Desmond Dekker, the groundbreaking Jamaican ska singer who died suddenly last week at age 64, was not only an oft-overlooked artistic force; he was also pre–Bob Marley reggae’s most effective ambassador. Dekker managed to export the thumping, pumping island sound on an unprecedented scale, first with his 1969 international smash “Israelites,” which topped the charts in Jamaica and Britain and went to No. 9 in the U.S. Several years later, the loot-shoot-burn classic “007 (Shanty Town),” featured on the 1972 soundtrack to The Harder They Come, expanded reggae’s audience further.
Both were highly significant recordings, particularly “Israelites,” a perfectly realized mixture of rhythm and message that Dekker’s unerring, pure-toned falsetto put across with an irresistibly deft performance. The song’s sophisticated use of Biblical metaphor was hardly new to ska-era recordings, but it was delivered at a level far above the vulgar rap of Prince Buster’s “Ten Commandments.” Explicitly equating the plight of downtrodden Jamaicans with the ordeal of the 12 tribes, the song was chronologically timed with the rise of Rastafarianism (a tradition in which the Hebrew diaspora and the mysticism of Mount Zion are crucial elements). The combination of spiritual light and ghetto grit in “Israelites” was a cultural milestone, signaling that Jamaican pop music had an untapped potential for substantial messagery. Within several years, the heavy-gauge mysterioso throb of roots reggae had completely supplanted ska’s fizzy diversions.
No dread-topped Rasta himself, Dekker was both entertainer and observer, and “007 (Shanty Town),” mixing up the badass playboy images of James Bond and Frank Sinatra with the Kingston Rude Boy subculture of impulsive criminality, demonstrated just how shrewd a force he was. His last local appearance was a vibrant, nonstop display of ebullient charm that made clear he still had plenty of power; sadly, it turned out to be more than his own heart could sustain.