The Visitor Route
What about the half
That’s never been told?
— Dennis Brown, Jamaican singer (1957-1999)
Principles of the exhibition
- A 7-part chronological and thematic tour retracing Jamaica’s unique musical and political evolution.
- The visual side of Jamaican music, featuring mural art from the streets of Kingston, album covers, flyers, the graphic exuberance of Jamaica’s mobile street discos.
- An exhibition that presents this rich cultural heritage thanks to exceptional pieces never before exhibited in Europe, on loan from Jamaican institutions such as the National Gallery in Kingston (Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, Evadney Cruickshank, Sidney McLaren, Karl Parboosingh, etc.).
- An exhibition that presents the extraordinary influence that Jamaican culture has had on music, graphic design, fashion and contemporary art, both in Jamaica and beyond (Tony McDermott, Xavier Veilhan, Nik Nowak, Leasho Johnson, Beth Lesser, Patrick Cariou, etc.).
- Scenography by the architecture firm Encore Heureux, accentuating the architectural elegance in the graphic profusion of Jamaica’s musical genres.
Centrepieces of the exhibition
- Paintings and murals created on site by Danny Coxson, the Jamaican street artist invited by the Cité de la musique – Philharmonie de Paris and the Institut français.
- Interactive installations: a sound system and tracks that visitors can operate, and discos inside the exhibition every Friday evening
- One-of-a-kind instruments: Peter Toshʼs M16 rifle guitar, vintage sound systems, King Tubby’s customised mixing desk, etc.
- Reconstructions of legendary studios such as Studio One, the Black Ark and King Tubby’s.
- Rare and unpublished audio clips and footage of Bob Marley and The Wailers.
Rebel music: the multiple heritage of slavery
Christopher Columbus reached Xaymaca, the Arawak “land of wood and water”, in 1494, leading to Spanish occupation of the island from 1509. In 1655, it was taken over by the English, under whose rule it developed into a key hub in the slave trade and the colonial Caribbean economy. From the beginning, however, the threat of rebellion was constant; it was said that the most defiant slaves came from slaving ships that docked in Jamaica, the first stop in the West Indies.
Throughout “four hundred years” (as sung by Peter Tosh) of dominion, the uprisings and revolts by slaves and their descendants never ceased. With these acts of affirmation came new forms of religious worship, drawn from a mix of Christian and African song and dance influences that sowed the seeds for Jamaican music to come.
The abolition of slavery, enacted in stages from 1834 to 1838, did not bring a clear end to the plight of blacks in Jamaica. Haunted by its history, artistic and musical production in Jamaica has been scarred by its past, but also draws from it strength of spirit and dignity, fuelled by the enduring ability to resist.
Mento, “Jamaican calypso”
Mento, the earliest form of Jamaican Creole music, was born in the 19th century as a form of rural folk song. Often confused with the calypso of neighbouring Trinidad and Tobago because of their melodic similarities, mento is an unapologetic fusion of the multiple heritage of slavery, drawing from both West African song and dance and colonial customs such as the Quadrille, a European society dance that became popular in Jamaica in the 19th century.
Thanks to masterful use of innuendo, mento songs can range in tone from devoutly religious to highly risqué. After reaching its apogee in the 1950s, the mento craze faded the following decade when Jamaicaʼs brand new sound—ska—exploded onto the music scene.
The soundtrack to independence
The end of World War II set in motion a worldwide process of decolonisation that ultimately dismantled the British Empire. India, Kenya, Malaysia: one by one, the British colonies became sovereign states.
Jamaica gained its independence in 1962, a time marked by growing awareness of the Third World and Pan-Africanism. At long last, Jamaica became the “master of its own destiny”, and euphoric pride and optimism swept across the island. People were eager to celebrate to music, and the new musical genre ska—a blend of local traditions and American rhythm and blues and jazz, with its characteristic rhythm on the off beat—perfectly matched the mood. Thanks to the success of The Skatalites—whose members were all educated at the Alpha Boys School run by an order of Catholic nuns—ska became Jamaicaʼs first musical phenomenon to reach international audiences.
Alpha Boys school: The incredible destiny of a school run by nuns
The Alpha Boys School—an educational institution for “wayward boys” founded in Kingston in 1880 by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy—would come to hold an extraordinary place in music history, producing many of Jamaica’s most influential musicians.
As part of the rigid education administered by the nuns, the schoolsʼ pupils receive strict musical training. Of particular influence was Mary Ignatius Davies (1921−2003), or “Sister Ignatius”, a music lover: the exhibition includes an homage to her in the form of jukebox featuring some of her favourite songs. Under her guidance, rowdy boys from the streets learned to express themselves and find solace through music, with some going on to lead brilliant musical careers.
Former pupils of the Alpha Boys School include all three members of Israel Vibration, Cedric Brooks, Vin Gordon, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, Leroy Smart, Yellowman, Leslie Thompson (the first black conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra), and the four founding members of the revolutionary ska band The Skatalites, Tommy McCook, Don Drummond, Lester Sterling and Johnny “Dizzy” Moore.
Studio One, the Black Ark and King Tubby’s studio: a production circuit like nowhere else in the world
Mottaʼs Recording Studio, Jamaicaʼs first commercial recording facility, opened as a makeshift operation in Kingston in November 1950. Initially set up to provide hotel clientele with souvenir mento albums, the record industry quickly became an important part of Jamaican society, especially with the emergence of small street discos and sound systems towards the end of the 1950s: in order to boost their popularity and bring in more profits, nightclubs and sound systems had to play exclusive tracks.
With fierce competition at every level of the production circuit, studios and music began to play a key role in Jamaicaʼs economy, society and politics. Artistic rivalry pushed singers, musicians and producers to always aim higher and keep innovating. Over the next decades, sound pioneers in Kingston studios came up with unique musical practices that would be emulated and adopted around the world. This is certainly true of the three studios that Jamaica Jamaica! has chosen to reconstruct: Studio One, the Black Ark created by eccentric producer Lee Perry, and King Tubbyʼs impeccable sound room.
Lee Perry, the “Salvador Dalí of dub”
An eccentric figure and a true artist, sound engineer and producer Lee “Scratch” Perry (b. 1936) invented production techniques that spread far beyond reggae circles and are still used today. He continues to be the subject of fascination, as illustrated by the work of contemporary French artist Xavier Veilhan, who has included Lee Perry in his series of 3D sculptures of mythic producers.
Lee Perry started out with Studio One in 1961, releasing “People Funny Boy”, considered to be one of the first reggae songs, in 1968. The following year, he produced Bob Marley and The Wailers, setting them on their path to international fame. But it was in his own studio, the Black Ark, founded in 1973, that Lee Perry did his most groundbreaking work. Equipped with only a four-track recorder and a few basic drum machines, he revolutionised Jamaican music and took his creative genius to new heights, helping to invent dub—a psychedelic reinvention of reggae instrumentals saturated with sound effects.
The Black Ark, which its creator had covered in cryptic graffiti, burned down under mysterious circumstances at the end of the 1970s, before Lee Perry moved to England. He now shares his time between Switzerland and Jamaica, and his eccentric genius has earned him the nickname the “Salvador Dali of dub”. At age 80, this living monument continues to cultivate his image as an artist, taking part in artistic events and occasional concerts, for which he still creates his own stage costumes.
King Tubbyʼs lost mixing desk
Found in Jamaica under incredible circumstances, this console is one of the exhibitionʼs centrepieces. Prior to its acquisition in 1999, no one even knew if it still existed.
This twelve-track MCI desk belonged to sound engineer and producer Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock (1941-1989), a trailblazer in the art of musical reinterpretation who showed the world that sound engineering is just as much “making music” as any musicianʼs part. The “dub master”, as he was called, was one of the inventors of remixing, a technique still widely used in popular music today. This legendary console, which other producers continued to use long after King Tubby’s death, features the famed “big knob” in the upper right-hand corner of the control panel: this specially rigged high-pass filter is what gave his remixes their unique sound.
Jamaica’s true instrument
In the 1950s, radio became a fixture in homes around the world. In order to hear the latest new sounds, Jamaicans huddled around the radios of those lucky enough to receive the signal from New Orleans or Florida. At the time, as popular as they were on the street, American rhythm and blues and local mento music were considered improper and not allowed on Jamaican airwaves. When a handful of young entrepreneurs decided to organise outdoor dances where they could play whatever albums they chose, the sound system was born. From the start, this mobile street disco filled a void, serving as the speakers of the people, and ultimately becoming the true instrument of Jamaican music.
Sound system dances quickly became part of everyday life in Jamaica, representing a considerable market. Spearheaded by pioneers of this fast-growing new social scene such as Tom the Great Sebastian and V Rocket, epic sound battles soon birthed the first three major sound systems: The Trojan (Duke Reid), Coxsonʼs Downbeat (Clement Dodd) and Voice of the People (Prince Buster). In order to “survive” in this fiercely competitive milieu, sound systems were under constant pressure to invent new ways to stand out: their technical, stylistic and musical innovations—the sound clash, dubplates (exclusive tracks pressed on acetate) and remixing—laid the foundations of DJ culture as we know it today.
Serious Tings A Go Happen, Jamaica’s colourful dancehall signs
For the past fifteen years, Jamaican producer Maxine has collected the bright, hand-painted signs advertising sound system dances in Jamaica. Nailed to the odd tree or telephone pole on the island, these flashy signs—as colourful linguistically as they are visually—aim to outdo each other with the catchiest phrases in patois and the gaudiest lettering. They represent an incredible vernacular, visual and linguistic heritage, and one that is endangered: the Jamaican people’s fondness for these dancehall signs is not shared by the authorities, who view them as illegal advertising and systematically destroy them.
The intertwined destinies of “Jah, Rastafari” and Marcus Garvey
This part of the exhibition, entitled “Black Man Time” in homage to I-Royʼs song, retraces the destiny of two major and interconnected historical figures often hailed in Jamaican music, especially reggae: Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and activist Marcus Garvey.
Between the years 1680 and 1786, the United Kingdom deported almost two million Africans to its colonies. Those that emerged from the holds of the slaving ships to a life of bondage in the New World never resigned themselves to this existence.
Slave resistance laid the foundation for a working-class consciousness in Jamaica that was further shaped by the key figures of black pride, such as Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). One of the fathers of black nationalism, born in Jamaica but very active in the United States, Marcus Garvey became one of the most prominent advocates for Pan-Africanism. The other figure is Haile Selassie (1892-1975), emperor of Ethiopia, who embodied the resistance to oppression and colonialism. After his crowning in 1930, Haile Selassie was proclaimed to be the incarnation of God by Rastafari, a spiritual and philosophical movement in Jamaica.
At the end of the 1960s, fuelled by the determination to bring down the system of slavery and colonialism that had shaped their existence, Rastafarians turned Jamaican music into a militant, seditious and mystical wail of pride—reggae—boldly reaffirming their ties to Africa and their ancestors.
Bob Marley and The Wailers, political hostages in a war between neighbourhoods
Originally from the rural town of Nine Mile, Bob Marley spent most of his youth in the West Kingston ghetto of Trenchtown. There in the daedalus of communal courtyards, he met Peter Tosh (1944-1987) and Bunny Livingston (b. 1947), with whom he formed his first band, The Wailers. Their 1964 song “Simmer Down” became their first hit in Jamaica.
From the start, their music rang out as a gripping, soulful wail. Trenchtown was the frontline between two warring neighbourhoods, armed by political parties who sought to use musicians for their own political gain. Deeply marked by the violence they saw play out in its streets, The Wailers would sing about Trenchtown throughout their career.
In 1972, The Wailers were spotted by Jamaican-English producer Chris Blackwell and signed to his Island label. Just two years later, however, with The Wailers on the brink of international success, tensions over the labelʼs promotion of Marley alone led to the break-up of the band. Before his death in 1981, Bob Marley became an international icon, the first true, and unrivalled to this day, superstar to emerge from the Third World. A Christ-like figure who spoke to and for the oppressed, he had carried the rebellious voice of his Kingston neighbourhood around the world.
Peter Tosh’s M16 rifle guitar
The famous machine gun-shaped guitar that became a symbol of defiance and militancy did not always belong to Peter Tosh. Originally created and used by Californian guitarist Bruno Coon of the rock group Prairie Fire, the guitar was sold to Peter Tosh for $550 after his concert in Los Angeles on 25 August 1883. This one-of-a-kind instrument is one of the exhibitionʼs flagship pieces.
Jamaican music after Marley
1981: with the death of Bob Marley, Jamaican music lost its international ambassador. At the same time, a new mutation of the islandʼs music, dancehall, was emerging in its ghettos.
Veering away from Rastafarian spirituality, this new sound chronicled life in the sound system culture, as if after being in the international spotlight, Jamaica needed to sing for itself again. This new music style focused heavily on beauty and the body. Already crippled by debt since its first loan from the IMF in 1977, the country was falling into even deeper poverty. Provocative in tone, this new genre became peopleʼs only release from the pressures of everyday life.
In the early 1990s, a new phenomenon appeared on the dance floors: dancehall queens, with their outrageous outfits and highly suggestive dance moves, in a militant expression of hyper-femininity that has carried over into the global pop culture of today.
While the West searched desperately for the “next Bob Marley”, Jamaica was busy reinventing itself once again. With dancehall, it created a new brand of distinctly Jamaican codes, a musical and corporal movement true to its roots, born on the dance floor to the beat of the sound systems.
The Greensleeves Years
The English label Greensleeves, founded in 1977, reflects the mood in the early 1980s, as the reign of dub was drawing to a close and the dancehall era was beginning. With albums from a variety of Jamaican producers, Greensleeves forged the visual identify of this new sound thanks to its head illustrator Tony McDermott, largely influenced by comics. For the first time, as part of the Jamaica Jamaica! exhibition, this remarkable artist has provided a portfolio of the original artworks he created for the Greensleeves label.
Leasho Johnson: the humour and hypersexuality of dancehall
Born in 1984 in Montego Bay, Leasho Johnson is a Kingston-based multidisciplinary artist working in ceramics, murals, street art, and graphic design, etc. Interested in art as a place of conflict and influenced by cultural studies, his artworks are always guided by social commentary on his own experience as a young, gay man who grew up in Jamaica. With this installation—an artistic wink at the Keith Haring murals from the early days of hip hop, and a tribute to dancehall culture—Leasho Johnson humorously plays with the codes of provocative representations of the disinhibited characters encountered at street discos.
Panzer sound system: dancehall is a weapon!
For Jamaica Jamaica!, German artist Nik Nowak has specially adapted his installation entitled Panzer (2011), inviting DJ Neil Case aka “Bass Mekanik” to compose a special soundtrack based on his dancehall favourites from the 1980s to today.
Of Jamaican origin but based in Miami, Neil Case has worked as a sound engineer on reggae productions for Byron Lee, Barry Biggs and Tommy Cowan. He is primarily known for developing the Miami Bass style in the 1980s, a form of rap made famous by the group 2 Live Crew.
Exhibition’s curator: Sébastien Carayol
Sébastien Carayol, age 41, is a journalist, author and filmmaker (Tracks/ARTE, ARTE Creative, Petit Dragons, La Cavalerie) with a background in print journalism (Natty Dread, Wax Poetics, Libération, Next, Riddim, Vibrations, etc.). He shares his time between Marseille and Los Angeles.
Immersed in the sound system culture of London and Jamaica for the past two decades, he has curated exhibitions such as Say Watt? Le Culte du sound system (La Gaîté lyrique, summer 2013), Hometown Hi-Fi (Sonos Studion, Los Angeles, 2014) and Agents Provocateurs (Shepard Fairey Gallery/Subliminal Projects, Los Angeles, 2015).
Scenography: Encore Heureux
Encore Heureux is a Paris-based architecture agency founded in 2001 by Nicola Delon and Julien Choppin, working in the fields of architecture, design and artistic installation. In 2006, it was selected for the Nouveaux Albums des Jeunes Architectes, a distinction for young architects awarded by the French Ministry of Culture. Encore Heureux has created a number of cultural and tertiary facilities in both the public and private sectors, including a concert hall, movie theatre, museum and innovation centre. Sébastien Eymard joined the project as the third associate in 2016, and the team has now grown to some fifteen designers with a variety of backgrounds.