Two volts from John

Jamaica Gleaner - - ENTERTAINMENT - Mel Cooke Gleaner Writer

THE DEATH dates of Gre­gory Isaacs (Oc­to­ber 26, 2010) and John Holt (Oc­to­ber 19, 2014) passed re­cently with­out much mu­si­cal fan­fare, although Isaacs was ac­corded a na­tional hon­our at the 2016 cer­e­mony on Na­tional He­roes Day.

This is un­like the in­ten­si­fied in­ter­est in Pe­ter Tosh, with the mu­seum open­ing and tribute con­cert (both at 38 Trafal­gar Road, New Kingston) added to the an­nual sym­po­sium at the Univer­sity of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Cam­pus. Iron­i­cally, Holt and Isaacs died close to Pe­ter Tosh’s Oc­to­ber 19 birthday, but Tosh passed away much ear­lier, mur­dered on Septem­ber 11, 1987.

Ad­di­tion­ally, while Tosh was killed in Kingston, both Holt and Isaacs died in Lon­don, Eng­land.

In per­for­mance, Holt held im­mense ap­peal for a fe­male au­di­ence with songs like If I Were a Car­pen­ter and On The Beach. How­ever, for the man of­ten in­tro­duced as ‘A Thou­sand Volts of Holt’, two of his songs ex­plored na­tional is­sues, which were guar­an­teed crowd-pleasers.

Po­lice in He­li­copter ex­plored an in­ter­na­tional and na­tional is­sue of state-level crack­down on mar­i­juana, one which Holt did not live to see come to some level of res­o­lu­tion with the re­lax­ation of laws against mar­i­juana in Ja­maica, fol­low­ing a global trend. And Tribal War (a re­make of Lit­tle Roy’s orig­i­nal, which was also done by Ge­orge Nooks) con­tin­ues to be, un­for­tu­nately, rel­e­vant as the level of vi­o­lence re­mains ap­pallingly high.

Po­lice in He­li­copter looks up­wards at the air­borne raids of mar­i­juana fields, but it also notes the anti-mar­i­juana ac­tiv­i­ties on the ground. Holt sings: “Po­lice in he­li­copter A search fi mar­i­juana Po­lice­man in the streets, search­ing fi col­lie weed Sol­diers in the field Burnin’ the col­lie weed” Then he prom­ises rec­i­proc­ity, rais­ing the tra­di­tional source of much of Ja­maica’s agri­cul­tural in­come in re­venge for the light­ing of the mar­i­juana while still in the field as Holt sings: “But if you con­tinue to burn up the herbs We gonna burn down the cane­fields”


Mar­i­juana is also in­volved in Tribal War, a plea for peace among war­ring fac­tions. When the con­flict eases, the com­bat­ants cel­e­brate with a com­mu­nal chal­ice: “Tribal war We no want no more a that tribal war A no that we a de­fen I will give Jah praises in the morn­ing When I hear the peo­ple say They now see them­selves in unity Cel­e­brat­ing with bet­ter sen­sie Now that the war is over over” In a pre­vi­ous in­ter­view with The Sun­day Gleaner, the orig­i­nal singer, Earl ‘Lit­tle Roy’ Lowe, said Tribal War was in­formed by a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle. He said he had the start of Tribal War, the en­dur­ing reggae song cel­e­brat­ing peace be­tween bat­tling fac­tions, in his head for about a year be­fore a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle sparked the lines that he used to com­plete it.

“I wrote the lyrics and the melody. A lot of peo­ple come and sing it over and some of them try to act as if it is theirs,” Lit­tle Roy, who now lives in Eng­land, said.

“That is a song I recorded for my Ta­fari la­bel in 1973, and I think it was re­leased in 1974. I used to walk and sell it my­self. It sold many thou­sands.”


He said Tribal War was writ­ten “be­cause of the war that was go­ing on. There was a war that was go­ing on uni­ver­sally, even in Ja­maica with the pol­i­tics”. At the time he had the open­ing line – “Tribal War, we no want no more a that” – in his head, Lit­tle Roy would have been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the 1972 gen­eral elec­tion, which brought the Michael Man­ley-led Peo­ple’s Na­tional Party to power on a demo­cratic so­cial­ism plat­form. “That was writ­ten a year or more be­fore the other part of the song came to me. Is like I could not com­plete the song,” Lit­tle Roy said. Then he read a news­pa­per story about gangs in east­ern Kingston com­ing to a peace agree­ment after fight­ing each other for years. “That was writ­ten in the pa­per, The Gleaner or THE STAR. These gangs came to­gether and signed a peace treaty,” Lit­tle Roy said. At the sign­ing, there was also the puff­ing of the peace pipe, Ja­maican style, the news­pa­per re­port­ing that the gang­sters came to­gether and smoked herb. Lit­tle Roy said, “I turn it into gang­sters ‘seated up and lick­ing cup/one by one they take a suck/say­ing that the war is over’.”

Next week: A cou­ple of cuts from The Cool Ruler, Gre­gory Isaacs.


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