Ska legend Desmond Dekker died on May 25 in his home in England. Guardian calendar editor Duncan Scott Davidson writes in praise of the Jamaica native:
“Oh Lord, it is not easy,” Desmond Dekker sings in falsetto on his track “It Is Not Easy.” “I work and I toil/ Yet I suffer all the while/ Trying to live a life on my own/ I don’t want to end up like Al Capone.” The suffering has ended for Dekker; he succumbed to a heart attack on May 25. Even the baddest gangster and the King of Ska must, eventually, go the way of all flesh.
The ska Dekker helped originate in his native Jamaica is a much slower, more groove-centered affair than the frenetic, even spastic, punkified outbursts from what the English Beat’s Dave Wakeling called the “high school horn section” bands that have come to be associated with the genre in its latter days.
For me, a Dekker record is a ticket to a good mood. There’s really know way to be depressed or stressed out when listening to a Dekker tune. It’s good-times music, but there’s always something deeper going on: There’s the struggle to walk the path, to be upright in the face of suffering, to not give in to a life of crime that, for a parentless teenager in Kingston, must’ve been a huge temptation. Dekker’s music mirrors this struggle as his hits alternate between religious numbers like “Honour Your Mother and Father” — where he quotes directly from the ten commandments — and “The Israelites” and songs about punch-up, rude boy culture.
An example of the deeper currents that Dekker circulated underneath perfect pop songs is his “Licking Stick:” “Mama, mama, mama I am feeling sick. Papa, papa licked me with the licking stick. I’ve got the fli-ipping hiccups, Mama. I’ve got the fli-ipping hiccups, Papa.”
If you’re driving to the beach with the top down, the lyrics completely fly under the radar. You start hipshaking ever so slightly in your seat, and the percussive syllables are just another part of the rhythm, like the later “chka chka” oral punctuation thrown into so many ska tunes — especially with the nearly comic basso profundo “don’t go” in the background and the falsetto echoes of “Mama, Mama, Mama” over the top.
But when the fade comes and Desmond quietly sings, “Mama please tell Daddy/ Do not hit me with that/ Mama, I’m feeling pain/ I’m really, really feeling/ I can’t stand it…”
Well, it’s not really a song about hiccups, is it? Like the Muscle Shoals sound that was happening across a geographic and cultural gulf, Desmond Dekker’s ska is party music with soul, Emma Goldman’s long-awaited revolution you can dance to. To quote Toots: “Reggae Got Soul,” and no one had it more than Desmond.