Ran across “This is Ska!,” a light but fun promotional film from 1964, on Dangerous Minds (one of my go-to culture aggregators). Some thoughts:

1.Wow, that place is jumping. It must have been amazing to be young at that moment in post-independence Kingston.

2: [Around 3:45] Really? That’s how you “dance the ska”: plant your feet, wave your arms? Kinda surprised this hasn’t made it into a low-impact aerobics class yet.

3. The handful of ska legends shown here—Jimmy Cliff, the Maytals, Prince Buster—leads me to think this line-up was more or less the same one that represented Jamaica in the famous ska showcase at the 1964 World Fair in New York. The top billing of Byron Lee & the Dragonaires (shown here playing the first song, their post-independence “Jamaica Ska”) was a controversial one, as Kevin O’Brien Chang and Wayne Chen write in Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music:

            There are conflicting stories about the circumstances surrounding the tour, particularly the decision to choose Byron Lee as the backing band. According to [Clement] Coxsone: ‘Seaga just board the bandwagon. They send people to represent the ska business who don’t even know anything about it.’ Garth White makes this judgment: ‘They left out The Skatalites and Bop and Persian in what seemed to be class bias. There was absolutely no way you could compare Byron Lee as representative of ska with The Skatalites, which was the top and most authentic band of the time.’ Jackie Mittoo was more matter of fact: ‘They send Byron Lee because The Skatalites smoked Ganja.’

Byron Lee himself tells this story: ‘We (Byron Lee and the Dragonaires) were booked to appear at the Manhattan Centre. The government was planning this ska tour to the World’s Fair and heard about our gig, so they asked us if we would back-up the singers since we were already going to be in New York. But we were never paid by the government. We played for free, to help promote ourselves and the music. So all this talk about getting out The Skatalites is foolishness. Furthermore, at the time we were the number one live backing band in Jamaica. The Skatalites were fantastic in the studio, but they were never a popular live band. We were the backing for almost all the live shows… It’s true ska was not a dance at first. When we went to the world’s fair there were dances all over the place. The Twist, Mashed Potato, Cha Cha Cha, plenty of them. In order to compete and sell our product, we Jamaicans had to have a dance too. That really is how the ska dance came about. In a sense it was Jamaican Twist’ (pp. 36-7).

4. The story of Jamaican music’s role in the nation’s post-independence history is a well-told one. Lloyd Bradley’s This is Reggae Music [published in the UK as Bass Culture] is just one source that elaborates on the political opportunism of Edward Seaga, who was Minister of Welfare and Development at the time of the World Fair showcase (and producer of Byron Lee’s first record, according to Bradley). By the late 1970s, his conservative-leaning Jamaican Labour Party had plunged Jamaica into virtual civil war, drawing political lines between whites, black bourgeoisie and US corporate interests on the JLP’s side and working people, rastafarian “sufferahs” and left intelligentsia on the opposing side, alongside (if not completely trusting) Michael Manley’s People’s National Party. Bob Marley famously held up the political rivals’ hands on stage at 1978’s One Love Peace Concert at Kingston’s National Stadium, but the peace never lasted.

Jamaica’s post-independence cleavage drew geographical divides as well: the north coast’s sanitized resorts (where Byron Lee earned his living and reputation) and uptown Kingston where the city’s ‘respectable’ population lived, versus the ghettoes of West Kingston. The sounds and sufferings in West Kingston’s Trenchtown are well known, thanks to global iconicity of Bob Marley and other roots reggae legends. But what were people listening to uptown?

“This is Ska!” offers one answer. It was filmed at the Sombrero Club (on 52b Molynes Road—now the site of a concrete manufacturer, if Google is correct), one of a handful of uptown clubs where the pioneers of ska and rocksteady made their name. Make no mistake: these genres were commonly thought of as “ghetto music” of the day, so to bring them inside in cavernous halls like the Sombrero Club is to pile a tinderbox of youth, sex, liquor, and a post-independence hunger for a better life than the deprivations of old. Never mind whether the band is authentic or not—that crowd is alive. Could the post-independence ideology of national unity  contain them? For how long?

Fast-forward to a different nightclub, featured in Theodoros Bafaloukos’s 1978 filmRockers.

Is this uptown? The “class bias” revealed in the rasta takeover (“Remove ya!”) by DJ Dirty Harry and drummer extraordinaire Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace suggests it is.  The club manager calls in the police too quickly and too comfortably for this to be Trenchtown. And what’s the crowd listening to? Disco music of the most neutered, Euro variety. In later posts I’ll wax poetic about disco, but context is important here: in uptown Kingston, 1978, disco is the soundtrack to Third World bourgeois aspirations and the neoliberal erosion of post-independence solidarity.