Vintage Voices | Jamaican music and the Latin connection
Although not being considered a legitimate Jamaican music genre and having just an ephemeral lifespan, Latin rhythms occupied a very important space in Jamaican popular music during its formative years. Providing stiff competition to the other prevailing pre-ska genres like R&B and boogie, the genre was responsible for the success of several Jamaican number one hits – instrumentals and vocals. Just two years between 1960 and 1962 was enough to allow the dulcet tones of Latin-flavoured music to infiltrate the psyche of the nation by providing something quite out of the ordinary.
Some of the main Jamaican exponents of Latin music at the time were the bands – Luther Williams and His Orchestra; Kes Chin and The Souvenirs; Carlos Malcolm and The Afro Jamaican Rhythms and the incomparable Caribs, while vocalists Boris Gardiner, Teddy Brown and Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards were outstanding. Backed by The Caribs, Edwards’ contribution was far-reaching as he emerged from the shadows in majestic fashion with the number one hits, Your Eyes Are Dreaming, Whenever There’s Moonlight, Heaven Just Knows and Tell Me Darling – all done between 1960 and 1961 and cast in a ballad mould with heavily laced Latin rhythms.
The contribution of The Caribs cannot be taken lightly either. They were the main driving force behind this dramatic turn that Jamaican music had taken, and the prime influence that propelled it to national attention. Digging a little deeper beneath the surface, one will find that many prominent players in Jamaican music were not born in Jamaica. Cuba, Panama, Trinidad and Barbados accounted for quite a few. But sometimes the adoption of a music genre comes from the most unexpected places. On this occasion it came from Melbourne Australia, where three outstanding musicians – guitarist Dennis Sindrey, pianist Peter Stoddart and drummer Lowell Morris – emerged on the Jamaican scene in November 1958. They were performing then as a house band at a tourist hotspot, south of Brisbane, and they played mainly Latin music at the venue that was lined with palm trees. It influenced the club owner to name them Caribs.
The Jamaican episode really began in the mid-1950s when a member of the band – Max Wildman – while on a visit to the Caribbean, fostered some strong links with hotelier, businessman and Glass Bucket club owner, Abe Issa.
Issa, after learning of the band’s credentials, issued an invitation to Wildman to return with a house band to bolster the popularity of his waning nightclub, which had previously been Kingston’s most celebrated nightspot. The vaguely contrived arrangements led Sindrey to remark, “We had no contract, no idea of where we would play, what we’d be paid, or anything like that. But we wanted to travel, so we took a chance.”
They brought with them a music that was different from anything that was previously heard in the Jamaican context. “It has life, it has wings and its danceable urgings was irresistible,” one patron was heard to remark.
It was not surprising, because any avid Latin music enthusiast will agree that variations like samba, bossa nova, bolero, tango, mambo, rhumba and cha-cha, which all came under the Latin banner, all possess this danceable urge. It is interesting to note that Latin music originated in countries of Central and South America which speak Portuguese and Spanish. One source claims that, “The word ‘Latin’ in the South American context and, by extension, the music, has a lot to do with the European powers that dominated that region after the Columbus years. Spain and Portugal were considered Latin because of their languages which developed from the original Latin languages of the Roman Empire.”
Having said all of that, it will be easier to appreciate the impact that the music had on the Island. After the Glass Bucket tenure (1958-1959), The Caribs had a stint at The Myrtle Bank Hotel along Harbour Street in Kingston (1959-1962), followed by a residence at the Jonkanoo Lounge, inside the Sheraton Hotel, also in 1962.
Adding the boogie and R&B to their repertoire, the band, complemented by a bassist and a congo player, proved its versatility by backing some of the biggest hits of the period, including Laurel Aitken’s Boogie In My Bones, which sent the fledgling producer, Chris Blackwell, on the road to success. The flip side, Little Sheila, done in the Latin style, became one of the first Jamaican records to be issued in the United Kingdom. Worried Over You by Keith and Enid, with an exhilarating saxophone solo by Trenton Spence, and A Thousand Teardrops, by The Rhythm Aces, were immortal gems. But there was hardly anything that could touch Jackie Edwards’ Latin tempo infusion on Tell Me Darling as the singer serenaded a lover with:
Tell me darling, tell me you love me so.
Squeeze me darling, hold me, never let me go
Radio announcer with RJR, Charlie Babcock, had the lively I’ve Got A Feeling, with Sindrey featuring prominently, while Teddy Brown’s Pretty Little Baby and Beyond The Hills rode high on the Jamaican charts.
The Luther Williams Orchestra, the resident dance band at The Arawak Hotel in Ocho Rios, captured, perhaps the cream of the crop – 12 instrumental pieces – in his album Tropical Dance Party, while Kes Chin and The Souvenirs upheld the popularity of Latin-flavoured music in Jamaica with Caballo Negro and Don’t Speak To Me Of Love with vocals by Boris Gardiner.
The mercurial band leader and trombonist of The Afro-Jamaican Rhythms, Carlos Malcolm, added to the Latin music explosion by merging his early Latin influences with mento rhythms to create the hits Rukumbine, Bonanza Ska, Cut Munu and Coolie Gal.