Althia & Donna: Nah Pop No Style, A Strictly Roots…

IF YOU don’t like talking to strangers, don’t walk through Kingston with Donna or Althia.

Kate and Donna were up the road, me and Althia trailing behind ’em, through the bland New Kingston skyscrapers, on the way to peach frozen yogurt cones at the ice cream parlours in Spanish Plaza.

Nobody’s ever accused Jamaican men of reticence, and Althia & Donna were definitely looking kinda cute in their boxer shorts (they’d just been doing their daily jogging,) but I was surprised when these guys on a building site yelled at us.

“Wha’appen, ranking!”
Althia just laughed and yelled back, “Na true” just like on the ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ single.

By the time the tenth stranger had yelled the obligatory “Wha ‘appen, ranking,” I understood.

Even in my capacity as ‘Uptown Top Ranking’s numero uno original fan, I hadn’t anticipated the extent to which the single had penetrated the Jamaican subconscious. That teasing “Na true!” is a cliche as pervasive as “far out” used to be in ’67. The infectiously breezy inflection even crops up in the Government radio ads aimed at motivating the vexed ghetto youth – “JA top-ranking and moving ahead! Na true!”

Althia and Donna are the Local Sisters Made Good, they’re all of Jamaica’s pets.

As the ultimate accolade, Big Youth’s recorded a would-be put-down of ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ called ‘Spanking Ranking.’ He hooks up for the occasion with some women who call themselves the Crissers, who coo “We’re harder” (better) “than the uptown top-ranking, yes we’re harder than the uptown top ranking…” Their-answer to ‘U.T.R’s irresistible hook line is to chant (slightly flat) “Go there, natty, go there”, the Jamaican Go deh! rendered into a sedate B.B.C. Foreign Service British accent.

Althia: “Those girls the Crissers, they’re some girls that wear wigs and mink coats. Mink coats? In Jamaica? It’s degrading for them. If they want to be female d.j’s they should come forward with something original, instead of sounding so distorted and just cashing in. If we were to answer them we’d strip them to pieces, but we’re bigger than that.”

HAVE YOU got a radio? Have you got ears? Yesterday I was listening to my tranny in the a.m. to wake up to and in the p.m. to go to sleep to, and in aproximately one and a half hours I heard ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ chirrup over the airwaves four times, so you must’ve heard it too. Even if you can’t penetrate the JA dialect totally, you must have heard Althia and Donna sing (with the lusty abandon that entranced me on first hearing courtesy Silver Camel Sounds at the 100 Club) “No pop no style, A strictly roots…”

Na true!

It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to understand the lyrics to ‘Uptown Top Ranking’; the really important thing is that their voices are teasing without being coquettish, they’re cheekily assertive – to re-phrase in punk parlance, Althia and Donna don’t care. Should you be intrigued by the lyrics, here they are – my translation in brackets:

See me in me (high) heels and t’ing (things)
Them check say we (are) hip and t’ing
True them no know and t’ing,
We have them going (on the run) and t’ing –
Nah pop no style (put on airs), a strictly roots (down home gals)
See me ‘pon the road and you no call out (hi) to me
Through you see me in me pants and t’ing (because Rastas disapprove of women wearing trousers – a serious t’ing!) See me in me halter back (equally naughty – too revealing) Say me give ya heart attack
Gimme little bass, make me wind out me waist (dance dub-wise, i.e. pretend you’re using a hula-hoop and then some)
Uptown top ranking (classy dames!)
See me in me (Mercedes) Benz and t’ing
Dally through Constant Spring (a modern street/expensive shopping centre in upmarket New Kingston. Strictly NOT roots…)
Them check say we come from Cosmo (as in Cosmopolitan, the glossy fashion mag) Spring
But a true them no know and thing (brother, have you got it wrong!)
Them no know say we top ranking, uptown top ranking.
Should a see me and the ranking (desirable) dread (rasta) Check how we jamming and t’ing, (get down)
Love is all I bring, ina me (fashionable) khaki suit and t’ing, Nah pop no style, a strictly roots
Watch how we chuck it and t’ing (dance)
Ina we khaki suit and t’ing,
Love is all I bring etc.
The love ina your heart just a boil out for me
When you see me in me pants and t’ing,
See me in me halter back etc…

IN CASE you missed the point, the message is – you can’t judge a book by its cover. Or alternatively, just because Althia and Donna wear nice clothes doesn’t mean they’re not regular gals complete with soul and brain.

If you’re fond of a story, you’ll be pleased to hear the single’s got a very precise meaning to Althia and Donna. Here’s the hot scoop…

DONNA HAD left school two years ago, and Althia had just graduated. As Jamaica is in a catastrophic state of economic collapse that makes England seem like West Germany, they couldn’t find a day job, although Althia had cut five singles for Derrick Harriott (titles: ‘Hey Mister’, ‘Friends’, ‘Desire’, ‘Having A Party’ and one other that she’s consigned to oblivion, where she’d like to and the rest – “they weren’t fun like this.”) with some success.

Donna: “We had a nice life last summer…”

Living in an acknowledged Paradise Isle, geographically speaking, unemployment (if you have access beyond the slums) can be fun. Althia and Donna divided their time between the famous beaches on the North Coast (e.g. Negril) the hills, and discos, parties and clubs in Kingston. They hung out with musicians, mainly the uptown younger generation of bands like Inner Circle/Jacob Miller, Third World –

Donna: “We used to meet them as friends at nightclubs like Epiphany. They used to see us each night, very sharp, very Yankee, and they used to jive us – ‘Too pop style! Cosmo freaks!’ They said we looked like we’d come out of the pages of Cosmopolitan or Vogue…”

In a country where Lulu-mail-order-catalogue clothes look like haute couture, Althia and Donna’s denim skirts and halter-neck t-shirts represent a sporty late-70’s chic that’s top-ranking.

Driving back into town from a North Coast beach weekend, the girls heard Trinity sing his classic ‘Three Piece Suit’ on the car radio – the music that forms the backing track for ‘Uptown Top Ranking’. Althia and Donna just started singing, feeding each other lines as they always do. Result – ‘Uptown Top Ranking’. And next time Jacob Miller started teasing them at the Epiphany, they sang it, and flipped out everyone within earshot…

Inner Circle were so excited that they took A & D into the studio, where they sang the words over the old ‘Black Cinderella’ backing track (hear it on the Tapper Zukie Man A Warrior album that’s just been re-issued). That didn’t sound right, (though it sounded good enough to mysteriously find its way to a party Donna went to in New York…) but when Joe Gibb’s engineer wizard Errol Thompson lured A & D into the studio, he used their original inspiration, the backing track to ‘Three Piece Suit’, which had been released on Joe Gibb’s label.

Donna: “It was a joke…”

Errol passed the acetate on to a disc jockey, who had to play it all night on request, and realised he was on to A Hit Sound. Luring the girls back in a second time to cut a finished vocal wasn’t quite as easy; neither Althia nor Donna realised that their prank was the killaaaa sound of ’77; they thought Errol was teasing, hence their extra tart delivery on the 45 we know and love.

And hence the extraordinary business position they’re currently in. As I write, Althia and Donna have breezed from nowhere into the number 2 slot in the charts with a single they’d originally considered a goof, unaware that their intelligence and perception had created a song that not only had a fresh sound but was also a gem of jokey satire and social observation. So there they are, with a number 2 hit record, and they haven’t even signed a contract with either Joe Gibbs or Errol Thompson.

I’m not implying that Joe Gibbs intends to rip off Althia and Donna, but they’ve unwittingly highlighted the extreme casualness with which Jamaican producers handle money matters; a producer will scribble a note on any old scrap of paper – ‘Pay Horsemouth 20 dollars’ followed by an illegible scrawl of a signature – a system that doubtless encourages the rip-offs that reggae’s particularly notorious for.

Since Joe Gibbs’ label is handled by Lightning Records in this country, and since Lightning Records is distributed by the mighty Warner Brothers organisation, JA music business techniques are suddenly, traumatically, confronted by Western European computer technology. Althia and Donna’s hop, skip and jump ascent to fame – which should, of course, be paralleled by a hop, skip, and jump ascent to fortune – with NO CONTRACT must be causing a few furrowed brows at Lightning and at Warner Brothers. As far as I can deduce, the business possibilities are:

1) Althia and Donna, secure in the knowledge of being the hottest music property of the moment, get a nice fat backdated contract and rake in the bucks.

2) Joe Gibbs keeps all the money from ‘U.T.R’ leaving the girls free to sign a lucrative contract with (for example) Warner Brothers. Either way, the situation is too public for the traditional Jamaican rip-off system to win, and hopefully their exploit will influence other JA producers into being more advance-and royalty-minded.

Personally, I’m smiling that it’s Althia and Donna who’ve precipitated this re-assessment of traditional reggae business techniques. Having met them, I intuit that their album will fulfill the promise of ‘Uptown Top Ranking’.

They’ve already sung me ‘Going To Negril’, another saucy satire, this time on the tourist Club Mediterannee crowd who pay for their rum punches with plastic shark’s teeth. I have no fears for them on stage, either – they’re both natural entertainers.

Donna: “The album won’t be all deejay, because it limits you. You can’t deal with something righteous – I know people in Jamaica wouldn’t accept it from us. You’ve seen how they put us in a certain bag, how people we don’t know come up to us and say ‘Wha ‘appen, Ranking!’ As far as they’re concerned, we’re just funny…”

As far as I’m concerned (who feels it knows it, y’all,) Althia and Donna may be surprised by their success, but they’re perceptive and talented enough to use this one hit as a springboard for a career in music – Donna’s eventual aim is to produce, for example. People that hope to brush them aside as strictly joke business may find the joke’s on them.

MY FIRST IMPULSE when I finally met Althia-and-Donna was to nail them to the spot, physically. Our brief encounter took place in the white dust yard in front of Joe Gibbs Records, 24, Retirement Crescent, Kingston, Jamaica. I had yet to separate the two-headed bionic girl wonder, Althia-and-Donna, which had been twirling insistently on my record deck for the past two months (first on the pre-release 45 on Joe Gibbs, then on Lightning), into two separate teenage girls. All I could see was my two-headed prey, that had successfully eluded me for an interminably frustrating week, smiling sweetly in its summer print frock as it waved goodbye.

I watched helplessly as the girls slid into Joe Gibbs Mercedes (pearl-grey) and out into the scrub-bushed Avenue, scattering dust on a passing goat en route.

Of course, they weren’t at our studio appointment next day. Bleak despair struck Kate’s and my souls. We gritted out teeth as we stepped back into Moses’, limousine – a silver ’26 Rolls, hardly what you’d expect, but when you hitch a ride you might as well do it with class – but in classic Jamaican fashion, there was an urgent yell of “VIVIEN!” as we drove into the Sheraton car park.

And sure enough, there were Althia and Donna, now particularised as two bright-faced athletic types, bouncing in their running shoes, on the case. They had been jogging to the studio for our appointment in their red and blue boxing shorts and well-worn tank tops. I knew I’d met friends when I was able to hiss to Donna, “Goddamit, there must be some place to get Tampax in this town!” (one among many non-available life supports in Kingston). And Donna replied, “Sure, in Spanish Plaza – I’ll just jog over there and pick some up for you.”

Being a woman who holds women’s interest close to her heart, I’d always been aware that there weren’t any women d.j.’ing – that popular JA art of free-association rapping over the top of a backing track. Althia & Donna beat me to it – they’re the first, and are billed as such on every poster round Kingston.

A few weeks ago, I heard three Jamaican singles by women who sounded like they had something to say – heavy message militant sisters – a welcome surprise since any messages, whether religious or otherwise had been a male preserve. Women could stick with the soppy love songs. The singles were: A & D’s ‘U.T.R’, Fabian’s ‘Prophecy’ and Dhaima’s ‘Ina Jah Children’,

Interestingly, both Dhaima (pronounced Da-yeema) and Fabian are American women, i.e. zero cultural inhibitions to overcome in terms of singing OUT from the diaphragm with vigour and force.

Althia and Donna are therefore a sociological phenomenon or landmark, musically speaking –

Kate: “I’m in shock. It’s been difficult talking to people…I’ve been waiting for you two.”

Seconded by me. What Kate meant wasn’t dialect difficulties, rather that Althia and Donna were the first women we’d encountered to display a ‘free woman’ consciousness whose work entered the public domain under their own name rather than that of their husband/male protector.

Althia: “When I was small, I always said that my name was going to mean something. Althia Forrest would be up in lights!”

Part of the reason why A & D are the Messengers is plain old socio-economic/class structure, as practiced internationally.

Donna: “Althia went to one of the better high schools, and I went to three of the best! And the best commercial college. We’ve had exposure. Jamaica in general is too narrow-minded. A lot of the Jamaican musicians weren’t privileged to get the education we had.”

And before you get fidgetty and label me a Tory on the grounds that education does not equate with native wit, remember that: A) I entirely agree, B) we’re talking about a country with a hefty illiteracy rate, where vibes are as much a medium of communication as words. Althia and Donna are upper middle class, and cosmopolitan. Rebellion’s programmed into Donna Reed’s genes. Her mother was a white Jewish woman from Israel who married a black Jamaican (thereby being excommunicated from her family.) Donna has US citizenship, and spends a lot of time in New York. Althia’s mother lives in New Jersey.

Donna: “Most of my friends are dreadlocks or roots, because I feel more comfortable with those people. I used to go to those upper-class parties with Mr. Manley” (JA’s Prime Minister) “and Mr. Coore” (not only the father of Third World’s lead guitarist, Cat, but also Deputy Prime Minister) “but I’m never comfortable.”

Althia is smaller and skinnier than Donna; they constitute an archetypal two-person knockabout comedy team. I’ve never seen them on-stage, but off-stage they’re a riot, feeding each other lines, using the rapport that comes from being best mates (they share a room in Donna’s father’s bungalow) to enhance artistic empathy.

ALTHIA AND Donna were sitting round a table by the Kingston Sheraton swimming pool in the shade of a blue and white striped umbrella during The Interview, and my tape was running when a typical women-are-not-equal-to-men-you must-humble-yourselves-before-me Jamaican type approached Donna. His voice is inaudible on the tape, but Donna’s incisive brush-off comes through loud and clear, an art performance in itself –

Male intruder: (mumble mumble, with arrogant overtones)

Donna: (blithely sarcastic) “I’m not talking to you! You’re not out there!”

Male: (something about a prospective A & D album)

Donna: “In February you’ll hear about the album, it should be released by June.”

Male: (mumble about what it’ll be like.)

Donna: (fiery) “It haaaard, mon! How you mean, Althia and Donna don’t sound good? You crazy! I have a right to know everyone – I’m out there and you’re not.” (Squinting critically at him) “You all get fat too. You might have a child before me if you keep on drinking all those beers. Look at that ass!”

Male: (retires, confused.)

Top Ranking.

And moving ahead…..

© Vivien GoldmanSounds, 28 January 1978

Leave a Comment