Author Chris Salewicz on soundsystems and Jamaica’s global impact
Jamaica celebrated fifty years of independence recently and, in tandem with that, their sprinters dominated the Olympic finals, giving even more cause for celebration. For such a small nation, Jamaica’s global influence has been immense with its music and culture spreading around the world bringing with it positive messages and a high amount of energy, too.
Reggae and dancehall has been adopted around the world influencing local cultures and spawning new forms of music, dubstep and drum ‘n bass for instance. As someone who is half Jamaican, I thought it was important to highlight Jamaica’s global influence and, with the release of his new book Soundsystem: The Story Of Jamaican Music (and his expert knowledge and experience), author Chris Salewicz was the perfect person to speak to about the Caribbean island…
When did your interest in reggae first come about?
In the early seventies… for example when The Wailers came over in ‘73 they played at the Speakeasy and I went to see them every night, they were phenomenal. But The Wailers were a little bit isolated as archetypes, they were on their own – there were other iconic records out at the time, like Toots & The Maytals – ‘Funky Kingston’, phenomenal. Obviously there was The Harder They Come album, which was an introduction to a lot of people. I think probably when I heard the Marcus Garvey album by Burning Spear, that tipped the balance for me and I really got into it. Music was awful in the seventies, there was a lot of rock n roll… reggae was an underground music, some people were really into it. A lot of white rock n roll fans hated reggae, they loathed it. I was working at the NME and I started writing about it, a bit. Then I went to Jamaica in February 1978 when Richard Branson sent Johnny Lydon down to Jamaica after the Pistols had split up. I went there with him, Don Letts and two other people – when you go into a situation like that, you get a lot of access. Within two days I was at Scratch Perry’s yard watching the goats and having a profound experience… Tapper Zukie taking me to Trenchtown which was basically the first time I ever saw a gun. It was tricky in Jamaica then, there was an underground civil war going on – so I stayed in Kingston for three weeks, interviewing a lot of people…
Going back to what you said about reggae being ‘underground’ in the beginning, where could you typically hear or buy the music in those early days?
Places like The Bouncing Ball in Peckham…Or shebeens, for example in Ladbroke Grove there’s a roundabout where the used to be a cab office. Underneath that, Alton Ellis had a shebeen – he would be taking the money. For me, Alton Ellis was one of the great Jamaican singers. There was a shop in the west end called Daddy Kool – and there were places along the Harrow Road. Also, I’m sure you know the shop Dub Vendor?
Well it was a stall in Clapham Junction in this little market by the station, they always had amazing stuff. I lived not far from there, so I’d always pop in and then hide from my girlfriend afterwards because I’d get a bollocking for how much money I’d spent [laughs]. Supertone Records on Acre Lane, which is still there. Honest Johns on Goldbourne Road, they’d have all the latest punk records and all the hottest Jamaican music, too. You had to seek it out a bit, but once you figured it out it was relatively simple.
And did you come up against any opposition when you were trying to write about reggae at the NME?
No, they were quite up for it. Nick Logan, who was the editor he kind of got it. Neil Spencer became editor after that and he was very into reggae. Not everyone on the NME liked it, in fact some people were very disparaging about it. But, in the same way everyone assumed that everyone liked punk, which wasn’t true – most people hated it. I remember working on a Sunday Times magazine in the early eighties and suggesting a beginners’ guide to reggae and they went for it straight away – twenty page section of the Sunday Times in 83 or 84. So people were starting to get it and it wasn’t just because of Bob Marley. In fact, there was a period in the seventies where some of the ‘cool brigade’ were actually pretty dismissive of Bob Marley, you know “Oh, he’s no Dennis Brown”.. [laughs].
So how did you go about getting the book together?
I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years. When I was in Jamaica between 89 and 95 I spoke to a lot of people, so I had a lot of material. I’ve studied Jamaica quite a lot and I’m fascinated by Jamaica, it seems to have great resonance with me. Kind of like a metaphor for contemporary society, everything’s just amplified – like the impact it’s had on the world. Such a small place, population of three million, yet it’s had such a big impact. Planet Jamaica I call it, it’s kinda unique.
A little while I interviewed The Heatwave and they spoke about the impact of soundsystem culture on the UK’s music scene, for instance drum n bass and so on. What do you make of it?
Well, I always forget that when soundsystems first came about in the fifties it was 78s they were playing. They were brittle records and they would just have one deck in those days. It was a way of getting word out from the streets, any kind of controversy, immediately there’d be a record out about it. And of course, they was always more than one set – they’d be touring the island. Also you’d get these guys, the dancers who were absolutely phenomenal. In the early sixties there was a place called The Jamaica Success Club in Kingston, you had these really ranking dancers – there was a guy called Persian The Cat, this really skinny, dark-brown, dreadlocked man who uses a walking stick, hat and hankerchief in his routines. Around the sound system people would have the opportunity to be superstars. One of my lines about Jamaica is, “Everyone’s a star”. That’s true, like the way someone wears a hat at the bus stop you know.. even a woman reading her Bible, there’s a particularly zing about it. I was in Jamaica last year, and we went to a beach party that was not on the beach and there were two circular portable swimming pools with around 200 girls in bikinis or their underwear… and there were the equivalents of Persian The Cat there, the way they were dancing was extraordinary. You could tell it was their whole lives. It’s still really powerful now, if you watch any of those Passa Passa videos it’s unbelievable, it’s so sexual it would some peoples’ hair stand on end! [laughs].
You’ve had a lot of experiences in Jamaica over the years, what would you count as one of your standout moments?
Friday night is the big night for people to go out, obviously it’s the end of the week and everyone wants to go out. Every Friday you can hear sounds going off everywhere. But if you go into the country in the middle of the night you can find yourself miles from anywhere and find little bush soundsystems – I remember finding myself at one of those and thinking, “This is like Heaven!”. In between songs you can hear the goats wandering around and bells ringing. I always remember in this place I went to, Maryland it was called in the Blue Mountains, in the corner of this place there’s a Japanese guy with locks and whatever, on his own dancing perfectly! It just seemed to sum up everything, this clashing of cultures that made it all into something much larger and richer. I’ll always remember that because it was such a simple moment.
A special edition of Soundsystem: The Story Of Jamaican Music featuring the book and eight CDs full of Jamaican music new and old is out now, click HERE to pick up a copy.
Picture credit: Getty ImagesTagged in: Chris Salewicz, jamaica, Reggae, Soundsystems
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