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Grounation highlights extensive involvement of Chinese in J’can music

Published:Friday | February 21, 2020 | 12:00 AMMichael Reckord/Gleaner Writer
Tabby Diamond (left) and Lloyd ‘Judge’ Ferguson, vocalists of The Mighty Diamonds.
Two of the panellists on Sunday were brothers Christopher Irving (left) and Franklin Irving.
Renowned riddim king Lowell ‘Sly’ Dunbar speaks about his experiences at Channel One Studio.
Dr Dennis Howard, moderator, addresses the audience at the IOJ.
Herbie Miller welcomes the audience to Grounation 2020 at the Institute of Jamaica.

Though the Chinese involvement in Jamaican music is quite well known, many who have been attending Grounation 2020 at the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) have been learning and expressing surprise about its depth and breadth. The Ninth Annual Reggae/Black History Month four-weekend culture symposia at the institute have been focusing on that involvement under the theme ‘Blackhead Chineyman: The Chinese Contribution to Jamaican Popular Music’.

There have been two Sunday afternoon sessions so far. The opening one on February 9 was a lecture supported by pictures and music given by Herbie Miller, director-curator of the Jamaica Music Museum. His subject was producers and performers from pre-Independence decades to the present.

Last Sunday’s symposium dealt with the impact of Channel One Studio, founded and operated by the Hookim brothers – Joseph, Kenneth, Paul and Ernest. This Sunday, musicologist Clyde McKenzie is slated to moderate a panel exploring the contribution of Randy’s and VP Records, with the Jamm All-Stars band providing the usual post-discussion entertainment.

Miller spoke of the Chinese coming to Jamaica as indentured workers in the 1850s, opening corner shops on nearly every street and eventually getting into all areas of Jamaican life, including business, sports, law, politics and education. Their greatest contribution to our culture, he opined, was with music.

The first “serious production” of Jamaican music, he said, started with Stanley Motta’s recording mento. When Ivan Chen, proprietor of Chen’s Radio Service at Church Street, fell in love with the genre, he invited mento musicians to his shop late at night and started to record them. He produced hundreds of mento records, said Miller.

Miller also mentioned many other famous Chinese musicians and producers, including Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, the Mighty Vikings, Herman Chin Loy, producer and record store owner, and Thomas Wong (Tom the Great Sebastian, the first major sound system operator). Among those of modern times were songwriter and theatre producer Fr Richard Ho Lung, band leader Kes Chin, Jessica Yap, a violinist and medical doctor, and The Voice’s singing sensation Tessanne Chin.

He ended his talk with a call for the Government to provide a state-of-the-art, purpose-built performance space for musical productions.

Musicologist Dr Dennis Howard moderated the week two panel comprising celebrated drummer Lowell ‘Sly’ Dunbar, and two brothers who were part of the early Channel One team, Christopher and Franklin Irving. Christopher said that he was around “when the first block was laid” in 1971, and that the studio’s first hit song was Delroy Wilson’s It’s a Shame.

Other early hitmakers were Ken Boothe, the Soul Syndicate band and The Mighty Diamonds. The last named got their start in song recording when they went to Channel One desperate and about to give up on music after three years of rehearsing and getting nowhere with other producers.

Howard said that during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, a lot of the music producers were also sound system owners who put the information they got from dance halls to use in their studios. This practice helped to create Channel One’s special sound, he said.

He added that Channel One was an incubator and a laboratory, which, unlike other studios, allowed young musicians like Sly Dunbar to experiment with music and create unique sounds.

“Innovation thrived,” he said. “There was no barrier to becoming what you wanted to be.” This statement was supported by poignant testimonials from Lloyd ‘Judge’ Ferguson, songwriter and vocalist for The Mighty Diamonds, and Dunbar.

To frequent applause, Dunbar spoke of having the freedom and the time to experiment with innovative rhythms. He said: “We got freedom to play ... . Without that I wouldn’t be here ... I’m not the best drummer, I just play me ... I never been to a music school, I couldn’t’ afford it ... I’m really proud to be a Jamaican and play Jamaican music. All now, I’m searching for the answer to what people really like.”

Ferguson said that he left his government job to play with The Mighty Diamonds, but for years they couldn’t get produced and went to Channel One with a tape of songs to simply sell. Joseph Hookim said he’d buy the tape but still wanted to hear the group. This led to the band becoming famous.

Grounation 2020 wraps up on March 1 with a panel discussing the contributions of Justin Yap, Leslie Kong and Byron Lee.