ITS something like seeing the Wizard of Oz for the first time; all that mighty, awesome thunder and noise of great rushing waters, then a faint start when you realise the tumult is coming from one man.
Shaka detests dealing in competition, and indeed every sound has its strengths. Mighty Observer gain credit for carrying the sound system revelation abroad, and to people of different cultures. Ray Symbolic the Bionic are the slickest dudes, with Ranking Joe rapping like a sassy fridge salesman having fun among the eskimoes.
All sound system followers have their favourites, and there is a certain section of the population who love only Shaka.
It seemed that when the other sounds had done with their boasting and toasting, there would come a discreet hiss from the corner, and Shaka would mutter a title, or more often an invocation to Jah RasTafari, and the old-style heavy bakelite-style head of his arm would lower to the vinyl. Then it might seem that the walls were tumbling down around your ears. Then it might seem that your body had never felt those rhythms to impel and overwhelm, youd find your feet flashing like sparklers.
A crowd gathers round Shaka, watching entranced as if he was a conjuror. Sometimes he plays the vocal section straight, then he rides the rhythm until it disintegrates, you hurtle through the instruments like a dance of swop-your-partners, now whirling to the hi-hat, or fist-fighting with the bass. When the music hits, Shaka, well into the dub section now, looks like Lee Perry, swaying faster to a frenzy, bobbing and weaving as the musics penetrating. His hands seem to flash from knob to knob of his HH amp like lightning. A picture of Haile Selassie sellotaped above the deck acts as an inspirational icon.
Then come certain sounds, the sounds that mark out Shaka. A keening sound cuts you, trailing a tail like a comet. Shaka playing his harp, then syn-drum; he hits it with a drumstick or plays it with his hands, the abstract texture melodies that race like liquid neon through each vein. This is a music, a great improvisation, that goes beyond reggae or any other musical division. Almost beyond physical music, into the mystic; sheets of energy shooting from the barricading standing store speakers.
Some people complain, say Shaka carries too much weight, too much distortion. Its true it can verge on pain when Shaka shakes a sound by the scruff of its neck till it gives up its secret But he is an extreme artist. Unlike most sound system organisers, he stays alone at the controls, speaking only when the spirit says so, choosing the music that will re-charge the peoples batteries like an orgone accumulator. If Shakas sound sticks needles in your ears, its like acupuncture, shaking up the sluggish circulation of the blood. He is a serious and dedicated man, who will only play inspirational music.
Shaka inspires the stepper dancers. When his turn comes round, the music hits new intensity, and the youths launch into gymnastic feats. As much mime as dance, the motions of stepping on stones over river currents, of peering through curtains and shinning up drainpipes, of finding your way from a fortress to freedom. These are guerilla movements to complement Shakas warrior style. Purposeful and athletic, with the frenzy of dervishes. It is no coincidence that Shaka cites Aswad, and Misty, the two warrior bands, as particularly crucial.
Such a stance is crucial in these times. Last Friday Shaka was making the rafters rattle like loose teeth in a South London Town Hall, playing a new Aswad dub. He cries:
"JAHOVIAH I", a long, warbled yowl that seems to span octaves, the cry hes adopted from the Twinkle Brothers great Daniel record. The warrior youth start to step with the crisp decision that marks a militant stepper.
Shaka named himself after the great Zulu warrior; the man who re-structured the Zulu armies in the early 1800s. He devised a new, lethal, fighting blade: imposed strict discipline, including months of celibacy at a stretch: divided the spoils of war radically, giving most to the poorest soldiers, and less to the rich. Jah Shaka says its the Zulus work he sets out to continue.
That same day, the papers report a 17-year-old skinhead Sieg Heiling in court as hes sentenced for the murder of an Asian youth. Akhter Au Baig. Another item next to it quotes Joan Lestor, MP, saying that many victims have no confidence in the determination of the police to seek out-perpetrators of racial violence.
Its a warrior time, if you want to survive. Daily harrassment of all kinds, the feeling of not being free to walk the streets; Shakas answer, in the face of any argument, is repatriation to Africa.
"Its a complete solution. With the knowledge weve got over the years, we know the task. We are not fighting to stay here. If I was to meet with the head of the National Front, it would solve a lot of problems."*
The man who inspires such fierce devotion does not like to talk about himself. "Its nothing to do with my private life or my slave name, its nonsense to bring yourself out into the limelight. Im not involved with that. All I want to do is get on with my work, till such time as I leave the country.
"I dont know what the other sounds are doing, I only know what I
"Moa Anbessa-ah-ah-ah. Got a woman want fe hold little rub, check out Shaka fe play some dubs, check out Fatman fe spin some dubs, Coxone see you come tonight but no bother broke no fight..
Cimarons: Rub A Dub Shoes
am doing. Its nothing to do with what kind of speakers or amps Im building; Im only concerned with building spiritually.
"I spend a lot of time with the sound. Talking to the people is more important than the studio business. (Although Shaka himself is a musician and has just released his first record "Jah Children Cry" by African Princess on his own label.) Ive got to bring people to remember that we, the black people, have been forgotten. You could call us the forgotten race, as it says in the Bible. I take it very seriously. The people that are mentioned in the records I play the Children of Israel that is directly us.
"This is my most important job. People get depressed in this country. You have to give them something to hope for. Theres a lot of pressure. People complain - they say the whole world is upside down. People jump off buildings so as not to face earth as it is at the moment. The only thing to look to is God. People have tried everything else. Haile Selassie came to show us that everything weve been hearing about is not in the sky there is such a place where we could be Ethiopia."
Shakas views are controversial. He arrived from Jamaica when he was five; kept dances from when he attended the Samuel Pepys School in. South London. He gives thanks that he was raised here: "Its been like a college here for me."
The first sound he checked for was Metro, who still build his amps.
Shaka moves with twelve youths who help set up the sound, transporting the mighty, hand-carved speakers with their heavyweight thunder old American RCA boxes, and amps. Most of them are unemployed. They have followed Shaka for anything from five to seven years, devote their lives to his sound.
Between them the youths around Shaka number the several skills carpentry, electrical, and so on necessary to maintain the sound. They are unemployed simply because work is scarce; but this is probably the most fulfilling job they could do. "Money doesnt even come into it," says one youth whose two brothers have also worked alongside the dub warrior for years. "Its a message were carrying, not just a sound."
Those who followed Rasta as a fashion have moved on to roller disco. For the large hard core who are serious about their beliefs, Shaka is still here. When you hear Shaka play his sound, its easy to believe his inspiration is divine.
* I don't know if Shaka still believes this, or whether it was just a flippant comment at the time. I find it a bit disturbing, personally. As someone who is white and who has also had the misfortune of having to deal with aggression from far right headcases, I am confused by this. Meeting with people who wish to exterminate you is a bad idea, unless the meeting takes place on your terms. I think that such a meeting is unlikely to be beneficial whilst we live in a society where institutional racism is rife. As far as I know, nothing beneficial came from the meetings between the Nation of Islam and the American Nazi Party in the 1960s.
This also raises some interesting questions about the idea of an exodus to Africa - would the rest of us just be left to deal with fascist tyranny? If the exodus is done in agreement with the far right, what happens to people who don't want to go? If the exodus to Africa one way of solving the "problems" that neo-nazis see in this society what should happen to those who do not have such an obvious "homeland", who are also seen as being "problematic" like homosexuals, communists, and those of mixed race? Is it just selfishness on my part to want people to stay and fight against a society which has thrived on slavery, racism and oppression?
If anyone has seen any subsequent quotes from Shaka which shed some light on this, then please get in touch. [back]
John Eden, Shake The Foundations, 9th July 2001