Wednesday, August 16, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days #046: Toots and the Maytals: Funky Kingston/In the Dark

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 Massachusetts in the 1970s, in which towns you were quite conscious that you were part of a small minority of people interested in questioning the status quo. Around here, in the 21st century, people still make small-talk with new arrivals by asking “Have you found a church home?”, and then ignoring any polite evasions. In the most extreme cases, if evasion proves impossible and you say you’re not a believer, the response is “Well, hon, I’ll pray for you”—which can sound a lot more venomous than it reads.

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 Ireland).

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 Jamaica. A stunningly-beautiful but virtually-unexploitable terrain of steep mountains, semi-tropical jungle, fast-running rivers, and astonishing fertility, the Cockpit Country had been the place to which, for 250 years, escaped slaves had fled. As was the case with blacks in the American South, Africans brought to Jamaica fled often; in contrast to the situation obtaining in most parts of the South, they were often successful. It was hard to hide in the Mississippi Delta or the Arkansas foothills, but upland Jamaica was a landscape into which escapees could easily vanish, sometimes before they had ever been transported to a plantation or sometimes even escaping from the slave ships themselves. And they went up into the hills, taking knowledge with them, and they settled in the steep valleys, and an entire culture grew up, taking in African, Native American, and European folkways and beliefs. You could grow almost anything there (fruit, vegetables, the fowl and pigs they knew from Africa, spices, sugar, and ganja) but you couldn’t hardly farm anything there: it was too hilly, too jungly, just too damned far away from “civilization.”

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 Haiti, was a Maroon; so (according to some people) are the Neville Brothers.

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 Kingston, seeking to make their fortune. There’s a beautiful, evocative, and very sad portrait of this migration—of the semi-paradise they left behind, the reasons for their leaving, and the starkness of the life they faced in the Trench Town slums—in Michael Thelwell’s magnificent novel The Harder They Come, a “re-imagining” of the story upon which the film (see “100 Greats” #1) was based.

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 Trench Town: the great guitarist Ernest Ranglin, the guitar and harmony teacher Joe Higgs, the self-taught horn players of the Studio 1 band (who single-handedly invented ska), the great rhythm section of Sly Dunbar/Robbie Shakespeare. But preeminently what Trench Town produced was singers—particularly in the classic gospel/doo-wop/soul trio of baritone/tenor/high tenor. You didn’t need instruments, you didn’t need technique, you didn’t need backing musicians—just as in New York doo-wop, it was something you could develop and perfect with two or three friends on the corner—or in “the Yard” in Trench Town (No Woman No Cry: “I remember, when we used to sit/In the government yard, in Trench Town”). That was the cradle of harmony groups like the Wailers (respectively Peter/Bob/Bunny), of the Gladiators, the Mighty Diamonds, the wonderful Pioneers, and of Toots Hibbert and the Maytals.

Bob’s story for another day. Here’s my story about Toots:

Reggae was big in Bloomington, more via the visits of touring bands than residents (pretty lily-white community), because the college crowd loved to go out to the venerable biker dive, smoke weed, and pretend to be Irie. They were of the same ilk as the fraternity pigs who loved to blast Bob out the windows of their $350,000-dollar chapter houses and out the bass bins of their $40,000-dollar Cherokees. Those boyos would have lasted about 20 minutes in Trench Town.

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 Norman was a sweet and kind man, an Ital man, and a fine reggae drummer. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, when Norman needed a guitar player for a pickup band he was putting together to open for Toots and the Maytals here (make no mistake about it: it was a dump—and the “.ws” domain on the website is a hilarious coincidence, considering the former owner’s proclivities). Anyway, it was a dump—but Toots’s intensity and joy in life could sanctify a worse dump than this.

There’s a beautiful clarity and sincerity that shines through in early reggae; that’s close to the roots in Trench Town and gospel, to the early spirit of the mountain communities and their Pocomania services. Even in the dank subterranean confines of the rock ‘n’ roll nightclub circuit to which Toots was consigned in the ‘90s, that came through.

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 Norman understood what we were up against. The Maytals hadn’t been reunited that long, but they were singing from where they lived all the time. It was a fantastic experience—“like church”, Duane Allman would have said. I was lucky to be there, much less to open the show.

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.

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