Wed | Apr 1, 2020

Dancing to the ‘Hong Kong Flu’ - The Ethiopians’ song about deadly virus a hit in Jamaica

Published:Friday | February 21, 2020 | 12:14 AMYasmine Peru/Senior Gleaner Writer
When much-loved horse, Long Shot (right), died at Caymanas Park in 1969, the Pioneers put his demise to song.
Tommy Cowan

The thought of singing and dancing to a song about the coronavirus may not be particularly alluring, and would probably be seen as drastically downplaying the seriousness of the dreaded virus, which has already killed 2,000 persons. However, half a century ago, Jamaican harmony group, the Ethiopians, had a popular song about another deadly virus, the Hong Kong flu. In 1968, a global outbreak of influenza, which originated in China, was called the Hong Kong flu. It reportedly started in July of that year and lasted until 1970. The flu resulted in over one million deaths.

The late Leonard Dillon and Stephen Taylor (who predeceased Dillon) of the Ethiopians, however, left the world with a song that details the harsh effects of the virus. When music analyst and commentator, Clyde McKenzie, was asked about the song, he immediately started singing, “ Some say it’s dengue fever, but I know it’s Hong Kong flu. I was very young then, but I remember that it was a big hit. It was a very popular song,” he said. And yes, people danced to it.

But that, Mckenzie said, didn’t dilute the impact of the epidemic on the psyche of Jamaicans. “People danced to Hong Kong Flu, but the underlying issues were pretty serious. There was a lot of panic and people thought it was pretty deadly. But singing about it meant that it was important. In those times, the artistes were commentators on the news of the day and they would put in their five cents worth. They had the pulse of the people and knew what were the social issues that would resound,” McKenzie said.

Cultural music

Glory Music CEO, Tommy Cowan, remembers the Hong Kong flu – both the song and the epidemic – quite well. And for him, putting the virus to music is cultural, rather than an attempt to trivialise or joke about something of major importance. “Being able to sing about things like that come from deep within our culture. Some would find it strange that people would dance to it, but singing and dancing our way out of pain is who we are as a people. Bob Marley says that when the music hits, you feel no pain,” Cowan said, as he repeated some of the song lyrics.

Some say it’s dengue fever/I know it’s Hong Kong flu/If it tek set/You will mawga down/It’s a killer, whoa oh, aha/It’s terrible and dreadful, man/You have to rub up, rub up with a Kananga wata/Rub up, rub up with a Kananga wata.

Both McKenzie and Cowan pointed out that the virus wasn’t the only serious happening that was put to song, and hit. They recalled separately a very popular song by the Ethiopians, called Everything Crash, which spoke to the political climate in which there were a lot of strikes from various public-sector workers, and Alton Ellis’ Dance Crasher, which was directed at the brewing violence at dances. And, they also mentioned that upon the death of a horse named Long Shot, a song was made detailing the tragic incident in a very catchy and danceable way.

Long Shot Kick De Bucket was a song about a horse that Jamaicans loved so much that they sang about his death. Everybody was aware when Long Shot died and that song became a big hit,” Cowan said. Performed by leading Jamaican trio, the Pioneers, the song told of the sudden death of Long Shot at Caymanas Park. Long Shot Kick De Bucket went on to become one of the label’s – Trojan Records – earliest UK chart hits, peaking at No. 21 on the Official UK Singles Chart. The track has since become a skinhead anthem.

According to McKenzie, songs such as the Hong Kong Flu served one of the functions of music, which is to tweak serious issues in a way that simplifies and makes them memorable. “In this day, you don’t have anything that carries that broad appeal. There is no national issue that has everybody talking. People nowadays have their own niche. In those days, everybody was getting their news from the same source, RJR news. The Hong Kong flu was a very big issue and it captivated everybody, regardless of age. The fact is that we are not as galvanised by any one issue now,” he said.