Nora Dean is one of reggae’s greatest mysteries. She sang solo as well as being a member of The Ebony Sisters, The Soul Sisters and The Soulettes. She did backing vocals on some recordings by Jimmy Cliff. Although she was not a prolific artist (especially by reggae standards), a number of her songs are very fondly remembered by fans of Jamaican music as true reggae classics. This is because Nora Dean brought something extra to her best songs, making them unusual and endlessly enjoyable. And yet, there is little biographical information about her anywhere. No interviews with her have ever been published. Photos seemed to be non-existent. Go through every reggae book, documentary, and liner note of the dozens of compilations her classic tracks appear on; you’ll learn that Nora Dean was born in 1952, and nothing more. Google until the search results are exhausted and, all you’ll learn is how many people share her name.
Somehow, the mystery is fitting for such an unusual singer.
Nora Dean is one of reggae’s best female vocalists. Listening to her music, it is immediately apparent that she has a great Jamaican voice. What might be slightly less obvious are the rich depths of her singing. This is what makes many of her recordings so special. An unexpected turn of melody, a well placed use of sounds instead of words, an emotional intensity and complexity that is very expressive. These are the hallmarks of the Nora Dean sound. Her songs are made all the more memorable by recording with some of Jamaica’s best producers, musicians and riddims. Oh, and there's also the sex. In all of her most memorable songs, there is sexuality. Each song presents a very different, unusual situation and the sexuality is always surprising. There's not a conventional love song in the bunch.
In “Barbwire” she plays babyishly naïve about a man’s advances. In “Mojo Girl”, she is serenely in full control. She lays down the law to her man, threatening him with black magic reprisals. In “Wreck A Buddy”, she is in desperate carnal need, with explicit lyrics to the melody of “Little Drummer Boy”. In “The Same Thing You Gave To Daddy”, she is in a battle of wills with her little boy, who won't go to sleep until he gets what Nora gave his daddy the night before. “Oh, no, no, no”, indeed! And in “Ay Ay Ay”, the music is deconstructed from reggae to a drone. Narrative is abandoned in favor of free association, and words become invocations that are supplemented with kisses, bird cries and groans of pure ecstasy.
But to be fair to the artist, Nora Dean would argue the point. She is a religious, righteous woman, who was born again in the late 1981. Some of her songs, she explained in early 2006, thought to be sexual in nature are actually misunderstood. In some cases, as a young girl she was pressured by producers to act outside of her character. (She was only about 15 when she started recording.) And at least one scandalous song, a cover of the mento song Night Food, Nora insists she did not record. She is upset that her name was affixed to a song she finds so repugnant.
The lyrical content aside, what is universally accepted is superb vocals and the enormous contribution that Nora Dean made to reggae music.
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