Desmond Dekker and the Music of the Shantytowns

Desmond Dekker, the first international star of Jamaican ska and rocksteady music, died of a heart attack in late May at the age of 64.

Before Bob Marley made reggae music into a world phenomenon in the 1970s, poor Jamaican musicians like Dekker rocked British, Caribbean and U.S. dancehalls with hits like “Israelites” (1968) and “007 (Shantytown)” (1967). Jamaican ska music, the predecessor of rocksteady and reggae, was born in the impoverished shantytowns of Kingston in the late 1950s.

Because most shantytown residents were too poor to afford radios in their homes and albums cost the equivalent of one month’s rent, DJs with portable sound systems strapped to bicycles would provide mobile dance parties, playing the latest hits from the U.S. By the early ’60s indigenous Jamaican recording studios were pressing their own albums for the sound systems to play, and modern Jamaican music was born.

Influenced by rock, soul and Caribbean music like Calypso, early ska music was all about the dance rhythm and was produced almost exclusively for the disco/DJ market. Potent political lyrics and spiritual references would develop later, with the rocksteady (slower) beats in the last half of the ’60s and reggae of the ’70s.

Shantytown musicians were paid as little as $10 a recording for songs that became huge. Prior to his recording career, Dekker was a welder in Kingston where he worked for a time with Bob Marley. In fact, Dekker introduced Marley to his first producer, the famous Leslie Kong of Beverley Records.

While Dekker’s earliest ska hits offer only a glimpse of his huge talent, the 1967 release of “007 (Shantytown)” established Dekker as a powerful musical voice of the Kingston slums. “Them a loot/Them a shoot/Them a wail/At Shantytown/The rude boy deh ‘poh probation/Then rude boy a bomb up the town.”

The rude boy culture that Dekker and other rocksteady musicians made visible to the world was a product of the mass unemployment and poverty of the slums. As would later be depicted in rap music of the U.S.’s urban ghettos, gangs and the criminal life were the only options open to many of Kingston’s youth.

The brilliant film The Harder They Come (1973), whose soundtrack features Dekker and other reggae and ska greats, portrays the rude boy ethos: Go out fighting, because life in the shantytowns ain’t worth living. The Jamaican shantytowns, like Trenchtown made famous by Marley, were government housing projects built in the 1950s to house the tens of thousands of rural Jamaicans fleeing poverty in the countryside and looking for work in the city.

These projects–built on the sites of garbage dumps and squatter camps in West Kingston–had no sewage system and were so overcrowded that makeshift houses of cardboard and scrap metal soon outnumbered the government-built concrete-block structures.

The shantytowns became areas of extreme police corruption and violence, as gangs battled for control of the ganja trade. They were also scenes of resistance to government corruption and poverty, following in a long tradition of uprisings by slaves and poor Blacks in Jamaica.

Dekker’s breakthrough hit “Israelites,” which climbed to number one on the British charts and number nine in the U.S. in 1969, spoke to this tradition of desperation and resistance. “Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir, so that every mouth can be fed. /Poor me, the Israelite.”

As Dekker explained in a 1999 interview with Laurence Cane Honeysett, “Well, it’s really about how hard things were for a lot of people in Jamaica. Downtrodden, like the Israelites that Moses led to the Promised Land. And I was really saying that no matter how bad things are there is always a calm after a storm, so don’t give up on things.”

Jamaica won political independence from Britain in 1962 and hopes of Jamaica’s shanty dwellers for a better life soared. This era of political upheaval was the backdrop to the music of Dekker, Marley and numerous other Jamaican musicians.

By the late 1960s, Dekker had relocated to Britain. His music and other rocksteady hits, played first by Jamaicans living in the diaspora, were embraced by the white working-class mod scene in Britain. As punk music diverged into racist and antiracist wings, ska, rocksteady and reggae were embraced and incorporated by left-wing bands like the Clash and the Specials.

Jamaican music’s influence also touched urban centers of the U.S., with Jamaican toasting having a direct impact on the development of rap.

While Dekker may never have gained the fame or the fortune of Bob Marley, his musical influence on some of the greatest musical movements of the last 30 years shouldn’t be underestimated. He continued to be a popular live performer throughout Europe, Asia and the U.S.

I was lucky enough to attend his summer 2005 concert in Chicago, and despite stifling temperatures, Dekker kept the sold-out crowd stomping and singing throughout his hour and half long set of ska and rocksteady classics.

For those interested in learning more about the music of Desmond Dekker, check out his remastered greatest hits collections from Trojan Records. Don’t miss the film The Harder They Come and Jimmy Cliff’s accompanying soundtrack. For anyone who wants to learn more about Jamaica’s shantytowns and the impact of neoliberal policies, check out the documentary Life and Debt.

Kirsten Roberts writes for the Socialist Worker.




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