I live in a pretty fuckin’ conservative place.
Any political, social, gender, or musical sub-community is pretty much underground. In a way, living here is a little like living in small-town
On the other hand, the local socio-/eco-system does make you appreciate the occasional wisp of a more progressive (hell, a more moderate) mindset. Dharmonia and I live in the only neighborhood that’s walking distance to a grocery store, our jobs, or a coffee-shop. Thank God that coffee-shop is the local hippie/alternative hangout (blogging from there right now, in fact). And thank God that the owners manifest that other quality that’s ubiquitous in this town, curiously enough: an impeccable taste for music (the only place I’ve been better treated, as a musician, than right here, is the west of
So when you walk into the local coffee-shop and the great Toots Hibbert is singing Funky Kingston, it can really take you back…
In most of the music I care about, what makes a great singer is soul, or at least the appearance of it. In gospel, blues, r&b, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, it’s about the singer being able to find the space where the spirit comes through. Because the music itself is a mechanism: a finely-designed, highly-evolved tool for creating spiritual ecstasy. So questions about whether the singer “means it” or “doesn’t really mean it” are, ultimately, beside the point. Because the singer can be a misogynist sociopath, or a raving cokehead, or a delusional Bible-thumper, or a satyriacal maniac, before the show starts. But when the lights come up, and the rhythm section hits the groove, and the background singers take up the call-and-response, the singer is supposed to be transported—out of the everyday, the ordinary, the prosaic, sinful and “worldly”—and is supposed to take the audience along.
That’s why some of the greatest, most soulful singers are at their strongest with the simplest, most straightforward, sometimes even banal material—because there is nothing in the song itself to get in the way, and the song itself is just a vehicle for transport. The greatest gospel and soul songwriters have been those who understood the song as a vehicle, as a recipe, as a simple mechanism for catalyzing the performance.
This is why the greatest, most soulful singers can still inhabit songs they sung hundreds, or thousands, of times before—which they usually wind up having to do to satisfy the audience’s hunger for the “classic hits.” This is why BB can still create a sense of great histrionic passion in Sweet Little Sixteen and Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops (still the greatest of all the Motown singers, subject of a future “100 Greats” post) can still pull off apocalyptic intensity of Reach Out I’ll Be There.
It’s also what the ragged kids in the Trench Town ghetto of Kingston Jamaica heard coming through the crackly broadcasts of the giant fifty- and hundred-thousand-watt stations of WDIA in Memphis (the “Mother Station of the Negroes”), XERA/XERF in Ciudad Acuna (a “border blaster” station across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, TX--where I spent a night in jail one time), and WSM in Nashville, home of the Opry. With FCC limitations on station wattage still a figment of the future’s imagination, these competing stations built bigger and bigger amplifiers, trying to blanket out each other’s frequencies—and not coincidentally cranking out signals that could be heard in Greenland, Vancouver, Havana…and Kingston.
They damned sure heard that music—the music aimed at working-class blacks and whites in the American South—in the hills of the Cockpit Country in north-western
These were the Maroons, who, under different names but in similar situations in Jamaica, Cuba, Bahia, or the Georgia Sea Islands, retained the strongest ties to African culture and folkways—and much more strongly than in the far more repressive American South. Toussaint l’Ouverture, the heroic liberator of
Bob Marley came out of the high hills. So did Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh, and hundreds of other would-be stars who left the hills and came to the capitol (really the only) city of
But Trench Town—like Harlem, and Cairo, and the 13th Ward of New Orleans, and the South Side of Chicago—was a fantastically creative place, because here you had all these people, from all over the island and a range of family backgrounds, living cheek-by-jowl in shanties and listening to the fantastic wealth of popular music beamed from the US and pirated, copied, and imitated by Jamaican DJ’s and, especially, by singers.
Every kind of musician came out of
Bob’s story for another day. Here’s my story about Toots:
Reggae was big in
But there were also people in the community who had been long-term reggae heads—who had traveled to Sunsplash, who followed the bands every summer, and tried to lead an Irie lifestyle. One such was Norman Turner, who I met through the bass player in a legend-in-their- own-minds 80s power trio called “Rods and Cones.” I can’t remember the bass player’s name (Bob?), but
There’s a beautiful clarity and sincerity that shines through in early reggae; that’s close to the roots in
Our part of the gig? Pretty straightforward. Toots’ part? Absolutely earth-shattering. I almost can’t talk about that show, because I was so spellbound by what happened when Toots, Raleigh Gordon and Jerry McCarthy, hit the stage. We played the music pretty good in opening the show, but I think only
He’s another one of those singers who understands that, simply put, his stock-in-trade is transport: the saintly joy of gospel or the decidedly earthly joy of dancehall. As I said, he can sanctify the grungiest situations or the most trite songs—on this set, for example, he gives us Louie, Louie and Take Me Home Country Roads, both of which performances are absolutely staggering in their intensity, clarity, and sincerity. Like
This disc is an unbelievable value, collecting as it does the full contents of two of the best original Maytals records, and the Toots performances that dominated the Harder They Come soundtrack, the LP that introduced reggae on the world stage, Pressure Drop among them. He covers Bob (Redemption Song, cited above), Ike Turner (I Can’t Believe) and Little Willie John (Fever), giving all three a run for their money, and provides some fantastic originals of his own, including Pomp and Pride (there’s that gospel imprint rearing its influence again) and Time Tough.
Finally, there’s the Toots song that would go with me onto a desert island or into the grave, the jumping, heartbeat-rhythmed Funky Kingston, a virtual primer on how to play the “skank”, the chopping one-AND-two-AND-three-AND-four-AND guitar rhythm that defines reggae as opposed to its predecessors rock-steady and ska (and, did I mention that Toots invented the word “reggae”? See 1968’s Do the Reggay; talk about being there at the beginning!).
Toots called us back out on stage for the last tune of the set. I got to play guitar with the Maytals (quite an education) on that last tune—and it was Funky Kingston.
I have no words to describe what a privilege that was. All I can say is that, as ever, and over and over down the decades, the music opened doors of experience to me that would otherwise have been closed.
I thank the music, and Toots Hibbert, and JAH-Rastafari, for that.