In September 1983 Kingston dancehall scene was full of energy. New sound system Volcano was giving tough competition to established sounds like Gemini, Lee’s Unlimited, Black Scorpio, Killamanjaro and others. Tero Kaski’s & Pekka Vuorinen’s ’Reggae Inna Dance Hall Style’ 1984 captured that moment. Vuorinen published an extended version of the book 2011 called ’Volcano Revisited’. Following article is taken from with a permission of Pekka Vuorinen. Photos and Sassa posters courtesy of Pekka Vuorinen.
So dance hall style is totally aural, not the least visual. If you for a moment stop to think of the visual images created by the words ’dance hall style’, you’re likely to end up thinking of the dance hall posters. Somehow the posters totally capture the whole phenomena which we label as dance hall style: colourful named sounds or discoteques, everyone with its very own posse, touring in and around Kingston night after night performing that special sounding music to the dance loving public. Not only the capital but the whole country is literally filled with posters inviting you to a dance coming – or long gone.
When you come to think the very visible role of the dance hall posters, you automatically start to wonder where do they come from. If you see a photograph of Kingston two things strikes you at once: in every picture there are dozens of lamp posts and other electricity poles – and on every lamp pole or post someone has pasted up several posters! Thousands of lamp poles – and tens of thousands of posters. Where and how are the posters made?
If you have a closer look at the posters you can detect a virtuosity in design and composition: every poster is a special one for the occasion, different from the others, and at the same time reflecting a true artistic integrity. Especially when you find some imitations trying to catch the same quality – without any success.
The designer of these posters – Denzil Naar, better known to his many friends as Sassa, the original Sassafras – has been a central figure in the dance hall circuit for nearly ten years now – and still is. Every promoter and dance keeper with any ambition wants to have a proper poster to advertise the function coming – and I turns to Sassa for his assistance. So Sassa knows what’s happening in the dance hall business. And makes his important contribution to the success of the everyday operations. Sassa’s office at Lee’s Electronics is kind of unofficial head quarters or information centre to the dance hall promoters union -should there ever be one! Sassa – the last word is yours.
’I started in the year 1975 when posters was done on arm, cardboard and paint, and put up with four bottle stoppers and nailed to a post. A friend ask me to do three posters for him and when I did write these three posters they were so catchy that we went to the printing business as of to save time. Cause I could not write every time four hundred posters, you know! We started printing at a very small rate first, at $45 per a hundred.
But as time goes by, materials increase. It has now reached a total costs of $75 per hundred. My writing is strictly creative graphics done by hand. And I have always tried to do my best to please the people. And to be different as much as possible. On a whole I find myself benefitting from it but I regard it as much a social work, because I am not really getting enough money. That I should be even better off in order to open my own business. For the moment I have to do my artwork and give it to printer to print. And the printer is the one that benefits most. He derives a lot of money from the product itself, you know. I’m not of the type to go to a bank for a loan. I hate to risk the printing and just print the posters alone.
On a whole on average I have received say fifteen posters per a week for the different discoteques which numbers approximately a hundred recognized discoteques right now: twenty recognized top rub-a-dub sounds you know – big discoteques – and thirty soul discoteques, and then others are bar sessions. I find it a pleasure in working and dealing with the small people – the man who can’t afford to pay a couple hundred dollars through the other medias. My media is cheap and goes out to the people. There again my posters are very visible and it’s catching to the eye. As the Jamaican public look forward to seeing a different one every week: where the sets is playing, who the entertainers are.
Earlier on in my years I was linked to Gemini discoteque. I was the one who actually built Gemini from nowhere to where he is now. Being exposed and with the amount of expertise and knowledge I have with dealing with entertainers and artists, you know, and they respect me for this: I’ve no doubt in Jamaica as Sassafras the people’s promoter, you know.
I find myself working sometimes up to a period of eighteen hours per a day – average you know. Cause I have to write these posters, go to the printer, print them… and sometimes I find myself delivering them to the different places: bars, dance halls and so on. Right. I have no training whatsoever. I went to Kingston College and gained a distinction in art, which was just objects, figure and composition. But I didn’t go to any commercial school or anything. Is my natural talent, just by this writing. That’s why hardly anybody in Jamaica is capable of reproducing the same thing. Because they cannot be taught the same thing. Even if a good artist who is qualified tried to write like this it will not come out the same.
The copycats – I regard them as opportunists. Because I took one fellow and I taught him to write. But no matter how you teach somebody to write, he has to have the natural talent, you know. It’s a gift. So there are people out there now who have thriven my artwork, cut it out, you know, and collect money by using the Letter Press along with my writing. And make money. I find myself loosing customers in this manner. But they always resort back to me for the original work…
I do the artwork strictly by hand with markers. The artwork is then taken to the printery where it is shot by the camera and you get a negative. The negative is burnt on to a plate after it is stripped up. And then the plate is put on the press, and put on the colours desired, and you run your amount necessary. That’s the whole printing process. Invitations can also be obtained using the original poster which is normally 17″x11″-the normal poster size. It is then reduced to 24% and it might come out to about 31/2″x23/4″. That’s the process really.
Photographs are used when a band or a artist need to be on a poster which is quite all right with my graphics. In the future – I think my graphics will survive, because it’s different, you know, and these writings can not be obtained by any Letter Press or through any other form more than I did on my hand. Which is very creative, you know. I think I stand a chance of the future… being is gonna be better in the future: it all depends on how the country’s economical situation will stand. Because you know dance and functions are supported by the lower class people, and these people might not find themselves having enough to even come anymore.
People have been using names of artists who never appear at a dance. I don’t think it’s right, it’s not proper. I’m totally against a promoter using a name of another artist who is not going to come. Like using the name of Yellowman now when he is abroad. It is like this. Yellowman is regarded as being a friend of the person and he’s expected to come back. And the promoter might ask him, if he can make it to this dance, if he will give him back his taxi fare and give him money. Yellowman will confirm it instead of saying that no, I won’t be there, I’m going abroad. So the gentleman will come to me, you know. Now I will always know when Yellowman is away or not, but I refuse to put his name on the poster. It’s not right for a promoter to loose his people’s confidence and their trust. Don’t fool the public, cause in the future when they are coming with something else – and even the artists going to be there – them might not turn up!
If you work it out it’s thousands of posters from 1975, but I’m not tired of writing, do you know. I think anybody wants to earth me, just to cut out my right hand! But I’m still going on, you know. I enjoy doing it. Every poster represents a different thing. And money in somebody’s pocket. It gives me a thrill also to walk out on the road there and see my work. I’m really pleased. And do it considered littering of the city and so on, but at least the government and other people must realize that it is these people’s livelihood. This is how the barowner benefits, how the liquor seller, how the peanutman make some money, the cane vendor make some money to feed his kids. It just goes around, the money goes around, because the promoter always has his assistants to pay. The gateman to help him, you know. Everybody get some money out of the dance really, it circulates. And it keep going on and on and on. And everybody gets their turn. The whole business is a phantom house of fear in which every party receives a little to survive. That’s what it is.