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The World

Marco Werman reconstructs DJ Dice’s set list from a sound system street party in the Kingston, Jamaica neighborhood of Rae Town. It’s all-Jamaican-oldies on The World this time.

I recently spent some time reporting in Kingston, Jamaica. I’ve never been drawn to the resorts. I wanted to go the music center, the capital.

And one of the must-do things there is to go to a sound system, one of the classic Kingston street parties.

A few blocks of a street are closed off. A DJ sets up a bank or two — or three — of giant loudspeakers. And the tunes roll.

These days, sound system DJs mostly spin dancehall, heavy stripped-down beats with a rapper or a toaster chanting over the top. But each Sunday in the neighborhood of Rae Town, you can go back in time and still hear the oldies.

Rae Town has been putting on this sound system for more than twenty years. The party in Rae Town doesn’t really get started until about one in the morning, very early Monday morning that is. The crowd numbers at least 500, often reaching a thousand.

Dancers from their twenties to their sixties shake it up in the middle of the street.

And those who watch them or just shuffle their feet gather on both sides of the street like heaving crowds at a parade.

There are no rules. People dress up and they dress down. Young men parade bouquets of ganja for sale. Every twenty feet is someone with a cooler of Red Stripe beer and soft drinks. Everyone is having fun.

And it’s the music that sets the mood. On this particular night, DJ Dice was spinning with his promotion team Prestomix.

As I drove into Rae Town, Dice was playing the 1961 hit Raindrops, by Dee Clark.

Later he spun another American oldie that Jamaicans heard years ago coming across the water from Florida radio stations. R&B singer Maxine Brown doing her version of Carole King’s “Oh No Not My Baby.”

That was a chilled out crowd-pleaser. Especially among the older set. But it was cool how a lot of the young people loved it too.

Now here are two good examples I heard that night of how Jamaican musicians cross-fertilized their ska with American and British songs. I’ll play them back to back.

The first one is called “Swing Easy” by a group called the Soul Vendors. They were the session band at the famed Studio One recording house in Kingston. And every time I hear this tune, I can’t believe my ears. See if you can name that Broadway show tune.

Yes, that is a ska-dub version of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” by the great Jamaican organist Jackie Mittoo. And before that – as strange as it may sound – was a ska version of Fiddler on the Roof.

Now one of the impressive things about Rae Town is the community’s solidarity. It’s known for its strong community activism. Rae Town is working class…it’s not a slum.

But there are open sewers, and the homes are either covered with corrugated zinc sheeting, or surrounded by it. The people who live there love Rae Town. And so in the middle of the evening, Dice spun what I would call the Rae Town theme.

Not as old as the other tunes that night. This was a newer kind of schmaltzy expression of community spirit. Everyone sang along to Dionne Warwick.

The DJ then played another tune that often makes an appearance on Sunday nights. Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Sam Cooke dedicated this song to Martin Luther King Junior.

And in Rae Town that night, that association somehow filled the air with electricity.

So that’s Rae Town. Jamaican music has for years been built on a constant free borrowing of riffs and musical ideas. So I suppose it’s fitting that I freely borrow excerpts from D-J Dice’s mix.

We’ll conclude with this dub version of one of my favorite Jamaican soul tracks “No No No,” originally by singer Dawn Penn.

This one is called “Screaming Target,” and it’s a classic by Big Youth from 1973.

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