Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cry Tough: Alton Ellis (1938 – 2008)

A brief report in the NYTimes (10/17) on the death of Jamaica’s singing legend Alton Ellis – the editors must have sensed there was Times reader interest in his career and passing – gave snippets of personal information that always hits readers with surprise, filling in gaps of knowledge for those C/bean music fans who know only his old-style music and the pleasure it gave.

Among the bits: born and raised in Trenchtown, like Bob Marley; lived in Middlesex, England for nearly two decades; cause of death, multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer; one of the exponents of 60s rocksteady, “a sweeter, slower sound that formed the bridge between the hard-driving brass of ska and the rebel reggae that Marley later spread”; father of more than 20 children; and financially robbed of revenues for his music over the years (the last two details not as entirely unrelated as they may seem).

For students arriving at the UWI (Mona) campus Ellis and rocksteady music were a form of initiation into the island’s vibrant music culture. Waking to morning sounds would never be the same for this music lover.

In Guyana in the 60s you woke up to the radio of imported music (from India), pleasing in its own sentimental-retro way; evoking ethnic-rural reverie; and uplifting spirits for the working day in villages and cane fields. In Jamaica at sunrise on cold Mona Heights mornings Marcia Griffiths (singing “Feel like Jumping”) suddenly felt just right. Her clear, buoyant songs still pop up to spin on my turntable of memories.

To new resident ears rocksteady encouraged curiosity about the source of its material, the creative island spirit – “tougher than the world,” as Ellis sang – that under the hardest destitution refused to wilt.

The music was not always at easy reach on island radio stations. You had to venture out – the way people once went out to jazz clubs – to venues in and around Kingston to experience that blast of grassroots energy. Before they became accessible on discs the Cedric Brooks’ horn arrangements & the drumming of Count Ossie were heard in afternoon ‘grounation’ settings barely advertised in the local media. The venues and the music left indelible imprints. Tourists and transients and accidental researchers found a path to the island’s soul.

Alton Ellis’ music was usually a short trip away, at dance venues. At the student union, an open-air venue on the ledge of a valley, curvy dance rhythms threatened to sweep you up & away in pleasure-filled balloons even as the taut bass lines held you rooted to the earth.

Ellis’ vocals, which sometimes strained at intense high registers, didn’t grip you in that honey smooth way Ken Boothe’s did; or Toots Hibbert’s with its gritty parish roots. His reputation rests on those classic dance hits. “Girl I’ve got a date” “Better Get Ready, Rock Steady”, “Can’t stand it” (that pounding big-boned bass) and “Change my Mind” defined for a 60s generation moments of unbelievable promise & pleasure.

Rarely did his music invite you to listen; though “Cry Tough (cause you know you’re getting old)” with its hint at human mortality, those anticipatory images of rice & peas and church bells (in “Ooooyeah, Sunday’s Coming”) and “Going back to Africa” demonstrated a range not limited to romantic sets and clichés about “a girl to love”.

People muttered that Ellis perhaps had been too enamored of imported sound, doing covers of foreign hits and steering clear of disgruntled Rudie culture (“Rudie at Large”). It’s worth remembering that Marley would start in a fairly similar groove of apprenticeship, doing early covers before turning full-beard champion of the Rudie/Natty dreads railing against baldhead injustice.

And in fairness Ellis made those imported hits supremely danceable. Who would have ever imagined dancing back in the days to anything by Blood, Sweat & Tears until the Ellis blues-tinged version of “You make me so very happy”?

[Often submerged beneath the artist’s fame and consumer pleasure is Ellis’ struggle with unscrupulous promoters. That struggle, like that of the legendary Phyllis Dillon, and their eventual departure overseas, makes for heartbreak discovery. It’s a reminder of the callous side of the music industry back then: how it squeezed young artists dry of faith; left their field labours often unpaid. And the bitterness that would settle like salt in their souls.]

Jamaica’s music generosity of spirit, its talent for wrapping dance forms and song around themes of sorrow, memory, love and dread, is embedded in the island’s culture. The music was a catalyst for ambitious campus thinking back in the days. Student minds began to envisage an arc of shared human capital stretching over islands and sea and linking related territories. It would encourage the exchange of service and residency, clear roadways for a wider regional understanding.

Against that background a recent observation by author George Lamming sounds “profoundly” ominous. Based on the latest assessment the student body at the UWI (Jamaica) campus now comprises 95% Jamaicans. We have witnessed, he suggests, a return to that miscellany of (proud but) insular little states.

These are narrow, fallow times in the region, oui!

Ellis’ death coincided with a ‘groundings’ conference (10/16-10/18) on the Mona campus to mark the anniversary of the Walter Rodney street protests in 1968. It also recalled the island’s symbiotic relationship with a generation of Guyanese students.

Hurricanes and delusional behaviours have fogged up the windows that once allowed these two nations, Jamaica and Guyana, to view and enter each other’s territorial experience. Given the dance hall brand of island riddims (that seems stuck in chord-killing monotone); and considering the self-segregating cultural ignorance that appears to shape governance & “vision” at that sagging end of the regional spectrum, there seems little chance of reinvigorating that cross-fertilizing movement of minds & talent.

At least for awhile – and for a generation not dancing much these days – there was pulsing hope. Events of that 2008 October week will encourage reflection on what might have been, the possibilities for vital, lasting connections, the once soaring idealism.

Alton Ellis’ work might not attract the sometimes tedious and overlanguaged commentary of cultural scholars (an NY radio station paid a four-hour, all-music tribute recently); but the dance hits will endure.

And for a pre-Marley student generation (Hi, Carroll!) there’s an immovable cache of memories: those blissful (“Ooooyeaah!”) Saturday nights, the crisp October Sunday mornings; the ‘cry tough’ sound of Alton Ellis rocking steady, spurning the tick tock of reckoning time.

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