The function of the proverb in rock steady and early reggae songs.
Proverbs are part of the repertoire of “verbal techniques” identified by Carolyn Cooper in her seminal study of Jamaican oral art forms and constitute a vast body of oral literature1. They are usually taken to embody the survival of the oral tradition in many cultures, and, as W.J.Ong has pointed out, they are often characterized by their didactic and agonistic function: “Proverbs and riddles are not used simply to store knowledge but to engage others in verbal and intellectual combat: utterance of one proverb or riddle challenges hearers to top it with a more apposite or contradictory one”2. Indeed in many cultures, proverbs and sayings are used as powerful weapons to put down an opponent or to drive a point home. For instance, in the Caribbean, proverbs serve as teaching aids and are used to teach the youths some basic truths.
Proverbs are characterized by a certain terseness and a certain allusiveness too. Gordon Rohler wrote that proverbs and sayings were used for their “compressed allusiveness” 3.
In Jamaica, proverbs are part of the oral tradition too and appear in countless folk songs and traditional songs. These traditional songs were part of the cultural baggage that many Jamaicans took with them when they left the countryside to migrate to Kingston in the 1950’s and the 1960’s. Indeed the decline of the sugar industry together with the spread of industrialization resulted in a massive wave of internal migration in 1950’s Jamaica. These migrants had to adapt to a new urban environment and they contributed to forging a new sound that later became known as Ska ( a mixture of mento, rhythm and blues and jazz). Many young Ska singers had been raised in the country and they formed bands that helped to create a new music that was later to become known as reggae. But in the 1960’s Jamaican popular music was known as Ska and then as Rock Steady, and the lyrics of many Ska/Rock Steady songs bore the imprint of the oral tradition these young singers had taken to Kingston.
The songs released in the late 1960’s illustrate the didactic and agonistic function of the proverb in Jamaican culture and testify to the fact that Jamaican singers and harmony trios used proverbs to make sense of their new living conditions in Kingston, and to comment on social and political developments in post-Independence Jamaica.
In fact the function of the proverb is apparent in two types of Ska/Rock Steady songs released in the late 1960’s:- the songs of political commentary
- the songs of social commentary
- Songs of political commentary:
In the mid- to - late 1960’s Jamaica entered a phase of “ post-Independence depression” as Edward Kamau Brathwaite put it in one of his essays4. The granting of Independence was followed by disillusion and disappointment as living standards failed to improve with a Jamaican government in office. Thus the late 1960’s were mainly a period of social unrest. In 1965 riots broke out in West Kingston and many shops belonging to the Chinese community were looted. In 1966 a state of emergency was declared and in 1968 many public services went on strike.
The Rodney affair and the Black Power riots also resulted in a politicization of life in Jamaica: in 1968 a young Guyanese lecturer teaching at the Mona campus of University of the West Indies was denied entry into Jamaica on account of the subversive nature of his activities. Rodney had launched a course on the history of African civilizations which had proved extremely popular and had also organized sessions with Rastafarians in Kingston’s ghettoes.
The problems of social unrest and juvenile delinquency were adressed by the Wailers in their very first recording which became a number one hit in Jamaica: “Simmer Down”. That song deals with the problem of hooliganism and consists of famous Jamaican proverbs strung together:
-” Chicken deh merry,
Hawk deh near,
What sweet nanny goat,
A-go run him belly”5
In that excerpt two famous Jamaican proverbs are run together to warn Jamaican youths against the danger of hooliganism which was to become a major problem a few years later with the rise of “Rudeboyism”: the Rude Boys were young toughs who roamed the streets of Kingston and lived a life of petty crime. The first of these proverbs uses the metaphor of the carefree ( and careless) chicken playing in the fowlyard unaware of the danger hovering above them ( the hawk is going to prey upon these hapless chickens). The second proverb uses a different metaphor: that of the upset stomach caused by greed. Indeed the nanny goat has a “running belly” because he ate too many sweet things. These two proverbs warn against carefree living and greed ( “ill gotten goods seldom prosper”) and testify to the Wailers’ rural background: like many other uprooted Kingston youths, the Wailers had learnt these proverbs from their parents and their grandparents.
If the Wailers were warning their peers against the danger of hooliganism, other groups focused on the evils that lay at the root of such antisocial behaviour. One such evil was economic problems and the transition from the colonial status to independence. In “Everything Crash” the Ethiopians sang about the 1968 public sector strikes in Jamaica which gave many people the impression that the country was going to the dogs:
-” Look deh now, everyhting crash!
Firemen strike, watermen strike
Telephone company too
Down to the policemen too!
What damn bad a-mawning can’t come good a-evening, whoi!”
Every day carry bucket to the well,
One day the bottom must drop out!”6
In that song two well-known Jamaican proverbs are used to comment on the collapse of the Jamaican economy in the late 1960’s and it is interesting to note that these two proverbs come after topical references to the 1968 strikes, thus cloaking the group’s social commentary in ancestral wisdom.Just like the proverbs used by the Wailers in “Simmer Down”, these two proverbs refer to a primarily rural and traditional way of life and use imagery derived from that background ( the weather and everyday tasks like fetching water). The first saying recalls the aphorism “red in the morning, the shepherd’s warning, red in the night, the shepherd’s delight”, and the second closes one of the best-known songs in reggae: “I shot he Sheriff”, by Bob Marley and the Wailers7.
But in the late 1960’s the politicization of Jamaican music that was to come with the rise of Rastafarianism had not yet taken place, and the proverb was mostly used as a vehicle for social commentary or comedy. These songs usually focus on someone’s foibles and are songs of ridicule. A favourite target of such songs has been the social climber, the upstart who is very eager to reach the top of the greasy pole, and who is quick to forget his social origins. One such song is Justin Hinds and the Dominoes’ “The Higher the Monkey Climbs” which is based on a well-known Jamaican proverb: “The higher the monkey climbs, the more it will expose”:
- “The higher the monkey climbs, the more he exposes
I’m not tracing nor complaining on those goings
He that exalteth himself shall be abased
Grief always comes to those who love to brag the most
Meekly wait and murmur not
You’d better hold on to what you have got,
The higher the monkey climbs, the more he exposes”8
The comedy of the situation appears if one pictures the scene described by the proverb: as a monkey climbs up a tree, it inevitably comes to “expose” its private parts and then becomes the butt of ribald jokes. This proverb is generally used to castigate social climbers and upstarts who, once they have reached the top, look down on their former friends.This proverb also illustrates the agonistic and social function of the proverb in a “ primary oral culture”.9
In fact the excerpt quoted above consists of a string of proverbs and sayings from the Jamaican oral tradition and from the Bible too (“He that exalteth himself shall be abased”). These aphorisms confer upon the singers some kind of moral authority and testifies to their religious upbringing. The overall “message” of the song is quite conservative and quietist: the moral seems to be that social climbers and upstarts will one day be brought low and that consequently one should “meekly” accept one’s fate without complaining about it.
Other songs of social commentary/comedy are more specifically concerned with human relationships and with the evils of hypocrisy and treachery. The Slickers’ “Man Beware”, which testifies to the survival in Jamaica of an oral style based on the stringing together of proverbs, deals with the necessity to adopt a certain aloofness when dealing with others and to be on one’s guard :
-“ Man, man, man, beware!
You don’t know what’s dawning over you!
You see a man, you don’t see his heart!”10
This song also illustrates the heavy moralizing and didactic bias in early reggae, which should come as no surprise in a deeply religious society like Jamaica.
So man can be devious, treacherous, and one should be careful, even in one’s dealings with those who need our help: Peter Tosh’s “Maga Dog” relies on the metaphor of the mangy dog, the stray dog that arouses people’s pity only to bite them when they do not need them any more:
-” Sorry fe maga dog
Him turn around and bite you
Jump outta frying pan
Jump inna de fire!”11
That song is based on two well-known sayings one of which is famous as an English proverb too ( “Out of the frying pan and into the fire”). These proverbs warn us against the duplicity to be found in most human beings and are characterized by a certain cynicism.
Thus by the late 1960’s Jamaican popular music, in its pre-reggae phases ( ska and rock steady), already testified to the existence of a creative, syncretistic synthesis that had taken shape in the West Kingston slums as the age-old proverbs from the countryside had met the new urban rhythms and outlook of the uprooted ghetto youths who were forging a new identity as “sufferers”. The sayings and proverbs they had learnt from their parents and their grandparents, both in the country and in the capital, helped them to adjust to a new situation, a new life in the concrete jungle, in short to make sense of their new urban condition by relying on a rural outlook. As the old Jamaican aphorism goes, “old time sinting come back again!”12 .
1. Cooper, Carolyn. Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan Caribbean, 1993.
2. Ong, W.J. Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen, 1982.
3. Rohler, Gordon. “Sounds and Pressure”. My Strangled City and Other Essays. Longman Trinidad Ltd, 1992.
4. Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. Foreword to Savacou, 3 and 4, 1970-71.
5. The Wailers, “Simmer Down”. The Birth of a Legend. Columbia, 1977.
6.The Ethiopians. “Everything Crash”. Sir JJ and Friends- The Ethiopians. Esoldun, 1993.
7. Marley, Bob. “I shot the Sheriff”. Burning. Island, 1973.
8. Hinds, Justin. “The higher the monkey climbs”. Skatalites and Friends Hog in a Cocoa. Culture Press, 1999.
9. Cooper Noises in the Blood, p.38.
10. The Slickers, “Man Beware”. Joe Gibbs,The Reggae Train:1968-71. Trojan, 1988.
11. Tosh, Peter. “Maga Dog”. Honorary Citizen. Columbia, 1997.
12. This proverb roughly translates as “ Old traditions are still alive and well”.
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