The Music Diaries | Few similarities between dancehall, past and present - Music miles apart in content, style, beat and message
The term dancehall has been around in the music business from as far back as the late 1950s. Back then, it referred to lawns, open-air spaces, or Lodge halls, where sound systems blared into the early hours of the morning the sound of Rhythm and Blues music from New Orleans and Jamaican Boogie and Ska recordings, mostly played from acetate or dub plates.
The trend continued into the Rocksteady era of the mid 1960s. It was a period of sweet harmony, devoid of the risquÈ lyrics, gunplay, and animosity that permeates current dancehall music. In the wee hours of the morning, when the mood became more sentimental, the slow R&B became the order of the night, and the rent-a-tile, a feature of the proceedings, as couples face each other, unlike the reverse positions that exists today. Crenolin and pedal pushers, were an integral part of ladies' dress code, and being called a 'gal' attracted no ill-feeling from them as the term at that time referred to a female reveller who was a regular at dances.
Unlike what currently happens, the start time for dances in the early days was about 8 p.m., and by midnight, the session would be in full swing, with Rock 'n' Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Jamaican Blues recordings by artistes like Louis Jordan, Roscoe Gordon, Shirley and Lee, Wynonie Harris, Theophilus Beckford, and Alton and Eddie dominating the scene.
The sound systems, quite understandably, became an integral part of the dancehall scene during the late 1950s and early 1960s. And although they performed at various venues, each set almost invariably became attached to a particular venue. Sir Coxson's Downbeat, owned by Clement Dodd, the Studio 1 boss, operated mainly out of Forrester's Hall at 21 North Street (currently a casket manufacturing business). Separated by Love Lane, Kings Lawn, an open area, stands almost adjacent to Forrester's Hall. Many stories have been told about dramatic musical confrontations between Downbeat and Duke Reid 'The Trojan' Sound Systems when they operate simultaneously from both venues.
In an interview with Herman McGregor, better known as 'Blind Bunny', who operated Downbeat's No. 5 set, he dramatised the scene: "From King Street to Church Street block, People come to hear the better music, and so them move from dance to dance as the two sounds tried to keep the crowd."
But to hold the crowd and remain exclusive was not an easy game. Coxson and Duke Reid made several trips to the United States via the farm work programme in search of hard-to-get vinyl recordings to compete against each other. The rivalry became so intense that the original titles and artistes were often scratched from record labels and replaced with bogus ones in order to derail competitors. Two of Coxson's treasured blues numbers - Later For The Gaitor by Willis Jackson and Sandiego Bounce by Harold Land, received this treatment and were renamed Coxson's Hop and Downbeat Shuffle respectively. They became his signature recordings. Duke Reid 'The Trojan' Sound System, with his signature theme song, My Mother's Eyes by Tab Smith, was also a regular fixture at Forrester's Hall and Kings Lawn. At the latter venue, The Trojan was crowned in the early 1960s by Rock 'n' Roll giant Fats Domino for his efforts in the sound system business. Earlier, Reid was also crowned 'King of Sound and Blues' at The Success Club, another popular dancehall venue situated at 63 Wildman Street in Kingston.
As a young boy living in the heart of 'roots and culture' at 130 3/4 Orange Street in Kingston, I was privileged to be among some of the happenings. I recall 'Tom The Great Sebastian' at Luke Lane and Charles Street and 'Nick The Champ' as two of the earliest sound systems. From my recollection, Duke Reid The Trojan followed, with Coxson coming on stream a couple of years later. Other notable sound systems of the day included Sky Rocket, Admiral Cosmic, V. Rocket, and The Voice of The People, owned by Prince Buster. Sound systems effectively replaced the mento bands that ruled dances and parties in Jamaica during the 1940s and early 1950s.
DANCEHALL VS SOUND SYSTEMS
Dance halls, however, outnumbered sound systems by almost 10-1. The next most popular dance hall would perhaps be Jubilee Tile Gardens, at 155 King Street (now a furniture manufacturing business). The Caterers Dance hall, situated at the top of Duke Street in an area called Manchester Square, was home to the V. Rocket Sound System, one of the toughest in the land. On any dance night at this venue, Margie Day's Midnight was anxiously awaited at the stroke of midnight.
There appears to be hardly any link between the dance hall of the past and the dancehall of the present, the former having to do mainly with logistics, while the latter is more concerned with a genre of music. Yet, some may argue that the early music, by virtue of it coming out of dancehalls, could be described as dance hall music.
But whatever way you look at it, they are miles apart in content, style, beat, and the messages they convey. We cannot, however, overlook the fact that Jamaica's early music, including ska, was the foundation on which all succeeding Jamaican musical genres were built, and as such, there has to be a connection, however minuscule.