Fri | Apr 23, 2021

Carolyn Cooper | Murderous creativity from Jamaica

Published:Sunday | February 7, 2021 | 12:25 AM

Ini Kamoze’s 1983 big tune, World a Music, is a classic expression of the creative use of the image of murder to represent the devastating power of reggae:

“World a reggae music on yah – eh

Keep me rockin with mi daughter – eh-a

World a reggae music on yah – eh

Never lef yah, never no sah – eh-a

Now just be nice and hold yuh space

I won’t entertain no more disgrace

Out in the street they call it merther

When riddim spacing out your head.”

The Jamaican transformation of ‘murder’ to ‘merther’ evokes the symbolic meaning of the word. Ini Kamoze is not celebrating literal murder. Out in the streets, it is understood that disgrace will not be entertained. It’s niceness that rules in the dance. The rhythm penetrates the dancers’ consciousness and enables them to claim and hold a space in a society that often marginalises them. There are two meanings of ‘space’ in that verse. First, it’s a noun indicating physical location. It’s also a verb enacting expansion of the mind – affirming a psychological place of freedom.

“Out in the street they call it merther” is the paradoxical refrain of a song about manifesting positive vibrations in the dance. And the songwriter optimistically establishes unexpected alliances between predator and prey:

“Man showing how man feeling

Man singing goodness gracious I

Ten thousand riddims pealing

It makes the spider kiss a fly.”

It is true that, more often than not, the spider consumes the fly. And literal murder can become a tragic consequence of warring factions in the dance. But it’s the positive energy of reggae that is the dominant theme of Ini Kamoze’s song.

UNSOLVED MURDER OF JOEL CHIN

In 2011, Joel Chin was murdered outside his home in Stony Hill. He was the son of Clive Chin and the grandson of Vincent Chin who co-founded with his wife, Patricia, Randy’s Record Shop and, later, the world-famous Studio 17 and VP Records. Joel was the director of A&R (artistes and repertoire) for VP Records, signing world-class talents like Beenie Man and Sean Paul. Almost a decade later, Joel’s murder remains an unsolved crime.

After rescuing the Studio 17 archive that had languished at 17 North Parade, Clive had housed the collection in his home in New York. Joel had been encouraging him to work on releasing some of the lost tapes. But it was as if Clive himself was caught in a time warp. It was Joel’s death that catapulted him into creative action. In June 2012, Clive launched his historic archive with a lecture at the Frost Theatre Of the Arts in Brooklyn.

Music journalist Reshma B, who had written a news story for Clash Music about Joel’s death, attended that event. Back in the UK, Reshma was featured on BBC Radio 4’s premier arts programme, ‘Front Row’ in August 2012. She conveyed the excitement of getting access to the lost tapes and witnessing the digitisation process:

“It’s at least 600 original master session tapes and then a few hundred mixtapes. I was actually there at one of the transfer sessions and it’s like being in a time capsule. You hear all the countings, you hear all the bantering with the musicians. And, of course, you never knew what you were going to hear out of the speakers because you might be thinking you were listening to Alton Ellis but then out comes Peter Tosh.”

NO COMPROMISE

As a result of that BBC interview, Reshma was invited by award-winning director Mark James to consider making a documentary film about the lost tapes. She secured Clive’s consent and work began on the brilliant documentary film, Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes. It took seven years to complete because the film-makers did not want to be dependent on record companies for funding. They would not allow their vision to be compromised. The film was made by Widestream Films and Iambic Dream Films, in association with BBC Music.

There are several powerful themes running through the documentary. First, there is the issue of lineage. From Vincent to Clive to Joel, music was in their blood. All the Chin men were producers helping to shape the evolution of Jamaican popular music. An unreleased embryonic song by Dennis Brown, done when he was only 16, was one of the outstanding finds in the Studio 17 archive. Through a brilliant collaboration with another producer, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame, the song was restored and became a duet with the English singer Hollie Stephenson. It was released in the documentary film.

A contentious matter that the film does not dodge is the exploitation of artistes in the early days of the music industry. A clip from The Harder They Come shows Ivan, played by Jimmy Cliff, angrily challenging the producer of his song about the pittance he received. This is the story of Trinidadian Lord Creator whose ska song, King and Queen, was released by Randy’s in 1963. A reggae version was later released by Clancy Eccles in 1970, with a new title, Kingston Town. Lord Creator did not benefit financially. Fortunately, the song was covered by UB40 and released in 1989. Regular royalties allowed Lord Creator to build his house very late in life.

Reshma B, who writes a monthly column for Tidal magazine, has curated the streaming company’s first-ever Reggae Month programme. The Lost Tapes has been accessible for free for the first week of February, up until midnight tonight EST: https://tidal.com/studio17. It’s also on Quincy Jones’ Qwest TV. This riveting documentary is an exceptional contribution to reggae music history. It also celebrates committed journalists like Reshma B who, spacing out our head, take our story to the world.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.