MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The island nation of Jamaica is celebrating 50 years of independence this year. While the country may be small in size, it has clearly had an outsized impact on music and culture around the world and, as a measure of the importance of music to the country and to the world, none less than the former prime minister of Jamaica, Edward Seaga, has curated a collection of what he sees as the 100 most significant songs to emerge from the country since independence. It is called "Reggae Golden Jubilee: Origins of Jamaican Music."
And the former prime minister, the honorable Edward Seaga, is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
EDWARD SEAGA: Thank you.
MARTIN: Now, your involvement with this project is not as much of a stretch as some might think for a former head of state, given that you are actually a former record company owner and producer yourself. Back in 1960, you produced a hit called "Manny Oh." Let's hear just a little bit of the song and then we'll talk about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANNY OH")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Manny Oh, some day, Manny Oh, you can go, but now, now, now, now, I love you so. If only your arms would never let me go. Squeeze me, squeeze me some more. Oh, Manny Oh.
MARTIN: You know, honestly, we could do a whole segment just on this song and the impact that it had on the industry, but we can't, so as briefly as you can, could you tell us, how did you get involved in producing this song and why do you think it had such an impact?
SEAGA: It started with a research project that I was doing in anthropology on the folk culture of Jamaica and I recorded a number of folk music tunes, which I had then produced as a record by Folkways, but people didn't really want to hear that. They wanted pop music.
But just about that time, Jamaicans were beginning to create their own pop music and "Manny Oh" happens to have been the third such recording that came on the scene. It was a hit record, having won a talent show, and I got it recorded and it was a very big hit.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask how your parents felt about your getting involved with the music business, you with your degree from Harvard, which was not so easy to come by? What did they think about this?
SEAGA: They didn't think good of it at all. My mother had to protect me from my father. He thought he had wasted his money. But it turned out, eventually, that it had a link to political life, and that's how I got into politics because that study that I did eventually made me realize that there was work to be done in the folk society of the country and in helping the people who are poor, and that's how I got into political life.
MARTIN: And, also, promoting Jamaica's own music - right - as opposed to just importing hits from elsewhere. Right?
SEAGA: Well, the amount of imports diminished quite rapidly because the amount of songs that were being produced locally were so much that you had a stream of new hits coming out, you know, regularly, and they were all good. In those first few years, we had a number of songs that went to the top, like "My Boy Lollipop" with Millie Small, Desmond Decker's "Israelites," Jimmy Cliff's "Beautiful People, Wonderful World." Those were records that went to the top and we had others that were pretty good in the ratings, as well.
MARTIN: Well, why don't we hear one of them? Let's hear Millie Small's cover of "My Boy Lollipop," one of the first big hits, Jamaican hits overseas in England and the U.S. I don't think - I'm sure, when people hear it, they will not need to be reminded of this tune, but I'll just play it just in case. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BOY LOLLIPOP")
MILLIE SMALL: (Singing) My boy lollipop, you make my heart go giddyup. You are as sweet as candy. You're my sugar dandy. Whoa, my boy lollipop.
SEAGA: "My Boy Lollipop" was the first real tremendous hit in the composition of Jamaican popular music. It's a rhythm that makes you want to move. It's compulsive. The song itself is attractive and it has this very special recording of this baby voice artist that was just perfect for the tune. Everything came together and she made a huge hit of it in England.
MARTIN: Another song you picked from the ska era was Prince Buster's "Wash, Wash." Now, let's take a listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WASH WASH")
PRINCE BUSTER: (Singing) Wash wash. Wash all my troubles away. Oh yeah. Whoa, yeah. Whoa-whoa, yeah. Wash wash. Wash all my troubles away oh yeah. Oh yeah...
SEAGA: That's one of the great hits.
MARTIN: How important was Prince Buster's influence on music?
SEAGA: Buster was a showman. He was a natural and what the way he did, he had a sound system that was one of the top ones. He was producing records. He was a composer. He was a singer and he's just a real personality kid. And he made a number of records in that first decade of the 1960s, of which "Wash Wash" was just one, and there were some others as well. He was keen on taking existing tunes - some of them were religious tunes - and jazzing them up so that they would come out with a rhythm.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, SPACE "WASH WASH")
BUSTER: (Singing) Both of my kid's, man I sweat till I'm wrinkled and gray. Life ain't lucky, oh son, give me nothing to do but roll around heaven all day.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. My guest today is the former Prime Minister of Jamaica, Edward Seaga. He is taking us on a musical journey through Jamaica's 50 years of independence. He has curated a collection of 100 of the island's most celebrated hits.
So let's jump forward to the 1970s, which was a difficult decade for Jamaica. There was, of course, the gang violence. Your collection highlights Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" from that era. Let's play a little bit of that and then you can tell us more about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLICE AND THIEVES")
JUNIOR MURVIN: (Singing) Mmmm yes. Police and thieves in the street. Oh yeah. Fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition. Police and thieves in the street. Oh yeah.
MARTIN: It's a tough message. It's a tough message in that song. Could you just talk a little bit about that and why you decided to include it in the collection?
SEAGA: It is applicable to the period in so far as the message was concerned. I think you realize that reggae was message music to a large extent. But this one also had a wonderful melody and the falsetto voice of Junior Murvin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLICE AND THIEVES")
MURVIN: (Singing) All the crimes committed day by day. No one try to stop it in anyway. All the peacemakers turn war officers. Hear what I say. Ha ha ha ha ha ha hey.
MARTIN: At the time that you were the leader of the opposition, the JLP - the Jamaica Labour Party - does that song portray an accurate picture from your recollection?
SEAGA: Yes it does. Yes it does. It speaks to the issues of the day.
MARTIN: I think many people might forget, as you mentioned, that reggae is message music to a large degree. And I think many people might forget that in 1978, that the rival gangs decided to encourage Bob Marley to return from exile in London to organize a major concert to unite the country. It was called the "One Love Peace Concert." And I think you and then Prime Minister Michael Manley where there.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BOB MARLEY: Could we have, could we have up here on stage here the presence of Mr. Michael Manley and Mr. Edward Seaga? Oh. I just want to shake hands and show the people that we're gonna make it right, (Singing) we're gonna unite, we're gonna make it right, we've got to unite.
MARTIN: I just have to ask you your memories from that moment. What was going on through your mind?
SEAGA: Well, I wasn't expecting it and I don't think Michael was either. But it was so appropriate for the occasion that when he asked us to come on stage we just got up and moved on stage immediately. And he immediately held his hands in our hands above his head and gave a little statement about, you know, peace and so on. And Bob had such a strong personality and was followed by so many thousands. You had in the audience people who were antagonistic to other on the streets sitting beside each other, and it really welded everybody together on the occasion. It didn't last forever, but for quite a time it did what it was supposed to do.
MARTIN: You know, these four CDs and this collection show the many directions that the music has gone, you know, the rise of dance hall, the resurgence of roots and lovers rock and, of course, the next generation of the Marleys, it's quite comprehensive. A couple of things that interest me is one, do you like where Jamaican music is today?
SEAGA: Well, Jamaicans create in so many ways. And what has happened is that once they were able to create the rhythm on electronic system they started to create a large number of rhythms, so they weren't satisfied with one rhythm lasting for five years. Everybody who wanted to compose a song started with a new rhythm, which they'd go to a rhythm master to compose or they would do it themselves, they put it on the electronic system and then they composed the music and words to go with it. So rhythms were just flowing out of the system - different rhythms - and that made dance hall something that you can't define by its rhythm. Although most of the songs are DJ rhythm songs, but it is a way of life, a form of dress, a form of language and the way in which you conduct yourself, it's a subculture.
MARTIN: I understand - do I have it right, that one of your favorite songs is the last song on disc four, Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come." Is that right?
SEAGA: Oh yes, I consider that one of the anthems of reggae.
MARTIN: And it's a classic from the 1972 film of the same name. I'm sure it's a song that many, many people, you know, know by heart. Let's hear just a little bit of the song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HARDER THEY COME")
JIMMY CLIFF: (Singing) Ooh, the harder they come, harder they'll fall, one and all. Hey, the harder they come, the harder they'll fall, one and all.
MARTIN: What is it that you like about it so much?
SEAGA: Well, it was a true reggae, number one. Number two, the music itself was wonderful. The rhythm, the lyrics, everything just fitted together perfectly. And if you saw the film you would see why, it just became a natural hit.
MARTIN: It very clearly is intended to teach people something. And any particular message that you would want people to draw from the collection, in addition to just listening to the great music?
SEAGA: Yes, there is a message. This country is very small - Jamaica is a small country - and when I listen to the music I keep saying to myself, how could a small country produce such wonderful, such beautiful, such stimulating music, music with such strong message, how could they do it? And you then realize what you have is a people of great creativity, and that's the big message.
MARTIN: There's a lot of conversation now, in contemporary music that has its roots in - I don't know what you want to call it - the streets. There's a big discussion now about whether it still fulfilling its mission, whether it's still carrying messages from people who have no other voice, or is it just all about parties and champagne and so forth, like this now. Do you feel that way about reggae? Do you feel reggae is still saying what needs to be said to the people who need to hear it?
SEAGA: Well, it is but only to a small extent. And it's now roots reggae, that's what it's called and it's message music. Two or three of the Dance Hall artists have done some reggae, like Luciano and Buju Banton and that sort of thing which carries a message with it.
MARTIN: Let's hear a little bit of Buju Banton's "Untold Story."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNTOLD STORY")
BUJU BANTON: (Singing) Opportunity is a scarce commodity. In these times I say, when mama spend her last to send you to class. Never you ever play. It's a competitive world for low budget people. Spending a dime while earning a nickel. With no regards for who it may tickle. My cup is full to the brim. I could go on and on and full has never been told. Through this life...
MARTIN: Well, thank you. Before we let you go, any final words of wisdom? You have had an interesting career, touching both the culture and the politics of your country, deeply involved in both. Any final words you want to leave us with?
SEAGA: I think that the accomplishment that's taken place over the last 50 years in Jamaica's history, of these accomplishments, our music has been the greatest because it has made us a brand name throughout the world. There's no small country you can go to, no large country, no country at all that if you mention Jamaica they say reggae music or they say Bob Marley. It's known everywhere and this is a tremendous feat. I'd love to see it continue and continue to make us a brand name.
MARTIN: Edward Seaga served as prime minister of Jamaica from 1980 to 1989. He curated the four disc box set. It is interestingly only available as a box set, there's no digital distribution. It's called "Reggae Golden Jubilee - Origins of Jamaican Music." And Edward Seaga was kind enough to join us from Miami.
Thank you so much for joining us.
SEAGA: Yes. I'm saying goodbye and I'm saying thanks to VP Records for making this possible.
MARTIN: And let's hear some of that classic Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" as we say goodbye. As Mr. Seaga said, it is his favorite. Let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HARDER THEY COME")
CLIFF: (Singing) Ooh yeah. Oh yeah. Well, they tell me of a pie up in the sky waiting for me when I die. But between the day you're born and...
MARTIN: That was Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come." And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the programs tab, you can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter, the handle is @TELLME MORENPR. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HARDER THEY COME")
CLIFF: (Singing) And the harder they come, the harder they'll fall, one and all. Ooh, the harder they come, harder they'll fall, one and all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.