gall and gumption

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Desmond Dekker 1941-2006

I came to consciuosness in Kingsotn, Jamaica, at the age of three and what a strange thing that was! I won’t go through all the odd bits of memory but I will mention one: I remember that the two women domestic helpers used to amuse themselves by getting me and my brother to dance for them. The song they liked us to dance to was “Jamaica Ska” by Desmond Dekker. I remember only two other songs from our time in that house: “Tears on My Pillow” and “My Boy Lollipop.”

My parents bought a house when I was about five, up in Red Hills. I have memories of songs that are totally bound up with life in that house. If I think of the songs I think of the house and vice versa. The songs were “Sammy Dead” and “Shine Eye Gal.” A year or so later another song somehow defined the atmospehere of life, a song called “Carry Go Bring Come.”

My brother and I liked to sing “Sammy Dead.” Just thinking of the words somehow makes me remember glimpses of the things that I saw for the first time, they are the soundtrack of a mythic, magical Jamaica.

“Sammy Dead” and “Carry Go Bring Come,” “I’m in a Dancing Mood,” and so many others were songs of the great Desmond Dekker.

Now that I have this boring job I get through the time and stay awake by listening to Caribbean radio on the Net. I listen to a Jamaican talk show hosted by a guy named Wilmot “Mutty” Perkins who has had the show for years. Now that it’s on the Internet Jamaicans call in from all over. The last time I was listening I heard an older Jamaican man call from Vancouver. The subject of the conversation was the Jamaican environment which is being destroyed at an alarming rate. This caller, with the old drawly leisurely upper class Jamaican accent, talked of missing home. “It was sweet there, you know.”

It was. And if you want to hear how sweet it was you listen to Desmond Dekker. Dekker was so resourceful in making use of the many threads that make up Jamaican English, his songs should really be considered historical documents. The poetry of Jamaica’s language lives in his songs in a way that it doesn’t live anywhere else.

“Sammy Dead,” like a lot of his songs, is a country song.

Sammy plant piece of corn dung a gully
And it bear till it kill poor Sammy.
Sammy dead, Sammy dead, Sammy dead-oh.

A no tief Sammy tief mek dem kill him
But a grudgeful, im too grudgeful mek dem kill him.”


In “Carry Go Bring Come” which swept the country, we heard the voice of righteous reggae for the first time. “Carry Go Bring Come” is a sort of noun phrase describing a scandalmonger and troublemaker.

This carry go bring come, my dear, bring misery;
This carry go bring come my dear, bring misery.
You are going from home to home making disturbances
Time you stopped fooling yourself, you old Jezebel.

The meek shall inherit the earth, you old Jezebel
You need no light to see you’re making disturbances.
It’s better to build a home in Mount Zion high
Instead of heaping oppression upon an innocent man.

Time will tell on you, you old Jezebel
How long shall the wicked reign over my people?


There is no other way to account for some songs except pure delight in the poetry and comedy of Jamaican speech, as in “Mother Pepper.”

Haul up you mouth and give me pass, Mother Pepper.
Stand and look at your mouth, it big as the Gulf of Mexico.
And if some one say red, see ya gal,
you deh right deh.
Like when dem say “fire under moos-moos tale and him think of cold breeze”
....

Gal what make you so hot
And your foot dry like fe rat bat
You hot like fire breaking a dish
And your neck favor cutlass fish...


I honestly can’t tell you what some of these things mean: that is, “your neck favor cutlass fish” means your neck looks like a cutlass fish, but what that looks like I don’t know. The accusation that a woman’s legs (“foot” here is the plural of legs) are dry and “ashy” or “scaly” is common enough, but who ever thought of comparing it to the legs of a rat bat? (A “bat” is a moth, and a “rat bat” is a bat, by the way.) The bit about the “moos-moos” tail is clearly an old proverb, but what type of animal a moos-moos is I do not know. But a proverb like that can go back all the way into slavery days. You might think that this is Dekker’s idiosyncratic poetry, but the thing is that growing up in Jamaica I heard people talk this way. At the height of a bout of invective the speaker would just take off, and these strange images would come in. A helper we had named Adina, when I was about 13, was always producing stuff like this, usually when she was abusing the gardner, a man of the most angelic patience.

“Hippopotamus” is in that same vein.

You old hypocrite
You old hippopattymus
You no fe gwaan so
You no fe galang so
You too croomoogin, wicked and bad-minded, conniving


His songs chronicled the rise of the “Rude Boy” culture in Kingston, its sense of style, for instance, how it ate up movies for their style, the fascination in the shanty towns with 007, with Ocean’s 11, the strange enduring life that these fictional characters (even Fu Manchu!) took on in the imaginationof the Rude Boys. It was the dawn of a whole culture that is still with us, and he was there, first, original. He sang about the plight of the poor first, he sang in patois first, he was the first reggae performer to go international, with "Israelites."

He didn’t just use vernacular, he used the language of the King James Bible that was and is, for many Jamaican people, the idiom of high moral speech.

“Honor your mother and your father that your days may be long in the land,” he sang.

In “Israelites,” he isn’t just quoting the grand style, he’s writing it, mixing it with patois in the way that the two idioms are mixed, and he is already drawing on the new sound that Rastafarianism had brought to reggae.

Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir,
So that every mouth can be fed
Oh, the Israelites....

Shut dem a tear up trousers a go,.
I don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde...


The Rasta influence on his style is also present in “Ah It Mek,” an irresistible song that only Dekker could have written, with almost perfectly incomprehensible lyrics. I listen to them, and I catch bits, but haven’t the remotest idea of what they are all supposed to fit together into. (“Ah It Mek” means “That’s the reason”)

People loved Dekker’s music, because it was truthful and funny and righteous. It seemed that everyone was singing those songs. They were so intimate, so familiar, so much a part of the actual life we saw and lived. I think that it was his very Jamaicanness that made him seem dated after Bob Marley became popular. The same Rude Boys, who were setting fashion in so many ways, outgrew his basically homegrown style, it's country roots. The Rude Boys were busy getting ruder. But Dekker was there first, and he was everybody’s musician. I sent my mother a CD of some of his music and, for all that she is a snob, she went all sappy remembering those sweet days when everybody -- little boys on the street, civil servants, maids, high court judges --danced to these songs. I do not remember anybody being against Desmond Dekker. I remember people in my own family being against Bob Marley: one of my uncles, who was an officer in the Jamaica Defense Force, took “I Shot the Sheriff” personally. For a lot of Jamaica's middle and upper classes, it was comfortable to simply regard people like Peter Tosh and Bob Marley as not really existing. But Desmond Dekker you could love, even though he was singing about the same things.

To my mind Dekker was a much more inventive songwriter than Bob Marley, he got more of the facets of Jamaican life, more variety, more voices into his music. And there was a genuine sweetness and optimism. You knew it was getting bad in Jamaica when the film The Harder They Come, opens with Dekkers “You Can Get It If You Really Want” (written by Jimmy Cliff, sung by Dekker) -- the irony, as the movie went on relentlessly to illustrate, was that you couldn’t. That irony was already everywhere, Desmond Dekker had already moved to England, and sweetness in Jamaican life would be a lot more scarce.

22 Comments:

At 5:18 PM, Anonymous Carolyn said...

I can’t get enough of your blog and love all you’re writing about. This is a great tribute. I’m off now to look for Dekker’s music.

Carolyn

(When will you decide to move back to SF?)

 
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