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, are 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).

{the song above is the same track as is on the soundtrack album…just a different cover}

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.  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.

82 Comments

  1. Jeremy says:

    I think he means that the singer is speaking the phrase as if in the voice of the guy who’s taken his girl, like saying “hooray for me and fuck you” (as my father used to say when someone cut him off in traffic).

  2. Danny Dayout says:

    Please rewatch the movie. It is powerful!

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