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STORY OF THE SONG - New York, New York

Published:Sunday | September 14, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Cocoa Tea
Burning Spear
Tessanne Chin
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City finds home in reggae music

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

In one of the many clips of selector and radio-show host David Rodigan in action posted on YouTube, he is playing at a clash in New York City, USA. In homage to the place, he started one round with a surprise selection, Billy Joel's New York State of Mind, from his Turnstiles album of 1976.

It was an unusual cut for a hardcore dance, not only because of the artiste, but also the style of the song. There is a long piano introduction - not exactly the most accustomed fare for a sound system clash, although the dancehall audience can show an engaging eclecticism in taste.

New York, long famed as an arrival point for those coming to America, is not short of musical references. These days, persons will be more familiar with Alicia Keys and Jay-Z's Empire State of Mind from 2009.

There are some similarities in approach between the lyrics. Billy Joel sings about the film world ("I've seen all the movie stars/In their fancy cars and limousines"); Jay-Z raps about a movie star ("Right next to DeNiro ..."). Billy Joel sings about public transportation ("I'm just taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River Line") and there is a "Yellow Cab, Gypsy Cab, Dollar Cab ..." reference in Empire State of Mind.

Jay-Z also makes a Bob Marley reference ("rest in peace Bob Marley"), which is appropriate, as New York was a significant stop on Marley's deteriorating health journey. It is in Central Park that he collapsed while jogging in September 1980, this shortly after rocking the famed Madison Square Garden and putting The Commodores to the sword on their home American soil.

Of course, there is a stronger musical connection between Jamaica and New York than the introductory tune at a sound clash and the place where the Gong's eight-month slide towards death officially began with his cancer diagnosis. Frank Sinatra famously sang of New York, New York - and so did deejay Josey Wales in Water Come a Mi Eye, where he says in the introduction, "the city is so big they named it twice, New York, New York".

He sounds the warning that if you want to go to New York then, "you dollars haffi strong."

In Johnny Drughead, Mutabaruka speaks about the tough life in New York for someone who had strong desires and weak dollars. He was a singer in Jamaica and wanted to make it in America, so off he went:

"Johnny lef him dream fi a Old York scene

Start to live the American dream"

Part of that dream was to "meet a white ting sekkle inna Brooklyn", but "likkle more Johnny was freebasing."

And so began the long slide towards the inevitable, for a man who "looking better inna New York/En up sniffing coke inna Central Park." He ended up as just another temporary focus of a crowd on Brooklyn Bridge, bearing witness to someone else who has lost it in the concrete hell of New York.

Rikers Island

There is a part of New York that quite a few Jamaicans, unfortunately, end up at, which has lots of concrete. Cocoa Tea sings about it in Rikers Island, the commonly used reference to the prison on the island in the East River which was opened n 1932.

Cocoa Tea told The Sunday Gleaner in a previous interview that he recorded the song (which became the title song of one of his albums) at a time when the Jamaican posses were all the rage in the US press. He recorded the song in New York at Phillip Smart's studio in 1994, singing:

"The first time the youth, come a New York,

Them tell him youth, you mustn't skylark,

Learn a trade or go to school,

And don't you turn yourself

in a fool

But now him gone a

Rikers Island,

Him never waan go a

Rikers Island."

The famed Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour, dedicated in October 1886, and which ostensibly welcomes the "huddle masses, yearning to breathe free", has been sung about at length over and over and over. There is quite a different viewpoint on the lady, though, for those who have a hyphen between their ethnicity and American - especially African-American.

In his Grammy-winning album, Calling Rastafari, Burning Spear sings about the discrepancy between that monument to supposed freedom and the migrant experience:

"In the early fifties and sixties and seventies

America stretched forth her hands

And welcome us all

Yes we built and now they refuse us

Yes we can clean it and now they refuse

us ...

Statue of Liberty light up your torch

So we can see"

And there is yet another New York connection that some might not have made, between Tessanne Chin singing Bridge Over Troubled Waters on 'The Voice' and Central Park. There was a reggae segment in Chin's delivery of the Simon and Garfunkel classic - just as Paul Simon did in his concert (without Garfunkel) in Central Park, released as an album in 1991.