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Keepers of the Heritage - Autobiography traces Jamaica's music evolution

Published:Sunday | March 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Paul H. Williams, Gleaner Writer

Errol Samuels was born in 1948 at Victoria Jubilee Hospital and grew up at various addresses in Kingston, except for the two years he spent in England from 1954 to 1956. It was a childhood of fun and adventures.

His father had an insatiable taste for a variety of music, including classical. At the time, the most popular types of local music were calypso and the mento beat. Surrounded by such influences, he is not surprised that he himself was bitten by the music bug.

"The love of music was nurtured in me during those early years and remains one of my indulgences to this day," Samuels writes in
The Triangular Route
, the autobiography of his first 27 years on Earth.

He liked calypso and mento because of their catchy tunes and, while he was in England, he listened to the haunting sounds of accordions and the wailings of Scottish bagpipes on Radio Luxemburg. He didn't like the then emerging rock and roll and, after returning to Jamaica, he started to listen to American rhythm and blues artistes such as Fats Domino and Johnny Ace.

But it was later in life he realised that most of the lyrics of mento contained double entendres. Just imagine a little chap singing along to '
what is catty?, Big Boy ask
', '
night food
', '
dig, dig water boy
', '
don't touch mi tomato
' and '
mek it tan deh goosey till a mawnin
'. He had not a clue, but he remembered mento entertainers such as Lord Flea and Sugar Belly.

In the late 1950s, Samuels realised the music being played on radio had a different sound, and Jamaican artistes were beginning to sound like the American rock and roll singers such as the then popular Bill Black and his combo. "The songs were unusual because they contained a hard staccato guitar riff that added compelling rhythms to the drum and bass lines," he says. "This type of syncopation, which is almost military in its sound, had not been heard on a pop record, at least not by the cognoscenti of Jamaican music."

the Memphis sound

It so happened that Bill Black had been the bass player in Elvis Presley's band, and he was later credited for inventing what came to be known as the Memphis sound. Jamaican recording artistes, he said, adopted the sound, put their own twist to it and dubbed it ska, "a description of the guitar sound, which was at the heart of the new music." Samuels asserted, "I was an avid listener and observer at the tender age of 10 and that is my take on how things went."

Ska dominated the local airwaves up to the mid-1960s with proponents such as Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, Jimmy Cliff, Alton Ellis and Ken Boothe being the main hit-makers. The Skatalites with Tommy McCook, Don Drummond and Roland Alphanso, took the beat to higher levels. "Theirs was a mighty sound, the awesome power of brass, accompanied by the drum and bass of Lloyd Brevett and Lloyd Knibbs," Samuels wrote. Bands led by Carlos Malcolm and Byron Lee were also in the thick of things.

Yet, ska's fast tempo was reduced somewhat around 1966 and it was now referred to as slow ska.

"Delroy Wilson's hit song,
I'm in a Dancing Mood
, and Hopeton Lewis'
Sounds and Pressure
led the change in direction. The music retained the pulsating beat, but at a slower pace," Samuels wrote. Even the dance moves changed to match the slower beats.

Slow ska segued "into a beat called rocksteady ... with the guitar doing more than simply laying down a staccato line. There was time enough to embellish the beat by adding layers of guitar sounds." It gave rise to improvised body rocks, with the head, shoulders and arms being very involved. With knees slightly bent, there wasn't much foot movement.

In the late 1960s, rocksteady gave way to reggae and the Jamaican music landscape was to change forever.

"The guitar resumed its original roll of carrying the rhythm. This time, however, with a double beat. The bass drum was now planted in the music's forefront and became the principal carrier of the beat, closely allied with the bass lines ... The music was sweet, made even sweeter by Bob Marley, Jacob Miller and Third World," Samuels said.

He's very much aware that there are people who will want to discount his account of how Jamaican music evolved but, he concluded, "I lived through and experienced the revolution and feel blessed to have witnessed a cultural shift of such dimensions."