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Volcano’s name remains in Levy songs

Published:Sunday | October 11, 2015 | 10:00 AMMel Cooke
Barrington Levy

The story of Jamaican popular music becoming a recorded product is a tale of glorious happenstance. The well-established and often-repeated story is that the earliest sound systems played imported R&B records, but when the American taste shifted to rock and roll, Jamaicans did not follow suit.

So instead of people like Clement 'Sir Coxson' Dodd and many others who went on the farm work programme scouring stores for cuts - rare and accustomed - to play in Jamaica's dancehalls, the sound system operators morphed into record producers, making one-off songs for exclusive use on their sound systems.

Lo and behold, persons who listened to the music at the sessions wanted copies for themselves (at least, those who had record players) - and so did other sound men, Jukebox operators and eventually, when the bias against Jamaican music was reduced, radio stations and a recording business was born.

Among the true innovators of that first popular Jamaican sound, ska, was Prince Buster with his Voice of the People sound system, who famously got Count Ossie and his drummers into the studio with the Folkes Brothers to create the seminal Oh Carolina.

The link between sound systems and record production has continued, driving innovations from the dub of King Tubby's in the 1970s, to the digital revolution of the Sleng Teng and King Jammy's (mid-1980s) and the move from live artistes on sound systems to strictly specials pushed especially in the combative arena by Silverhawk in the late 1980s.

 

unlimited access

 

It did not hurt that production duo Steelie and Clevie ran Silverhawk and had what appeared to be unlimited access to the top artistes of the time.

Although the link between sound systems (the definition of which is shifting) and record production seems to have weakened, a number of commercial recordings, which name check individual sound systems, preserve the historical link. Among them is Johnny Osbourne's In the Area (What a La La) on the Stalag rhythm, in which he sings, "What a la la/Papa Jammy in your area/ We will ram dancehall and we cork party/Papa Jammy superpower."

In a pair of songs, Barrington Levy makes the link between recording and sound system especially clear, putting the dancehall setting into the song text. In Under Mi Sensi, he describes the police intrusion into the dancehall where ganja is being consumed:

"After me stan up roun Volcano soun an a bun me ganja pipe

Babylon come and tell me dat no right

Mi say mi bun it and pass in on the right

Mi say dem come in an dem look pon Danny Dread

Dem say hey natty dreadlocks a whe yu come from?

Yu miss have two stick a sensi under yu tongue

Me say no officer Lord, yu mus be mad

He only smoke cigarette and strictly shad

Under mi sensi, me under me sensi ..."

In Here I Come (Broader Than Broadway) Levy sums up the performances on the sound system, naming the selector who is responsible for putting on the rhythms:

"When you go to Volcano it's like a stage show

You have man that sing, deejay and blow

Pull it Danny Dready oh."

 

form of promotion

 

The Volcano sound system and record label were owned by Henry 'Junjo' Lawes. In the book, Volcano Revisited: Kingston's Dancehall Scene 1983, Lawes puts his sound system ownership in the context of a radio station, although he was getting airplay for his records.

He said: "This Volcano Hi-Power business is a form of promotion, because if I release 10 tune dis week, I won't be able get all 10 a dem play on the radio. On my programme I can only play seven. So, to really get some help fe promotion, I come about dis sound. We play four nights a week. So it come in to me like a radio station."

Lawes was killed in a drive-buy shooting in London, England, in 1999. It is a country Lawes was in which at home, as a deal between his Volcano label and Greensleeves ensured a steady supply of his recordings, facilitating the establishment of performers like Yellowman and Levy.

In 2010, Greensleeves released the double-disc Volcano Eruption - Reggae Anthology, with not only the 40 tracks, but also a DVD about a pivotal sound system and record label run by as colourful a figure as has existed in Jamaican popular music.