Long before recorded music arrived in Jamaica, audiences were entertained by what were called ‘street singers’. These street singers, like the mento singers that followed, based their lyrics on real life and on notorious individuals.
The duo of Slim and Sam emerged in the 1930s and became the most popular of the early street singers. With Slim on lead vocals and Sam on guitar doing backing vocals, they earned a living from selling the printed tracks of the songs they did for one penny each.
When the pennies were added up they represented an appreciable addition to a day’s wage at the time.
Simple though it may seem, the whole exercise generated enormous attention and massive crowds along Spanish Town Road, in the vicinity of the Coronation Market, which was their main hunting ground. Noel ‘Skully’ Simms of the popular singing duo ‘Bunny and Skully’ was close to the action as a young boy attending Ebenezer Primary School. He recounted to me, in dramatic fashion, how he stood at his school gate, which adjoins the Coronation Market, to witness a sea of people between Bond and West streets, going ecstatic to the rhythms of Slim and Sam. They were happy people, devoid of the emotional tribalism that attends today’s musical events.
The printed tracts bought by music fanatics seemed just as important to them as the music they enjoyed, as they served as a source of information about current and past happenings.
Immersed in social commentary, the songs written and performed by the duo referred to various situations of daily life, whether it be a murder, hard times, a hurricane, an election, duppies, love affairs or wife-stealing. There was even one titled ‘Louise Walker’, the first woman to murder a man in Jamaica, and another about a scam artist, who sold a tramcar to an unwitting person from the country.
“The latest news today is about a man who come from far
he come to buy a bus but he preferred a tramcar,
he saw a ‘Ginal’ then in a Hope Tram leaving town,
the ‘Ginal’ sold him the Hope Tram Car for twenty-five pounds.”
Slim and Sam, in fact, wrote songs on almost anything that happened in Jamaica and abroad. In another of their popular compositions, they referred to the plight a farm worker was faced with on his return to Jamaica:
“Oh the boys dem from Merica, they are here with us once more
and the gal dem talking how them rakish and got money galore.
Alfred went to Merica and Daniel tek him gal,
Alfred come back home, swear and tek all kinda oat,
and Daniel said to him – the same knife that stick sheep, it gwine stick goat.”
The wit and topicality of their songs, coupled with skilful performances of real-life happenings, made them an important part of the communication process and the dissemination of news, since there was no radio in those days.
In the following decade, Slim and Sam’s place was taken by Williams and Bedasse (Everard Williams and Alerth Bedasse), two characters not dissimilar to Slim and Sam. While the duo employed similar formats to those of Slim and Sam, their presentation was more sophisticated.
Williams, a school teacher with extraordinary writing skills, did the writing for the duo, while singing and shaking the maraca – a percussion instrument. Williams had no equal, whether past or present, insofar as it relates to his humorous and vivid descriptions in flowing poetry, of events and characters. Alerth Bedasse, his singing partner with whom I had an interview in 2005, described him as a genius who could write a song about anything in virtually no time, while spicing it up with some ambiguous sexual connotation.
Williams must have written more than 50 songs for various mento artistes during his time, and overall, some 80 per cent of the popular mento songs of the period.
In Boogu Yagga Gal, he warns of the danger of migration to relationships:
“A gal was crying till her eyes turn red
cause her boyfriend gone to England, and it is said
with a Bible he made her take an oath
but before he landed a man was in her boat.
Boogu yagga gal yu eyes too dry
boogu yagga gal yu gwine to die
for the England man is going to take your life.
Now the neighbours start to susu abroad
that she have a sweet man at he yard.
She give him fried chicken every day to eat
and when hours fall things get real sweet.”
Williams was recorded by the BBC in November 1953, singing greetings to the Queen during her tour in Jamaica. His composition was described as sophisticated and showed a degree of self-conscious artistry that contains complex imagery reflecting the concerns of a society in transition.
Williams street-singing partner, 22-year-old Alerth Bedasse, came on a visit to Kingston in 1949 with a relative who sells in the Coronation Market. Falling in love with city life, he became a vagabond and soon heard of Williams who was in search of a guitarist to fill the vacancy of one who had just left. Quite proficient as a guitarist, Bedasse joined Williams and soon people were beginning to relive some of the great moments of the previous decade. Bedasse did the musical arrangements while Williams wrote. Although being itinerant at times, they basically operated from the identical spot where Slim and Sam had pulled crowds so large they created traffic jams and forced police intervention.
It was a time when tramcars had just ceased operations, horses and buggies were on the way out, and motor cars were a luxury only few could afford. The main mode of public transportation, according to Bedasse, was via the Magnet and Lindsay Bus service operated by Tiger Transport, and this, he and Williams used to their advantage in taking their art to the rural areas on some weekends.
By 1952, they had swopped the streets for the recording studios and got into the recording business with Night Food, one of the fastest selling records in Jamaica’s music history.