Desmond Dekker in the history of reggae

For most persons around the world the internationally popular musical form reggae began with Bob Marley. But last week Sunday Jamaica marked the anniversary of the death of the man who made the first international reggae hits outside of Jamaica. Celebrated exponent of ska, rock steady and reggae, Desmond Dekker (1941-2006) succumbed to a sudden heart attack in England on May 25, 2006. The BBC remembered him on that anniversary, showing that he is indeed, not without some due recognition.

The point of his achievements has to be made because although he was Bob Marley’s ‘John the Baptist,’ who broke into the international circle and announced the arrival of reggae to the world, he is not anywhere near as recognised and remembered as the immortal Marley for whom he paved the way. Secondly, although Millie Small was number 2 in Britain in 1961-62 with a ska hit, no one before Dekker had a world number 1 hit in its pure Jamaican form. And thirdly, Dekker’s songs, written and performed in undiluted Jamaican ‘patois’, say a great deal about the music, the language, the trends and the times in 1970.

One fellow Jamaican musician remarked in 2006, that when “dem write” the history of reggae “Desmond Dekka name haffe in deh.” He is right, because of the way in which that singer made the history and was a part of it. Well, dem a write de history now; an Dekka name in deh.

20101003artsonsundayIf we pick up the history around 1958, we find the popular music in Jamaica becoming definitely localised and taking on original local forms. While rhythm and blues and rock ’n roll still reigned, a Jamaican musical form which eventually became known as ‘ska’ was emerging along with a strong local music industry. The working class dance halls were the venue of the development of DJ performance, the infusions of indigenous rhythms, the recording of local singers singing on local subjects. It was driven by competition and rivalry among the growing juke boxes (‘sound systems’ that played the music for the dances) which were also owned by the new recording companies such as Duke Reid and Beverley’s.

By the beginning of the 1960s among the first singing stars to rise was Jimmy Cliff, but the first international star was Millie Small. Small was an 18-year-old Jamaican girl who moved to London to pursue her career and who reached Number 2 on the British, American and Canadian charts with ‘My Boy Lollipop’ in 1964, the inaugural world known ska hit. But in order to boost its acceptance it was mixed down and polished up in what was also called the ‘blue beat,’ not as raw and rough as what was being produced by the likes of Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster.

Dekker became contracted to Beverley’s label whose owner was Leslie Kong, one of the great pioneers of Jamaican music (some say he was a typical exploitative producer). It was not until 1963 that Kong released his first ska hit ‘Honour Your Mother and Your Father,’ which is very much unlike the later trend of his music and the big international successes for which he is known.

The band Desmond Dekker and the Aces broke into the British charts with ‘007’ – sometimes listed as ‘007 (Shanty Town)’, a rough diamond which had no polishing up like Millie Small and earned success in its pure local form. The language is Jamaica Creole (called patois in Jamaica) – ‘My Boy Lollipop’ is in English and addresses the usual terms of endearment in a love song. Its producers traded on familiarity to make it appeal to a large European audience. ‘007’ was quite the opposite with no concessions made to a more sophisticated foreign market. It is a rock steady song, representative of the going popular fare in Jamaica and one of the prevalent subjects – the rude bwai (rude boy) phenomenon that rocked Kingston in the mid to late sixties.   It celebrates the rebellious, radical characteristics of the youth and the populist stance in the name of working class struggle. But it also gives out a caution against the destructive and criminal elements that took advantage of rude boy celebration.

Desmond Dekker
Desmond Dekker

 007, 007

And Oceans 11

De rude bwoy dem a wail

Cause dem out a jail

An dem de pan bail


Dem a loot dem a shoot dem a wail

Shanty Town     

An de rude bwoy bomb up de town

Shanty town

An rude bwoy de pan probation

Shanty Town

These lyrics are excellent examples of some of what prevailed in the ‘rude boy era’ and what was thoroughly reflected in rock steady music. During that time the cinema was still a leading form of popular entertainment and the Hollywood films and ‘stars’ were highly influential in the popular culture. The heroism, the violence, the gun play, the super-human heroes and ‘badmanism’ particularly appealed to the youth, and inspired the rude boys. There was even imitation of Hollywood gunmen and ‘star boys’ who never die and always triumph over their antagonists in the films. This gave the rude boys a vicarious sense of invincibility.

Dekker invokes ‘007’ the superman James Bond, a spy and secret service sharp-shooter whose number 007 gives him a “licence to kill” and who had become a well-known symbol through the James Bond films. He also invokes another film Oceans 11 with its galaxy of heroes known for their violent action. Dekker’s rude boys ride on this in their orgy of violence and gun-play. He also refers to “shanty town” as the playground of the rebels, and it is ironic that these ghetto environments actually suffer from the destructive activities of their so-called champions.

Wake up in de morning slaving for bread, Sir

So that every mouth can be fed

Poor me Israelite

Shut dem a tear up trouziz a go

I don’t want to end up like Bonny and Clyde

Poor me Israelite            


Those lyrics are from Desmond Dekker and the Aces’ greatest hit, ‘Israelites’ (1969) which was number one in the UK and the USA, as well as in many parts of Europe whose first language is not even English. Not that the English-speaking countries had any real advantage because the singer made no attempt to water down his creole language. The interesting thing is that in spite of these, including the lack of polish, they broke into the mainstream and sold millions. It might have been the attraction of quaintness when one track did it, but not two and three.

By 1969 reggae had already passed over into full reggae, and here Dekker strikes a common reggae position of speaking for the unprivileged. It laments the plight of the poverty stricken. The persona calls himself an Israelite – an identity typical of Jamaica at the time, influenced by the biblical prototypes of long suffering and endurance – the Children of Israel, and the Rastafari influence on working class Jamaican consciousness. The Rasta identified himself with the persecuted Israelite. The persona is “slaving” for a subsistence survival; his clothes are in tatters (“trowziz a go” – his pants are falling into rags). What is also of great significance is the reference to “Bonny and Clyde” notorious gangsters in the Hollywood film of the same name. He does not want to end up like them, meaning turn to crime as a way out of poverty which he sees as a certain road to a tragic end. Dekker very skilfully counters the glorification of the violent stars of the cinema who were the role models of the rude bwai era. He cautions against that way of life.

 Tink a neva see yu when yu jump ova de wall

Tink a neva see u when u accidentally fall

A it mek

Mek yu pop u bit an fall

A it mek

Mek yu accidentally fall

A it mek

Mek yu cryin out fe ice water

And if it was a mystery why those other two songs which must have been cryptic to the European ears were so popular, what can you say about this one that came after them to make the charts before Marley ever did. At least, once you overcame the language barrier, you could see deep meaning in the lyrics of the first two, even though you might not have been familiar with the social context. But ‘A It Mek’ (often listed as ‘It Mek’), remains cryptic even to Jamaicans. The language is clear to any speaker of patois, so that’s not the problem (you think I didn’t see you when you jumped over the wall, etc, “yu pop yu bit an fall” is almost untranslatable into English, but Jamaican creole speakers will understand it).

Clearly the persona is saying to someone “it serves you right, (a it mek), that’s why that has happened to you – you were trying to commit some surreptitious act of misbehaviour – you deserve what happened to you.” There is no strong social context and profound meaning here. Its rhythm is strong, its sound delightful, but its meaning elusive.

Another of Dekker’s biggest local successes is easier to deconstruct, since it illustrates the kind of grounding in the popular culture that characterises his music. This one is ‘Intensified Festival 68’ which was Jamaica’s national Festival Song for 1968. Desmond Dekker and The Aces won the competition that year with a composition that played on the going popular slang of the day, phrases that were fashionable.

Music like dirt

For your money’s worth

Girls like san

To match every man

“Intensified” meant an abundance, a strong presence of something that had positive popular approval and the group won the day by so describing the Independence Festival celebrations. The people, particularly the youth, would have felt that the song itself was “intensified.” For something to be “like dirt” meant that it was widespread and in very plentiful supply; the same goes for “like san” – as plentiful as the grains of sand. This was clever use of expressions that had the approval of the popular culture.

Even the name under which Dekker performed is significant. He was christened Desmond Dacres. He then assumed the stage name of Dekker, which is really derived from the Jamaican patois version of his real name. The Creole speaker would pronounce ‘Dacres’ as ‘Deakas’ (phonetically Dekaz). So it was easy for him to drop the final ‘s’ (or ‘z’) and call himself ‘Dekka.’

The successes of Desmond Dekker and the Aces did not, therefore, come about by accident, but were achieved commensurate with important factors in the history of reggae. He never made the billions accumulated by the incomparable demi-god Bob Marley, whose ‘John the Baptist’ he was, but he opened the door for reggae in the mainstream international market. Those are a few facts in the history of reggae, not in its footnotes, and Desmond Dekka name haffe in deh.

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