Luciano: Man Of Africa


Luciano always seems to enjoy his trips to London. Island Records were here whilst he was signed to them; early television appearances on The White Room (backed by Sly & Robbie) and Later With Jools Holland were both filmed in West London and who could forget that first Brixton Academy show, where Luciano gave the performance of his life, backed by the Firehouse Crew dressed all in khaki? London was also where he voiced the Great Controversy album over a single weekend and in the midst of heated contractual disputes. His popularity’s fluctuated since then, but was given a welcome boost by a headline performance at the One Love concert and a brilliant new album for “Frenchie” – a Frenchman based in London who learn his craft behind the mixing-board at Dub Vendor’s Fashion studios, where a procession of JA and UK reggae stars strutted their stuff throughout the nineties.

Released on VP Records via Maximum Sound, United States Of Africa shares many qualities with Luciano’s classic output for Xterminator. The weight, attention to detail and musicianship are all there, as is the professional standard of production and mixing. It’s not often you get class and roots authenticity in the same package, but this blend – together with the more disciplined approach it entails – appears to suit Luciano well.

“What I admired in Fatis was his requests for originality,” he says, peering into the hollowed out gourd he carries on his belt. “Some producers just take whatever you give them but not Fatis and this is what I love about Frenchie too. Most producers, you can pass by the studio, sing a little something for them and they’ll say, ‘Alright Luchy, respect,’ but Frenchie’s not like that. He’ll listen and say, ‘boy Luchy, I don’t like that second verse because it sounds flat…’ You have to come good and I love that! He’s outspoken and I like that about him too. There’s a spirit in him and he has a deep knowledge of this music. You can see where his heart is from his rhythms and I really admire that about him. He’s deep, I tell you.”

Africa has been a recurrent theme throughout his career, beginning with songs like Back To Africa and One Way Ticket. Luciano is no separatist however. He’s a Rastaman who believes in love, peace and harmony, and celebrates his African roots as the source of his religion, as well as race. This latest album isn’t called United States Of Africa by accident, as it reflects his continuing involvement with Africa to greater extent than ever. Several of the tracks on it refer directly to the Motherland, whilst the remainder explore themes such as political corruption, greed, gun crime and the corroding effects of capitalism. Even the autobiographical I Will Follow reads like a parable, whilst the album’s only love song is addressed to his Nubian Queen.

It’s a concept album in essence, led by songs like Unite Africa and the title track, and another milestone in a lengthy career decorated with some of the most enduring hits of the post-Bob Marley era. Luciano says he may well record another album for Frenchie but fans of the Messenger should note that further album releases loom on the horizon – two for producers with Atlanta connections and the other a self-produced effort intended to win over international audiences.

“Yes, I’ll be concentrating on making a different kind of album in future,” he promises. “I want to make a softer, more meditational album because I play flute and I play drums… You’ll hear me playing guitar more on it too, because I don’t get to use my guitar much if you notice. I just get to use it for my hobby or when I do a little unplugged show like in Jamaica or on 1Xtra. Nothing on a major scale, so I need to utilise this more, and show people another side of me.

“I’m searching for something that’s more universal, and I want to hear different instruments in my music that’ll take it further than ever before. I’m thinking so much about things like that right now, and I’m looking to make my music more accessible too, just like how Burning Spear has done to a certain extent. Yes man, so all those who say that me a done, they’ll see that me just a come!”

By his own admission, Luciano’s been a little over-prolific at times. People talk about all the mouths he feeds back in Jamaica but according to him, he just wants to get the message across and leave a decent legacy of what he calls “beatitudes” – i.e., songs that address how people live. Making records is his way of reaching people, and what’s said on them is more important to him than the business side of things. This may be why he’s not signed to a major label, because he’s not had anything like the exposure his talent deserves since leaving Island.

He was signed to Chris Blackwell’s label when making his first trip to Africa back in 1997. He, Sizzla and Mikey General travelled to Senegal with Xterminator, whereupon Luciano shared a track with Baba Maal called Africa Unite. A decade later and he expresses regret that his meeting with Baba Maal didn’t blossom into something more far-reaching. He’s performed in Africa on numerous occasions since and whilst nothing gives him greater pleasure than returning there, he feels there’s still a cloud hanging over his visit to Zimbabwe a while back.

‘How did you come to visit Zimbabwe?’ I ask him. ‘Did you get an official invite?’
“Yes, actually they sent a Rastaman as a middleman and he came to me with talk of putting on a big show and everything but he wasn’t what he seemed. It was Mugabe’s government who sent him and he came with some of the money as a deposit and all that but when we went there, we should have all gone together and carried on with the mission, which was to promote the music but it turned out he wasn’t ready for it and that meant the government had to take it over, once they realised we nearly didn’t go to Zimbabwe at all.”
Because you didn’t have your band with you…

“Well he talked to me about carrying the band, so we had all of that in mind at the planning stage because we’d just gone to Ghana to perform with John Legend, so the band was very close by. A brethren from England named Doctor Quenzi called my office in Jamaica and said he was still interested in me doing the show in Zimbabwe, and that the government wanted me to come. It was at that point the government took it over but in all honesty, they used the opportunity for their political endeavours. They had ulterior motives and if I hadn’t have been careful, brother Mikey General and myself would have got drawn in to this land scraping thing. I nearly get caught up in all of that so I have to say thanks to the Almighty because I almost get in one whole heap of trouble down there, I tell you!

“And then somehow the musicians get stalled somewhere because instead of going straight over to Zimbabwe from Ghana, they were sent back to Jamaica before coming out again. After they got back, it’s like they start to worry about things, like their safety or something like that. People try and talk them out of it too. Anyway their tickets were bought for them but somehow they came off the plane. I didn’t know what was happening with them at the time but that’s when this man from the cultural department of Zimbabwe seized the opportunity to gain some political mileage by going on the news and telling people it was the British authorities who took the band members off the plane and didn’t allow them to come, which just wasn’t true. It turns out that two of them never had visas but the Zimbabwean government had their agenda, blamed the British and I couldn’t stand for that. I really felt away about it and I’m glad to have this opportunity to explain because it was wrong to blame the British authorities, and I really couldn’t support the man and his theory…”
I remind Luciano that in 1991, Robert Mugabe gave asylum to Mengistu, leader of the Deng who deposed Emperor Haile Selassie I and is even reputed to be his killer, thereby bringing to an end the world’s oldest surviving monarchy.

“Yes! And that’s why so much curse is taking them down there man!” he exclaims. “The only reason I went to Zimbabwe was for my fans, because they really loved the show when I performed for them but I could not support Robert Mugabe. I am not for that and never could be. I’m hearing that it’s changed a bit since then and it’s less of a monopoly now, or rather monotony. You have to be so careful man, because after I go there I start to get some threats… Mikey General and I were in a press conference when a man stand up and say, ‘Luciano. Do you realise that people are planning to assassinate you?’ Well Mikey General, his eyes almost pop out his head, I tell you! I have to keep my composure and say, ‘No, I’ve never heard of that. That’s news to me,’ but after the meeting finish I immediately pull him to one side and ask him where he got that kind of information from. The organisers rough him up bad and take away his tape… All these years I avoid politics in Jamaica, only to get caught up like that in Zimbabwe. Needless to say I haven’t been back there since, as the situation there is way too delicate and whilst I’ve been getting requests, I don’t let them touch me again. I have too many fans there from the white communities, as well as the black… As an artist I have to appeal to the minds of all conscious people. I believe in the Rainbow Nation, and want my music to reach people from right across the world – people who have good intentions, and who are willing to come in and be a part of this.”

Whilst costly, his Zimbabwean adventure hasn’t dissuaded him from getting involved with various projects involving Africa, including schemes to educate and employ young people.

“Yes, because you can only do so much in Babylon,” he says. “Alright, you can set up youth clubs and use your talent and popularity to bring about certain things – projects promoting more unity between youths in the garrisons but how much can you do really, in Babylon? I think this kind of exercise is best carried out in Africa and this is what I’m looking forward to right now.

“Certain places like Ethiopia are way behind. Maybe it’s because they don’t speak English or French, and that’s why reggae hasn’t taken off there. They might know Bob Marley but first they need the infrastructure, because everything is more advanced in places like Ghana, Gambia and Senegal. What I find is that the more people get into the music, the more likely government spending will follow. The President of Gambia, he has his own sound-system now, can you believe that? When he saw how many thousands of people came out to watch us, that’s what encouraged him to start investing in the music and send for artists like myself to come and perform there. What you have to look out for though is the middlemen, because you have some of them who are real crafty and they are the ones who cause problems all of the while.”

Whilst Africa is clearly a priority, Luciano also took time out to speak of matters closer to home. Last year police were called to his home in St. Andrews where a gun battle raged for two hours. One of his baby mothers was there with their two children, aged fifteen and five years old. Reports suggest the gunman held Luciano’s family hostage and used his children as a human shield. They escaped unscathed but three policemen were injured, one seriously, before the gunman, Andrew Senior, also known as “Conqueror,” was cut down in a hail of bullets. Luciano wasn’t at the house at the time of the incident, but was later arrested and charged with harbouring a known felon, which he refutes.

“You see what happened … my gate is always open to Tom, Dick and Harry,” he told the Gleaner. “But I’ve learned that that is to my own peril. Out of the kindness of my heart, I open my home to people, but not everyone that comes in has good intentions. That’s the situation I found myself in.

“This was someone I started helping from years ago. He was trying to change his life and yes, he was wanted by the police but he wasn’t advertised as a wanted man, so the way the security forces went about handling this situation was really barbaric. They (the Jamaican government) acknowledged me as a man who was worthy of being given the Order of Distinction; a man who has respect in the community so when they learned that I had a wanted man at my place, they should have approached me better than they did, rather than accosting my property the way they did.

“Even an inspector told me that after the case is over, I could sue the authorities for the way they damaged my property and defamed my character so I know my rights but for now, I just swing low and take it easy. They have nothing on me. My record is clean. They’re accusing me of harbouring a fugitive but it wasn’t like that. The brother was looking for a safe haven and unfortunately, he came to me.”

A song on the new album, Murder And Thief, has the line, “even on a common street, there is no peace with shoot out between bad man and police.” Luciano lives in a quiet Kingston suburb, and yet still trouble reached him.

“That’s the thing; people who need help aren’t going to go to the government because the police will lock them down or kill them so that’s the position that a lot of artistes find themselves in; people come to us for help. Look at Dudus and that pastor. People say he’s mixed up with drugs and some other things but it seems he was a good man and had a good heart. All I know is that from the community’s point of view he was working as a leader, helping people cope from day to day and he was also keeping order because from he became President, a lot of the slackness was stopped. A lot of those doing wrong had to change up their plans because he wasn’t going to tolerate things like robbing people in the street anymore. It’s just that the governments of the world don’t want to see a man like that, loved by the people and keeping the place under order. When people start looking after themselves, then they don’t need any government and that’s the danger for these politicians. Also, it’s the same politicians in power now who helped start the corruption in the first place. It was they who brought the guns into the communities and set up their own garrisons and so it’s they who have to deal with it. It’s like the corruption swell up upon them now so they try and stifle and oppress the very same people they start with…”




About johnmasouri
John Masouri is a long-time author and music journalist specialising in reggae and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. The author of Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers, published by Omnibus Press in 2008, he is currently working on a biography of reggae singer Peter Tosh, due to appear next year. In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Reggae Vibes (France), Riddim (Germany) and Echoes - formerly Black Echoes - which is renowned as Britain's No. 1 black music monthly. His work has also appeared in Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and the NME, as well as magazines in the US, Caribbean and Japan.

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