Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett and Bob Marley perform in London,in 1980. (Photo by Pete Still/Redferns)
A revolutionary form of music took the world by storm in the Seventies and dragged a little-known island languishing in the Caribbean along with it.
That music was reggae and the island was, of course, Jamaica. The rise of reggae from local island music to a global form of protest against slavery, colonisation and injustice must be one of the music world’s biggest success stories.
Today, Jamaica is still considered one of the world’s cultural superpowers, albeit the least populous one — last year just more than 2.8 million people lived there.
The island continues to outshine many places, thanks to the foundations laid by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, its brightest stars.
According to a study published by Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, the worldwide sale of reggae recordings in the late Nineties totalled $1.2 billion. If anybody had any doubts about the power of music, the Jamaican economy is the living testament.
South Africa shares a historical narrative of colonisation and slavery with Jamaica, providing a backdrop for the resonance of reggae among its people.
For black South Africans, identifying with reggae became a way to join a worldwide narrative opposing exclusion and injustice while, for progressive white South Africans, it became a means to stand against racism and supremacism.
Reggae, Rastafarians and race politics had, after all, become intricately intertwined during the late Sixties and early Seventies, as Jamaica struggled to find its post-independence soul, and its budding stars carried their rousing off-beat messages of Babylon, slavery and justice — or injustice, rather — across the planet, including to South Africa.
Many of the early reggae artists had strong feelings about South Africa and apartheid and wrote songs to express that. The reactionary apartheid state responded with censorship, banning orders, arrests and dirty tricks.
While the history of this unique crossover genre has been explored by many, few are aware that International Reggae Day — 1 July — started in 1994 by Jamaican Andrea Davis, drew inspiration from Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s visit to Jamaica in 1991.
The Mandela plane, much like that of Emperor Haile Selassie on his historic visit in 1966, was met with jubilation by thousands of Jamaicans.
The island, after India, was the second country in the world to cease all trade with the apartheid regime, emphasising its support for the liberation movement.
It’s crucial to distinguish between Rastafari, the spiritual movement, and the root version of reggae, the music, as they weren’t always as synonymous as they are today. Reggae is truly the off-beat bastard child of an empire and the people it colonised and oppressed but it was only when Rastafari adopted it as the soundtrack to their belief system, adding the political spin, that the music truly came into its own.
The role that R&B and rock ’n roll played in reggae’s story is perhaps also a lesser-known fact. Jamaicans — not yet the dreadlocked, irie Rastafarians we’ve become used to — were exposed to these American genres during the mid-Fifties, just as R&B became one of the foundation stones of rock ’n roll.
Tuning in to the New Orleans radio stations that were playing these tracks, Jamaicans such as Theophilus Beckford and the Folkes Brothers started putting their unique spin on it, adding horns and keyboard instead of guitars.
At the time, Jamaica had not yet signed the international copyright and royalty agreement, so the music business there was a free-for-all, with local producers fully exploiting the situation — but it also gave the industry the push it might not otherwise have had.
Just like the way Jamaicans treated the English language, they spun these tunes upside down, turned them inside out, and mixed them up with mento, the calypso-like folk music of the island.
By introducing a guitar chop and some off-beat riddims, early pioneers such as Ernest Ranglin, Prince Buster and Toots Hibbert created a brand-new genre that became known as ska.
The same music, released in the UK almost exclusively by the Blue Beat label, became so popular that punters started referring to music itself as “bluebeat”. In a few years, ska/bluebeat morphed into the slower rocksteady and, eventually, birthed reggae.
Ska/bluebeat, rocksteady and reggae had a hard time in the popularity stakes outside Jamaica, despite several labels releasing the music elsewhere in the world.
It had a cult following in the UK, but it only took off when white Jamaican-British producer Chris Blackwell founded Island Records.
By chance, according to Blackwell, they signed a Jamaican youngster called Millie Small and, in 1964, released My Boy Lollipop, a sweet fusion of ska and pop. Reaching #2 on both the US and UK charts, ska was suddenly on turntables everywhere, including South Africa.
The country was under severe political pressure, grappling with bombs, with the top leadership of the liberation movement in court for the Rivonia treason trial, and an Olympic ban, as well as the cultural boycott.
Releasing My Boy Lollipop seemed problematic in racist South Africa, so Teal, the record company that handled the Fontana label’s local releases, turned Millie Small into Millie, and the single was released with a cover that showed a white couple licking lollipops.
This sly marketing sleight of hand (and of course the absence of television) successfully concealed that Small was a black Jamaican woman.
South Africa, usually half a decade behind world trends at that time, was suddenly jolted awake. In October 1964, just a few months after the release of Millie’s hit song, a Zulu teenager won a talent competition performing My Boy Lollipop, which resulted in a record deal with Gallo. Her name was Busi “Vicky” Mhlongo. She would, of course, go on to become one of the great talents of the 1980s.
At the same time, Reggie Msomi & the Hollywood Jazz Band released a tune called Midnight Ska, a laid-back African jazz/ska crossover tune.
These early efforts marked the infusion of ska into the South African music lexicon.
As quick on the take as Msomi and Mhlongo were, they were pipped to the post. A few weeks after My Boy Lollipop’s release a band called Die Hi-Lites released a wacky Afrikaans version titled My Seun Mieliepap (my son maize porridge).
By 1970, another local outfit, the Makgona Tsohle Band, had also discovered ska. Widely credited as the pioneers of the mbaqanga sound, “the band that can do anything” — a direct translation of their name — was no misnomer.
The brainchild of producer and talent-spotter Marks Mankwane, and under the inspired leadership of Rupert Bopape and West Nkosi, the Makgona Tsohle Band had recorded literally hundreds of tunes for Gallo, and were fearless experimenters in the studio.
A few years later, in 1972, pop star Johnny Nash made it big with I Can See Clearly Now, a song he recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, while working with Marley on another project.
The song shot to #1 on the American charts. With this song, Nash is credited with introducing reggae to the US, and it did the same here, also reaching the #1 position. Nash was Afro-American, not Jamaican, so his identity didn’t have to be messed with.
Americans, however, were not that interested in ska and reggae, probably because they heard so little of it on the radio. The genres fell between the cracks, as it were, not being playlisted by either rock (white) or R&B (black) radio stations. Despite these obvious connections and Nash’s recent #1 hit, reggae just didn’t feature much.
Perhaps that’s why Eric Clapton almost fell on his (metaphorical) backside in surprise when, in 1974, his version of I Shot the Sheriff reached #1 on the Billboard 100 chart in the States in just eight weeks. Not that he made much effort to pay homage to its reggae origins.
The Wailers (as they were known then) had released Burnin’ a year earlier, an excellent album that featured the original version of
I Shot the Sheriff. Clapton’s version retained a residue of the original reggae beat, but the rototoms drowned it out; keyboard and guitar riffs were mixed in upfront and the bassline became more funky.
The sum total of these reworkings changed the feel of the song so completely it could hardly be referred to as a reggae-inspired song, never mind a reggae song.
Despite Marley receiving the composer credit, most South Africans at the time had no idea who he was, or even what reggae was — after all, he was banned outright along with most of his music — and the risk-averse record companies weren’t helping.
Clapton’s version, reaching #9 on the local Top 20 charts, was the first version heard by South Africans and many credited the song to Clapton, not Marley.
Ironically, two years later at a British concert, taking his cue from the far-right Conservative MP Enoch Powell, a drunken Clapton urged Britain to remain white, shouting “get the foreigners out, get the wogs out, get the coons out” from the stage. For a man who loved whiteness, Clapton made a small fortune out of a black song about injustice.
By 1979, South Africa, at last, was with it, more or less. No, let’s rephrase that — some white people living in the cities were with it, because the townships were clearly “with it” long before that.
The result of the banning and censoring of subversive music was, ironically, to make it more desirable. The record bars, mostly privately owned, imported what the local record companies wouldn’t press and even made side-deals.
David Marks, legendary 3rd Ear Music owner/producer, tells the interesting tale of Big Mac McCullum, owner of the Wop Bop a Lu Bop Wham Boom Bang record shop, who made a deal with Trutone & Island to press and distribute Marley’s Burnin’ album, which contained, among others, the rousing and highly subversive tracks, Get Up, Stand Up and Burnin’ and Lootin’.
Trutone couldn’t release the album (or the artist) locally because of a banning order, which also meant Big Mac had to sell the record under the counter of his Joburg shop. This he did, packaging the disk in anonymous brown paper bags.
He had sold “hundreds, maybe thousands” when, suddenly and mysteriously, the record was unbanned and Trutone simultaneously reneged on their deal.
“Meantime, a major corporate record distributor opened a Record Bar [sic], right opposite Big Mac Records in Wanderers Street … a thoroughfare for the workers returning to the labour camps, via Park Station,” says Marks, “Big Mac was obliged to close up shop …”
An example of the Security Branch and corporate interests collaborating? Or just coincidence?
While a select few were discovering Marley, Tosh, Toots and the Maytals and Max Romeo and the Upsetters, it was No Woman No Cry that opened the door to a wider, whiter audience.
The historic concerts by Bob Marley & The Wailers at the Lyceum in London marked a turning point in pop music history, with No Woman No Cry resonating across diverse audiences.
There has been, over the years, lots of talk about what takes a song beyond mere chart success (and that remains a mystery) but this song encapsulated the personal, spiritual and political elements that define timeless music. I’ll bet my last, sadly devaluing, rand on the fact that the very first true reggae song most South Africans heard was No Woman No Cry.
It wasn’t long before South African punk and new wave bands started using the reggae chop in their songs.
Joburg-based National Wake had several songs making use of the reggae guitar riff. Robbie Robb from the Asylum Kids also applied it to great effect. Soon, the reggae chop was as subversive as punk’s simplistic power chords, acting as a counterpoint for the latter’s fast tempo and shouted lyrics.
Almost all the local bands active at the time had at least one reggae-styled tune in their repertoire.
Riot Squad, the quintessential Cape Town punk band, independently released their single Polarisation Time; The Lancaster Band exchanged punk for a ska sound and added a horn section. Steve Walsh and Robin Auld developed a laid-back surfer-style reggae. Smoking Brass had the locals skanking till sunrise at The Bass in Cape Town.
Cape Town had clearly fallen in love with reggae. Henry Coombes, a graphic artist from Mauritius, played a pivotal role in the reggae subculture, co-founding Scratch, a club named after legendary Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry.
The club, a melting pot of an anarchic subculture that included punk, new wave and reggae, defied racial segregation laws and left an indelible mark on the local music scene.
It certainly helped this writer see the light. Rastas from the townships, where there were several communities, could pull into the city and dance until the sun rose. Inside the club they were reasonably safe, though it did get raided sporadically.
After Scratch closed down, reggae fans Steve Gordon and Justin Dyssell went to a lot of trouble to keep scratching that same itch in the clubs that followed — The Bass, Loophole and Jazz Den.
Reggae resonated with Cape Town to the point where a club could host a successful reggae night, and fill the joint, also providing a platform for township bands such as Brother Dick and Roots.
Joburg had its own musical history, quite distinct from Cape Town. A lot of the Cape Town Rastas ended up migrating upcountry, to the engine room of South Africa’s music scene.
The first reggae bands I came across in Joburg in 1982 were Flash Harry and an outfit called the Domestic Servants, in honour of their rehearsal studio in the “servants’ quarters” of a house somewhere in larney Observatory.
Ian Osrin operated a record shop called Vinyl Jahnkies, dedicated to reggae, and also represented several independent and innovative UK and Jamaican reggae labels.
Mozambican Carlos DjeDje, a talented musician and hard worker, had an early impact on the scene, and Pete Spong, son of a preacher man, put together Dread Warriors, managing to enlist the excellent services of our own Sly & Robbie-style rhythm section, brothers Punka and Gary Khoza (drums and bass, respectively), fresh from the break-up of National Wake.
Gallo signed them and produced the first local reggae record by a Rastafarian band, and an excellent one at that, but had no idea how to market it. It wasn’t long before Dread Warriors ground to an exhausted halt.
The Rastas and those who worked with them did not have an easy time of it. Shunned by traditional African culture on one hand and perceived as a threat by the nationalist state on the other, the Rastas drifted around in the rough waters of the apartheid Eighties. Rastafari was about politics, and the music mirrored that.
They shared stages mainly with white bands, playing to white audiences. If the white musicians at the time had it hard, the Rasta musos had it hard times 10. Dread Warriors broke up when Spong was attacked by unknown assailants (probably the security police) and almost died of his injuries. He left for the UK soon after.
Another outfit that felt the wrath of the apartheid state was Splash, one of the early reggae outfits, led by Mozambican vocalist José Carlos.
As charming as he was outspoken, Carlos would one moment be smiling, gold filling blinking in the sunlight, and the next moment have a dark cloud over his head, spitting angry words at you.
His stage performances were angry and militant, channelling Tosh, on whom he modelled himself.
Splash’s big break came when they were contracted to play at a festival in Roodepoort, Joburg, the audience primarily students from the white universities. Osrin offered the band a rehearsal spot at Rocky Records in Yeoville, which was closing down, and sat in on a rehearsal.
Osrin was highly sought after by the reggae crowd because he also ran a management and record company with international connections and could sign up talent. A record deal was the berries and an international one even better.
“I thought they sounded good,” Osrin says, “but they were very militant, José especially, so I decided to pass. They went on to play the festival but then José disappeared. [The drummer] as well. I heard months later they were arrested by the Security Branch.”
They were provoking the politicised crowd by asking who killed Neil Aggett, the trade union activist who had recently died in detention under suspicious circumstances.
“The police!” the crowd shouted back. Arrested on the spot, the two were denied bail and given four-year sentences. Hectic punishment for shooting your mouth off on a stage.
A third band member managed to avoid arrest. He fled the country and joined MK.
Carlos and the drummer Rufus Radebe served their full sentences.
When he was released, Carlos had a second break and recorded Abasebenzi, a full album, released by Gallo and featuring several of Lucky Dube’s session musicians. This amounted to more than just a notch up, but, in some way, he had missed the boat. He died soon after — of poverty, some say.
Many of the new wave/punk musicians that were speaking out against the apartheid state were harassed by the police’s Security Branch and their uniformed ilk, but it seems the Rastas got the worst treatment.
Dread Warriors, Splash, DjeDje and a few of the smaller bands entrenched reggae in the local musical vocabulary, linking it directly with the struggle against apartheid, and paving the way for reggae legends Dube and, later, Tidal Waves.
While these early reggae bands played to mainly white audiences, the rise of the Dube phenomenon in the Nineties pushed local reggae into a different bracket altogether.
His initial musical style was synth-heavy and not very successful with local audiences, but this was gradually toned down, eventually phased out almost altogether and replaced with a horn section and a more traditional approach.
His appeal seemed to grow in tandem with these changes in style. Influenced by Jimmy Cliff and Tosh (to whom his voice has an almost uncanny resemblance), Dube is considered one of the first musicians to bring African reggae onto the world stage, making him one of South Africa’s biggest, brightest stars.
Dube’s rise was magnificent, making his murder during a hijacking even more devastating. By the time of his death in 2007, he had released 22 albums.
One of the most exciting innovations on the local music scene — and a personal favourite of mine — was the emergence of The Dynamics. They took things a step further by crossing over new wave and adding ska and mbaqanga to their infectious musical brew, creating a unique and energetic sound.
Hot on the heels of the second wave of British ska revival in the early eighties, The Dynamics could match any of those bands beat for beat.
According to drummer Steve Howell, “The joyful sound of the UK Two Tone movement was playing in the background at all the jols, and when we looked around us into our own backyard, there was the equal (but completely separate) joyous sound of mbaqanga, township jazz and swing …”
The success of their musical recipe was not just this innovative crossover; the multicultural makeup of the band members must have played a role, too. To me, at the time, The Dynamics represented the future of South African pop.
Despite the inevitable commercialisation of reggae, it has never forgotten its rebellious roots — black resistance. Perhaps that is why its hold on the African continent remains so strong.
Or perhaps it’s because reggae has come full circle — the beat originating in Africa, transported to the New World where it blended with European melodies, becoming blues and then R&B and rock ’n roll in America, hopping over to the Caribbean to fuse with mento (itself a blend) to form ska, which morphed into reggae. It then headed straight back to Africa, to its roots.
- Thanks to Chris Albertyn, Rob Allingham, Henry Coombes, Ivan Kadey, David Marks, Ian Osrin, Mario Pissarra, Chris Quirke and numerous friends who provided source information for this article.