The Specials and Afrofuturism

The Specials and Afrofuturism

Back at school some years ago, and then some, my mate accused me of returning his copy of The Specials first LP ‘The Specials’, scratched. Not guilty m’lud, then and now. If he’d complained of the grooves being almost worn through to the other side of the vinyl, I’d have been bang to rights, because wear it out I did; the memory of first listening to it is still clear today; the impact and sharpness of this bright, modern Ska sound that, along with Madness, The Beat and The Selector seemed, to my ears at least, to have come from nowhere to utterly transform my musical life, along with the social/cultural/political outlook I still carry today.

The Jam were my first love. Lyrics have always been my thing, and Weller’s curious mix of youthful anger, desire and alienation in the city, chimed somewhere within – his was a working class England I understood. But The Specials, and Two Tone generally, opened my eyes, took me out into the world, and put into words backed by a beat you couldn’t ignore, a feeling of internationalism, anti-racism, and introduced a culture and world-view I wanted to be a part of. I didn’t know much back then of Ska, but I could tell The Specials carried a sound laced with history, which also sounded modern – Terry Hall’s deadpan delivery resting on Horace Panter’s solid bass backing - and ready for my generation to learn to dance to. The opening of Gangsters to Guns of Naverone, Too Much Too Young (live), Longshot Kick de Bucket, and all the rest, are still irresistible.  A very drunken Ska dance with my Co-Director Madeline at a Women in Business awards ceremony a couple of years ago, much to the amusement of what attendees could bear to watch, is testament to that!  

I knew nothing then of Jerry Dammers, although the toothy grin on Top of the Pops did make him stand out. Who doesn’t know about him now? Ok, plenty I guess, but they should; it’s his hand behind the song that defined the bleak backdrop to the late 70’s/early 80’s - Ghost Town, and one of the greatest protests songs ever - Free Nelson Mandela. I went to see The Specials at The Olympia last time they toured. What a gig. The place was stomping all night. Funniest sight, though quite defining, was the audience camera shot on the screens above the stage of the crowd dancing – virtually all 40+ year old men; from above it looked like a floor full of gyrating worn out tennis balls, showing that our hairlines haven’t stood the test of time the way the music has, as the band transported us back to the 1980’s for the couple of hours they were with us.

Yet the main man, Jerry Dammers, wasn’t there, and won’t be with The Specials any time soon either. Next time I saw him he was a million light years away in the Philharmonic with The Spatial A.K.A Orchestra, his tribute to all things Sun Ra, and more. I love Bob Dylan too. I remember, among one of the many Dylan gigs I’ve been to, one night in Birmingham about ten years ago where a young lad, who in fairness had clearly had a few too many beforehand, shouting at the top of his disappointed voice ‘This is a travesty, this isn’t you, this isn’t Dylan’. As I said, he’d had a few, was younger than me, and I’m not sure I could’ve out run him, so I didn’t want to point out to him that he’d missed the ‘Judas’ shout by forty years, and by the way, who are you to tell Dylan who he is?

I don’t digress, here’s my point: I could imagine someone feeling a bit the same turning up to a Jerry Dammers Spatial A.K.A Orchestra gig expecting wall to wall Two Tone and Ska, and being a bit put out. But not me, I was delighted, even though I didn’t really know what to expect. It was a far cry from a Specials gig – Egyptian and futuristic costumes, masks, surreal music and beats, jazzy fusion type stuff, and all manner of weirdness.

But it really was something to behold, and amidst the weirdness was something that felt a lot like familiar, because it was Jerry Dammers at the helm, and I mean at the helm; a crew of eighteen musicians needs a conductor, albeit one without a baton. Dammers says it’s ‘not so far from Ska to Ra’, and when the Spatial A.K.A Orchestra play a beautifully funky and dreamy version of Ghost Town, renamed for the occasion ‘Ghost Planet’, it feels as though one breath blows right through it all. In an interview with Paul Morley in 2015 Dammers called The Spatial AKA Orchestra a tribute band, also a tribute to tribute bands, but even before the addition of new material in their repertoire it felt like so much more than that at the gig I went to. Dammers looks more like a jazz hound these days than the sharp Two Tone suited Ska boy of the 70’s and 80’s. He reminded me of Dr John hunched over his piano (also seen at the Phil recently), but he wears it well – both the look and the sound.

The comparison to Weller is an interesting one. I saw ‘From The Jam’, which features The Jam’s original bass player Bruce Foxton, when the Matthew Street Festival was still on the streets. They played a great set, but again, weird to watch them without the main man, although this is less of a thing with The Specials as Terry Hall is still his outstanding centre-stage self. Weller broke up The Jam just when you thought they were about to go global. You could tell there was something different going on, lots of funky guitar on the last album and their final Trans Global Unity Express tour. Weller was straining at the bit, against a perceived straitjacket and wanted to move on, or move on up…

Without Weller, From The Jam are never going to quite cut it, but I respect them doing their thing, the songs belong to all those who lived the life in the studio and on the road that helped create them. But where would we be without the musical pioneers, those who insist on breaking up, breaking hearts, and moving wherever-so their own heart and musical desires may take them? I’m so glad I wasn’t around going to gigs in the ‘70’s when Dylan insisted on playing live only his latest set of evangelical songs amidst the wails of his audience begging for the old hits. Music is often at its best, and most infuriating, when the radical artist faces down their conservative audience. I’m glad now he did it; I’m not religious, but Every Grain of Sand is a personal favourite from the work Dylan created back then, and Slow Train a Coming is way up there as one of my mood albums.

The Specials then and now are brilliant. I met their bassist Horace Panter a couple of years back when he appeared at our festival. Lovely guy and a true artist – check out his paintings, some of which were displayed in Liverpool last year by Next Stop New York. When The Specials initially reformed Horace Panter said that within minutes of them being in the same room as Jerry it was clear it wasn’t going to work. Jerry Dammers says he wanted to be a part of it, but wanted them to also try something new and add to what they were doing. I really don’t know the truth of it, but it’s not of any concern. The Specials now play their back catalogue without Dammers, but only Dammers could have created The Spatial AKA Orchestra. And that’s what marks out this musical pioneer.

I confess, prior to Dave and Richie of Next Stop New York proposing an event on Afrofuturism, I knew very little about it (to be honest, I’m not sure they did either!).

Through a friend in Manchester we were introduced to a wonderful woman, Florence Okeye, who organised an Afrofutures event in Manchester in late 2015. Florence is at the centre of this growing movement in the UK, and with her we have put together an incredible line up, which includes the US based filmmaker, futurist and author, Ytasha Womack, who is flying in from Chicago for the event. Ytasha is the author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago review press, 2013), which delves deep into the many areas that make up Afrofuturism; sci-fi in literature and film; music – think Sun Ra to the Black Eyed Peas; and explores the present day experience of black people and the alienating effect upon them of present day society. 

The term Afrofuturism first appeared in 1993. The wikipedia entry descibes it thus:

Afrofuturism is a literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past.

It can be difficult to cram in a sound-bite, and I wonder whether the struggle to understand it, or pin it down, is in attempting to do precisely this; we’re all so tuned into advertising and snappy sound bites and pitches that we never feel comfortable with something that is baggy round the edges because it is still evolving and expanding, is an organic movement populated by people with the talent, time and imagination to both interrogate it and allow it time to grow. But, when you consider all the elements churning within it, what’s not to like?

Mike Morris is Co-Director at Writing on the Wall. Jerry Dammers DJ's at the Afrofutures After Party. 21 May, District. 60 Jordan Street.

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