This essay is dedicated to the memory of the legendary Bunny Lee, who died in October 2020. Lee was the producer of the song “Jamaican Fruit of African Roots” discussed here. May his reggae and dub soundings continue to echo across time.
When the Jamaican singer Sheila Rickards was awarded a National Order of Distinction in 2018 (along with Grace Jones and others), perhaps few of us knew the extraordinary story behind the recovery of her legacy or about her decades-long disappearance from Jamaica and its music scene.1 The film Shella Record: A Reggae Mystery tells one part of that story.2 The film, which premiered at the 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, documents the search for Rickards by Christopher Flanagan, a Toronto-based artist and filmmaker who embarks on a journey to find her after hearing her only reggae-dub recording, a haunting, beautiful, philosophical lament titled “Jamaican Fruit of African Roots.”3
Flanagan encounters the song on a vinyl record he finds in a thrift store in Ontario. Inspired by what hears—“The most incredible piece of music I have ever heard,” he claims—he sets out on an epic quest that lasts for about a decade and takes him from Canada to Jamaica to the United States, from New York to Los Angeles to Louisiana and Mississippi, in search of the woman whose voice he hears on the record. Flanagan’s search for the singer is initially made more elusive by the very fact of her name. On the record she is listed as Shella Record, not Sheila Rickards. Discovering her true name is the first of many puzzles he must solve to unravel this mystery.
The enigma of Rickards’s name becomes a useful orienting point and gives the film its title. However, the reflection on her (mis)naming also prompts a deeper meditation on the question of archival insecurity, or what in “Venus in Two Acts” Saidiya Hartman importantly calls “the constitutive limits of the archives.”4 Rickards’s misnaming functions two ways. First, we might understand its significance in relation to the African peoples lamented in the lyrics—those who “came in ships from across the sea” and who “toil from morn till night, / never given little human rights.” The refrain recalls and foregrounds how the enslaved of the Atlantic trade have long been made subject to erasure. This is brought to the fore even as the film tracks how this song about them becomes forgotten, existing at the very edge of neglect. The song makes a poignant exploration of the legacies and the so-called afterlives of slavery, questioning what freedom might mean for the descendants of the enslaved: “Though long years pass things remain the same. / Our little babies born with no last names.”5
Second, the exploration of the question of naming also continues a necessary conversation about the insecurity of the legacies of women, and of women of color in particular, in the context of music and creative industries. In this regard, we might view Flanagan’s film as extending discussions already made painfully explicit in Alice Walker’s well-documented search for her literary foremother, Zora Neale Hurston. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens narrates Walker’s quest to find Hurston’s unmarked grave; standing in a cemetery in Fort Pierce, Walker calls out: “Zora! . . . I’m here. Are you?”6 Indeed, while Flanagan’s exploration of the story of Sheila Rickards as Shella Record is mapped in relation to Jamaica, which becomes the site for tracing her importance and her work as a pioneering (but now forgotten) female Jamaican jazz singer in the mid-twentieth century, it is also interesting that in the film it is her transition to the American music industry that actually marks the point of her vanishing. This is where we lose track of her and are left to wonder how many other black women’s dreams are erased—sacrificed and then forgotten—on the altar of American fame.
If the question of Rickards’s name constitutes one line of inquiry in the film, the question of the specific details of her disappearance from the music stage constitutes another. The movie includes several accounts regarding the singer’s departure from Jamaica (including stories that she might have gone to Australia, among a number of other places). One story the film gives currency to is that she left Jamaica for the United States after meeting Sam Cooke when he performed in Jamaica. Beyond the stories directly referenced in the film, there are also stories (told as rumor, legend, verandah talk) that Rickards may have even had a successful audition for the now-legendary girl group the Supremes at the time of its formation. These stories provide a context that potentially locates her within the same milieu as singers such as Darlene Love and the others whose stories are told in the documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom, which recounts instances of Love’s music being released under the names of other artists.7 Though the details of each of these stories differ significantly, we might read these narratives alongside each other not as recurrences of the same process of archival erasure but rather as different, interrelated parts of a complex history of marginalization and invisibility at the nexus of race, gender, and diaspora.
Yet while I note continuities, there are also important specificities to Rickards’s story that the film illuminates. In fact, this interrelatedness but difference might be traced through the film’s specific reflections on instantiation of the name Shella Record. In this instance, it is represented as not the same deliberate act of erasure with profiteering motives as examined in Twenty Feet from Stardom. Instead, we encounter this renaming as a particular instance of a Jamaican phonetic spelling of a name that renders it transformed in the process of writing it down. While heeding Sadiya Hartman’s caution against narrating counterhistories and erasures through, or as a kind of, romance, I wonder if we might find a wonderful kind of poeticism in the name Shella Record.8 If shell, as the Urban Dictionary notes, might be said to refer to a state of intoxication and of being high, or in other words, understood as a kind of euphoric experience, then a “shella record” might indeed be said to be one that leaves the listener blissfully high, one that is transcendent, as this one arguably becomes for Flanagan.9
While the film is titled Shella Record, in its subtitle it is announced as “a reggae mystery.” The question of genres and the film’s deliberate framing of itself as a mystery are also worthy of some examination here. The subtitle, on the one hand, connects the film to biographical and quest documentaries such as the celebrated Searching for Sugarman, which tells the story of the search for American musician Sixto Rodriguez, who was rumoured to be dead.10 However, the label of “reggae mystery” offers the promise of a particular kind of genre that we might, for instance, connect to Kwame Dawes’s articulation of a “reggae aesthetic” in Natural Mysticism.11
It might prove challenging to fully understand this film through a notion of reggae aesthetics. However, it is worth examining how an exploration of dub aesthetics might prove useful and could potentially illuminate an understanding of both the film’s visual aesthetics and its structures of storytelling.12 It is important to note that Flanagan is a visual artist. In the film he uses small-scale models that he builds from a variety of materials. This practice explicitly calls attention to versioning as part of his aesthetics; the film is not an attempt at documentary realism. The film also notably engages with what is in effect a dub structure of storytelling. Like the sonic structure of dub, which is marked by reverbs, versions, echoes, and re-turns (which are discussed in the film), the arc of the story is not a straightforward progressive unfolding. It is filled with riddles, obstacles, clues, and revisions, as well as detours and discoveries. At one level, this is because of time and because of forgetting and disappearance, but at another level it is also partly a result of the quest motif of the narrative. Both the details of the story and the framing of the story impact its telling. We learn different parts of Rickards’s story as they are revealed as fragments or sometimes through conjecture to the filmmaker. We also learn versions as the details are revisited and revised from different perspectives. This structure provides us with some wonderful bits of Jamaican storytelling. For instance, along the way we meet the legendary reggae guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith and the producer Bunny “Striker” Lee and learn about the conditions and the complex class and racial intimacies that animated reggae and dub production in the mid-twentieth century. We also learn some details about the making of Rickards’s record specifically. These encounters are noteworthy and illuminating, and an understanding of their importance as moments of clarification is facilitated by the film’s structure.
Yet if, as I suggest, mystery and dub become usefully linked, facilitating a wonderfully elliptical mode of storytelling, mystery as part of the film’s ideological vocabulary also, at the same time, becomes associated with tropes of exoticization and othering. Early in the film there are references to ghosts, voodoo, obeah, and the White Witch of Rosehall.13 These locate this film in a long tradition of anthropological and other narratives that construct stories about Jamaica and other island spaces as mysterious. In this regard, the label of “mystery” also functions to facilitate a replaying of journeys and narratives of discovery as one underlying trope. If the ur-text of discovery for the Caribbean is Columbus’s voyage to the Americas (a space hitherto constructed in the discursive imagination as unknown or uninhabited), both Jamaica and Shella Record are, in turn, constructed in the film’s imaginary as mysterious and alluring. This further functions to transform Christopher Flanagan, as subject of this film, into Christopher the discoverer. This is at once a coincidental and a carefully rendered construction. In one moment, as Flanagan tries to narrate the significance of Rickards’s music, he declares, “Imagine finding a Billie Holiday, a Nina Simone, or an Amy Winehouse, but you are the only one who has ever heard her.” The formulation of mystery in this moment is realized through an imagining of terra nullius (nobody’s land).
It is perhaps surprising, then, that we actually learn so few details about Sheila Rickards’s life, particularly in the intervening years between her disappearance from Jamaica’s music scene and the present. This represents one key gap in the film’s narrative: what is presented is the story of the search for her (the quest and discovery) rather than a narrative that locates her unequivocally as the film’s subject. While her initial reluctance to appear on camera in the film is noted and might perhaps contribute to this, as viewers we leave the film knowing rather little about Rickards’s life after Jamaica. Instead, we learn key details about the making of her memorable recording around the time of decolonization in Jamaica and the transformation of the island’s musical industries and economies, and we are invited to participate in and witness her rediscovery.
The acknowledgement of this gap in the film’s storytelling might also function as part of a wider gendered critique of the film. Besides Rickards, the other significant female figure that we encounter in the course of the story is Monica, a Jamaican businesswoman in Eglinton West, Toronto. The vinyl recording that Flanagan finds of Rickards’s song is one that was distributed by Monica’s Records. In the film’s narrative, when Flanagan approaches Monica for help in locating details about the singer, she refuses and demands money in exchange for her participation in this enterprise. In the film she emerges as a threatening, suspicious figure, yet one wonders about the uses of suspicion and refusal in this instance (indeed, the first Christopher’s voyage of discovery might have been differently realized if encountered with suspicion). Monica never appears on camera. Her reluctance to do so is replayed later in the film in Sheila Rickards’s initial reluctance to appear on camera when we meet her. But we might also note similarities in the narrative treatment of these two women: we learn about them only in the context of their immediate interactions with Flanagan, rather than necessarily as cultural figures in their own right. They remain mysterious figures, or rather they are the narrative products of the making of a reggae mystery.
Hartman examines the insecure place of black women in the archives: “We stumble upon her in exorbitant circumstances that yield no picture of the everyday life, no pathway to her thoughts. . . . One cannot ask, ‘Who is Venus?’ because it would be impossible to answer such a question.”14 Perhaps in this instance, we can ask, “Who is Sheila Rickards?” Fortunately, she lived to experience this particular moment of rediscovery of her work. In fact, she usefully participates in this recuperation—she becomes the film’s narrator. However, Shella Record: A Reggae Mystery does not offer a definitive answer to this central question or a detailed picture of her life. She remains obscured. Yet this should not be seen as a reading of the film as a failure. Rather, it offers a provocation to think about Rickards as a complex, elusive figure and artist, while also returning to consider the significance, beauty, and impact of her music. This provides one possible opening toward a gendered rescripting of the narrative of the development of reggae and jazz in Jamaica in the mid-twentieth century and an urgent call to continue to search for women’s voices and women’s work in the ruins of time and the archive.
Ronald Cummings is a literary scholar who teaches in the Department of English at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario. His work has appeared in Small Axe, the Journal of West Indian Literature, the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and Transforming Anthropology. He is the editor of Make the World New: The Poetry of Lillian Allen (Wilfrid Laurier Press, forthcoming).
1. The Order of Distinction is part of the system of honors in Jamaica instituted in 1968 by the National Honours and Awards Act. The motto of the order is “Distinction through Service.” See https://jis.gov.jm/information/awards/order-of-distinction/.
2. Shella Record: A Reggae Mystery, dir. Christopher Flanagan, 87 min., Canada, 2019. See https://shellarecordmystery.com/.
3. Listen at https://shellarecordmystery.com/the-music.
4. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe, no. 26 (June 2008): 1–14.
5. On “the afterlife of slavery,” see ibid., 13.
6. Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1983), 103.
7. Twenty Feet from Stardom, dir. Morgan Neville, 91 min., Tremolo Productions, 2013.
8. See Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts.”
9. Urban Dictionary, s.v. “shell,” definition by Purp Cobain, 10 January 2011, www.urbandictionary.com.
10. Searching for Sugarman, dir. Malik Bendjelloul, 86 min., StudioCanal, 2012.
11. See Kwame Dawes, Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 1999).
12. For a discussion of dub aesthetics, see Isis Semaj-Hall, “Re-membering Our Caribbean through a Dub Aesthetic,” sx salon, no. 21 (February 2016), smallaxe.net/sxsalon/discussions/re-membering-our-caribbean-through-dub-aesthetic.
13. H. G. Delisser’s book is referenced and shown in the film; see H. G. Delisser, The White Witch of Rosehall (1929; repr., London: Ernest Benn, 1958).
14. Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 2.