Island Sound returns to reggae roots

Click to follow
In the coffee-rich Blue Mountains of central Jamaica, Charlie Burbury, a 32-year-old former merchant seaman from Plymouth, is the only white man within miles. He employs only one local on his little coffee farm but everyone in these mountains knows him.

For at the weekends, Charlie is the Blue Shadow. Charlie Burbury has a "Sound".

On a ridge above the village of Lime Tree, the Englishman lives in a plywood one-room cabin he built himself in 1989, without water, connected gas or electricity. He slides down several hundred yards of slopes for a daily shower beneath a pipe carrying mountain water.

With a car battery for power, gas cannisters for cooking and paraffin lamps for light, the cabin is reachable on his mountain motorcycle or, in reasonable weather, the beaten-up Land Rover that at weekends becomes "The Blue Shadow Sound". It is one of thousands of Sounds, or mobile reggae or ragga discos which are life-saving escapes for many Jamaicans and which engage in fierce competitions, called "clashes", at weekends.

Charlie is the grandson of Sir Hugh Foot, later Lord Caradon, who was governor of Jamaica in the Fifties and helped pave the way to independence. Charlie's father, Timothy Burbury, a major in the Blues and Royals, met Sir Hugh's daughter, Sarah, while he was aide-de-camp to Sir Hugh as governor of Cyprus in the Sixties.

After leaving the merchant navy in 1989, including a stint in the Falklands on the support tanker Bramble Leaf, Charlie came to Jamaica to visit his uncle, Oliver Foot, Sir Hugh's son, who had just built a remote Blue Mountain cabin and planted a few coffee trees.

Charlie bought his own slope at Lime Tree - population "81 big people", according to his farming assistant, known as Busher. That does not mean they are particularly tall. He was referring to the adult population. Charlie paid about pounds 5,000 for seven acres, slept in a sleeping bag for six months while he built his cabin, planted 7,000 coffee trees using Busher's expertise and set about learning the local patois.

"The locals were very friendly. They used to come and watch me work. I don't think they thought white people would work," Charlie told me during a tour of his slopes. "Our crop last year was just over 100 bushels, worth a bit less than pounds 8,000. It's basically survival so far but we will make a profit eventually.

At the end of a working day, he might hang out on the bench outside the single building which constitutes downtown Lime Tree, a shack serving as a shop. "It sells all we need. Beer, beer, beer, Rizla and bread," says Charlie. "Warm beer, of course. No electricity up here." The Rizla is to wrap the locally favoured brand of cigarette, the "spliff," or marijuana joint.

Shouts of "Cha-lay" greet the crew-cut Englishman whenever he drives these mountain roads on his motorcycle or in his Land Rover. Men, women and children also clamber onto the back of the Land Rover, the nearest thing to a local bus. "Yea, man, blessed.

Absolute respect," he tells them, using a favourite local greeting. Everyone within miles belongs to his "massive," a hard-core of young local mountain folk who follow the Blue Shadow Sound. A dozen help out as his "crew", setting up the equipment

Showing me some of the 14 giant loudspeakers that take up most of his cabin, Charlie explains a gig is not really a gig unless it is a "clash" between two Sounds. He himself is a bit on the shy side. One of his "crew" acts as DJ, playing 45s, mostly reggae, for half an hour before ceding the floor to rivals.

At the end of an evening of what the locals call "dangerous dancing" and smoking, the audience decides which was the better Sound, based mostly on the records chosen. "To some people, it's life or death," says Charlie. "If you get licked in a clash, your village can go into a depression for a month.

"Record artists here record mostly 45s, for local consumption in Sounds or Clashes," he explains. "The big thing for a Sound is to get a well- known artist to give you a `dub'. That's when he gives you an exclusive tape of one of his hits, with a few words changed to make it unique.

"If you can get a dub from Bunty Killer or Beany Man, you've got it made. I recently got a dub from Luciano, one of the top reggae guys here. I paid him pounds 5,000 Jamaican [a bit less than pounds 100] for two dubs.

"For that he sang me two new lines: `Give me a cardboard casket, anotha sound boy kicka de bucket'. We won that clash, man. No problem."