Andy M reports direct from Jamaica on the passing of Gregory Isaacs – The Cool Ruler.

I feared the worst when I woke up, turned on the radio and instead of the usual payola stuff it was wall-to-wall Gregory. I changed station and there he was again. His death is front page news here and has hit hard. He was a flawed character but he was honest about it and loved all the more as a result. As one caller to Irie FM, the nation’s favourite, put it “Last one, two years, Alton Ellis gone, Joe Gibbs gone, Sugar, now Gregory. We cyaan lose any more icons til the next generation step up.”

I was lucky enough to see Gregory live a few times. Two occasions stand out. The first time was at a council-sponsored event in the middle of a housing estate in Camberwell in about 1995. It was chucking it down with rain, falling from grey skies onto grey concrete. But when Gregory stepped on stage in a three piece powder blue suit and hat, he lit the place up. From being a miserable wash-out of an event, it turned into a magical moment. The contrast and union between the immaculate Cool Ruler on stage and the motley group of dreads, scallies, students, pensioners and kids in the crowd – skanking under our umbrellas, clutching our cans of Stella – will live long in the memory.

The most recent time was in July this year (see photo above) at what turned out to be his last show in Jamaica (his appearance at the Big Chill was apparently his last ever). I knew he was in bad shape by this point as a mate had seen him being carried off a flight into a wheelchair at Kingston airport a few weeks before. But the prospect of a double-bill of him and the Mighty Diamonds at Studio 38 wasn’t to be missed. The trademark suit, fedora and swagger were still there and he raced through the hits in front of an adoring audience. He wasn’t so pristine anymore, the jacket came off after one song, then the top button on his shirt was undone, half his shirt came out next, then the tie was off and finally the shirt open revealing a natty string vest. The drugs had taken a toll on his voice too but he still delivered an energetic and entertaining, if brief show. As he said before coming back for an encore, “dem still want more”.


Gregory Isaacs – Cool Down The Pace 10” mix

This is one of my favourite Gregory tracks aided and abetted by the Roots Radics with Wally Badarou. Ride on Cool Ruler.

Buy it on iTunes here.

[Andy M]

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A cheer came up from the crowd as U-Roy (above) walked on stage and announced: ‘The youth dem don’t understand Stur Gav sound. We don’t play hip hop, we don’t play funky, we don’t play soca. We only play rub a dub.’ Thankfully the last part of that was true, but the first bit was as well: it was hard to spot anybody under 35 at the dance in Kingston in the early hours of Sunday morning. There were ‘nuff pork pie hats and Kangol caps in attendance though, some serious medallions, and a range of amazing embroidered shirts and suits that looked like they had been moth balled for a couple of decades and been brought out just for the occasion.

King Stur Gav Hi-Fi was built by U-Roy in the mid ‘70s after King Tubby’s Hi-Fi, which he started his career on, was destroyed by the police. It became a deejay academy for the best microphone talent and it was quite a sight, all these years on, to see U-Roy, Freddie McGregor, Charlie Chaplin, General Trees, Brigadier Jerry and Jimmy Riley all on stage together. The mike was passed from one to another as they took turns to chat over the stream of Studio One rhythms. U-Roy’s voice still sounds surprisingly fresh and the best bits of the session were when his scat stylings were paired with Charlie Chaplin’s cultural lyrics. There was a poignant tribute section to the recently-passed Stur Gav veteran Sugar Minott and Lincoln, his son, came on and did justice to two of his songs. Freddie McGregor was the only disappointment – his singing style not really working in a deejay setting.

Four stacks of boxes encircled the crowd and the sound was excellent – plenty of bass to vibrate your sternum but no ear ringing the day after. The only drawback of the clarity of the sound was that it seriously magnified the hiss of old Jamaican 7”s.

At 2.30pm, the baton was passed to Metro Media sound and the vibe changed immediately as an improbably fat man took to the stage, removed his shirt and charged around, wobbling his vast girth whilst screaming over the top of ‘Why Must I Be a Teenager In Love?’. Literally stomach-churning. Your correspondent sought refuge at the bar, only to find that they had run out of rum. Things were getting rapidly worse – no rum at a dance in Jamaica? Reckoning that the parts that others can’t reach needed refreshing after that traumatic episode, I reconciled myself to Heineken.

The situation improved when Josey Wales and Peter Metro took charge. They upped the tempo with their faster delivery over some heavy-hitting Roots Radics rhythms. Their lyrics were brilliant, including a devastating put down of the Mavado-Vybz Kartel, Gully-Gaza rivalry and then a hilarious freestyle about Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal in the World Cup.

If Saturday night was a journey back to the dancehall of yesterday, Friday provided a glimpse of what hopefully could be its future. There is a small, developing new roots scene in Jamaica. Artists like Etana and Queen Ifrica are now well on the rise, and Rootz Underground lead a group of young musicians who are breaking through on the back of their energetic live performances. Marcus I played a great set at Redbones Blues Café in Kingston on Friday – check out below his recent single ‘Just A Little Herb’ with Sean Paul and forthcoming album. He was supported by Kai Wakeling, whose lovely acoustic set begged comparisons with Sade.

In a link between the old and new, Rootz Underground and famous Jamaican sound system Stone Love have put together a mix-tape designed to take you back to the ‘80s dancehall, but with newly-versed vocals. I have had a particular fondness for this sound system since the nurses in the Kingston hospital where he was born named my son Stone Love because of his volume at nights. Download or stream it here. Play loud.

[Andy M]

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When you need a break from the city and a rejuvenating beer in beautiful surroundings, the Pelican Bar is the place. The best bar in Jamaica is a mile out at sea, off the south coast of the island. Local fisherman Floyd had the vision to build a wooden bar on stilts on a sand bar in the middle of the ocean.

You can be picked up by boat from the mainland and enjoy a blissful few hours all at sea. Delicious fresh fish and curried lobster are prepared on a tiny gas stove and cold Red Stripe appears from the fridge. Meanwhile, you can divide your time between relaxing on the deck and snorkeling in the crystal clear water.

It’s just a shame when you have to leave…

[Andy M]

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Andy’s back with more reportage on life in Jamaica, this time its back to ’88 in Jamaica as Wallabies hits the dancefloor.

You can’t keep a design classic down: the Clarks revival is not just a British phenomenon. Vybz Kartel has once again shown the popular influence of dancehall artists with a trilogy of songs about Clarks shoes. Jamaicans of all generations have always loved their Clarks but the local market has exploded since the release of ‘Clarks’, its follow-up single ‘Clarks Again’ and new release ‘Clarks 3 (Wear Weh Yuh Have)’. Not since Run DMC’s ‘My Adidas’ can a footwear brand have had as much free publicity from a song.

Local newspapers report a significant increase in sales of Clarks shoes – from the street sellers in downtown Kingston to uptown malls. The latest street style is cutting off the bottom of your jeans to reveal your wallabees or desert boots in their full glory. Prices are rising and, in an illustration of the demand, the police report that thieves stole GBP15,000 of the shoes from two local stores last week. The DJ says that he received no payment for the songs and that they were just motivated by his love for the brand. “My own Clarks collection, I have like 47 pairs. I’ve been advertising Clarks for a while now. Clarks is as Jamaican as ackee and saltfish and roast breadfruit.”

Ever the businessman, the word is that having realised his influence on the shoe market, Kartel’s charmingly titled Unlimited Daggering Company now plans to launch its own West Bank shoe line.

Check the ‘Clarks’ video for some useful tips on shoe cleaning:

[Andy M]

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Andy’s back with more reportage on life in Jamaica, this time with a report on what looks (and sounds) a perfect night out…

Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari: there are not many better names for groups. I found some footage on You Tube this week of an amazing Tribute to Count Ossie night that I went to towards the end of last year. It was put on by Nambo Robinson, one of the unsung heroes of Jamaican music. If you pick up any reggae album with a horn section on it there’s a good chance Nambo and his long-term partner, saxophonist Dean Fraser, are on there. Their horns have featured on countless classic albums by the likes of Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Bob Marley, I Roy, The Light of Saba and Sly and Robbie.

The session was held in the breathtaking setting of the terrace of the old plantation house on Templehall Estate, north of Kingston. Walking across the fields in the dark to get to the house reminded me of the thrill of approaching an outdoor party but with the nyabinghi drums calling you in rather than the throb of bass.

It was a moving and celebratory night of Count Ossie’s music and the incredible influence it had on the development of ska and reggae. Nambo recalled how, “As a youth at about age five or seven, I had just moved to Glasspole Avenue at the foot of Wareika Hills, Rockfort. It was one night during the Christmas holidays I heard the drums of Rastafari for the first time in my life and I could not sleep. I kept wondering who were those people playing. When I asked my Mama ‘a who dem people a mek dem soun’ deh?’ and said I wanted to go see them, she said, ‘no yu cyaan go up deh. Dem a smoke weed an a celebrate fi de New Year.’” He did get to go and listen to Count Ossie and the drummers and horn players, eventually becoming one himself. “I soon found that every emotion I felt could be expressed through the music of Rastafari.”

The evening was in three parts. The first featured the surviving members of the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, including Count Ossie’s son, and focused on the bare essence of their sound – drumming and chanting.

The middle section brought together Nambo’s band for a blazing selection of Studio One classics including ‘Armageddon Time’, ‘Skylarking’ and many others. Check this version of ‘Rockfort Rock’ with Dean Fraser on baritone sax.

The nyabinghi, horn and rhythm sections combined in the final section showcasing the jazz-influenced side of Count Ossie’s work. I couldn’t find any video of this part, but I did find this beautiful clip from 1974 showing Count Ossie’s group at the height of their powers with Cedric Im Brooks on soprano sax. Almost Balearic…

All in all, one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever been to. Shame it was only witnessed by 100 lucky heads. The flame is still alive, but it’s flickering…

[Andy M]

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Happy to welcome Andy M back with more stories on island life and a mix of favourite dub sounds.

Saturday night – ‘Soup and sound’ with Dexter Campbell (below), the Ska Professor. Now, as multi-sensory concepts go, soup and sound leaves Jean-Michel Jarre’s son et lumiere trailing in its wake. A low-key downtown bar in Kingston with tables outside, full of characters with stories written all over their faces. Groups of old guys playing dominoes. An old woman in the corner sits on her own all night listening and meditating (or is that sleeping?) to the music. Dexter runs the Echo Vibration soundsystem and at 70 he’s still going strong and regularly tours Europe and Japan. He played an amazing selection of rare-as-hen’s-teeth ska, rocksteady, early roots and jazz all night. The first time in my almost three years in Jamaica that I’ve heard vinyl being played out and a welcome change from the usual diet of dancehall and the canon of 20 reggae classics that gets rinsed out in 30 second/tune doses at most dances. A great night, although I woke up in the morning feeling slightly cheated. The rum had been flowing so freely that we forgot to sample the soup…

Sunday morning – beach cricket with Luciano.
The best thing to do when the kids wake you up with a sore head on Sunday is to head half an hour out of town to Fort Clarence beach. A beautiful stretch of white sand, fringed by almond trees and with a little shack that sells the freshest fish. Mid-morning and the beach cricket was in full swing when the bowler’s head was turned by a fragrant aroma and greeted by the sight of Luciano (‘Jah Messenger’, not the minimal DJ) striding through the covers resplendent in a HIM style solar topee, drawing on his pipe.

Sunday night – Beres Hammond in concert.
I’m still amazed that there’s not more live music in Jamaica. A lot of the great old artists are more in demand and make more money touring Europe and the US these days. When they do play it’s normally at ‘stage shows’ with 10-20 artists on the bill sharing an unfamiliar backing band. The show always starts late, only leaving time for two or three songs per singer before the next act is rushed on. Thankfully someone has spotted the gap in the market and Pulse have started hosting regular full-length concerts – John Holt and Freddie McGregor in recent weeks were followed by Beres Hammond on Sunday. He put on a great show and had the 500-strong crowd on their feet singing along with every word. Jamaican crowds don’t hold back which I like. My personal highlight was Ken Boothe walking through the crowd, blessing everybody and shaking hands with one hand whilst carrying a burning joss stick in the other.

And finally, I’ve been listening to a lot of dub recently. Sadly it’s disappeared from the music scene here but dub is the foundation…

Andy’s Hi-Fi: Dub Is The Foundation

Tappa Zukie: MPLA Dub
Augustus Pablo: Pablo In The Dance
The Mighty Light Of Saba: Lambs Bread Collie
Wareika Hill Sounds: Tears In Exile
King Tubby And The Aggrovators: Ruffer Version
The Skatalites: Herbsman Dub
Russ D: Spiritual Dub
Jah Shaka Meets Aswad: Aswad Special
Dennis Bovell: Rowing (12″ Version)
Rhythm And Sound With Cornel Campbell: King In My Empire
3 Generations Walking: Midnight Bustling (Midnight Rockers Mix)
Musical Youth: Pass the Dutchie (Special Dub Mix)

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[Andy M]

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Andy M moved to Jamaica in 2007 and will be sending occasional postcards from the land of wood and water to Test Pressing on music and island life.

Today marks the start of reggae month in Jamaica. An odd concept in an island where music infuses life 365 days a year, but a fitting way to honour the birthdays of the Crown Prince and the King of reggae. Dennis Brown would have been 53 today and Bob Marley would have become a pensioner on the 6th.

Dancehall is now the jittery heartbeat of the nation’s youth and Mavado and Vybz Kartel the new heroes. Graffiti proclaiming ‘Gully’ or ‘Gaza’ covers walls across the country, scrawled by the partisan followers of the two rival DJs (Mavado comes from Cassava Piece a poor community on the banks of a gully, and Vybz Kartel was brought up in an area in Portmore known as Gaza for the high level of violence). Whether this tribal loyalty is just a natural expression of teenage identity or something much more dangerous is a heated topic of debate. What’s clear is that many schools are divided into Gaza and Gully gangs and there have been countless violent incidents between rival groups if not any deaths as yet. Politicians and commentators bemoan the hyped feud between the DJs as a symbol of moral decline and the negative role of dancehall music in society.

At first this reminded me of the hysteria a few years ago over the alleged role of gangster rap in youth violence in Britain. But in a significantly more violent society with widespread illiteracy and few alternative role models for young boys, the posturing of DJs can have a much more insidious impact – this is no suburban fantasy for middle class kids. The Gaza/Gully conflict got such media attention that the Prime Minister organised a summit in December that brought together the two artists to sign a peace treaty.

Too much ism and schism as the old song goes. Last year 1604 people were murdered in a country of just 2.7 million citizens. The police say gang violence was responsible for two thirds of these deaths. Many of these gangs have political links and receive state contracts that sustain them. All this is nothing new. In 1978 in a bid to quell the political violence, Bob Marley organised the One Love Peace concert and brought together onstage the leaders of the two main parties. It may not have succeeded, but it was a noble effort. How Jamaica needs a reggae star now that will stand up for, rather than manipulate, the youth and urge action to sever the ties between politics and organised crime which is holding this great country back.


Bob Marley – Rainbow Country

A joyous skank. Play loud, shut your eyes and feel the sun.

Dennis Brown – Why Seek More (aka Give A Helping Hand) 12” Mix
A two-part rocker from Dennis Emmanuel with Niney the Observer at the controls. Amazing bass and drum work-out.

[Andy M]

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