there is a nine night this friday

Jamaica is facing a long and difficult season. The season of loss. With the most recent passing of Jah Shaka on April 12, 2023, the heaviness grows. We are losing a generation of elders who shaped and shared the culture one vinyl, one dance, and one dub session at a time. We are losing a generation of passionate artists who weren’t motivated by clicks, likes, or greed; but artists who created because it was their calling to do so. Gone too soon is Jah Shaka. These words are my dub for him.

Jah Shaka AKA the Zulu Warrior laid a critical foundation for reggae and dub worldwide.

This extended scene from the cult classic Babylon (1980) features Jah Shaka and his Jah Shaka Sound System. Babylon is a gritty film exploring the sound system culture in South London. The film peels back the layers to expose the police brutality and racism affecting Black Jamaican and Black British youth. It’s directed by Franco Rosso.

Born in Clarendon, Jamaica and living most of his life in London, Jah Shaka’s sound and his energetic sessions became a sonic rallying space for Jamaicans and Caribbean immigrants to London starting in the 1970s. He had a gentle magnetism that pulled people together, allowing the alienated to feel connected again. With music as his tool, he gathered and shook up the UK with heavy drum and deep bass. So, as Jah Shaka did in the dance halls, I hope to do the same with my words here. Allow me to connect the roots and the diaspora.

The Book of Common Prayer shepherds many of us through loss. The words “…we therefore commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life…” are often recited as a part of Christian burial ceremonies. These words are meant to remind the grieving loved ones that death is a part of life.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” reminds us that we are all mortal. The phrase humbles us to the reality that our breath will ultimately fade and our bodies will return to ash and dust. For life is as Buddhists believe, a continuous cycle of ends and beginnings. Death is as the Yoruba understand it, “[it] doesn’t end a person’s life, but instead marks a passage from one realm of existence to the next.” The Zulu people — for whom Jah Shaka is partially named — believe that: “The contact between the living and the living dead is established and maintained by making offerings and sacrifices to the ancestors. The ancestors, therefore, become intermediaries with God at the apex and man at the bottom of the hierarchical structure.” And energy is as science tells us, something that cannot be destroyed, only transformed.

Where do these reasonings about afterdeath, energy, and infinite life leave those of us who feel the mortal absence of someone who is a loved one, a respected public figure, an inspiring artist, a champion of a cause or a culture? Where does all of this leave us as we continue to mourn the loss of Jah Shaka?

Jah Shaka’s name is an amalgam of Rastafari God — “Jah” — and “Shaka” — the king of the Zulu people of southern Africa. As a sound system operator and vocalist he was a critical figure in the amplification and dissemination of reggae and dub music out of London. In fact, Ariwa Sounds, the studio that is synonymous with dub engineering master Mad Professor would likely not have been successful without the support of Jah Shaka. I am grateful to have spoken to Mad Professor recently about Ariwa, dub, and his decades-long friendship with Jah Shaka. In the coming days I will share that conversation on my podcast For Posterity. For now, I hope it’s becoming clear that whether in the role of producer or vocalist or sound system operator or crowd controller (as seen in the @subatomic IG post below), Jah Shaka and his self-named sound system pumped out positive dub reggae vibrations that were both uplifting, connecting, and far-reaching.

On the day of Jah Shaka’s passing, April 12, 2023, Emch of Subatomic Sound System posted this video and tribute in honor of Jah Shaka.

Like our African ancestors, Afro-Jamaicans see death as a continuation of life in the world hereafter. The retention of African funeral traditions in Jamaica surface in the period of mourning called a Nine Night. A Nine Night is held sometimes for nine nights after the death and sometimes only on the ninth night after the death, as a way to celebrate the life of the dearly departed, to support the immediate family members, and ultimately to send the deceased’s spirit safely on its journey. On “Fly Me Away Home” (1984) by Jah Shaka and Junior Brown, Brown sings of that spiritual flight:

“Fly me away in the morning to the land of the sun,

Fly me away in the morning to the land of the sun,

Jah know I work so hard,

And now that my work is done-

Jah know I work so hard,

And now that my work is done…”

Call it heaven or “zulu” (which means “heaven” in the Zulu language) or call it Zion, there is a place that a soul, a spirit flies away to when the body can no longer bear the weight of mortality. We say that an individual has “passed” because we recognize that death is a transition from this plane to the next. We pass through a gate that is never fully closed. The energy is never destroyed, only tranformed. As I think of Jah Shaka AKA Zulu Warrior, as a critical figure in dub reggae, I can’t help but think of his passing as an extended fade into the infinite echo of time. For me, there has been no loss, no. Jah Shaka’s spirit lives on.

Ashes to ashes,

Dub to dub.

May these words honor Jah Shaka’s life and may his spirit live on dub-fully in the music.



If you are in London, Goldsmiths University and friends are sponsoring a Nine Night on Friday, April 21. If you’re elsewhere, tap into the Jah Shaka dub energy through a deep listening of Mad Professor Meets Jah Shaka at Ariwa Sounds (1984).

Long time friends and studio mates, Jah Shaka and Mad Professor make dub magic with this 1984 album.

And lastly, in his own words, you can hear Jah Shaka speak about the activist ways that reggae and dub have served to uplift African and African diaspora people through music.

🖤 Asé.

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