Sizzla In Africa

As Nas and Damian demonstrate on their latest album, black musicians of all stripes have long paid tribute to Africa. Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick were just some of those buying houses in Ghana during the seventies; Miriam Makeba lived in Guinea and Nina Simone chose Liberia as the place where she could retreat from the racism she encountered back in America.

Marcus Garvey would have been delighted with them, and yet there’s something not quite right about the news that Sizzla has now relocated to Zimbabwe after performing at President Robert Mugabe’s 86th birthday celebrations in February.

“I am here to stay,” Sizzla told the state-owned Sunday Mail weekly newspaper. “Zimbabwe is home, and I have received a tremendous welcome.”

His spokesperson Olimatta Taal confirmed that rather than pay the artist in cash for performing at President Mugabe’s birthday bash, Zanu-PF gave Sizzla land close to the town of Chegutu. “Instead of giving him cash (for his performance) they gave him land. It is very honourable that he would take land instead of cash,” Taal is reported as saying.
“He is in Zimbabwe because he loves Africa. He isn’t pro-Mugabe or anti-Mugabe, but he respects Mugabe as a leader.”

State-owned local media was quick to enthuse over Sizzla’s endorsement of Mugabe’s regime, with the Sunday Mail declaring that he “was the latest and most important visitor to be swayed by the infectious Zimbabwean touch”.
Olimatta Taal also said that Sizzla’s Zimbabwe move had nothing to do with allegations that he was on the run from Jamaican authorities for gun crimes allegedly committed less than a month before his trip to Africa.

“He (Sizzla) laughed when he heard the allegations,” Olimatta Taal said. “He doesn’t take it to heart.”
Reports from Jamaica confirm police arrested the controversial Rastaman on January 29th in connection with a shooting incident. He was picked up on the Wednesday night by August Town police after they received reports that men were firing guns in the vicinity of Judgment Yard, where Sizzla’s community is based.
We’re told the incident occurred sometime around 8:15 p.m and that Sizzla was arrested about fifteen minutes later. Reports suggest that a number of persons were drawing water from a river when an armed man approached them and fired several shots in their direction. No one was injured, but the incident was subsequently reported to the police and Sizzla identified as the gunman.

A senior officer at the Half-Way-Tree Police Station told RJR News that the singer’s hands were swabbed and samples sent to the government laboratory to determine whether he had fired a weapon.
The senior policeman declined to give any more details except we know that Sizzla was released a day later since no witnesses came forward.
A police spokesman said investigations were ongoing and suggested Sizzla “could be detained in the future, if the need arises”.

Asked about possible reasons behind the shooting, the police officer explained that a number of places in the August Town vicinity such as Judgement Yard, Goldsmith Villa and Hermitage have what he referred to as “constant friction.”

Regular Echoes’ readers will appreciate this is not Sizzla’s first run-in with the law. In 2005, he was taken into custody and questioned in relation to thirteen high-powered weapons the police had recovered from Judgement Yard. Sizzla was held and interrogated for three days but was released as he denied having any knowledge of the guns. Just to add spice to the latest escapade, Jay-Z was rumoured to be on the island for a video shoot and whilst he’s a known Sizzla fan, there’s no evidence to suggest he was present when the alleged incident took place.

Shortly afterwards, Sizzla left for Zimbabwe, where he commands a huge following after hits like Black Woman And Child and Thank You Mama. His visit was part of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority’s bid to help change people’s perception of Mugabe’s regime by using celebrities as tourism ambassadors of Zimbabwe.

“He has come under the tried and tested Celebrity Host Programme, the same programme that brought Joe Thomas, Luciano and Kanda Bongo Man,” confirmed Sugar Chagonda, who is a spokesperson for ZTA. “We have been working with several partners including the Ministry of Information, Media and Publicity and Rainbow Tourism Group among others,” Chagonda said.

Sizzla’s first show was the 21st February Movement Gala held at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair grounds in Bulawayo. This event was held to celebrate President Mugabe’s 86th birthday, and Sizzla’s appearance must have been a massive boost to the President’s popularity. He then performed at the Youth Reggae Festival at the Harare International Conference Centre, where he was treated to a rapturous welcome by fans.

Thousands had greeted him at the airport. Sizzla said he was honoured to be in Zimbabwe to grace the birthday celebrations of “a great revolutionary leader and Pan-Africanist who is fighting to uplift the livelihoods of marginalised Africans,” meaning President Mugabe.

“I’m on a back to Africa mission and it is an honour to be in Zimbabwe for myself and the government of Jamaica, since I couldn’t refuse such an honour of being invited to perform at the President’s birthday,” he said.

Media, Information and Publicity Minister Webster Shamu claimed Sizzla was “walking the same road that the late Bob Marley walked” thirty years earlier, after Marley and the Wailers had performed at Zimbabwe’s Independence Day celebrations on April 18th 1980.

“You are coming to perform for a man who stands for all the down-trodden people around the world,” he informed Sizzla. “A man who symbolises the spirit of Pan-Africanism.”

We later learned that Sizzla’s trip was made possible by the efforts of Nhamo Chitimbe, the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity and Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, who claimed Sizzla had to “forego lucrative shows in Europe” to attend, and said his office was on a mission to bring many reggae artists to Zimbabwe. Luciano performed there in 2007. Former Radio 1 DJ Chris Goldfinga and Maxi Priest have also performed there in recent months, whilst Red Rat isa rumoured to be next, after releasing an album called Rise Up Zimbabwe. Such events haven’t always ran smoothly, and Luciano was apparently met with a chorus of boos after praising Mugabe on stage, then comparing him with Emperor Haile Selassie I.

We heard there were crowd disturbances at Sizzla’s show in Bulawayo, after over-enthusistic fans toppled a fence in an effort to get closer to the stage. Riot police responded by vicously beating them, and this resulted in what’s been described as “ugly and escalating violence,” causing Sizzla to halt his performance and appeal for calm.

Previous to this, he’d been quite effusive in his praise for President Mugabe, after urging the veteran leader to “champion the cause of the return of the African people from the gates of hell they are living in Jamaica and the Caribbean.”

“I think he’s a good president, kind to his nation, just and true,” Sizzla declared. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s Sunday Mail reported Sizzla had been granted a work permit and was working to consolidate business enterprises he wished to establish locally.

“In Zimbabwe we have already started recording. I am also looking into areas I can invest in for the upliftment of Zimbabwean youths,” he was reported as saying.
Apart from announcing plans to set up agro-industries, he also made enquiries about investing in the local textile sector. The singer has since set up a recording studio in the plush northern Harare suburb of Borrowdale where he currently resides, and is working with local reggae group Transit Crew [the same band who backed Luciano on his recent trip to Zimbabwe] as he looks forward to recording his debut album on Zimbabwean soil.

Whether he objects to being called “new Mugabe praise singer” is a moot point. What we do know is that he’s been offered a farm in Mashonaland West province in exchange for his work in promoting Zanu PF public relations worldwide. [This is the same kind of deal as offered by South Africa’s apartheid regime during the sanctions imposed upon it many years ago.] Sources at the Ministry of Lands and Resettlement confirmed that Sizzla was indeed offered a farm.

“We have been instructed by our bosses to locate an appropriate white owned farm, preferably in Chegutu, for compulsory acquisition. Already efforts are being made to mobilise tractors and other equipment for him,” said a government official. Sizzla’s new farm is said to be in a prime agricultural area. A Jamaican spokesperson insists it wasn’t given to him in return for carrying out a public relations campaign for the Zanu-PF party, saying it was acquired in a straight business deal between the artiste’s company Judgement Yard and Zimbabwean authorities.

“The allocation of the farm land does not have any relation to any political party,” she said. “Instead of being paid cash for his performances, they gave him land. Although they [the Western media] want to discredit and criminalise him, it is very honourable that he would take land instead of cash,” she added, noting that the land he received is for the Rastafarian community.

This is contrary to what another government source suggests, which is that Sizzla was indeed given the farm in exchange for promoting Robert Mugabe’s international standing in the eyes of African people around the world, who’ve clearly forgotten the furore surrounding the Zimbabwean elections in March 2008, which were marked by widespread allegations of vote-rigging, and the brutal suppression of Mugabe’s chief rivals, the Movement For Democratic Change.

In the meantime, Internet postings claim he was paid US $150,000 for that first show in Bulawayo.

“Sizzla showed he has a big link with Mugabe and he often stopped the show to heap praise on him,” wrote one source. “The event was very, very ZANU PF, with ministers and other political bigwigs thanked throughout the concert. Sizzla touched on many topics, including land reform, diamonds and political violence and he showed, in his comments during the performance, that he’s aligned himself with our government.” The same person adds that he didn’t attend the Harare show as, “I did not want to see one of my idols being puppeted and spreadin government propoganda…”

John Masouri

Additional note: Mengistu Haile Mariam, formerly the most prominent officer of the Derg, the Communist military junta that governed Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987 after deposing Emperor Haile Selassie I and allegedly murdering members of His Imperial Majesty’s family, fled to Zimbabwe in 1991 at the end of the Ethiopian Civil War. Robert Mugabe granted him asylum and he remains in Zimbabwe to this day – this despite an Ethiopian court verdict finding him guilty in absentia of genocide.


Prophecy: Jamaica’s Man Of Vision

It takes a man of vision and character to bear the name of “Prophecy.” Jamaica especially is renowned for its musical prophets, except we’re now witnessing the emergence of a singer who feels it’s not enough to rely upon well-worn clichés in bringing about lasting change. By declaring his willingness to get involved and participate in just causes, Prophecy has set himself apart from most other reggae acts, who rely on music alone to spread a positive message.

Initially, he began donating books to schoolchildren in his native parish. It was the beginning of a journey that forms a parallel with acclaimed, international artists such as Jack Johnson, who’ve based their appeal not only on songs, but an allegiance with worthwhile causes. In Prophecy’s case, this has led to the establishment of the Prophecy Foundation; a non-profit, charitable institution aimed at increasing awareness of various educational and environmental issues, and helping to alleviate poverty and world hunger – enormous tasks he shares in co-operation with the World Food Program, either via local initiatives, or the support of international ventures like Earth Water or, which nourishes minds, as well as bodies. An articulate spokesperson on such matters, he believes education is the key to ending the cycle of poverty and inequality that afflicts so much of the world’s population, and endangers natural resources. To date, there are no other artists from Jamaica who’ve made green issues a focal point of what they do, in addition to helping people in need.

Prophecy stands alone, and his concern for the environment is hardly surprising. As a Rastaman, he’s long cherished Mother Nature. Also, he was born and raised in rural St. Thomas – an area renowned for its natural beauty, as well as its links with Jamaican freedom fighters Paul Bogle and George William Gordon. Real name Rohan Brown, he grew up in a family of Seventh Day Adventists. Prophecy’s early life was therefore defined by simplicity and a deep-seated sense of righteousness – qualities that have remained with him ever since, and drew him to the conscious reggae sounds of early musical influences such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs, Jacob Miller and Burning Spear. Despite studying electrical engineering, he always wanted to sing and play music, and especially songs with a cultural message.

“I want to make music that can elevate the mind of the common man and make things a little better through greater understanding of each other and our roles in this life,” he said right at the start of his career, and little has changed in the meantime.

In 1998 he entered the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s annual song contest with an original composition called Higher Ground, reaching the final. He then made his first recordings with help from a friend named Sonny Murphy, who also introduced him to Coxsone Dodd, owner of the famous Studio One label, where artists like Marley, Spear, Toots & The Maytals and Marcia Griffiths began their careers. Alas, Prophecy would be the last of Coxsone’s protégés – the legendary producer having passed away in 2004.

Two years beforehand, Prophecy had travelled to South Africa with Rita Marley and Chakademus & Pliers to perform at three AIDS awareness concerts. The tour group stayed in five-star hotels, but Prophecy asked to be taken to Soweto – a profoundly moving experience that inspired the song Chance, which the South African Broadcasting Corporation chose as a tribute to Lucky Dube. Prophecy describes the fallen reggae star as “a great warrior,” but says, “primarily though, Chance was done for all of the people suffering in Africa.”

The following year, he will emerge victorious in another contest that led to a remarkable debut at Reggae Sumfest – an occasion that inspired the Jamaica Observer to report how, “Prophecy wowed the unsuspecting crowd.” The Big Break Competition – sponsored by Red Stripe – had attracted over 800 entrants, and was created and managed by Jamaican radio station Irie FM on behalf of artists “who live the music and who know what it takes to be competitive in an international market.” Prophecy clearly fitted the bill, with Splash Magazine describing him as “one of the most dynamic new entertainers to grace Jamaican stages in recent times”. His winning entry, Don’t Come Tell Me, received widespread exposure in Jamaica, as did the accompanying video. The song itself, co-written with Marlon “Sojourner” De Cordova, had been inspired by events in places like Iraq. This led Prophecy to comment how although he hadn’t been there in person, “I was there in spirit, feeling what was happening and putting the cries of those who were there into my music.

“I always wanted to write from what I was saw happening around me,” he explains. “Friends and I, we would reason about life whilst always looking towards the conscious side, and seeing what is affecting the people. We sing about the plight of the people through music, and that was me from the beginning. I said to myself that I am the son of slaves and I have to find a way out, and the best way of doing that was not with a gun, but conscious meditation.”

In the aftermath of Don’t Come Tell Me, he enhanced his popularity in Jamaica with performances at Rebel Salute, East Fest, St. Mary Me Come From, Western Consciousness, Black My Story, St. Thomas Fiesta and Irie FM’s Marcus Garvey celebrations, as well as school tours throughout the various parishes. Whilst refusing overtures from producers looking to exploit him, he also continued to write songs of real depth and meaning – most notably on titles like Chance, Dem Wrong, Don’t Come Tell Me, Clearly, and Sacrifice, which allay persuasive vocals to powerful, original arrangements and rhythms. These are now hallmarks of the Prophecy sound. In his own words, he writes songs designed to reach out and appeal to people “from anywhere, and at anytime.” We can hear the proof of this in other, remarkable anthems such as Body Bag, Puff And Pass, Fight The Fight and Can’t Take It Anymore – also a brilliant reworking of Party In Session, shared with Michael Rose and a former No. 1 reggae hit in Italy. Tracks such as these are expected to feature on his eagerly awaited debut album Break Loose. Its release is sure to herald the arrival of a major new star from Jamaica – one who not only blazes a unique trail with his music, but also seeks to bring about important changes in the world we live in.

“We have to build a better future for the next generation and it has to start from somewhere, so why not right here and now?” he asks determinedly. “One small step can change someone’s life journey, and I feel certain we can make tremendous strides forward if we try. We may not start off with a lot but from we care enough and have vision, then we can always find ways and means in making a difference.”

John Masouri

Bunny Wailer: Blackheart Man

Bunny Wailer is the only surviving member of the Wailers’ vocal trio, which makes him reggae royalty in anyone’s book. It’s his voice soaring alongside those of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh on ska sides recorded at Studio One back in the sixties, as well as sessions produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry that yielded unforgettable early versions of songs like Dreamland, Kaya, Sun Is Shining and Duppy Conqueror. Bunny was also there for the Catch A Fire and Burnin’ albums, released by Island, but then opted from touring and signed a solo deal that resulted in one of the greatest reggae sets of all time, Blackheart Man – more of which later.

In recent years, he’s toured with Ziggy and Stephen Marley and recorded with their brother Damian, in-between releasing the occasional album of his own and starring [both as orator and performer] in Jerome Laperrousaz’s film Made In Jamaica. Halfway through that movie, Bunny sings I Shot The Sheriff dressed in a cowboy outfit. The reggae faithful were stunned, but then he’s hardly a stranger to controversy. Last year he made a notable appearance at the Rototum Festival in Italy, where he clashed with Chris Blackwell at a Reggae University seminar. This happened shortly after he’d declined to participate in Island’s 50th Anniversary celebrations.

“I’ve learnt that if you don’t have anything good to say about someone, then don’t say nothing,” he now says with a smile, after I’d asked him about this. “Silence is golden, but it also speaks volumes, you know what I mean? It’s good to just keep your mouth shut and anyway, they’ve got their own toilets to clean out…”

The enmity between him and Blackwell is longstanding, and was something he mentioned during my first interview with him, twenty years ago this month. It was to be my first-ever feature in Echoes and when I mentioned this he replied, “Better make it a good one then.” I later discovered my tape recorder hadn’t worked properly and I could barely make out a word he’d said. It was my first lesson in “the show must go on,” and a valuable one.

Two decades later and we’re back where we started, except this time we’re due to speak about his licensing deal with digital distributors Zojak, who’ve reissued a special edition of Blackheart Man complete with bonus tracks, and will be making his entire output available for download over the coming months. This is a significant development, and underlines just how far the new medium’s come in recent times.

By his own admission, Blackheart Man is Bunny’s piece de resistance, and deserving of a place alongside other seminal seventies’ albums by the likes of Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Bob Marley… We could add a few more names to that list except it’s an elite group we’re talking about – one responsible for landmark releases that redefined their genre, and still make essential listening today.

“I’ve made other albums that are good in certain aspects, but Blackheart Man was the first and as we all know, the first cut is the deepest,” he says. “There are a lot of people who feel the same way about it too, because everywhere I go in the world people approach me thanking me for that album. Some people tell me it’s changed their lives, and that listening to it has made them better people.”

Blackheart Man tells of the Rastafarians’ journey, and dates from a time [1976] when relatively little was known of the faith outside of Jamaica. Bunny calls it “a phenomenon” and takes pride in how it’s helped present Rastafari in a good light, despite so much negative media attention.

“Yes, because Rastafarians have been ridiculed, they’ve been abused and accused of doing all kinds of religious misdeeds,” he snarls. “For instance, a lot of people have yet to come to terms with the fact that His Imperial Majesty is the supreme power of all creation, even though there’s people of every race serving Emperor Haile Selassie I.”

Bunny says albums like Blackheart Man were responsible for keeping people on the right track and making them feel proud of themselves.

“They were records in the fullest sense,” he explains, “they weren’t just recordings, like this disposable stuff you listen to for a minute or two and then forget about. The stuff we did back then is eternal, but my own work is coming from the Wailers because even before I embarked on my solo career, I was being trained and prepared for an album like Blackheart Man. If you notice, the Wailers never sang any songs with racism in them or anything suggesting any kind of superiority or inferiority complex. We never tried to put down people or put up people. The Wailers made songs for different moments and attitudes among people, so I try and stay within those same areas and teach people to remain conscious and aware of things that are significant. That’s why I believe that everything we did as Wailers has been good. There were never bad situations between us. Even when we separated, you’d still hear good things coming from the Wailers so I’m satisfied with all that has been achieved and I’m also satisfied in knowing that I, Bunny Wailer, have been a part of it all. It makes me feel real proud and it gives me strength in continuing to represent the Wailers in all areas.”

Bunny’s legacy since Blackheart Man has been up and down in truth. Protest disappointed, but then as Jamaica fell victim to political warfare, he unleashed a series of songs commenting on social issues that remain among his best-ever work. Innocent Blood, Trouble On The Road Again, Liberation [talking about the uncertainties faced by the poor], Cease Fire, Struggle, Unity, Peace Talks, Tugawar Game, Power Strugglers and Boderation – mainly produced for his own Solomonic label – all resulted from this period. Other highlights of his early solo career include Love Fire, Bide Up, Rockers and Bright Soul, as well as Crucial. In the lead-up to the 1980 election, Edward Seaga used the latter as a campaign song, making it appear as if Bunny supported the JLP. Manley had been in power for eight years; there was little food in the shops and record unemployment, which must have lent Bunny’s phrase “my belly filled with white squall” additional resonance. At the same time, Manley used Marley’s Bad Card as his campaign song, which made it look like the two former Wailers were in opposition with one another. Not so, and when Marley succumbed to cancer in 1981, it was Bunny, his childhood friend, who paid his respects more memorably than anyone else with two albums of Wailers and Marley cover versions.

By then, he’d embraced early dancehall on songs like Dance Hall Music, Cool Runnings, Ballroom Floor and Rock ‘N’ Groove, which boasted an up-to-date sound. Whilst there were further gems tucked away on later albums like Hook, Line & Sinker, Marketplace, Liberation, Gumption and Dance Massive – especially Rise And Shine and Ram Dancehall – it wasn’t until the Grammy-winning Hall Of Fame, recorded in further tribute to Marley, that he again lived up to his reputation.

His next solo album will be called Unite, although he’s also been taking care of a little family business in the meantime.

“Yes, because my daughter has now joined me in this artistic affair, and I’ve just done an album with her called Save The People which I produced and arranged,” he says proudly. “In fact I put a lot of Bunny Wailer in it just to make sure it has that Wailers’ legend about it but it’s a great album and I’m very proud that my daughter has taken up the baton.”

I tell Bunny that I saw his daughter [who records and performs under the name Sen C Love] in Amsterdam last year, where she accompanied herself on acoustic guitar and cast a spell over the crowd with her Rasta-infused brand of folk songs.

“Yes, because she also plays guitar,” he responds. “When I was nine years of age with Bob in St. Ann’s, I made guitars from bamboo and a sardine tin, using electrical wires that we cut and take out the copper wires for strings. That was my hobby and I did it to entertain the local people because there was no electricity, no jukeboxes and no nothing in St. Ann’s at that time so Sen C Love is only manifesting those things that are in Bunny Wailer as far as playing a guitar is concerned, because I didn’t teach her to do that. No, it’s something in my genes that she inherited but she makes her songs by playing her guitar and then we take it from there, producing these records and giving them the treatment they deserve. I think her songs are really advanced, and certainly in relation to her career, which has only just got started.

“I’ve also been working on a compilation with eleven of the most outstanding female artistes from Jamaica called Combinations. Sometimes things happen so rapidly in music that a lot of good people get left behind, so I’m trying to see if I can rally back some of them now. We’ve got Lady Patra, Lady G, Macka Diamond, Sister Carol and Lady Junie, who’s now changed her name to Platinum… Also Queen Ifrica, who sings an answer version to She’s Royal called She’s An Empress, addressed to female Rastafarians and that’ll give them reasons to stand up and hold firm.”

As a Rasta elder, Bunny takes his responsibilities to the faith seriously, which is why he’s helped found a school in Kingston where pupils can learn to cherish and build upon their rich, cultural legacy.

“Yes, the school is called the Solomonic All Saints Preparatory College where we teach children aged between four and eleven, so I’m now in the business of educating youngsters as well,” he explains. “We have to be working from the syllabus given us by the ministry but we’ve added our stuff too. We’ve added African history and included one or two African languages as part of the foreign language options alongside Spanish and French. We’ll be teaching agriculture as well because we’re going to make sure our children know how to plant, and we want them to know the principles of the food they eat, because that’s very important.”

This is something Bunny also knows a lot about, since he’s been farming ever since the early seventies. After cultivating sixty acres of coconut trees, he says to watch out for Solomonic ital jelly and coconut water going on sale in Jamaica very soon!

On a more serious note, the venerable Wailer’s a profound thinker, and articulates the present-day struggles faced by ghetto people in Jamaica more clearly than anyone else I know. Lack of space means we can’t include too many of his thoughts on that subject here, but his main concern is the issue of “garrisons” – closed communities divided along political lines and manned by children and youths armed with sophisticated weapons provided by shadowy JLP and PNP enforcers.

“Imagine you are born into a community and you can’t leave there until the day you die,” he says, “and all because of political isms and schisms. What’s more, the people who’ve created these situations seem like they’re trying to disassociate themselves from the situation. They want to divorce themselves from the repercussions of their own doings. Right now, all of this doesn’t concern the upper and middle class people. They aren’t the ones dying in the streets or being gunned down because it’s concentrated in the lesser-privileged communities but somehow or somewhere down the road there’s going to be a twist of fate, and with so many guns in the hands of these youths, and all of the incitement to violence that’s coming from politicians looking to gain political mileage this situation could very well turn into ethnic cleansing, right here in Jamaica. That’s why I’m desperately trying to open the youths’ eyes and let them see where we might be headed. Nobody seems to want to deal with it though. Everyone is just pressing forward but I’m trying to stop the train and tell the drivers, ‘Hey, we’re headed over the cliff,’ so I’m still here, desperately trying to wake up the consciousness of the people…”

John Masouri

The Marley Family Legacy

From left to right: Ky-mani, Julian, Ziggy, Damian and Stephen Marley.

“Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins.” Genesis Chapter 35, Verse 11.

Thanks to a trio of groundbreaking albums – Halfway Tree, Welcome To Jamrock and now Distant Relatives, shared with Nas – it’s Bob Marley’s youngest son Damian who provides the face and sound of reggae music for a younger generation. The artist also known as “Junior Gong” is one of the world’s most important musical voices, except it hasn’t always been that way. Twenty years ago, older brother Ziggy was being hailed as successor to his father’s crown, and it was his music playing on the Billboard charts.

This shift in the family’s fortunes has kept the Marley name in the spotlight ever since that fateful day in May 1981, when “the Gong” was laid to rest in his native St. Ann’s. His legendary status is now unassailable, and following him remains an unenviable task for any would-be reggae star, and not least those bearing his name. To be fair, those of his sons taking up the baton have worked hard in trying to assert their own personalities, and keeping their brand of reggae sounding fresh and modern. Despite this, people have been quick to criticise them – mainly because of envy, and the fact they haven’t paid much attention to local goings-on, but looked further afield. They are plenty of commentators then, who’ll draw attention to the fact that their name gives them an unfair advantage and they all receive generous monthly allowances – this in addition to what they earn individually by touring and recording. It’s also a concern to some that they’re worth considerably more than the musicians who actually earned them all that money in the first place – i.e. the Wailers. Others will point out that despite such privileges, they still needed to deliver the goods, which is what Damian, Stephen, Ky-mani, Julian and Ziggy have more or less continued to do over the years, or at least since the younger Marleys came into their own, during the mid-to-late nineties.

Rita gave birth to Ziggy, real name David, in 1968, during a time when the Wailers were struggling to survive. Bunny Livingstone was in jail on ganja charges, and Bob and Peter had signed to Johnny Nash and Danny Sims’ label as songwriters – an arrangement that led to songs like Guava Jelly and Stir It Up getting international attention, even before they signed to Island. Bob and Rita already had two daughters by then. The oldest, Sharon, wasn’t Bob’s child but he treated her as his own, whilst Cedella – known affectionately as “Nice Time” – was born a year before Ziggy. Rita had to combine singing with nursing, and they weren’t all that better off when they had Stephen four years later, in 1972. Bob was closest to these four children than any of the others he’ll have outside of his marriage to Rita. They saw him at work on stage and in the studio, and witnessed firsthand how he wrote and recorded his music, and handled his business affairs. They are the primary keepers of the Marley flame and took the first steps in making music of their own after Bob wrote them a song called Children Playing in The Streets, which Tuff Gong released on 45 just a year or so before the Melody Makers, as they were then known, sang it at his funeral.

Their first album, Play The Game Right, was released in 1985, when Ziggy was just seventeen. EMI had signed them around the time of the Legend tour, headlined by the I Threes and Wailers. Yet it was the youthful quartet with the bright, poppy songs and dance routines that caught the eye. Stephen even flashed a little dancehall style on Unuh Listen Yet, but it was songs like Reggae Is Now that pointed the way forward. Hey World followed a year later, in 1986. The group was now billed as Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers since he was the undoubted focal point. It was Ziggy who wrote the majority of their songs, and sang lead vocals. He also kept the group together, and helped arrange the girls’ harmonies. Ultimately, the Melody Makers’ pop sensibilities will lose them support from reggae audiences except they still managed to retain a roots element on each of their albums, as songs like 666 or Police Brutality from Hey World would clearly demonstrate.

Their breakthrough will arrive with Conscious Party, produced by the Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth. By now, the Melody Makers had signed to Virgin, who helped steer Tomorrow’s People into the Top 30 on both sides of the Atlantic. This was in early 1988, when the likes of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince, Cher and Kylie Minogue ruled the airwaves. Fellow reggae chart acts included Maxi Priest, UB40 and Aswad, who also had to water down their sound in order to attain crossover success. Conscious Party and the Melody Makers’ follow-up album, One Bright Day, both won Reggae Grammy Awards as the eighties drew to a close. By this time Cedella had embarked on an acting career (after appearing in Mighty Quinn, starring Denzil Washington), and Ziggy was viewed as a major star, at least in mainstream circles – reggae audiences being too caught up in the battles between Shabba and Ninjaman, or Steely & Clevie’s futuristic ragga innovations to really notice.

The Marley family’s reputation would diminish throughout the nineties, despite the Melody Makers making music of increasing maturity (on Jahmekya and Joy And Blues respectively) and the emergence of various “outside” siblings. Such lack of regard was probably linked to Rita’s handling of Marley’s Estate after she was accused of fraud, had attempted to freeze out the other mothers and sidelined the Wailers. Her four children switched to Elektra for their 1995 album Free Like We Want 2 B. Stephen was noticeably growing in confidence, and now sharing vocal and writing duties alongside Ziggy as the band charted a course between reggae, hip hop, pop and dance music. Cedella was duly installed as A & R at Tuff Gong, where she’ll balance stewardship of newcomers like Yvad with further acting roles. Yet there’ll be little to shout about from Tuff Gong, despite the rest of Jamaica reeling from a next generation of roots messengers led by the likes of Garnet Silk, Luciano and Sizzla. A new crop of Marleys will emerge however. 1996 marked the arrival of Julian (with Lion In The Morning), who’d been born during the triumphant Natty Dread tour of 1975; Damian (with Mr. Marley), whose mother was former Miss World Cindy Breakspeare, and Ky-mani – the son of Jamaican table tennis champion Anita Belnavis, who made his debut with an album of Marley covers called Like Father Like Son. Another brother, Rohan, played professional football in Canada but it was Ziggy and the Melody Makers who scooped up most accolades after winning a third Grammy for their 1997 album, Fallen From Babylon – a progressive-minded set featuring guest slots by Wyclef and Damian, as well as a dancehall-inspired cover of People Get Ready. At their best – and it’s easier to see such things with hindsight – the Melody Makers made uplifting reggae music fit for a young, international audience and which continued to reflect their Jamaican roots, even if it did suffer from over-production at times. They were a band of their time, and the level of success they experienced throughout the late eighties and well into the nineties really shouldn’t be overlooked.

By the end of that decade, their run was virtually over. Ziggy was now a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations and the whole family involved with charitable schemes, either in Jamaica (where they initiated various food programmes) or places like Africa. Ziggy’s 1999 album The Spirit Of Music found him returning to basics and recording in a style – both lyrically and musically – that was remarkably free of artifice or compromise. It was at this point that the Marley brothers began to reinvent themselves and through the auspices of their own Ghetto Youths Unite label, draw closer to the local grassroots’ scene than ever before. Although not without first flinging the doors of the family treasure chest wide open to an impressive line-up of American rap, r & b and rock artists.

Chant Down Babylon had its critics, mainly from purists who objected to the Marleys taking their father’s master tapes, stripping off the vocals and placing them on reggae/hip hop grooves, where the likes of Erykah Badu, Guru from Gang Starr, Rakim, Busta Rhymes, Chuck D, the Roots and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry awaited them. Not every track worked, but when they did – as on No More Trouble, Rastaman Chant, Guiltiness and the Marley Brothers’ own Kinky Reggae – the results blew most other such collaborations out the water. Here was an album that broke new ground; was funky as hell, repackaged their father’s music for a younger audience and spawned a sizable hit in the shape of Turn Your Lights Down Low co-starring Lauryn Hill, who just happened to be Rohan’s new girlfriend (and has subsequently had five children with him.) Released hot on the heels of a dancehall explosion that found Beenie Man and Mr. Vegas racing up the UK charts, Chant Down Babylon was both artistic triumph and a fabulous public relations exercise for the Marley clan, who wasted no time hosting a show in Jamaica featuring themselves and a majority of the album’s co-stars, plus Tracy Chapman and Queen Latifah.

One family member noticeable by his absence was Ky-mani, whose open letter to his father, Dear Dad, is still the most moving tribute to Bob Marley ever recorded. His next two albums, The Journey and Many More Roads, will establish him as a worthy addition to the clan, despite the kind of differences outlined in his recent book, Dear Dad. Alone among his brothers and sisters, Ky-mani had a ghetto upbringing – a handicap that’s lent his music undeniable strength at times. Many More Roads earned him popularity in reggae dances but it was Damian’s Grammy winning Halfway Tree that ripped up the formbook and revealed the real gem nestled in the family’s midst. Unlike his other brothers, Damian didn’t try to sound like his father, or use the same vocal inflections (something that Stephen, in particular, does repeatedly.) He’s best described as a sing-jay, since his delivery is a melodic blend of rapping and singing that’s found favour with people from far outside of reggae or hip hop’s usual boundaries. It Was Written, co-starring Capleton, Still Searchin’ (with Yami Bolo), Educated Fools (with Treach, Bounty Killer and Bunny Wailer) were among the highlights but Halfway Tree remains a seminal album, and is best heard in its entirety in any case. With its mix of different styles – from roots and reality to love songs and ghetto poetry – it will serve as the blueprint for his biggest-selling solo album to date, 2005’s all-conquering Welcome To Jamrock.

By the time that was released, Ky-mani had starred in three films – Shottas, One Love (with Cherine Anderson) and Haven – as well as gracing albums by Young Buck and Ms Dynamite. His 2007 album Radio will draw heavily upon hip hop influences, even as he toured with Van Halen and starred in a BET series called Living The Life Of Marley. Julian too, stepped up and made his mark with A Time & Place, which he’d heralded with a serious roots tune called System. His follow-up album, Awake, has its moments, yet he lacks Damian and Ky-mani’s charisma, and also the kind of stature granted to those belonging to the family’s inner sanctum, as enjoyed by Rita’s offspring. Ziggy is now at something of a crossroads. Whilst his younger brothers courted hip hop celebrities or remained mindful of what urban radio might play, he pursued another direction entirely by recording material that’s closer to folk and rock than reggae on the albums Dragonfly and Love Is My Religion. Since then he’s ran the risk of appearing desperate by lending his name to old school reggae compilations and releasing the somewhat embarrassing children’s album, Family Time. Now based in Los Angeles, Ziggy is reportedly estranged from certain family members after expressing his disapproval of how the Estate is administered. His albums aren’t selling in great quantities and yet he remains a mesmerising performer on a good night. Importantly, his commitment to various charities – especially those aiding children – is unquestionable, but he’s left us wondering whether he still has the hunger and determination to make great records.

As we enter the twenty-teens, it is Stephen and Damian who lead the Marley pack. We discuss Damian’s contributions at length in another article, but Stephen, like Ziggy, remains an enigma. He’s certainly popular among Stateside artists, after having lent Bob-like vocals to tracks by the Fugees (No Woman No Cry), Michael Franti, Krayzie Bone, Erykah Badu, Dead Prez, Eve and Mr. Cheeks, to name but a few. He’s clearly a gifted producer too, since it was he who oversaw the Chant Down Babylon project and also Damian’s albums, as well a various artists’ compilation called Educated Fools. But whilst his vocal and production skills remain in demand, Stephen’s own solo efforts have fallen by the wayside. Got Music was quickly withdrawn by Universal, whilst 2007’s Mind Control received a mixed response from reviewers and record buyers alike, despite featuring the likes of Mos Def, Mr. Cheeks, Ben Harper and brothers Julian and Damian. The latter is outstanding on former single The Traffic Jam, and Mind Control did finally win a Grammy after appearing in acoustic guise and yet it still can’t be described as an unqualified success, or an especially convincing one.

At least he’s not trying to capitalise on the family name by selling coffee (Rohan), clothes (Cedella and Rohan) or burgers (Rita, at a theme park in Orlando), but make the best music he can and take reggae in another direction – to widen its appeal, and enable it to reach as many new fans as possible. This, essentially, lies at the heart of the Marley brothers’ contributions because whilst honouring the roots of their music, they’ve never ceased trying to move it forward, just as their father did when experimenting with primitive drum machines back in 1974, or fusing reggae with soul and disco on tracks like Could You Be Loved. And no matter how we assess their individual worth (because even Damian will struggle to attain such iconic status), it’s a miracle that one man should produce so many talented children – and especially bearing in mind he died long before such qualities had time to develop.

John Masouri

Wingless Angels: The Second Coming

Wingless Angels - Justin Hinds is seated in the centre

Twelve years ago, I reviewed the first Wingless Angels’ album and expressed amazement that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones – a man who’s renowned for epitomising the rock and roll lifestyle like no other, at least in the past – should have bonded with a group of Rastafarian singers and drummers on Jamaica’s north coast and made music of such deep, spiritual grace, especially as the Angels were led by Justin Hinds, whom I’d met and knew to be a self-effacing and humble person who couldn’t have been further removed from rock star style excess. Talk about a meeting of opposites. The idea of him and “Keef” finding common ground seemed far-fetched at the time, but then with repeated plays the songs began to work their magic and different feelings emerged. Soon, disdain gave way to something a little more reflective [and not to say more charitable] and I came to realise that it wasn’t just the idyllic setting on Jamaica’s north coast that had provided Keith with a refuge or even the locals’ indifference to his fame and notoriety, but the very music itself. In the same way that nyahbinghi rhythms and chanting bring Rastafarians release from their everyday cares, they afford Keith Richards the very same thing. In the company of these simple people, wise beyond measure after a lifetime of natural living and Bible teachings, he could shed the skin of being Keith Richards, rock star extraordinaire, and simply be himself. There was no pressure on him to live up to expectations, or act in a certain kind of way. He could just be an ordinary person who enjoys a laugh and a spliff and playing his guitar, free of obligations to record companies, paying audiences or band politics. When you’re as well known as him, such a degree of freedom must be priceless and it’s little wonder he fell under the Angels’ spell and then wanted to pay tribute to Justin in some way after the singer’s untimely death in 2005.

The first Wingless Angels’ album was recorded in Keith’s living-room at a house he’d bought near Ocho Rios after the Stones’ sessions in Kingston nearly thirty years earlier. It’s church music in its simplest form, sang and chanted to the accompaniment of Rasta drums, and with the sound of crickets in the damp, warm, Jamaican night embellishing every track. Scenes like that stretch back to the beginning of time, and are universal in the truest sense. It’s this same heartbeat that resides at the core of so much roots reggae music from Jamaica – something an ardent reggae fan like Keith Richards recognised only too well. He’d made cassette recordings of the Angels’ sessions for years before Rob Fraboni turned up at his house with a mobile studio in 1995. Three years later, Keith released it on his own Mindless label where it quietly slipped into obscurity, until now. Next month he’s about to release a deluxe version, complete with fresh recordings taped a year before Justin Hinds’ passing.

These additional recordings were made at a small studio in the Cobaya Botanical Gardens near Ocho Rios. They were produced by Brian Jobson, who sat the musicians in a semi-circle, set up a few microphones and in his own words, “captured the moment and the magic, warts and all” since the tempos inevitably change on certain tracks.

“You can’t get artsy with the tracks or anything,” Keith told Roger Steffens. “ It is what it is. They’ve just got to feel free just to do it and that’s it.” After the session was recorded, nothing much happened until Justin died. Keith then phoned Brian, saying they should release it as a tribute to the singer who’d recorded a string of hits for Treasure Isle’s Duke Reid during the ska and rocksteady eras [including Save A Bread, Here I Stand and Carry Go Bring Come], and then briefly emerged from self-imposed exile with albums for Jack Ruby and Nighthawk.

“I really wanted to make it a little bit more modern than the first one,” explains Brian. “After we’d recorded the initial session, I’d overdubbed bass and Keith had overdubbed guitar and we’d just left it like that because he was busy with the Stones. He then asked if I could fix up the tracks and so I did that, and then I added a few more modern touches as well. On the first album they’d used some of the older guys but I wanted to use some of the newer, younger musicians on this second one so I got Lili Haydn, who is an electric violinist, and changed it up a bit. What we were trying to do was make it into a tribute to Justin, and showcasing his voice. Basically that’s what it is now, and then they had the idea of putting it out together with the first album and some of Keith’s drawings. It’s a wonderful project and when I think back to how it came about and all the different characters involved, I can’t put it on and not smile! Those sessions were so much fun, and yet at the same time it was so joyous. It’s so different to everything else that’s out there.”

Do you know if there any plans to tour?
“Well, they’ve always been talking about it but trying to get them together is difficult,” he says, laughing. “It’s always a case of “soon come” and they’re so laidback. They just get together almost every night, playing and singing like that. They don’t have any kind of formal set-up. It’s just like friends getting together and it’s so loose, it might spoil things if they made into something more formal. When they came into the studio, Justin would lead off and they’d all slowly join in and start singing. It would take five or ten minutes for everyone to find their feet and then when everything falls into place and the harmonies come together, then it would all take off. That’s when they get their wings and soar, after about half an hour and then they wouldn’t want to stop so I’d have to say, ‘Okay, that’s enough now!’”

Apart from Justin himself, they’ve lost other key members like Vincent “Jackie” Ellis and Locksley Whitlock since the Wingless Angels first came to wider attention. Maureen Fremantle, who combines singing and writing with selling trinkets on the beach is still there and so tooWarren Williamson and Milton “Neville” Beckerd, who is caretaker of the group’s collection of hand drums. Brian’s brother Wayne Jobson, director of the Peter Tosh film Stepping Razor: Red X and a well-known radio and telvision presenter in Los Angeles, say it’s supposed to take twenty, twenty-five years for Rasta drums to get cured.

“That’s why that first Wingless Angels’ project took so long, because they were just jamming and curing the drums!” he says. “Then finally now, fifteen years later, they did the second album but the whole process has taken nearly forty years in total and that’s how long Keith has been jamming and singing with them really.
“Steer Town and Mammee Bay were our nearest towns when Brian and I were growing up and anytime we needed to drive to the coast, we’d have to pass through there, y’know? Steer Town was the first Rasta town and in those days Rasta was like the “black heart man.” They were viewed as dangerous guys and so everybody was scared of them. We were just kids, and that’s how we’d been conditioned to think and yet it wasn’t like that because these were the most righteous form of Rastas. Justin, he was like the godfather of Steer Town and supported a lot of the people there but it was nice to see him and Keith together, because there was a strong bond between them.”

Brian describes Justin as “a very special person.

“When I was a kid growing up he was the local pop star. He’d sang those big hit songs like Carry Go Bring Come and I couldn’t believe he was living just down the road from us but over the years we’d all become really good friends. The rest of them were the dreads from up in his area. It was like a family and they all live in this village just above St. Ann’s Bay. A lot of the original Rastas came from St. Ann’s and they still have a really tight community up there. Everyone looks out for everyone else and they all love Keith and look out for him too. They take good care of him and whilst they know he’s a musician, they don’t realise the stature of him I don’t think, because no one’s running him down or anything like that. He can just sit at the bar and chat with people and that comes through on the album as well, because he’s just one of the musicians really.”

John Masouri

Busy Signal: The Difference Of Busy

Within five years, Busy Signal has risen from obscurity to take his place at the forefront of Jamaican dancehall music. That’s because whilst Vybz Kartel courts the most controversy and the likes of Sean Paul and Beenie Man are better known internationally, it’s Busy who continues to push back the boundaries and release the more interesting material.

His latest album, D. O. B, stands for either “Difference Of Busy” or “Dominance Of Busy,” according to preference. Both fit and the former even more so since there’s hardly a track on it that sounds the same, or doesn’t challenge what we may think about where dancehall music’s headed next. Just like Sean Paul, Busy takes it upon himself to support young Jamaican producers whenever he can. This is what gives so much of his music its progressive, cutting edge and especially whenever he teams up with Stephen McGregor, who produced the tracks How Yuh Bad So and Hairdresser Shop.

“Before Stephen, we had the same beat for years!” Busy exclaims. “He changed it up and that was long overdue because it’s a new generation now. It’s not the era of King Stitt or Papa San. It’s not the era of Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton. It’s not the era of Chakademus & Pliers. It’s a new era and we have so many new producers now, plus studio is so different these days because there are millions of sounds you can use. The way people produce, it’s all about using different plug-ins and frequencies and that’s why we’re hearing all these different elements coming into dancehall now. There’s a whole bunch of stuff we can incorporate into our music and that’s given a real facelift to dancehall. It’s made it more exciting, I think.”

The truth of this statement is unmistakable. Picante for example, bears Spanish influences, whilst recent single Jafrican T’ing is a genre-defying fusion of African and Caribbean styles. DJ Karim is another of Busy’s regular collaborators. He has a track on the latest album called Opera that sounds just like classical music, as Busy chats about how he, “change up the style like transmission.” This much is true, since we never know what to expect next! One minute he’s delivering soul-baring reality songs like Nah Go A Jail Again, and then making chart and club-friendly hits like Unknown Number the next. He’s also a decent producer in his own right, dating back to his first album, Step Out, from 2006. His own label is called Turf Muzik, and apart from including Nuh Boy Caan Buy Wi Out as an acapella, so “the DJs can have a treat with it and put it on different rhythms and everything,” he also had a hand in producing Busy Latino, which is a wonderful mix of Jamaican dancehall and Latin music.

Whilst he doesn’t play any instruments professionally, he’s got an ear for music and knows what he wants to hear. Typically self-effacing, he also pays credit to the team he has around him and especially Shane Brown, who acts as his manager whilst releasing hits on the Juke Boxx label by the likes of Shaggy, Morgan Heritage, Tarrus Riley and others. It was Shane who produced Unknown Number, Hey Girl, Curfew and those recent cuts of Stalag, including High Grade and Call The Hearse. The pair are presently putting finishing touches to a studio of their own up by Hope Road, not too far from the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston and whilst it’s early days yet, these new facilities could well prove the nerve centre of Jamaican music in future.

In the meantime, Call The Hearse finds Busy chatting about “pure dead body in the street.” As a ghetto youth himself, Busy knows all about the crime and violence plaguing Kingston’s mean streets. On tracks such as Bigger Heads and Who’s To Blame, he leaves us in no doubt as to whom he believes is responsible for such problems, or who ends up paying the cost. With this in mind, there’s a line in Peace Reign – again produced by Shane – where Busy claims, “the good suffers for the bad, right down to the baby” and the reality of that statement is undeniable.

“Some people may listen to that track and think it’s harsh, but that’s how it is,” Busy explains. “It’s reality and we see it firsthand everyday because there’s no denying the crime or the poverty we have down here.”

Although born in St. Ann’s and raised in Brown’s Town, Busy – real name Reanno Gordon – spent time in Tivoli Gardens as a youngster and therefore has much to say about what happened in Kingston’s most notorious ghetto the other month, when security forces massacred many of the inhabitants.
“Yeah, I used to live there and so it was heartbreaking to see what happened there because the politicians, they are the ones that build it. This thing was set up way before my birth. It was from Seaga time and then Jim Brown coming right the way up to Dudus,” he begins. “It wasn’t just from the other day and yet Tivoli Gardens has been cleaned up over the years. For a long time there was no crime and violence; nobody would rob you or take anything… They were having parties at Passa Passa and people could go there to enjoy themselves, knowing that nobody was going to be breaking into their cars or trying to rape them. There was a whole different thing going on there that had nothing to do with politics and all of that corruption.

“All of that is gone now, and nobody knows what is going to happen. For the time being they’ve stationed some soldiers there and also a lot of police but they’ve got to move out sometime, and then there will be other people come in taking over from Dudus. That’s the way it’s always been over the years. People fill in the slots, take over the vacancies and that’s the way it goes. We’ll see new faces emerge saying, ‘A me a run this now,’ and they’ll build up the same thing again. I’m interested to see what will happen when voting time come around though because politics is what caused all of this and whenever it come to that time again, then hopefully we’re going to see something new. Tivoli Gardens has been a stronghold for the JLP side from ever since. It’s always been a JLP area and whosoever wants to vote for a different party would have to leave, because they wouldn’t be allowed, and that’s how it’s been over the years. People’s votes don’t have any meaning. It’s been forced on them and the government doesn’t want people to be able to think or act for themselves, but to keep voting in the same way as before. It’s like a tradition but there’s some young people coming up now who would like it change it, because they don’t want that anymore. They want to be free and make up their own minds, and to have a say in it. They know it’s wrong, and they know it’s the government to blame.”
Did you have family and friends caught up in the violence?
“Yes, I had this cousin living there and they still can’t find him even up ‘til now because there are a lot of bodies unaccounted for and a lot of them, you can’t even figure out who is who or what is what. That’s because people were burnt… There were a lot of different things happening down there. It’s gruesome, but the security forces went into Tivoli Gardens, kill all those people and then claim to have found four guns. I don’t understand that. That don’t add up but when they do the real check now, they find that there were over a hundred and seventy people killed and just seventeen guns discovered. It’s so corrupt and it wasn’t just Tivoli Gardens either, but Denham Town and some parts of Spanish Town as well. It was just crazy. If the same thing had happened anywhere else, it would be called “ethnic cleansing.” That’s the only term I can think of.”

After leaving Brown’s Town for Kingston, his mother struggled to raise him and his three brothers, yet still managed to maintain a stable home environment despite their father’s absence. Financial pressures meant they were always moving around, from Tivoli Gardens, Stand Pipe and Papine to Spanish Town. Busy started out singing in church alongside his mother – in fact the first time he held a microphone was to sing gospel – and he still attends church with her sometimes, hence the occasional gospel/dancehall song like El Shadhi. The name Busy Signal came after a friend remarked on his irrepressible enthusiasm for music. As his dee-jay career began to unfold, he spent time around Kilimanjaro and Renaissance, gaining experience by voicing the occasional dub plate and learning how to project his voice. He also began to write lyrics and shortly afterwards, recorded his debut for Renaissance on a cut of the Tunda Clap rhythm called Shake It Fast, shared with a singer called Kenny. It was followed by tracks like Up Into The Club, Step Out and It’s All Because Of You, featuring Tami Chyn. This was circa 2005/6. His progress proved both rapid and impressive, and before long his name was on everyone’s lips as an artist possessed of remarkable story-telling abilities, as well as impeccable mic skills.

On that first album, he’s heard mixing it with Bounty Killer [whom he describes as “a big brother”] and Mavado – no mean feat for a newcomer, but it was These Are The Days and Nah Go A Jail Again, with lyrics inspired by the five months he’d spent in a US jail, that put him on the map. Both will appear on his next set, Loaded, released in 2008 and which included other highlights such as Unknown Number, Cool It Baby and Real Jamaican, shared with Michael Rose. Apart from a lyrical tour-de-force with Bounty Killer, this latest album is free of guest stars. Instead, it’s Busy himself providing the variety as he skips through a bewildering array of different styles.

“That’s because I listen to anything, and I do mean anything,” he says, laughing. “I listen to Madonna and all kinds of music that people would think is outside the box – singers like Pavarotti and songs by lots of people you wouldn’t necessarily expect. I also listen to reggaeton and some other styles of music that reggae gave birth to. That’s because the people who take our music and do something different with it, sometimes they get wider exposure than us and we can learn a lot from them, so I listen to the way they flow and the beats they use, and I just try and see and hear what they are doing. That’s very important I think, but otherwise I listen to hip hop, soul and r & b, as well as all kinds of Jamaican music.”

Which may explain why he choose to cover the Phil Collins’ song One More Night
“Yes, because I’m always listening to those kinds of songs, and wanting to complement them by doing them in my own style and turning them into reggae music,” he explains. “Not necessarily by doing them in dancehall, because I can give them more longevity by singing them over reggae or a smooth, rub-a-dub beat, like we did with Night Shift or Sweet Love, which I did like that as well. It’s just something I’ve taken on for myself, to show my appreciation for songs I genuinely love.

“I mean I’m a dancehall artist yes and I know that people expect certain things from me but I prefer to do the unexpected basically. That’s why you’ll hear me singing tracks like those, only sometimes I get the impression I’m not supposed to do things like that. If there was a law for dancehall, I would probably be breaking it because you wouldn’t believe the number of people who say to me, ‘Why are you doing songs like those? What do you think you’re doing man?’ Well, I want to go beyond that. I want to operate outside of the box, like I said. I remember way back when I came out with These Are The Days and Nah Go A Jail, some people didn’t accept it at first but those songs were so real, they couldn’t deny it or go around it. They came from my own experience and people didn’t expect that, coming from a youngster like myself. As an artist it’s tempting to keep on doing the things that work but you have to do what you feel and to be yourself, even if it does upset people sometimes…”

John Masouri

Little Axe: Bought For A Dollar, Sold For A Dime

Little Axe's Skip McDonald

Technology allows for infinite possibilities where music’s concerned, except it still takes master practitioners to create truly groundbreaking explorations of different styles, and that bare an artist’s soul for all to see or hear. This special kind of alchemy is generally reserved for gifted musicians who’ve bonded with their instruments, and served their dues playing gigs and sessions with other like-minded individuals for years on end. Most of what they do then becomes instinctive and takes on a timeless quality, regardless of prevailing trends.

Little Axe, revolving around the axis of guitarist Skip McDonald, bassist Doug Wimbish and drummer Keith Leblanc, embody this approach to perfection. Listening to their fusion of blues, gospel and dub reggae can be a revelation as ancient forms become interwoven with electronic innovation. Their first album, The Wolf That House Built, appeared in 1994. The band then followed it with Slow Fuse before taking a lengthy hiatus. When they re-emerged it was with Hard Grind and Champagne And Grits, by which time they’d inspired Moby’s Play and signed to Peter Gabriel’s label, Real World. Their fifth album, Stone Cold Ohio, was another mesmerising collection of modern-day spirituals and lonesome blues except this time it paid tribute to Skip’s own roots in Dayton, Ohio, where he learnt blues guitar from his father, and then soaked up country, gospel, rock & roll and soul before heading for the bright lights of New York City.

For a time, his only regular gig was with the Entertainers, who toured the eastern seaboard throughout the early seventies, playing Top 40 hits. From there he moved to Hartford, Connecticut where he met Doug, who played in a jazz funk band called Wood, Brass & Steel. In 1976, this group recorded a self-titled album for All Platinum Records, ran by Joe and Sylvia Robinson. Three years after that, Skip and Doug teamed up with Keith and they became the house band for the Robinsons’ new label, Sugar Hill Records. The trio subsequently played on seminal early rap hits such as The Message and White Lines (Don’t Do It) with Grandmaster Flash, together with other gems now found on the Universal box set, A Complete Introduction To Sugar Hill Records.

“Basically Sylvia was looking for Skip and Doug because she remembered them from before and knew she needed a band,” Keith explains. “We’d been playing at this club called Leo’s Welfare Disco in New Haven which was open all night and it was right next door to the welfare office. You could get in with food stamps, and the DJ usually rapped over the beats so when I heard Rapper’s Delight, it wasn’t anything new. The DJs in those kinds of places were always doing that but anyway Doug recognised the sound of the studio, which was pretty amazing. He said, ‘That’s an All-Platinum record.’ It actually said ‘Sugar Hill’ on it and so we went up there, thinking there might be some money in it for us and recorded that very first night.”

Keith had played drums from the age of three or four. He was so hyperactive it was a case of him either taking medication or playing an instrument and the drums won out, fortunately. That said, his parents made him take lessons for a year before buying him a drum kit in stages.

“I really learned how to play that way,” he says. “I was lucky, because it was all I wanted to do. No one had to tell me to practise. I’d stay in summer days all day because I loved to play. I’d just turn on the radio and play along to all the hits of the day, which at that time included Motown, Muscle Shoals, James Brown and all of that, and then along came Hendrix – I heard Mitch Mitchell and that just took my head off! Then I started getting into Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Chick Corea… There was so much good stuff being recorded live back then, before machines took over. Everything had a heartbeat, and there were all these small imperfections going on that brought real magic to the music.”

Skip and Doug were a fraction more battle-hardened than Keith, who still brimmed with enthusiasm.

“At the time I was young and learning my craft,” he concurs. “All I wanted was to be a session musician and I knew I was in a situation that was groundbreaking. No one else was doing it and really talented people were coming through there all the time. I had enough money to eat and I got paid for playing, so what more could I want? I knew there was a lot of skulduggery going on but being in the house band, we didn’t get involved in that. We were just trying to learn the studio and do the best we could. That was always my motivation and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. I learned a lot about recording and also people because I was pretty naïve at the time, and I think that’s what saved me…”

Sugar Hill finally collapsed under a welter of lawsuits at the end of the decade. By then, the three friends had played on many of the best-known, early rap hits of all time and toured extensively with the likes of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Treacherous Three, Funky Four, Spoonie Gee and Sugar Hill Gang. Essentially, they were the last great rhythm section of the seventies but rather than resting on their laurels, they continued to seek out new challenges and when Skip came to live in England during the early eighties, they found ample scope for experimentation with Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label. This was a period that saw them recording under the name of Fats Comet, Dub Syndicate, African Head Charge, Barmy Army, Tackhead and the Strange Parcels. Their sound has been variously described as “industrial,” “creepy” and even “hallucinogenic,” but by the time Little Axe formed [and with Adrian in the producer’s chair], other adjectives such as “soulful,” “haunting” and “deeply spiritual” had come into play. The band has since expanded to include backing singers Kevin Gibbs and Saranella Bell, harmonica player Alan Glenn and lead vocalist Bernard Fowler, who divides his time between touring with the Rolling Stones and recording as Bad Dog. In addition, each of the core members continue to play sessions and spend time on their own projects. Doug plays with Living Colour, whilst Keith sits in with Noah Ground and runs his own label. Skip meanwhile, remains the driving force behind Little Axe, although he did share an album with Daby Toure last year, entitled Call My Name.

“There’s a lot of raw diamonds out there and Skip McDonald is one of them,” says Doug. “He’s just like Yoda. He’s like a magic person. He’s not coming with all the flash. He doesn’t go to sleep with his stage clothes on. He’s real.”

Keith agrees, saying, “I’ve got two favourite guitarists and he’s one of them. Every time I’ve played with him, he’s never played the same thing and I love that because whatever he plays, it’s all feeling. When I first met him, Skip was playing a brand of funk I never heard anyone else play. It was off the chain funky. We had a name for it. We called it “Skip Funk.” If a track had to be livened up we’d say, ‘Hey Skip, put some “Skip Funk” on it.’ He’d lay down some licks and it’d be percolating. He’s funky as hell. I don’t know anyone else who can do that. I haven’t met them yet and he’s been around for ages but he’s so humble.”

By his own definition, Skip is “a time-traveller, a scientist and a mathematician.” He explains that Little Axe’s latest album, Bought For A Dollar, Sold For A Dime, is different from previous ones because it’s band-led, as opposed to studio-led.

“We went in and put all the rhythm tracks down together as a unit, rather than methodically putting down the guitar, the drums, the bass and background vocals, so this is as close as I’ve ever come to doing a live album. Also, it was the first time that the whole crew had actually been in the same place at the same time for over seven years, so it was like a homecoming really.”

Recorded at Real World’s studio in Wiltshire, the latest album traces a journey from the old world to an imaginary future – one made bleak by wise observations about the environment and corporate greed. Opening with an invocation, as if saying grace before a meal, it has a coherence and inner strength that belies its musical flights of fancy. Whereas Grinning reworks one of Son House’s pre-war blues hymns, Hands Off features bluegrass style picking; Hammerhead and Return could easily pass for rock whilst Tell Me Why – again co-starring Daby Toure – features delightful rhythmic patterns that suggest an African influence. Can’t Stop Walking Yet is another highlight. This track tells the story of a hard-headed woman and finds Bernard Fowler in such stirring form, you’d think it was Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding holding the mic.

“We call guys like Bernard “elephants,” because they’re so strong, and they know how to trumpet,” says Skip, in his laconic drawl. “But I feel really privileged because I’ve got Bernard Fowler, Daby Toure and Ken Boothe, all on one record.”
Reggae veteran Ken Boothe sings lead vocal on Can’t Sleep and it’s highly emotive, as you’d expect from Jamaica’s “Mr. Rocksteady.”

“Well, that’s a controversial track. A lot of people don’t like it,” says Skip, “because you know, I’ve always been Soul Of A Man or No More and then all of a sudden here comes this love song. Someone even said to me, ‘oh Skip, it makes me want to puke.’ That’s cool though. If you’re in that vibe you can understand it and if you’re not, well there you go… That’s the whole thing about music, because it’s all a matter of opinion.”

The fact is we’ve never heard Ken Boothe sing a slow blues before and yet he sounds so soulful…

“Yeah, he’s like Otis Redding or somebody but there’s no accounting for taste. I’ve actually done about fourteen tracks with Ken. I’m trying everything right now. I got a Jamaican connection going on. I’ve also got a Moroccan connection going on. I’ve got an Indian and Ghanaian connection going on… I’m also doing some stuff with a guy from Togo because what makes it all so much fun is putting together people who are good, and then seeing a circle develop until things going higher than you ever thought they could go. That’s me. I’m into doing different things, rather than this whole thing of imitating yourself for fifty years or something.”

I can imagine that artists like Ken probably long to step outside the box and try something different.

“Well that’s what he said to me because he told me, ‘I want to do anything except reggae.’ People are always looking to pigeonhole us by saying, ‘he’s a reggae artist; he’s a blues artist or he’s a rap artist,’ but what can I say? I really don’t want to listen to the same thing everyday, because that’s like eating the same food or wearing the same clothes everyday. I like variety, I really do. Sometimes I’d love the accolades of being a bluesman or something. It hurts sometimes because I’ve done so many other things, but it seems as if people have to categorise us as something in order for that to happen, which is a shame…”

Listen out for a new Tackhead album comprised entirely of cover songs due out later this year, on which the band do versions of hits by James Brown, Funkadelic, Bob Marley, Lou Reed, the Ohio Players and even Louis Armstrong, whose What A Wonderful World couldn’t be more different from the often gloomy subject matter found on Little Axe sets, but is sure to sound revolutionary in their hands. That’s because there’s nothing else like them in the entire music spectrum [and for which we’re profoundly grateful…]

John Masouri