Jah Shaka remains a bit of a mystery. Few know his real name or age and the circumstances of his recent death are yet to be confirmed, writes Claudia Lee.
What we do know about the self-styled Zulu warrior is that, in a career that lasted more than 55 years he transformed the sound system landscape, focusing exclusively on contemporary reggae that was spiritually uplifting and politically relevant.
Last week, on June 17, the mighty Jah Shaka’s Sound System would have played their famous set at De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.
Shaka’s stage name is an amalgamation of the Rastafarian term for God and that of the Zulu king Shaka Zulu.
He reinforced his shamanistic persona by never revealing his given name or other details of his personal life.
Through his masterful use of components such as a pre-amp and a home-made siren box, he made his sound system sessions completely immersive.
Shaka was born in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, an area synonymous with numerous roots reggae stars.
Legendary acts including Toots Hibbert, Everton Blender, Barrington Levy, and Freddie McGregor all rose from the same Caribbean neighbourhood.
Shaka moved to South London from Jamaica as a child in the late 1950s as part of the Windrush generation.
He settled in Lewisham but had strong roots across the South.
In a Red Bull Music Academy lecture in 2014 Shaka said: “When people left Africa for the Caribbean, all they could bring with them was their music, their songs and their memories from home.
“So, over the years, this is all that people had to keep them together.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, there were house parties – 50, 60 people with only record player.
“It helped families know other families, which was important at that time because the people were so forced to be segregated.”
Shaka attended Samuel Pepys Comprehensive School in Brockley where he began an apprenticeship on the local soul sound system Freddie Cloudburst.
He began in 1968 by helping to transport and set up the speaker boxes.
Soon he was well versed in the maintenance and specifics of a sound system and started to play records himself.
Shaka easily built a name for himself on the sound system underground with a cult following from early on.
His exclusive dubplates and commanding presence on the microphone were not to be missed.
But along with the success came tensions with the police, who raided a dance he held in Brockley, in 1975, beating attendees and damaging his equipment.
Nevertheless, he kept going.
Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s the ‘Zulu warrior’ could be seen regularly at venues like Studio 200 in Balham, Cubies in Dalston and most famously in the basement at the legendary Phoebes in Stoke Newington, a former drinking club owned by the famous east end gangsters, the Kray twins, where he had a Friday night residency for several years.
His legacy lives on not only in his impressive series of dub albums, including collaborative works with Aswad but in the artists he produced, including reggae vocalists Bim Sherman, Johnny Clarke, the Twinkle Brothers, Max Romeo and Horace Andy.
The Twinkle Brothers’ Norman Grant and Matic Horns’ Henry ‘Buttons’ Tenyue played a half-hour main stage musical tribute on Roots Day, at the Lambeth country show on June 11.
Brixton-based Mr Grant recalled that Shaka would always promote him and his new dub plate -vinyl – eventually producing two albums and introducing him many other artists.
Mr Grant said: “In life there are people who give. Give thanks for the man.”
Despite his notorious underground lifestyle, Shaka could also be found outside the club scene.
He ran a three-storey community hub in New Cross, known as the Culture Shop, which acted as a focal point for black youth in the area, a record store, a Caribbean food outlet and a Rastafari-oriented hair salon.
Shaka also established the Jah Shaka Foundation in Ghana.
The foundation distributed medical supplies, wheelchairs, library books, carpentry tools, drawing materials and records to clinics, schools and radio stations within Ghanaian communities.
Picture: Jah Shaka performing Picture: Rototom Sunsplash
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