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From music to the army and back again

Published:Tuesday | November 1, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Howard Campbell, Gleaner Writer

For many teenage boys in the 1960s, making it in Jamaica's growing music business was a way out of poverty.

Linval Thomas belonged to that demographic, but after cutting just one song for producer Cecil 'Prince Buster' Campbell he immigrated to the United States.

Thomas spent more than 20 years in the United States Air Force, leaving in 1997 with the rank of senior master sergeant. Nine years ago he resumed the music career he abandoned more than 40 years ago.

Known as Ashaka, the Belleville, Illinois-based singer recently completed a six-song EP (extended play) featuring the title track, Ooh, Ooh Girl and Save Darfur. The set is completed by Belt-Up and accompanying rhythm tracks.

Even though he first recorded in the rock steady era of the late 1960s, Ashaka says he is in tune with contemporary sounds which can be heard on the EP.

"Ooh, Ooh Girl is lovers rock with some dancehall while Belt-Up is a hip-hop song looking at the culture of sagging pants and the outrage expressed by parents," he said.

Save Darfur is a message number dealing with the warfare and suffering in that east African country.

Growing live reggae scene

According to Ashaka, Save Darfur and Ooh, Ooh Girl have enjoyed some traction on regional radio in Belleville and nearby St Louis, Missouri where there is a growing live-reggae scene.

"It has attracted attention from as far away as the United Kingdom, resulting in a European-wide distribution deal with Stringbean International Records," said Ashaka.

Stringbean International Records is a leading distributor of dancehall and reggae in Britain.

Ashaka was born in Fletcher's Land, a community that has produced outstanding acts like Prince Buster, ska singer Patsy Todd of Stranger and Patsy fame, and Gregory Isaacs.

He said his first recording, Bachelor Boy, was done for Buster when he was 13 years old. It was his only studio output in Jamaica as he left for the US in the early 1970s.

Even while he was in the US military, Ashaka says the music of his heroes was always close. The sounds of Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Albert Griffiths of the Gladiators, Horace Andy and Marcia Griffiths were never far away.

Ashaka's debut album, Time, is scheduled to be released in December.