Ian Thomson

A celebration of the music of Jamaica

Abandoned in infancy, Alex Wheatle grew up in children’s homes, but found salvation in roots reggae – and, eventually, his father in Jamaica

Alex Wheatle. [Getty Images]

In Jamaica, music is the vital expression. Night and day, amid the heat and narrow lanes of the capital, Kingston, rap, reggae, ska, dub, rocksteady, gospel and mento-calypso boom from giant loudspeaker cabinets: a joyous musical beat. Deejay-based dancehall – a digitalised reggae that Jamaicans sometimes call ragga or Yardcore – dominates the club scene and it conceivably influenced hip-hop with its turn-table-styles of delivery known as ‘toasting’ (scatting and talking over records while moving the crowds). But old-time reggae remains the musical voice of Jamaica, just as rai in the musical voice of Algeria and flamenco that of Spain. It is a trance-inducing music out of Africa.

In festively crowded rooms in south London, the ganja-heavy beat persisted into the sweaty early hours

Few know more about Jamaican music than the Brixton-born novelist Alex (‘Wheats’) Wheatle, who grew up in south London in the early 1970s when reggae first filtered into British culture with the Kingston rude boy film The Harder They Come. As a newborn, Wheatle was abandoned to social services and had no idea who his Jamaican parents were, or if he had siblings in Jamaica. (His story was dramatised by Steve McQueen in the 2020 Small Axe British Caribbean film anthology.)

Amid the hardship and predatory sexuality of the children’s homes, Wheatle found a purpose, and even a salvation, in Jamaican roots reggae. With its Garveyite back-to-Africa ideology, the music offered hope of deliverance to ‘downpressed’ British-born West Indians and fired them to celebrate a part of their heritage – Africa – that their parents had often shunned. Afro-centric reggae albums such as The Right Time by the Mighty Diamonds or Satta Massagana by the Abyssinians had a hymnal, incantatory quality and infectiously heavy bass lines that few white groups at the time could hope to emulate. (‘Don’t know what that is,’ a care home inmate says of a Tapper Zukie reggae number, ‘but it’s nothing like Status Quo.’)

Before Bob Marley mania took off in the mid-to-late 1970s, reggae was given almost no BBC radio airplay, and the British music press was not that keen either.

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