The jazz, reggae and ska trombonist, Rico Rodriguez, died last week. He was 80. This sent DJ Pete Paphides in search of Rico (and specifically The Specials) related tracks to play on his Soho Radio show. I went looking too because I certainly recall Rico playing on some Prince Buster tracks and was convinced I had the perfect track to show off with. This search resulted in a revelation.
Before we proceed, this is not going to be a eulogy for Rico, there are lots of those including the excellent one from Foundation Ska that I’d urge you to read.1
Now, as I say, I was convinced that I had the perfect track. If you exclude the more obvious Rudy, A Message to You by Dandy Livingstone, which Rico played on and which, well, I’d overlooked like a prized dingus.
It was track two on the B-side of the Prince Buster’s 1963 debut LP – I Feel the Spirit. The track that enabled the Camden band of the same name to join with The Specials in the 2-Tone Ska revival of the dour late 1970s and early 1980s in the UK. 2-Tone was a small label in a small moment in musical history that saw young people embrace the past in what can be seen as a highly conservative moment of nostalgia. It can also be seen, as I prefer, as a very modern moment of spontaneous racial solidarity through music.
A generation of kids in the Midlands and London who had been brought up in the first truly mixed-race cultural environment. The Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in England from Jamaica on the 22nd of June, 1948 bringing with it citizens of the British Empire to help the ‘Mother Country’ in post-WWII reconstruction. This is seen as marking the start of West Indian settlement in the UK. The Specials leader Jerry Dammers was born six years later, on May 22nd, 1955, Madness’s Graham McPherson was born on January 13th, 1961.
I am certainly not saying that all was sweetness and light, and the communities of black and white mixed readily and enthusiastically. But there was a rich cultural cross-over, and if anything the young whites of Madness and The Specials (a band that also contained black members of course) embraced Ska and reggae as transgressive and dangerous as well as simply exciting and deeply danceable.
But that’s a tangent – although a contextualising and worthwhile one I think. The point is that I finally located the song, Madness by Prince Buster from 1963 with Rico on trombone (remember?). I located it on Youtube as part of that I Feel the Spirit LP. I yelled it (via Twitter) at Peter Paphides who kindly responded that he would see what he could do.
However, what had really grabbed me was not the song – great though it is – or the LP, great though it is and released in the year I was born. What grabbed me was the cover.
Until this point I was used to seeing Ska music framed in the ‘Rude Boy’ imagery taken up by 2-Tone. The Rude Boy is a complex construction: a Jamaican larrikin; a hooligan in sharp clothes; “a lawless urban youth who likes ska or reggae music”2 and this identification gave some of that edge and rebellion to that 2-Tone moment.
This cover, as you can see, used none of that. It is, however, still very transgressive, very revolutionary, very “fuck you” in its own way. It shows two black Jamaicans dressed in very obviously African clothes (not ‘costumes’ but everyday clothes of the decolonised African). I’m not clever enough to know which country the clothes come from. If you do, then please get in touch.
Why? It was released in 1963, a year after Jamaican independence from the British Empire. I compared it with a variety of other album covers from Jamaica, including Derrick Morgan’s very natty Rude Boy with a tint of Frank Sinatra Forward March. This was released in 1962 and became the unofficial anthem of independence. I also looked at Calypso and other Ska offerings from the same period. None of them offered the same Pan-Africanist spirit that Buster (and Rico’s) I Feel the Spirit does.
This cover art offered up a view of Jamaica that was not Rude, nor did it look to the “West”, specifically Europe for its influence or spirit. The “Spirit” that this album projects is not that of Coventry or London but of the growing spirit of decolonising Lagos (1960), Dodoma (1961), and Kampala (1962). It doesn’t suggest that “lawless urban youth who likes ska or reggae music”.
But enough of this uptight analysis – let’s go to the music!
(And thanks to Pete Paphides for the inspiration)
The Obvious Choice
The Revelatory Choice
1Tribute to Rico from the excellent Foundation Ska.
3The Gleaner, August 7, 2011, “Forward … March! Derrick Morgan’s Independence Song Still Popular”