(Treasure Isle 1967)

In just a few days Jamaica will celebrate 50 years of independence, so my mind turns to Festival tunes – those yearly competitive tunes that celebrated the holiday.

The best of course, in my humble opinion, is the 1967 Festival winner: The Jamaicans, ‘Ba Ba Boom’.  Why? Well, because by 1967, the sounds of ska had become replaced with the more soulful, millitant, vocal-oriented sounds of Rocksteady.  Yes. Ska, which surfaced in 1962 as a uniquely Jamaican music style and the perfect auditory corollary to Independence, bubbled with all the optimism that a new country deserved.  By 1967, the harsh economic realities of independence had settled on the populace and all that heady optimism had bubbled away like a cauldron of fish tea left too long on the fire. 

‘Ba Ba Boom’ reflects this situation to perfection from its plaintive vocal and picked guitar intro to the slow, haunted horns that have given the tune its most unique momentum. While the lyrics, which sing of celebrating Festival – ‘Everyone get ready, it’s time to rocksteady, it’s Festival time again’ – appear cheery, the vaugely minor key delivery makes the whole song seem kind of menacing and sticky with dread. It is, in effect, the most un-joyful song of joy out there.

And yeah, I love it because those kind of contradictions are the very type of contradictions that define Jamaica in my mind – an inspired and inspiring island whose music and culture have changed the world while its own day-to-day travails reap despair at ever being repaired.

Scratch Famous, Deadly Dragon Sound,  New York City