Song originally a dubplate for Volcano Hi Power
Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
Prisoner Oval Rock is a staple in Barrington Levy's extensive rub-a-dub catalogue, a song that is made for steady rocking, slow marching on the spot in the slowed-down time of rolling basslines between black walls of speaker boxes.
The early 1980s song speaks about a dance at the Spanish Town Oval, which is very close to the Spanish Town Adult Correctional Centre. From Levy's descriptive lyrics, it seems safe to assume that he wrote Prison Oval Rock after attending (or performing at) a dance held there and seeing the reaction of the incarcerated to songs of freedom.
Levy first sings about the crowd at the dance, those who are free to come and go as they wish:
Some call it Spanish Town
A Prison Oval rock,
The people are skanking
While the daughter them wining
The rude boy them pripping,
And he sings about a number of dance moves from the period, which makes it appear as if Levy saw the crowd moving at the time and put his observations into words:
Wine slowly that a cool and deadly
Move lively that a horseman scabby
Then he moves on to those who would be able to hear the music, but not to move around as they would like to:
The warder are watching
While the prisoners are dancing
When they hear the music playing
However, Levy told Entertainment, he did not write Prison Oval Rock about what he saw, but what he imagined he would see.
"Prison Oval Rock is not really a song, is a dubplate for Volcano Sound," Levy said. "Is a big dance keep. Nuh Laing (Isaiah Laing of Sting promoters Supreme Promotions) keep da dance deh?" Levy said. Laing remembers. A Gleaner story in 2003, when Sting celebrated its 20th anniversary, records that Laing "actually started his show promotion career in 1976, when he put on dances at Spanish Town Prison Oval, with the immortal Volcano and Gemini sound systems. It was from there that one of Jamaica's most entrenched dancehall tunes came about - Barrington Levy's Prison Oval Rock.
"The prisoners came out and started dancing on the roof; they were lighting newspapers and Barrington Levy was just singing," he said, his eyes lighting up at the memory."
The reaction is etched in Levy's mind as well.
"Da dance deh was a huge dance over Prison Oval," Levy said. "Believe you me, my Lord, it shot!" he exclaimed.
In coming up with the lyrics, Levy said "this is what they told me - the dance a keep in a prison, down side a de prison".
Imagining the scene, he sang about what was to be - and, soon after, saw what he sang about become reality.
"That night at the prison, I never forget what go on. I see some breed a white merino come through the prison hole. I am telling you man, it was a sight," Levy said, remembering how the prisoners signalled their delight by pushing clothing through the ventilation openings.
He did not perform Prison Oval Rock at that dance. And he never re-recorded the song for general release - it is the made-for-sound system track which has become a dancehall classic.
"Is a dubplate for Volcano Sound, turn out to be a record," Levy reiterated.