Shaka can

PENNY REEL pins JAH SHAKA down to an exclusive interview.

BEFORE it is finally pulled down a few years back, the converted cinema known as Club Noreik, on the Tottenham corner of that great North London thoroughfare the Seven Sisters Road, regularly plays host to weekly Friday all-night sessions featuring solely the uncompromising barrage of redemptive message music which issues from the Jah Shaka sound system.

As midnight approaches, scores of youth from the surrounding environs, from Broadwater Farm and Edmonton in the north, from Harringay in the west, from Hackney and downtown Stokie in the south, from Walthamstow in Mead and Forest Gate in the east, as well as the sound's own considerable massive from the other side of the river, converge on the Noreik. Huddled by their hundreds in the spacious ground floor hall of the near derelict building, they while away the small hours until sheaves of dawn light creeping through the cracks in the doors cast weird shadows on the wall, rapt in fealty to some of the loudest, most impregnable music ever heard in the capital.

Cranking his 1,000 watt amp to mighty volume so that the treble soars like a heavenly chorus and the bass rumbles the foundations, jerking limp bodies in spasmodic twitching accompaniment, Jah Shaka himself hunched over the controls like a man possessed plays his dubs of Pablo, Twinkle and Uhuru music: echoing across the room like vengeful litanies of militancy.

"They used to beat us, they used to beat us so bad, they used to torture us, they used to rape the Ire, ire, ire African daughters..."

In the darkness in a circle in the centre of the room, dressed in army fatigues decorated with ites, gold and green trimmings and carrying short staffs similarly tricolored, dreadlocks flailing, dozens of youth prance the floor in unrestrained warrior dervish, brandishing their batons as they leap into the air or sink to haunches according to the music's dictate.

"But now Rasta pon top, the wicked ah go drop..."

And overseeing it all, the intent, solitary figure of Jah Shaka haloed in the room's single source of light.

"I WAS already playing sound from I was 12," Shaka now says. "A sound named Freddie Cloudburst from round here." His gesture encompasses the surrounding Lewisham streets. "Not directly a roots sound," he confides. "It was like a big people's sound at that time, even 78s were still being played. I used to buy records for that sound and do certain things as youths, and formed a following from that time. Because it wasn't even sound system I really started off in, it was group. I had a group as a youth, this is where I really started in this, on stageshows."

We are sitting in his offices on the second floor of a building overlooking the New Cross Road. Here at ground level houses the premises of The Culture shop run by Shaka and selling a variety of African and Ras Tafari arts and crafts, dreadwear, all the paraphernalia indeed necessary to outfit a typical Shaka warrior. Also sold from the shop is the complete catalogue of recordings issued on its proprietor's own familiar Jah Shaka - King Of The Zulu Tribe label. On the first floor is a small cafe run by a vegan cook who prepares a menu of West Indian food. Next door to where we now sit, a qualified hairdresser conditions natty locks and treats the scalps of their wearers.

Jah Shaka is relating the genesis of his sound.

"It was certain visions of music that came to me from that time," he says, "which turned to sound business, because you couldn't produce the kind of records at that time what you really wanted and know to be good music. So that a way of keeping up with what was going on was collecting a lot of records. People used to come and ask I to lend them a few records to play for their party. After a time it developed that we actually got a 50 watt amplifier and started from that. Coxsone and all that was playing at this time. Shelley and all those people, Neville Enchanter, Admiral Ken, Metro Downbeat. So as a youth I was playing that sound and developing certain things.

"It came to a time which you would have known as the black consciousness era, people like Angela Davis were going around giving speeches, Martin Luther King, George Jackson, all those people. Well, the sound, Shaka sound, developed then. Because of our history and knowing that a main part of communication and unity is to have something which will unify the people. So from that time the sound name was chosen for the purpose of being able to unify the people. That's the philosophy behind the sound, to be able to unify the people to do something for themselves."

DUBBED the spiritual warrior for the heavy roots sounds he favours - "played King David style" as the posters for his dances always proclaim - Jah Shaka invariably attracts a large following whenever he plays out, whether in his home territory of Lewisham or much further afield in Ras Tafari strongholds like Bristol, Nottingham, Northampton, Birmingham and Leeds.

Since turning his hand to producing the sort of music he prefers to play on his own set, such as the 'Commandments Of Dub' LP series, Jah Shaka has worked with the likes of Aswad, Twinkle Brothers and the local Ariwa Posse musicians.

That his works are not more widely acclaimed, he pleads media bias, though also necessary funds for wider publicity is also limited. Even many of his own followers are largely unaware of the extent of his catalogue.

"There is people who come to the shop to buy records, and they see that I have certain LPs and things, and they say when did you make them. Yet I made them three years ago, and these people know me but they didn't know I made that amount of albums or singles. They did not know simply because it was not publicised. Yes, people have touched one and two records on the radio but I'm talking about pushing them, that people get to know and understand them. The radio is a media what gets to people. The first radio we have is sound system as you know, which we used to build a lot of artists when they were even smaller, we helped to lift them as sound man. So sound people play a very important part in the music, but then the radio station now took over from where the sound system was doing and have twisted it around.

"Some people now, like some youths what's gonna build a sound, they straightaway say they are going to play soul or some other music 'cause they want to make some money. They didn't come in it as just having a sound where people used to walk with amplifiers on their backs to reach a dance and pushing in a pram and lifting an amplifier down some roads and van breaking down and people having to take up boxes from a mile away and try even to bring a couple down to the dance. It has been a different scope. You can't blame that youth even to say he's gonna build a sound like that, 'cause he's looking some money. It's not to say they don't know what's the good music, but they are saying they are pleasing the people. They are not saying the roots music is no good. Some sound men if you speak with them they won't say that it's no good but will say the people don't like it. We like it but the people don't like it and we play to please the people."

According to Shaka, it is the bias of radio programmers, not excepting those specifically involved in broadcasting reggae, whom have largely contributed to the present conformity and sterility of the music. Previously, sound systems functioned as a kind of underground network for the community in their own right.

"But then the radio station took over from what the sound system was doing and twisted it around," is a phrase he repeats often.

"But as far as I know of sound systems from a longer time, each sound system has played a certain type of music. You had Duke Reid, you had Metro, you had Neville Enchanter, you had all these top sounds, Coxsone, all played a certain type of music and their sounds were known for that. That's why sound system have following, because they are playing a certain type of music. So for instance Neville Enchanter was known as an instrumentalist, like with organs, a lot of organ tunes. Instrumental, Neville was the sound. Duke Reid, he used to play a certain type of tune with orchestral something in it, violins, something like that. That was his speciality to play. Coxsone as a sound from that time was known to play a lot of vocal tunes. Like melodious records was what Coxsone was known for at that time.

"So each sound had characteristics what went with that sound. So you could leave three or four dances in one evening and hear four different selection of tunes. So you didn't mind to pay to go in another place after being at the other place because it was a total different category of the same music.

"But in this time now you have seen what's happened. The radio station is playing certain records, the people in their home has got certain records, and the sounds are playing the same thing. So the whole business is not how I know sound business to be.

"But I will still have to stick to the traditional music, the deep roots music which still incorporates the traditional flavour of the African music with a lot of drums and the heavy beat. I will stick with that music because it's the roots of the music."


This article originally appeared in the 14 March issue of Black Echoes, 1987.

R.I.P. Penny Reel 1948-2018.