Jah Shaka, the most influential figure of UK music passed away on the morning of Wednesday 12th April 2023. The news was officially announced that evening. An institution since his emergence in the 1970s, Facebook was flooded with tributes. Whilst his birth name is known, the current vogue is to keep it a secret in vein of a deity whose name mustn’t be revealed.
I first heard of Jah Shaka on online music forums when I was exploring the world of Dub in the late 2000s, users would reference to the phenomena of Shaka Dances and Shaka plates as places to go to for the real sound of Dub. It was actually the Roots genre that Shaka’s sound system was synonymous with, a spiritual and fiercely political genre that I as an immature Digital dancehall fan, ignored for long time because its name had connotations with folk music (How wrong I was!).
In January 2018, I attended the Soundsystem Outernational conference on Dub at Goldsmiths University. It was there I heard the name Jah Shaka alongside the name of Deleuze and the concept of “Unconscious of thought” during a presentation by Dr Edward George (Flow Motion, Hallucinator) in a session titled Poetics of Dub. Dr George’s thesis was that with Shaka we are “Listening to someone listening.” I was hooked and wanted to know more about this figure.
Jah Shaka was born in 1948 in Clarendon, Jamaica and arrived in the UK as part of the Windrush generation sometime in the 50s. His story is also the story of UK immigration. He started as an operator in the Freddie Cloudburst sound system which specialised in Soul and then started his own Jah Shaka Soundsystem at some point in the 1970s.
“Going to a Shaka dance!” was a right of passage for many generations. I have been told by older heads that I missed out on the legendary early dances which were strictly alcohol free and featured live instruments and vocalists. Clips from legendary dances at Rocket abound on Youtube, a testament to obsessive nature of collecting and documenting within the Shaka fan community, traits which have helped in identifying obscure dubplates and noting those which still remain unidentified.
Shaka would return to Jamaica and work with Jamaican artists. The album Fatman vs Shaka (1980) featured live dubbing from both artists and was engineered by Prince Jammy, an interesting synthesis of artists involved in Dub, Roots and Digital Dancehall (Albeit later) respectively. The band being dubbed featured luminaries such as Mikey Dread and Johnny Osbourne.
Commandments of Dub (1982) featured Mad Professor and is dub experimentation in its purest form. A photo of Shaka, Lee Perry (RIP) and Mad Professor is currently doing the rounds on social media.
It would be impossible to give album by album review of Shaka’s career but both the Commandments of Dub and Dub Salute series of albums would give a great overview of his work but nothing compares to being at a Shaka dance itself.
Shaka was an influential presence that appeared in many of my own SOAS Radio interviews with musicians. Below is a list of some of the artists I interviewed and the Shaka tracks they selected, these provided a great education to me as a music fan who wanted to learn more.
Thali Lotus (Unreleased) – Horace Andy — Little Black Girl
Vedic roots – Max Romeo — Fari the Captain of the Ship
Roots shed – Johnny Clarke — Babylon
Kiki Slawter (Unreleased) – Tony Tuff — Prophecy
Morphologies (George and Piva) – A whole programme on Shaka entitled Upliftment, featuring many tracks and interview clips.
An in-depth Redbull Music Academy interview with Shaka is available online and is a great place to learn about Shaka’s backstory and philosphy, it is also currently doing the rounds again on social media. Jah Shaka also founded the Jah Shaka Foundation which does charity work in Ghana.
The greatest gig of my life was a dance in 2018. The venue had apparently oversold the tickets and there was a queue outside operating a one in, one out policy. Ticket-holders were pissed off with having to wait and a memorable exchange occurred where a punter accused a security guard of being just a “Disco dread!” who had no understanding of who Shaka was and what he stood for. It was nevertheless a friendly atmosphere and strangers would discuss what Shaka meant to them and famous gigs and dubplates. It was here I heard about an occurrence in Birmingham in the 2000s where Shaka got angry with the crowd for heckling and demanding more upbeat music, he apparently threw off his cap, showing his locks and played the most hardcore dubplate imaginable as a way to teach them a lesson, I passed my email to get a copy of the file.
Inside, people were smoking in contravention of the no smoking signs and security didn’t seem to care. The crowd was a mix of ages and cultures. I was surprised to see some older South Asian uncles, some with full beards and turbans, who were apparently the Southall contingent and had been following Shaka since the 70s. Dances were safe spaces during that period where Black and South Asian people stood and danced in solidarity. This may be Shaka’s most important legacy and in the words of another older head “He opened the church for all.”.
I was struck by the images of Haile Selassie above the system and how Shaka like a Catholic priest had his back to the audience, paying devotion to the altar. The music of Jah Shaka is “Music for the glory of God.” as I was told. I don’t remember much of the specifics of the gig save that I was enthralled by a beautiful hooded girl who walked in and how every tune was gold especially Shaka’s dub of Long Journey by the Twinkle Brothers which got a great reaction from the crowd, a sombre and very uplifting moment of the night.
Shaka let out his famous catchphrase of “Last one.”, before dropping his dubplate of Warrior by Dubkasm, the whole room exploded.
I spent the next day visiting record shops and buying Shaka’s Dub Salute CDs and ordering the others online, Tracks like The Mark Became a staple of my SOAS Student Union sets. I also devoured The Positive Message, the Greensleeves compilation of tracks that Shaka would play, a favourite being Black Uhuru’s I love king Selassie.
It was around this time that I also watched Babylon (Dir. Russo, 1980), a film that to me sums up the UK Immigrant experience. Shaka appears in the film playing himself with his men being the rivals to the Ital Lion Soundsystem who were the protagonists. I was struck as to why Shaka’s men were the antagonists but was told that it was accurate to the setting in a time when Shaka was just another soundsystem out of many and was yet to become the spiritual sound that he would be famous as. One that doesn’t clash and that preaches a message of peace and unity. Many of the tributes and obituaries already online mention how Shaka stood with the spiritual roots music at a time when other sounds were moving with the trends and going into dancehall and other genres.
As I write this, more and more tributes are pouring in, notably from artists like Dennis Bovell, Mad Professor, Top Cat and Shaka’s protégé Russ D of The Disciples.
I am glad that I got to see Shaka live as not only the music but the vibe itself and openness of the crowd hasn’t compared to any other gig I’ve been to and this isn’t captured on the CDs and vinyl I have at home. I feel sorry for the younger generation who will never get the chance to see the master.
Rest in Eternal Power Zulu Warrior!