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Below are Nora's greatest tracks. Most are very well known to reggae fans, a few are not. All belong in an reggae collection.
A song about a relationship. The instrumentation is a 1967 Studio One rock steady gem that I've never heard versioned elsewhere. To this music, Nora calmly sings to her lover how he has harmed her and told lies. Though it is not explicit, it may be infidelity that is at issue. She explains how she is going to use her voodoo to time tie him down so he can never be free, and to mash his corn (destroy his endeavors). Her tone conveys sympathy that is in equal parts mocking and sincere. A light use of effects on her voice at the right moments leaves no doubt that she is a mojo girl. The repeated refrain of "Ha ah, oh ah, oh ah, oh, my lover" is pure Nora Dean. No other voice can put so much depth of meaning into such a line. A memorable debut.
Her most famous song, set to the classic Techniques "You Don't Care" riddim. There is a boy and a girl. She somehow experiences the "barbwire in his underpants". A physical fight ensues. She tells the tale to her mother, who offers no comment. But it's not the story that sells the song. Nora's refrains, of "Oh mama", "Ay ya ya", make up a good portion of the vocals. With these refrains, Nora Dean makes this song sound like nothing else. They provide the irresistible hooks that make this song an enduring reggae classic.
In an interview conducted by Mark Gorney in the magazine Full Watts, Treasure Isle house bassist Jackie Jackson remembered Nora bringing the song to the studio to record.
Jackson incredulousness proved to be ill founded, as he went on to describe how Barbwire was such a huge hit it, caused a dispute between session engineer Byron Smith and label owner Duke Reid over ownership of the song.
In 1998, Nora Dean herself gave her own recollections to The Daily Gleaner. Nora was at the Treasure Isle studio with fellow Soulette Cecile Campbell and another friend named Dawn (who would later join The Ebony Sisters with Nora and Cecile), when she decided to write Barbwire. She went into the bathroom and emerged with a song with lyrics describing walking home past vagrants though a bad area of Kingston. The song originally described being frightened by a mad man who has barbwire on his head. But engineer Byron Smith suggested that she change it to "in his underpants". She objected, he insisted, and all parties agreed that the result sounded good when the record was released. But this effectively changed a song about terror to one that now appears on every naughty-reggae collection. A review of the lyrics supports Nora's contention. Perhaps adding to the belief that this is a lewd song is the fact that many outside of the country do not know that Jamaican's use the word "lick" to mean hit or strike.
Nora further remember that she worked four hours voicing the track, though in the end, they went back to the first take. She was paid 30 pounds over 9 months for this song, that has sold at least 13 million copies worldwide. This is a situation that is known all too well by Jamaican recording artists.
In.mid-2017, Trojan Records released a box set called The Treasure Isle Story. It surprised by containing a previously unheard take of the original Barbwire. It's an earlier take with a different approach to the vocals and some different lyrics. This release is a delight for a Nora Dean fan. And a gift, as we get to hear one of the most distinctive voices in reggae in top form for what will probably be the last time.
Nora remade this song (in 1977?) for producer Sonia Pottinger on the High Note label. THe b-side is a dub version. This remake is very similar to the original without improving on it. A better, more interesting remake is discussed immediately below.
A remake of Barbwire recorded with Augustus Pablo. It stays true to the original, except that the object in the underpants is different! A bouncing rhythm that evokes jumping up and down on a bed. The dub version, entitled "It Sting", is also included on the CD.
First of all, this is not Nyabingi reggae, even though it's included on a Nyabingi compilation. Second of all, the song is not even reggae. The only thing I've ever heard that is similar is Frank Zappa's 1966 track, "Help, I'm A Rock" from his debut album, Freak Out. Some of the vocal effects are reminiscent of Pink Floyd's 1968 track, "Julia Dream". Ay Ay Ay is perhaps the strangest song with the most creative and colorful vocal in the history of Jamaican music.
A rhythm begins and ominous droning organ and psychedelic guitar riffs are added. This provides a compelling backdrop for Nora's odd, dramatic irresistible vocal performance, which is enhanced by reverb and echo. It's all ecstasy and surreality. She chant sings something incomprehensible, a part of which is responsible for the song's alternate title, "Angie La La". She kisses, chants, whistles and sings the refrain that gives the song its name, "Ay Ay Ay". She crows. A lyric is heard, "where have you been all my life?" She "whee"s, moans, bird whistles, makes mouth noises, and sings, "suddenly you come to thrill my soul". She moans in ecstasy. This stream of consciousness goes on for shy of three minutes as the song fades out. Meaningless and brilliant, it succeeds fully on its own terms. A song like no other in the history of reggae.
An cover of a Mickey and Sylvia track from a decade earlier, though the subject of original is a kiss. The song opens with lurching, chugging rhythm characteristic of Scratch's earlier productions. Nora can't understand why her little boy can't get any sleep. She changes his diaper, offers him tea and "a little breast to help him sleep". Nora's little boy asks "mommy, how'd you like to give me what you gave me daddy last night", complete with unsavory sound effects that the observant boy has overheard. Is it any wonder that in his book, "Reggae & Caribbean Music", author Dave Thompson wrote of this track, "lock this song up now"! Nora's response of, "No, no, no. Oh, no, no, no", sung with her unusual melodic sense gives these lines dramatic depth. At one point, to display her distress, she begin a verse in the middle of the chorus, making for an unusual turn that works wonderfully. You have to laugh at this awful predicament, but you feel for her!
(There's another well known female reggae singer who covered this mento track. Who? Visit my Mento Music site for the surprising answer.)
Though this song has explicit sexual lyrics, its not quite straightforward. Nora find's herself in "a terrible state", as she indiscriminately looks for a man to "wreck her buddy" (bang her body). But how this lyrical content was paired with the melody of the Little Drummer Boy is something that I'm at a loss to explain. I can tell you the dissonance between content and melody makes for a interesting listen -- a Nora Dean trademark!
The music lurches along nicely, dominated by an appropriately leering two-note sax phrase. A male falsetto backing chorus is a nice touch.
That same year, versions of this song, sometimes titled, "Wreck A Pum Pum", were recorded by Prince Buster, The Sexy Girls and Lord Creator. I've heard the first two, and they are good tracks. But once again, its Nora's voice that makes her version the stand out.
A strong reggae track featuring instrumentation driven by soulful organ and funky horns. Nothing frivolous about the lyrics this time. Deadly serious suffera verses, such as,
are off set by the chorus,
In less than three minutes, Nora draws the listener into the pain of having one's spiritually being threatened by the harsh realities of life. An unusually dramatic and affecting track. Sung in a higher register than her more famous recordings, this track reinforces Nora Dean's vocal, stylistic and subject matter versatility.