A Tribute To Ted Bafaloukos
Theodoros Bafaloukos’ 1978 film "Rockers" is arguably one of the most authentic and of-the-moment pieces of cinema made in Jamaica during the halcyon days of reggae. When the film screened at Cannes on the same night as Francis Ford Coppola’s "Apocalypse Now," a crowd of thousands bum-rushed the theater to the point where the riot police had to be called in. A review in Le Monde read: "'Rockers' is not a film, it is a work of art. So good it is difficult to believe, yet it is real."
A native of Andros, Greece, Ted first traveled to Jamaica in 1975 as a freelance photographer and got arrested when he was mistaken for a CIA spy. Shortly after, he moved to the island and lived with the musicians, including his friend Augustus Pablo, who he would eventually cast for "Rockers." The film’s stars were basically on the frontlines of reggae during a peak moment in the history of the music. Thirty-eight years later, "Rockers" is considered a canonical archive of the grass roots of reggae. Here, we speak with Bafaloukos on filming in Kingston in the late 1970s, his unusual introduction to Jamaica, and the transportive power of reggae.
What was it like to shoot a film in Kingston in the late 1970s?
So many things flash through my mind, so many things…having guns pointed at me by drunken cops…my friend Jeep Man, throwing dirt into the flaming engine of Leroy Smart’s brand-new car in the parking lot of the Sheraton…Higher and Pastor Roach…a screaming argument with Mortimer Planno in the University of the West Indies…hundreds of dreads coming up to the Casa Monte Hotel seeking cash and scattering at the arrival of Ranking Scottie…wonderful things…bad things…potentially catastrophic things…it’s all a spectacular montage in my mind, of intensely-lived moments that I wouldn’t change for anything in the world.
How was "Rockers" originally conceived?
Gradually, over a 2 year span. The way it all worked out in the end still feels like a miracle. But there was a moment early on. A start, an awakening. It was the summer of 1975 in New York, when a young writer friend took me to a club in Brooklyn to take pictures for an article he was writing for New York Magazine about emerging reggae culture in the city.
What was the scene like at the club that night?
The place was packed. An all-Jamaican nice young crowd in their starched and creased going-out clothes. The band was dressed in green suits – their jackets with oversized rounded lapels, hemmed in yellow. They were playing reggae. People were dancing. I started taking pictures. Then the band stops. The club’s proprietor, head shaved to a shine, makes a brief announcement and Augustus Pablo walks onto the stage. He’s a frail-looking youth holding a plastic instrument that looks like a toy. Eyes downcast, without acknowledging the crowd, he steps up to the microphone and starts to play. The place gets quiet. Even the band seems to be playing inside a sound vacuum. Only his notes fill the room with music that astonishes. I stopped taking pictures. Any picture I took could only show an expressionless young man playing a toy instrument. How could a photograph describe that sound? Every note was transformed into a breathtakingly complex melody that kept unfolding, taking unexpected turns on its way, keeping us in a constant state of suspense. Nobody was dancing; everybody was floating inside of Augustus Pablo’s shifting dreamscape. Suddenly, there are gunshots in the back, toward the exit. Screams of panic for a moment.
Pablo and the band stay put. In less than a minute it is over. Nobody gets hurt. The shots were fired in the air. The reason – subject to interpretation – a warning, a message for somebody, guys having fun, an enthusiastic response to the music – who knows? Pablo is playing again, his long thin fingers moving over the keys of his Melodica as if he is petting a cat. An ethereal source generating wave after wave of pure happiness.
I had never felt like that before, listening to music. That’s what got me started. From there on, it took a lot of hard work, a lot of help from a lot of people, and much-needed good luck.
The original cast of "Rockers" – Gregory Isaacs, Jacob Miller, Big Youth, Dillinger, Burning Spear, Horsemouth – has risen to mythologized status since the film was released. Describe one of your more memorable on-set moments.
Seven seven seventy-seven, July 7, 1977, Burning Spear on the beach in St. Ann’s Bay, the birthplace of Marcus Garvey. This was a day of reckoning for many Rastas. A day pregnant with expectations. A Marcus Garvey prophesy. "When the Two Sevens Clash There Will Be Dread," as Culture declared in their song of that same name. That day I woke up around noon after an all-night shoot, aching all over and with a rising fever. Many unpleasant things were going on in the repressive, vast, and empty resort we were staying in. The assistant director was let go, so I had to run the set myself. By the time dusk hit, we had shot a scene with Horsemouth in Burning Spear’s yard. Then, by seven o’clock, we moved to the beach. And here, on a ruined arch of a 16th century Spanish jail, Burning Spear sat and started to sing a capella "Jah No Dead." A huge crowd had gathered to watch, but not a voice was heard, not a twig cracked under anyone’s foot. A yellow moon was rising, and I was feeling fine.
What’s the most poignant feedback you’ve received on "Rockers"?
In Tokyo, 2007. To be told by Likkle Mai, the spirited Japanese reggae singer, who was born around the time "Rockers" was made, "You changed my life!"
How does it feel looking back on your experience and those heady days of making a film that has since become a highly celebrated piece of work?
There is one thing I can say for sure about "Rockers." It was true then and it’s still true today, 38 years later. "Rockers" made itself. Or, more precisely, reggae made "Rockers." I was the lucky one to be there. To experience first hand, the force, the power of the creative energy that was unleashed with reggae. The music of the I. Unsolicited, unsponsored, unpatronized, untutored, unauthorized. Music that makes it possible for angels and devils to dance together on the head of the same pin. Not just another success story, not just another trend-setting fad, but the real experience, for those who can hear the call. For those who, hearing that music, have broken the bonds with the vast cemeteries of a past they’ve been forced to inherit through fear and dread. Let us all dance to that music. Stepping to the amplified rhythms of our hearts as they partake of the divine bliss that only those who have conquered their fears can experience to the fullness of creation.