King Ja Ja, L’Année Passée and Rum & Coca-Cola

This is a follow-on to the well-known Barbadian folk song Millie Gone to Brazil and is how two classics songs L’Année Passée and Rum & Coca-Cola trace their heritage back to the Bajan folk song: King Ja Ja.  It is told by our guest contributor Roger Gibbs.

King Ja Ja of Opobo

King Ja Ja won’ leh Dovey ‘lone
King Ja Ja won’ leh Dovey ‘lone
King Ja Ja won’ leh Dovey ‘lone
What Dovey got um is all she own

If yuh wan’ to live in sin
Get a lil’ house an’ put me in
But if yuh wan’ to play de fool
Ah’ll get a big stick an’ I keep yuh cool

If yuh love me treat me nice
An’ I will cook yuh peas an’ rice
Bit if yuh start to play de fool
Ah get a big stick an’ I keep ya cool

A later version gave the woman’s name as Becka.

Taken from the ‘Folk Songs of Barbados’ – researched and compiled by Dr. Trevor Marshall, Peggy McGeary and Grace Thompson. Published by Ian Randall Publishers.
ISBN  976-8100-65-6

King Ja Ja of Opobo (1821-1891)

King JaJa of Opobo death annoucement New York Times 8 August 1891
King JaJa of Opobo death annoucement New York Times 8 August 1891

Born in Igboland, Nigeria and sold as a slave to a Bonny trader at the age of twelve, he was named Jubo Jubogha by his first master. He was later sold to Chief Alali, the head of the Opubo Annie Pepple Royal House. Called Ja Ja (Jaja) by the British, this gifted and enterprising individual eventually became one of the most powerful and richest men in the eastern Niger Delta.

The Niger Delta, where the Niger empties itself into the Gulf of Guinea in a system of intricate waterways, was the site of unique settlements called city-states.

From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, Bonny in Rivers State, Nigeria , like the other city-states, gained its wealth from the profits of the slave trade. Here, an individual could attain prestige and power through success in business and, as in the case of Jaja, a slave could work his way up to head of state. The House was a socio-political institution and was the basic unit of the city-state.  onny state is based on the town of Bonny in Rivers State, Nigeria, in the pre-colonial period, it was an important slave trading port, later trading palm oil products.

In the nineteenth century – after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 – the trade in slaves was supplanted by the trade in palm oil, which was so vibrant that the region was named the Oil Rivers area.

The Houses in Bonny and other city-states controlled both the internal and external palm oil trade because the producers in the hinterland were forbidden to trade directly with the Europeans on the coast; the Europeans never left the coast for fear of malaria.

Astute in business and politics, Ja Ja became the head of the Anna Pepple House, extending its activities and influence by absorbing other houses, increasing operations in the hinterland and augmenting the number of European contacts.

A power struggle ensued among rival factions in the houses at Bonny leading to the breakaway of the faction led by Jaja. He established a new settlement, which he named Opobo. He became King Jaja of Opobo and declared himself independent of Bonny.

Strategically located between Bonny and the production areas of the hinterland, King Jaja controlled trade and politics in the delta. In so doing, he curtailed trade at Bonny and fourteen of the eighteen Bonny houses moved to Opobo.

In a few years, he had become so wealthy that he was shipping palm oil directly to Liverpool. The British consul could not tolerate this situation. Jaja was offered a treaty of “protection”, in return for which the chiefs usually surrendered their sovereignty. After Jaja’s initial opposition, he was reassured, in vague terms, that neither his authority nor the sovereignty of Opobo would be threatened.

Jaja continued to regulate trade and levy duties on British traders, to the point where he ordered a cessation of trade on the river until one British firm agreed to pay duties. Jaja refused to comply with the consul’s order to terminate these activities, despite British threats to bombard Opobo. Unknown to Jaja, the Scramble for Africa had taken place and Opobo was part of the territories allocated to Great Britain. This was the era of gunboat diplomacy, where Great Britain used her naval power to negotiate conditions favorable to the British.

Lured into a meeting with the British consul aboard a warship, Jaja was arrested and sent to Accra, where he was summarily tried and found guilty of “treaty breaking” and “blocking the highways of trade”.

He was deported to St. Vincent, West Indies and four years later, Jaja died en route to Nigeria after he was permitted to return.

Ironically, Jaja’s dogged insistence on African independence and effective resistance exposed British imperialism and made him the first victim of foreign territorial intrusion in West Africa. The fate of Jaja reverberated through the entire Niger delta. Amazed at this turn of events, the other delta chiefs quickly capitulated.

In addition, the discovery of quinine as the cure for malaria enabled the British traders to bypass Jaja’s middlemen and deal directly with the palm oil producers, thus precipitating the decline of the city-states.

King Jaja’s downfall ensured a victory for British supremacy, paving the way for the eventual imposition of the British Colonial system in West Africa at the end of the 19th century.

How King Ja Ja, L’Année Passée and Rum & Coca-Cola are intertwined…

“Rum & Coca-Cola” is an iconic calypso from Trinidad that became an international hit in 1945 for the Andrews Sisters, spending ten weeks at the top of Billboard’s U.S. Pop Singles chart!

“Rum & Coca-Cola” was written by Lord Invader (Rupert Grant) and using a melody by Lionel Belasco, it was taken back to the USA after World War II and copyrighted (plagiarised) by entertainer Morey Amsterdam (co-star on the Dick Van Dyke Show).

Morey Amsterdam listed himself as the lyricist and Jeri Sullavan and Paul Baron as musical composers. However, the melody had been previously published as the work of composer Lionel Belasco titled “L’Année Passée”.

L’Année Passée (Last Year)
(by Massie Patterson and Lionel Belasco – English version by Olga Paul)

L’année passée moen té yon fille,
Moen té yon fille L’en caille mama moen,
L’année cela moen c’est yon femme
Moen c’est un’ femme a sur la rue.-

Femme la se-coué corps moen ké baou,
Femme la se-coué corps moen ké baou,
Femme la se-coué moen ké baou,
Moen ké baou moen ké baou
Tout ça qui doux.

Temps Martinique té pris du fé
Yo té cherché Man o’ Wa’,
Pour sauvéces Mart’niquens
Pour mené yo Port-d’Espagne.

Last year I was a little girl
Living with my dear mother at home;
This year I am a woman though,
On the streets you will find me roam.

I have learned to dance and I’m fair,
I have learned to dance and I’m fair,
I have learned to dance and I’m fair,
And I’m fair, and I’m fair;
My steps are rare.

When Martinique was all in flames,
They looked for a Man o’ War,
Hoped to save the people there,
Port-of-Spain they were aiming for.

“L’Année Passée” meaning “Yesteryear” (lit. Last Year), is the true story of a girl named Mathilda Soye. She was the daughter of a very prominent Trinidad family and was educated at a Convent school. She fell in love with a man “in the street”, a “common” fellow, who was no good. She lived with him for some time and then he made her work as a prostitute. The song was written in French Patois was a lament of the girl on how just the other day she was a little girl and now she was a prostitute, walking the street.

This story became known in 1905 and Lionel Belasco, who was a young man at that time, composed the song “L’Année Passée” in 1906, which told that story. It is common practice in Trinidad to compose calypsos dealing with whatever social/political events happened in that year.

Later in the 1943 the original lyrics to “Rum and Coca-Cola” were written by Lord Invader (Rupert Grant).  Lord invader used the melody from Lionel Belasco’s “L’annee Passee” (1906) for “Rum & Coca-Cola”, a topical calypso complaining about the rise of prostitution in Trinidad due to the influx of American soldiers during World War II.

Rum & Coca-Cola
(by Lord Invader)

Since the Yankees came to Trinidad
They have the young girls going mad.
The young girls say they treat them nice.
And they give them a better price.

They buy rum and coca cola
Go down Point Cumana
Both mother and daughter
Working for the Yankee dollar.

I had a little mopsy the other day
Her mother came and took her away.
Then her mother and her sisters
Went in a car with some soldiers

They buy rum and coca cola etc.

There are some aristos in Port-of-Spain
I know them well, I wont call names.
In the day they wouldn’t give you a right.
But you can see them with the foreigners late at night.

They buy rum and coca cola etc.

A couple got married one afternoon
And went to go to Mayaro on a honeymoon.
The very night the wife went with a Yankee lad
And the stupid husband went staring mad.

They buy rum and coca cola etc.

Inspector Jory did a good job
At St. James he raid a recreation club
That was carrying on the brothel
The condition in which we found the girl I cannot tell.

After a prolonged New York court battle over copyright for “Rum & Coca-Cola” that dragged on until 1948, a substantial royalty payment was made in favour of  “Rum & Coca Cola” original lyricist Lord Invader (Rupert Grant) and composer Lionel Belasco.  Amsterdam, however, retained the credit (and the publishing rights) for his revised version of the altered lyrics for the Andrews sisters version of “Rum & Coca Cola”.

Interestingly, Belasco was known for taking folksongs and rewriting them and copyrighting them as his own.  “L’Année Passée” has the same melody as Barbados’ popular folksong “King Jaja” from the 1880s.

Lionel Belasco, who was born in Barbados in 1882, would have been familiar with King Ja Ja – the Barbados folk song  and used it’s melody for his “L’Année Passée” composition.

Compare the melodies:

In case you want to sing along:

King Ja Ja of Opobo

King Ja Ja won’ leh Dovey ‘lone
King Ja Ja won’ leh Dovey ‘lone
King Ja Ja won’ leh Dovey ‘lone
What Dovey got um is all she own

If yuh wan’ to live in sin
Get a lil’ house an’ put me in
But if yuh wan’ to play de fool
Ah’ll get a big stick an’ I keep yuh cool

If yuh love me treat me nice
An’ I will cook yuh peas an’ rice
Bit if yuh start to play de fool
Ah get a big stick an’ I keep ya cool

King Ja Ja is a love song, about a woman (Becka) visiting African royalty King Jaja of Opobo (Nigeria) who had been detain in St Vincent.

Rum & Coca-Cola” reminds us how connected we in Barbados are: “King Ja Ja” a late 19th century Barbadian folksong becomes a turn-of-the-century folksong – “L’Année Passée” from 1906, that in 1943 becomes a calypso hit in Trinidad for Lord Invader and finally an international hit in 1945 for the Andrews Sisters.

The Andrews Sisters’ version of “Rum & Coca-Cola” became the biggest-selling song of 1945 and the third biggest of the decade in the United States.

Our guest contributor is Roger Gibbs – a Barbadian-born singer/songwriter/musician who lives in Toronto, Canada

Roger Gibbs
Roger Gibbs

Roger grew up in a musical family and began his career in Barbados singing with Caribbean dance bands in the 1970’s. He joined as lead singer of the Sandpebbles (brother John played with them), a popular Calypso band that had a string of hits, recorded three albums, several singles and toured extensively throughout the Caribbean, Canada and USA.

He shared the stage with many Caribbean stars such as the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Johnny Nash, Tomorrow’s Children, Kalyan, the Tradewinds, the Merrymen (his older brother Chris’ group) and many others.

Roger studied music theory through the Associated Boards of the Royal Schools of Music and has pursued a life-long interest in traditional music of the Caribbean.

Based in Toronto since 1986, Roger has recorded two solo CDs – Spirit of Calypso (1999), Calypso Classics on Guitar – vol. 1 (2004); two CDs with his band Shak Shak – Hot So (2012) and Shak Shak Party (2017); and a collaboration CD with his brother John Gibbs titled Bim – Folk Songs of Barbados (2015).

Roger can be contacted via:

Response to “King Ja Ja, L’Année Passée and Rum & Coca-Cola”

  1. You omitted the interesting facts of JaJa’s stay in Barbados, which led to the song, which opens the article!

    “JaJa arrived in Grenada on 8 June 1888, exciting enormous curiosity, but the Icarus was telegraphed to take him on to St. Vincent, arriving on 9 June 1888.

    He lived there with his wife Patience, his son and attendants, eventually moving freely in the society. But on coming down with a “bronchial ailment”, the Administrator urged his “immediate removal to a more salubrious climate, possibly Barbados”.

    He spent the period 21 March to 11 May 1891 in Barbados, living at the commodious Walmer Cottage, Two Mile Hill, St Michael, and was on familiar terms with his neighbour, the then great Attorney General and Chief Justice, Sir Herbert Greaves, who lived at Stratford Lodge.

    The presence of a real African king in Barbados attracted considerable public attention. Governor Sendall was certain that political disturbances were imminent if his famous guest remained on the island (Cox, 1998). Although he was an old man in bad health, a still-popular folk-song claims he became infatuated with a woman called Becca, or, in other versions, Dovie (Marshall, McGeary and Thompson, 1981).

    The chorus goes:
    King Ja Ja won’ leh Dovie ‘lone,
    King Ja Ja won’ leh Dovie ‘lone,
    King Ja Ja won’ leh Dovie ‘lone,
    What dovie got um is all she own.

    Who she might have been is unknown; the only woman with whom King JaJa was definitely acquainted in Barbados was a religious revivalist Miss Haynes, who seems an unlikely candidate for a romantic liaison.

    A medical board, comprising Drs. F.B. Archer, Thomas Bowen and C. Hutson, reported with great concern on the King’s failing health. Dr. Archer’s later report warned: “I fear if he is detained much longer here the result will be fatal”. This induced the British to satisfy his plea to die in his own country. He left Barbados for Africa “firmly though mistakenly believing he was headed directly to Opobo” (Cox, 1998).

    He died, during a long delay at Tenerife, on 7 July 1891, frustrated in his dream of retuning home. But his stay in the Caribbean had great symbolic importance for people in St. Vincent and Barbados.”

    Taken from the third edition of the: A-Z of Barbadian Heritage – Sean Carrington, Henry Fraser, John Gilmore & Addinton Forde, published by Miller Publishing Company, Barbados, 2020.

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