It is the year 1963. The heat of the island is rising from the dancing bodies at the Sounds Systems street party in Kingston, Jamaica. The new sound is Ska music, a combination of Calypso and American Jazz and R&B. With its wild popularity it’s become Jamaica’s new freedom soundtrack; having just gained independence from the United Kingdom after 300 years.
Produced by choreographers Jasmyn Fyffe and Natasha Powell, Gimme One Riddim is a captivating dance-theatre production set to the music of Jamaica’s original voice of freedom. The story is told through the lives of five Black men.
“We really wanted to do more of a period piece this time and take people to a different era,” says co-choreographer Natasha Powell. “And also with Jamaica recently celebrating 50 years of independence it felt right to go back to that time in history.”
“With Ska music a lot of the trailblazers were male and we felt like there wasn’t a show that focused on the Black male perspective,” says co-choreographer Jasmyn Fyffe,
Gimme One Riddim is one of the few dance theatre productions in Toronto to feature an all Black male cast. For dancer Hollywood Jade, it’s a rare opportunity.
“It’s taboo to see an entire cast of Black male dancers. It’s important for me to be part of something that highlights the Black culture in a positive light,” says Hollywood.
“There are a lot of challenges that come with being a male dancer; the constant defending of your sexuality and the lack of opportunities, are just a few. It’s rare you find castings looking for more than one Black male. We are constantly pitted against each other trying to secure that one spot. It’s limiting and can cause a divide among the few professional Black male dancers in Toronto,” says Hollywood.
During Black History Month, this production is aimed at showing that the community is creating its own opportunities. But it transcends racial and cultural boundaries, just as Ska music did. The first commercially successful Ska song was Millie Small’s version of My Boy Lollipop. It sold 6 million records worldwide and was at the top of the charts in England, Ireland and the United States. Many musical legends grew out of the Ska movement (Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff) and Gimme One Riddim will be honouring those icons while showing how Jamaican music influenced the world and how Ska is still influencing music today.
Starting on February 28, the cast and choreographers will be going on a five school tour across the GTA to perform and hold workshops. “We want students to see these young Black men and be inspired. We want to help change how they see themselves and their futures,” says Fyffe.
“You will rarely find a group of young Black men executing this type of production on stage. Going from hip hop, to dancehall, to contemporary to Ska dancing, it is a rare and unique experience,” says Powell.
Jasmyn Fyffe, Natasha Powell and Hollywood Jade are available for interviews upon request.