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 By Howard Campbell—
 Top: WHEN it comes to the history of early reggae, Heather Augustyn’s interest has no bounds. For the past decade, the American journalist/teacher has written extensively on the music’s roots—-.

Songbirds: Pioneering Women of Reggae is her latest literary effort. Released in September, it is Augustyn’s look at the role women played in the formative years of Jamaican music.

The Indiana native interviewed several of these trailblazers including My Boy Lollipop singer Millie Small and Enid Cumberland (of Keith and Enid fame) for ‘Pioneering Women’.

Speaking with the Sunday Observer last week, Augustyn said she discovered how tough it was for women in music during the early 1960s.

“All of these women had to deal with some sort of male domination, which I take issue with in the introduction of my book. That phrase ‘male domination’ is so loaded and so I try to deconstruct it to compare it with what these women actually endured,” she explained. “They all were strong lionesses in the face of incredible challenges — from overt sexual advances in exchange for promises of musical success, to being relegated as backup singer, to being stereotyped as promiscuous or nasty, to balancing a career with being a mother.”

One artist who found things extremely challenging was singer Hortense Ellis, younger sister of rocksteady legend Alton Ellis.

“She had nine children. How could she possibly tour and record with the same freedoms as men who had no children, or claimed none? And of course the producers tried to keep her pay from her, as they did many musicians in this era,” Augustyn noted.

Like her brother, Hortense Ellis recorded for rival producers Clement Dodd and Duke Reid. She died in 2000.

Hortense Ellis

Hortense Ellis

A correspondent for The Times of Northwest Indiana newspaper, Augustyn is also an adjunct professor of English at Purdue University. She teaches writing at Chesterton Montessori (primary level) School.

The 42-year-old mother of two has found time to write two books on ska and another on trombonist Don Drummond, one of that genre’s legends.

For Augustyn, who discovered ska in the early 1980s, the books are a labour of love.

“I’ve loved it (ska, rocksteady) ever since I was a kid. So when I got older and wanted to read about ska and rocksteady, there was nothing,” she said. “Here in the US, there are books on everything, from teenage vampires who battle zombies, to how to knit your dachshund a bumblebee costume. So I couldn’t figure out why this incredibly prolific era of music, and this incredibly influential era of music, was not properly chronicled. I decided to make that my life’s mission.”

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