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Collectors record Jamaica's music history
published: Sunday | May 11, 2008

Winston Sill/Freelance Photographer
Monty Blake (right), Winston Blake (centre) and Craig 'The Young Lion' Ross of the Merritone family.

Krista Henry, Staff Reporter

Some persons capture special moments on film, others in personal memories, but for some a good record can take them back into that golden moment. Record collecting is a pastime for millions of music fans the world over, and. in Jamaica, there are people who have acquired close to the ultimate music collections.

The Sunday Gleaner speaks with a few of the noted Jamaican music collectors in different genres and different professions. Sound system operator Winston 'Merritone' Blake's music collection is a 'national treasure', with music dating back to the days of early Jamaican music. Having begun collecting music in the 1950s, Blake happily describes himself as a music addict, addicted to buying and collecting records. According to Blake, he has never tried to count the number of records in his possession, but he has four to five bedrooms full of records.

Forty years after the discontinuation of 78 rpm records, Winston Blake has between 2000 and 3000 of them in his possession.

A love for music is what drives the Merritone family to their large collection having grown up in a family that has a passion for music. "My father got started commercially in music in 1950 and before that our home was alive with music from the gramophone we had. When we were in Morant Bay our house was known as the house that had the best in music. In the early days when they were importing rhythm and blues into Jamaica, persons would give us a call and no matter where we were in the island we would go and buy records," he said.

His desire to have the cutting edge in music is what drives Blake to accumulate his large collection. He elaborates that "my collection is extremely diversified. I love jazz, rhythm and blues; we're lovers of classical music and nobody knows that Jamaican music has a strong affiliation with Latin music. We have that, African music and more. Music is my life."

Blake has some of the rarest records in Jamaican music including the first recorded Jamaican ska song by Simms and Robinson, Another Chance. According to Blake early producers have to come to him for albums they produced that they themselves don't have. Now, Blake estimates that his collection is valued between one million and US$2 million.

National treasure

As for Blake's plans for his collection, he says "I have instructed my family that until the Jamaican officials sort themselves out and I'm sure that I can give them and they will take care of it (his collection), and treat it like a national treasure then my family is to keep it. I can't give them and they haven't shown me they can take care of it, and it don't walk out".

Outside of the selecting arena, there are those who pursue music through collecting. Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga went from being one of the most important and successful producers and record company owners in Jamaica into politics. In the late 1950s, he supervised the recording of an album of ethnic music on the Folkways label, a project that grew out of scholarly research that he'd been engaged in. This whetted his appetite to do more with music and in the process he acquired his own collection of music.

"First of all, it came about not by design but by circumstances. I was doing research work on religious, spirituals and cult revival. I ended up recording quite a volume and wanted to have an album done. I prepared the music and people began to enjoy it, record shops started to asking about the music and I ended up providing them with music. I was in the process of changing from research work to something else, so I began to import records for music stores and I decided to manufacture music," he says.

Eventually, Seaga became an agent for the international music company Columbia Records, which gave Seaga his first vinyl. According to Seaga, he helped institute the use of vinyl records in Jamaica, which resulted in more artistes doing recordings, getting airplay and helped to jump-start the business. He explains that "before vinyl you had acetate. People who had sound systems used it to produce acetate of songs.

Total control

At the time, they would have total control of the tune and no one else had it, which was a big thing cause acetates were not available to the general public. Vinyl could go on air to be bought by general public".

Seaga founded his own label, WIRL (West Indies Recording Limited) and among his first signings was the Trench Town singing duo of Joe Higgs and Roy Wilson. WIRL scored a huge hit in 1959 with their first single, Manny O. When Seaga left Columbia Records as their agent the company gave the young producer a collection of music that he still has today. According to Seaga, he collects a lot of vinyl in genres such as folk music, spiritual music, Jamaican popular music and regular popular music.

After giving a lecture at the University of the West Indies on the origins of Jamaican traditional music, which he claims that few persons know about, Seaga decided to release a CD on the traditional folks music. "Most people who write books on Jamaican popular music write about the artistes and the songs. They don't collate that with the time and why they became popular," he says. Seaga is working on getting his CD released.

Music lover, and CEO of Super Plus supermarkets, Wayne Chen, has over 5000 CDs and 1500 vinyl records in his constantly growing collection. A self-proclaimed old school type of guy, Chen does not download music, but prefers to buy what he likes before everyone else.

Chen's collection

Chen's collection encompasses all genres from rock, jazz and reggae to dancehall. He is fond of listening to Wyclef Jean, older reggae artistes such as Peter Tosh and even admits to listening to singjay Mavado on occasions.

He tells The Sunday Gleaner that "the first album I ever bought was The Harder They Come after seeing the movie in 1971 when I was 12 years old. The second album I got was Cat Stevens' Tea For The Tillerman, because I had a Venezuelan friend who had the album and I had never heard anything like it".

According to Chen, he grew up in a family who loved music, from his mother, who collected Broadway musicals, to his father who was an admirer of jazz, and his cousins who listened to a lot of Jamaican music. Chen shares his musical knowledge with his children and persons who know of his love for music may stop by. He says, "I don't download. If I see a new artiste I like I listen on Youtube then go out and buy it. I'm sure there are stuff I have that might be hard to find now, but I don't go out and look for rare stuff."

Other popular figures rumoured to be avid music collectors include former Minister of Finance Omar Davies, dub poet Mutabaruka and Kingston Mayor Desmond McKenzie.

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