J'can ballads dance to latin rhythm
Just before the euphoric rise of the thunderous Jamaican ska beat, there existed a stream of Jamaican recordings that drew heavily from Latin rhythms. Labelled by some scholars as Jamaican ballads, they emerged just at the turn of the 1960s and overlapped to some extent, the early years of ska in 1961. The infusion of Latin rhythms in those recordings created that extra lilt, which gave them a bounce that literally forced dancers onto a dancefloor, while simultaneously helping to shape the emerging ska beat. Mainly responsible for that paradigm shift, were bands like The Caribs, Kes Chin and the Souvenirs, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Carlos Malcolm and the Afro Jamaican rhythms and Luther Williams and his orchestra. On the vocal side, we had Laurel Aitken, Boris Gardiner, Teddy Brown, Wilfred Jackie Edwards and others.
Perhaps the most lasting contribution to the genre, came from the most unexpected place –Australia, when The Caribs band made a trek to Jamaica in November 1958, at the invitation of Hotelier, businessman and Glass Bucket Club owner Abe Issa, to do resident duties at his club. Keyboardist Peter Stoddart, guitarist Dennis Sindrey and drummer Lowell Morris, brought with them from ‘down under’, a music that was different from anything heard previously. Bolstered at different periods by the inclusion of bassist Steve Loutz, drummer Karl McLeod and congo player Cecil Scott, the group created ecstatic scenes at The Glass Bucket in Half Way Tree, (resident band 1958-1959), The Myrtle Band Hotel along Harbour Street in south Kingston (resident band 1959-1962) and The Jonkanoo Lounge, inside the Sheraton Hotel, now The Wyndham in New Kingston, where they were the resident band in 1962. In addition to playing some of the best Latin music and recording several great instrumentals, The Caribs, played on a number of early Jamaican pre-ska hits, including Laurel Aitken’s Boogie in my Bones, which sent a fledgling producer named Chris Blackwell on the road to success. There were others like, Worried Over You, featuring Trenton Spence on saxophone and Keith and Enid on vocals; A Thousand Teardrops, by the Rhythm Aces, and Tell Me Darling by Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards. The Caribs, with their latin-tempo infusion on this latter piece, created some danceable steps, while Edwards serenaded his lover with:
‘Tell me darling, tell me you love me so,
squeeze me darling, hold me, never let me go.
I love you darling, do you know I do?
I think of you, yeah yeah, wherever you go’.
Although the Latin-tempo music has become widespread, the genre in fact originated in countries of Central and South America which speaks Portuguese and Spanish. It has variations like, Conga, Samba, Bosanova, Bolero, Tango, Cha Cha, Mambo and Rhumba. The word ‘Latin’ in the South American context and by extension the music, has much to do with the European powers that dominated that region after Columbus: Spain and Portugal were considered Latin because of their languages, which developed from the original Latin language of the Roman Empire.
Stoddart, Sindrey and Morris brought their style of latin music to Jamaica, but there were other exponents that existed on the island, having also made valuable contributions to the Latin-tempo Jamaican recordings. Luther Williams and His Orchestra, perhaps epitomizes the best that the genre had to offer, with 12 instrumental, latin-tempoed gems captured on his masterpiece album, titled, ‘Tropical dance party at the Arawak Hotel’. They included, Tequila Mambo, Arawak Cha Cha, Merengue for Mary, Love me tender Cha Cha, Cha Cha in Jazz, Merengue over Jordan, Cha cha for Chuck and Oink-Oink Mambo. It were as if all the exciting Latin rhythms were combined in one album. Williams, a pianist with extraordinary ability and father of another well known keyboardist, Malorey Williams, was leader of the dance band, resident at The Arawak Hotel, Mammee Bay, Ocho Rios.
Kes Chin and the Souvenirs band also favoured the exciting Latin American rhythms, which they demonstrated in Caballo Negro, and the backing of Boris Gardiner on the vocal cut, Don’t speak to me of Love. In the recording, Gardiner, one of Jamaica’s best bassists, sings about the dangers of the three words - ‘I love you’.
‘Don’t speak to me of love, no one will ever break my heart
don’t speak to me of love, I’ve been telling you this from the start.
Only fools give their hearts away.
Three little words I’ll never say’.
Kes Chin and the Souvenirs also has the distinction of being selected to play for two royal occasions, the last being the Princess’ ball, during the 1962 Independence Celebrations.
Carlos Malcolm was another of the Latin rhythms genii of the early 1960s, who managed to merge his early latin influences with the musical traditions of the Jamaican mento to create a unique latin sound. Born in Panama to Jamaican parents, he grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. A trombone specialist, he launched Carlos Malcolm and the Afro Jamaican Rhythms in July 1962, at an explosive session above the Regal Cinema in Cross Roads, and shortly after became the most sought after band in Jamaica – truly one of Jamaica’s success stories in popular music. Laurel Aitken, also became a part of this musical explosion, when his latin-flavoured hit, Little Sheila, became one of the first Jamaican records to be issued in the United Kingdom. Aitken, like Malcolm, was born outside of Jamaican shores, in Cuba to be exact. Born of a Jamaican father and a Cuban mother, he migrated with his parents to Jamaica in 1938 at age 11.
Using the same latin formula, Teddy Brown created two of the most sought after records in early Jamaican music – Pretty Little Baby and Beyond the Hills, the latter being perhaps, the best arranged latin-tempoed vocal piece in Jamaican music, with superb lyrics:
‘Beyond the hills lies the valley,
beyond the valley lies the sea.
Beyond the sea lives my baby
who patiently waits for me.
Someday I’ll be on my journey
to sail the seas far away.
Then I’ll be with my baby, who patiently waits for me’.