One of the true joys of being obsessed with music is the endless hunt for one’s next favorite song. This chase for new bands and songs is what keeps me going. People think I actively seek out obscure bands and songs because I’m a snob—but really I just ran out of mainstream stuff. It’s rare that I’ll hear something on the radio and not know what I’m hearing. When it happens, I get really excited and I feel like a desert wanderer who has just spotted an oasis.
I was driving to work when I heard a song on the radio that I’d never heard before. It sounded like a live Bob Marley & The Wailers track. This was at 7:09am on the morning of September 27, 2013. I know this because I did what I always do when I hear something unknown: I took out my phone and used the Shazam app. Shazam is probably my all-time favorite app, it’s great because it saves nerds like me from falling in love with a song and then never getting to hear it again.
I used the app and Shazam tells me that the song is called “Hooligan” and is taken from an album titled ONE LOVE AT STUDIO ONE. This album contains some of the earliest Bob Marley material available, which explains why I vaguely recognized Marley’s vocals but not the song. I liked “Hooligan” so I went on Spotify to see if the track was available. The ONE LOVE AT STUDIO ONE album was not on Spotify, but “Hooligan” was available on a reggae compilation titled ORIGINAL SKA. By the time I’d done this, I was sitting in the parking lot of my office building, so I bookmarked the album and went inside.
Later that day on the way home I fired up Spotify and gave “Hooligan” a listen. The track didn’t really move me the way it did earlier in the day. It was probably a different version than what I heard on the radio. Regardless, I let the compilation play and discovered it contained a pretty good cover of “Son of a Preacher Man” by a band called The Gaylettes. The sound quality was terrible, but the vibe on the track blew me away. I got home and eyed the list of songs on ORIGINAL SKA. One track stood out among all the others: “Banana.” A reggae song called “Banana,” how cool was that? My mind reeled with the possibilities. Life is full of letdowns, and I’ve learned that very little ever lives up to our expectations. Still, I had to hear this song because it had such an interesting title. I figured the song would give me a chuckle and I’d move on with my life. Instead, I stumbled onto an incredibly awesome song with a murky, mysterious past.
Rather than being the depressing banana-picking song I had expected, “Banana” is a joyous ode to everyone’s favorite elongated, yellow fruit. It’s lighthearted, fun, and has a tremendous amount of charm. I played the song over and over for a few minutes, grinning from ear to ear like a moron. “Banana” is an awesome song that I truly love. I know I love it because I can’t rationally explain my affection for it.
I played the song for my wife and the members of my family, everyone who heard it liked it. “Banana” and it’s goofy lyrics even became a kind of shorthand between my and one of my sisters. I began texting them pictures of myself eating a banana with the caption “Everybody like it!” a lyric from the song. For most people, the story would end there: I found a really cool, obscure reggae song that cheers everybody up…The End. But being the songhound that I am, I couldn’t just stop there. I had to know was there more where this came from? Did the genius that cooked up “Banana” have a really great song about blintzes? I started by looking at ORIGINAL SKA which attributes “Banana” to an artist named E.K. Bunch. I did the logical thing, I clicked over to see what other songs E.K. Bunch had available on Spotify. But this proved to be a dead-end; there was only “Banana.”
I was confident that Google would provide more clues, so I searched E.K. Bunch “Banana” song. I was directed to a couple of videos where the people had recorded the song off their old 45 copies, but there was little else. Interestingly, I noticed that the song was often attributed to E.K. Bunch/The Pyramids. This was my first clue to the origin of “Banana.” But information proved to be scare on The Pyramids, so I kept listening to “Banana” and put the search for its source on hold. I didn’t give up per say, life just got in the way: I moved 800 miles away from my home in St. Louis and Thanksgiving happened. This week, however, I found myself in a strange city with no job but with lots of time on my hands. So I decided to get to the bottom of the E.K. Bunch mystery.
A visit to the Trojan Records website explained why tracking down “Banana” was so difficult: it turns out the band behind the song went by a bunch of names (pun intended). They were The Bees, Seven Letters, The Pyramids, E.K. Bunch, Zubaba, and Symarip. That last name, Symarip, was the key to blowing the lid off the entire “Banana” mystery. Having gained a majority of their fame as Symarip, this band name is the catch-all for the others. The band started out as The Bees and was formed in the 1960s by Michael Thomas and Frank Pitter who were of West Indian descent and lived in the United Kingdom. Eventually, The Bees added members and moved to Germany.
The band became Zubaba then The Pyramids and then ended up switching labels due to a dispute and wound up unable to use their name. Someone in the band decided to change their name to Pyramid spelled backwards…minus the letter ‘d.’ Somehow this name, probably with the help of a mystical herb, morphed into Symarip. This became the name they released and re-issued their songs under. Once I had all this figured out, I went back on Spotify and found a really cool live version of “Banana” on an album titled MOONSTOMPIN’ AT CLUB SKA.
While browsing the band’s Spotify page, I noticed that Symarip had a ton of songs about skinheads. I even realized, upon re-listening to “Banana,” that skinheads are mentioned in the song! How had I missed this earlier? I was shocked and worried. I was shocked because in the United States, and unfortunately most of the world today, the term skinhead has a very negative connotation. I was worried because it appeared on the surface that my new favorite song was racists!
Apparently the term skinhead has changed meaning over the years thanks in large part to a few bad apples. The skinhead movement began in the 1950s in the UK. At that time, a skinhead was basically a kid that wore work boots and jeans and liked American R&B music. These kids got together in dance halls and listened to ska and reggae music—which is why Symarip has a ton of songs devoted to skinheads. Eventually some of the skinheads became violent in the late 1960s and the term became associated with the White Power Movement in Europe.
It’s amazing to me that a chance encounter with a really old Bob Marley song led me down a path ending with the White Power Movement. This is the amazing part of being a music geek, the discovery not only of old music…but of the past itself. Maybe I get a bigger kick out of this sort of thing because I was briefly a history major in college, I don’t know. What I do know is that I love falling down the rabbit hole into obscure music and learning all these strange tidbits of trivia.
CASE CLOSED: “Banana” is an awesome song, dashed off by an obscure reggae band that changed its name multiple times. The first thing that you should do is go and listen to the song. Then listen to it again and again, dance if necessary. Then visit Trojan records website and read the entire history of The Pyramids.
Also, check out this pretty rad live version: