CHANNEL ONE, Jah Kingdom Gone to Waste
By Thibault Ehrengardt
Text & pictures © - do not reproduce withour permission
Jamaica is a third-world country, struggling day after day for survival. In the perpetual movement resides its only hope. Peter Tosh used to say, regarding his monocycle, that when he was riding it, he had no choice but to concentrate fully on what he was doing : “if me think bout something else for a second, I’ll fall.” Jamaica can not afford the luxury of a short rest. Forward lies salvation. Thus the glory of yesterday is of little interest to most Jamaicans. Outsiders fear this “livity” but can not help looking at it with some kind of admiration... This is naked life, fearful yes, but so exciting. In Jamaica, anything can happen, anytime, anywhere – scary, or promising ? Welcome to the true american frontier of the 19th century, where gunmen roam the streets, where every move is good, as long as it pays – and where madness can hardly be distinguished from genious. Can’t say you haven’t been told : you’re on your own down there, do your thing, my friend, without any apology - play your best card at the best time, everyone to himself and God for all... woe to the loosers, no second chance. Fearful, overstimulating. Jamaica.
Maxfield Avenue, in the 70’s, used to carry the swing. There the youth of Kingston would go to get the latest fashionable haircut, to find the most suitable clothes. Violence has always been a part of this volatile area, mostly the bottom part of the avenue that is. But the best would go along the worst and Maxfield was the home of the most sought after recording studio of the country, the legendary Channel 1, opened by the Hookim brothers around 1975. Their sound ruled dance hall for the rest of the decade, dictated its beat to reggae music worldwide and almost swallowed up the whole industry, as 80% of what was then recorded was recorded between these walls. Channel 1 was an expensive place and most producers would cut the voice parts of their tunes in Waterhouse, at the more affordable King Tubby’s. But when it would come to riddim, sound quality and modernity, they had no choice but to hire Channel 1. Everyone was hanging out there. The best musicians of the time, the most successful artists... Some ran into trouble while leaving the area, others usually slept in the yard, surrounded by gunshots all night long. The front wall, roughly 12 feet high, with its glorious sign Channel 1 and its iron gates featuring the labels of the Hookim Brothers (Channel One, Well Charge...) have become iconic over the years. Almost 40 years later, the painting remains – magnificient as ever, breathtaking for any reggae lover. All of a sudden, it bursts out at one corner, in the midst of squalor and desperation... Channel 1. I went there more than once in my life. But I still get this exciting feeling, whenever I come out of my car. Over the years, the place - that was closed long ago - has evolved : people used to live here for a while. I remember taking the picture of a woman, washing her clothes in front of the iron gates. Nowadays, only duppies roam the premices of Channel 1. The place, more miserable than ever, is simply falling apart. No one lives here anymore, how could they ? The roof is gone, the walls are falling down, the windows do not exist anymore. No doubt, after all these years, misery has had the better out of Channel 1. This is the end of the road.
I came closer to the gates, to decipher the readings of the almost erased labels of the Hookim Brothers. They are still here, nevertheless. Like this great dark wall... The yard is in a terrible condition but the two bands painted on the back wall are from way back in the 70’s. The worried mind can easily find its way back to the past, though. The excitement of the musicians, the busy store, the music, fierce, aggressive, in the back... Some Dillinger putting up a show in front of the studio, Coxsone pointing its gun at Jo Jo who, he said, was stealing his riddims... The Roots Radics can not be far from this vision, nor Sly Dunbar, the master mind behind the sound of Channel 1 – the famous double-drumming, reproducing the gunshots of a M16. I took some pictures of the place, in a mixed up mood. Glad to be here again, to follow the footsteps of all these great artists, saddened at the sight of such a waste.
It did not take long for two Jamaicans to join me. In their 50’s, they had known the place in its glory – and they were mesmerized at my enthusiasm. One of them said to his friend : “you nah see how the place powerful ? After all these years, dem still ah come fe it...” Dem, the white guys. These weird creatures, interested in ruins and in a music, dead to Jamaica – who have the opportunity to stop, to reflect on the past. There is so much to be done with these ruins... Even though the place remains desolate, couldn’t we open here some sort of living museum ? A venue for roots lovers – who would come to hear some groups from the 70’s ? In a preserved environement, they would come to snap a picture in front of the wall. If not harrassed too much, they might even eat a food in a nearby restaurant (or ras-taurant, according to their diet), enjoy a domino game outside, buy one Red Stripe (or two, depending on how thristy they are), inject some money in this long forgotten area. Crime remains a rampant problem in Jamaica. But the efforts of the newly appointed Ministre of Security look promising – the downfall of Dudus might bring a new era in Jamaica. No more racketting, no more blind shootings... Tourism could sprout again – downtown Kingston, even in its worst state, has something of a “grande dame”, ready to jump back to its glory days. Personal initiatives might spring from everywhere, Jamaicans are so inventive. The dream is beautiful, it is but a dream. Jamaica is fighting very hard, but the monster is powerful – economic crisis, unemployment, no natural ressources, crime and corruption. Back to reality – Channel 1 days are gone and will never come back. The Hookim Brothers intended to re-open it a few years ago, they had chosen a new location, in a safer part of uptown Kingston. Channel... 2 ?! No, there will always be one Channel 1, but reggae lovers must learn to mourn it. The walls, slowly, scramble down, the painting vanishes away... When the original wall hits the ground, this will be the end. Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, used to sing The Wailing Souls. And if I remember correctly, this prophecy was recorded inside these very walls. Jamaica was once the mighty kingdom of reggae music, indeed. The power and the glory remain, just below the dirt. But these are the mere ruins of a golden age... Soon lost forever. Channel 1 is more than a sad story, it is the almost unbearable symbol of the downfall of a royal dynasty, the dynasty of reggae music.