If reggae music is the universal cry of poverty, then singers like I Kong embodies the best of its many messengers. He is one of the most clear and shining examples that suffering can cause great art, and be understood and appreciated by the masses regardless where they are on earth. Why he isn't more recognised is just another one of those bitter stories, but the sooner it can be told the better. It was a great difficulty in beginning the piece, where emotions comes in the way of expressing even the most simple ways of introducing one of the most brilliant of talents Jamaican music has produced over the years. Probably because of the greatness of his music, probably because his music has hit home, grabbed your emotions, taken you to a place where you've never been but wish you had, and sometimes you're glad you've never been, either. The message made that all too clear, but you're thankful that you've heard it. I Kong's voice is one of the most delightful you could ever wish to hear. It's such a shame that it hasn't been recorded more. The reasons for this is discussed in this interview, one of very few he has given. I Kong, the nephew of legendary Beverley's producer, Leslie Kong, was born Errol Kong. He was a founding member of The Jamaicans, a group which also consisted of Martin Williams, Tommy Cowan, Norris Weir, Keith Brown, and Midsie Curry. They recorded one of the most famous rock steady songs, 'Ba Ba Boom', in the late 1960's. After gigging with several bands in Kingston, he embarked on a solo career and cut the all-time classic 'The Way It Is' in 1972, a true sufferer's anthem. I Kong's debut album, titled 'The Way It Is', came out in 1978. It was just recently it saw a reissue on CD, also including a bunch of unreleased dub mixes. It was followed by a new release in over twenty-five years, 'The Forgotten Man', a collection of previously unreleased songs, remixes, and new tracks. My thanks to Errol, George Campbell, Carlton Hines, Russ Bell-Brown, Laurent Pfeiffer and Donovan Phillips.

Q: How did you grow up?

A: Yeah, I'm a born Kingstonian. I was born on North Street, between North Street and Duke Street, a lickle nursing home there, between the Moravian church at North Street corner and the Trade Union 'pon Duke Street. That was in 1947, yunno. That is downtown Kingston.

Q: Did you grow up surrounded by musical members of the family?

A: Well, my uncle, Beverley's Recording, they had a studio (a recording company). Bob (Marley) and the whole of dem, Peter (Tosh), Bunny (Wailer),Toots & The Maytals, Owen Gray, Patsy (Todd), Derrick Morgan, Melodians, the great 'Deadly Hedley' Bennett (sax), the whole a dem people deh, Tommy (McCook) dem, the whole a dem recording for my uncle at one time or the other. Because Orange Street was known as 'Beat Street' in those days, and Orange Street was to dominate musically for many years. Prince Buster was there, Derrick Harriott further down, and you had Lee'Scratch' Perry at one time. You would see The Wailers dem at one time too, when they had the Wailers label too (called Wail M Soul M). I grew up in the music, yunno. Most of the man dem inna the music business inna the early days, I grow up with them; Slim Smith, there was the great Don Drummonds, Brent Dowe (the Melodians), the Folkes Brothers, 'Oh Carolina'?

Q: Yes.

A: Count Prince Miller and the Downbeat, Derrick Harriott and the Jiving Juniors, Wailers, Maytals, the whole a dem people deh, Prince Buster, Alton Ellis in dem times deh.

Q: Those were the days.

A: Yep.

Q: What kind of foreign music did you listen to?

A: Oh, I listen to everything, because I jus' loved music. I used to love Mahalia Jackson, she sing gospel. I loved Louis Armstrong, I loved the... wha's the singer name... oh gosh, Nat 'King' Cole. Earl Grant, Ray Charles, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Sam Cooke, the Drifters, the Platters, the Moonglows, you name them. I listen to all of them beca' I love all kinda music, classical, I like Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Handel, Schubert, Schuman, the whole a dem.

Q: Mmm (chuckles).

A: I jus' loved music.

I Kong (Photo: George Campbell)

Q: How big is the Chinese community down there by the way, it's pretty big isn't it?

A: Yes, yes, yes. In the Caribbean I think it's... the Jamaican community is one of the largest in the Caribbean, the Chinese community. But I have to tell you, one of the greatest regret is that I didn't learn Chinese when I was small, because now I'm a grown man and surely missed out on that, and I wish I had. But then, when I was growing I wasn't very close to the Chinese community, because being a half-breed I was looked down upon, I wasn't really accepted in the Chinese community as such beca' I wasn't full Chinese, you understan'. My father came to Jamaica from China an' had my mum. So, being a half-breed I was between (chuckles)... the devil an' the deep blue sea as a Chinese-African growing up in the suburbs as a yout'.

Q: So there was a pretty rough childhood?

A: Yes, yes. But I still had a beautiful childhood to a certain extent, because I remember the old people dem, especially the Negro community, they really loved me an' took me as one of their own an' that's where the musical stage really spread within the Jamaican community. Because I met all these great artists, Slim Smith, Ken Boothe, my good brethren from the Abyssinians I used to go to school with, Bernard Collins, and (Donald) 'Satta Massa Gana' Manning himself, and his older brother Carlton, that a the group Carlton & The Shoes. And you know, Carlos Malcolm & The Afro-Jamaicans, the latest prime minister, the ex prime minister, Mr P. J. Patterson, he used to manage the Skatalites. Because when I had my group, I was the founder along with Norris Weir of the group, The Jamaicans. After they had people like Tommy Cowan and them get a lot of popularity. But dem never form that group name The Jamaicans, it's not true but a so it go, I and I na fight down nutten. But there comes a time and you have to set the record straight an' people haffe know certain t'ings. Because even right now, Tommy really... I and I, and my manager, have to go to court. Because I do an album name 'The Way It Is' from way back inna the seventies, I still don't get a cent offa that! And because it was financed between me and me lickle brethren whe put up some money who help me to do the album, Mikey Lee... ca' Mikey believe seh, bwoy, me make a whole heap a money - me na get a cent! And that kinda get a strain 'pon the relationship, me get a whole heap a problem with that. Me na go fight, ca' me a true Rastafari, yunno.

Q: Yes, we're coming to that, later. What was your earliest memory of getting more involved in the music, getting into songwriting, and so on? Your uncle, Leslie, did he ever encourage you at some point?

A: No. After me found the group, as I say, The Jamaicans way back in the sixties, and then Norris and myself jus' gravitated towards writing songs, me and Norris Weir. They do songs like 'In Music I Believe' (released as 'I Believe In Music') and 'Ba Ba Boom', 'Things You Say You Love'. Norris used to go to KC (Kingston College) and I used to go to Wolmers Boys School. And we was very close, and we just had a thing between us, we just writing songs. So it jus' came outta the blue. Because most of the time Norris would a tek fe 'im 'pon paper, but I had a mind of mine. Because from those days, what I hear, what I do in the studio is what I hear in my head. I hear like how people would a sound, I listen the radio, I hear everyt'ing when I listen a song. That is what I hear in my head, the music, everyt'ing. So I use my mouth ca' I don't play an instrument, so I use my mouth and I hum it to you a score to the musician them. Because in the early days when I started, especially when I did 'The Way It Is' album, most of the musician dem, the real musician in reggae who knows it, a so them seh "Bwoy, Kong, cyaan work with dat. Reggae a two chord, dat cyaan work! Too much chord inna the music ya", and this and that, an' dem a say dem cyaan do it. But me say, "Rasta, if you cyaan do it then me a go find a one with talent, an' when me hear it inna me head an' it sound good in my head then it mus' can be done, ca' Jah works". You understan'? So, a jus' so.

Leslie Kong

Q: But did you ever record, like later in the sixties, for your uncle's label, Beverley's?

A: No, hear I now. You see, when I was growing up as a lickle yout', as I said, they used to fight me dung still, beca' dem never want me to really hang out with, as dem see it, the black people dem. Beca', you know, we're prejudiced still inna Jamaica, you understan'? So although Beverley's an' all dem man deh would a say, "Man, yu nuh really can sing" an' ray ray ray, me still tek it serious. An' me no really sing nutten for none a dem really, ca' through dem know me have true talent dem jus' gang me inna corner. More time me would a carry home certain record an' say 'Hear how this sound, whe yu t'ink 'bout it, whe yu t'ink 'bout dat?' You understan' me? Ca' most a the tune dem record inna the evenin' with a beer or hot dinner or... you know, we sit down and we reason an' listen the lyrics an' everyt'ing like that. So my musical t'ing no have nutten fe do with me uncle, it have mostly fe do with people, the people of Jamaica, the poor people dem because I have always been around the poor. So that's why my songs dem reflect that, because musically they are my inspiration.

Q: So when you formed The Jamaicans now, who wrote songs like 'Ba Ba Boom' and did you get to tour with the group during that time?

A: I didn't tour with the group because when they went to do 'Ba Ba Boom' and 'Things You Say You Love', and that's the solution because I have to take a break. Ca' how come we never get no money an' t'ing, so I left to join a tourist liner, the Yarmouth. And the Yarmouth, dem ship deh I do work 'pon 'cause I couldn't see no way out fe me, in Jamaica. So while I was away dem went to studio an' recorded those songs, I wasn't really on those two songs. But anyway, I didn't sing on the records, no, I didn't sing on them, I was away at that time.

Q: Did you record anything with the group before you left, things that never saw the light of day?

A: No, well, I never really did any recordings with the group. But I was the lead singer like when we used to sing at the hotels an' the nightclubs an' all of them t'ing deh. I left as I said to go to sea, so it was while I went to sea they got their break in the recording scene with Duke Reid. Prior to that we had done some recordings with Aston McCochran, who was then our manager. He actually suggested that we should change the name from The Merricoles to The Jamaicans. We did some recordings at Coxson's, but I never hear anyt'ing became of that, I never hear anything of that. Because I did all the lead singin' on those songs, but I never did hear anyt'ing come out of it. I dunno what happen to those tapes or what happen to the songs or what. I never hear, I don't know.

Q: You recall some of the titles you recorded for Coxson and so on?

A: Oh yeah, 'Until The Dance Is Through', we did over... Ben E. King had that tune name 'Jamaica', I think Norris dem did it over back without me for Duke, 'Jamaica' a the title. Ben E. King did it originally, and we did that an' two other songs, one that Norris wrote an' one that I wrote. I don't remember the titles of them off hand right now, them go way way back in time.

Q: OK. So you actually recorded for Coxson, that's interesting.

A: Yes. Actually, Coxson was the first studio we went to, yes, not for him per se - you see, the man McCochran, that was the man who said he was our manager, him took us to Coxson because him wanted us to do some songs. But even the tapes dem, I don't think Coxson have those tapes, I think it's Mr McCochran, so I don't know whatever became of that. But it was Coxson's studio we did the recording. An' actually it was in those days... I think it's thirteen songs we did for Studio One.

The Jamaicans (with I-Kong on lead)

Q: How did you like recording there?

A: It was nice, it was nice in the early days because I was familiar with all of the musicians dem, I knew all of dem, you understan', the Skatalites, the whole a dem. Because Lloyd Knibbs, Lloyd Brevett, Tommy McCook, Roland (Alphonso) was very nice to me. Roland a seh, "Bwoy, your ideas are very advanced, yunno", him usually tell me that. An' then I know Jackie Mittoo from school days because Jackie an' Norris tek up KC, as I said, an' I used to go to where him at. So we had known each other long long time an' I know all of the musician dem. Sometime Mr Dodd would just allow me in beca' I was a very attentive yout', I jus' quiet an' siddung an' I listen the music dem, watch Don Drummond a blow, the Skatalites dem a record some of dem great hits. I was in the studio with them an' all dem t'ing, 'Jackson' dem used to call it usually yunno, Mr Dodd say so.

Q: Yes, familiar with it (chuckles).

A: (Chuckles) Me love the music t'ing an' everything like that, y'know. Yeah, beca' even Scratch (Lee Perry) used to work for him, Mr Dodd, one a the time.

Q: When you joined the ship, Yarmouth, there's a story about when you had a dream, or a vision, about that ship.

A: Oh yeah, that came about the boat would a sink, so I get up an' I was very disturbed about it an' I told me other brethren dem who... he had all gone up to the Bahamas to join the ship, we lef' Jamaica to the Bahamas, an' deh it dropped. An' we always cling together from Jamaica, so they left me an' a couple other guys left, but the other people dem jus' took it fe a joke an' laughed. But actually it did sink, couple of weeks after we leave.

I Kong (Photo: George Campbell)

I Kong (Photo: George Campbell)

Q: Really?

A: Yeah.

Q: Ah, tragedy.

A: We lost a couple Jamaicans too on that.

Q: What did you work with on the ship?

A: Oh, I was a junior bartender (chuckles)...

Q: (Chuckles)

A: I performed in the nightclub, they had nightclub on it, so me sing there. And I also was a watchman during the nightshift, the great nightshift as dem call it.

Q: Did you enjoy it there?

A: Oh yes, I like it. I like working with dem people deh, when you work on a ship you get to travel, which is great (chuckles)... it don't cost you nutten.

Q: Of course. So after you left the ship, what happened next for you?

A: Well, I came back home an' then I rejoined the group an' we worked in many clubs an' t'ing like that, we did stints in a couple of bands, and then I decided to go out on my own.

Q: What was the bands you played with?

A: Oh, we did stints with Kes Chin & The Souvenirs, we did stints with the Presidents, we did stints with Ingrid Chin & The Avengers (an all-female group, a popular act in those times), we also sang, as I said, with Carlos Malcolm & The Afro-Jamaicans, also the Skatalites as a guest artist, the Titans, there's lots of other bands, yunno. At the time you had a lot of little bands bands - bands was the t'ing in Jamaica then, live music an' dem t'ing deh. I enjoyed it because I performed with the people, you understan'. An' it's a challenge because it's not like dem man ya nowadays who go in a studio an' mek a mistake an' all dem look 'pon tape whe dem go "Wheee, come again!" Dem t'ing deh is fe cover up dem mistake, inna dem days deh a singer had to be a singer.

The Jamaicans (with I-Kong on lead) (Photo: Larry McDonald)

Q: A different question of skill somehow...

A: Yes, yes, yes.

Q: ... between then and now.

A: Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah. And to be truthful, I think we have grown to accept mediocrity as talent, we can't talk about talent when there's no talent there. But then in the early days you had to have talent, ca' if you have no talent you don't last. Beca' you had so many great singers, singers left right and center, groups; two-man group, three-man group, four-man group, five-man group - one time a group had seven people in it, in Jamaica! I remember we used to sing fe Sonny Batson (well-known promoter in the early days of JA show business) down Maxfield Avenue, Kitty Mack Club, an' it was seven of them dem time deh. An' when you get your lickle two pound ten, that is nutten beca' we already drink up our two pound ten a'ready, yunno, the night, beca' you have fe await the evening an' film (here pronounced 'flim') show an' all dem t'ing deh an' you cyaan jus' siddung an' na have nutten. You 'ave fe have... drink two juice an' chat to your friend dem an' fe a girl if one's nearby, get them a drink an' so on an' so on. By the time we go home it's nutten more of it in deh.

Q: The music was first and foremost, money seemed secondary.

A: No, it was all you got for us in the early days, all the artists dem that I can remember, all the great artists dem would tell you the same t'ing. I and I never run down the money, it was the love of the music. And to I and I, even the older artists dem, it's still the love of the music. We don't run dung the money like how dem use to a gwaan deh now, that's how them put out too much crap. Ca' dem a run dung the money an' the man dem inna the business whe say dem a producer, dem no know nutten 'bout music. So dem jus' put out a whole heap a hype t'ing an' jus' exalt 'pon a t'ing an' hype that, an' that mash up the music. As far as I see it, within music.

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