Jamaica is the cradle of reggae and its offshoot, dancehall. Yet, as so often happens when a genre seizes the world’s imagination, outsiders appropriate it.
There is Gentleman, the Teutonic crooner who marched straight into the genre’s inner sanctum and Alborosie, the Sicilian-born singer who, in the parlance, is lighting up the dance hall.
From Guadeloupe—on the eastern end of the Caribbean archipelago—comes dancehall deejay Admiral T, who performs in Jo’burg under the banner of Arts Alive this weekend.
Born Christy Campbell in 1981, Admiral T’s stage name is in the tradition of other “admirals”, such as Admiral Tibet and Admiral Bailey—both popular dancehall heroes of the Nineties.
One of 10 children, Admiral T joined dancehall group Karukera Sound System at the age of 16. When he left in 2003 it was to begin a solo career, which debuted to critical acclaim with Mozaïk Kréyòl.
Speaking from Tanzania, where he is on tour en route to South Africa, Admiral T says he was naturally drawn to dancehall music. “I didn’t choose reggae music, it chose me,” he says in heavily accented English with a Gallic tinge. In the ghetto of Boissard where he lived “this music talked to me”.
Admiral T’s initial forays into music hit the proverbial brick wall. “I didn’t understand the Jamaican patois but the music spoke to me. It was the music of the ghetto. It was about love, peace and equality.”
Although he was attracted to the form, he brought his Guadeloupean baggage with him—including salsa, African music and zouk, a rhythmic festival music popular in the French Caribbean. “It was important to bring in something new to the music. I sing in Creole,” he says—a language that is steeped in complexity and cross-cultural history.
But it wasn’t easy starting out: “The radio stations wouldn’t play my music.” He persisted and his second album Horizon L’Toucher (Touch the Sky) came out in 2006. The dog-eat-dog industry took note and he has now gone into duets with Jamaican artists TOK and Kassav and Haitian-American hip-hopper Wyclef Jean.
He downplays his collaborations with some of the genre’s big acts. “It’s about human contact,” Admiral T says.
In a genre in which nastiness, violence and hatred are sometimes celebrated, Admiral T talks up the importance of positive lyrics, believing that his work can “educate the youth”. He has talked about the importance of unity in his native Caribbean region.
“We all share the same history,” says Admiral T. “The only thing that really separates us are the waters: we need to get together.”
He pays tribute to his Gallic heritage, saying: “We are still French, but we are first and foremost Caribs.”
Just as well, because it is the Caribbeans who gave reggae to the world.
Admiral T will perform at the House of Nsako in Brixton on Friday and Saturday from 10pm