PRINCE BUSTER / VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
It's a brilliant July afternoon in Kingston, summer of 1995; Prince Buster and his old friend Carl are walking along Charles Street in downtown Kingston, a place they both know very well. Buster is pointing out landmarks in his career and the history of Jamaican music as he goes along; he indicates a bare dirt plot in the street, which looks like part of a war zone:
Y'see the Hopeland Cross deh so - that's where the first shop was, but there's no shop dere now, ca' it bruk down?
As we get to an intersection, Buster says:
"This is Luke Lane and Charles Street - this a MY corner, a weh we grew up on - right deh so we use to sit down, use to play dice deh so. This corner deh so (indicating the opposite corner), Tom the Great Sebastian buildin' dis - all the music you hear come from dis corner. That's why I mek the tune "Luke Lane Shuffle" - this is Soulsville Center. All these buildin' go up an' down through the war an' ting like that, but this is where everything was. This (pointing to the third corner) was my first record shop right here. It was me an' Carl run this lickle shop - it's now a cabinet shop (Carl says; yeah, yeah, yeah). We mek up in business an' move over deh so, that's where the nex' shop was. Lee Perry tek that shop, further on after me tek it. I leave that shop an' build this buildin' there (pointing further back down Charles Street towards Orange Street), the three-storey buildin' there, that tall one - the shop was on the bottom. Then we move
around to Orange Street, mek sure it's on the main. 'Cause I was born on Orange Street, so it had to be (on) Orange Street. Orange Street is the street that's gonna bring a lot a money back in the country through tourism, if they would fix it up in the proper way, so that people from Australia, Japan, Europe an' otherwise could a come here, and 'ave somewhere to accommodate them with the history of the music. People want to know the history of Orange Street, and we should tell them - because what we tell them is not a story but HISTORY"
That history, in which Prince Buster played a crucial role, is also the history of modern Jamaican popular music, from mento, Jamaican boogie and ska to rock steady and early reggae. The Jamaican dancehalls have given to the world the twin-deck sound system, the sound clash, the dub remix, the foregrounding of drum and bass in that mix, sampling, the rapping deejay and the personality selector - the entire transmission system of modern dance music. All were pioneered in Jamaica, years, even decades, before they were taken up in the metropolitan world. And in the hothouse atmsophere of the dancehall, Prince Buster was a crucial innovator - if anyone can claim to have invented ska, he can. In his time he has been dancehall gateman, owner and operator of the "Voice Of The People" sound system, producer and label owner, singer and percussionist - the self-styled but undeniable King of Ska.
He was born Cecil Campbell on the 28th May 1938, his nickname or 'pet' name of 'Buster' coming from Alexander Bustamente. Along with Norman Manley, Bustamente was the dominant figure of Jamaican politics from the 1930s through to the postwar period, and one of the co-founders of the PNP [Peoples National Party]. The year that Buster was born saw a wave of strikes and social unrest sweeping through the Caribbean. In Jamaica, Bustamente was at its head, a brilliant orator and the first 'voice of the people'.
Living on Orange Street in the downtown area of Central Kingston as a teenager, Buster became leader of a gang from nearby Luke Lane. But before that, as a child in the early 1940s, he had spent time away from Kingston in the country, where he first discovered that he liked music: Well, it all came from my mother and my grandmother - my father's mother - beca' these people use to attend churches, and as a young little boy they had me singin' with them in different churches. My grandmother, who live in the country, at night she was a lady who say her prayers before she go to bed, an' the whol' of us - her husband and the rest of the family - have to have this prayer meetin'. Before that, they use to sing. I had this cousin Alvin who use to have this terrific bass voice?he's singin': "When the roll is called up yonder?" an' I use to jus' love to hear that sound, an' it stick in a mi head.
When he returned to Kingston, he also came back to the post-WW2 modern world, dominated economically and ideologically by the USA. American swing and bop, boogie and r&b were the new musics of the day. As the 1950s dawned, the jumping Jamaican dance bands were losing out to the emergent sound systems. On economic grounds alone, the bands stood no chance - a sound system could rock a dance just as effectively with records, deck and amplifier. This new culture of sound system quickly attracted Buster:
Well, I come back down in a Kingston, yunno, when I 'ave to spend time an' come back - and there was Tom the Great Sebastian. who is to my thinkin' really the king of sound systems - that was a perfect sound system. He was a gentleman, good attitudes, an' he was a master selector. I can remember Tom playin' on the sidewalk in the evenin', an' he play a Fats Domino tune, "Mardi Gras" (Mardi Gras in New Orleans", Imperial 1953) - I went totally freak out, an' kept tell Tom: play it back, play it back! Some line in a the song jus' carry me a step beyond an' I jus' went with it. Duke Vin was with Tom, an' I was a follower of Tom's sound system, and Tom was THE sound system. Tom went into sound system duels with people like Count Nick and Count Buckram - these are good sound sytems in those days, top cream, and Tom won it beca' Tom was the perfect thing, the MODEL, y'unnerstand?
As the effects of the postwar boom began to trickle through to the colonial world, Orange Street in downtown Kingston became the commercial centre of the music business:
"You mus' unnerstand that Orange Street wasn't a Johnnie-come-lately street, it was the street where every thing was born, created, made. Orange Street been the street from day one, yunno? Orange Street is the only street that comes from the seaside all the way to Crossroads - every other one drop short, so that's your main boulevard. And in this area, is the area where all the good entertainers come from - from Joe Bundy, Barber Mack, yunno - an' who didn't come from there had to come there, beca' that's where everthing was happenin'.
I can remember S. T. Wong, that's the pick-a-pow banker [pick-a-pow is a game involving gambling with dice] - these people were at Orange Street, and a lot a people gather round. Then there was Charlie Moo ice-cream parlour, at the corner of North Street and Orange Street, and that was a swingin' ice cream parlour - everybody goes. Charlie Moo's ice-cream parlour later became Beverley's Record Shop. Sonny Bradshaw use to play at a little upstairs spot, right in front of Drummond Street and Orange Street, on Wednesday night time. Down Orange Street, below Charles Street, you had Jack Taylor - a super sound, a man who got all his records in a pipeline from America. So his (sound) was considered one of the strong, because he sold records to Tom, an' Coxsone, an' Duke. Right before Luke Lane an' Charles Street corner you had Son, the junior Sebastian - he was named off Tom, who was on the opposite corner. In the evenin', from about three, four o'clock, Tom would sign on an' start playin', an' large crowd would gather. He would tune down from about eight o'clock. When he's signin' off, Son is signin' on, so the crowd can't go nowhere - is just music. And when about ten o'clock Son is goin' down with his music, Jack Taylor sign on round the corner, Orange Street. So the block was just good music. That is one of the reasons why most record shop owners chosse to 'ave a shop on Orange Street, where there was so much record shops. Bunny Lee 'ave a record shop on Orange Street, then they had Caribbean Distribution - a hell of a shop - just below Beeston Street. then Lyn's Record Shop almost down to Hayward Street. The whole street was nuttin' but music, y'see?"
The pace and the competition between sound systems was increasing; the mid-1950s saw Arthur 'Duke' Reid, a former champion marksman in the police force, enter the arena. He was followed by the hip underdog, Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd. Reid had the strength of money and what amounted to a sizeable gang of 'bad man friend'. Many were also Buster's friends - he had grown up among them in Back A Wall, the shantytown district that once stood on the site of Tivoli Gardens in present day Kingston. The streetwise Buster, feeling a natural sympathy for the underdog Coxsone, offered his crew as security for Coxsone's dances; thus the sound built up a sizeable following in 1956:
"But the reason why Coxsone dances nice, - an' everbody knows THAT - is that the people followin' me. So I tell Machuki I don't 'ave time fe this, - I say I gon' build myself a sound, and 'Chuki say yeah. So I go to my mother an' put the idea to her. I aks her fi a start an' she gi' mi some money. I went to Mr Wong, some Chinese people down Church Street, they had a radio engineering shop, a big nice glass place, they sell records too, I use to gi' dem records fi sell, so they got use to me, an' know me an' come to like me. I went firs' to Miss Wong an' aks her. She said: "Buster, you gona fight with all dem people in a the sound war, with Coxsone an' Duke Reid?" I said, no, I jus' think 'pon the music, but I need some help. She said what you need - I said some speakers an' ting. The lady laugh an' went back into the next office to her husband, an' I see both a dem come back with big smiles on dem face. Mr Wong say: Buster, you really gon' do it?" I say: yes, an' 'im jus' tell 'im wife an' say, give it to 'im, whatever 'im want. The deal was I was to play at the dances an' pay back the money, which I did.
So I built the sound, an' the sound was a much bigger sound than Coxsone or Duke Reid, an' dat startle the people, beca' they would like to know where I get the money from. Some a dem went off with some bogus talk, - some people down a Salt Lane produce some feelins and talk about it was Seaga sound. I was in the record business with Eddie (Seaga, future PM of Jamaica in the 1980s) at West Indies Records, long before politics. The whole town is crazy beca' Prince Buster build a sound.
Once Buster had his "Voice Of The People" sound running, he soon took his first steps into commercial recording; his entry into production came about when Duke Reid, temporarily absent from the business, asked Buster to produce a session for him. According to singer Derrick Morgan, Buster recorded 12 tunes at Federal studio, and only gave one to Duke, keeping the rest for himself. This first batch of 45s in late 1960 yielded a dozen hits, including his own "They Got To Go" directed towards his sound system rivals, and already showing the stressed afterbeat syncopation that would typify ska proper,, as well as marking a distinct step away from the US boogie shuffles that Coxsone and Duke Reid had been recording. Songs like "Warpaint" by Basil Gabbidon, "Shake A Leg" by Derrick Morgan and the biggest hit of all these early tunes, Eric Morris' nursery-rhyme boogie "Humpty Dumpty" set the pattern for Buster's early ska output. At this time he also produced the Folkes Brothers "Oh Carolina", the first yard tune to incorporate Rasta drumming. The style would be heard in full effect - on piano, guitar and horns - on songs like the scorching "Madness", recorded the following year. Buster pursued this Jamaican direction further over the next few years - many of his own songs were updates of Jamaican mento and folk song, as well as the more usual adaptations of US r&b and other foreign music including Afro-Cuban and Calypso. When "Oh Carolina" was licenced to Melodisc Records in London and released on their 'Blue Beat' imprint, Buster began a business relationship with label boss Emil Shalet. The collaboration between the European entrepreneur and the Jamaican soundman would lead to the release of over 600 titles in the UK, on Blue Beat, and subsidiary labels Dice and Fab over the next few years. This vast catalogue - most of which is unavaliable in any format today - includes some of the greatest ska, rock steady and reggae sides ever made. Among this varied output, there are several series that comment on and celebrate certain aspects of Jamaican dancehall culture.
One set of records , initiated when he cut "They Got To Go" and "They Got To Come (My Way)" details the sound war with his early rivals Edwards, Reid and Dodd or "The King, the Duke and the Sir" as Buster addresses them on his 1963 45 of the same title. Another, beginning with "Black Head Chiney Man", commemorates his feud with Derrick Morgan,, which began when the genial Derrick defected to the better-paying Chinese-Jamaican producer Leslie Kong and cut "Forward March". Buster claimed that the sax solo on Derrick's record (by Headley Bennett) was copped from one played by Lester Sterling for him. Hence he accused Derrick of stealing his belongings "to give to your Chiney friend". But it was all fun, since Derrick and Buster remained friends off the record. He used top quality musicians including many Skatalites, as well as such stalwarts of ska as trumpeter Oswald 'Baba' Brooks, and saxists Dennis 'Ska ' Campbell and Val Bennett; the latter featuring strongly on Buster's big UK chart hit "Alcapone(Guns Don't Argue)".
Buster produced hundreds of superb ska instrumentals between 1962-1966; the best of his output easily rivals the more celebrated Studio One/Top Deck Skatalites productions. It's a cultural disaster when such brilliant titles as "Down Beat Burial", "100 Ton Megaton", "Johnny Dark", "Rygin" and "Cinncinnatti Kid", to mention just five which come to mind are not available, although to be fair the same could be said for Leslie Kong's excellent ska productions as well. When Coxsone's top vocal group the Maytals left him, they went to Buster and recorded the classic "Broadway Jungle (Dog War)" for Prince Buster, as well as equally memorable tracks like "Little Flea" and "Pain In My Belly".The album they made for the Prince similarly has yet to appear on cd.
But perhaps Buster's best productions were on himself; as the Rock Steady phase dominated in 1966-1967, he recorded the 'Judge Dread' series, playing the part of the Judge who handed out draconian sentences to rude boys. He once said that people came into his shop to shake his hand and praise him for speaking out on these records against the 'gunmanism' then just beginning to afflict Jamaican society. He also made sides that were elegies to earlier dancehall days, including the beautifully evocative "Johnnie Cool", with Lee Perry as the other voice . Perry, then just about to start up on his own account as a producer, is also heard doing various prisoners' voices on the 'Judge Dread' series. Around this time, Buster toured the UK and met the Beatles. He became a Black Muslim - he still maintains his faith to this day - and socialised with such notables as Malcom X and Muhammed Ali, even spending time at Ali's training camp. He was also politically active, supporting the Guyanan professor Dr. Walter Rodney on demonstrations in the late 1960s and being arrested. He commented on political matters on record as well - "Shanty Town" is scathing on the slum clearances carried out by the Jamaican government in 1967, while the hilarious "Ganja Plant" posits Buster in the Jamaican parliament, calling for the legalisation of the herb traffic. By the early 1970s he seemed to have had had enough, stating on his oldies albums that'They have used guns to spoil the fun and force tasteless and meaningless music upon the land".
Prince Buster had virtually stopped producing by the end of 1973 - although he released a Big Youth set - "Chi Chi Run" was one of Jah Youth's biggest early hits in 1973 and an excellent early dub album, "The Message", as well as sides by Dennis Alcapone, Dennis Brown and John Holt. He recorded at Channel One in mid-decade, although only a single, "Finger", was ever released. After that, for a while, little was heard from the 'voice of the people'. He began collaborating with the UK ska revivalist Gaz Mayall, and toured Japan with him in the 1980s and 1990s. His legendary status continues to assure him a strong following among 'new-ska' devotees, and he still tours occasionally. In spite of being over 60, he seems as fit and strong as ever - he had also been a successful boxer in his youth - and his combative and critical faculties are if anything stronger. Today we can see him as a major force in the foundation of modern Jamaican popular music, and an essential Jamaican producer, investing everything he did with the force of his creative personality. Just like he says himself on his 1967 hit "Train To Girls Town":
"This train is bound for Kingston Jamaica West Indies
We are goin' to Girls Town - all aboard !
This is engine 59
And the driver is none other than Senor Pedro Gonzales (nice, nice)
Leavin' London to Kingston
We are now goin' across Montego Bay
Comin' in to Kingston..?
An' if you please, take a look to your right
You will see the Blue Mountains
Now a whole lot of black pretty girls live there
A whole lot of black soulful girls (nice?)
Now just for a second, take a look out the window
Look upon the hill
See that pretty house ?
That's the house of the famous Judge Dread
Better known as Judge Four Hundred Years,
Y'know that man ? (yes suh, great man)
That's the man who cool the heat
With a rock steady beat
Now we are now approachin' Kingston
An' we are flyin' over Orange Street
See that shop in front of Buster's shop?
Use to be a bad man there - ain't there no more !
(wha' 'appen to 'im, bredda?)
boy, 'im get tired !
An' went down down down the street
(a funny lickle guy that!)
Now if you take a look to your left
You will see a house
with a coffin put out at the door
That's the house of Emmanuel Zachariah Zaccepon
You know that man?
(yes, he's a badman)
well we are now passin' Boneyard
see it deh - 'im grave ?
lots of flowers??
Only 2 miles to go before we reach Girls Town
An' Senor Pedro Gonzales,
Don't get jumpy, you will reach?
Now look, look look!
That's the the house, that's the house - that big palace you see there
With all them guards and all them children
at the gates standin'
That's the palace of the famous Prince Buster
The mighty Prince Buster
And for those of you from Nottingham, and Birmingham and Liverpool
That's the house of the mighty Prince Buster, Mr Alcapone himself
That's right, that's the man, that's the man
Well, we are now enterin' Girls town
Wooooy ! Watch the girls ! Here come the girls?.
And Senor Pedro Gonzales leave the engine an' jump on the girls
An' the train is headin' down hill - Senor Pedro ?
Uh-huh, tell them I'm comin' back to London
With a music sweet for their dancin' feet
Uh huh, Girls town, look at dem girls, pretty
sweet sweet girls
(nice, nice, nice??)
Steve Barrow / July 1999