Legends of Ska on the Move

I wrote some time ago here about the documentary film Legends of Ska.  Here’s an update for those ska fans who wish to stay abreast of the genre and its legends. Read more here http://www.grammymuseum.org/events/detail/reel-to-reel-legends-of-ska#.VG9ZFoCgaWc.twitter

Let’s Do the Rocksteady

I have become a regular reader of Heather Augustyn’s work. This fascinating piece on rocksteady is worth a read so I republish it here for those with an interest in Jamaican music and performance practice…

A few months ago I shared the advertisements that Ronnie Nasralla had made showing how to dance the ska. These advertisements pictured himself with Jeannette Phillips along with dance steps, five of them to be exact, and they appeared on the back of Byron Lee & the Dragonaires’ albums, and in the Jamaica Gleaner and the Jamaica Star newspapers for five sequential weeks. These dance steps were also demonstrated at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York and at various events in the United States during that year, by Ronnie & Jeannette, Sheila Khouri Lee, and other dancers who brought the ska to the world. You can see these advertisements and read about them here.

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So when I saw the back of this Byron Lee album, I realized that a similar approach was taken a few years later with the rocksteady, and it got me wondering about the dance steps for this genre that came in 1966 to 1968.

Ronnie Nasralla is this time photographed with a different female dancer, perhaps because Jeannette Phillips had gotten married, although I am not sure who the new dancer is, so if anyone knows, please comment below.

The dance steps are as follows:

 

 

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B

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D

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F

G

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dance steps are described on the back of the album, so put on your dancing shoes and get ready.

One step shuffle — completely relax then sway your body from right to left sliding on your feet, allowing your hands to sway from side to side (A) following your hip movement. The shoulder must be raised and tucked under the chin. This shuffle is done all around the dance floor with couples swaying in and out of each other.

Stamp one foot at the same time bending both knees (B). Come up wriggling the body very loosely, then extend the foot which you did not stamp to the side (C). Repeat using other foot going to other side. This is done facing your partner. A variation of the step is shown in (D) where the leg is placed forward then backward instead of to the side. The girl does the reverse by placing her leg backward when her partner places his leg forward. When the leg is placed forward you lean back, and when the leg is placed backward, you lean forward. Remember: loosely wriggle your body when coming up on each stamp.

A bouncing one step action like marching with the body bobbing at least two beats to every step (E). The whole body is loose with the hands very limp up about chest high. This is a continuous action with the partners “marching” and bobbing all over the dance floor.

A variation to this step is when the right leg is placed across the body (F). Then you press back by placing the left or back leg further behind at the same time, leaning forward from the waist (G). You continue by stepping to the right, then left, then ready to repeat. The same marching action is continued during this, only with the hands swinging alternately to maintain balance.

The “Rock Steady” dance is probably the most relaxed dance ever done — the whole body at all times must be loose & “oily” and partners never touch each other. They get on and leave the floor together but once on the floor, everyone dances with everyone, getting into the spirit of the Rock Steady beat which is sensuous, heavy and throbbing. The lyrics are so catchy that they are sung by everyone while dancing.

Alton Ellis recorded his hit “Rock Steady” for Duke Reid in 1967. The lyrics gave a few tips on how to dance the rock steady, whose steps were more smooth and fluid than the ska since the tempo and energy were more subdued as well.

Better get ready
Come do rock steady, ooh
You got to do this new dance
Hope you’re ready
You got to do it just like uncle Freddy
If you don’t know

Just shake your head, rock your bodyline
Shake your shoulders, ev’rything in time
Then see
Oh-oh-oh-oooh-oh-ooh

You got to shake your shoulders

Better get ready
Just to do rock steady, yeah
You got to do this new dance
Just like Freddy
You got to do it just like uncle Freddy
If you don’t know it

Shake your head, rock your bodyline
Shake them shoulders, ev’ry thing in time
Then see
Oh-oh-oh-oooh-oh-ooh

You got to shake your shoulders

Now you’re ready
Let’s do rock steady, yeah
You got to do this new dance
Now that you’re ready
You got to do it just like uncle Freddy
Now that you know it

Shake your head, rock your bodyline
Shake your shoulders, ev’rything is fine
Now see
Oh-oh-oh-oooh-oh-ooh

Ev’ryone, oh dance

Hopeton Lewis’s “Rock Steady,” recorded in 1967 for Merritone, also offers a few instructions for the rock steady dance:

People get ready
This is rock steady
Keep those dancin’ shoes on
Keep those feet movin’
People are you ready?
This is rock steady

Shoulders jerkin’
Heads are movin’
Hear the beat now
Move your feet now
Then go steady
If you’re ready
People are you ready?
This is rock steady

Shoulders jerkin’
Hips are movin’
Hear the beat now
Move your feet now
If you’re ready
Go rock steady
People are you ready?
This is rock steady

People get ready
This is rock steady
Keep those dancin’ shoes on
Keep those feet movin’
People are you ready?
This is rock steady

Although it offers no actual dance steps, Dandy Livingston’s “(People Get Ready) Let’s Do Rocksteady,” recorded in 1967 for King Edwards’ Giant label told us, “When you’re feeling blue, you know just what to do, do rocksteady, uh-huh.” There’s the Uniques’ “People Rocksteady” where Slim Smith sings, “Out in the moonlight we will dance.” And there were plenty of other songs that referenced the genre but not too many that gave us the dance steps we needed to do the dance, possibly because the era of the twist and mashed potato and stroll were now passé.

Share your thoughts on the rocksteady dance below, especially any memories from the days when it originated.

‘Dances are Changing’: Barrington Levy Tells It

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From the various ska moves to the jiggy dancehall varieties there is much to see, experience and learn of Jamaican dance moves. A fascinating encounter with Dr. Dennis Howard recently reminded me of the very powerful historical record that lies in the recordings of reggae and dancehall. We were discussing Johnny Osbourne and Barrington Levy recordings, both of which came as proof to counter various arguments regarding the emergence of music and dance varieties / genres.

‘Its strange how the dances are changing,

but its only bubbling that the young girls love plenty of,

Sharon mi waan yuh fi bubble wid me,

Carol mi waan yuh fi dance wid me

Audrey mi waan yuh fi skank wid me,

Shoulder Move, Body Move, Butterfly

nuh tell no lie…’

Barrington Levy says he wants ‘Carol fi chuku chuk chuk, and Sharon fi chaka chak chak.’ Mention today of such dances would be foreign words to the younger ‘daggering’ generation. For most familiar with dancehall, the butterfly would immediately bring images of the 1992 dancehall scene with Carlene ‘The Dancehall Queen’  at the centre of the aesthetic that was later immortalised in the film Dancehall Queen.

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What shouldn’t miss one in the song however is that the dance butterfly mentioned in this 1983 recording confirms that it existed before both Bogle’s and Carlene’s claims to have invented the dance. In fact, Carlene’s less believable story is that she was sitting in Central Park, NY, when observation of a butterfly in flight precipitated her creation in two phases.

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Barrington Levy – Dances Are Changing

Yes, according to Barrington Levy, dances are changing, but in reality they are within the body memory and collective dance repertoire waiting to emerge. Examples from limbo to butterfly are known, not to mention the classic and frequent ‘versions’ of many nameless moves.

As to the ‘lay the block’ and ‘lay the rim’ varieties we have witnessed in the last few months within events such as Famous Wednesdays, more on that later…. Stay tuned.

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Original Ska Dance – Did you know?

Did you know the Ska dance as it has come to be known was manufactured?

Watch this video to see the result of watering down the fancy complicated footwork of the legsmen. It was Ronnie Nasralla who re-engineered ska’s improvisational brilliance into an easily accessible move back in the day when there was an attempt to market the music and moves on the pop / rock / rock ‘n’ roll scene in the United States of the America.

‘Retrospecting’ Musically: The Link Between Ska, Toasting, Hip Hop and Dancehall

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Years ago when I was doing research for my Ph.D. in Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies focussed on Jamaican dancehall culture, I became aware of the inextricable link between dancehall and hip hop. The well known story is that DJ Cool Herc’s Jamaican upbringing, his migration to the United States where he settled into a Bronx, New York music scene, and the transplantation of the toaster / DJ / mic chanting aesthetic constitutes a huge link in the flow of rhythms and performance aesthetic which produced rap and hip hop.

This is what is popularly known of Herc, and said by Franklin Bruno @HUMANFRANKLIN in this way:

“It’s the early 1970s, you’re DJ KOOL HERC (Clive Campbell, born 1955) and you’ve just invented the breakbeat, a key element of hip-hop. A West Indian immigrant weaned on Trenchtown sound-systems before moving to the Bronx with his family at age 12, Herc’s turntable technique scorched the dance floor, as intended — but it also facilitated the extension of DJs’ traditional between-song exhortations into MC’ing — that is, rapping — as we know it. And there’s the rub: though Herc dabbled in Jamaican-style “toasting,” he was neither a rapper at heart nor a nascent producer, and he was eclipsed, as early as 1977, by such worthy contemporaries as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, who took his innovations — and crews of vocalists — into the studio. Herc, however, never made a record of “his own,” and while he remains an active live DJ, especially in Europe, he has never enjoyed the financial fruits of the seed he planted. Unfair? Yes. But then, Prometheus never managed to monetize his gift to humanity either.”

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What is less said and known is the connection between African American forms of toasting and how they influenced Jamaican DJs such as U Roy before Herc could even master a turntable. This is what I say in a paper entitled ‘Negotiating a Common Transnational Space’ published in the journal Cultural Studies:

Gilroy (1993) highlights transnational music cultures from nineteenth century singers to Hip Hop, Reggae and Rap in referencing ships, sound systems, phonographs, vinyl and other technologies that facilitate crossing. Closer to home, [there’s] Chude-Sokei’s (1997) reading of [transnational impulses created by] ‘Ragga’ sound…. When one considers the movement of Jamaican DJ style, its antecedents and influence, the case of the Reggae and Dancehall transnation is effectively made:

“[Jamaican DJ] U-Roy’s prime historic place…is not only the fact that he more than any other picked up, translocated and transformed [African American DJ Jocko] Henderson’s techniques, shifting them out of the radio and recording studios into the streets, then back again, but also in the fact that he in turn provided the model for the expatriate Jamaican Sound Systems that would take over The Bronx in the early 1970s and eventually form the foundation for Hip hop and rap. “Your Ace from Space”, as an expression and a cultural marker, establishes and signifies the transversal cultural history that unites African American and Jamaican popular culture across a half-century, from Henderson to Beckford to The Bronx and on to Shaggy on one hand, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard [ODB] on another, ODB being a straight incarnation of late 1960s Beckford” (Olu Oguibe, email communication, February, 25, 2005).

My sincere thanks to Olu Oguibe and Annie Paul who put me in touch with him in the first place. The earlier iteration of these ideas were published in Stanley-Niaah, S. and Niaah, J. (2006) “‘Ace’ of the Dancehall Space: A Preliminary Look at U Roy’s Version and Subversion in Sound”, Social and Economic Studies special issue on popular culture, 55: 1&2, pp. 167-189. Check out the entire issue for some other cool articles.
Another link in the equation is Heather Augustyn’s articulation of the link between toasting and ska. In ‘Pick It Up, B-Boys! The Toasting/Hip-Hop Connection’ she makes the connection to ska in a fundamental way and I quote from this recent blog post of hers to extend the conversation about genealogies thus far under-explored in the ethnomusicology landscape. She asks some crucial questions. Let us both know what you think.

My good friend Michael Turner recently found and posted the above rare clip of King Stitt toasting on his Roots Knotty Roots page and I wanted to pass it along and write about it here. This particular clip interested me because I have been researching the link between toasting and early hip hop and wanted to take a few minutes to elaborate and solicit your thoughts.

King Stitt Rare Clip

As Buster Brakus notes in this clip, the backing band is Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. He notices Carl Brady on percussion who is a life-time member of Byron Lee & the Dragonaires and possibly Marvin Brooks on tambourine. Brakus says that Clancy Eccles told him that Eccles and King Stitt performed a lot with Byron’s band.

What interests me most is toasting as an art form. Count Machuki first began toasting for Tom the Great Sebastian and then came to work for Coxsone since he was skilled at attracting a crowd and keeping the crowd. Machuki says that he was so desired by the crowds that they were disappointed at the recorded version of the live performance, solidifying the concept that ska is very much a live experience. In The Rough Guide to Reggae, authors Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton quote Count Machuki. “There would be times when the records playing would, in my estimation, sound weak, so I’d put in some peps: chick-a-took, chick-a-took, chick-a-took. That created a sensation! So there were times when people went to the record shop and bought those records, took them home, and then brought them back, and say, ‘I want to hear the sound I hear at the dancehall last night!’ They didn’t realize that was Machuki’s injection in the dancehall!”

“Toasting was developed by the sound-system operators,” writes Mohair Slim. “To emphasis the music’s rhythm, the DJs chanted staccato noises over the top of the instrumental tracks that were the staple of the early dancehall. A common technique was the rapid-fire repetition of words, like “ska-ska-ska” or “get-up-get-up-get-up” also employed were locomotive-noises (“ch-ch, ch-ch, ch-ch”), hiccups (“he-da, he-da, he-da”) and grunts. Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd and Byron Lee all utilised toasting to accentuate the fervour of their records.” The clip above is evidence of Byron Lee using this art form. Classic Skatalites tunes like Rocket Ship and

Legendary historian and artist Clinton Hutton says the toasting had a deeper impact on the power of the sound system. “The mike gave the voice reach and agency. The deejay could talk to the fans in the dancehall as well as to the persons outside of the dancehall. He could advertise the next dance and venue that the sound system would be playing at. He could praise the sound system owner/operator and help to brand his name and enterprise in the minds of the people. The disc jockey could dedicate a song or songs to a specific person or group of persons. He could announce the names of persons going off to England or coming from prison. Yes, he could really ‘wake the town and tell the people,’ to use a line from Daddy U-Roy. He could cover the weaknesses in a selection with live jive, with toasting, with scatting, with bawl out.”

I would argue that toasting is the grandfather of hip hop. It is evident that those who either participated in or witnessed the activity of toasting in the 1950s and 1960s Kingston, at the sound system dances brought this cultural phenomenon to the shores of the United States where it then evolved into hip hop traditions. In the 1970s, hip hop began when a disc jockey by the stage name DJ Kool Herc began hosting block parties in the South Bronx. He, like the Jamaican predecessors, toasted over the music to encourage the attention of the participants. Hip hop toasting then evolved into adding musical flourishes to the music, utilizing two turntables to create percussive effects like scratching and looping, and it then evolved into rapping completely as a vocal, rather than a few words over the existing soundtrack, and vocal percussive effects, beatboxing. Hip hop culture spread to communities throughout New York and then the world in the 1980s.

Scholar Joseph Heathcott notes the origins of hip hop culture in Jamaica. “Taking shape on the playgrounds and street corners of the South Bronx, hip-hop was from the first moment a popular cultural practice that stretched across borderlands, linking the local to the transnational. Not coincidentally, hop-hop erupted in the one American urban neighborhood with the highest concentration of Jamaican labor migrant families: the South Bronx. . . . Islanders imported with them to the South Bronx highly developed musical and electric performance cultures centered around the mobile sound system. If ska had filed to gain a purchase on the American music scene, and if reggae was only beginning to establish its credentials, it was the sound system and dance hall culture that ultimately made sense on transplanted soil. Where Jamaican genres of music only penetrated American markets obliquely, Jamaican performance practices provide enteral to the creation of hip-hop.”

Is it possible that DJ Kool Herc knew of these Jamaican toasting methods? Most definitely. DJ Kool Herc, whose real name is Clive Campbell, was born in 1955 in Kingston, Jamaica where he lived until he was 12 years old, during the height of the sound system era. He came to the Bronx in 1967. His first gig was DJing his sister’s birthday party and he did as he learned, filling the break sections of the song with toasting to keep the audiences going. This is not to say that DJ Kool Herc was merely imitating the originals, and indeed he was innovative by incorporating the turntables themselves in future gigs to create additional techniques that became separate from the ska genre and a part of the hip-hop genre, but credit is due the first toasters—Count Machuki, King Stitt, and Sir Lord Comic.

See the full post with video here: http://skabook.com/foundationska/2013/11/pick-b-boys-toastinghip-hop-connection/

Part I – The Legends of Ska


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This year’s 20th staging of Rototom Sunsplash, dubbed The Love Edition, had me on my second visit riveted to events in the Reggae University. I say a lot about this festival in my forthcoming book Reggae Pilgrimages: Festivals and the Movement of Jah People. This time around, the Spanish city of Benicassim saw the premier of some formidable visual products. In this long overdue post I focus on the first film – Brad Klein’s Legends of Ska.

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The film which was organized around interviews with ska greats and the filming of a historic reunion of stars in Toronto during the summer of 2002, was in the making for some 12 years. It featured approximately 13 Skatalites members, and goes to the heart of Jamaican music through an exposition on ska’s many insiders.

The film unequivocally affirms that ‘without ska there is no reggae’. Indeed without the legsmen such as Satchmo there was no good ska performance, and without mento there would have been no ska.

Unlike Heather Augustyn’s book Ska (2010)there are no revelations about corruption in the business or stories of artists being ‘jipped’ by producers. Rather, we get the heart-warming, soul drenching love that consumed the music-makers. Derrick Morgan was the first Ska superstar and it was Federal Records with engineers such as Graham Goodall (original RJR pioneer engineer) where the recording of ska began. Ken Khouri and his brothers of Beverley’s Records, and Chris Blackwell’s Island Records were also there. Prince Buster’s ‘Voice of the People’, Duke Reid’s ‘Trojan’, Sir Coxone Dodd’s ‘Downbeat’ and Thomas ‘Tom’ Wong’s ‘The Great Sebastian’ were the sound systems that ran the place.

The ska stars and singers featured include Stranger Cole, Derrick Morgan, Derrick Harriot, The Blues Busters, Laurel Aitken, The Paragons, Desmond Dekker, The Wagabonds, Millicent ‘Patsy’ Todd, Higgs and Wilson, Lord Creator, Justin Hinds, Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert, Doreen Shaffer, Jackie Opel, Alton Ellis, and players such as Lloyd Knibb, Lloyd Brevette, Lester Sterling, Jackie Mittoo, Johnny Moore, Tommy McCook, Don Drummond, Roland Alphonso, and Rico Rodriques, many of Skatalites fame.

Of course the film could not miss the important role which the Alpha School for Boys played in the emergence of ska, with many of the featured stars having attended the school. Don Drummond, famous ska boss on the trombone, was the most enigmatic of them, one who never spoke much but whose trombone spoke for him. It was Jimmy Cliff and Millie Small though who took ska to another level when international possibilities knocked.

Both Patsy and Doreen spoke of how challenging it was in the early 1960s for women in the business who were almost invisible in the production process. They revealed how they felt they had to remain silent in the midst of the ‘business pushing’ men. Women in the business have certainly come a far way but still feel like lesser beings in the highly male-dominated space of Jamaican music.

Many may have forgotten that Bob Marley,  the ultimate rude boy of the time, also recorded ska, but his destiny was already written on a reggae track. It was Prince Buster, wearing well the moniker ‘Voice of the People’, who became top sound man on ‘Beat Street’ (or properly Orange Street) because he knew what the people liked and changed the ska sound with hit tunes such as ‘Wash Wash’ and ‘Hard Man fi Dead’. He soon shot to number 1 on the Jamaican Hit Parade (charts of the time). His lyrical rivalry with Derrick Morgan fuelled another kind of life into ska with clashes at several levels, becoming dangerous at times.

Only Lester Sterling and Doreen Shaffer survive of the Skatalites.  Prince Buster and Lord Creator have both suffered strokes and are mostly immobile. It is indisputable that the timing of the reunion was impeccable, with release of the film nothing but historic, legendary and ultimately timeless.

The story told by Lester Sterling at the end of the screening has stayed with me. He spoke of the early reggae tune ‘Woman Nuh Want Bangarang‘ and that in the process of recording he asked for any rhythm to be played, saying ‘reggae reggae reggae’ in trying to make the sound he wanted on the track. In his memory that was the first time the term ‘reggae’ was heard. Take a back seat all others claiming to have originated the word!

“Bangarang”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJTGKrTRNE8

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