Jamaican gospel makes the world watch
One of the features of Jamaican music has been the prevalence of spiritually oriented recordings, the type that many Jamaicans refer to as gospel or religious songs.
The phenomenon of which we speak emerged during the 1950s and was numbered among several popular Jamaican recordings that came close on the heels of the formation of Jamaica's recording industry.
The earliest of such songs saw artistes like Laurel Aitken, Otis Wright, Owen Grey, Wilfred 'Jackie' Edwards, Claudelle Clarke and Toots and the Maytals leading the genre, mainly with hand-clapping, feet-stomping and soul-searching recordings, carved in the R&B, boogie and ska mould.
They were unforgettable recordings that remained etched in the memory of the religiously conscious music lover.
Following the pioneers were artistes like Carlene Davis, Sandra Brooks, The Grace Thrillers, Papa San, Lieutenant Stitchie and Marva Providence have perpetuated the genre with quality gospel recordings which, when compared to the earlier set, have taken on more international and commercial value.
It is the belief of some that such recordings have helped to paint Jamaica as a high-profile religious nation, and when this is added to the Jamaican record of having the most churches per square mile, it contrasts heavily with the high murder rate.
Perhaps one of the earliest Jamaicans to record pop-flavoured gospel recordings was the Cuba-born Laurel Aitken, who migrated to Jamaica with his Jamaican father and Cuban mother in 1938 at age 11.
Among the recordings were three done in the pre-ska, shuffle mode titled, Brother David, Mighty Redeemer and Judgement Day, in which he sought answers to the question:
What you gonna do on the
you can't rock and roll on that
all you gotta do is kneel and
A very versatile performer, Aitken's early career saw him singing calypsos to tourists at Kingston Harbour on behalf of The Jamaica Tourist Board during the early 1950s.
He created history in 1958 when his recording of Little Sheila, became the first Jamaican single to be distributed in the United Kingdom on Chris Blackwell's Island label.
A double A-sided single, its flip side Boogie In My Bones also created history by becoming the first Jamaican recording to top the Jamaican charts.
Not many people under the age of 30 may know Otis Wright, a multi-talented Jamaican performer who helped to put Jamaican gospel music at the forefront of several places in the United States.
Doing most of his early recordings (all gospel) for female producer Sonia Pottinger's Glory label, he employed a hand-clapping, foot-stomping style which had even churchgoers dancing to its infectious beat.
Coming to prominence in 1966 with his first hit, Twill Soon Be Done, which was an overseas sensation, Wright followed up with Home Once More, Someday, Feel The Spirit, Leave Babylon, and perhaps his best-known recording, The Man of Galilee, at one time rated one of the top two gospel songs in the world. In it, Wright confessed:
I love that man from Galilee
for He has done so very much for
He has taken all my sin
placed the Holy Ghost within.
Claudelle Clarke has truly been the outstanding female pioneer in the pop gospel genre. She confessed to have started as a secular singer, hanging out at Studio One with luminaries like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Alton Ellis, before doing her first single titled Seven Days Make One Week, for the Treasure Isle label, at age 13.
After being commissioned by the Lord, Clarke recorded the tracks, Just as I Am, He Touched Me, I Saw The Light, After All, Turn Your Radio On, and others, which popularised her work and talent, transforming her into a traditional household Jamaican gospel singer.
Branching out into live performances, Clarke's ministry spanned the parameters of the Canadian landscape and beyond by the end of 1990, while she received several distinguished awards and titles, including 'Queen of reggae gospel'.
Utilising the pulsating ska beat with the Skatalites band at the helm, Toots and the Maytals electrified the music scene with unparalleled gospel-tinged recordings like Sixth and Seventh Books, He's Real, Love Divine, and Prayer Is My Daily Food, for Studio One in the early 1960s.
Also at Studio One, Jackie Opel, followed suit with Solid Rock and I Thank You, before hopping over to the Top Deck label with The Lord Is With Me, and Valley Of Green.
Back at Studio One, Clancy Eccles had the Rastafari-influenced River Jordan while Owen Grey joined the fray with Sinners Gonna Weep And Mourn.
Father Holung and Friends seemed to be on the same trend when he warned sinners:
You're going to hell.
master you've taken leave of
man you're good as dead,
sitting in the sunshine, bathing
in your well,
watching all the sufferers in hell.
With Sandra Brooks at the helm, The Grace Thrillers became very popular in gospel music during the 1980s and 1990s with soul-searching renditions like Can't Even Walk and Down On My Knees, while Marva Providence had a big hit with the revivalist-sounding, Hear My Cry Oh Lord.
Max Romeo, whose recordings, almost invariably depicted spiritual leanings, warned in his recording of Every Knee Shall Bow And Every Tongue Confess that;
The coming of Jah is near.
If you have eyes, you will see,
and if you have ears, you will
In more recent times, artistes like Royal Roots, Lieutenant Stitchie, Chevelle Franklyn, Prodigal Son, Carlene Davis, Judy Mowatt and others have contributed to the proliferation of gospel reggae.
With Jamaica being a land of contradictions, the very rich at one end of the social ladder, and the very poor at the other end; the best, in terms of its athletic and musical achievements, and the worst through the notoriety of its gangsters, drug lords and scammers, it is not surprising, therefore, that song lyrics have followed the same trend, with lewd, slack and suggestive lyrics permeating recordings down the years, contrasting strongly with gospel-oriented recordings.