Freedom Sounds

African belief systems have been retained in Jamaica in spite of the violent uprooting of Africans from their homelands and a colonial attempt to obliterate all cultural ties. Music and visual signifiers are among the liberating agents that have been useful forms of resistance and that remain vital and vibrant within contemporary struggles in Jamaica.

Anthropologists recorded the earliest ritual and folk songs (digging tunes, ring games, kumina and Rastafarian music) of Jamaica. These recordings were limited in distribution and used graphic designs they felt correspondent to the anthropological vision of the native culture. Jamaica Cult Music produced by the Ethnic Folkways Library is illustrated in a manner that sets the stage for how the listener conceives of the musicians. The communal aspect of the function and production of the music is displaced by the image of a sole nude native strumming a lute. Tiny flora and fauna in the background put the central figure in an almost Garden of Eden-like setting. With this image, the field recordings take on a “primitive” innocence.

By the time Traditional Songs of the Caribbean was recorded in 1979 by the Organization of American States, understanding of the relationship of society and music had significantly changed. Everald Brown”s Intuitive image on the cover adds visual context for the music. Both the art and the music reflect the many complex socio-cultural sources that converged on the islands. As folk recordings captured indigenous Jamaican music, more internationally influenced groups were redefining it in ways that would set the stage for reggae.

The introduction of the long playing record was another significant change. This format allowed producers to collect songs, sometimes with various artists, and package them. Prior to the 1960s the idea of adding an authentic visual representation of music to the cover art was almost non-existent. The industry was dominated by powerful producers who exercised exclusive control over production, packaging and distribution for an album-buying clientèle of Jamaicans and cosmopolitan music collectors from the United States, Europe and later Japan. Late 1950s record covers, such as the calypso album, Meet me in Jamaica, authenticated discriminatory views of what constituted Jamaican-ness, on the one hand, and distant notions of a tropical paradise and hedonism on the other. Images of hotel bands playing at tropical retreats and parties adorning albums like Jamaica Mento often featured pretty light-skinned women or happy peasants. Images of comic sexuality as on Big Bamboo helped established a face place and perception of popular culture in ways that did not represent the Jamaican population.

The Skatalites (1962-64) epitomized the finest creative display of improvisation and instrumental virtuosity, the mastery of individual musicianship, ability for collective display of musical ideas an consciousness of socio-political and historical awareness. These qualities were aligned with visionary musical concepts and the strong nationalists’ ideals they brought together in establishing the new musical concept called “ska”.

Ska authentic: presenting the original Skatalites from Jamaica, showcases the band as instrumentalists steeped in jazz and blues and displays a Caribbean-ness informed by their Jamaican roots while mixing Mambo and calypso elements to demonstrate their unique brand of Ska. Highlighting the ingenuity of their star trombonist, Don “Cosmic” Drummond, dramatizes the Jamaican experience. His music reflected the concerns of Afro-Jamaicans and foreshadowed the conscious lyrics of the reggae-era singers.Skatalites' songs like “Freedom sounds”, reburial (of Marcus Garvey), and Malcolm X were precursors to 1960s black consciousness and brought increasing political sensibility to the music. The Skatalites were also studio musicians, responsible for arranging and recording the music with artists who would become seminal musical figures. The Wailers, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bonny Livingston – whose lyrics would explicitly politicise the music – are most celebrated and best known among them.