Perhaps it's time to look back on how Jamaican music was covered in the media during the formative years, what we often refer to as the unbeatable 'golden era' in reggae music. You had several important actors in this, apart from Jamaican publications at the time like Record Retailer and Swing; Island/Trojan A&R man David Betteridge was, possibly, the first one to supply a monthly magazine in the UK with a column of the latest reggae releases in about 1970, and, thus, introducing the music to a new audience and readership outside of the Caribbean. After this came names such as Chris Lane, Penny Reel, Steve Barrow, Vivien Goldman, Sebastian Clarke, Snoopy, and Dave Hendley to do some serious contributions by covering the music in bigger music papers such as Blues & Soul, NME, Sounds, Melody Maker and Black Echoes. But, probably, the most influential name and magazine during those days in the mid seventies was Jamaican born, Carl Gayle and the glossy Black Music magazine. He started out writing a column for the Let It Rock magazine in about 1973, providing a very necessary 'native' perspective on the music; both for the white audience and the local West Indian crowd, straight from the horse's mouth of the Jamaican-British community. Carl introduced patois writing as time went by, now settled as staff writer and reggae columnist in Black Music, he made sure that music fans could penetrate the Jamaican culture by reporting straight from the Kingston scene, and, at his best, the man was totally brilliant and made some of the most memorable music journalism ever. And then he disappeared at the height of the reggae boom in that crucial year, 1977. Later on he wrote and published maybe the first Rasta journal, Jah Ugliman, which grew into what we now have as Jahug. Strictly Rastafari. But we all go through phases and stages in life and the journalistic aspect of Carl's life is now long behind him. Formerly known as Iyah C, he writes and sings modern conscious Rasta music as Carl I these days. The debut album, 'Keep My Fire Burnin'', was released last year. Read on for more information on a crucial player in the Jamaican music history. I give thanks to Carl for a most enlightening conversation, to Yvonne Gayle, Carlton Hines, Roger Steffens, Steve Barrow, Ray Hurford, Tim P and Donovan Phillips. Now come in Caal, tell them a lickle story sah...
Q: The way the world has turned affects us all, abusing the environment in the extreme and each other, it's like the last days are soon here. It's not the easiest to stay positive as it is.
A: You know, I can be happy if I want but I don't feel right just to be enjoying myself when so many other people suffering and I know about it, I can't ignore it. So it get to me every day, really. This is what sometime produce music. But even that is a frustration. 'Cause when you do sing something conscious, as you know 'conscious' is meanin' when people are aware of what's really going on. When you do sing something conscious no-one want to play it, no matter how good it is. And this is what stop most of the singers from puttin' out something.
Q: That was and is a reality. Anyway, I must say that, ironically, after all those writings on the music, now I have you, the former critic, on the 'other side of the fence' so to speak, being the subject or target of analysis or musical criticism. As you know there's that old cliche about the music journalist always wanting to be what he or she writes about, a musician and performer...
A: Yeah... well, I mean it's true in a sense, but I never really wanted to be a musician, personally. Even when I was going among a lot of musicians and interviewing them, and singers interviewing them, I never really thought about it at the time. The only time I started thinking about it was when I was in Jamaica, from about, say, 1978. Yeah, 'cause from then, you see, when you're surrounded by music in Jamaica like I was, it influence you a lot. That is where your ear is, your heart is, y'know. So, yea, it have a lot of influence and I feel like I could do, I could sing about things that is going on in my life, in my community. And it affect me about my life at the time as well. But at the same time I was trying to put out Jahug, Jah Ugliman, but I never had much commercial success with that. Because in this capitalistic system it don't... people like it, y'know, everybody I know love it, and I go all around the island and give it out and sell it, leave it with the one company that control the whole island distribution, the magazines - it's Novelty Trading, yes. And they took fifty-one per cent, and you forget some lickle small change from the shops I get, from the shops I go around and distribute them to. But Novelty, which was the main distributing company, them never do nutten with it, all them do is send it out to a few shops around the countryside, and that was it. And for that them take fifty-nine or fifty-one per cent or something like that - the major part, or sixty per cent. So, I couldn't carry on with that. So life was rough (chuckles). But that was the time when I started reading more about what's going on in the world especially, and in Jamaica at the time. At the time it was PNP (People's National Party) government, times were very hard, harder than now in a sense. Because there was no provision, things were very short, shortage of everything. Power cut every week an' dem kinda t'ing, but it was violence as usual.
Q: You did some early attempts at recording in the late eighties. But how did this take shape, to produce a full album, when did you start thinking about it?
A: Well, actually the first time - I used to rehearse with a guitarist, a friend of mine name Winston, he's a jeweller but he's a good guitarist and he used to work with Chinna (Smith). I used to rehearse with him and write songs and sing them and put them on cassette tape, with the intention of somehow, sometime, puttin' them out. But it was very hard. And I used to go and line up just like a lot of other musicians, lot of other singers who wanted to get recorded, but just really down at Chinna's, and one or two time down at Lee Perry's. But I never even mention it to Lee Perry still, ca' that was the earlier days. But Chinna know I did waan fe sing, and he actually did some rehearsal with me, and I sing a tune at the rehearsal, on tape for him, named 'Modern Slavery'. And it's a very good song, yunno, and I think the tape got mislaid after a while. But in the event later on, I think it was in the eighties, a friend of mine wanted to do some music and he heard a song I was singin', and it was called 'Bird Heights'. And we went and rehearsed it with Chinna and his group. Horsemouth (Wallace) on drums, Asher on keyboard, Chinna (guitar), and I think it was Frazel (Pendergrast)... or one a dem, Frazel was playin' bass. But it was a nice session and we get a tune name 'Bird Heights' out of it, but it didn't go any further. We never got as far as mixin' it, but everybody loved that tune. So them always look at me as somebody who... when I start, when I start sing. But they never give no help ca' nobody have no money. And if they're not certain that that gonna be a hit, then them don't do nutten with you. And I don't sing anyt'ing just fe get a hit. But I still wasn't one hundred per cent involved in trying to put out music, it was just as a friend help me with that, with the rehearsin'. And writing the songs, I did them myself. And then with that one first effort which was called 'Bird Heights', that was actually - we rehearsed it with the group and then we went to the studio, went to Tuff Gong, recorded it. But nutten after that. So that was my first time in the studio. But after that now, just before I leave Jamaica to come to England, I made a demo tape with some musicians down by on the south side... or out by the east side, on Harbour View. I have a tape of that still now, 'cause I'm gonna do over some of those songs and plenty of the other songs. I intend to do more songs as time goes on, but it's not easy when you don't get much feedback financially.
Q: What sort of reaction have this album received so far?
A: Beautiful reaction, but not in terms of sales. Yeah, people like it, everybody say they like it. I think they're being honest by what they say and by how they say it.
Q: I don't know, it's a bit 'conservative' sound-wise this album, it's very much the old with some of the new so to speak. As far as production goes, it was more a gradual process and you didn't strive for a particular sound from the early stage, or how did you go about?
A: Not a particular sound, but I work out most of my things for myself. Like for instance, to write a song I will just sing it, right, and then when I've got the song it might take a long time, or it might take a short time, and when I have the song then I give it a bass line, which is what I always do. And then I sing along to the bass line on a lickle tape, just to record it and hear what it sounds like, to like get it to what I want. And I have a bass line with all my songs. And then I should've rehearsed more for this album but we only had a couple of rehearsals, but that was not a problem really, that was good. And they were all musicians who worked together before with someone else. They're people who I go and choose, yunno.
Q: It's good to keep a spontaneous feel too.
A: Right, that's true. Yeah, but at the same time we couldn't afford fe even get no more rehearsal. So we did it in pieces though, you see, it wasn't like a set of musicians get together in the studio like one day and then the next day and then the next day and then the next day, or whenever. We did it like with one-one musician. At first we put on the riddim with all the musicians that were necessary at the time and then gradually work on it over the months. Because money-wise I didn't have the money fe really finish it one time, I had to go back to the studio several times. And I was the producer and the arranger. Because as I say, when you arrange the tune and you know what it's gonna sound like you have the bass line, then anyone can play it. And the rest of the musicians just fit in.
Q: What did you hope to achieve with this album, dreams and hopes?
A: Well, just do what I could do and to see if I could get any help for it, which is what I'm still seekin' to do. But you have to get the right deal, if you can. Otherwise you just go ahead and do what you can yourself. But it's hard on your own.
Q: The following question would be that you actually release a record at a tough time for the industry, I mean it's practically down on its knees right now, so it's sort of like a jeopardy now more than ever...
A: Yeah, beca' nobody buying CD's, them just buying one for three pound or two pound, pirate CD's. And they won't buy it in the shops unless they've heard it a lot on the radio. And certain type of music, like my music in particular now, is not being played on the local community radio here. It might be played on some foreign white station in Ireland or Wales or California which I know, Italy, people have played it and told me about it, sent me requests and sent me lists of what they've played. So I know it get played. But unfortunately it's not the type of album that is popular in the black community.
Q: Why is that?
A: Why? Because it's not... I think the first thing is that it got to come from abroad. When you're a new artist and you have to come from Jamaica, when you put out a music in Jamaica, you put out a single first. Unlike what I did was to jus' put out an album. You put out a 45 in Jamaica and if it's well liked then everybody play it, or if you can get it played by paying certain people fe play it, then it might become heard. It will become heard and people would buy it, but you have to have the funds upfront fe get it going. And then you become well known among the DJ's and you can get things done. But even if you're in Jamaica, if I go there now I would have to get in with people who know how it go and what to do fe get your music played. So, that is the first thing. When it's played in Jamaica now it's sent out to the rest of the world. And then it come to England, it come to London and people play it. Because that's what the local people want. You make it with the local riddim, you see, Jamaican musicians currently they know exactly what sound them want. And them pushing forward all the time with challenging beats and so on. So, it's improving, things are pushin' on musically. It's different, beca' they have more emphasis, they play the one drop, they use more kick-drum now in the music. And these lickle things are well-known to everyone in Jamaica, but over here the musicians don't know it so good. So you get a different sound from Jamaica. Probably that's what I have to do, I have to go there and put out my music from there to mek it go abroad. Ca' that seems to be the best way. But you have to get in to the right beat, yunno, what the people are dancing to.
Q: But it's not only the musical aspect of it. It's like today you have to do something outrageous to reach out with a product, the image thing... it's so much of the commercial machinery involved in this too.
A: Yeah. In Jamaican music I think - if you have something local that they really want, because when you're living there you can sing about what's going on in Jamaica, but you can't really do it from here. So if I was there now I could sing something fe mek the people know about me, and I would get better help, musicianship-wise. I think it would be better there that way, coming from there. Especially a new artis', ca' a new artis', even in Jamaica they don't know you. Even if you have a good tune it have to be a hit. It's like everybody have to be playin' it before you get known.
Q: There might be other angles from this too, in your case, being a new artist but 'originating' from another field. And I believe it can be difficult to shake off the journalistic past and then enter an area you 'viewed' from the outside. And then you come as an artist and then some tend to compare in some way, if there's a high standard what you've done before that... even if it's two different things.
A: I think some people may do it in the western world. In Jamaica people don't even know me as a journalist, you understan'?
A: You see, but in this country now the older ones... it's a different set of people in the music business controlling it now, in reggae music. So, the people who did know me from my journalism, they're not even the ones who have the influence. It's the young audience you have to please. But in the west, I mean even people like yourself, as a journalist who knows what you're listening for, y'know wha' I mean, so when you hear my music now you might listen to it in a different way than you would of the ordinary... of someone else's music, who wasn't a journalis'. You understan'. Yeah, ca' I know that feeling. But it's just for me to make good music, 'cause good music last a long time.
Q: Regardless of what you've done in the past (chuckles).
A: Oh yeah, regardless of that. Because if and when you make a very big music, then everybody will or want to know what you did in the past, musically too. Mostly. They don't business with you - it can be very helpful actually. I think it's only in terms of how people regard you who knew you before. I don't think them actually affect your prospects really, unless they're in the position to in the business. But I think there's a new set of people now, producers, singers, and even distributors, some of the old ones dem still around, yes, controlling. But it's the people it depend 'pon. And really, if you're in Jamaica singin' and you want to be a hit with the people, you have to sing in a way and use the language that them want. You don't have to sing foolishness, you can sing something conscious too. And it can make a big difference, y'know.
Carl Gayle aka Carl I
Q: The album is obviously aimed at a conscious audience. But, since there's so much self-righteous preaching in Jamaican music now... someone I know complained about there's too much pointing fingers at how you should live and do this and do that. How do you avoid being 'preachy' and dogmatic, trying to be a bit more neutral and constructive in your lyrics and not getting stuck in that pattern?
A: I don't know... well, people have to express themselves. (Chuckles) It might be a disadvantage to what people want to hear. Because generally people are just happy, just want music to make them feel happy or feel better than they do. But actually people most want to sing when them very upset or very disturbed or something, or angry. Emotionally they feel something deeply, so that's why they want to sing. The usual way about it is that you have a recording business and you try to sing popular songs, so you sing something nice that people will identify with and make them feel better. (Chuckles) But the world is in a state now where it require a music to be very deep. People can't live unless them certain places like Jamaica, unless them doing music. Them write a music and sing music jus' for another month's rent or something, or a next week's rent. Big tune it can be. So, I'm sayin' people are suffering and it cause them fe sing. So the audience now will listen it and will like it. But you know what? They will have to hear it. But the people who play the music don't play that, them don't waan play serious music. Beca' they don't identify with the serious causes that the people are singin' about. They're not singin' about serious things in people's life, just for the pleasure of it. You know, it's their own experience. And them identify with people all over the world who share the same experience. So if people would play it on the radio... Because the reason why the people feel guilty, why them feel guilty y'know, them don't waan people tellin' them how fe live. (Chuckles) So them don't want to encourage that, so they play happy music. Fair enough, but a lotta people not happy. (Laughs) So if you preach too much in your music people won't buy it, and sooner or later you will learn that. So you have to mix it a bit for consumption. You have to find a way to do it. You still have to be true to yourself though, y'know.
Q: Speaking of the material on this CD, do you think you found the right balance there?
A: If I found a balance? But most of all I'm more concerned about singin' what I feel deeply about, and I don't worry about the balance beca' I think it will reach them once they get to hear it. You see, you can't convince a DJ to play it unless you pay him some money, and that is the most serious, crucial part, isn't it, to get them to play it. 'Cause no matter what them play, if them play it often enough the people will waan to hear it. It's hypnotism, that's what it is, music y'know.
Q: Yes (chuckles).
A: So, it's just a way fe influence the people. When I was in Jamaica you'd be surprised to know the amount of conscious, strong music that was coming out in the late seventies, early eighties, to the change of 1980. Up to 1979, some strong music from '75 comin' right through to '79. And I was there from the beginning of January '77. And I was here and hearing all the conscious music before that as well. But you'd be surprised to hear the amount of conscious, strong lyrics we a come over about. You know, the way of the world and the unjust way of the world, leaders and people, and so on. And just people in general, beca' when people are under pressure they do all kinda mean and wicked t'ings to each other. So I'm sayin' that the more you hear it, I know that when I was in Jamaica and hearin' these music, everybody love it! They never waan hear no silly music no more. But if the airwaves are full of something... You see, to me, man, what's important is that I waan fe change the world through music, whatever lickle bit I can. But the main job is to get them to play it, that's all I'm concerned with. And to get all a them to play it consistently, or at the same time. So that is the question.
Q: I think what's on this album is a reaction to what's going on in the music right now, music the way it should be and not fabricated but honest, existing under its own conditions. It's not easy listening, it's more of a challenge than anything else. And who feels it knows it.
A: Thank you very much.
Q: It's not really a conventional thinking there, content wise and otherwise, at least not to the price of watering down the music.
A: No... you know what my thinkin' is with that? It's that sooner or later people will get to hear it. You know why I know? Because in the future my music will get much more crucial, because I know that now 'cause I've been singin' more. I've been singin' more and been improving how I do it and I know tricks about it and see what people... I realise through this one first album what people like especially about music, comin' from the person who's making it point of view, not the person who's listening. And even though I've been listening closely, when I go to make it I still never know exactly which way musically or what is necessary most in the music for it to reach people. But I know now, one hundred per cent. I'm going to give them beca' them waan hear the feeling that you have. Them want your naked soul, Peter. Yeah. And then a lot of people dress it up with nice music, it's good. And if you have good musicians you can leave it to them and you just get on with your singin'. Musicians I mean who are used to it, who are in the studio every week. It's a different set of musicians who you have to find in England who have been away for a long time and only are tryin' to play what they've heard from a long time ago, 'cause that is the music they like. And they're playin' it in a second hand way. So if they don't have no guidance, strong guidance, they won't get nowhere neither. That's why I had to arrange my music myself. So most of that music is my creation. Beca' what I would do, Peter, is make the music, make the riddim, come home and listen, and I would start to hear the other parts. And then I would just record it, and then go back to the studio with the appropriate musicians and lay down those parts. Sometimes when you try with musicians and they just play, you let them do what they want, it doesn't work out as the type of reggae you'd want, it sound like somebody else. So in order for it to sound like me, that's how I had to do it. But I know there's a balance needed there also. But when you can rely more on good musicians, so that's why Jamaica again is important.
Q: The album is about tradition, it's good to maintain that too and not having a bland commercialised approach, getting caught up in 'hip' ways of doing modern music, and trying to stick to a more individual concept, whatever.
A: Yeah. I mean, the whole concept, my concep', is that I'm an African. Everything I do is towards African liberation and world liberation. Beca' when I read and find out what's going on, sometimes I can't even eat. I mean, not just tears come to my eyes, I mean weeping and moarnin', because I feel it. 'Cause that's the type of somebody who I am and I know myself. And I'm glad I feel like that. Beca' it mek me more spiritually one with all suffering people. And when I feel that energy then that give me the courage to sing whe I've never sung before and do anything that is necessary to put out the music. Beca' when I do do it, I know I'm gonna do it very strong, or don't do it at all. Because I'm coming from the spirit of the suffering people, all people, because I identify with people all over the world who are the victims of atrocities, and it's continuing day after day, week after week.
Q: It's sort of agonising to be so emotionally 'open' too.
A: Well, it can be. But you see, that's how you produce something strong though, isn't it?
A: But I can't live any other way, beca' everyone have to be themselves, right. I'm not sayin' that you have to be like me, you're livin' my life in a different body and I'm livin' yours, you understan'? That's how one we are, but people don't know this. And the leaders of this world, the people who control everything, them don't want people to know this. So why should we just stay quiet and ignore everything and get on with it. I feel like everyone should try and do something about it, but what little they can do they don't even think of doing it or scared too tough, because it is, as you say, agonising. But you know what? When you go through agony you realise that (chuckles) there's something wonderful about it, it don't really hurt at all. It gets somewhere you have to be to live right, to really live right. Yeah, because this is how I feel Rastafari now, is the world should live according to how Haile Selassie I did show us, and if them no stand for it then them fight 'gainst morality. And is not extreme morality, is just justice we waan fe everyone. It's starting with Africa, because we're Africans and we've been under colonisation and globalisation for five hundred years, or two thousand years if you waan to go back from the first invasion. But yes, and so we need to liberate Africa, the whole a the world too. Beca' by doing it ourselves then we will liberate others. But you know, everybody really is on trial, really. What you think life is for? Just to have a good time (laughs)? No man, everybody is on trial. So that is the consciousness that cause me to sing, that's why I would say I sing conscious music. Because it's like a big prison island, the earth right now. The rulers, them do anything they want to you, the fascist rulers (chuckles).
Article: Peter I|
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