Ras Perez: Setting the record straight

Reggae singer, musician and producer Ras Perez lives in Berlin, Germany, and hails from the village of Grand Bay on the Caribbean island of Dominica. He is one of several Dominica musicians living in Berlin, including Tikiman and Ras Donovan, who have been deeply influential in the Berlin reggae scene. Ras Perez talks to Irie Up about his early years in Dominica, the changes from calypso to reggae, the infamous Dread Laws, and the humour at the heart of his music.

“The business in Dominica used to be on estates, a mix of sugar, tobacco, coffee. The landscape of Dominica is not really suited for sugar plantations. On Guadeloupe and Martinique, there are plantations as far as the eye can see. But not Dominica – Dominica looks like Switzerland in the Caribbean. It’s rough and rugged. If Columbus sailed back there today he would recognize Dominica.

If you look at Dominica’s long history, let’s say from the time of Christopher Columbus, the French and British fought a lot over it. First the Spanish came, then the French and British nabbed it, so it was French for how many years and British for how many years and so on. It didn’t really have anything but strategic value, as they couldn’t really make roads there. There were Caribs there fighting like mad up in the hills, there were Maroons there, so we ended up with a mix of stuff, and a heavy ingredient of French stuff and that’s why we ended up speaking creole, patois, like Haiti, St. Lucia, Guadeloupe.

My mother’s father was a businessman, and he used to export vanilla. Dominica had no airstrip, but I remember he used to go to a village and a plane used to land, a seaplane. I remember one time when I was about five years old, I went down there on a donkey to see him leave in a seaplane. He exported vanilla and lime juice. That was once a big business in Dominica, exporting to America and England.

My father and his father, they are from east, the village of Grand Bay. Most of the people from there are clearly mixed, Carib white and Carib black, but mostly Carib white. Just remember Nasio Fontaine. Now they are called Calinago, they have developed a lot of stuff, they realize their history and there are doing their best to preserve it. So my father was from these people. He worked as the manager on the Geneva Estate, which was close to Grand Bay.

My mother’s name was Casimir. A lot of the Casimirs were red skinned, although my mother was black black. The Casimirs were a well-known family on the island. Ralf Casimir and his brother, they had a band called The Casimir Brothers, they used to be called CBs. They opened up the Casimir Brother shop, you could get their music there, and American vinyls, papers from Barbados, it was like a multi-media shop! My mother would send me to that shop to pick up the newest Mighty Sparrow tunes. The Casimir Brothers were in charge of the national brass band, the government band, and they used to play village to village around Christmas time. I used to check them. Bing Casimir was the trumpet player of Dominica’s biggest band, the Swinging Stars. Every year they would go to New York, Canada, all around.

Leaving Dominica: Emigration and struggle

In the 1950s when England opened up, you could just pay your passage of $300 dollars and go. So a lot of guys went up to the north of the island and work double or treble tasks, just stay there and work and eat to save their money and when they had $500, they would come through town and pay the ticket. The boat went one time a month. Then they ended up in London looking for a job, guys who can’t even read or write. But they could lay tiles good or work good in construction.

After three or four years, they would come back and build a house. So England saved a lot of families. My father went up there around 1955. We couldn’t wait for him to come back because we wanted to go up too! But his answer all the time, I never forget it: ‘You don’t want us to follow Jamaicans.’ I must have heard that a hundred thousand times in my life. That’s why he didn’t go back. One of my cousins married a Jamaican, and I remember that they didn’t like that. I thought she would have two heads or something. My mother and all, they didn’t like Jamaican business. Ska music and the ganja business. We heard all about this woman, but when I saw her, I couldn’t understand, she was a black woman, she looked just like us. I don’t know why, but I was feeling quite proud that my cousin was married to a Jamaican!

When I was in primary school, there was a head teacher who came there, Mr Richards. When he first came, he said to me, ‘Hello, how are you! You know, I taught your father. It looks like I will teach your kids too.’ I said ‘What?’ I was only 9 or ten years old at the time. Mr Richards used to play violin and saxophone in the school, and he could teach anyone who wanted to learn. So he started to teach one guy the trumpet.

Some of us were interested. He could teach theory and music. So my cousin, who was older than me, he brought up some instruments, they made a band called The Ebonites. They had a brass section and everything. They had a place across the road from our house so I would run over there every day, clean the instruments, sweep up the place, I was welcome in there because I used to set everything up. The keyboard player was my sister’s boyfriend, he was the bass player before that, so he gave me all his books on the bass. Then the bass: ‘Play down, man, play down. Don’t go up. Don’t go past the fifth fret. Play down!’ So I learned how to use all those open strings. I played until my fingers bled! Then he would teach me keyboard.

The trumpet player would be writing lines for the other guys and he would make me learn to write the lines, and correct it. So I check them out, hang out around practice, and I started to learn the parts from their songs. Then they told me to make a little band with my friends, a little junior band coming up, that we could use their instruments. So I played the bass, Earl on drums and Augustus on guitar. At that time we used to check Beatles vibes! Earl was Ringo, man. He couldn’t keep a beat! But other guys were jealous that we got to play on those instruments.

After a while I knew all the parts from The Ebonites songs, I could step in and play when the fellow wasn’t there, but I was going to high school then and my father didn’t want me to go playing in clubs at night. But one night, my friend ran to get me, that they fired the other guy and they wanted me to come and play bass officially now. So I was the official bassman. They had a gig one Friday, the night that school closed for the holidays. My father told me not to go to sixth form, to go and get a job. So I was there at home, the trumpeter came, Tok tok on the door. ‘We have a gig’, he said to my father, in Creole. ‘We want to borrow Perez’. My father didn’t know what to say.

Then I realize, true, school finish, and I jump on that ship.

Calypso and rum, reggae and ganja

Before Bob Marley came on the scene, calypso was the vibes. Mighty Sparrow started his career in Trinidad, and we were influenced by Sparrow’s music long before reggae. A lot of influence in Dominica came from the French. The French had a different style of colonisation than the English. The French would want music once a week, and the slaves would bring their drums and instrument and play music for them, dance, they would get some drinks and thing. But the British didn’t allow that. In Dominica, more than 100 years ago, there came a law on the books that you couldn’t play a drum more than 10 miles outside the capital. Most people don’t know about the Dominican slave revolts, but it was like Jamaica, with the Maroons and all that.

So we listened to calypso from Trinidad. Dominica people travelled to Guadeloupe, where they had developed their own style of calyspo, with French influence, French lyrics, they called it Cadence. Guadeloupe had that connection to France, they had more people there, they had studios. So in the 1970s some bands from Dominica, they went to Guadeloupe and recorded, making albums, bands like Exile One. So it was called Cadence-lypso, that was the Dominican beat. That was later copied by some Trinidadians, you know, King Shorty came to Dominica and he heard guys playing Cadence-lyspo, and he went back to Trinidad and composed a song in that style, that became soca. So Calypso always play on words, sexy meanings. It’s known for that. So Sparrow sang a song:

“Afraid, I’m afraid, I afraid pussy bite me,
See your neighbour pussy, and you come and show me”

So all children are singing that, they think it’s about a cat!

Bob Marley, the knotty dread

But when reggae came now, Bob Marley and stuff, oooh, you see that, reality problems, no kind of ‘Afraid of pussy bite me’, no drinking rum songs, like ‘Drunk and disorderly, always in custody’. So we really saw the difference. Cadence and calypso, fast music, people dance and dance and drink beer and rum and then we observe now, reggae is more reality stuff, the police run after guys, and ganja business, so we tone out, and listen to the vibes. In the band, we played some early reggae, like Johnny Nash songs, ‘I can see clearly now.’

Then when Bob Marley came along:
‘Burnin’ and a lootin’ tonight…’

Whaat! And the drums. We tried playing that. Bap! Ticki bap! Klack! Oh! You must be smoking ganja! Then in 1974, Natty Dread came out. Bob Marley! Full swing locks Rasta! Now when you hear what Bob Marley sing about, you think, we should have learned that in the history books, and we smoke and meditate and hearing those words over and over again, it starts to make sense to you.

The dread act

A lot of guys in Dominica saw that and they just went up in the hills to grow itals and grow dreads. In 1974, Patrick John and the Labour Party brought in a law called the Prohibited and Unlawful Societies Act, people called it the Dread Act. It gave the police authority to shoot and kill dreads on sight. The most important part of the act said that no proceedings can be taken against the police who killed a dread or a suspected dread.

So now you have some of the Dominica guys living up in the hills. The government want them to come down, but they say ‘Why should we come down? We are in Dominica.’ The government was corrupt at the time, they send the police and army to bring them down, but some of the army was on the side of the boys in the hills, trading them guns for ganja, and the government couldn’t bring them down. Some police got shot and killed up there.

So one day, the police came out in the town with big shears and started cutting off dreadlocks. Can you imagine that? I was working in the post office, two guys run up, tell me, ‘Police cutting locks. Big shears.’ They had some ganja in their pocket, they ask me, ‘take it, take it’. They were afraid to get caught. Two other dreads got on the boat to Guadeloupe to escape and they came after them, arrested them and put them in prison. Even Hudson, a mechanic, everyone knew him, popular guy, his family had a petrol station. He had dreadlocks and the police went for him.

So, like I said, the most important part of the act said that no proceedings can be taken against the police who killed a dread or a suspected dread. It wasn’t just about dreadlocks. You could have a rubber bracelet, or red gold and green whatever, or long hair. One guy in a village, he heard already that police were looking for dreadlocks, he think they must be looking for those dreadlocks up in the hills, so he park his car, take a joint, walk down the street, the police were up the street, they see him coming and – with no warning – they just shoot him and kill him. There were no proceedings against them. There was a million things like that.

So if you were a dreadlocks, you were kind of an illegal person. That was Dominica’s kind of bloody history as a country.

In 1978, Dominica became an independent country, with Patrick John as Prime Minister, but there were political problems, the ministers left one by one, and an interim government was set up, that same time a massive hurricane, Hurricane David, smashed up the whole southern half. I had just gotten married, my wife was from France, but the hurricane smashed up our house.

An interim government took over in 1979. The interim government was the best, smoker crew, but after one year the Labour Party, who were now the opposition, were calling for an election. There was a woman in charge of the Freedom Party, Eugenia Charles, and them guys went to the extreme campaigning against her, down to the pants she was wearing, but to most people she was a God-fearing woman and a lawyer. Plus, the Labour Party had been in power for 25 years, and most people wanted to give the others a chance, so they rejected the Labour Party and elected the Freedom Party. She was the first woman Prime Minister.

Then in 1981 Patrick John tried to overthrow the government, an attempted coup. You never know if it was true or not, but Americans intercepted a boat full of guns going down there to help out. They put Patrick John in prison. He was a little dictator.

To speak the truth, when Eugenia Charles came to power, she really empowered women, she gave them a lot of top posts. One time after she was elected, I bought some cheap roof paint in Martinique and brought it back, but the customs made me leave it at the airport and go into an office in town to get a permission. I arrived early, and they told me to wait for the lady who would make the authorization. The lady came, and I knew her from before, but she didn’t know me, and she went into her office. Then another guy arrived from the customs, he worked at customs in the airport and came regularly to that office. He had a typical Dominican attitude. So he just barged past me into the office.

The lady came out, she was vexed with this guy. She looked at me. ‘Ah you are the one for the paint?’ I explained, and she said, ‘Okay, next time you should come here first and get the permission, but now you’ll have to go back to the airport.’ I didn’t mind going back, as long as I had the permission. She signed the form. Then she looked at the guy from customs, and told him, ‘You, make an appointment and come back this afternoon’, and she sent him away. So that taught me a lesson.

Well, in the end, Eugenia Charles was about ten years too late. In fact, she was the one who had encouraged Patrick to pass the Dread Law. They say that people get the government they deserve.

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