All hands on the decks
Given the casual spread of “specials” on the Admiral and Jahseed’s African Storm mix CD series, now in its sixth volume, you would be forgiven for imagining the pair trudging through Kingston’s back alleys recording dubplate after dubplate with reggae legends such as Capleton, Luciano or Tony Rebel.
Although technology has made it possible for sound systems to build their arsenals of narcissistic tunes through email, it is only in the dancehall context of “clashing” — a song-for-song public contest between two opposing mobile discotheques — that superiority can be established.
In February the Admiral met author Sonjah Stanley Niaah and Ibo Cooper of reggae group Third World at a Jamaican ambassadorial forum in Pretoria on the role of reggae music in the African liberation struggle.
Through Cooper, Niaah and the Jamaican High Commission, Admiral found himself in a battle for bragging rights at Jamaica’s annual Calabash Literary Festival, which ran from May 25 to 27. The event, titled Jubilation 50, was also in celebration of a half-century of Jamaican independence. The annual event, which has been running since 2001, takes place at Treasure Beach, a fishing community on Jamaica’s south coast. It draws an international crowd, a coterie of Jamaican intellectuals as well as the local community.
The programme includes days and evenings of literary discussions capped by nights of revelry and live music. This year’s programme, incidentally, included the Admiral’s father, Ronnie Kasrils, a former South African intelligence minister, who had met one of the organisers, Kwame Dawes, at a literary festival in Durban earlier this year.
On May 26, the festival’s second night, the Admiral faced off against a local sound system called Brap International before a crowd that included dub poet Mutabaruka, Linton Kwesi Johnson and cast members of the classic Jamaican film The Harder They Come. The Admiral describes the night as more of “a cultural exchange within the realm of a soundclash” than a fully fledged battle for pre-eminence. Still, in a duel dubbed the “Cala-clash,” one would expect a healthy dose of competition, which the Admiral plays down by declaring “international relations” the winner of the night.
Festival co-founder Kwame Dawes’s description of the night, however, published on a news website, reveals a clear victor. “The Admiral took the show and the crowd rallied around his selections even as the local Treasure Beach selector fought valiantly as he succumbed to the carelessness that comes with unbridled anger.”
Following the weekend of the Calabash, Admiral headed to Kingston for two days of dubplate sessions and artist interviews before playing a guest slot on Jamaica’s “immortal sound” Stone Love at their weekly Weddy Weddy gig.
Stone Love, which is celebrating its 40th year in existence, holds a unique place in Jamaican folklore. Today the sound has an itinerant army of selectors that maintain its global presence, boasts a successful franchise of its recorded sessions and is routinely courted by corporate brands. Admiral remembers the night as a strictly dancehall affair, replete with Japanese dancehall queens, Jamaicans of all classes as well as a smattering of local stars, including Beenie Man and Wayne Wonder. Admiral played a midnight set sandwiched between the founder’s son, Duayne Powell, and regular selector “Bill Cosby”.
“When I heard Welton Irie, whom I used to listen to way back in the Eighties when he was a selector with Gemini Sound System, keep saying ‘stand by for DJ Admiral’, I had to collect myself with a beer at the bar.”
Although nothing trumps the experience of hearing music in its social context, Admiral says the night was instructive on many levels. “The thing that was illuminating was seeing them function as a sound system. There are probably 10 key people making the thing work and they operate as a machine.
“There are about six selectors playing shorter sets of roughly 45 minutes each, each bringing a different flavour. One guy will play foundation reggae, another will play Eighties, another the Nineties. One selector was playing mainly Stone Love dubplates. There’s all these different players, but they are all playing for one team. Then you get the Stone Love cameraman filming the dancehall girls and they seem to thrive on that. At one point a guy came in from the street with a mattress and it was like ‘bang’ on the floor in the middle of the dance. A ring forms around it and a couple of the girls start going off with the rawest moves of the night, pulling guys from the crowd — that generated a lot of excitement.”
The pageantry and animation of the dancehall spills over into other arenas. “Watching Stone Love operate and listening to how people play music on the street and listening to Jamaican radio definitely sharpened my reflexes as a selector,” says Admiral. “On drive-time radio there was an hour slot where they were just going through one riddim. On one of the state stations, in prime time, the selector played a dubplate version of Mavado’s hit Action Pak and rewound it about nine times.”
While Admiral can boast of killing a Jamaican sound on home turf, the real winner of his excursion to the mecca of reggae music is the audience that tunes into African Storm’s weekly radio show on YFM and turns up regularly to its infamous Thursday night Bassline sessions in Newtown, Johannesburg. Listeners of Raggatak, the Wednesday night show co-hosted with Jahseed have already been treated to exclusive interviews with Luciano (whom Admiral met at a gas station), a twelve-year-old prodigy named Pinky Famous, Charlie Black and gravel voiced Assassin, whom they will be bringing to the country in July. While African Storm is not primarily a clashing sound, there is an added resonance now to the dubplates they drop.