Jah Shaka Interview
Here is an interview conducted by Steve Mosco with Jah Shaka in 1984.
Q. How long has the sound been going?
A. Since 1970.
Q. When you started the sound, was it your intention for it to be the same way it is now - a rasta dub sound?
A. Yes, it was always a dub sound. The sound came out of the struggle in the 70s which black people were going through in this country - we got together and decided that the sound should play a main part in black peoples rights & we would work hard at it & promote some better mental purpose within the black race.
Q. There wasnt much dub around in 1970 was there? It only started happening a few years after that didnt it?
A. Well I had dubs at that time. I used to get a few from Jamaica, and what we couldnt get we made ourselves. We had a lot of musicians creating stuff for us.
Q. The music changed a lot in the early 70s - the sound of it with people like King Tubbys & also it changed spiritually - why do you think that was?
A. The spiritual concept was people remembering their past - this kept coming into the music - as people remembered their history it was repeated on record to make the rest of the nation aware what had happened.
Q. The music got a lot heavier then too - was that a conscious idea?
A. Yes, because originally the bass drum came from Africa, so that downbeat sound became present in the music - at one time reggae was copied from English records or American hits, just to reproduce them, and it didnt have any bongos in, but now all thats changed.
Q. Youve been doing a lot of recording in the past few years. Does that mean you cant spend as much time with the sound as you used to?
A. Well the whole concept of sound systems now has changed since I first came into the business. Its become a gimmick now with certain people, so I prefer to have that orthodox discipline about sound system - then you wont get involved so much in the commercial side of things - its only certain people that want to book this sound, knowing the type of music we play. Im not playing on a commercial basis.
Q. Is what youre doing strictly a message or is it entertainment as well?
A. Message & entertainment. Music is the only language which everyone can understand, so the message is being carried out but people also enjoy the music because of the beat - even if they cant understand the words they get into the beat.
Q. What do you see the future of Shaka sound being?
A. Well right from the start my ambition was to play to the people of Africa, so eventually we hope to put on a reggae show in Africa, with a band as well. Were hoping to change a few things and get people to open their minds.
Q. Its kind of strange that the music you play comes from Africa yet most people in Africa havent heard much reggae.
A. No, theyre waiting very patiently to hear it. Now and again promoters bring records to these places and bring bands too, but sometimes things go wrong because theres so much intercontinental arrangements to make, so things are a bit fifty-fifty on that side. But theyre definitely wanting to hear reggae more fully.
Q. Ive heard it said that you dont really go in for competitions, yet youve always been rated as the number one for years now.
A. Yeah. You know the concept of this sound is a different thing. I dont know what concept most sounds are built from, but we had that concept from the start & we have to see it through, whatever it takes, so if it takes the sound to play by itself to achieve that, then thats what Id rather do.
Q. Why do you think most people follow you - aside from the spiritual thing, there must be something about the way you sound - why do you think most people respect you?
A. Well weve always tried to fulfil what weve said our aim is - weve always stated these things and people are aware of it, so that concept is spreading. It goes further than the sound system, because the music is a stepping stone to get the message across. We hope that not only black people but also people of other countries can enjoy it and listen to what weve got to say.
Q. In the past few years theres been an effort made by some people to push reggae to an international audience, but do you think that would be impossible to achieve because of the subject matter it covers?
A. Well what Id say to that is that when you have an olympic race and someone wins the 400 metres, it doesnt mean that person is the fastest runner in the world. There could be someone else even faster who nobody knows about. Some people have to run for their food, but those people dont have the contacts to reach these races. A lot of people today are making music which doesnt get promoted outside of sound systems, which are the main reggae media, because before any radio stations played reggae, we were promoting groups like the Abyssinians, Burning Spear, etc. Well now, people who search within the business know of these names, but not everyone. These are the artists who paved the way, but they get pushed in the background, and the new people who are making stuff dont get promoted properly. So regardless of how far reggae is reaching, youd have to have a radio station to let people know whats going on, not just two hours here and two hours there.
Q. Reggae is an underground music even in Jamaica, because you hardly have any reggae played on the radio in Jamaica.
A. Well yes, thats worth talking about - certain types of music get pushed and certain types get left behind, and thats totally wrong. So thats why our sound plays the people who dont get promotion.
Q. How would you describe the effect dub has on you?
A. Well, because Im a musician there are certain things Im looking for before its even played. Some people might dream mentally, but I get my dreams through my ears, so therefore I expect certain things and when I hear it I know it. Thats the kind of music we play - which reaches the heart - really its a heartbeat music.
Q. Could you describe what that feeling is? Ive seen you at dances where you go into a trance, and people in the crowd too - it obviously goes beyond entertainment and into a different kind of vibe altogether.
A. Well... thats the force of music. We give thanks to His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie to be able to do that, because in the beginning was the word, and we have to put the word across, so we give all the praises to God... music is feelings no matter where its played. Some people say that it isnt proper music if it isnt played in Jamaica, but then youd have to say that no one can feel anything unless theyre in Jamaica. God has created certain things and these things appear to you at certain times when the music is played at the right time.... its a feeling created by God himself.
Q. In a session where youre playing on your own, which could be for 8 or 9 hours, is there a conscious attempt to build up the vibes as the night progresses?
A. You cant come out and plan to play a certain record, because God has inspired me to do what Im doing, so I just have to go with the feeling at the time. I might play one record which then inspires me at that moment to play another to follow it, and so on.
Q. Returning to the subject of competition, If you were playing with another sound and you each wanted to prove yourselves, how would you go about it?
A. Well the whole sound system business has really got out of hand because of those things, even the whole reggae business. When I first started the sound and was playing with people like Sufferer, people just wanted to enjoy themselves - youd get someone from the other sound coming up and offering to buy you a drink, but then it got to the stage where people started to change the way they played. Instead of playing to please their crowd, which I still do, they said they were coming to take on the next sound in a clash, and it might have brought a big crowd - they might have brought 200 people and I might have brought 200 people, but at the end of the night there was too much talking on the microphone and not enough records played and the crowd went home disappointed. Well this is not our aim so we prefer to totally avoid that. Im not looking to prove anything, all I want to do is get across to the people. Plus you could spend a lot of money to play in a competition and at the end of the night you might not even get a quarter of that money back, and that doesnt make sense. People shaking your hand and saying youre very good and youve got a load of cups, but youve got no money, and youre the one thats doing the work, so these aspects have to be looked at carefully.
Q. Youre also quite unusual in that youre pretty much a one man show - operator & dj. Did you always intend to do this?
A. Not directly, but it just happened that it worked out that way throughout the years. Thereve been times when we did have a lot of djs, but because of our orthodox style, now theres not many djs who would step forward and ask for the mic, knowing what our style is. Its a different set up completely from most sounds.
Q. You appeared in a scene in the film Babylon which portrayed a sound clash which was getting quite fierce and almost led to a fight.
A. Well thats the impression that the people who made the film had about sound systems, which theyd heard about from the competitions. They gave me a script at first and when I read it I refused to do what they wanted. I ended up directing the scene I appeared in myself, because all the build up leading up to it, with people from my sound confronting another sound, well that just doesnt go on. Weve got a very disciplined set of people, and I was totally against the way they portrayed the build up to the dance in that film.
Q. Talking about the technical side of your sound now, youve always been noted for the effects like syndrum & siren, etc. When did you first get the idea to use them?
A. Well Ive always had some kind of sound effects, not to this level, but over the years it builds up where you want more and more. In fact I was thinking about getting a set of four syndrums, because new things are being built now. The more you can put into the music, the better it will be. In Africa you might have 200 people drumming all at the same time, and dancing. Certain sounds I use, I dont know whether people have picked this up, but theyre really sounds of the jungle, like birds and noises you would hear in the wilderness.
Q. These effects are examples of western technology. How do you see them fitting in to Reggae?
A. Well thats what Im saying - unless you can get 200 people to make these noises, you have to find electronic gadgets which can do it. If we were recording in Africa then maybe we could get 200 people to play drums, but until then we have to make do with other things. But theres nothing which says that Rastas shouldnt use technology. We need planes, ships and all these things.
Q. The world is in a pretty bad shape at the moment. Theres even a military dictatorship in Ethiopia. Do you think your music can have an effect on the way things are at all?
A. I would like to think so. Historically the conflicts have all started in the East and most of them have been caused by colonialism. Now people are saying that they dont want to be colonised and are rebelling against their rulers. But we Rastas have no fear of these things. Were just passing through this place where were living temporarily on our way home. And the knowledge which weve gained in whatever country weve been living, well take it back to Africa with us and use it to build up our own country there. I dont think were asking too much to do that, and its not a problem for anyone if we do that. People are starving there and the only thing the world has done is to build nuclear weapons, so we have to help them ourselves. We will not stay here and suffer brutality, with no rights to express ourselves - if youre a black person with a small business it gets shut down or something else happens, and people have talked about this for years but what has been done? We dont want to fight in a country which doesnt belong to us, and we Rastas are peaceful people, so we prefer to leave this place.