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!

DJ Isuru is a music journ­al­ist and broad­caster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series fea­tur­ing the best in Asi­an Under­ground.


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DJ Isuru is a music journ­al­ist and broad­caster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series fea­tur­ing the best in Asi­an Under­ground.


DJ Isuru is a music journalist and broadcaster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series featuring the best in Asian Underground.