Influences: Sunday mornings and reggae

An abiding childhood memory of mine is hearing ska and early reggae tunes playing in the front room on a Sunday morning. Time-wise, we’re talking about 1970 onwards, a few years before I started primary school. It’s a piece of nostalgia that many of the Windrush generation and their children will recognise and identify with, irrespective of which island that they or their parents and grandparents hailed from. This was also the period when the original skinhead movement was at its height in Britain, adopting the new songs coming out of Jamaica as its anthems.

The music also has a strong association with food, specifically the delicious smell of Jamaican rice, peas and chicken that my mum would have been preparing. Ska and reggae tunes pumping away, sometimes the occasional pre-ska JA pop by Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards, along with the waft of the expectant big dinner. In a way, the vibes from those tunes were a hidden ingredient that went into the food. Even at that tender age, I understood that this was my parents’ way of maintaining ties with ‘back home’. Strengthening the link further, we even had the Jamaican Weekly Gleaner newspaper delivered to our home on Sundays, where we could find out about current events on the island.

I’ve many a favourite song from that period, far too many to mention. Standouts are Monkey Man by The Maytals, Double Barrel by Dave and Ansel Collins, Them A Laugh And A Kiki by The Pioneers (aka Soulmates), the whole of the Tighten Up Volume Two album, Here I Am Baby by Skin, Flesh & Bones – the list goes on! For me and my brothers, having being born in England, we were getting a glimpse into our parents’ world, the island that had nurtured them. They’d tell us about how a song such as Long Shot Kick De Bucket (about a racehorse that died during a race) was based upon real events. There always was a little sad undercurrent to the way the Pioneers delivered the story with their sublime vocal harmonies.

One thing I noticed was, those records were only played in our home on Sundays, except at Christmas time. For the rest of the week, it was Radio One at breakfast and around teatime, with its selection of mainly British and American pop, and of course Top Of The Pops without fail every Thursday. There was also some ‘crossover’ because in the early 70s, reggae frequently featured in the UK charts. Things such as Let Your Yeah Be Yeah by The Pioneers, and Bob and Marcia’s Young, Gifted and Black were on constant rotation. Yet it was English artists that we heard predominantly on the radio, and, by a neat coincidence, our family meals on weekdays were mostly the same dishes that you’d find in any English home – give or take the odd serving of plantain, dumplings or yam now and again. This would have been pragmatic on the part of my parents; making an elaborate Caribbean meal would have taken up too much time after they’d come home from work. Hearing ska and reggae only one day a week took on a special significance; I’ve also no doubt that by hearing such a wide variety of music throughout the week is the reason why my tastes were eclectic from day one, and remain so to this day. Though I still like to play reggae tunes on Sundays – keeping a great tradition alive, you might say.

‘Dharma Reigns’ – Finding Meaning In The Mundane

Often times, it’s the everyday, run-of-the-mill events in life that by pure chance convey the most profound of messages. Such is the case with a horse race that was run in November 2020 at the Fontwell racecourse in West Sussex, UK. The footage speaks for itself, really, so rather than giving you a description first, please view the 2 minutes’ footage of the closing stages.

The winning horse’s name Dharma Rain, which I heard as Dharma Reign, lent a certain symbolism to the outcome of the race. ‘Dharma’ is a Sanskrit word for a concept in Indian spirituality that has multifarious meanings. One of them is to do with a person’s ‘destiny’; their ‘dharma’ being basically their ‘calling’, what they are meant to do in life.

In the race, we see all the horses except one avoid the hurdle and are duly disqualified. Dharma Rain negotiates the hurdle and turns out to be the victor. We all know that in the pursuit of our respective calling, there are inescapable challenges that present themselves that stand in the way, challenges that must be met head on. Going around the barrier has its place as well but sometimes there’s no other option! There’s also a message here about following your own path and not being swayed by the crowd, something that is of great importance in today’s world.

All this from the 3.50 chase at Fontwell.

The Changes and ‘The Synchronic City’

For many, the lockdowns unintentionally afforded the time to watch films and tv programmes that they’d long been interested in seeing but never got round to. I’m no exception; I spent the first couple of months of 2021 watching The Changes, a series first broadcast in 1975 on BBC1. Aimed at children but with a narrative equally pitched at adults, I found it compelling viewing. What I’d not expected, however, was that this disparate sci-fi tale would contain themes strangely similar to the ongoing UK lockdown measures.

In the story, Britain has been experiencing strange weather that affects the population’s behaviour, causing them to turn against technology, suddenly smashing up machines whenever the conditions occur. The society soon grinds to a silent standstill reminiscent of pre-industrial times. The mindset of most of the population has also altered, reverting back to a quasi-‘Dark Ages’ mentality, with its attendant bible-based, ‘olde worlde’ superstitions. Technology is viewed as being evil.

This is bad news for the main protagonist Nicky Gore, who, in the search for her parents whom she’s lost in the melee, is found sleeping in a barn in a village where farm machinery (deemed as “wickedness” by the locals) has been locked firmly away. She is tried and sentenced to death by stoning by Davy Gordon, a witchfinder general-type who runs the village, but is spirited away by a pair of siblings, Margaret and Jonathan, who, unlike most of the villagers, haven’t fallen under the sway of the superstitions.

The siblings’ father is a different story, however, as he has also succumbed to the witch-hunt mentality. A revealing piece of dialogue takes place when Nicky asks Margaret if the villagers really believe she’s a witch. Margaret’s response is telling: “Well, most of them (do) – because Davy Gordon has persuaded them. Men more than women. You see, since the ‘changes’, they believe doing things like this is God’s will; and our dad is really a kind man but he’s not all that bright. His life has never been very exciting. Well, now he’s right under Davy Gordon’s thumb. He’s got this kind of ‘mission’ in life, rooting out evil. Our mum knows it’s a load of nonsense but even she can’t get through to him”

I was instantly reminded of something I’d heard said repeatedly by Irish author Thomas Sheridan in his Epic Voyage series of Youtube vlogs chronicling the lockdown: “The normies are absolutely loving this, and do you know why? It’s because at last they now have a sense of purpose.” Initially I didn’t get this, until I started to notice people whom I would normally see coming and going to work, now zealously out in the streets in their purple volunteer uniforms, on housing estates, at the entrance of supermarkets, all over shopping centres handing out masks and sanitiser, going from door to door offering testing kits like JW’s flogging the Watchtower. They probably see themselves as activists of some kind, saving the world from a modern-day plague. I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice the glee of shop assistants now charged to tell customers to wait in queues before being allowed in, seemingly reveling in the opportunity to wield a bit of ‘power’.

The similarities of the measures to Abrahamic religious ritual and forced indoctrination have been covered by both alternative and mainstream writers. (By the way, this isn’t an attack upon anyone’s personal belief, it’s merely a comparison of the way in which religious institutions, in tandem with governments, have historically suppressed the worldview of others with a distinct perspective on life.) As for the modern-day “witches”, they are of course any of the individuals who challenge or debunk the efficacy of the measures, or refuse to go along with the programme. Anyone not walking around looking like an extra from a 50s sci-fi B movie is viewed with suspicion, as though they aren’t wearing the required religious garb.

“Men more than women”. When looking at social media, it has not escaped my attention that women appear to be far more outspoken against this than most men, and far less compliant with the government’s ‘health’ mandates. Of course, many women have been more than willing to follow Hancock and Johnson’s latest sermons, yet where has been the resistance from men? It is as though the roles of the sexes have reversed.

Throughout The Changes narrative, only a relative handful of people remain unaffected, which takes on significance. Firstly, there’s the Sikh community whom Nicky meets and briefly travels with. We’re told that it is the Sikhs’ way of life, so different from the populace around them, that safeguards them against the prevailing madness. The same is true of a married couple encountered later in the story, who live in a rural, “off the grid” lifestyle, having gotten away from the hustle-bustle of London. The implication being made in the case of both this couple, and the Sikhs, is that it is their independence from the norms which has created a kind of ‘immunity’ for them. This is comparable and analogous to the independence of spirit that characterises those who haven’t capitulated to the fear and hysteria present amongst most in the present lockdowns.

I’m glad to have had the chance to see The Changes. By its reference to witch hunts, I would surmise that the author Peter Dickinson may have based this upon the actual social dynamics of medieval times, and the powerful hold that these ideas exerted over people. It’s also clear that Dark Ages thinking manages to persist into the present-day reality.


‘Cometh the Hour’ – 2020 single release by Imani Hekima

I decided to put out this song as a way of voicing my perspective on the times. It’s a song I actually wrote a couple of years ago but which feels nonetheless relevant. The track was released on 16 November 2020 and can be downloaded at iTunes, Amazon & Spotify.

An interview that I did on BCB Radio on November 25th, 2020 can be heard below.

Cancelled Culture, OR: ‘Stand up for your rights’, said Fred

If someone had told me on January 1st 2020 that Right Said Fred of Deeply Dippy fame would be one of the few high-profile voices in Britain to speak out against government tyranny, I’d probably have given them a number to ring, and a wide berth. Yet this is exactly what happened during a surreal year in which the music industry, like many others, came to a virtual standstill.


As we entered 2020, like many I’d been feeling for some time that the popular music industry wasn’t in great shape. Everything sounded so samey and predictable. At live shows, audiences were no longer watching the artists; in many cases they’d be at concerts either stood still pointing a mobile device to the stage, or filming themselves gurning into their Smartphones while the band played on in the background. It seemed a far cry from the glorious chaos of the mosh pit I’d experienced, and the pioneering maverick spirit of the past. It felt like the music was going through the motions.


Of course, I’m generalising here, but when viewed in hindsight and in context of how the year has panned out, from a symbolic perspective it could be said that the creative stagnation audible in the music was heralding the decay of the industry itself. For some, this might seem an outrageous suggestion but it’s difficult not to see this allegorically.


I’m not in the least bit jingoistic but the passing of Dame Vera Lynn seems so poignant in terms of 2020. Just over a month before her death she was interviewed and spoke about the power of music to comfort during hard times, urging people to “keep smiling and keep singing”. How ironic it is that we have had bureaucrats warning people of the dangers of singing as a possible means of spreading the virus. How anal (and cowardly) can they get?


The same month that Dame Vera Lynn gave that interview, Little Richard died. Again, this was of such importance. Here was someone who changed the world with his creativity, and without being in the least politically-driven, his music effected powerful change in the social climate of the USA, and beyond. Without Little Richard, in the UK there would have been no Beatles, no Stones, and nothing of the powerful music scene that gave so much joy to generations of people, at the kind of venues that are now in danger of closing.


It’s been more than refreshing to see, along with a series of protests opposing the measures in the UK and across the globe, a body of research challenging the measures, independent of government and corporate media, calling into question the need for the lockdowns, their effectiveness and legality. Surprisingly, this has not come only from the alternative media; some opposing voices have also come from the heart of the mainstream. Again, who would have thought that such mainstream figures as Kirstie Allsopp and Richard Madeley would number amongst the rank of dissenters? By contrast, there’s been precious little in the way of dissent from other sectors (educational, health, sport, religious groups etc).

What’s been most noticeable to me has been the response to the developments from the infrastructure of the music industry, as well as most popular artists themselves, and not only in the UK. As I write this, there’s been practically no challenge to the government narrative; Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Ian Brown, Sir Van Morrison, Zuby, Noel Gallagher, Richard Ashcroft, Joe Jackson, and most unexpectedly Right Said Fred have been exceptions to this. On the whole, many artists – including those that have made their name and fame through ‘anti-establishment’ content, artists that had hitherto never shied away from outspoken social comment on the most provocative of topics – have been largely silent. The few that have spoken out against the measures have been rounded upon by mainstream media and even some of their fans as ‘conspiracy theorists’ and other predictable replies. At the same time, legions of their audience have been fully supportive.

In a youtube video discussion in October 2020 with Vincent Dunmall of Save Our Rights UK, author/alternative music researcher Mark Devlin (whose work focuses upon how popular music has been used as a form of social engineering) surmised whether the controllers of the industry had pulled the plug on it, so successful as it has been in its objectives. It’s a fair suggestion; after all, there has been precious little in the way of resistance from any corner of the industry.

One would think that in a scenario where careers are being threatened, there would be more of an outcry. Such a protest would be welcomed, I’m sure. The object here isn’t to judge nor attack anyone. It’s a commentary on the state of popular music in our society in general, in particular from that area which had always been regarded as the ‘counterculture’.

‘Cancellation’ took on another meaning in 2020. We have the ‘slow cancellation of the future’ articulated by Mark Fisher in his Youtube talk of the same name. Then there’s the literal cancelling of gigs. Finally, we have ‘cancel culture’, wherein anyone can be effectively banned from public life if they’re deemed guilty of ‘WrongThink’. It’s tempting to consider whether it’s the combination of all three that has rendered musicians largely mute.

Stagnation and atrophy in any life situation usually is a sign of the ending of something, and the need for something new. While most of us would have neither expected nor be supportive of the kind of change that is occurring, it is a strange coincidence. In many ways, we’re seeing the death of the old, out of which we’ll hopefully see the birth of something new, and better.

WHY MUSIC THEORY BOOKS CAN HINDER LEARNING MUSIC

The best way to begin learning music theory is probably to ignore music theory books as much as possible. Along with books I’ll also include Youtube tutorials and blogs – most of them, anyway. Though for the time being, do please continue to read this one.

Use your ears

As a foundation I’d always advise learning the musical alphabet – which might sound a bit obvious but you’d be surprised how many musicians haven’t done this. A picture chord book at the start of your musical journey can also be invaluable, as it helps you to see how chords are put together.

Apart from that, you learn much more by using your ear. Sit down with your instrument and put on a recording of a song you want to learn. Be patient; play back any tricky sections and with time and persistence, you’ll get it.

If you find playing by ear difficult, then put in extra work. There are many good tutorials on Youtube that can help in this area. Get hold of a song book or chord chart that has the chords for particular songs you’d like to learn but don’t become too reliant upon song books either. I would also say avoid all apps like the musical version of the plague – not just because they get things completely wrong at times, but because you aren’t using your ears. Your listening ability is the most important skill you have as a musician (apart from avoiding being financially ripped off), and there are no short cuts.

Drawbacks of theory books

Music theory books basically do this: They will look at a selection of pieces of music. It’s then noted that many composers at a certain time were using particular kinds of chords, rhythms, approaches to melody etc.

Music theory books usually say something on these lines: “This is how a chord progression works. This chord is always followed by that one…” Unfortunately, what most of these books don’t tell you is that musicians have always CONSISTENTLY broken or ignored these ‘rules’.

Imagine how confusing it would be to learn loads of music theory, and then try to learn and understand a song. It would be even more confusing for someone to write a piece of music, having never used their ears.

So, when SHOULD you learn music theory?

First of all, you should only learn it if you think it’s really going to help you, otherwise do what works for you.

I think it’s best if you start once you’ve got enough experience of learning songs by ear under your belt to begin with.

In general, sheet music, music theory, and video tutorials on youtube can be useful, in moderation. Their number one flaw is that they each fail to develop the listening skills.

You can learn all the rules of grammar in the world, but that on its own can’t teach you how to write or tell a great story. The same goes for music theory. This is why there are so many instances of artists who haven’t gone through academic music training that have come up with brilliant tunes.

There are some things you can only learn by doing, by putting the books to one side and putting the ears to work.

Keyboards in Jamaican music – pt 2: the birth of reggae

Ska had given birth to rocksteady and by the late 1960s, another innovation was under way. The entire approach to musical instruments changed, especially the drums and bass but the keyboards – in particular the electric organ – also played a crucial role in the creation of this new sound, far more than it had previously done. The guitar had an equally essential role, which I’ll touch upon.

Reggae grew out of musicians drawing even deeper upon indigenous musical styles and traditions unique to Jamaica; they looked back in order to move forward. Reggae (and ska) were often seen by rock-oriented music historians as ‘upside down rock and roll/r&b’. American influences played a huge role in the music’s growth however, its most fundamental elements are indigenous to Jamaican musical styles. One of these styles was mento, a pre-ska style similar to calypso played on acoustic instruments.

In mento, the acoustic guitar or banjo does an offbeat strum that was directly brought into reggae.  This is a 1952 mento recording by Lord Messam, where you can already hear the offbeat that would later characterise reggae and rocksteady, a good decade before both of those musics ‘officially’ began.

Organists began to mimic this guitar pattern, and it added a new, choppy rhythmic feel to the music. Based upon the older mento style, it was a completely original approach to the keyboard. The musician that many cite as the originator is keyboardist Glen Adams, who featured on the Wailers’ landmark recordings with Lee Perry. The keyboard style was nicknamed as the ‘John Crow Skank’. The story goes that the alternating left and right hand action of the keyboard player apparently looked like the flapping of the John Crow bird’s wings, hence its name!

Here’s Adams playing on Slim Smith’s Everybody Needs Love.

Instrumentals

There’s an incredibly large amount of organ-led instrumentals in early reggae. With the exception of the early digital/computerised dancehall tracks of the mid 80s, keyboard-based tracks had never been so prevalent. They caught on in late 60s/early 70s Britain; the Trojan ‘Tighten Up’ series of albums had sold well in the black community, and then with the first wave of skinheads.

A few of these tunes did well in the UK charts; Double Barrel, featuring Ansel Collins on the keys, topped the British charts. Others such as Liquidator and Elizabethan Reggae also crossed over into the pop charts. The organist on those two tunes is Winston Wright.

There’s something about the keyboard-led tunes that reminds me of fairgrounds; indeed these tunes and other vintage reggae records were played at fairgrounds even up until the 1980s – and perhaps it’s because the organ has a traditional link to fairs that strengthens the connection.

‘Live Injection’, a Lee Perry production featuring the Wailers rhythm section and Glen Adams on organ is an exciting tune. The sound of the Hammond organ jumps out of the speakers. This sound informed 2 tone, in particular Desmond Brown’s playing on early Selecter records. (Listen to his solo on ‘On My Radio’.)

Keyboards in Jamaican music – pt 1: ska and rocksteady

This had originally intended to show the development of piano/keyboard playing in Jamaican music, but rather than just do a step-by-step timeline, I’ve picked out a few favourite tunes that have impacted upon me as a musician.

Ska
The first one is ‘Broadway Jungle’ by Toots and The Maytals. I love the piano riff that goes on throughout the tune, it’s the icing on the cake of a typically joyous Toots and The Maytals performance. The piano does an intro that is a little like Jackie Mittoo’s El Bang Bang, and it may well be Jackie playing on this track.

The next track I’ve chosen, Killer Diller by Jackie Mittoo is a departure, as it features the electric organ playing the main melody. It’s a Booker T & the MGs/Watermelon Man-type track but in ska, and, reflecting the influence of jazz on Jamaican musicians, the organ solo is in the soul-jazz mode.

Rocksteady
Napoleon Solo, is a classic piece of rocksteady. On piano again is Jackie Mittoo, heard with the Soul Vendors which was a splinter group from The Skatalites. (Could be Lynn Taitt and The Jets.) I could almost imagine this as something from a 40s big band but adapted to the one drop style. The piano has a nice, understated jazz touch.

Ali Shuffle AKA ‘Rock Steady’ (and Seven Wonders Of The World) is a tribute to Buster’s friend Muhammad Ali, and it’s another organ-led piece, played by Winston Wright. What’s notable is the middle eastern tinge, which may have been a musical nod to the fact that both Ali and Buster were muslims. Coincidentally, John Coltrane and Yusef Lateef were also exploring African and middle eastern elements, as was the genre called ‘exotica’ through people such as Martin Denny and Les Baxter. This sound crops up in some of Don Drummond’s work and was later mined by Augustus Pablo in his output. Anyone familiar with The Specials will recognise Ali Shuffle as a precursor to Ghost Town.

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Reflections on ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’

MIRROR IN THE BATHROOM

 Mirror In The Bathroom is a remarkable song by British band The Beat, who came to prominence in the late 70s 2 Tone movement.

It went to number three in the British charts back in 1980 (it was their third single), and was their biggest hit. Yet if you were to ask anyone who knows the song to say what it’s actually about, chances are they’d go blank. It goes to show how a song can strike a chord with many people without them needing to understand it. In a lot of ways, it’s such a danceable record that the meaning is quite secondary to the ‘beat’. I’ll come to the lyrics later.

The music

When I first heard the Beat’s debut single, a cover of Tears of a Clown, I felt they had something different going on from their 2 Tone peers. From the beginning of the band, they’d set out to fuse the energy of punk with the supple, lilting rhythms of reggae. Among others, they initially took their musical cues from fellow Birmingham band The Equators but quickly established their own signature sound.

‘Ska’ became used as a convenient catch-all phrase to categorise the songs made by bands associated with 2 tone; look a little closer and you realise that ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’ isn’t ska at all. It’s a new music.

There’s a rich variety of musical ingredients in the pot. In Mirror, you have a mixture of uptempo steppers-reggae drums, dubby/Velvet Underground-styled bass, new wave guitar chords – neither major nor minor thanks to Dave Wakeling’s “wrongly” tuned guitar. On top of that, there’s Saxa’s jazz-tinged tenor sax with its soulful, dark yet sweet melodies. On paper, this mixture of styles shouldn’t work, but it does. Bassist David Steel’s description of their sound as a ‘weird chemistry’ kind of sums it up.

There isn’t one single element that defines their sound. Like with all great groups, the sum is greater than the individual parts. Though if I was to highlight an ‘x-factor’, it would have to be Everett Morton’s drumming. The drums always determine the sound of a band, and Everett’s playing – a sprightly Sly Dunbar-type of rhythm – gives the whole thing a unique energy, groove and edge.

The lyrics

If you listen to the words, what you have is a collection of images involving mirrors. That in itself is odd; what makes it even more obscure is the fact that there isn’t really a ‘story’ woven into the three verses. There’s an element of mystery about it, and you sense only the writer is privy to its meaning. Interestingly, the only other lyricist whom I’m aware of that writes in this way is Lee Thompson, saxophonist and founder member of Madness. Here’s Dave Wakeling revealing how he came to pen the lyrics.