Image courtesy of the commons collection of the UK National Archives.
Let it be noted that sound is the last to arrive on the very compact itinerary of an old-fashioned atomic bomb. First there is that pesky silence, always. Then light, just a flash, so quick one may doubt its existence. On cue, the cloud of golden ether wafts across the sky. Only then does sound comes trailing behind, an afterthought, long after the end of the world. So perhaps what we hear at the end of the world is the silence before the sound, the breath before the beat no one is left alive to hear.
Incidentally, there is no music without this sound.
But first, let us start at the epicenter, at ignition, at ground zero.
October 22, 1962. Shiny nuclear warheads are baking under the beautiful Cuban sky. They appear only as gossamer outlines in photos snapped by American spy planes, cloaked within tender clouds. Back in the USA, children cling to their dog tags that will identify their radiation-scorched bodies. They listen for the siren wails.
Meanwhile, 90 miles away, the last of the parade confetti blows through the streets of newly independent Jamaica. It is politics as usual. On the shiny parliament floor, Opposition Leader Norman Manley denies accusations of spy crimes. In the morning, Jamaican children sing the anthem of their newly minted nation – an anthem so young that the song squeaks through their milk teeth.
Meanwhile boy meets girl. That very first night at Count Ossie’s Rastafarian compound in Wareika Hills, with smoke and ash and drumming simmering in the air. Newly anointed Rastafarians pound on hide drums. The brass band musicians of Kingston’s clubs gather around to join the cacophony. Something explosive awaits here. Perhaps it is rumba dancer Marguerita Mahfood spinning barefoot as endlessly as gyrating quantum particles in a circle of sound. The air around her whirling arms simmers. And the drums pummel the earth around them so hard that trombonist Don Drummond can barely hear a thing. Barely hears when Marguerita whispers in his ear, I’ve been waiting for you. My King of Ace from outer space.
And Don Drummond, whose brain hemispheres are slowing cracking apart, smiles sideways. He pinches a lump of red clay from the wet earth, dissolves it in his cheap beer and drinks deeply. This soil is nuclear, he tells her. Drink. The atoms are good for you. You need atoms inside you.
Or perhaps the beginning of the end starts here, at the wailing, brand-spanking new babe born in Jubilee Hospital on March 12th, 1932, to the helpless Doris Munroe and deadbeat Uriah Drummond. Little Don screams so loud that pedestrians walking along Pink Lane two blocks away duck, briefcases and straw baskets flying as hands helplessly shield heads. All of Pink Lane must traverse the street crouched over their belly buttons, until some nurse discovers that little Donny will keep quiet if one hums “Clair de Lune.”
Wait. Or perhaps it begins at the Alpha School for wayward boys, 1944, when little Don Drummond tends to his fat carrots buried deep within his assigned garden plot. Bright green fronds puncture the surface, confirming the carrot’s existence. But Don plunges his hands into the warm wet earth anyways, feeling for his hidden tubers and perhaps the beginnings of life itself, of mitosis and meiosis churning away beneath the surface. But as he finds and grips each carrot’s ridged shaft buried in the loam, Don stops to savor the uncertainty that remains – that nothing is ever sure while the carrots lie unknown, concealed in its dirt.
Or we can start on October 31st, 1950, at Don’s very first gig with the Eric Deans All-Stars Band at the Colony Club. It is 2 a.m., way past this little boy’s bedtime. But the pianist starts tapping some E-flat minor and the drummer brushes his snare gently with his bristles and off Don goes, murmuring “Full Moon and Empty Arms” on his trombone in minor key – his favorite mode. And the drunken room of folk afraid to go home shuts up, generating for the first time on Jamaican soil this certain breed of troublesome silence. And even as Don climbs up higher and higher octaves, the quietness follows, waiting, humming along to the beat.
Or the beginning of the end began at that compound in Wareika Hills in 1962, where the top Kingstonian brass men gather around the fire, faces flickering in and out of focus between the firelight and the ganja smoke. When saxophonist Tommy McCook says, why we don’t get a band together? And drummer Lloyd Knibb is sprawling out on the soft grass, gazing at the endless dark sky above them and thinking about the Telstar 1 floating just beyond the eye, watching all of creation. Thinking of what nuclear missiles may look like as they whiz past each other in the night sky.
Knibbs says, why not call the band the Satellites? No, no, says McCook. We should call us the Skatalites. Don, his fingers clenching earth, watches his girl Marguerita spin in an endless orbit by the fire. He breaks his stillness to say, yeah, that one sounds good.
Here is how you make Ska. Take some orphans from Alpha School for wayward boys – boys fed on a diet of old school gamma waves beaming blues from New Orleans and Miami. Give them some decent suits, pants cut a little too short. Give them some brass left over from the marching bands, a tinny piano and some broke-ass guitars that need restringing. Tell them Jamaica needs its own sound. That Trinidad’s getting too uppity with their calypso, and Cuba may be more trouble that they’re worth with that whole revolution incubating.
Give them some ganja. Send them up to Count Ossie’s Wareika Hills. Let them listen to the drums, big old dry-foot drums that sound like they survived nuclear fallout. Because they did, say the Rastas, eons ago, in the golden age of Africa. Although the timelines don’t match at all, you are inclined to believe them, because beneath the erratic drumming syncopations of some very high musicians there is a throbbing quiet – on a frequency that we can barely hear, waiting for the final reaction, the girl meets boy.
But to talk about Don is to talk about Marguerita and vice versa, though it is so easy to forget her, to let her be just the pretty centrifuge spinning in Don Drummond’s eyes. But she carries as much blame, I tell you, because the base of sound is nothing without a pair of capable feet following behind.
And Marguerita is no ballet dancer. She’s no hip grooving exotic Cubana either. She is a Lebanese Catholic schoolgirl, daughter of a fishmonger and the poorer relations of millionaires. There are no dance classes for her, less her legs become too sinewy with strength. But that doesn’t stop her from shimmying in front of her bedroom mirror until stitches clamp her chest. But she still keeps going, though she can barely breathe because no one taught her how. She keeps moving, even though she has no music to play because Daddy Mahfood has banned that glorified smut smoking up the clubs.
But this is Marguerita, dearie. She will find a way. She will remember the Revival Baptists in the church down the road prophesizing in tongues and drums, and the radio from the bus ride from school warning Marguerita in her head to don’t forget who’s taking you home, and in whose arms you’re gonna be, and the rumba beat running through her head ever since she snuck a listen from some Cubana gal at school – not the pretty ballroom rumba, but the kinda real country rumba where the only way to do it right is to look like your body’s trying to break your own bones.
Miss Maggie learns it all, dancing it all so fast nobody can catch up, not even Count Ossie’s manic burru drums. And Count Ossie loves her for it, dubs her African empress despite her white skin, cause ain’t Lebanon in Africa somewhere?
This is how the music historians and researchers will see her, some white girl dancing some African rumba rhythm like a pro – nothing more than a physical anomaly. But this is not what makes her dangerous. Because the naked eye standing in that bedroom of teenager Anita Mahfood will see a girl dancing in a room with no music, nothing but silence echoing through the walls. Which begs the question, what beat is she dancing to?
But let’s skip to the ending, to the headlines – the Jamaica Gleaner, January 3, 1965. “Rumba Dancer Stabbed to Death.” To the dead body of dancer Anita “Marguerita” Mahfood lying in her bed in their single room at 9 Rushden Road, Johnson Town, East Kingston.
Marguerita makes a beautiful corpse. Her long rumba legs are still long, toes still enclosed in her thick-heeled dance shoes. She is still in her New Year’s Day performance costume, all red and satiny with ruffles. The satin curls around her clavicle down to the crevices of her lovely breasts, marred only by the knife stabbed through her left side. There is no blood.
The neighbors who discover the body wait in the room sobbing until the police come. These cries are chalky and heaving, so dry that they can barely breathe. They don’t know why they are crying. They never liked her – 23-years-old with two kids and a divorce already from that boxer from Honduras. And now she spent so long shacked up with this madman here who gone and go kill her. She never knew that this fool here would be the death of her? When they both screaming at each other night after night?
But funny though, the neighbors say. There was no screaming this night, night of nights, the early hours of January 2, 1965. When Marguerita had walked into that house she walked into a black hole of silence. And for five minutes the firecrackers of New Year’s seized in their exuberance. The crickets and the tree frogs fell quiet. Neighbors still awake paused in their revelry to note the sound, or lack thereof – the certain tenor of the atmosphere as sound is sucked clean out of the air.
So those wise neighbors listening waited, breath held in for those brief five minutes it took for the knife wrapped in chamois cloth to find itself piercing the left breast of Marguerita Mahfood. For this is when the other shoe drops. Something was breaking apart in that tiny, silent room on Rushden Road. And any betting man would recommend keeping an earhole open. Perhaps, if they could hear it coming, they could have ducked.
There must have been someone who heard the quiet coming.
There are available the anecdotes from friends and acquaintances. That they appear fine from afar, away from any bright lights. That they prefer it that way, prefer to enclose themselves in the thin-walled shelter of the single rented room, or to loiter in the corner of clubs, shooing away the cameraman ready to offer a commemorative photo. They still go to Warika Hills, but only at night, when their smiling faces would flip in and out of focus under the firelight. Because in the shadows one can miss their long nails: Marguerita’s polished red, to match her costumes, and Don’s pointy and sharp–all the better to push and pull his trombone. In the day, to hide the scars, Don wears turtlenecks. Marguerita prefers dark stockings.
But to be fair, those who witness Don and Marguerita, even in daylight, are compromised. They are the test subjects standing at the edge of the nuclear test site, waving to the camera documenting it all. They are the ones smiling as the nuclear cloud mushrooms behind them, proclaiming yes, we’re just fine. All is safe.
No, we must be more clinical. We must keep to the evidence, to the recording session of “Woman a Come” by Marguerita Mahfood, featuring Don Drummond. Our sample is dated sometime in early 1964, when Marguerita says she has a song to sing.
That morning she had woken up humming, she says, ears still ringing from the fall in gravity. She says in her dreams she was soaring out there in space. The silvery antennas of Sputnik brushed past, ruffling her hair. The earth rested beneath her. She could not see Jamaica or Lebanon so far way because the sea was burning, crawling over every inch of earth itself. But she has no longer cared. She was a woman of space, a daughter of God from the Venturion border of galaxies so far away. And she had traveled such a great distance to hear the sound of the earth igniting.
But you have to make it a love story, says the producer. Girl vocals can only sing love songs. The producer and Maggie both stand in the padded air of the studio, the room lined with empty egg cartons to keep sound out.
“Ok, I sing to Don then,” she says smiling.
“What in heaven’s name is the Venturion Border?” Lloyd the drummer, who features in this track, will ask.
“That’s the question you ask?” says producer. He glimpses at Marguerita’s bandaged hands, still wet from when Don stabbed her in the hands with the pen he saves for writing music notes. These are the times, my friend, the producer proposes to the jury in his head. Every self-respecting soul needs to possess the means of their own annihilation.
Lloyd starts the thunder of the drums. Marguerita comes with words of her own, many of which she carved out of her night in space, of names for undiscovered galaxies and of cosmonauts who speak the language of breeze. She can’t sing for shit. But her voice cracks open with every note, cracks so deep one fears falling in between, never to be heard from again.
At the murder trial Don claims his innocence. That yes indeed they had a minor altercation. That Marguerita was supposed to wake him up for his New Year’s Eve gig. But she had left him passed out in their room, drugged on psych medication. He does not remember her arrival that night. Was she always there, from the beginning of time? Or did she beam down from the mother ship, to fetch him? He proposes that this is perhaps what he may have been thinking as he watched the knife finds its way through Marguerita’s left breast, where her soft heart always skipped a beat, he said. Her heart was off-tune. There were big gaps in the rhythm where they shouldn’t have been – too much quiet between the thumb and the thumb of blood. He had to intervene, set her back in tune.
His lawyer advises him to neglect mentioning the beaming down from space. Don Drummond is sentenced to the Bellevue Hospital for the mentally ill.
When the bomb does not explode, Kennedy hooks up a direct line to the Kremlin. When nights get too quiet, Kennedy sometimes holds the red telephone to his ear and listens to the dial tone quiver. Sometimes he will hum along, fix his pitch until he cannot tell the difference between his voice and the static buzzing from the other end of earth.
The bombs sit in their carriages, content.
Meanwhile Don Drummond lives his days at the Bellevue Hospital. As the heat wave of Kingston in July of 1968 comes simmering over the city, the rhythm of ska – the sound of air being torn asunder – slows, pauses, looks around at the passers-by. This new rhythm is dubbed rocksteady. In the pervading shimmer of heat mirages, the new beat is easier to dance to.
Though no one is asking, Don Drummond does not think much of this new music. The tempo feels heavy on his tongue. He wants to blow the weight away, but he is not allowed music instruments. Instead he spends his time sprawled out half naked in the hallway, ears suctioned to the cement floor. And everyone leaves him because he is Don Drummond, and because five other patients have taken his cue, finding the hard cement cooling against the heat.
But Don lies on ground because he is listening. If he stays still long enough he can feel the tremors of his city, of the pulsing sound systems and honking car horns, right down to the fine fizz of tear gas spraying protestors – a sound identical, he thinks, to cymbals finding their equilibrium. And soon the fizz of tear gas spray blurs with the fine fizz of other lands, of other protesters in countries new and old until, to the untrained ear, every sound becomes static, the seamless humming of the universe.
But you can count on Don to catch the beat. And did he hear right, hear the quiet, the brief suspension of noise? He closes his eyes and pretends the soundless gap between the thump and the thump of the world is Marguerita leaping wide in the empty sprawl of space. And Don holds his breath, listening for the thud of foot against earth.
Some say Don Drummond dies on May 6, 1969, when his heart stops. He is found on the floor of his room, his best ear cupped to the bare floor. Perhaps he dies of natural causes, as the official report notes. But perhaps he finally gives in to the quiet, falls through the cracks, leaving us all to dance in the streets, oblivious to the beginning of the end.
Oh well. Every new world worth its salt needs its own means of self-destruction.
Monique McIntosh is a short story writer from Kingston, Jamaica. She is currently completing her second year in the MFA fiction program at Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton, Florida.