January 7th, 2016

Boston Is a Island, Seen?


s/o thephoenix (rip) for the img

My recent post involving a Boston sound session focused on the use of the zunguzung meme, so I didn’t discuss some of the other interesting and awesome things about the recording — and how I found it.

I’ve been turning my attention back to the story of reggae in Boston — a story that I first tried to put together a decade ago. Indeed, I resumed my search by returning to a piece I published back in 2005 in a local zine, “Reggae-Tinged Resonances of a Wicked Wicked City.” (Geez, can I really be insufferably wordy sometimes; I like to think I’ve improved on that count.)

As I was re-reading, I decided to google some of the old soundsystems to see if — praise be to Jah — some vintage sound tapes had finally made it online alongside counterparts from Kingston, New York, London, et al. In 2005 it was damn near impossible to hear any of this stuff; it seemed far more likely in 2016, as the recorded past continues to make its way, however willy-nilly, to the internet.

I CNTRL-C’d on “Evertone Hi-Power, with selectors Wheely and Robot” and was feeling lucky. And what do you know? The top return was for a 1985 Evertone session including a visiting crew representing King Jammy’s from JA! As I started reading the description, I got a strange sense of deja vu before recognizing it as the same paragraph I had just copy-n-pasted from — a paragraph I wrote a decade ago…

In the early 1980s, Boston’s reggae scene was blessed by a number of soundsystems and selectors working mostly in clubs in Dorchester, where Boston’s West Indian population has been based for decades. Echo International (which later changed its name to Capricorn Hi-Fi), with its eponymous selector, Echo, was one of the more well-known sounds in the area. Evertone Hi-Power, with selectors Wheely and Robot, ranked among the best in town and is remembered as one of the biggest soundsystems in Boston during the 1980s. They even clashed with legendary Jamaican sound, King Jammy’s, in Dorchester in 1986. Apparently, Unity Sound, with selectors Reggie Dawg and Warren, was the “gal favorite,” while Supersonic was known as the “bad boy” sound, with connections to the infamous Dog Posse. Cambridge’s Western Front earned a reputation in the 1980s as a spot for “bad men” as well as for serious reggae music, especially from local live-bands such as the I-Tones and Cool Runnings. Aside from the Front, though, most of the top spots to hear reggae in Boston were based around Blue Hill Ave in Dorchester: Black Philanopies, Manny’s Bar, Windsor Cricket Club, 4 Aces, Carver Lodge, Kelekos, and, of course, 3 C’s—the Caribbean Cultural Center, which opened on 1000 Blue Hill Ave in 1981 and has been hosting big reggae events ever since. Veterans of the Boston reggae scene also note the popularity of house parties during the 80s, many of which, not unlike dances in Jamaica, would often last until 7 or 8 in the morning.

It was unattributed, but how could I bother to care about that? The story is not mine, for one; I am but a humble chronicler and interpreter. More important, though, was that my text had led me to something that I REALLY WANTED TO HEAR. This was the best possible scenario. It was as if 2005 Wayne had left a trail of digital bread crumbs for 2016 Wayne. Give thanks!

Cherry on top: the session itself is gold. Great vibes, local color, and a fine dancehall session in solid 1986 stylee. It’s great to hear the deejays reworking all the musical figures that enjoyed currency in that moment, from melodic contours to slang to riddims to ways of “selecting” or playing them (e.g., turning a skanking 4/4 track into a 3+3+2 break using the volume knob/fader). If you’re into dancehall culture, the session offers a wonderful glimpse at the state-of-the-art in the mid-1980s. Reverberating from Kingston to Boston, this is the sound of an institution at work, a resonant diasporic resource, an alchemical production of live sociality from recorded sound–

If I’m hearing correctly, Jammy’s crew come in after a half-hour or so (launching with a zunguzung riff at 35:20) and then rock for a solid 1.5 hours. Before that, the Bostonians hold their own. Skilled deejays pass the mic around and offer a mix of impromptu declamations and more rehearsed routines over the big riddims of the day — and occasionally, in the name of good vibes, playing whole records/voicings in their own right (including some Jammy’s productions — a notable and explicit gesture of respect).

When one of the deejays says “Boston is a island of itself, seen?” at 8:48, it’s as if he’s *trying* to title a compilation or a book. (So much better than the title I came up with a decade ago!) Local references erupt with some frequency, especially in original routines — including a nice set of tunes over the Golden Hen riddim. It’s quite a ride even without the offkey cover of “Karma Chameleon” that I very much wish were a satire.

From my perspective, recordings like these (and I found others) stand testament to reggae’s vitality in Boston in the 1980s, at once grounded in local sociality and in diasporic networks. In that sense, they are a crucial complement to other artifacts that represent Boston’s reggae heritage, most notably the recordings made by local bands and local labels.

So while I’m here, allow me to share a couple selections from two reggae bands working in Boston at this time. Many of these bands included Jamaican musicians living in Boston, and nearly all seem to bring a reverent, faithful, yet distinctive approach to the music.

First off, check out the dubby stylings of Zion Initiation, as released by a small local label in 1979:

And don’t miss this ambitious video (on location in Paris?!) from the I-Tones. Fronted by the Luke “White Ram” Ehrlich and featuring Chris Wilson on guitar (a Jamaican ex-pat who would later run Heartbeat Records), the I-Tones were one of the biggest reggae bands in town in the 1980s. A song like “Walk On By” shows how their sound was grounded in reggae’s abiding love for sweet pop and R&B. (According to the YouTube page, Ram was not thrilled about the sax solo!) Gotta love that falsetto.

Will share more as the project develops, but do drop a line if you’d like to add anything. Just scattering some digital breadcrumbs here, seen?

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bill  |  January 9th, 2016 at 1:11 am

    Early ’80 In Square Men’s Bar, Inman Square had some reggae programming: I-tones and invariably Jamaican headliners who would show about 30 minutes before closing.
    If you have not seen recently:Breadcrumbs: covering similiar ground and links to Wicked Wicked Soundscape, Hip-hop in Jamaica, Reggae in Boston: A Preliminary Comparison
    https://ruffluxury.wordpress.com/2011/06/18/our-fathers-land-bw-blue-hill/
    https://ruffluxury.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/more-thoughts-on-boston-reggae/

    There was thing early 70’s Jamaican Reggae Cambridge thing heard about from MIT people in southern NM then. They played at house parties. Reel to reel stuff.

  • 2. wayneandwax  |  January 9th, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Thanks, Bill. I enjoyed those two Ruffluxury posts and I actually linked them in my own post here, if perhaps too subtly (to the words “local labels”). I’d love to hear some of that stuff, and I’m hoping to turn up more in the way of original music recorded here in those days. I wonder whether any of the Evertone guys recorded the songs they were doing over the riddims of the day. I suspect they did. I also want to know more about this joint in Inman Sq — it was a little before my day, but I’ve been hearing about it recently.

  • 3. sista pam  |  July 29th, 2016 at 10:37 am

    Greetings from the North east kingdom of Vermont. ..Irasburg to be exact. Ironicsburg really. This is Sista Pam of the Western front, back in the day. I was responsible for the Front becoming a reggae focused club in the 80s. Marvin feared my Sunday DJ sessions…the Dog massive knew “who he really was” and didn’t respect him, UT they DID respect me!!! I understood who THEY were and it was fascinating. When I left in 1988, they responded rather violently. Anyhoo….. I moved to VT where I received visits and phone calls from various Boston reggae band members including Ras Ipa from Zion Initation who was blaming me for causing the breakup of the band by moving. ” Pahm,” he said, “you were de glue that held us all together.” The Front, under my care, was the “neutral zone for any and all posses to party in peace, and those Boyz credited me with that. It helped that I both overtook and spoke any for of patois. Reggie and David Irie said to each other after being scolded by me for some inappropriate behavior…”Chaa…listen to Pahm chat…she sounds like she come from Maypen.” They respected me in a motherly way. I didn’t fear them and showed it each time I’d pull the plug on them if the lyrics got too slack. I was a “white girl” after all…and didn’t want to hear about what “white girls ‘do’.” (Most of that was wishful thinking on the dj’s part anyway, but I knew that.) It was all part of the game we played together. So, Bill, you now have my email address. If you need to verify a y thing Western Front reggae-related…feel free to communicate. One Love, Sista Pam

    B

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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