HIGHLIGHT | JOE MARCHENKO
Believe it or not, Commonwealth Day is still very much a thing.
The only reason why we’re even aware of such event is because Charles and I are from a member state ourselves. We’d get the day off school which we probably spent playing FIFA and riding our bikes round town blissfully unaware of why we were not sat in maths class with Mr Grech.
However, with the Jamaican government making their intentions known that they wish to leave the commonwealth behind and become a republic by the time of the next election in 2025, this may very well be the last Commonwealth Day where the famous Jamaican flag flies high in Westminster Abbey.
It all started back in 1926 when members from Britain and the countries they had colonised agreed they were all equal members of a community within the British Empire. In this decree, the Commonwealth was created. History shows that some members were more equal than others, and while some have left, today, the second Monday of March, is supposed to be celebrated in honour of the Commonwealth of Nations that remain.
And so, we are going to use today as an excuse (as if we needed one) to honour Jamaica, the music the nation’s people have brought to the UK’s shores over the past century, and how that’s shaped the course of music within the commonwealth’s headquarters.
I spent my birthday in Puerto Rico last year to find out for myself just how much the puertorriqueños loved their reggaeton. The answer, more than life itself at times. With Bad Bunny tees, murals, tattoos and tracks being blasted out of every third car that drove past me on the island, I wondered whether there had been any musical figure that had been idolised as much by one nation as Bad Bunny is by Puerto Rico. And only one person could come to mind. The Honourable Robert Nesta Marley of course. The man known during my adolescence as the godfather of reggae and the most authentic accompaniment to any spliff. There’s no musician more loved or revered in the circles of Jamaican music than Bob Marley, and it was arguably he who was the catalyst for all the words that follow.
The likes of a band coming from an area of the UK known above all else for its famous monotonous accent picking up four nominations for the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album during the 1980s lays gratitude to the Jamaicans that brought the genre to Britain’s streets. The Windrush Generation was more inclined to look back, but their British born children were looking forward and reimagining Jamaican music from a British perspective. Inspired by roots reggae bands like Birmingham’s Steel Pulse, Windrush descendants had no intention of being treated like second class citizens. Yet UB40 is not the only act to form in the midlands. Down the road from Birmingham in neighbouring Coventry, The Specials were busy starting a cultural revolution. Placing Jamaican ska and reggae music in the hands of young left-wing activists in the punk setting of late 70s UK would allow The Specials to gain a mainstream following overtly blasting the shortcomings of the government through tracks that are still as relevant today as they were when first scribbled down on the back of a fag packet all them years ago. So revered were The Specials that the recent passing of the lead singer, Terry Hall, caused front page news across the country (and Commonwealth ’community’ I’m sure…).
But music doesn’t lay to rest. And if there’s any reason to have offspring, it’s surely to continue the musical gene in us and dance with our children as we show them our favourite records of our 20s in the hope that their musical tastes will be influenced by our strategic choice of CDs taken on each family car outing.
Felix Hall, son of the late Terry Hall, lives on dealing the duttiest dancehall to the four corners of London. Born on the colder UK shores, just like his father, Felix has taken on the same interest in Caribbean rhythms , and has spent the last number of years making a name for himself as the go to man for all things Caribe. You can find Felix bringing bashment to the NTS airwaves every month, or attend one of his Chrome events going off somewhere in South London. See while Felix may have been brought up closer to the North Sea than the Caribbean, and while I most certainly don’t have a Jamaican passport, our lives (musically at the very least) may have followed different paths had we not had the beautiful souls of the Jamaican people agree to help rebuild an “Empire” which had been devastated by war.
Rather than turning this into a shopping list of reggae, ska and dub artists, we’ll refer you to Ben Bell over at Lion Vibes who has done the work for us. Lion Vibes have been trading on the streets of Brixton since 1997. Their currency, Jamaican beats. They started out pitched up in where else but Brixton Market, the area where the Windrush generation helped build. They’ve since added a record label, online shop, and more permanent gaff with four solid walls in the heart of Brixton Village. I picked up a reggae recut of Britney’s Toxic the other week and I’ll no doubt be heading back for one of their selector nights on the first Tuesday of every Month come April.
Jamaica has done more than most nations in helping shape British music, but they’re not alone! Perhaps Trinidad & Tobago will follow suit and we’ll be back next year bigging up Soca music.