Heather Augustyn first came to the attention of Jamaicansmusic.com at the 2013 International Reggae Conference at the University of the West Indies (Mona) where she gave an outstanding presentation on Pioneering Women In Jamaican Music. Today she is the proud author of three Jamaican music inspired books, namely, Ska: An Oral History, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World's Greatest Trombonist & Tempo: Ska. The journalist and writing teacher from Chicago spoke to Jamaicansmusic.com about her invaluable research and contribution to the preservation of the legacy of our music and the musicians by extension.
Jamaicansmusic.com: When did you develop a serious interest in Jamaican music?
Heather Augustyn: Like many Americans, I came to know Jamaican music through the English versions of ska, although the two sound very different. It was in the mid-1980s, after hearing bands like The Beat, The Specials, The Selecter, and falling in love with this thing called ska, that I decided to pursue the origins of the music and I found Jamaican ska. I fell in love all over again, this time more deeply, and as a writer and journalist, it was a natural step for me to spend my life researching this music I have such passion for.
JAmusic: Why is it so important to document Jamaican music history?
Augustyn: Plutarch said, "To be ignorant of the lives of the most celebrated men of antiquity is to continue in a state of childhood all our days." Not that Jamaican ska is antiquity, although I know in Jamaica they do call it "the oldies" or "granny music!" But I believe that if we don't know the contribution that was made by the innovators of the music, there can be no real knowledge of the music that follows. Plus, knowing the history helps to grow a deeper appreciation when listening to the music.
JAmusic: Why did you decide to go ahead and write your first book Ska: An Oral History?
Augustyn: In the mid-1990s, I had just finished graduate school. At this time, ska was at its height in the United States with bands coming through Chicago, where I lived, every weekend. There would be four or five bands on a bill, most composed of high school jazz band members who now played a fleeting form of ska, but others were the originators. The Skatalites came through, Laurel Aitken, and so I began interviewing musicians from all eras of ska, to research how this music began, but also how it had evolved into something so different. I called artists on the phone, like Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster and all of the British ska artists, and then the project became big and daunting, with a lot of tapes of these conversations in a box. I honestly let it sit for about 10 years while life happened. I got married, had children, moved out of the city, and then on my 35th birthday I decided to pick it back up and do something with it. Frankly, many of the artists I had interviewed had since died and I felt guilty knowing they had shared their story with me so graciously and I wasn't honoring their life. I spent the next two years interviewing more people, re-interviewing many, and writing. It was a labor of love.
JAmusic: Tell us a little bit more about Ska: An Oral History. Which artistes are documented etc.
Augustyn: I focused mainly on the Jamaican and British artists, although the last chapter has a few Americans. I spoke to the artists themselves, let them tell the story and I was merely a conduit, weaving together the story. The foreword was written by Cedella Marley who speaks about how her dad began in ska and how he first heard the music. I spoke with The Skatalites' Doreen Schaeffer, Roland Alphonso, Lloyd Brevett, Lloyd Knibb, and Lester Sterling; Derrick Morgan and Patsy (Millicent Todd); Lyn Taitt; Laurel Aitken; Toots Hibbert; Millie Small; Alex Hughes (Judge Dread); The Specials' Roddy Byers (Roddy Radiation); The Beat's Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger; The Selecter's Pauline Black; Lee "Kix" Thompson of Madness; and Buster Bloodvessel of Bad Manners. In the last chapter I spoke with Fishbone's Dr. Madd Vibe (Angelo Moore); The Mighty Mighty Bosstones' Dicky Barrett; Issac Green; Bucket of The Toasters and now defunct Moon Records and new label Megalith; Rocksteady Freddie of The Toasters and New York Ska Jazz Ensemble; Joey Altruda and Willie McNeil of Jump with Joey; Jim Arhelger of Bim Skala Bim; Jayson Nugent of The Slackers; Buford O'Sullivan of The Scofflaws; Alex Desert of Hepcat; Tony Kanal of No Doubt; as well as many others.
JAmusic: Did you expect the feedback that you received for Ska: An Oral History? Did this prompt you to keep writing?
Augustyn: I think the biggest shock came when my book was named a finalist for a 2011 ARSC Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research. I realized that it was important to the academic community, that meant a lot and it validated my work. But then, I am really humbled every time I speak to someone who has bought the book, or has read it. It is still a surprise to me, that people read my writing. I am just so pleased that my book is located in libraries all over the world, in Jordan and Australia and Egypt and Germany, everywhere, so that the story of the lives of these greats will be part of the record for future researchers and people like myself, who wanted to know more about ska. It's good that now ska is not relegated to a chapter or two in a book and is recognized as a genre in its own right. The success of the book didn't really prompt me to keep writing though because the reason I write is actually kind of selfish—I love it! I would write about it even if no one read it! I just love digging through the Jamaica Gleaner archives—to me, that is the most fun. Seeing the advertisements for the shows, for Sonny Bradshaw or for the Glass Slipper—that just brings me such enjoyment. The fact that others share in this excitement and want to hear more about it too is compelling, yes, so it's a community that keeps me writing.
JAmuic: You've recently launched another book Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World's Greatest Trombonist. What was it about Don that interested you so much?
Augustyn: Don interests everyone. He's become a myth. As a journalist, I wanted to know the real story. I wanted to know what was true and what was myth. I fell in love with Don's music—how can you help but not? In my mind, he was the greatest trombonist in the world, not only because of his proficiency with the instrument that he used as a tool to express that which he could not any other way, or his prolific composing of intricate and multifaceted songs, but because of his potential. Had he been given the same benefits as the trombonists we recognize as the masters, he would have surpassed them in success. Success is a strange thing that we measure in material ways, so the fact that Don D. may not be known outside of certain communities is no reflection of his talent or his potential for prominence. Of course, the story of his life was an interest as well and is the stuff of a good story, but I look at that as a way to get the interest of the reader to draw them to his music. If a person who has not come to know his music then comes to develop an appreciation for his work because they were attracted to the story of murder, mental illness, and oppression, then that fulfills my wish.
JAmusic: What was the most striking thing about Don's life that you found out during your research that you didn't know before?
Augustyn: Well I don't want to give anything away! But I think I actually found out much more about Margarita while doing this research, Don D's girlfriend. After speaking to various members of her family, and after reading the critical work by Herbie Miller on the subject, I have come to realize what an important figure Margarita was on the development of Jamaican music. Plus, her life was fascinating and tragic as well, in many ways.
JAmusic: You presented rather outstanding information at the International Reggae Conference on Pioneering Women in Jamaican music which included Margarita. Are there plans of developing this into a book?
Augustyn: Absolutely! And thank you! I think the role of women hasn't really been celebrated appropriately, especially the early women pioneers, like producer Sonia Pottinger. To achieve what many of these early women did, in an era of such male dominance, was truly remarkable. I will start tackling this book in 2014 or later this year, that's my plan.
JAmusic: Another book Tempo: Ska is forth coming this summer, what should our viewers know about this book?
Augustyn: This is a social and cultural analysis of how ska originated and evolved over the decades. While my first book was an oral history, this is another way of telling the story, without the words of others but critically analyzing how it came to be and changed, due to the needs of the people. I really enjoyed writing this one too, got to use my voice a lot more. I think it will show the significance of ska, what it really means to music and the world.
JAmusic: When will your latest works become available?
Augusytn: The Don Drummond book will come out in early summer 2013 from McFarland Publishers. I will do a launch in Jamaica, but not sure when! Tempo: Ska comes out in late summer 2013 from Scarecrow Press.
JAmusic: Where can your books be purchased?
Augustyn: You can order them from my website, www.skabook.com, or on www.amazon.com. Ska: An Oral History is distributed in Kingston bookstores by Novelty Trading so I think you will find it at shops like Sangsters (Jamaica).
JAmusic:Any other comments ?
Augustyn: We are indebted to the work of the great historians, work from Herbie Miller and Garth White and Clinton Hutton and Rex Nettleford and Myrna Hague Bradshaw. Without their dedicated scholarship, knowledge of Jamaican music would suffer.