Duke Vin and the Birth of Ska

One of the most intriguing elements of all of this stuff we are interested in is the way different subcultures appropriate the clothing, music and attitudes that come to define them from other sources, twist them and in doing so create something new. The fact that many of these different post-war styles were ignited by and drew influence from all around the world speaks of the intrigue and romance that these imported styles must have held for British youth and ones that resonated with them strongly as they fought to claim a space and identity for themselves – something to set them apart from the greyness, the norm of the England they lived in: imported rock n roll engaging the british teddy boy scene, Italian tailoring, french cool and R&B and soul for the mods, more stateside soul rescued and kept alive on the UKs Northern Soul scene and the elements of skinhead fashion and music from the West Indies.

Whilst all of these subcultures and scenes grew on imported styles the skinhead, street fashion cult of the late 60’s and early 70’s drew on new looks and ideas of cool via the streets they lived and grew up on via the steadily growing communities of West Indians arriving from Jamaica. The skinheads stripped down day uniform –  boots, braces, hardwearing jeans emerged as a reaction to the dandier end of mod and the pull of hippiedom. His evening wear – suits, smart shoes – echoed the close link to a ultra smart, preppy mod look but both were to submit to subtle twists and turns courtesy of an imported version of the Jamaican rudeboy look they were now seeing in the streets and youth clubs they frequented. Trousers were worn much higher than before and stingy brim trilbies were added to the mix alongside new ways of walking, talking and dancing.

A mighty influence was the imported sound of jamaican ska. The ska sound had been around for a while – a unique chapter in the story of reggae, developed in Jamaica by musicians who having grown bored with replicating the soul sounds drifting across the airwaves from America and begun to twist and contort rhythm and style until Ska finally emerged. Ska music too the basic R&B sound and turned it upside down, emphasising the off beat and introducing its characteristic ‘chop, chop sound of the guitar playing an upstroke, or skank.

The ska sound began to dominate the burgeoning sound systems of Jamaica. To stay one step ahead (and with a keen eye on the commercial opportunities of recording and pressing their own tracks) records were produced by the sound system owners as they strived to present the newest, latest sounds on the loudest, wildest systems. The aim was simply to draw the biggest and liveliest crowd; to dominate the competition. The crowds loved it, and voted in their numbers. The sound systems were the place to go for great sounds and good times, THE place to party.

When large numbers of Jamaicans began making the journey to the UK, labelled the Windrush Generation after the first ship that bought immigrants over in 1948, they arrived into a very different environment to the one they had left. The cold weather and the even colder response they encountered from large proportions of England population they must have questioned the decision they had made. Far from revelling in the optimism for a new adventure, a new life the reaction to their arrival was frequently hostile. Along with the economic and welfare issues of somewhere to live and the means of paying for it was the problem of recreation. There was no place to go for a dance. One man that thought about that need more than anyone else, and the man that sought to rectify this problem was Duke Vin. It is hardly overstating the case that his solution to the problem of where and how to party Jamaican style in the UK was to have an overwhelming influence on the streets and culture of Britain.

With nowhere to go for a dance, Duke Vin set out to build his own sound system, collected up the latest records and began dj’ing at blues and house parties across his new homes capital.

The film “Duke Vin & The Birth of Ska” sets out to tell the story of the arrival into Britain of the idea of the sound system. Produced by independent, filmaker Gus Berger. It’s a great film, a previously untold story whose significance reverberates far beyond the story of ska music.

Bergers original idea was to tell the story of Jamaican musics place in Britain via the networks of independent, specialist record stores that began springing up, first inLondon and then across other cities that fostered large populations of people form the West Indies. After contacting Gaz Mayall of Gaz’s Rockin Blues fame, Berger was introduced to Duke Vin and a much deeper story for his film developed:

“I got to know Duke Vin personally, initially though Gaz Mayall who runs the famous Soho club, Gaz’s Rockin Blues. Once I had met Duke and seen him DJ numerous times, it occurred to me to change the focus of the story away from the record shops and more towards Duke himself. It seemed like a much more positive angle: the shops were closing yet Duke was still playing records – 50 years on!”

The film features footage and interviews with Duke Vin and alongside fellow pioneers, who, in bringing the idea of the sound system to the UK created new spaces to party and spread the sound of ska, to celebrate the musics ability to bring people together.

“Duke Vin and others before him (like Sir Coxsone and Duke Reid) provided the inspiration for others that they could do the same, but in their style. So the growth and development of the sound system culture in the UK was a huge turning point. In terms of the sound of ska, it evolved into other styles, such as rocksteady and reggae.In the UK, ska was reinvented by bands such as The Specials, The Beat and Madness. These bands inspired their fans to discover what their records were actually based upon, which was Jamaican ska. So all of a sudden, people started buying all these classic Jamaican records, some 20 years after they were originally produced. I think the longevity and popularity of these UK bands is a real testament to the amazing sound that was created by the Jamaican musicians back in the early 60′s.”

It’s one of the best things I’ve seen in ages. A little heard of, inspirational story that takes in social history, defiance, a pioneer spirit and fantastic music. The interviews crackle with life and the fact that pretty much all of those original people are still involved with, still playing and selling music speaks volumes for their enthusiasm for the sounds they love. It’s not hard to see how all those years ago their optimism and commitment to ska and reggae music was able to cut through the situation they found themselves in, encouraged them to set up their own systems to play their own music and in doing so had such a profound effect across Great Britain.

‘Duke Vin & The Birth of Ska’ is produced by Gusto Films and directed by Gus Berger.

Get to see it if you can

Check out a trailer online here

For more information on Gus Berger and Gusto films head here

The quotes from director Gus Berger included above come from an online interview at culturecompass.co.uk  – Read the full interview here