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I know, it’s been getting a little dub-heavy around here. It’s not going to let up for a little while. If you got just one or a couple of the dub albums I posted, at least get this one. -Ian!

You could be forgiven for thinking reggae is a purely male form of music. The recent coverage of the celebrations of 40 years of Jamaican independence was great for raising the general public’s awareness of the genre and finally giving it the recognition it so rightly deserves, but aside from a detailed Radio 2 documentary on the subject matter, there was little mention of the integral role that female artists, writers, and producers have played in the music’s genesis, formation and innovation over the years.

After all it was a female solo singer Millie Small, who gave Jamaica its first UK hit record with the ska tune ‘My Boy Lollipop’ in 1964. Then there’s Sonia Pottinger. Responsible for the studio sound of The Melodians, Ken Boothe, The Gaylads and Culture, she’s quite simply one of the finest producers around.

There’s no denying that the music industry is institutionally sexist. Its stereotypical view of the female both as societal figure – budding artists in Jamaica are expected to loiter outside recording studios to get a deal yet such behaviour in a woman is severely frowned upon – and as a musician – the industry sees female singers as an homogenous group that can be neatly separated into three broad categories, that of victim, problem and personality, and the reggae female’s political diatribe, joyous spiritual or dance floor gem sits uneasy with these pre-determined roles – goes someway towards explaining firstly this glaring oversight in programming and secondly why sadly few women enter the music making process.

Thankfully there will always be those willing to challenge such ridiculous gender stereotypes – from Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt and Dawn Penn in the ’60s and ’70s to dancehall queens Lady Saw and Lady G on the ’80s and ’90s – and in doing so they not only provide a role model for future generations but show that instead of being the exception to the norm as they are often painted, they are the norm, if only the opportunities presented were equal.

Here Trojan Sisters pays tribute to such singing sirens, gathering together 50 choice female vocal cuts from the Trojan archives spanning the years 1964 to 1975.

A decade when Jamaica witnessed a radical development in its musical backdrop from the uptempo rhythms of ska through the soulful laid back grooves of rock steady when the country’s female vocalists really got their chance to shine to the roots and dub reggae era of the mid-’70s.

One artist, who helped shape the sound of rock steady, was Phyllis Dillon. In her all too brief career (a mere five years) the First Lady of Jamaican music captured the reggae heartland with her seductively sweet vocals and song writing genius. Included here is her 1967 debut, the self penned ‘Don’t Stay Away’ featuring Tommy McCook And The Supersonics on backing duties plus her hauntingly dark rendition of Marlena Shaw’s ‘Woman Of The Ghetto’ taken from her sole 1971 LP, ‘One Life To Live’. Elsewhere are her deliciously sultry takes on Bettye Swann’s Money label recording, ‘Make Me Yours’, The Shirelles’ ‘A Thing Of The Past’ and the pop standard ‘Perfidia’.

Arguably the quintessential female reggae vocalist, Marcia Griffiths is synonymous with singer, songwriter and producer Bob Andy. Professionally and privately linked the pair notched up a series of Jamaican hits, first with Marcia as a solo artist on such revered Andy scribed Studio One gems as ‘Truly’, ‘Mark My Words’ and ‘Feel Like Jumping’ and then as a duet; their take on Nina Simone’s ‘Young Gifted And Black’ not only stormed the Jamaican chart but also made the UK top 5 in 1970 and stayed there for 12 weeks. While Marcia was a gifted songwriter in her own right, it was such indelible often brave rewrites that really got her noticed. Teamed with producer Harry J, she turned out poignant readings of Freda Payne’s ‘Band Of Gold’ and The Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, pulled off an incredibly infectious take on Crispian St. Peter’s ‘Pied Piper’ with Bob Andy, (which made number 11 in the UK chart in 1971) plus renditions of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Gypsy Woman’, entitled ‘Gypsy Man’, and Davidson’s ‘Children At Play’, both culled from her 1974 Lloyd Charmers produced ‘Sweet Bitter Love’ LP and both transformed by her hands into psychedelic delicacies.

After the release of the Sweet Bitter Love album, Marcia’s solo career was put on the back burner. Joining forces with Judy Mowatt and Rita Marley, the trio, under the moniker the I-Threes, concentrated their energies providing harmonies for Rita’s husband Bob Marley debuting on his 1975 album ‘Natty dread’ and remaining at his side until his tragic death in 1981.

Prior to the I-Threes, Judy Mowatt had already knocked up an impressive CV as both front woman with The Gaylets and as a solo artist often recording under the confusing sobriquet, Julian. With The Gaylets she delivered the fabulous Dorsey Burnette authored ‘Here Comes That Feeling’ (AKA ‘That Lonely Feeling’), a heart wrenchingly stunning take on ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ and a raunchy rendition of Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’. But it wasn’t until Judy paired with producer Sonia Pottinger that she really excelled. ‘I Shall Sing’, penned by Van Morrison is a stupendous gospel-fired piece while ‘Emergency Call’ and her take on Fontella Bass’ ‘Rescue Me’ are achingly soulful pleas.

Despite her musical career being overshadowed by that of her husband’s, Rita Marley is nevertheless an extremely talented vocalist as ‘Why Should I’ and the Lee Perry produced ‘Bring It Up’ recorded with The Soulettes prove.

Two other singers who flourished under Lee Perry’s tutelage are Debra Keese – 1977’s ‘Travelling’ recorded with the Black Five is an awesome sliver of spaced out dub – and Susan Cadogan. Her eponymous LP with Perry comprised sexy renditions of ‘In The Ghetto’, ‘Hurt So Good’ (a number 4 UK hit in 1975) and ‘Nice And Easy’ plus perhaps the LP’s highlight ‘Fever’ where she turns Peggy Lee’s standard into a simmering cauldron of sassy suggestion.

Other artists featured in this compilation include Barbara Jones. ‘Come And Get Some’, ‘Walk Through This World’ and ‘I Can’t Help It Darling’ are all splendid servings of soulful reggae while Cynthia Richards turns The Staple Singers’ gospel-tinged ‘If You’re Ready Come Go With Me’ into a fervid come on and Hortense Ellis, best known for her duets with brother Alton, delivers a real heartbreaker with ‘To The Other Woman’. Joya Landis provides worthy takes on ‘Angel Of The Morning’ and ‘Kansas City’ and Dawn Penn shines brightly on ‘Why Did You Lie?’ and ‘I Let You Go Boy’ but special mention must go to Nora Dean and her cut, ‘Peace Begins Within’ which is one outstanding, peerless slice of spiritual reggae.

-Lois Wilson, MOJO Magazine

Various Artists-TROJAN BOX SET: REGGAE SISTERS (2003 compilation)


One Comment

  1. You never have to apologize for the dub.

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