tells it, it was back in 1958 that he, Derryck Morgan, Eric Morris and others used to meet on top of an old house situated on Charles Street near Orange Street. The meetings were inspired because “as boys together, we were looking at making a brand.”

He points out that a number of Jamaican musicians had tried adopting American shuffle sounds to their own style, but it didn’t really work. There was need for “our own sound.” So those meetings on top of the house was to find out just how to make things work, how to find a Jamaican sound which the fans would go for.

Down on the ground you might say the big sound system operators Duke Reid and Coxson were evolving their own sound. It was an adaptation of certain American shuffle tunes re-recorded for the sound system dance audiences. It is said that when the experimenters offered Duke Reid and Coxson the new Jamaican sound they would have nothing to do with it.

According to Buster, the new sound when it was evolved was referred to with great disdain by other musicians and by the public as the Boop-Boop. He even earned the name Boop. And when he and Derryck Morgan, for a promotional stunt, launched Boop-Boop songs deriding each other the public really went for their skins.

But out West, the thump of the Boop, later is to be called Sca, then Ska, was catching on. Musicians who had “boxed around” in various musical combos began to be reorganized as “Ska beaters.” Out west and on the east, they could tell you and still tell you about Drumbago who played the drums and Ja Jerry, Theophilus Beckford, and Raymond Harper, Rupert “Blues” Miller, and Stanley Notice.

These according to the fans and on Orange Street and (unreadable) where sound boxes thump through the Saturday night of every week were the original ska men.

As the craze progressed, getting popularity most of all on JBC’s Teenage Dance Party, other musicians joined the parade, cut dies, met for sessions, helped the sound to grow.

The fans began to acclaim Baba Brooks, Roland Alphonso, Lloyd Brevet, Lloyd Tate, Don Drummond, Lester Sterling, Johnny Moore, Lloyd Knibb and the men whose full names nobody remembers but rather a name like Jackie, Charlie, and Campbell. Later they were joined by the acclaimed pure jazz, tenor man, Tommy McCook.

The Ska caught on, spread and grew, most of all in the Saturday night sound system headquarters such as Forrester’s Hall, Jubilee Tile Gardens, Carnival and Gold Coast on Sundays.

Sound system operators worked feverishly to get the latest biscuits on disc. Early on release, they bore no labels, but the dance hall spies got the names eventually and the sound system which didn’t have the new biscuit last week, acquired it this week, to draw the fans.

It is interesting to find a parallel in the discotheques which began in Paris and spread to London and New York.

In the process of finding who should get credit for what, it is eye opening to hear Prince Buster saying that Louise Bennett played her part in the promotion of this peculiarly Jamaican sound and dance. He says that Louise’s life work of keeping alive the folk songs and rhythms of Jamaica is responsible for many of them coming back into popularity, set against the Ska beat.

Many of the musicians and artistes associated with the Ska movement are fairly young men. However, one of the acknowledged originators and Dean of the Sound has been playing music in Kingston for 46 years.

He is Drumbago the drummer who also plays a flute. His real name is Arkland Parks and (unreadable) Mapletoft Poulle and Frankie Bonnitto.

Drumbago, a mild mannered gentleman, says he and Rupert Miller, a bass player for 36 years, were in on the original search to find the sound which came to be called Ska. He explains their best arrangement of the sound as being basically four beats to the bar in eight or twelve measures.

“You get the sound according to how you invert the beats,” says Drumbago.

Another exponent of Ska and its various offshoots feel that the dance called Wash Wash has every claim to being truly Jamaican, for it is inspired by one of the basic Jamaican show dances … the wash day scene. This is a standard with many nightclub rhumba dancers, with many folk lore troupes.

So what constitutes Ska dancing?  According to the fanatics, true Ska motions are the wash wash, the peculiar washing motion of either clothes or the body, the press along, in which the  dancer thumps out the rhythm with his arms at shoulder level, the move (for which we found no

name) of spiraling down to floor level and back up, the one in which you moved the hips and pumped the arms in the opposite direction to the press along.

The fans say that while the extempore movements are allowed dancing the Ska, these are the definite basic movements which one must know to be IN.

Dissenters from the troupe which performed at Shepheard’s say these movements were not used fully or enough and that at one stage they heard a critic saying that what was being done was nothing new, it looked like a first cousin to the Twist. And that the Monkey and the Pony movements which were done were recognized as old hat immediately.

Mr. Stona says this accusation is not true. He found nothing but satisfaction for the presentation at Shepheard’s and is optimistic for the future of Ska promotion in the United States.

We contacted a spokesman for the Byron Lee and the Dragonaires outfit who made “Sammy Dead.”

He told of having heard the feeling expressed by some of the original Ska sound makers that certain orchestras now playing the sound were only cashing in and didn’t know how the sound began.

The Byron Lee spokesman—Mr. Ronnie Nasralla—says:

“For Byron Lee and the Dragonaires it’s not just cashing in. I know Byron feels that it is full time Ska was organized and promoted so that the best can be got out of it for the benefit of the artistes and Jamaica.”

According to Mr. Nasralla:

“Many Ska artistes were not properly protected or organized before Byron Lee has signed up several artistes for recordings and appearances and we’re taking all steps to see that they’re properly presented.”

“I’ve heard that some people say that Byron Lee is just promoting his orchestra. It’s not true. Sure, as a businessman he will look out for his investments, but let us stop quarrelling among ourselves and promote the sound not only for the good of one band but for all Jamaica.”

Whatever comes of it, Ska is going to be a talking point for many more months. Ironically, like most things, it was an art without honour in its own country until it was discovered somewhere else.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog when I will post a response to this article that appeared in the Daily Gleaner the following Sunday. Apparently the comments made by Ronnie Nasralla and Prince Buster struck a chord and a number of musicians responded with their thoughts, including Eric Monty Morris, Roy Panton, Ronnie Nasralla again, Alphanso Castro, Sir Lord Comic, and Roy Willis who respond with comments of their own.


Duke Reid the Trojan

From Daily Gleaner, February 3, 1956

From Daily Gleaner, February 3, 1956

Can you imagine grabbing a Red Stripe and heading into this dance at Shady Grove in 1956? Duke Reid, Coxsone Dodd, Admiral Comic (or here, Kosmic)–what a night this must have been! It was 1956, before ska, so these sound system operators were spinning “rock ‘n roll” as the advertisement states–rhythm and blues secured from American. We know that Duke Reid and Coxsone traveled to the U.S. to obtain their records, but others purchased them from the sailors coming from the states in the ship yard. I wanted to take the opportunity in this blog to talk a little bit about Duke Reid, the one who helped to start it all, and share some advertisements I found from the Daily Gleaner that I find fascinating and hope you will too.

First of all, let me give a little background on Duke Reid, for those who might not be familiar with this Jamaican music hero. This passage from the Jamaica Gleaner, October 1, 1995, was written by journalist Balford Henry:

Arthur Stanley Reid was born in Black Rock, Portland, May 14,1923 [most accounts have his birth as July 21, 1915] . Although his birth certificate shows his mother’s name as Catherine Pearce, there is only a dash where his father’s name was supposed to be. After school, Reid moved to Kingston and joined the police. While in the force he met Lucille Homil and they married. He was kicked out of the police force when his superiors realised that he had moved in with his mother-in-law and was helping to run a grocery on Beeston Street. However, the 30 pounds they paid him off with, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as he bought a couple of speaker boxes and started playing music outside the store. Friends encouraged him to go into music fully, and he eventually challenged and beat the then sound system King, Tom, the Great Sebastian. Tom moved uptown to the Silver Slipper Club in Cross Roads after this, leaving downtown at the mercy of the new champion sound system -Duke Reid, The Trojan. 

Reid beat back the challenge of numerous other sounds, until he was humiliated by a young upstart named Clement “Sir Coxsone Downbeat” Dodd, who had travelled abroad as a farm worker and returned with some exclusives, including Roscoe Brown’s “Mr. Berry,” Coxsone’s virtual theme song. But, Reid also went on a hunt for the songs in the United States. It was difficult because, like other sound system operators, Dodd had scratched the name from the label. This meant that Reid had to listen to thousands of songs until he found it. Anthony (Duke Reid’s son) said that when his father, eventually, found the record in a Philadelphia shop, “he jumped in the air and laughed like a baby.” When he returned to Kingston, Reid threw out a challenge to Dodd, that he could play all his exclusives. The showdown was planned for Forrester’s Hall. Dodd turned up feeling that Reid was only bluffing. At midnight when Reid played “Mr. Berry” eyewitnesses said that Dodd fainted.

Reid returned to the top of the heap, but a disastrous attempt to develop a construction company, which was supposed to have received a contract to help build the Norman Manley Airport but never did, resulted in him having to declare bankruptcy in 1961. Anthony said that his father lost everything, including his sound system. But, he rebounded with a loan obtained through a home owned by his wife on Mountain View Avenue. Reid returned with a vengeance, formed his own labels, built his own studio, and reopened his liquor store after repurchasing 33 Bond Street. When Tab Smith’s “My Mother’s Eyes” was brought to his attention by a friend named “Cho Cho Mouth”, he made it his theme song.

The name Duke Reid and Treasure Isle are still very much identified with the instrumental. Reid died leaving one of the richest local musical legacies, which was still providing entertainment for millions world-wide, excepting that his family isn’t earning anything from all this success.

Duke Reid’s sound system, and Reid himself, was called  The Trojan, after the make of his imported kit van he used to shuttle his equipment. Reid hosted his dances at the corner of Beeston Street and Pink Lane in the early days and then on Bond Street and Charles Street, as well as at other venues like the Success Club and Forresters Hall. It is to be noted that in the story relayed above by Anthony Reid to the journalist that Coxsone’s theme song was “Mr. Berry.” Other accounts, which have been corroborated, have that song being “Later For Gator” by Willis “Gatortail” Jackson, which Coxsone renamed Coxsone’s Hop,” and the event is to have taken place at Kingston Jubilee Hall with Prince Buster luring him there.

Duke Reid Sound System from the Daily Gleaner June 22, 1960

Duke Reid Sound System from the Daily Gleaner  June 22, 1960

Duke Reid at the Silver Slipper from the Daily Gleaner April 28, 1956

Duke Reid at the Silver Slipper from the Daily Gleaner April 28, 1956

From the Daily Gleaner June 17, 1960

From the Daily Gleaner June 17, 1960

Reid was flashy and attracted attention everywhere he went. He frequently wore a crown on his head along with a red cape trimmed in ermine, bandoliers crisscrossing his chest and two guns at his side, one a shotgun on his left hip and a .45 on his right hip. Sometimes he even arrived to his dances being carried aloft on a gilded throne by his posse. He was known to fire his guns into the air at his shows in a display of his prowess as well as when he liked a song. He was also known to occasionally play with a live grenade. He presented a radio show on RJR called “Treasure Isle Time,” supplying the records from his sound system, promoting those from his studio, and paying for the airtime. The show was actually hosted by Adrian “Duke” Robinson, a J.B.C. disc jockey. From 1956 to 1959, Reid was the “King of Sound and Blues,” known for his rare, even exclusive 78” tunes he played at the sound system dances.  

The sound systems had one function in these early days–to sell liquor. Duke Reid and his family owned a liquor store, so too did Coxsone Dodd and his family. Here is an advertisement that shows the duality of the liquor industry which birthed the music industry. Record collectors, what would you give to travel back in time to go to this sale!!?

From the Daily Gleaner, December 29, 1960

From the Daily Gleaner, December 29, 1960

I haven’t even talked about the legacy that Duke Reid has left us in the way of recordings, but instead focused here on his early days. Reid produced hundreds of recordings, helping to establish the careers of such greats as Alton Ellis, the Skatalites, Derrick Morgan, Eric Monty Morris, John Holt, Justin Hinds, the Melodians, the Paragons, Phyllis Dillon, the Silvertones, Stranger Cole, the Techniques, Tommy McCook & the Supersonics, and the list goes on and on. Share your memories and thoughts on the legacy of Duke Reid by commenting below. I leave you with this popular photo of Duke Reid in all his glory.

reid photo

And below is an advertisement for Trojan trucks from the Daily Gleaner, 1959. Duke Reid’s had “Duke Reid – The Trojan King of Sounds” painted on the sides. He not only hauled his sound system equipment and records, but of course, his liquor.

trojan truck


Stanley Motta, Recording Pioneer

From the Daily Gleaner, March 12, 1958

From the Daily Gleaner, March 12, 1958

Stanley Motta is always mentioned as an early pioneer in the ska industry since he had the first recording studio on the island, although they were not pressed there–Motta sent the acetates to the U.K. for duplication. But Motta began the recording industry in Jamaica. His recording studio was opened in 1951 on Hanover Street and his label, M.R.S. (Motta’s Recording Studio), recorded mostly calypso and mento. Motta’s first recorded in 1952 with Lord Fly whose birth name was Rupert Lyon. It is to be noted that in his band on these recordings were Bertie King on clarinet, an Alpha Boys School alumnus who would go on to have a successful jazz career in Europe, as well as Mapletoft Poule who had a big band that employed many early ska musicians and Alpha alumni. Motta also recorded artists like Count Lasher, Monty Reynolds, Eddie Brown, Alerth Bedasse, Jellicoe Barker, Lord Composer, Lord Lebby, Lord Messam, Lord Power, and Lord Melody (good Lord!).


There is a strong ska connection too. While I originally thought and posted that Baba Motta was Stanley Motta’s little brother and got that misinformation from Brian Keyo (here:, I have been corrected by mento scholar Daniel Neely, as you will see from his fantastic and helpful comments below. They, in fact, are not related. Baba Motta was a pianist and trumpeter who also played bongos at times. Roland Alphonso performed with Baba Motta and Stanley then employed Roland to play as a studio musician for many of his calypsonians. Baba Motta had his own orchestra based at the Myrtle Bank Hotel. Baba Motta also recorded for his brother Stanley Motta with Ernest Ranglin. And other ska artists who recorded for Stanley Motta include Laurel Aitken and Lord Tanamo. Rico Rodriguez also says he recorded for Stanley Motta. Theophilus Beckford also performed for other calypsonians that Motta recorded, playing piano before he cut his vital tune “Easy Snapping” for Coxsone, the first recognized ska recording.


So who was this Stanley Motta character and what was his interest in Jamaican music? Well as most Jamaican residents know, Motta was the owner of his eponymous business that sold electronics, camera equipment, recording equipment, and appliances. They also processed film, if you remember that! Motta started his business in 1932 with just two employees. Motta’s grew to hundreds of employees over the years and they sold products from Radio Shack, Poloroid, Hoover, Nokia, and Nintendo, to name a few. Stanley Motta was born in Kingston on October 5, 1915. He was educated at Munro College and St. George’s College. He was married twice and has four sons, Brian, David, Philip, and Robert.


Motta chose to get into recording perhaps because it was a new industry for the island. And as a businessman, he saw that there were tourists who flocked to Jamaica with spending money, and in an effort to capture some of that money, he began recording to send them home with a souvenir. Many of these calypso and mento recordings for MRS were intended to be souvenirs, a take home example of the sounds enjoyed while on the north coast beaches. In fact, later Motta would serve on the board of the Jamaica Tourist Board from 1955 to 1962, so this was a focus for Motta. He recorded 78s, 45s, but also 10 full-length LPs including “Authentic Jamaican Calypsos,” a four volume series targeted at tourists upon which Roland Alphonso is a featured soloist on the song “Reincarnation.” In short, Motta was an entrepreneur, so his interest in recording came from a vision to fill a need, and he quickly moved on into more enterprising endeavors when he saw that need was being met better by others, like Federal Records, a physical pressing plant, and he chose to focus on his retail stores instead, stores which are still in business today.


Motta was also involved in broadcast, but not as you might think. In 1941, after viewing a program that was broadcast on NBC, Motta was so moved by the content of the program titled “Highlights of 1941,” that he wrote to NBC to obtain a recording of this broadcast. He secured the one-hour program which he then showed for audiences at the Glass Bucket Club and he used donations from the screening to support war funds. The program dramatized many of the events of the year interspersed with real footage of Pearl Harbor and the milestones leading up to World War II.


Motta was likely also a supplier for many sound system operators, as you can see from the advertisement above. He sold amplifiers, speakers, and all types of recording equipment so without his influence, the face of Jamaican music would not be the same, in many ways. Share your stories, memories, and research on Stanley Motta here and keep the dialogue going!


Here are a number of links to more information on Stanley Motta and his recording legacy: