Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

Draw Your Brakes–A Jamaican Creole Shout

The Harder They ComeSome art, like the 1969 Hopper/Fonda film, Easy Rider, flashes boldly in its moment and ages to insignificance or embarrassment. Some, like the soundtrack of the 1972 reggae film, The Harder They Come, is timeless.

I owned the soundtrack early and played the cassette until it was lost. Almost 35 years later, I bought the CD as a present for my wife. She played the entire CD five times in succession, dancing through the house.

There isn’t a bad song on the album. The second cut, “Draw Your Brakes” by Scotty (Jamaican David Scott), begins with a shout-out in Jamaican Patwa (patois).


For years I’ve wondered what the opening lines mean. But an internet lyric search yielded only an untranslated transliteration:

Forward and fiaca
Menacle and den gosaca

Peter Patrick
Prof. Peter Patrick
The album did not include lyrics, and there is no other version of this opaque couplet online (the dozens of lyrics sites all seem to come from one unverified source), so one might assume the above is correct, if unexplained. I made no such assumption; I searched further.

I found my way to Peter L. Patrick, Professor of Sociolinguistics at the University of Essex in Colchester, England. He, an expert in the structure and use of Jamaican Creole, as linguists call Jamaican Patwa, contacted another expert, Kenneth Bilby, at the time a research associate in the Smithsonian Institution’s department of anthropology. Bilby wrote to Patrick who passed the following to me:

It just so happens that I have some info on this, and it’s most likely reliable. (I had long wondered about it myself.) Last year I interviewed Bunny Brown, a good friend of the late Scotty.Β  He and Scotty sang together as members of The Chosen Few in the 60s. I asked him about this part of the lyrics in “Draw Your Brakes,” and he explained it as follows:

“Forward and payaaka, manhangle (manhandle) and den go saaka.”

In the “youth man slang” of the time, “payaaka” was a verb, meaning “to take away another man’s woman/girlfriend.” In this “slang,” “saaka” meant “to fuck.” So the song’s intro meant, “go and take away a next man’s girl, grab her and then go have sex with her.”

Kenneth Bilby
Ken Bilby (R) in Jamaica, 1982
The original meaning of “payaaka” in Jamaican Creole was “hawk” (sometimes a particular species of “chickenhawk”); it still has this meaning in some rural areas. By extension it came to mean “greedy, covetous (person).” According to Bunny Brown, urban youth in the 60s further extended the sense to mean “taking away another man’s woman.”

Much of email is spam, and much of the internet is tripe and dung. But dig deeply and scholars like Patrick and Bilby show you emeralds.

I recommend the CD unequivocally. I do not recommend the film; except for the music, it is amateurishly unwatchable.

66 Comments

  1. Kerry B. says:

    Interesting, but I think I was better off not knowing.

  2. Lisa says:

    I have been using that line for years and that is not what I thought it meant. I thought it meant just to go forward and to climb on. Nothing about taking someone elses girl and doing the nasty. I just used to tell my dr. about going forward in life after divorce – i guess i was way off saying that to him. OH WELLL!!!

  3. Rick says:

    Thanks for that .. I too often wondered what that meant. Been a fan of Reggae for many, many years – the dialog of the Jamaican’s is very interesting – Love how they express themselves.

  4. Alex Archimbaud says:

    Misinterpretation is an amazing thing afterall. Misunderstanding the wording of that intro: “Forward and payaaka, manhangle (manhandle) and den go saaka.”, I had thought it an age-old philosophical rasta saying, something akin of what others have posted earlier, about keeping ones focus.

    And now I laugh, and realize that this entire time I have been revering a message intended for pimps and players… πŸ™‚

  5. Nick Ferrio says:

    You’re right about the music and terribly wrong about the film. It is really a wonderfully localized cinematic experience. I suggest re-visiting it.

  6. Dan Franck says:

    Thank you for this. I have wondered about it myself. To find the answer at the highest levels of scholarship; it is truly a cool thing you did. Many thanks!

  7. Peter says:

    You said it. The Internet is full of tripe… but every once in a while… you come across something like your post and your faith in humanity is restored.

    Thanks so much. I’ve wondered about this since watching (many midnight showings of) The Harder They Come. One of the very few English language films that I (a native speaker of English) have seen where I benefited from sub-titles. Trainspotting is another.

    Listening again, though, it really does sound like “fiaca” not “payaaka”…

    Many, many, thanks.

  8. Eddie K says:

    This Antiguan guy dragged me along to see the movie in maybe 73 or 74-ish…The Harder They Come… WTF was ragggay in 74 ? I memorized the songs on the spot and will never forget the bicycle scene…
    don’t
    fock
    wit
    me
    However…tonite, after 35 years of wondering…I believe what you wrote. Man…I gotta teach that to my grandsons.

  9. Ray Girvan says:

    Fascinating. Might be a false cognate, but knowing what it means, could “saaka” be related to UK English slang “shag”?

  10. Bill Abrams says:

    Interesting stuff, but I disagree about the movie. Amateurish or not, I think it’s worth seeing.

  11. Jonathan says:

    That is a splendid bit of scholarship. “The Harder They Come” was one of the first records I used to play on my parents’ phonograph, at about age 4 (born in ’71). Those opening lyrics always mystified me, but I’ve always sung along gamely. Thanks for clearing that up, 35 years later.

    • Steve Cotler says:

      Thanks for your kudos. I strive to defend whatever hypothesis I am making with real research, unlike much of the internet, often a source of tripe and misinformation.

      • Jonathan says:

        Not at all. Professor Patrick’s explication made me wonder whether a Jamaican listener (now or then) would’ve understood the words. As I live in NYC, I may run into someone before too long who can shed some light on it. I’ll let you know if I come up with anything.

        On the topic of individuals with compelling blogs, you might check out the “Stuff That Makes Me Happy” tab on http://jasonamendolara.wordpress.com/

  12. Mike Murphy says:

    In my opinion… watch the film, it will teach you a good deal about Kingston Ghetto life in the late 60s and early 70s….and the music IS great.

    There are many versions and opinions as to exactly what meaning is intended in Jamaican Patois; like any truly organic language, meaning shifts all the time. A professorship at Harvard is less likely to help in one’s knowledge of Jamaican Patois than being Jamaican and growing up there for example. So I personally like to take all ‘knowledge’ as defined by a white western academic with a pinch of salt and all experience as defined by the people who have lived it, with a pinch of pepper. A lot can be lost in translation.

    Respects Steve for your efforts in trying to clear up the muddied informational sidewalk that is the internet!

    • Steve Cotler says:

      I completely agree that the film seems to depict life in Jamaica in a manner not otherwise easily accessible to outside audiences. My calling it “unwatchable” is a production value judgment that comes from my 20 years in the film business. As a social document it is meaningful. As a film, it was, because of its budget I suppose, poorly made.

      • Maile Kerr says:

        Low budget of course because Jamaica was and is a country living in the shadows of having been victimized by imperialism and resulting economic strife. The culture in terms of music and the arts dance is phenomenal. The fact that film was even made and is the quality that it is an depicts the reality of life in Kingston and life in Jamaican general demands the highest respect in my opinion.

        • Steve Cotler says:

          I agree with your assessment re the accomplishment. The filmmaking does, however, suffer from the limitations you describe.

    • Jonathan says:

      Whatever your [ed: Mike Murphy’s] opinion of “white western academic[s],” the source for this translation is Joel Bunny Brown. He is more than qualified to interpret Jamaican patois, even by your curiously limited criteria.

      • Mike Murphy says:

        I take your point. Though have found the recollections of Jamaican musical artistes to be populated by distortion, misappropriation and self engrandisement. It’s very interesting to listen to three or four producers talk about what the etymology for the word Ska, or for that matter Reggae came from, you won’t find any one man agreeing and in the same way, I feel certain that definitions will differ grandly regarding an entire introduction.

        The chap in question’s name though, isn’t Joel Bunny Brown, it’s Noel Bunny Brown.

  13. Billy says:

    The film is a classic! Wow!

  14. Fle says:

    Thanx, man, been wondering about it myself for a long time. Always liked the sound of it, but never realized the actual meaning=) Now I’ll be sure to be cautious around Jamaicans speaking their hypnotic language=)

  15. Mark Gorney says:

    Thanks very much for this, which I stumbled across in the process of trying to find Ken Bilby. We had exchanged emails and had contact info for him but can’t find it. Do you know where is now?

    I do not agree, however, with your assessment that the film is “amateurishly unwatchable.” Sure there are some moments that are amateurish, but so what. Given Jamaica and its conditions and the budget he had to work with, I think he did very well, especially now that it has been restored. It’s eminently watchable, an important cultural document and an iconic film, one that captured not only Jamaica at a(n IMO) very crucial time, and showed us the Jamaica we never saw and never knew existed. The performances he got from non-actors Jimmy Cliff (singer), Basil Keane (dentist) and Bobby Charlton (insurance salesman) are just fine, if not great, and it’s peppered with people from the Jamaican music industry: Toots Hibbert, Prince Buster, Duke Reid, Joe Gibbs, Carlton Lee, Jackie Jackson, Hux Brown, Gladstone Anderson, and even a cameo from the Prime Minister’s wife, Beverly Anderson, who mocked the typical wealthy Jamaican housewife: “Who left the gate open?”

    Anyway, thanks for solving the riddle of this intro – I never knew what it was for almost 30 years.

    • Thanks for the cameo information. I like the film, I’ve seen it several times. I will look for those people when I see it next time.

      It’s sad that Cliff refused to make any movies after that, because he was proud of his work in THTC, only to end up in the dreadful, “Club Paradise”.

  16. winrich riede says:

    Thanks. I ‘ve wondered what that meant for longer than I can remember. I even asked Peter Tosh at his concert in Vancouver and he couldn’t explain it to me (possibly because of the ganja)

  17. Stuart Salsbury says:

    I’m so glad I found this post. Thank you! I’ll stop saying this to people unless I mean it!!! Yikes!

  18. The movie is decidedly rough and it is also known as one of the first ENGLISH language movies to need English subtitles. If you want a fuller version of the story, read the novelization of the film by Michael Thelwell. It starts out back in Ivan’s village and fleshes out a lot of characters. A fantastic read!

    • Steve Cotler says:

      Thanks. I’ll check it out. Novelizations, of course, are always written after the film and, as such, can patch things up.

  19. Ras Yodahe says:

    The song is about the singer’s girl going away for another man, and hence, β€œgo and take away a next man’s girl, grab her and then go have sex with her.” is a message intended to the one who stole his girl, to the one his girl is running to.
    Do not say it was a message inteded for pimps. If anything, it reinforces the song’s main theme.

    • Ras Yodahe says:

      And I forgot to say kudos
      Thanks for your work

    • Dave says:

      This post by Ras is the turning point of the whole thread! He took the scholarly rendering and made it sensible within the context of the song. “My baby’s she a leaving me now.”
      It makes more sense that with the opening words in question, Scotty is lamenting his state–not enjoining his listeners to be amoral players.

  20. Natureboy says:

    Thanks for this. Ras Yodahe’s comment is illuminating, stop that train indeed. I always thought it was ‘Manacle’ as in handcuffs, not ‘Manhangle’.

    What prompted a search for this was here on Cape Cod, lots of Jamaicans are working summer jobs, (lotsa ‘rhydim’ a gwan on, ta raas!) I actually asked the meaning of this phrase last night after 35 years, and someone actually knew! He said it was the ‘old slang’, but I still wanted to confirm…

    I think I read that ‘novelization’ in a hammock in Negril about 25 years ago, was that the one that used the term ‘Riggin’? Always wondered what that meant (‘raging’?).

    I miss Reggae (or was that what they used to call Rocksteady?)

  21. Paul E K says:

    Yeeeees! I was just listening to this song and FINALLY I remembered to look this intro up(it only took me 8 years…haha)

    Well done!

  22. emme says:

    I spent a lot of time in Jamaica a long time ago. I always took these lyrics a bit literally and thought “forward and fiaca” translated as “forward and fire car (as in train car)”, “menacle” meaning manacle or lock the cars together and “den gosaka” – well, I never was got sure about that part, I liked to think it meant “go southward” but in patois it could be anything. But anyone who has listened to the song for the last 40 years is pretty sure that it is “fiaca” and “menacle.”

  23. John Shannon says:

    As a journalist a whole lifetime ago, I was interviewing Bob Marley shirtless and in “Bermuda” shorts in a London flat in 1973, and I asked about the lyrics (which had just come out and obsessed me and my German writing mate.) Alas, I don’t think we had a patois in common. But he had a Bible the size of a Buick beside him and held on hard. Man, life is weird. Thanks for finally explaining the lyrics.

  24. Kathy says:

    I was always very curious about “Forward and payaaka, manhangle (manhandle) and den go saaka.” I knew that the song spoke of his woman leaving him for another man, so this translation makes sense. Thank you so much!!!

  25. cristovao says:

    Does anybody know the chords? Sounds like just C F and G, but there’s a minor in there….and THANK YOU by the way, I’ve been wondering about that for (nearly) 40 years. “Fiaca” for sure, but you know F and P can switch (Phillip/Felipe – Pater/Father, etc..)

    Dedicated to Roy the Rastaman from the Bamboo Lawn in Portland (or was it Kingston?) from your days pickin’ apples in Vermont mon.

  26. Flingostar says:

    Thank you! Love the Album since it came out (I’m 50 now) and repeated the phrase vere since without knowing what it meant. Now you made me wise πŸ™‚

    as for the move: its raw and direct manner fascinated me too – of course it’s not a Kubrick or Coen-Bros-Movie, but very authentic and worth seeing!
    greets from switzerland, felix

  27. Friek_Levels says:

    Thanks for finding out – I really was thinking bout it everytime I listen to it (like right now:)

    I’m from Germany and me and some friends used “Mannattel!” as an expression of surprise and if we couldn’t answer a question. So we basically took the word and filled it with our own meaning. That’s how language and cultural exchange works. One world, a’ight?

    • Prem says:

      I am still a Bob Dylan fan – not so sure about Bob Marley though. I see Bob Dylan has brguhot out a new record of Bing Crosby songs – did I read that right, it sounds too incongruous to be true.

  28. Viv says:

    As a Jamaican, who grew up on the island until I was about 10 years old, I am often plagued by nostalgia for the things that I could have known about my heritage had I remained there until adulthood. I came across the line in the song from the movie “the harder they come” and was fascinated by it ever since. I must add here that I think the movie is a wonderful period piece about Jamaica that showcases many cultural elements from times long gone by. I learned so much about my culture by watching that film(I just discovered it in 2001). It is through that movie that I discovered artists like “Toots and the Maytals” and their cultural significance, in that they were Jamaica “Independence Festival” song winners in the 60’s. So while the movie may not have been cinematographic brilliance, it serves to fossilize important cultural relics. I have obviously taken a huge tangent here by elaborating so extensively on the film.

    I hereby return to my commentary about the phrase from the song. Prior to finding this site, I thought the phrase was “forward and fiaca, manhackle and then go saaka.” Based on what I know of “patois” (which I am still remarkably able to speak fluently if summoned to do so), I thought the elements were as follows with my corresponding assumption of the meanings attached:

    Forward-go forward
    Fiaca- Fire-as one would a gun(which can also be a euphemism for the male genitalia)
    Man”hackle”- sexually provoke–[because the term hackle in Jamaica is used to refer to sexual things as well as emotional strife]
    Saaka-ransack (which is colloquially pronounced raMsack), as in destroy[also used in Jamaica to describe a man’s sexual prowess in performing rough sex, which is culturally understood by both genders to be good sex or ransacking a woman’s genitals]. Saaka is also used in non-sexual contexts to mean ransack in any fashion, for example “the thief saaka saaka up the house,” which would mean literally “the thief ransacked the house very badly. Some words are repeated twice to illustrate severity in “patois.”

    So the whole point of my breakdown of the phrase is that Jamaican patois is fascinating. It is passed down from generation to generation in context as much as in direct interpretation. By that I mean that although I am relatively young and did not understand the “true” meaning of the phrase nor even the actual words used in the phrase as you give it here, my erroneous understanding still lead to an overall correct interpretation of the context. So I sensed that the phrase had a sexual meaning without the clarity that you so wonderfully provided. Thanks for this.

    • Viv says:

      I just wanted to add that I have never heard the term “payaka” and I am happy to have learned it here. It is so funny how once you know the actual lyrics, you are able to hear them clearly in the song. For years, I thought I heard the singer say “fiaca,” and now I can clearly hear that he indeed said “payaka.”

  29. Adam Stanhope says:

    My father was hired by the film distribution company that handled the movie’s US release in 1972 to design the movie poster for the American release. It was bad-ass – printed on mylar. We had a number of them but mylar deteriorates over time and not a scrap of any of them remain.

    Anyway – the soundtrack became part of my father’s life from that moment forward, and by extension part of mine, as I was two years old in 1972.

    I distinctly remember seeing the lyrics written somewhere PRE-WORLD WIDE WEB and the second sentence was written as follows:

    “manacle and den gosaka.”

    And it was translated as “manacled (cast in chains) and then forsaken.”

    Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it!

    I have no idea which is right, but I can’t NOT hear it as “manacle and den gosaka” no matter what anybody else says.

  30. Lon Hall says:

    Totally disagree on the assessment of the movie. I loved it when I first saw it and now own it on DVD.

  31. treaclefingers says:

    Wow, a thread that is 5 years old. Great to read the comments and I’d just like to add that I’ve love the song and album for over 30 years, yet never seen the movie.

    As far as the line goes, very interesting to finally get a coherent explanation and reasonable translation, especially when taken in the context of the rest of the song…here are the last couple of verses:

    She said she was going on the morning train
    And all now I don’t see she personal to talk to her again
    That means she have a guy forward away with her
    And I just can’t take it no more
    Stop that train.
    See I express I-self.
    Draw your brakes brother
    ‘Cause you really taking my girl away from me
    Stop that train, I want to get on
    I can’t even hold on to the back of the train

    • Steve Cotler says:

      I should’ve referenced the content of this verse in my post. It certainly does support the translation, doesn’t it? Thanks for pointing the concordance out.

  32. As the co-host of two enthusiastically received 40th anniversary screenings in early September 2011 at the Arclight in Hollywood and the Aero in Santa Monica, I can tell you that modern audiences of all ages have responded with great admiration for the film. Mr. Cotler says he would rewatch, but if so, no comment was made after he did. The film is an immortal masterpiece of Third World cinema on a par with “Black Orpheus.” What it did for bossa nova, “Harder” did for reggae. The director four-walled it in 43 countries over six years before he turned a profit, and it was a hit everywhere it played. The newly restored print is lush in color and sound. You were wrong to treat it with such smarmy disdain.
    -Roger Steffens, Founding Chairman, Reggae Grammy Committee (1984-2011)

    • Steve Cotler says:

      “Smarmy”?
      …hypocritically, complacently, or effusively earnest; unctuous.

      I treated this film with no such. Comments that criticized my opinion led me to say I would re-watch it…
      Neither hypocrisy nor complacency in that response.
      When I do re-watch it, perhaps I will admire it as Mr. Steffens obviously does. Perhaps not.

  33. Daniel Schaffer says:

    Hey, thanks for the research. I always wondered what this meant. When I read the translation I thought, yeah, been there, had that done to me. The song and the album are beautiful, like you said a kind of musical perfection. I saw the film with my first wife from another era of history, and it struck me as revolutionary because it gave voice to an oppressed, invisible group of people who were now influencing American music and culture. I remember being at parties where this album was all we danced to – in Philadelphia.

  34. I saw the movie for a course in university in 1981. Being of Caribbean extraction I had heard most of the songs but the content of the movie was fascinating. So much so that I bought the book and eventually the soundtrack. (I even saw it on stage in Toronto) Anyway Draw your breaks is only one song on a great CD. I think I will listen to it right now

  35. Dan Ras says:

    To the comment regarding Riggins.It’s actually Rygin ,who was a “rude boy” from west Kingston.The movie was loosely based on his life and death .
    Pyaka was a slang used to describe gangsters in the 60s and 70s ,my grandad used to use the word.Bob Marley had a song about a a Pyaka who also run for his gun .
    I was born in the late seventies but remember some of this from childhood.

  36. Ken Aidekman says:

    Thank you for this “timely” information. I was about to ask my mother-in-law’s Jamaican caregiver for her interpretation of the lyric. She is a good-natured, church-going woman so I assume that even if she was familiar with the slang she certainly wouldn’t give me the translation that you did.

    Great work.

  37. smartalek says:

    Assume you already know this — but just in case you don’t:
    This page is now the #1 hit on a Google(R) search for:
    “meaning of forward and fiaca menacle and den gosaka.”
    Good work, mon.

  38. willy halloran says:

    lucky enough to have lived in JA ’70 – ’75 ( lucky enough
    to have made it out ).
    re: the film Harder They come. very important and
    accurate portrait of the culture in Jamaica at the time.
    Relationship of the dope and music businesses, the
    patois, socio-economic divisions on the island, Rasta
    culture, and etc. Should be viewed as a documentary
    more than a work of fiction. Production values are
    unimportant in a film like this.

    • Steve Cotler says:

      You are probably right about the film’s production values. I was working as a filmmaker when I first saw it. I suspect that colored my judgment.

  39. Conny T. says:

    Hi Steve, Just like you I had the album The Harder They Come in my early years, and like everybody else I wonder what the meaning was of Scotty’s firt lines in Draw Your Brakes, nobody could ever give me the answer. My best friend who passed away in 2009 was a Music journalist with very high reputation, he didn’t know either or could find the answers from his friends in the music World. Today I stumbled over your web page and voila! Forthy years to get the answer is a long time but thank’s to your research I’m enlighted! Greetings From Sweden Conny T

  40. GINA BYRD says:

    Thank you! I am grateful for your tenacious approach!! I’ve always wondered and found the same unsatisfying answers. Thank you again.

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