It’s usually a warmer spell or the approach of spring that sends me back to Jamaican music after a winter listening to more introspective stuff. Against the odds of an especially frigid February, however, I’ve been playing this one and only LP by dancehall star Sister Nancy a lot. Apparently February is officially designated reggae month by the Jamaican government, so that’s fine by me.
Born into a family of 15 children, Sister Nancy became known as the first female DJ in the hyper-masculine realm of dancehall – a fact humorously memorialised on this album’s closing track, ‘Only Woman DJ with Degree’, which I first encountered on Soul Jazz’s amazing Dancehall compilation from 2008.
Earlier variations of the reggae sound had their female stars, of course, including the likes of Marcia Griffiths and Phyllis Dillon (the latter of whom created a couple of the most sublimely sensual of all rocksteady tunes), but their topics rarely strayed beyond the realm of romance. With early singles such as ‘One Two’ and ‘Bam Bam’ (both featured on this album), Sister Nancy represented a new kind of feminist swagger and attitude. Her delivery still feels fresh, spiky and infectious, pointing the way forward to modern R&B.
‘Bam Bam’ remains her best known song, especially after it was brought back into the spotlight last year with Kanye West’s extensive sample in his track ‘Famous’. A version was originally recorded by The Maytals in 1965, when Toots sang over a sunny “Bam Bam / What a Bam Bam” backing refrain. But it’s fair to say that Sister Nancy completely transformed the song. She brings the “Bam Bam” bit front and centre while she toasts about her creation-given ambition and status as a female player in the male scene. It drives hard over the skanking bump of a juddering bassline, creating magic out of its minimal elements.
That song alone guarantees Nancy immortality – though she’s still very much with us, apparently working as an accountant in a bank in New Jersey – but the rest of the album offers many more pleasures besides. When dancehall emerged in the late 1970s, it was a more dance-oriented reaction against the politically and spiritually inflected roots reggae that had dominated Jamaican music for much of the decade. Sister Nancy’s One Two is a gem of an LP that bottles some of the exuberance that found its way back into a nation’s music. Listened to 35 years later, classics such as ‘Bam Bam’ and ‘Transport Connection’ instantly evaporate the gloom of this cold February.