Review: ‘Shella Record – A Reggae Mystery’

Hot Docs 2019

9 mins read

Shella Record: A Reggae Mystery
(Canada, 87 minutes)
Dir. Chris Flanagan
Programme: Canadian Spectrum (World Premiere)

As a Ja-Canadian, a catchphrase among some Jamaicans for people who bounce back and forth between the White North and the island–among other things I work on JA-oriented film projects–I was eager to see Chris Flanagan’s first doc. The visual artist, avid record collector, and lover of roots reggae has devoted years to a film about a Jamaican singer who long ago disappeared into obscurity.

The obsession began when Flanagan picked up a recording of a song called “Jamaican Fruit of African Roots.” He instantly became haunted by the singer’s voice and the song, a lament about Jamaican slavery. Shella Record reminded him of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, and he could not understand why no one had ever heard of her.

Flanagan embarked on a quest to track down the mysterious performer in Toronto, Los Angeles, Mississippi, Louisiana, and of course, Kingston, Jamaica. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about the creation of early reggae and dub music.

Flanagan doesn’t deal at all with Jamaican music beyond those early days. “Old school” reggae was replaced as the people’s music in the 1980’s, by various forms of Dancehall until the recent emergence of the “Reggae Revival,” which tends to fuse roots with dancehall. There’s no mention of internationally known artists like Chronixx, Protoje, Kabaka Pyramid, Mavado, Buju Banton, Vybz Kartel nor such women artists as Jah9, Etana, Queen Ifrica, Spice, Macka Diamond, the brilliant 19-year-old Koffee, and Tessanne Chin, who won season 5 of The Voice.

Flanagan does offer an intriguing sequence about the late King Tubby, the recording engineer who invented dub. He was the first to use the mixing board as an instrument, creating innumerable versions of a song, generating mysterious voices and sounds coming through the mix: spirit voices, duppy voices. As the honey-voiced female narrator says, Jamaicans have the gift of “taking nothing and turning it into something.”

The doc is mostly narrated by Flanagan, who sometimes explains what he’s up to on camera, and a lilting woman’s voice that gives the film a fairy tale-like vibe. In an opening pan, we see that he has a copy of Jamaica’s first novel, The White Witch of Rose Hall on his shelf. It’s a hint that the doc will touch on Jamaican mysteries and magic like the duppy, which means simply corpse or a ghost or a spirit.

At the beginning of Flanagan’s quest for Shella, Toronto’s King Culture, a long-time presence in the city’s large Jamaican community, lays a warning on him. Like some mythic character on a journey fraught with danger, Flanagan is told: “You could be endangering yourself because of a stupid mistake.” As someone who has made stupid mistakes in JA, where there are many codes that take a long time to understand, I don’t think King Culture was fooling around. As Chronixx’s granny says in his Bob Marley inspired song, “Tenement Yard,” “Don’t put your nose in other people’s business, because them say, he who keepeth his mouth, keepeth his life.”

When Flanagan gets a roots radio show to play “Jamaican Fruit of African Roots,” a guy calls up, relays a clue, and hangs up. The moment re-enforces the sense of mystery around the woman who is Flanagan’s obsession.

Naturally, Flanagan’s journey takes him to Kingston and Orange Street, a source of the early reggae scene, and other locales. He meets up with living legends who worked with Shella Rickards, her real name as he has discovered. (Jamaicans get nicknames, or alter their names for many reasons).

Flanagan links up with celebrated producer Bunny “Striker” Lee and Chinna Smith, who played on the Jamaican Fruit session, and by the way is known for an open-to-all weekly jam session in his yard, at least when the police don’t cite the Noise Abatement Law and shut it down. The filmmaker searches the venerable Jamaica Gleaner archives and finds traces of Sheila, including lovely pictures recalling The Supremes. He finds the master tapes of the song, which miraculously survived a fire in a Bunny Lee studio.

It turns out that Rickards was a jazz singer, a lounge performer who played the hotel circuit on the North Coast, which means locales like Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. But what happened to her? She may have met Sam Cooke, who brought her to L.A. She may have simply gone somewhere in “foreign.” He starts feeling like he’s chasing a ghost. “Maybe she’s a duppy by now,” laughs a woman. Back in North America, he consults private investigators and even a psychic.

When I first heard “Jamaican Fruit,” it sounded to me like an R&B and reggae influenced art song, rather than reggae from that period, especially from deeply roots and mystical bands like The Congos. One of Flanagan’s interviewees, Phillip Smart, taught her reggae, “It was “strange to me,” he tells the camera, “that a Jamaican didn’t know how we did reggae.” Flanagan is told that jazz and reggae are like “water and oil.”

In “Jamaican Fruit,” Rickards sings, “We came from a distant land/Our lives already planned/We came in ships across sea … Jamaican fruit of African roots.” The high-drama performance and the song are effective. But “Jamaican Fruit” is on-the-nose, sounding almost like a Broadway show number, compared to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”: “Old pirates, yes they rob I/Sold I to the merchant ships/Minutes after they took I/From the bottomless pit.” Until the one-drop reggae rhythm kicks in on Rickards’ song, it sounds a Shirley Bassey performance.

As a reggae lover, Flanagan focused on a woman who was far from immersed in reggae, like Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt, and Rita Marley. There are plenty of mysteries about them, but of course they didn’t disappear.

Perhaps Flanagan simply needed a quest in search of a kind of goddess, especially when she turned out to be so beautiful. In any case, the doc works like clue-seeking procedurals, which can get monotonous, but it more than holds your attention, introducing you to engaging characters like Bunny and Chinna, and building to a more than satisfying finale.

Read more about Shella Record in this interview with Chris Flanagan.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

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