Ras Karbi might just be a name familiar to older readers, those who fondly remember tracks like 'Promised Land' and the exceptional 'Discrimination', a song that hit big in Jamaica back in 1976 with its hard-hitting 'Rasta-against-establishment' lyrics. He won the Jamaica Song Festival in 1983 with the folk-ish 'Jamaica, I'll Never Leave You Again', but little has been heard from him since, 'officially', apart from a rare appearance in New York at a benefit concert last year to Michael Rose. He is not only a singer/songwriter but also an accomplished sculptor, he founded the first edition of Now Generation, Karbi danced with Sun Ra's band, he even starred in the first Broadway reggae musical in 1980, titled simply 'Reggae'. So you can see, this is a man of many talents, and had a pretty interesting story to tell when I linked up with him in New York in January, '04. My thanks to Karbi, Ejaness, Steve Barrow, Bob Schoenfeld and Michael de Koningh.

Q: I would like to know some about how you grew up, which was in Spanish Town, yes?

A: Yes, Spanish Town, although I don't speak Spanish (laughs)! Growing up in Spanish Town in a way was kind of fun, and the other side of it was very rough, because it is a very rough town, y'know, the people of Spanish Town. Because the reputation was that other people from Kingston was afraid of going to Spanish Town because it's so scary. I grew up exactly one mile out of Spanish Town, one mile west of Spanish Town. Then again that was also a very rough neighbourhood, even rougher than Spanish Town. It's the one neighbourhood in Jamaica that you would not go because it had a reputation, y'know. But it was fun, you had total freedom to do all the things without parents knowing, used to go out in the canefields in the area where, y'know, there's lots of canefields and get chewing-cane and stuff like that, and that tend to be a very bad (?) thing to do, at the time. And we'd go fishing, skivy diving in the canal.

Q: Were you the only one in the family who was musically inclined, at the time?

A: Well as far as that now, my family is a very large family and I'm the only one who had a talent for doing the art, but it was estranged in the family (chuckles)! And I was the only one who had it natural to get involved with music.

Ras Karbi.
(Photo: Neil Kenlock)

Q: So you became sort of the 'black sheep' in choosing this? Like, you were ought to look for something else than art for a living.

A: (Laughs) It could be... but a sheep in no colour (chuckles)! Transparent sheep! Yeah, sometimes I think about why it was kind of estranged to do music. You know, my brother that I grow up with, my older brother, one time he started to teach it in Jamaica, to learn to play an instrument and he had a great mind in trying to make that, an instrument for 'im to play.

Q: When did you get into playing and singing and get into songwriting seriously, that's in school I suppose?

A: Well, looking back I think I started with music a long time ago. I was always singin' or beating some pans, y'know, or knocking on the table and always hit myself with trouble for music. 'Cos sometimes my people didn't want to hear me and chase me away: "Get away from here, you're making too much noise!", they'd call it (laughs), so... But as far as playing an instrument I used to kind of pick up the harmonica. I started to blow on this, blowin' here and blowing there. Then I started making what I thought was guitars, what they would - they weren't very professionally made, just something to pluck on. But otherwise it kinda evolved where cards were -'Wow, cards, yu ever play cards?', y'know, and we found that to play with the guitar. To my surprise it was difficult as an instrument, so I just kept pursuing that and it jus' evolve. And some men along the way, there's a couple of people I remember I met where one was a band drummer, and he had a ukelele, and I used to love to hang out in the evening, sittin' in the corner with him just listening him play. And then once in a while he'd say "OK, your turn, hold this". And I'm always there thinkin' to hold this, and he say "OK, put your finger here, there", and so I started to learn what was like a few chords.

Q: This is in your early teens still?

A: No, this is like maybe when I was about... ten. By the time I became like thirteen I saw a real guitar, and so I saw somebody from the same neighbourhood who had one and I used to borrow it from him. I go by his house and borrow it and practice on it a little bit.

Q: You didn't have the encouragement from somebody to enter the studios some time after, to try your luck there?

A: No. In those days the recording studios choose you, they used to pick...

Q: In the early part of the sixties you mean?

A: Yeah. So it was nothing like that, and I was outside of Kingston and of course nobody answers for nobody. It was a man there who had a sound system, and he used to play like night and day. And right through the night he would play, and loud and he would stick the speakers up in a tree and he would do this at weekends, I used to be around there. Then where I was growing up you had another man who had what you would call a lawn, kind of an open area spot where you used to keep dancehall, an' because I was also artistically inclined, they would come to me to do the posters. So I was about, say, eleven or twelve when I was writing and drawing those posters. And by doing all these things as a kid I could go to - I kept going to the dances for free, I was like the youngest person inside of the dancehall. At the time, they couldn't throw me out because I was doing posters for them - not for free though!

Q: Any sounds in particular who you used to draw posters for?

A: OK, they used to have like clashes, sound clash way back when I was a kid, and...

Q: Which wasn't exactly how you have soundclash these days, there's a difference, and the difference is not so much of a 'war' as it tends to be now, but not to say it wasn't competitive?

A: No, right. They have like, what, two or three sounds now, from Kingston and Negril, and sometime they have it in Spanish Town also - you would have that kind of system, like Sir Mike The Dragon, and Coxson's.

King Stitt
with Coxson's Sound System.

Duke Reid's Sound System.

Q: 'Sir Coxson Downbeat'.

A: Yeah, I think it was Coxson and The Sebastian.

Q: Right, 'Tom The Great Sebastian' I think it is.

A: Yeah, it was something like that... yeah, right. It was Tom first, yeah, and Coxsone Downbeat and Duke Reid. Then in Spanish Town you had like Stereo, Wasp. 'The Wasp' was one of the early sound in Spanish Town, who were also a very competitive sound. They would draw a lot of people.

Q: What drew you into art at the time? You must've discovered quite early on that you had some form of, well, 'particular feel' or special ability to draw pretty well, where it turned out be exceptional later on.

A: We used to have - whe we cook our food we used to have a charcoals, y'know, of wood, and I just cut through the (inaudible) and pick out all these charcoals and I just draw all over, drew on the wall, I draw everywhere. I kept drawin', drawin' and drawin', and eventually I started doing it in my schoolbook. And then the teacher saw it and said "Oh, can you decorate the blackboard?" I said OK. So I draw on the blackboard. This is around Christmas time and all the teachers wanted to have the classrooms decorated on the blackboards, and I started doing one after the other. I remember about 1966 (actually it occurred 1963) when I was fifteen or so and President Kennedy got shot and I remember I was by that time doing sculptures from soap, and then I made a sculpture of the president. And drawing by that time all of the politicians that just recently got elected in Jamaica, and they came up pretty nice, I remember. In my classroom I remember I put drawings along the whole wall of the classroom and a lot of paintings also, and when one of the teachers came walking and saw it, he came up to me and asked "Would you like to go to the art school?" So I was very excited, and he said "I could get you a scholarship". So, for a time I had totally forgotten about it and one day he came and told me I got the scholarship to the art school, by the time I was seventeen. I also had a penfriend, a penpal from Vienna, and she sent me a photograph, small photograph - about two-inch squared, and I drew. I made a drawing of it and blew it up really big - it came out really nice, was surprised about it. By the time I won the international scholarship to study in America, I was competing with the top artists on the island.

Q: So you qualified as a designer later on?

A: Actually I specialized in scultpture, I trained as a sculptor. That's what I did at art school when I won the scholarship. My main education was in the fine arts.

Q: As for getting seriously into the music now, when did you form the Now Generation with Geoffrey Chung, Val Douglas and those guys, or were you a part of the band before they joined?

A: OK, well, Val Douglas and Geoffrey Chung they came in the band afterwards, I set up this band in 1967. As soon as I got into art school, I started setting it up and the original players was a guy called Chenley Duffus, was the singer, Cornell Campbell, the other singer, yeah? And we had a drummer, our drummer was 'Tin Leg'.

Q: Right, Lloyd Adams.

A: Lloyd Adams, right. He used to be at Randy's studio. Glen Karbitt on keys, played the keyboards, played on nearly all the songs, like how Jackie Mittoo did back then. Let's see, I was the bass player at that time. On lead guitar we had Evar Murphy and he was like a session player at the time.

Q: Would that be 'Devon' Murphy?

A: Evar, Evar Murphy. He is one who's been kinda cut out of recognition of reggae history, but he was like a much better player than Ronnie Bop was - you know who Ronnie Bop was?

Q: Sure, well known session guitarist from that time.

A: Evar Murphy, but he died also, years after. But Stewy and Dougie, on the lead guitar also.

Q: How come you chose to play the bass?

A: Because I was playing guitar and when I hear Evar play I said "No way!" (laughs). "Forget it, man! Forget it, I better just play bass", because we needed a bass player also. You see, I also play drums, sometimes I will be playing drums when we had to fire the drummer. 'Cos after a while the band evolved, the band changed from Now Generation, then we set up Big Relation, and we got Jo Jo Bennett to do trumpet, Horsemouth (Wallace) on drums, and I used the overall instruments, y'know, different types. You know, this was the original band that played various clubs, different venues all over Kingston. We rise up really, really fast. It was amazing how fast it really went. 'Cos speaking of Val Douglas - I spoke to him yesterday (chuckles), we have a thing to do together... But those guys came after, Geoffrey Chung, the Chung brothers - Mikey Chung, all those guys came after we set up that band.

Geoffrey Chung.

Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace.

Q: OK, you had left to set up this other band when they joined Now Gen?

A: Yeah, we left and set up another band, the Big Relation band.

Q: And Jo Jo Bennett left for Canada some years after this?

A: Yeah, exactly. That was Jo Jo's last band he played in in Jamaica.

Q: So 'your' Now Generation was mainly a backing band, or you were doing your own stuff, mainly - it was based on your own repertoire?

A: Yeah, live we used to - sometimes do some street shows, y'know, on the street and do festivals, and mainly we were doing covers, and we had such good singers, man! Cornell and Chenley, they could cut anything, they could nail different songs from different artists and sound like - Chenley could really do any other person's song same way. And Cornell would do like Curtis Mayfield and Slim Smith and his own too, because by that time he had started recording. So we had this very - with Tin Leg, y'know, as a studio drummer, we had a very, very tight sound. Yep, a very unique sound in a way.

Q: So this first edition of Now Gen, did you ever record or was it just a performance band?

A: We just performed live at the time, recording was never - we never ever thought of going to the studio. We did live shows, basically doing that. So, oh man, I remember (laughs)... Oh boy, I was in art school at the same time and would play out during the night. We played in Ocho Rios at a gig, and the next day like 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning I'm still up there, man (chuckles)! I don't know how I managed to do that, but...

Q: I guess this is what you manage to do at a young age, but sleep becomes more crucial to handle life in later years, huh (chuckles)?

A: Yeah, exactly. But we recorded at Coxson's studio, we did a session one day and about the whole day we did this, recording all these songs with Jo Jo, for some guy from Germany who I remember was waiting for the tape. And I remember the guy was managing us, gave the tape to the guy, and never heard from the guy again. I was the only one who was in disagreement with him, y'know: "Don't give 'im the tape, we haffe get some money, don't give that tape", y'know, or some kinda disagreement. "Oh, shut your mouth!", y'know. "OK!" (laughs). And took up the rehearsal.

Q: And live work continued for a couple of years, like into the early part of the seventies, or the band had split long before that? But no recordings you said.

A: As a band we never recorded like our own stuff, but individually all the players were working in the studio at one time or the other, even myself.

Q: Cornell was from The Eternals, or being a part of the Uniques at that time.

A: Yeah, it was 'Don Cornell & The Eternals'.

Q: And Chenley, was he part of any vocal group at that time too?

A: Oh, Chenley was already recording for himself, 'cos Coxson just released a memorial Chenley Duffus LP recently, you know that one, 'In Loving Memory'? Yeah, for Chenley Duffus.

Cornell Campbell

Chenley Duffus (Photo courtesy of Dave Katz)

Q: Right, I saw something about it. Then you got the scholarship to study abroad and left Jamaica around this time?

A: Yeah, for the first time, I got my start from the Brooklyn Museum Art School.

Q: And this is about... when?

A: Oh, this was about 1971, was when I got the scholarship, and '72 I came to New York. But by that time I was playing in a group too, and we did a quick tour with a group called Zap Pow.

Q: Yeah, with Dwight Pinkney, Mike Williams and those guys. That is a underrated band, I heard Mikey had some health problems a while back though (and passed away in August this year, '05).

A: Yeah, as a drummer. I did that group as a drummer, and we did a quick tour.

Q: Over the Caribbean, or just around Jamaica?

A: Yeah, exactly. Like the Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, Trinidad...

Q: After this you left for the States. How did you find the early days in America?

A: Yeah, I left. Well, at first if musically speaking the first musical thing I did was with a guy called Bullwackie, he called me to do some tracks. And it needed correction, with the basslines and everything, but I made a whole album for him.

Q: Did he have his own studio by that time, circa '72? I thought that was a bit later on, more like the mid seventies.

A: Oh, absolutely not, in '72 he had a very small studio in a house near Gunnell Road.

Q: More like a demo-studio, or? Where he took it to mix at a place with better facilities afterwards.

A: Oh, it was a real studio, it was a real studio. And he hadn't moved as yet to a commercial space, but it was in a house. Most people don't know of that studio. But later on he moved up to 44th Street, 44th Street y'know, that's where he start to become more popular.

Q: How did you link with Wackie in the first place?

A: Don't even remember, I never knew who he was. It was somebody... when I came up here I started another band at Woodhill Greens with a few guys. There's a guy named Tad, who became a producer.

Q: Tad Dawkins, of Tad's label or even 'Tad Iwah' fame (now back in the business after several years)?

A: Yeah, I taught Tad how to play drums, and there was a few of the musicians - a guy called Ewing, who played with Wild Bunch. There was a few more - Junior Soul, one of the singers, Dwight, he played bass. And we had in this group a guy named Errol, he played keyboards. So somebody told me, I think it was Errol who told me about Bullwackie, and in fact the session went over so well that Errol gave me the bass, and said it sound good. I said 'Yeaahhh!' (chuckles).

Lloyd "Bullwackie" Barnes.

Eric "Rickenbacker" Frater

Q: What sort of stuff did you play with that band? What was it called by the way?

A: Hmm mmm mmm... I don't remember the name of that band (laughs)! Don't remember the name of that band, but that band later became 'Rick & The Bluegrass'. That was Eric Frater.

Q: Guitarist, played extensively for Coxsone among others.

A: Yeah, he was up here and I remember that band mashed it up. I don't even know if we had a name but we were rehearsing, and that gave some gigs. Then I met a group called the I Performers, in New York, and I joined up with them.

Q: The 'High' Performers, or what did you say?

A: Yeah, the 'I' Performers. And the players of that band, you had Dougie, Douglas Wilson played guitar. I took care of the bass, a guy called Vision, Constantine Walker, he played guitar, and also was one of the singers. He also was one of the original five members of the Wailers.

Q: Yeah, I saw something that he joined them for a short period and he was in the Soulettes too, with Rita and Cornell Campbell's sister, Cecille.

A: Yeah. We call him Vision, he was in the Soulettes, yeah, and he became my bass player for about ten years up here in America.

The Rastafarians.

Q: I didn't know he was in the US at that time. I know he was a member of the California band called The Rastafarians, but that was later on, like the early eighties.

A: Oh yeah, he came up after his mother died, and he and Rita (Marley) is cousins. So he came up and got drafted in the army, and he flee twice because they can't bring him back (chuckles), y'know! The guy just didn't want to kill nobody, man (laughs)! And they just don't bother with him, up to the second time he flee again. He told us about how the training was that they had to go through, and it wasn't something he...

Q: What about you? You never ran the risk of being drafted for the remaining part of that Vietnam mess?

A: Yeah, but for me... once you're in college you don't get drafted. Yeah, if you are in college they don't draft you, the draft don't work with people who are poor or pretty much are going to school, so I escaped that. It worried me for a while too because when I came to (inaudible) I was too slim, so I bothered that a couple of times... But I figured 'Oh, it will be over soon' (laughs)!

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