You are the big tree, we are the small axe. Sharpened to cut you down — The Wailers
Last month I ‘n’ I drove my parents from Arizona back home to Fort Benton, Montana (see previous blog post.)
When you make that journey, it is wise to build in some weather time. Spring in Montana lasts about a week. I remember as a youth snow storms in August.
So once we got settled I had about three days with not much to do.
I ‘n’ I had been carving out some time to watch a series on Amazon Prime called Small Axe.
This is an ambitious five movie anthology put together by UK producer/director Steve McQueen. (No relation to the American actor who died of cancer in the early 80’s.)
McQueen is most known for his movie adaptation of 12 Years a Slave. Born in London to West Indian immigrants, Small Axe chronicles the lives of the Caribbean immigrants into English inner cities and the trials and tribulations that they face.
The films are not connected like a television mini series but stand on their own. Here is my audio review clipped from this episode of Smile Jamaica:
<Smile Jamaica reviews Small Axe>
The Mangrove was a West Indian hangout and restaurant set in Notting Hill London. A place where people could play dominos, eat Island food and build community liaisons against the unremitting hostility from local cops.
Those cops didn’t see The Mangrove as a commercial community center. Instead they assumed it was a den of iniquity: gambling, drug dealing and prostitution. The bobbies (London white cops) would periodically descend on the spot and demolish the interior, roust the patrons and harass the owner. A man named Frank Critchlow.
Finally with help from the local chapter of the Black Panthers and sympathetic liberal white barristers, the club sued and was able to exist as a social, commercial pillar of Notting Hill’s black community.
The unremitting racism was very reminiscent of last summer’s Black Lives Matters protests in the US with the amplifier of 60’s and 70’s British hostility directed at immigrants.
The music was terrific late era 60’s and early 70’s Reggae and Rock Steady.
- Lovers Rock
This featured the Caribbean youth phenomenon of the shebeen in London. House parties where people would gather and listen to the UK variant of Reggae called Lovers Rock. Pay a little entry fee, have some West Indian food and alcohol. Inside would be a small Reggae sound system, complete with toaster MC.
Young women were a major commercial force in the local Reggae scene. They didn’t want to hear dread and Rasta, they wanted smooth love tunes sung by Reggae songbirds like Janet Kay, the family trio 15, 16, 17 and Brown Sugar. The guys didn’t mind because it was mostly slow dances where they could “rub up a dawta.”
The women wore their best finery. The men dressed up as dandies. Same era in America as Saturday Night Fever. People hooking up, breaking up and cooling out. Highlight was a scene where the pretty song by Janet Kay runs out of the groove and the entire party breaks out the lyrics in acapella.
- Red, White and Blue
Local youth breaks through the racism and lack of connections to receive a Ph. D. and work as a researcher. However, his community is being devastated because of the constant beat down of young black men by viciously racist and cruel white cops.
Therefore he decides to give up his scientific career to become one of the first black bobbies (cops) in England. The locals see him as a traitor while the white cops use passive aggression and provocation to undermine his policing to the point of not backing him up in a violent criminal confrontation.
Reminiscent of American baseball player Jackie Robinson. A proud and determined black man who broke the color barrier and was called every foul name in the book. He had the strength to let it roll off his back and not let his anger fight back physically or verbally.
You can sense the seething in the young cop about how many more times is he expected to turn the other cheek.
- Alex Wheatle
Black foster kid from the countryside is dropped off in big city. Is initiated into petty crime and turns to Reggae music for salvation. His goal is to create his own sound system. Taking his weekly “winnings” to a local record shop to buy the latest Reggae singles and 12″ disco mix.
My Mom happened into the living room while there was all this great music bumping. On the wall was the usual offering of 70’s Reggae LPs imported from Jamaica.
She asked, “Do you have any of those records?” I paused the movie and counted. Yep. I had every record but one.
Wheatle eventually winds up in prison after the 1981 Brixton riots. His cellmate is a Rasta who introduces him to literature. Eventually Wheatle became a successful novelist in Britain.
The consistent theme through Small Axe is the unrelenting beat down that working class blacks face, in this instance England. Racism, poverty, lack of job opportunities, disjointed families, educational discrimination. Murder and assassination: Birthday parties firebombed,
In this movie a young boy who might have a learning disability or maybe because his parents work night shifts and odd hours he never learned to read.
There was no interdiction at that time. So the youth was sent to a euphemistically titled School for the Educationally Subnormal. Black children with heavy West Indian accents were assumed to be, what would have been called then, retarded. So these kids were dumped into a nightmarish “education” environment with children who had serious developmentally disabled white kids.
Of course the kids were not retarded, and were bored silly. Left to their own devices with teachers who were either absent or wasted time playing half assed folk songs on the guitar. To be cast into those “schools” meant that those kids had no chance to advance into the work force upon “graduation.” The poverty of racism and discrimination was their fate.
The not so subtle educational segregation only served to perpetuate the lack of opportunity for West Indians and their children for a generational cycle of misery and despair that we unfortunately still deal with in America.
With 2020’s Summer of Rage after the George Floyd murder, this anthology was a perfect complement on the UK experience.
In sum: I definitely will want to watch Mangrove, Lovers Rock and Alex Wheatle at home on my Hi Fi. I think I blew out my Dad’s hearing aid battery. “Jesus Christ, do you have to listen to it so loud?”
Yes, Dad. I do!
Smile Jamaica Ark-Ives: May 15, 2021
- Peter Broggs – Rastafari Liveth!; Rastafari Liveth! (RAS) ’82 DC vinyl
- Black Uhuru feat. Sly & Robbie – Ion Storm; Dub Factor (Mango) ’83 US vinyl dub album of the hour
- Alpha Blondy – Cocody Rock; Cocody Rock (Shanachie) ’84 Ivory Coast West Africa
- Carlene Davis – Don’t You Stop the Music; 15 Classic (Sonic) early 80’s
- The Ethiopians – Everything Crash; Original Hit Reggae Sound (Trojan) ’68 comp.
- Daweh Congo – Ganja Baby; Ghetto Skyline (Goldheart) 2008 4:20 Cannabis Service Announcement
- 4th Street Orchestra – Dubb; 10” (Rama) ’77 UK; Beatles “And I Love Her” dub
- Afro Omega – Pick Up the Pieces; Pick Up the Pieces EP (Afro Omega) 2006 SLC w/ female vox
- Tenor Saw – Ring the Alarm; Joey & Norman Jay MBE; Good Times 3 (React) ’85 UK deejay comp.
- Stranger Cole & Ken Boothe – Artibella; Ska Bonanza (Heartbeat/Studio One) ’61 comp.
- The Melodians – Sweet Sensation; Reggae Pulse 3 (RAS) ’68 comp.
- Sel Wheeler – Out of Rome; 12” (City Line) ’77 Bronx dub
- Ringo – Push Lady Push; Black & White Story (Black & White) ’81 Mother’s Day tune
- Cedric ‘Im Brooks & the Light of Saba; Lambs Bread Collie; Light of Saba (Honest Jon’s) ’76 trombone herbtune
- Gracy & the Herbman Band – Losing Your Mind; See Mi Yah (Funfundvierzig) ’91 Germ. w/ female vox
- Papa Levi – Militancy; 12” (Jah) ’86 UK pic sleeve; speed rapper
Set 4: Holdover Mother’s Day 7” Jamaican Jukebox
- Dennis Brown – Song My Mother Used to Sing; 7” (Aquarius) ’71
- Barry Brown – Thank You Mama; 7” (Observer) ‘83
- The Chantells – Baby Mother; 7” (Communating) ‘74
- Leroy Smart – Mother Liza; 7” (Fe Me Time) ‘75
- Lone Ranger – Labour Ward; 7” (Busy) ‘82
- Sheriff Lindo & the Hammer – Sky Dubbing; Ten Dubs That Shook the World (Creative Vibes) ’88 Australia dub album of the hour
Set 5: Vinyl is Vital Set
- Trinity – I Love Mama; Bad Card (Joe Gibbs) dj to Dennis Brown “Oh Mother”
- Kemi – Even Though You’re Gone; Lovers Delight (Ariwa) ’93 UK roots dawta; Jacksons cover
- Chris Wayne – Plant Mi Plant; Progress (Heartbeat) ’88 Cambridge, MA herbtune
- Dave Robinson – Alligator Tears; Family Album (Jah Life) ’80 NY
- Lennox Miller & Jah Caller – Better Must Come + Jah Caller Speaks His Mind; Jack Ruby Hi-Fi (Clappers) ‘ Bronx
Set 6: Wailers Family Tree Set
- Bob Marley & the Wailing Wailers – Bus Dem Shut; Wail ‘N Soul ‘M Singles (JAD) ’67:
- Peter Tosh – Four Hundred Years; Arise Blackman (Trojan) ’69 comp.
- The I Three – Many Are Called; Roots Daughters (Shanachie) ’78 comp.: Rita, Judy, Marcia
- Bunny Wailer – Roots, Radics, Rockers, Reggae; Roots, Radics, Rockers Reggae (Shanachie) ‘78
- Solomonic Players – Roots Raddics – Dubd’sco vol. 1 (Solomonic) ‘78
- Sly & the Revolutionaries – Burn Pipe Dub; Sensi Dub Vol. 1 (Original) dub album of the hour
Set 7: Smile Jamaica 31+ Years Set
- Linton Kwesi Johnson – New Crass Massakah; Making History (Mango) ’84 UK dub poet
- Charlie Chaplin – Boyie, Boyie; 12” (Winner) ’85 UK
- Sophia George – Girlie, Girlie; 12” (Winner) ’85 UK answer to Charlie Chaplin
Set 8: Mutant Dub
- Blackalicious feat. Nikki Giovanni – Ego Trip; Nia (Mo Wax) ’99 female dub poet
- Rockers Hi-Fi/Groove Corporation – Push Push (Underwater World of Jah Cousteau Mix); King Size Dub vol. 7 (Echo Beach) 2001 Germ. comp.
- Dry & Heavy – King Cobra; 10” EP (Green Tea) 2000 UK; Jah-pon dubbers
- Bush Chemists – Marijuana Defender; Dub Fire Blazing (Dubhead) 2001 UK herbal dub
- Seke Molenga, Kalo Kawongolo, Lee “Scratch” Perry – African Roots; From the Heart of the Congo (RUNNetherlands) ’79 Zairean duo at the Black Ark