At last after all these years!!!
“That’s how it goes….Haha”
I’m sorry I missed you the last time you was here?
Lets go right back to the start. It didn’t start with the ‘Watchful Eyes’ album?
“No no, it started a little bit before that still. Growing up in The Twelve Tribes, you know. Doing those stage shows and performances. Being on the stage with Dennis Brown, Judy Mowatt, Freddie McGregor. Back in those days as a young child. That was like my first experience of… All of that kinda lead up to the ‘Watchful Eyes’ album. “
So that was seventies?
“Yeah, it was 78. Around that. As a matter of fact the first stage show I did was 1980, at the National Arena in Jamaica. With the Twelve Tribes. It was the celebration of the coronation of His Imperial Majesty. It was a big event.”
Judah Eskender Tafari - Photo Ray Hurford
What is the connection with Judah Eskender Tafari? Your voices are very close.
“True true. Like he was one of my mentors. Really one of my teachers. Even from them times you know. As a matter of fact he was living with us for like a year or so before I migrated to the States. He used to come from Garden Town. He used to have to travel so far all the while. We just give him a place - and it was just music everyday we used to just play music. So there was no need for him to go back to the hills, just stay. We used to wake up in the morning, and just play music. Play music, play music straight back to the night. We used to look up to him, and I sounded like him too. I was fascinated by that.”
So who is the common root between yourself and Judah, Mel? When I heard Judah for the first time and then your album. I could never work out where you was coming from vocally? You never really sounded like anyone else. It was like a new vocal style.
“That’s true. Its really weird like I said. He influenced inna way the sound I already had. But then I probably influence him as well. In annicaition. The phrasing. The way I would pronounce my words, so we would bounce off of each other. Mainly he was the one I was learning from. I was learning more from him, than he was learning from me.”
Incredible. Sometimes its easy to work out. Frankie Paul to Dennis Brown….
“Well I guess with us now, there may be a lot of influence of a lot of things in there. But its so small, the sound that we had…When I heard him for the first time I was so fascinated that someone had a similar sound to me. And the fact that was already out there. I was looking up to him. I was in Twelve Tribes Of Israel - and he heard me sounding like him, and he didn’t take no offence to it. It was really fascinating to me that he would even gravitate towards me.”
It’s a very spiritual sound.
Its very calm and thoughtful. So your actual first recordings Mel. So you was working with Twelve Tribes. Did you do any recordings with them?
“Not at first, we were supposed to do some recording but I actually starting singing with one of my cousins, and her best friend at the time. We were kinda like a group. It was a nice cool vocal group at the time. We was young, and they were going to take us to the Studio. Then my cousin migrated to the US. Then her best friend. So I was kinda left out there by myself. So it was like, we don’t know if this kid can make it. There was a question.”
What was the name of the group?
“Well the group was actually named Jah Mel! Jah means Lord and Mel means King. So the groups means Jah Is King! The girls were actually the ones who said lets called the group Jah Mel. So after they left. There were doubts. Anyway I still used to go Sunday training and get my voice training at Twelve Tribes HQ. Then they usually have music meetings to decide which two or three persons would be added on to the roster to do shows. If you are ready. If not you stay on and keep training. So my name came up back again. Some would say.
“Gwan, he have time go on make him wait a little bit more.”
And then others would say.
“No, the youth is ready now, put him on the stage show.”
“They put me on the stage shows, and I did very good. And I went of for a little while. And I was catching the ear of outside people. Then it got to time, when I had to leave Jamaica. I was getting into a little trouble. My mother grew up in a Garvey tradition, my Father was not of that mindset. When the Rastafari thing come up now, he couldn’t take it no more. I had to leave. It was against my mothers wishes and pleading. I said I don’t want to go to the States, Jamaica is where its at. And we are doing this and that. So then I got into a little trouble here and there. And one day I was chilling outside my gate one day. And the Police roll up pon, and I had my little spliff, and grab me up and carry me to the station. And beat me up. And all them thing. And my mother said “That was the last straw.”
“You are still underage, you have to come.”
Pic - Roydale Anderson
He (Roydale ‘Andy’ Anderson)is a relative?
“He’s actually my uncle. I grew up with the studio system, because he was always in the Studio. I was watching production and so on. We used to have to stamp the records ‘Made In Jamaica’ all of that.”
I have said to Andy. He’s a fantastic producer with some great ideas.
“He kinda had his eye on me. He’s seeing me playing music and all these instruments. He’s playing guitar and drums and this stuff. And he was already doing production. So one day I was in the backyard singing. Him pass. And him say
“Wah, you still singing people’s music”
“I never will forget that. I say, I have to do, what I have to do. So him say.
“One Day, One Day, we might do some work together.”
“So when I came to the States, I was up there we used to be up in the attic just playing music. I had my guitar. And my cousin had an old bass. That he gave to my brother Mikey, the one that passed. I had this old Gibson guitar. It was kinda out of tune - but we used to be up there playing. Doing all kinds of things. So when my cousin, David that is Andy’s son used to come and look for me. Andy used to come upstairs and look for us and check us out. We were just making music. Everyday, we would make a different song”
This is in Rochester New York State?
“Yeah, Rochester. So eventually, he said -
“I think you should start writing some songs. Putting some songs together.”
“He came actually with the first few ideas. Like with ‘Keep The Fire Burning’ and ‘Sufferers Song’ he was the one who came up with the concept of the ‘Sufferers Song’ And I actually write the rest of it. He came up with a few lines, but he’s not a songwriter. But he had the ideas. So we arranged it and it sound good. And ‘Keep The Fire Burning’ and other songs. And this song named ‘Pressure Them Children’ cause when he hear them topic he knows it’s a bigger man thing.”
“So we have a few little songs, start to write more. So he says.
“ I plan to go back to Jamaica. And do some recording with you.”
“So I work and work. On a albums worth of tune.”
“So that how it started working on it, working on it, my older brother now is the other part of the production team he had been out of the business, so come one day, and me have to play me guitar and thing, and my older brother say -
“The youth sound like him have a lot of potential.”
“But Andy I think him kind of believe in me a little bit more, than him still. So just continue, we went back to Jamaica…. As a matter of fact it was supposed to be the Roots Radics who was supposed to be the session band for the album.”
I know! What an amazing twist!
But I cannot imagine them songs without The Wailers on the rhythms.
After Bob went The Wailers struggled. And then you came along.
“That’s right, that’s why they were so inspired. Family Man was like.
“It’s a long time, since I get to do tunes like them. The youth really have some potential.”
“So they was into it, I grew up with Steely. And he was in the Roots Radics, and it was our intention for Steely and them to do it. What happened was the Roots Radics had just left on tour. We couldn’t deal with that. Eventually we ended up at Harry J’s studio and we made arrangements. The Wailers were the next thing. Now as you know before Tuff Gong, most of The Wailers stuff was done at Harry J’s. So that’s where Andy decided to go. He jumped on his bike….make two link. There was was no cellphone - so he just pon him bicycle. And round up…. And we get The Wailers! And Family Man come and listen to me. And listen to me, and he listen to me good, and him say -
“Yeah, that thing can work. Andy the youth alright.”
“And he sound out the rest of the man, so they all come in Carly, Wire. And they all say youth.
“Take your guitar, play the tune them.”
“So me just, play and it go boom. And they work it out, and just go boom.”
“One, two three….”
How long did it take to make the album?
“The music part of the recording session, took about maybe two days!”
Pic: Roydale Anderson
“All of them songs there. We just did song after song after song. And Family Man just arranged it and say
“Wire you do the one, and I will do the intro”
“Family Man, ah do it, and they just used to pass ideas back and forth. Him say.
“Alright make me start it so, and let me do this.”
“And that’s how it went. Then when it came to the vocal part…the voicing. It was the same thing. I probably didn’t know enough. I just sing one tune after another. And in the space of two days….”
It was Sylvan Morris who was at engineer at Harry J then.
“Yes Morris was the engineer. The man is classic. When Morris a tune up the mic, in your head headphone, it sound sweet. You don’t have to put no pressure on it. You could sing all day, you know what I mean. You could sing without no strain or any kind of wear and tear on your vocals. Morris would set the mic…. When you hear Bob singing back in those days, him sing with a sweetness. Him can take it rough or him can take it soft. They have lost the art. If you go into the studio right now the headphones sound so tough. You basically have to have a technique down so that you have to get your sound down. But in them days, the sound already make in the headphones so you don’t have to strain. The sound just come out.”
Sylvan Morris grew up in that analogue tradition at Studio One.
“Its warm and smooth.”
He’s a very highly respected engineer. So all the songs that are on ‘Watchful Eyes’ album. Was that all of them? Or were there songs that are not included on the album?
“Ah, there might have been maybe one song or two tracks. But 99% of what we did went onto the album. There were maybe two that we didn’t persue. They could be in the vault somewhere. That we never did voice. Like I said we just went in there and voice. And then the next day we go for Judah Eskender and Judah just sit and we just sing. We just harmonize and just sing. The our voice just ring together, it was like magic you know.”
Pic: Roydale Anderson
It’s a truly magical album. I have said to Andy many times. That album, I know its come in part as ‘Now And Then’ but it would be nice to see it come out by itself.
In its original form, perhaps with some dub tracks added and even some deejay tracks from yourself! I never knew you were a DJ as well until just the other day.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. True True. Sinking Sand, have a deejay to it and a couple of other deejay tunes. Going back before the singing - I started out as a deejay on sound system.”
So you have worked on a sound system!
“The sound was named Zodiac that was our sound. The lead DJ at the time was Toyan. And then me and General Jah Mikey as the two apprentice.”
Jah Mikey who went onto to run the Kariang label?
“Kariang, Kariang, it could be him - you know. He was a slim youth, you know. I know there was a Jah Mikes who used to deejay. He used to deejay Arrows. But then him change him name to General Jah Mikey. If his name was General Jah Mikey it must be the same person.”
I have lost track of the Kariang label, I think its still going. Well with you deejaying - it makes it even more important for the album to come out again. With some dubs and the deejay cuts.
“Yeah, you are right about that. With the addition of the deejay tracks. I will talk to Andy and see. Its always in the back of my mind.”
Its such a great album.
“People love those drum rolls from Carly, “Can I sample them. The fact that I was young artist, so young. It gave them the freedom to play anyway they wanted. They never thought that I wouldn’t like this or that. So you get the Full Wailers now!!! In all the glory, with all the freedom.”
You can hear it. The vibes on that album are incredible! So it came out, and as this kind of thing goes, it was ignored. Almost part of a the reggae tradition. But that didn’t deter you.”
“No, no. Forward ever, forward ever.”
You got into the dancehall style! When Andy started to send me those 12” I thought this is great - a new kind of dancehall style. And then you went on tour with The Rhythm Factory.
Pic: Roydale Anderson
“We had the band in those times, we was touring and in between we were doing recordings. I forgot some of the tunes we did. Andy sent me a CD the other day with some of the songs that we did. And some of them are really nice.”
‘Hang Them High’ was a great tune.
“Yeah, yeah, ‘Guiding Star’ ‘One For The Road’
“I was comfortable with it, it was the way I started out, in the dancehall. Holding the mic, and just deejaying. Even in the other night at ‘Hootananny’ after I did my concert - I went back there a couple of weeks after and my bredren said take the mic - dub wise sound-system style. And we made the place rock. Even the people outside they come forward and the place just get jam up. I just sing tune pon rhythm. It was just pure dancehall style. Tune for tune, tune after tune.”
What was the name of the album that came out that contained those tunes?
“Oh, it was ‘Rough For Years’
Very few artists have made a classic ‘Roots’ album, and then a classic ‘Dancehall’ album. And then something else as well. You took that dancehall sound on the road!
You go back to them times Very few artists did that.
“That’s right, we take it on the road with a banner!” We took it to collages and all sorts of places. “
You go back to the ‘Beat’ magazine you was always on the road.
“The cops would always come and shut them down all the while. It would get so rowdy, you know what I mean. The collage kids would be drinking beer and just get wild and rush the stage. And everyone would be on the stage dancing at the same time. And the stage look like it was going to pop! To much people. And the cops would turn up and say what going on here”
And that was the eighties. And then you kinda went quite.
“In the nineties what happened was that my brother died. That kinda messed me up for a while. I went into exile. It was a self imposed exile. I had to take a break from the business. It was getting to me for a while. Being that he wasn’t there - sometimes I was on stage and it was like…I didn’t want to be there.”
Your heart was there, but your mind wasn’t ?
“Yeah, that’s right. It messed me up. He was the one who actually started the band you know. Between him and Andy. I felt like I wasn’t really doing the right thing. So I kind backed off a little bit.”
“Eventually, he was the one. I was sleeping one night and me get a vision with him. Me and him sitting in the back of a car, I was trying to talk to him, and he wasn’t talking to me. And then eventually he started to point to places where we grew up the first club where I sang in Rochester - Rockers Inn. And he started to show me all these places. They were knocked down. Rockers Inn was turned into a Police Station. He was pointing to all different places, but he wasn’t talking - so that was a vision. It messed me up - so it was then that I decided I’m going back to Jamaica. It was the only, I just didn’t know if I could start back again. The way I wanted to do. With that memory - so I just had to break free. A clean break. It was just because of this vision. So I went back to Jamaica. Mikey’s spirit is angry with me. I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
You heeded the message.
“That’s right! So I went back to Jamaica and as soon as I get back. I started to hear Jah Mali. I started to think this person have a name similar to mine and sound a little like me. So I was looking for this Jah Mali now I came from America with a bad attitude!
He worked a lot with Garnett Silk.
“Wha, but there was still no Jah Mail. We start reason, and I start play my guitar and sing. Then all of a sudden I hear a voice upstairs start sing, you know when like a cock crow! And a next cock start crowing. So I said a who that, and they say its Jah Mali, so I say come down here I want to meet him!!!”
That is a fantastic story… So there is Garnett who started as a deejay - Bimbo, and then you…Two great singers who started out as
“Deejays, its true. And I tell you, with the deejaying its good in certain aspects in the fact that he give you a different strength in your voice. Different from the singers who are just crooning. So that’s where my sound started to develop away from just a singing voice. The pitch is stronger, the deejay voice is stronger. You have to have a belly sound to be deejay. So that kinda did help me with my singing - and it was the same thing with Garnett. Garnett had that depth.”
Did you ever do any deejaying with Jah Love Muzik?
“With Jah Love, yeah man, back in the day…me used to sing on Jah Love too you know. We used to on Jah Love to try and deejay and thru I was a little boy at the time and Ilawi the selector he used to give me this sideways look - hahah we used to be afraid of Ilawi! We used to go to him and say we want to deejay on the sound, and he would give you one look!!! Hahaha and creep back into the corner. He used to do a little thing, he would play a tune, and we would say me can come now - and then he would fling a vocal and give you a sideways look. And alright now, Gwan, beat it. That was my experience with Jah Love. It was one touch here and there. It was such a big thing for to get my vibes on a Jah Love tape.”
I think I came across Judah Eskender on one Jah Love tape. We then spoke of the demise of the Jamaican sound system.
“ Well right now, Stur Gav is one of the hottest sounds in Jamaica.”
They have maintained a high standard from day one.
“Its too late now for Jah Love to have that kind of revival, Briggy lives in the US, and if someone lives abroad and they get comfortable and to come back a yard - its too much of an hard life and sufferation. Ilawi is still in Jamaica. But without the Ilawi and Brigg combination is like…
How is Briggy?
“He’s alright, he just come Jamaica the the other day for a Stur Gav dance and he come and mash up the show. He comes to Jamaica at least three times a year. Every now and again they have Henniken Star Time they bring him down. The people are hungry for those vibes again.”
And bringing everything up to date you had the Penthouse, and now your latest album ‘Timeless’ another classic set. A combination of the roots and the dancehall vibes.
“That is the concept of that album there. I’m going to keep this concept for at least another album.”
You have got to Mel. It’s a fantastic set. Its always good to hear you are working with Andy - that’s when great works occur.”
“True, True. We have a chemistry. He understands where I am coming from. And I have learned so much from him. Growing up, with him giving me advice teaching me from when he was in studio. When we was around all these artists Gregory Isaacs and all of these people.”
© Ray Hurford 2010