Personal Favourites

Garry Steckles pays tribute to 11 Caribbean songs that didn’t make this issue’s “250 best” list

Ernie Smith

I must confess to having felt greatly honoured and not a little overwhelmed when I was invited to be one of the panellists for this issue’s ambitious special feature on the finest tunes ever to come out of the English-speaking Caribbean.

Being from the north-east of England, and having grown up listening to the Beatles, the Stones, and the Animals, I was flattered, to say the least, to find myself in such distinguished company. And I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the assignment. This is one of the most productive regions on the planet when it comes to music — on a per capita basis, it’s unquestionably the most productive, with tens of thousands of 45s, 33s, and CDs churned out over the past three or four decades, in a region with a collective population of less than 6 million.

So choosing the best 50 tunes — or even 250 — from this remarkable cultural smorgasbord was always going to be a daunting task. Bob Marley alone gave us hundreds of timeless melodies that would qualify for inclusion in any 50-greatest list, and the Mighty Sparrow isn’t far behind.

My dilemma — and I’m sure all my fellow panellists felt exactly the same way — wasn’t so much what to include, but what to leave out. Over the years, many of my personal favourites haven’t exactly been regional hits, much less global bestsellers, and while I wanted desperately to include some of them I knew they’d have little chance of making the final cut when all the contributors submitted their lists and they were collated by the staff of Caribbean Beat.

That’s when editor Nicholas Laughlin came to the rescue. “Why not use your column to tell readers about some of your favourites they mightn’t hear about otherwise?” he suggested. So, here are some off-the-beaten-track numbers that have been on my personal Caribbean hit parade over the years:

Don’t Down Me Now: Ernie Smith and the Roots Revival. Jamaican balladeer Ernie Smith had a string of hits in the 60s and 70s in a Caribbean folk vein, and not a few eyebrows were raised in reggae circles in the late 70s when he moved to Canada, grew locks, and got into the roots business. No matter, Ernie’s a total pro whatever he sings, and Don’t Down Me Now, his biggest hit from that era, is a mid-tempo masterpiece.

Borderline, Crucial Bankie: I’ve called St Kitts home since 1993, but had no idea when I moved there that the island was home to some of the world’s foremost reggae performers. They don’t get the same exposure as their Jamaican counterparts, but Kittitian reggae stars like Crucial Bankie and Masud Sadiki are world-class by any yardstick — as songwriters, singers, and stage performers. Borderline, a heartfelt ode to St Kitts, is one of the highlights of Crucial’s brilliant Home Grown album.

The Black Sheep, Ras Iley: One of Barbados’s most beloved calypsonians, Ras Iley is equally comfortable with a sort of hybrid rhythm that’s unique to him and that’s neither calypso nor reggae, but owes much to both of the Caribbean’s two most famous musical genres. “I can see Rastafari in parliament, making crucial decisions for Government, but what do you see, you view me negatively, I am the black sheep in our society.” Sadly, this early 90s prophesy composed by Red Plastic Bag has yet to come to pass — but it’s still a wonderful tune.

Roller Coaster, Destra Garcia and André Tanker: This was written for Destra for Trinidad’s 2003 Carnival by Tanker, the pioneering singer-songwriter who, sadly, passed away just as that year’s festivities were starting, and not long after this soca classic was recorded. The melody line is pure Tanker, Destra’s powerful vocals have clearly been influenced by the legendary Calypso Rose, and the result is soca heaven.

By His Deeds, VC: I picked up Strictly the Best 26, a reggae compilation CD, a few years back largely to get my hands on Just Friends, the infectious Tony Rebel tune that was an absolute monster at the time. To my surprise and delight, the CD also contained By His Deeds, a modern roots masterpiece with considerably more staying power and a much more profound message. Contemporary reggae at its very best.

Your Honour, Pluto: Caught hiding in the closet by an irate husband, Pluto pleads his case before a judge. Not all great Jamaican music is serious, and this infectious 70s hit is ribald reggae at its finest.

Gotcha, Ernest Ranglin: One of the creators of the ska beat, Ernest Ranglin is also one of the world’s great jazz guitarists. Gotcha is the title track from my favourite Ranglin CD, which features the Jamaican maestro and a cast of all-star studio musicians playing cool and classy reggae-jazz.

Reggae for May Ayim, Linton Kwesi Johnson: Okay, so LKJ has lived in England for over 40 years. But great reggae is great reggae, and you’d have to go a long way to find as good an example of dub poetry. From the superb CD More Time.

Every Time A Ear de Soun, Mutabaruka: We just went that long way. Muta, the elder statesman of Jamaican dub poets, is at his biting best and the bass lines are simply deadly.

Universal Unrest, Foundation: The vocal trio has long been one of the foundation stones of reggae music, and this aptly named and sadly under-recorded group from Port Maria, Jamaica, came up with a classic roots CD called One Shirt in the mid 90s. This is just one of the truly outstanding tracks.

Don’t Call Us Immigrants, Tabby Cat Kelly: I couldn’t resist going back to England for my final selection, the title track of a wonderful compilation CD that showcases the best of English roots music in the 70s. Dennis Bovell, the godfather of English reggae, contributes a killer arrangement and some memorable bass lines.

Finally, a sincere apology to all the great Caribbean singers and songwriters who deserve to be in this column but aren’t. There’s so much great music, and only so much space.