Ian Boyne | The Prince who was King
"On an island overflowing with exceptional talent on both sides of the mixing board, to suggest that just one man was the most influential is perhaps absurd, but if you took a poll, Prince Buster would inevitably win by a wide margin. From Judge Dread to rude reggae, Prince Buster left his imprint across Jamaica's musical landscape both as a singer and as a producer."
- MTV tribute
The death of the iconic Prince Buster, born Cecil Bustamante Campbell, could not pass without this column paying tribute. It cannot be left only to entertainment writers to acknowledge the seminal contribution of this man to Jamaican culture. Not when it is our music that has really put us on the world map, with Bob Marley still the most globally recognised Jamaican, even with Usain Bolt's present super-stardom. Prince Buster was to Jamaican music what Louise Bennett-Coverley was to Jamaican language.
At a time when Jamaican sound systems were merely couriers for American music (primarily rhythm and blues), Buster broke the mould, displayed an entrepreneurial daring and defiance that belied his class status, and took on the Big Three: The Duke (Reid), the Sir (Coxsone), and the King (Edwards). Prince Buster would go on to mock the three in songs called Three Against One and The King the Duke and the Sir.
Providence seemed to have favoured Buster. He was to go to America to buy records like Coxsone and Duke Reid to start his own sound system, but the day he should have left, using farm work as a guise, an immigration officer asked him to show his hands, and, after examination, concluded that those hands were not tough enough for the pickings in America. That door being slammed in his face, Buster, resilient soul but with no funds as a poor boy from Kingston, had to find a way to build his own sound system. With no pirated American songs, he had to create his own indigenous sound. That was how ska was born. In his nearly 600-page book, Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King, Lloyd Bradley chronicles the pivotal role Buster played in the development of Jamaican music.
"Because he couldn't cut cane, he had to cut some innovative rhythms of his own," Bradley says in his thrilling account of the history of the Jamaican sound. Bradley quotes Buster as saying, "When I couldn't get the visa to run up and down America like Duke Reid and Coxsone, it knock me back. I had already demolished the two in a street clash. I have the number one set, the number one disc jockey, Count Machuki, but I know I couldn't keep up the challenge if I had to rely on rhythm and blues. I have to have my own music. So I know I have to design a different musical sound, but something that was nothing to do with America."
Buster noted that our radio stations were dominated by rhythm and blues. Buster loved R&B. In fact, he knew it so well that he could sneak into Duke Reid's sessions while working with Coxsone and tell by listening which artistes were being played to go back to tell his boss Coxsone. But Buster was far-sighted enough to know that the craze for rhythm and blues locally would wane, as it was in America as that time. "So when I started making records, the chief idea was to push out that American thing. What I looked towards was the sound of the marching drum ... boom ... boom ... boom." He loved the revival sounds that would influence Rastafari expressions.
Buster also loved mento and was fascinated with the band music in the lodge and funeral processions. He loved the drums.
"I came with the same beat from the hand drum to the foot drum and tell Drumbago to play it like that. Then the guitarist, (Jah) Jerry, I show him how to play like that and have Ribs on tenor. So it's all still going with the march. And although I didn't know it then, this was ska." Buster was called a prince, but he was the King of Ska. (The prince he got from his boxing career.) He would go all over the world reminding his audiences at live concerts and in interviews again and again, "Ska is the mother and father of rocksteady and reggae."
And he was its creator, hence we must give honour where honour is due. It is a travesty that Buster only has an OD. Jamaica's cultural industries, principally its music, represent our greatest source of wealth and promotion of Brand Jamaica.
Buster faced much resistance, including from people like Coxsone and Duke Reid, who went on to make their own significant contributions, when he began promoting Jamaican music. It was the visionary and nationalistic Buster, who was known as Boop, who kept at it.
Let Prince Buster tell you in his own words as recorded in Bass Culture: "Coxsone ... Duke Reid. They didn't think it was good music at all. After those tunes were big hits on my sound system, they used to talk about how people were following Buster's little boop boop beat. They scorned it. They were jazz men at heart, and here I was, a likkle youth, coming with what they thought to be simple music. The only big man who support me was Edward Seaga. He wanted to see Jamaican music develop and he always gave support to those who were moving that way." In fact, Seaga was known in music circles then as ska-aga! Buster was always fighting against the odds, but he possessed the requisite fortitude, resilience, boldness, race confidence, bravado, and feistiness to beat those odds.
Prince Buster was a sound system man, record shop owner (beside my father's tailor shop on Charles Street first), producer, master arranger, singer, singjay, dancer. But he was more than an entertainer. He was a revolutionary, a visionary, a pioneer, a pathbreaker, a fierce nationalist. He was like Muhammad Ali, larger than his professional engagement.
He had a charisma and magnetism that always pulled people to him. He was truly, as his sound system was named, the Voice of the People. He came to Coxsone's attention as a teenager who was running down a notorious west Kingston badman after he had been attacked. Coxsone was moved by the boldness of this youth who could take on such a fight and immediately employed him.
Buster had been a boxer and acted as security for Coxsone, as well as a spy on rival Duke Reid, gate man for Coxsone's dances, and head cook and bottle washer. Buster was never afraid to blaze new trails. Buster was first in recording Nyabinghi drums when he recorded Count Ossie on Oh Carolina. How that monster hit, which was the second biggest Jamaican hit in Britain after My Boy Lollipop, came to be recorded through sheer persistence. Coxsone had booked the studio at the then Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation, only to turn up to see that Duke Reid had taken over the studio. Cut a long story short, he found a little room and recorded the Ffolkes Brothers with that hit still mashing up parties today.
Rolling Stone Magazine says in its tribute, "As a precursor to Bob Marley's mixture of Rastafari belief and music, Campbell paved the way for this combination of popular songs and spirituality."
Buster was to have a prodigiousness that was staggering, producing hundreds and hundreds of songs for himself and others.
Some of my favourites are the Judge Dread series, Madness, Enjoy Yourself, They Got to Go, They Got to Come, Wash Wash, Hard Man Fe Dead, Black Head Chiney man, Al Capone, Thirty Pieces of Silver, One Step Beyond, Time Longer Than Rope. I loved the humour of his Ten Commandments (of Man Given to Woman), though I deplore its sexism as his more offensively sexist Wreck a P...P. But I loved his anti-rude bwoy songs at a time they were sorely needed.
Prince Buster was an extraordinary Jamaican, a tribute to working-class creativity, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. He was fiercely independent, rejecting the Rastafarianism all around him and his home-bred Christianity for the Black Muslim faith, which he embraced in the early 1960s. Buster's mission was, says Bass Culture, to "represent sufferah culture on wax". That he did admirably. The King of Ska is dead. Long live the King!