By Frederick R. Dannaway (Riddim Magazine, May/June 2012)
Herb for my wine, honey for my strong drink ~ Bob Marley
I’m drinkin’ rum and Red Bull ~ Beenie Man
The prehistoric, serendipitous discovery of alcohol forever changed what it meant to be human. It was a consequence of water leaking into storage pits surrounded by walls to protect food surpluses that evolved into the town and city. Some radical scholars speculate that agriculture developed, not for mono-crop food cultures, but for grains easily harvested and suitable for brewing beer. When wild yeasts conspired with rain to invade grain surplus, or when wild fruits and water spontaneously fermented, the effects were warming, relaxing and stimulating and generally beneficent if not taken to excess. Cultures and religions have been debating ever since the merits of substances potent enough to be called “spirits.” Islam banned alcohol while Christians drank of it as a sacrament symbolizing the blood of Christ. Zen lunatics praise sake and plum wine in poems and Tibetan Buddhists have a “beer of enlightenment” and wine and cordials rendered moods philosophic in Grecian intellectual circles of Plato and Aristotle. But distilled spirits, as fire-water, decimated Native-Americans and Temperance leagues in America prohibited drinking, declaring it as a sure path to damnation and ruination of moral values. The social toll of drinking, from accidents and domestic abuse to rape and violent crimes to ill health and deformed babies, seems to be immense. Alcoholics drown not only themselves but their families and anyone who ever loves them in a sea of neurologically dependent despair. The incremental suicide has cost the world many of its most talented, though the dysfunction and creativity may have been inextricably linked, as with Joseph Hill and Delroy Wilson, both whose lives were cut short by heavy periods of drinking.
Jamaica, particularly, is bound up with a darker side of alcohol of the slave trade that operated in the “Rum Triangle.” The farming of sugar is labor intensive, as was the boiling of the sugar for the rum, a dangerous process that burned the slaves charged with stirring. The scalding liquid burned slaves to the point that they had to be replaced about every four hours in an assembly line like process called the “Jamaican Train.” The word rum, etymologically contested, probably derived from such words as rumbullion or rumbustion which denoted “an uproar or fighting” as in the scuffles and brawls instigated in Caribbean tippling houses, which were the prototype of the first bars and saloons. It was also called Kill-Devil, either for the wicked hangover or medicinally as in, to kill a devil or disease. As Marley sung, “Old Pirates yes them rob I, take I in their merchant ship” and it was the blood profits for the taste of sugar and rum that brought Africans to the Caribbean. Historians note that prior to the conquest by Europeans, the peaceful Arawak used to gently ferment cassava for a pleasantly intoxicating beer. After forced into unbelievably savage slavery, many would drink the raw, cyanide-rich cassava juice to escape their captors by suicide.
Music and alcohol have always been kindred spirits from blues and jazz to the drunken harmonies of Palm wine music. African guitarists were synonymous with alcohol and in the country the singers would be paid in palm wine. It’s hard to imagine soca without rum, and the rum anthems far outnumber the ganjah tunes in most of the surrounding islands. Early reggae songs championed indigenous rum as did many early mento and calypso tunes. Rum And Coconut Water from the early 50’s by The Jamaican Calypsonians with vocals by Hubert Porter finds the tired lover reaching for hard drink to regain his vigor and it was “something you can’t get in America.” This same situation of no coconut water for her gin in America inspired Calypso Mama with the Lad Richards Orchestra to yearn for her “tonic” that’s “good for your belly.” Scorchers like Rum and Cola from Prince Buster of the mellow Rum and & Coconut Water by Laurel Aitkens has other drinking tunes like More Whiskey and Drinken’ Whiskey that are Bluebeat treasures inspired from some “low down dirty girl.” These tunes are, like the early wreck a pum pum tunes, the precedent for the modern anthems to drinking and sex. The two subjects become “what a mixture” on the humorous cut by Lloydie and the Lowbites on White Rum and Pum Pum. Derick Morgan’s Three Drunk Night finds a stumbling-in husband cuckolded and aghast at a man in his bed, only to have the wife blame his lying eyes on too much drunkenness. The Techniques’ orchestral rocksteady is well cool to Drink Wine or anything else for that matter. The sure shot ska instrumental Proof Rum by Roland Alphonso & The Skatalites captures the feel of the times and its beverages like jazz tunes served “straight, no chaser.”
The sweet Drink Drink by Johnny Osbourne advises his sweetheart to party tonight but “don’t get drunk.” Stones Ginger Wine has been a favorite in Jamaica for some time, with tunes from the early 80’s like Toyan on the Go by Ranking Toyan citing it as his favorite drink up to the time in Kartel lyrics. An artist like Topcat, sometimes junglist and always dancehall, is a Drunken Master, chatting ganjah and drinking tunes for all late night crew. But man like General Echo and Jah Thomas are the original drunken masters, mixing the herb with liquor when many songs were for one or the other. One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer, first written by Rudy Toombs and sung by the American blues pianist Amos Milburn got the reggae treatment in 1969 by Alfred Brown. Chaka Demus and Admiral Bailey do a cut, as well as Papa Charjan’s adaption Once Scotch, One Tennants, One Beer. Tennants is a Scottish Lager, adding to the list of beers mentioned in songs that include Red Stripe, Heineken, Carib and Dragon Stout. Some of the beers or mixed drinks or ghetto whiskeys will be honored by having a riddim named after them. “In heaven there is no beer” as the Happs sung for Joe Gibbs, and “that’s why we drink it here,” is a celebratory drinking tune, which has its history from an old German film soundtrack. The Neal Diamond tune Red Red Wine, eternally linked to UB40 has been a constant in reggae from covers by Tony Tribe, Tinga Stewart, Eddie Lovette, and Gregory Issac and Ken Boothe, the latter of which is the most satisfying. A song of the same name but with entirely different lyrics is the 1970 song by The Immortals/ Joe Gibbs All Stars which is some early, pleasantly drunk slackness.
Hailing up a favorite drink has been a long-time subject in dancehall, and tunes mentioning Guinness as the badman beverage are legion. Spragga Benz’s line “Under mi Guinness but don’t think me drunk” echoes the rudeboy view of always being in control, and never caught slipping, or you “get a magnum punk.” Guinness remains a proverbial favorite, and the tune Under mi Guiness by Vegas is a classic homage, but Hennessy has clearly made inroads in lyrics and they are ubiquitous subject, especially with Mavado, who derives much of his influences from US hip hop from Tupac to Nas who rap about it incessantly. Likewise with Elephant Man and Delly Ranx and just about anyone else. Its black label price puts it into a more elite category from your ghetto whiskeys that are the subject of some many Liquor Store Blues, as sung by Bruno Mars and Damian Marley. Hennessy and Nuvo seem to be the choice for flossing over the Cristal and Moet of Biggie and Jay Z. Rodney Price vacillates between being done with the Hennessy and demanding back again as if the effects might affect his ability to be Ready Fi Dem. When refusing Hennessy, Bounty Killer stays “a di rum blood” and maintains being cross and angry over Beenie Man and past Sting shows. He quits the cigarettes too, another vice, noting dancehall has turned into hip hop, importing foreign vices. Even the at-times gospel, at-times gangsta Sanchez sparks his Frenzy by sipping on the Hennessy, “living up, living up” the high life of nice cars and fine cordials. The classic Bashment Party by Rayvon and Red Foxx on the Showtime riddim embody the sentiment of “drinking liquor and Bacardi feeling rich like Wesley Snipes.” Heineken pokes fun at the expectations of tourists walking into a bar in a Jamaican commercial that has them donning stereotypical rasta trappings and switching Heineken bottles for lavish coconut and pineapple cocktails, saying Heineken is Jamaica’s unofficial beer since 1938. But in the music it changed like the hip hop raps about 40’s of malt liquor that favored Moet, Dom P and Cristal.
“Wine is a mocker, Strong Drink is a rage” is a Proverb (20:1) sung by Christian-Rastafarian Willie Williams exemplifies many of the sentiments in countless ganja anthems that praise the merits of the holy herb compared with the “tumble down” rum-drinker” sung from Peter Tosh to Frankie Paul. The Nazirite vow of the Old Testament, by which many dreadlocks point to as the reason they do not trim the hair of the head, finds Numbers 6:3 saying, “He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes.” This contrasts with Noah, whose drunkenness shamed him to his children as well as also instigating Lot’s downfall (Genisis 19:30-38) and numerous other Proverbs (4:17) where liquor is called the wine of violence (sung majestically by Freddie Macgregor) and the entire chapter 23 of the book describes the evil of strong drink, even saying that one must avoid even looking at it. Most literature on Rastafari will say that alcohol is not Ital and therefore used only for medicinal purposes. Rum-tree, a digital killer from the Radicals, cautions against distilled evils, as the effects are stupifying, and noting the long-term effects “scratch mi liver.”But the first miracle of the Nazirite Jesus was turning water into wine at a wedding (John 2: 1-11). Maybe this is the justification for a Bobo artist like Anthony B. to cut a song like Pop Bottles, despite many orthodox Rasta piously abstaining. Sizzla, seen drinking cognac on Judgment Yard videos and photos on his website, partnered with Guinness this year to raise funds for ghetto children to “Rise to the Occasion” and raise funds for the inner-city youth haven Eastern Peace Center in east Kingston. It’s hard to imagine Budweiser being allowed to sponsor an inner-city youth program in the United States. But another dimension of the “Pop Bottle” cut by Anthony B. and Flippa Mafia revolves around flossing or showing off, otherwise known as “conspicuous consumption.” Dr. Donna Hope describes a common scene of the real big man in the dance holding court over a well positioned case of Guinness in a display that, like Clarks boots and bling, convey status. Perhaps Anthony B. and Sizzla’s motives are to counter the materialism of the dancehall slack artists by attempting to blend their Rasta message into a palatable offering proclaiming one can bling, floss, bust guns and run through women and still be Bobo Dread. It’s reminiscent of the beefs in hip hop between Common and Ice Cube, where the former pointed out the latter was a Muslim and was the spokesman for St. Ides Malt Liquor. It could be equally true that Bobo artists cut tunes like this just to stay relevant. Stars like Puff Daddy even have their own luxury vodkas that are popular in the dance as well if flyers advertising it are any indication in the NYC bashment scene. And while Anthony B. doesn’t have his own brand of liquor yet, perhaps enough other reggae stars do, from Kartel’s Street Vybz to Beenie’s Yaad Swag, to Shaggy endorsing Malibu (who even in the States have a dancehall flavored commercial campaign) to Busy Signal’s actually quite delicious Red Label Wine. Beenie Man cuts a tune about drinking Nuvo all night, and it’s featured in many videos, especially for paid endorsers like Tifa who rolls around on a bed covered with bottles of the liquor. Endorsing products is nothing new in reggae, as in Ken Boothe pushing the cigarettes the Swinging Kings to Lee “Scratch” Perry Guinness ads.
Perry seems, at various times, to shun or denounce marijuana, and in the early reggae book Reggae International he is quoted as saying, “…lotta people don’t like rum very much cos rum is the spirit that was here before the holy– (sings) ‘Glory be unto the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning now and ever shall be without end’ but you see de rum? Rum is de power of the tom-tom and tom-tom is the power of the hundred drums that control neighborhoods at de root. If de baby born and had no navel string than he shall surely die but if has a navel string then gonna live. Rum is my navel string, that’s where the spirit dwell and I like to have the spirit in me.” Perhaps this is why his son is named Rum Roy Perry and releasing tunes on Champagne International Records. The Treasure Isle produced Rum Drinker by Mike Brooks takes the opposite stance saying rum drinkers, and even the children of rum drinkers, may not enter Zion.
Beyond ceremoniously presiding and sharing a foreign imported, thus more expensive, beer like Guinness was the real big man act to “Buy Out the Bar.” This was a gesture to “make no war” with the “what you drinkin?” is a pacifying query to have peace sung about Sugar Minott and Tristan Palmer and echoed in many other songs. This is echoed in Peter Hunnigale’s ode to the end of the work week in his “watch ya drinkin?” song, Good Vibes. Party and drinking tunes just might emphasize a nice time and argue that guns should be put down and in their place one grabs a bottle, a girl and a spliff and enjoy life. This could backfire, as noted by Al Campbell, by the One Beer Bad Boy who could ruin a dance after just one stout. Sugar’s question of “what ya drinkin?” may have been loaded with implications given the political associations that were attached to the colors of the respective bottles of beer. Red Stripe was in a red bottle and therefore a PNP beer, as it was close to their orange colors, while JLP supporters drunk Heineken in green bottles. Guinness bottles were of a politically neutral color and therefore allowed one to stay out of the fray, at least while having a beer. Davidan, in his 2011 reality tune on the Atlantis riddim, talks about people who sell out for liquor friends who are there until the bottle is dry. It’s not just what you drink but where you drink, as T.O.K make it clear they don’t drink in a Chi Chi Man bar, while Beenie sings about it being somehow more manly to drink from bottles than glasses when drinking beer. At least beer bottles are the way to voice contempt for a weak performance, as bockle can bruk bone of even old time veterans.
Kartel, perhaps not yet a Freemason, alleged in a past Riddim that companies like Guinness and Red Stripe were a secret society, with a closed network of incestuous promotion of artists to the exclusion of others. When in 2008 Red Stripe banned artists, the artists turn around and banned Red Stripe, as Mavado said, If dem ban we, we just ban dem back bredren! Simple.” Red Stripe issued a statement that it was backing out on Reggae Summer Fest and Sting, even drawing criticisms from Mutabaruka saying their ban was not about violence, as they allege, but about dancehall rants against gays. A recent issue of BackAYard magazine had three photo spreads of artists parties, the tonic whine Jagra for Elephant man, and Hennessy artist launch parties from the Fiction Lounge and Red Label Swagga Launch in The Building in Jamaica. This exemplifies the leg up on the competition by having a major liquor company back your album debut. This is contrasted to a humble endorsement from a conscious artist like Tarrus Riley who opted to be paid to say he drinks Ocean Spray’s cranberry juice and coconut water, non-alcoholic Wata. Still, the long-running Heineken Star Time pay the bills of seasoned veterans like Ken Boothe and many others. American television show Splash! is sponsored by liquor companies, advertising such events as Smirnoff Dream Weekend or Bacardi or Wray and Nephews’ fashion and music shows. A particularly amusing episode of Cribs Jamaica has him in a hilltop menagerie with full bar while he demonstrates how to make Lemonade on the Rocks, a recipe of Hennessey and limes and no ice. The show concludes as he strolls around with a bottle of Stone’s Ginger wine.
Crucial to all galis and rootsman alike are the root tonics and tonic wines which are fermented up to 5 percent alcohol, about as much as a beer. These include many herbal stimulants. The most popular ones are Magnum, Wincarnis, Sanatogen, Jagra. These date back to 19th century tonics and elixirs, some of which used to contain extracts of meat and malt (win-wine, carnis- meat) for Wincarnis but it now contains gentian root, mugwort, angelica root, balm mint, fennel seed, coriander seed, peppermint leaves, cardamon seeds and cassia bark all of which potentiate each other making a more pleasant tasting aperitif than something like absinthe, with pleasantly warming, stimulating effects. Drinks like Jagra and PowerWine combine classic aphrodisiacs like Horny Goat Weed, guarana Magnum Tonic wine boasts some traditional Jamaican herbs like Man Back Root, Horney Monkey Root, Cheaney Root and Blood wist with other virility herbs and Vigotron 2 Iron and 8 year old ginseng. The “Front End Lifter” Dragon Capadula has All Man Strength, Bridal wist, blood wist, strong back, yohimbe (a traditional African sex herb) and many others. Gigolo Medina Coch Shan Root Tonic, has Cock Shan extract as well as Cock Shot and countless other herbs but also nasty preservatives. A proven winner for Jamaicans, if sales indicate as such in the local Carribean market, must be Pump it Up which contains too many herbs to list as well as their Latin names. Put it een Wine has plenty ingredients like 3 Man Strength, and 5 Finger Wist with woman back and raw moon to round out their formula. These tonics, fermented enough for a buzz that jolts the stimulant herbs through your system, are madly popular and are mixed up with all manner of other drinks. As a typical flyer for a Jamaican club reads, “Pay One Price and Drink all night, thanks to our sponsors Appleton Rum mixes and Kingston Beer, Appleton Genesis Rum mixes, Magnum and Jagra Tonic Wine, Absolute Vodka mixes, Sangsters Rum Cream, Mackerson Stout, Every Wednesday night.”
Distilling down the vast history of strong drink in Jamaica finds it praised, reviled and reconciled into traditions that are autonomous, independent and evolving. Paradoxes between the relaxing effects that somehow provoke violence in some find sobering expression on news casts of fights and shootings in bars. The “Pope Juice” of heathen Rome contrasts with the simple herb of the pious Rasta, but even crack found its way into chillam pipes. Life in Jamrock is hard and the most fundamental urge in humanity is to alter one’s senses, from a child spinning around to get dizzy or an adult with a glass of wine for a heavy heart, or a spliff or two for the right meditation. Singing about drinking is as old as intentionally fermenting liquids itself, and combined with ganjah and Jamaican sensibilities, there is proof enough that the musical effects alone will be intoxicating. As Sugar Minott sung, “all kind a people come a dance”… “in one corner you have the liquor drinker, in the other corner you have the ganja smoker.” So, what you drinkin?
“It is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink, lest they drink, forget the law, and pervert the judgement of any of the afflicted. Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.” Proverbs 31:4-6