Ted Bafaloukos’ 1979 film Rockers is iconic in reggae circles. Its soundtrack captures many of the foremost figures from the golden age of roots reggae at the peak of their powers. The movie became one of that year’s fifty highest grossing films. And it was almost never made.
The late director and photographer reveals the drama, the turbulence, passion, and ever-present danger surrounding the artistic crucible of the mid-70s Jamaican music scene in his richly illustrated coffee table book, ROCKERS: Ted Bafaloukos + 1970s New York + Kingston + On Set Mayhem = The Making of Reggae’s Most Iconic Film, out this year from Gingko Press.
The Greek-born Bafaloukos got his start at the Rhode Island School of Design. His steamship captain father had sent him there after discovering, while docked in Providence, that the school drew students from as faraway as California. The younger Bafaloukos earned media accolades for his photos while still in college. But by 1978 he was struggling as a freelancer, largely supported by his wife’s $78-a-week sweatshop paycheck, sharing a loft at the corner of Varick and Franklin Streets with several friends.
He’d discovered reggae a few years earlier and fallen in love with it after seeing a show by melodica player Augustus Pablo and his band at the Tropical Cove, a club located above Gertie’s Discount Store in Brooklyn. He intuitively grasped the connection between the communal esthetic of reggae and the folk music he’d been immersed in at community celebrations as a child in the Aegean island village of Apikia.
Aided by his new friends from the New York reggae scene, he traveled to Jamaica and decided then and there to make a reggae movie, despite having neither script nor cast. Bafaloukos enlisted several New York friends as production crew, and a hippie neighbor with money to be the producer.
Bafaloukos’ photos from his initial expeditions are a goldmine for reggae fans. The most choice shots are black-and-white. Singer Kiddus I, with record producer Jack Ruby behind him, sits slit-eyed with both a cheat sheet and a spliff in hand at a recording session: it’s clear that this is all live, with no iso booths. A young, thin Burning Spear perches triumphantly atop the ruins of a slavery-era jail in his native St. Ann’s Bay. Jah Spear (who also appeared in the film) pops up again and again, most memorably backstage with an equally rail-thin Patti Smith, laughing it up. And Big Youth is captured on his signature motorbike on a Kingston street, showing off his jewel-embedded teeth
In full color, there’s dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry in his ramshackle, rundown original Black Ark Studio before he burned it down: from Bafaloukos’ description of the setup and gear, Perry’s engineering genius becomes all the more astonishing. A series of 1975 portraits capture Bob Marley on Sixth Avenue near West 8th Street in Manhattan. There’s owl-glassed, bearded folk music legend and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith with Burning Spear drummer (and eventual star of the film) Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace. Impressively, the book’s candid photos far outnumber stills from the movie.
Which is basically The Bicycle Thief transposed to Jamaica, with tons of classic songs and a cast comprising the most colorful people the filmmaker had met while traveling across the island. “For those who think that movies get made in the editing room, Rockers is not a case in point,” he avers. As he tells it, the film ended up being even more highly improvised than originally planned.
The problem with crowdsourcing your cast is that a bigger crowd comes with it. It ended up taking Bafaloukos more than a couple nickels to buy his way out of many pickles, several brushes with death and, as he tells it, a mutiny by the movie’s two stars, who had held out for more money. Considering how hard both cast and crew partied when they weren’t working, and how many challenges – several at gunpoint – they had to overcome, it’s a miracle they were able to finish it.
And considering how breakneck – literally – the pace of the filming was, some of the most memorable moments in the narrative are the asides. We find out that Earl Chin, who in 1975 had not yet become the legendary host of Rockers TV, is a crazy driver: gee, big surprise. The movie’s crucial set piece – a very fickle, used motorbike – ends up being delivered by none other than the Cool Ruler, Gregory Isaacs. And Bafaloukos recounts the priceless moment at Bob Marley’s Peace Concert where Jacob Miller leaps from the stage, goes up to a cop guarding the Prime Minister and offers him a spiff. When the cop declines, Miller steals the guy’s helmet and finishes his set wearing it.
What Bafaloukos never mentions is residuals. He ended up retiring to a villa on the Aegean. it would be interesting to know how much Horsemouth, his co-star “Dirty Harry” Hall, the Montego Bay mystic named Higher, or the Reverend Roach and his A.M.E choir, to name a few of the cast members, came away with.