Words by Jesse Serwer
As Hurricane Irma cut a path through the Caribbean last week, decimating homes and businesses on islands across the region, a catchy track about storm preparations followed along. The song, recorded on the Punany riddim, the timeless Jamaican dancehall instrumental originally produced by King Jammy in 1986, carries a series of warnings familiar to all those in the storm’s path: Get your plywood, get all you your ice/Before the people dem try raise the price.
The track was largely distributed without credit, though a Bahamian artist called Solo to Da Google has since claimed it in YouTube comments, and posted it to his Soundcloud.
While this song has struck many who came across it on social media as humorous and amusing, it’s hardly anomalous. From the days of mento and calypso through to modern-day reggae, dancehall and soca, there are numerous examples of Caribbean artists reacting to the threat of hurricanes, or describing their aftermath. The region’s music genres have always been highly topical, reacting to and reporting the news of the day in language geared to the everyman and woman — a legacy of the West African griots brought to the islands during slavery, and honed through generations of successive, but intimately related, folk music genres. Living on an island in the Caribbean means living with the perpetual threat of life-changing catastrophe from August through October. That the topic would concern local artists and audiences is elementary.
Here’s a look at how hurricanes have played out in Caribbean music over the years. And, please, do consider donating to hurricane relief efforts in the Caribbean. Our good friends at Uncommon Caribbean have put together this excellent resource on ways to help those affected by the storm.
Lord Beginner – “Jamaica Hurricane” (circa early ‘50s)
Egbert “Lord Beginner” Moore was one of several Trinidadian calypsonians (including the legendary Lord Kitchener) who arrived in London on the Empire Windrush, a ship closely associated with the first major wave of Caribbean immigration to England in the late 1940s. “Jamaica Hurricane,” which begins with a horn arrangement that mimics the disorienting effect of natural disaster, details 1951’s Hurricane Charlie, which left over 100 dead in Jamaica. That a Trinidadian calypsonian would report on the tragedy in Jamaica is likely a reflection of Beginner’s presence in the London Diaspora.
Lord Christo – “Hurricane Janet” (1955)
Lord Christo was a Trinidadian calypsonian known for songs like “Last Night the Landlord Nearly Killed Me,” “Mama Look-A Boo Boo,” and “Frozen Chicken.” This song details 1955’s Hurricane Janet, the first Category 5 hurricane known to reach the continental mainland, which caused hundreds of deaths across the Lesser Antilles and Central America.
Lovindeer – “Wild Gilbert” (1988)
1988’s Hurricane Gilbert was by far the most destructive hurricane to reach Jamaica in modern history. Over 100 people were killed, and some parts of the island were left with without power for an entire year. It was a defining experience in the lives of all Jamaicans who lived through it, and one which many associate with this song that became ubiquitous in its aftermath. While other artists might have described the catastrophe in serious tones, Lloyd Lovindeer related the hurricane experience with a humorous and lighthearted bent, providing comfort to those suffering from Gilbert’s affects. One of the fastest selling singles in Jamaican history, “Wild Gilbert” is actually considered by many as the turning point for the acceptance of dancehall music in Jamaica. The country’s wealthier classes largely shunned the genre as ghetto music during its formative years in the early 1980s, but Gilbert provided a communal experience through which all Jamaicans could relate. Almost immediately after the song’s release, dancehall began to play at the same “uptown” clubs and events where it was once strictly prohibited.
Yellowman – “Starting All Over Again”/ Banana Man – “Gilbert Attack Us” (1988)
Lovindeer wasn’t the only Jamaican artist ready with a response to Gilbert in the hurricane’s aftermath. As the local music industry (and indeed all industry) came to a near-standstill in the months following Jamaica’s worst hurricane, dancehall icon Yellowman and the lesser-known Banana Man tackled the storm and the ensuing rebuilding efforts on “Starting All Over Again” and “Gilbert Attack Us,” respectively.
Lovindeer – “Hurricane Oil”/ “Hurricane Love” (1988)
“Wild Gilbert” proved so popular for Lovindeer that he revisited the hurricane theme on two more tracks within the following year: “Hurricane Oil,” which spoofed religious charlatans who exploited hurricane-induced fear and suffering for profits; and “Hurricane Love,” a tribute to the time-honored Caribbean pastime of procreating during major storms.
Inspector – “Soca Hurricane”
This soca anthem arranged by the great Vincentian soca producer Frankie McIntosh, was a major Carnival-season hit on the Spice Isle of Grenada in 1993.
Skinny Fabulous – “Hurricane”
This 2013 soca anthem from Saint Vincent’s Skinny Fabulous isn’t a reaction to a particular hurricane, but its storm-inspired double entendres are delivered with the knowing tone only a hurricane-tested entertainer could provide.
Mr. Vegas – “Adios Irma”
Dancehall star and occasional gospel singer Mr. Vegas quickly reacted to the hurricane’s decision to spare Jamaica with “Adios Irma.” Dancehall fanatics will note that the instrumental used for the song is the Car Crash riddim, which Vegas helped popularize with “She’s a Ho” in 1999, and which has recently seen a wholesale revival thanks to Trinidadian deejay Salty’s “Tic Toc.” All profits from this track, Vegas has promised, will go to hurricane relief.
Solo to Da Google – “Hurricane Irma”
As of this moment, Solo to Da Google (aka Solo Muzik) has less than 50 followers on his Soundcloud and YouTube pages, but we predict a major surge ahead for this Bahamian artist now that he’s been able to attach his name to his work. It took us a number of Google searches before we were able to find a name to go with the song but, after some fact checking, we can confirm that it is indeed his. Word has it that this song has been playing nonstop on the radio in the Bahamas for over a week.
Lee “Scratch” Perry – “Super Ape (Returns to Conquer)”
The Super Ape, a figure introduced on the landmark 1976 dub album by the same name and revived on several subsequent releases, is Lee “Scratch” Perry’s metaphor for the power of nature. While that album’s title track offered only a cryptic refrain (“This is the Ape Man/Trodding through creation/Are you ready, are you ready to step with I man?”) this brand-new remake by Perry and his band, Subatomic Sound System, from this month’s Super Ape Returns to Conquer, a track-by-track re-imagining of that classic 1976 album, sees Perry taking a more direct approach: I am the hurricane, I am the hurricane man, I am the thunderstorm, I am the thunderstorm man! I am the earthquake, I am the earthquake man!
Perry is of course speaking on natural phenomenon more broadly, and not hurricanes specifically here. But the song’s emergence, 41 years after the original, on the same week that Hurricane Irma has wrought so much destruction across the Caribbean makes it an intriguing wild card.