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Jamaica appeals for looted music

By Nick Davis
BBC News, Kingston, Jamaica

File photo of Bob Marley performing in Sweden
Original recordings by Bob Marley are thought to have been stolen

In January this year, staff from at Jamaica's Public Broadcasting Corporation made a shocking discovery.

One of the country's most important music collections, including original recordings by Bob Marley and Pete Tosh, had been ransacked.

Thousands of vinyl records and CDs had gone.

Nearly one year on not a single record has been recovered, but officials are hoping an appeal to music fans will help replace the collection built up over the years by the JBC.

Created in 1961 at the end of the colonial era, the JBC followed a model very similar to the BBC: a public service to inform, educate and entertain.

The radio station was there at the birth of Jamaica's music business when all kinds of music burst forth on the Caribbean island.

Its music library had everything from mento to ska, and from rocksteady to reggae.

Irreplaceable cuts?

In 1997, the government sold off parts of the JBC. Under the deal, the library of historic film and video footage, plus the reels of tape and records played on the radio station would be kept as part of the national archive.

The collection was stored in the old headquarters of the JBC in part of central Kingston called Half-Way Tree.

There it lay, seemingly locked away for safe keeping for more than a decade.

It's a national disgrace... somehow they had access to it and all that history is lost
Gladstone Wilson
Former JBC programme manager

Then workers from the JBC's replacement, the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica, or PBC-J, toured the building to check the archive for themselves.

"When we came in we saw piles and piles of sleeves that the 45's came in, literally a couple of thousand on the floor just laying on the ground," said Leighton Thomas, the head of the PBC-J.

It was estimated that some 80% of the collection had been taken, but the true scale of the loss was difficult to calculate as no accurate records were kept.

A team is now trying to work out what was taken and what is left.

Classic reggae cuts that are probably irreplaceable seem to be missing.

"Artists would go out and make just one vinyl record only for radio, a one-off cut," says Mr Thomas.

"Some of Bob Marley's original recordings would have been here, material that was never mass produced and sold. So that's what we're searching for, to see if we've still got the Bob Marley before he was Bob Marley."

'Culture of complicity'

Police are still investigating what happened.

It was discovered that the room may have been broken into from outside, but there was also evidence that he doors had been tampered with from the inside.

What is left of the archive has been moved to a new more secure location.

"It's a national disgrace, we've really thrown away or let people take what was not their own, but somehow they had access to it and all that history is lost," says Gladstone Wilson, the former programme manager at JBC.

File photo of Lee Scratch Perry performing in Australia
Lee Scratch Perry said he would not contribute to a restored archive

Despite the public call for people to come forward with information, so far there have been no leads.

"There's a culture of complicity," says Carolyn Cooper, a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies.

"People need social responsibility to say; alright, yes, I know who stole the stuff but because its so important I'm prepared to risk telling the police."

Hopes of rebuilding what was the most comprehensive music collection in Jamaica may rest on artists and collectors helping to create a new archive.

"We want donations to help preserve our national heritage our history, whether audio or video we're interested in taking a look," says Mr Thomas.

"Why let it sit gathering dust in a basement when it can be used here,"

Lee Scratch Perry was one dub reggae producer who had his early hits played on the JBC.

Speaking at his home in Kingston, he says he feels the record companies and Jamaican radio stations owe him money so he will not be contributing, and goes as far as saying he is happy the collection was taken.

"I'm glad they did that, you're glad why, what you give you get, who robbed me deserve to get what they've got," he says.

Since the idea was put forward almost a year ago for fans to donate records, the government says it has received a good response.

"They can get back the old recordings if they go to the producers," says King Jammy, the man credited with creating the first digital reggae recording.

"They probably wouldn't get the same cuts but I have all my stuff on digital. If they asked me to donate I'd have to help because they played a big part for me getting my stuff on the airwaves."

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