Born in Clarendon, Jamaica, Jah Shaka moved to England in 1956, when he was still a child. He grew up in South-East London, formed a band at school, and then joined Freddie Cloudburst’s soul sound system. Cloudburst being a contemporary of outfits such as Duke Reid, Sir Coxsone, Count Shelley, Sir Fanso The Tropical Downbeat, Neville Enchanter, and Birmingham`s Quaker City. Shaka and his friends then started their own sound. This move was born partly out of frustration with the lack of opportunities for his band to play, but largely inspired by American Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and Angela Davis, and The Fasimbas, the youth wing of the South East London Parents Organization (SELPO), who sought to address the miseducation of black children in English schools. The sound`s primary purpose was to provide a platform, and a sense of community, with the goal of bringing about, encouraging, social change. There was a message in the music and it concerned the history, heritage, of both Africa and Jamaica.
Despite terrible racial tensions in the UK at the time, the aim was never to radicalize, but instead to address issues, such as unemployment, and find workable solutions, such as creating jobs, gaining access to trades and apprenticeships, for the local kids.
“I studied the history of the people, poverty, and other things that effect the world in general, and then put that into music to enlighten the people about themselves and to show them what they can do to make a difference.”
“Music is the only language which everyone can understand.”
Shaka’s strictly roots selections helped people to understand what they were living through. With race riots occurring across England, he was hoping to influence folks` thinking, and to channel that anger into something positive. The government, and police, however, saw the dances, the mere gathering of people, as a threat, an incitement to insurrection. Often halting proceedings with truncheons and arrests. Active for over 50 years, Shaka would eventually extend this work to Africa, distributing tools, medical supplies, and books, and also buying land, establishing agriculture, raising further funds through the export and import of crops.
The sound, Jah Shaka, began in 1970, at the Moonshot Youth Club, in New Cross. By the end of the decade they’d held residencies at Hackney’s Phebes Club, and the former theatre and early Blues venue Club Noreik, on Seven Sisters Road in Tottenham. Even rocking and shocking the kitsch Tiki-lounge decor of Streatham’s Bali Hai, inna King David Style. In doing so they performed a crucial role in promoting reggae and dub music, which back then received little or no radio airplay. Breaking groups like The Abyssinians, Burning Spear, and The Twinkle Brothers, who would have otherwise been unknown in the UK.
In the early `80s Shaka found themselves in competition with Fatman, Ray Symbolic, Moa Ambassa, Sufferer, and Saxon, but Shaka stated on many occasions that he never liked the concept of the “sound clash” – despite consistently winning trophies. The rivalry it fostered conflicted with the message that he was trying to spread. That of unity, peace, and constructive cooperation.
“Togetherness inspired me to do this music.”
“I`m not looking to prove anything. All I want is to get across to people.”
Passing this message was what it was all about. Planting seeds,
“The more people we bring into the fold, the more we can do better things.”
Shaka subsequently inspired countless young sounds. Leeds` Iration Steppers, London’s Earthquake, for example, are institutions in their own right. The list, both at home and internationally, is likely endless. He also influenced, and mentored generation after generation of music makers, folks such as Congo Natty, Zion Train and The Disciples. The latter named by Shaka himself. He is cited by DJs / producers like Mala, Dubkasm, and Jumpin` Jack Frost, who took his message forward through jungle and dubstep. Shaka went global, initially via the circulation of gig / session tapes, and he persevered through major setbacks, such as a serious house fire, and having his equipment nicked.
“When you have a tree and break off all the branches, the root is still there. You don’t have a tree if you don’t have a root. That’s where we are really, at the source. Yeah, that’s where we stand.”
“A lot of seeds have been planted so the Shaka message can never die out.”
From the very beginning Shaka played on the same customized turntable. A single vintage 1950s Garrad “gram” – originally built for spinning 78s – always located at eye level. He added sound effects, such as rainforest wildlife, and famously a siren and syndrums. Echo was delivered with an antique H&H analogue delay. The system, constructed by Metro, who ran his own North London sound in the `60s, included four strategically placed speaker stacks. All with a focus on frequency, rather than volume (although you’ll find that hard to believe if you watch any fan “field-recorded” video clips – where everything is distortion and camera shakes). The all night sessions had Shaka playing 8, 9, sometimes 12 hour sets. This required crate after crate of vinyl, since no session was pre-planned, but instead a spontaneous, intuitive, event. Only the record before would determine which track came next. The dub plate box being opened at 3, or 4 O’clock. The lights coming on for the last tune at 6.
In the 1980s Shaka began making his own music. Due to an oil shortage there was no vinyl, and so no records coming out of Jamaica, and then with the emergence of Dancehall, the new sides no longer fit that Shaka message. The sound was built not just on its bespoke equipment, but a principle. Slackness was certainly not suitable. Commandments Of Dub, his debut solo album, produced alongside his long-standing collaborator, Mad Professor, would later be sampled by countless jungle / drum & bass artists. Always sought after, in the days since his passing the marketplace price of the releases on his label, Jah Shaka Music, have gone through the roof.
As well as Mad Professor’s Ariwa Studio, Shaka also worked at Addis Ababa in Ladbroke Grove and with the Brent Black Co-op, with Gussie P, Mafia & Fluxy, and King Tubby in Jamaica. Hosting a vast array of vocalists from Johnny Clarke to Willie Williams, from Sister Audrey to Rasheda. Many of them – Horace Andy, Gregory Isaacs, Max Romeo, Bim Sherman – legends. When interviewed by Colin Moore, for Small Axe, in 1991, Shaka stated that even after 25 years he was still serving his own apprenticeship:
“To learn about music, to know all there is.”
To be honest I can’t remember when I first heard the name Jah Shaka. Since I was maybe 13, it always seems to have been there. I had no idea, really, who he was, but I knew, from the outside, what he symbolized. He was a DJ, with a huge sound system, who threw all night raves, spinning heavy, heavy, dub to a devoted, and super mixed, crowd, and that everyone who went experienced an epiphany. A total sensory overload, driven by bass so intense that it was effectively a physical entity. Older, I’d seen posters, and been handed flyers, as I staggered out of acid house doos, for Shaka’s sessions at The Rocket, on Holloway Road. However, I never went. I’d seen the film Babylon, made in 1981, featuring, and loosely based on the story of, the Jah Shaka sound, on TV, probably as a late night “arts” screening on BBC2 or Channel 4. The movie, a snapshot, a spot-on depiction of the late `70s / early `80s South London that I grew up in.
In the decades since I’ve purchased every piece of Shaka vinyl that I could find. Not scouring the ether, but treasures, with the distinctive Zulu Warrior logo, that I’ve stumbled across in shops, primarily in Tokyo, over the last 16, 17 years. Via the internet, though, I have plundered published playlists. I still have a long, long list of Jah Shaka “wants”. I’m no expert in reggae and dub, so looking to learn, educate myself about the music, it was easy to start with well known icons. King Tubby, Lee Perry, Mad Professor, and Jah Shaka, these have been my jumping off points. Relying on trusted online shops, such as Sounds Of The Universe, Dub Store, and Dub Vendor, for news of reissues.
During the pandemic I digitalized all of my reggae, and I put all the Jah Shaka stuff to one side. I had plans for a short story, sort of inspired by Alex Wheatle`s novel, East of Acre Lane and loosely based on memories of my own early teens (this short piece was the warm up). This would be its soundtrack. I listened to everything regularly, and drew a great deal of strength from it. For a while, maybe 12, 18 months, I hardly had time for anything else. I’m not a religious person, not by any stretch, but Shaka’s selections are, basically, songs of praise. Calls for peace, love, unity, and understanding, freedom from oppressive forces, a return to a promised land. Hymns to the sacrament, the herb.
If you saturate yourself in this music, Shaka called it “Heartbeat music, it helps people because it reach their heart”, spirituals like Ijahman’s Moulding, it can’t help but have a lasting effect.
Dub Symphony, however, was the first Jah Shaka record that I ever bought. I didn’t even pick that up at its time of release, 1990, but instead as a random purchase the following year, as I obsessively tried to track down the musical clues left by Hugo Nicolson and Andrew Weatherall, this one related to the pair’s remix of Primal Scream’s Higher Than The Sun.
The title track remains a big, big personal favourite, but it isn’t really representative of the music Jah Shaka made, or spun. For starters, the bass is far from the major player. Instead orchestral strings spiral, and try to soar, but are countered by sharp, stabbing synths, that seem to tether them, keep them Earthbound. The combination sings to me of struggle, and a dogged determination. Symbolic of the trials that we all go through. Melancholy but motivational, packed with drama and purpose, it was one of those tunes where, when high, I could see my whole life go flashing by. Frozen in that feeling of the world rushing past while you stand completely still. Clouds racing across some grey, mid-90s London, morning-after-the-night-before sky, as I tried to remember where I was, and find my way home. Urgent, and romantic, it’s another key cinematic side that scores the film that privately screens in my head.
Colin Moore Small Axe Interview / More Axe 2
Steve Mosco (Jah Warrior) Interview
Benji B Redbull Academy Interview
Rasheda – Psalms 61
Sgt Peper – One Family
Twinkle Brothers – Mob Fury
Johnny Clarke – Babylon
Bim Sherman – Happiness
Sister Audrey – English Girl
Beverly Williams – Sufferation
Still Cool – To Be Poor Is A Crime
Earl Cunningham – African Man
Jah Shaka – The Rastaman
Sharon Little – Mash Up Creation
Sister Beloved – Freedom Of The Land
Bush Chemists – Payments Dub
Tony Tuff – Jah Works
Mad Professor & Jah Shaka – Only One God
Mafia & Fluxy – Zulu
Twinkle Brothers – Faith Can Move Mountain
Max Romeo – Far I Captain Of My Ship
Jah Shaka – Dub Symphony
2 thoughts on “Jah Shaka / Dub Symphony”
An excellent piece. The turntable and sound system part was illuminating along with the overall depth given.