'Step up your game'


'Step up your game'

Observer senior reporter

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

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Jamaica Music Museum's director/curator, Herbie Miller, has taken contemporary Jamaican singers and musicians to task for a dearth in global relevance in their lyrics.

His comments came as he delivered the opening lecture for the ninth annual Reggae/Black History Month Grounation series, organised by the museum. Dubbed Blackhead Chineyman: The Chinese Jamaicans' Contribution to Popular Music, it was held at the Institute of Jamaica in downtown Kingston on Sunday.

Miller's comments were set against the backdrop of a recording by The Skatalites, titled Red China, which was inspired by political affairs.

“In the '60s, around 1964, there was a border dispute between China and India. Of course, Prince Buster was on top of it with a beautiful line that said: 'Red China why won't you leave the Indians, you're like a sword without the right blade, because the only right blade is that of my father's sword'. So the attention to Cold War politics, and international happenings and so on was not something that passed without these musicians of the '60s responding to it,” he said.

“Today, when I listen to all the talented singers and musicians that we have I think they are not sufficiently attentive to what is happening globally. They are too parochial, they don't see the big picture of global warming. There is so much to write about musically these days and I think we are really missing it,” Miller continued.

His near two-hour presentation traced the musical involvement of the Chinese, who first arrived in Jamaica as indentured labourers in 1854.

They became a strong force in all areas of Jamaican life, including commerce, education, and Government. Miller pointed to their contribution to the Jamaican music industry, especially in its burgeoning years, as their greatest contribution.

Miller identified businessman Ivan Chin, who owned an appliance store on Church Street in downtown Kingston, as one of the first to record Jamaican music.

He told a capacity-filled lecture hall that Chin, in the 1950s, fell in love with the music and would invite mento musicians to his business place after hours, when there was very little external noise, and record them.

“He tells stories of how Alerth Bedessee was a wonderful musical arranger and singer --- very witty --- but it was Dan Williams who was writing the great music. Ivan Chin actually produced hundreds of mento records, including some slack ones,” said Miller.

The Chinese involvement in Jamaican music also included Thomas Wong, known as “Tom the Great Sebastian”, whom Miller listed as one of the first sound system owners.

The work of Byron Lee and establishment of his recording and distribution outfit Dynamic Sounds, and the introduction of Carnival to Jamaica, was also noted.

Miller shared the impact of Beverley's Records owned by Leslie Kong, who first recorded Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. Kong also indirectly triggered a fierce rivalry between Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster.

Miller pointed out the impact of the Hoo Kim brothers, primarily Joseph (popularly known as “Jo Jo”), who through Channel One Records, helped define the revolutionary sound of Jamaican music during the 1970s.

“Some brothers on Maxfield Avenue, they had one-arm bandits and other gambling machines going on for them, and they also fixed motorcycles. With the new gambling law they were put out of business. They had a small sound system and used that to launch themselves into the recording business. The impact that Channel One made on Jamaican music in the '70s is what Coxson (Clement Dodd) made in the '60s. The hard-stepping, militant rhythms that they built, with equally militant singers and writers is for me the great achievement of reggae music in the 1970s. The house band was called The Revolutionaries, various musicians made it up, but in particular Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Ansell Collins and Tommy McCook headed the horn section,” said Miller.

The Chinese influence spilled over into music themes. Don Dummond's Far East and Confucius; and Baba Brooks's Shang Kai Sheck were among those shared by Miller.

The list of people of Chinese extraction noted by Miller also included Vincent and Pat Chin of Randy's and VP Records fame; producer Herman Chin Loy; musicians Mikey Chung; Phil Chen, Charlie and Jeffrey Chung; Father Richard Ho Lung; photographer Howard Moo Young; and present-day artistes Jessica Yapp and Tessanne Chin.

Blackhead Chineyman continues over the next four weeks.

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