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Singing about Shaka - Zulu's musical role changes from ugly to warrior

Published:Sunday | February 19, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Tarrus Riley

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

The blood of African kings runs in my veins

Here inna Jamaica, rebellious offspring

We've got a warrior spirit inside

From that time wi cyaa change

An dis ya warrior spirit inside

It come fi break every shackle an' chain

Man a Shaka Zulu pickney

Nkrumah pickney

Kunta Kinte pickney

- Shaka Zulu Pickney, Tarrus Riley

Last February, close to the start of the designated Black History and Reggae Month, singer Tarrus Riley presented the video for his song Shaka Zulu Pickney. Directed by Storm Saulter, the video places distinctively dressed African figures in the everyday Jamaican context, making for striking contrasts.

The song, produced by Roshaun 'Bay-C' Clarke, is on the hand drum dominated Nyabinghi rhythm. It has become a performance-opening song for Riley, much in the same way that Cocoa Tea tends to start with Rastaman Chant, a traditional Rastafari song made commercially popular by The Wailers.

Speaking to The Gleaner last February, Riley made his intentions in doing Shaka Zulu Pickney clear. "Upliftment is something that I'm about, and want to teach the youths in our society through music. Just like when I said, She's Royal and She's just a good girl, gone bad, people/youngsters gravitate to it easily and can relate to it quickly. So, in the Shaka Zulu Pickney song, we mention names like (Patrice) Lumumba, Nyabinghi, Bobo Shanti, Kunta Kinte, Kuma and such, for them to look on and research to find out who they are," Riley said.

As many dance to the beat and message of Shaka Zulu Pickney, it marks a significant musical turnaround in just under 25 years.

In the late 1980s, Major Mackerel did Pretty Looks Done, in which Shaka Zulu was used as a marker of physical unattractiveness. On the same rhythm as Admiral Bailey's Me a De Danger, it begins:

"Well young man if I ugly like you

I beg God wring out my face an' put it fi sun

Cause pretty looks done

An yu no get none"

By the middle of the first verse, he specifies Shaka as the marker of ugliness:

"When mi look pon di man mi haffi gallop an run

De bway fava pattoo cause one a Shaka Zulu son

De looks done an him no get none"

And in the chorus, Shaka is equated to a beast-like appearance:

"Cause Shaka Zulu him a Shaka Zulu

Shaka Zulu you fava Shaka Zulu

Yu ugly like a horse, like a pattoo

Snake, kangaroo ..."

Major Mackerel's song was not the only way in which Shaka the Zulu was introduced. The warrior king was also brought to the general Jamaican audience through a television series on the country's then sole free-to-air television station, Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation.

The Encava minibuses which started operating in Jamaica in the late 1980s were promptly dubbed 'Shaka', because of their perceived ugliness.

Henry Cele played Shaka, king of the Zulu nation from 1816 to 1828, in the 10-episode series.

In Great Kings of Africa, done with singers Dennis Brown and Ini Kamoze, poet Mutabaruka insists on Shaka the Zulu, saying:

"Now let no one fool you

Great was Shaka the Zulu

The British Army never did see

Such as fierce warrior as he"

Dennis Brown reinforces the warrior nature of Shaka, singing:

"See Shaka Zulu pon the corner

Him a de don inna de area

When de wicked dem a lick shot

Him no ramp fi lick it back"

Mutabaruka made the distinction between Shaka Zulu and Shaka the Zulu clear. "The man never name Shaka Zulu. He is Shaka from the nation of the Zulus," he said.

He puts Major Mackerel's equation of ugliness and Shaka down to ignorance. "We did demonstrate 'gainst that too," Mutabaruka said. The protest came in the form of calls to the radio station. "Them did stop play it," Mutabaruka said. "You show them reasoning. You show them look ya man, if South Africans hear dat, come een like joke. De place whe a fight gainst apartheid, Jamaica, the music help strengthen the liberation movement inna Zimbabwe an' South Africa, only to hear now a Jamaican artiste a come out an say ugly like Shaka Zulu, it woulda so weird an' strange."

"We did totally oppose it, we make we voice heard an' it make a difference."

The Sunday Gleaner asked Mutabaruka if, in the time span between Major Mackerel's Pretty Looks Done and Riley's Shaka Zulu Pickney, he has seen changes in attitudes towards being black in Jamaica. "Certain things we see, even though slow," he said.

Indigenous culture

Still, he said, "is almost a weird ting, because sometimes yu feel it a progress den suppen come up an it jus' regress. Like yu see certain functions a keep. For instance, them have a ting name Fi Wi Sinting. A 20-odd years Fi Wi Sinting a gwaan. The sister who keep it, she no use no reggae artiste promote de ting, is jus' indigenous culture. Nuff Rasta food an indigenous food an dem ting deh. It get bigger an bigger every year," he said.

Then, Mutabaruka said, "yu look pon a dancehall now an Yu hear a man now come wid all sort a craziness, daggerin' did come up, an yu say but it kinda ... . We schizophrenic in Jamaica," he said. He uses a woman's similarly enthusiastic reaction to American R&B oldies at Rae Town and a hardcore dancehall song to underscore his point.

However, he does not apply his schizophrenia theory - and, by extension, any concepts of ugliness around the portrayed character of Shaka Zulu - to the bleaching phenomenon.

"I no feel is because a man no like black him bleach, or them no confidence or value fi demself," he said, noting that many of the women he has observed have a lot of self-confidence to wear the clothing that exposes their supposed physical shortcomings.

"Is some serious confidence dem a run, if yu see dem all dung Princess Street," Mutabaruka said.

"Di bleaching ting is jus' anodda t'ing. Dem jus' deh deh. Ten years time dem stop do dat," Mutabaruka said. "Tings come an if yu fussy up yusself bout it yu coulda have heart attack ... . People can go roun' de place an talk bout bleach bleach, but it will fade away. An' I don't feel say even Vybz Kartel feel say him no black. To be honest, there is a DNA ting inna yu, no care how yu bleach if yu a watch a football match an' a white team an' a black team a play an' yu no know none a di team dem, yu waa di black team fi win," he said.

"An if yuh a look pon boxing an' a white man an' a black man a box, yu waan de black man fi win. Yu coulda bleach likkle more yu waah de black man fi win," he said, adding that he does not like bleaching, part of that coming from the fact that it disturbs the melanin and can kill.

Still, he said, the bleaching fad will fade "jus like de Afro ... . It nah go stay so all di while. Dem ago fin' a nex' ting fi do".