In the wake of Burning Spear's popularity during the mid seventies, more and more singers - and groups too for that matter - came forward in the same chanting type of style, and a very attractive style it is too, being the very foundation of Rastafarian roots reggae music. Lorenzo Nembhard aka Ras Midas was one of those artists who sprung from that era. You might've heard 'Kude A Bamba', a big hit for producer Harry J in 1976 and Ras Midas' breakthrough to a larger audience worldwide. Midas has always been a little bit different from the rest and seldom settled down where the latest trend rules, an attitude which deserves respect in times when pocket dunza have to rule over artistic integrity and expression. But who can blame a brother for trying either way? You have to survive in the long run. Midas and I linked up in March, '04 to discuss some events in his long life in music, stretching back to the late sixties. Thanks to Lorenzo, Barbara, Teacher & Mr. T, Michael Turner, Bob Schoenfeld, Donovan Phillips, Steve Barrow and Michael de Koningh.
Q: Back to where it began, your family background, how did you grow up?
A: OK. Well, I was born in Jamaica in the parish of Clarendon, and I lived with my grandparents, my grandfather and grandmother. And when I was thirteen I migrated to England.
Q: Your parents had moved there, like in the fifties, and then they sent for you?
A: Well, my mother and father and some of my other family was living in England, and my grandparents died. And so I have to migrate.
Q: That was in the sixties sometime.
A: Yeah, late sixties up to the seventies. I lived in England for twelve years. I lived in Birmingham for four years, and in Manchester for eight years.
Q: How did you take the living in rainy England?
A: Well, it was not very nice. When you cannot do better and you is a child then you have to try and adopt, y'know, to certain condition an' t'ing. So I have to make adjustment to the different country, different environment, y'know, different way of living. But it was not too bad because you have a lot of people from the Caribbean was living there, and people from India, Pakistan, and even from Nigeria and Ghana. So it wasn't really that bad. But it was good in some way, because there's lots of people from Jamaica an' you could relate to what the Jamaican culture there was dealing with, and you don't pay the English system there any mind, y'know. So it was not too bad.
Q: Like a 'system within the system', you know what I mean?
A: Yes, I didn't get to change up too much, because in Birmingham there's a lot of - there's a big Rastafarian community and there's a lot of people from the Caribbean who embrace the Rastafarian culture, and they know that it's part of their culture. So everyone try to integrate an' try to work with the other to make t'ings better in some ways. Because sometime when you're in foreign country and is a group you're more unite an' bound together to make t'ings work out to the best for everyone.
Q: Did you sight up Rastafari when living in England?
A: No, my grandmother is a Rastafarian. My grandmother is a Maroon, and she was also a Garvey-ites. So I grow up being a Rastafarian through my grandmother. Well, my grandfather wasn't too much of a Rastafarian, but my grandmother was a heavy Rastafarian and she deal with mostly African culture, like a West African culture, more is like from Ghana, y'know. But my father is from Ethiopia.
A: Yeah, my father met my mother in England, and so when she got pregnant with me she went back to Jamaica an' had me there. And then my grandparents take care of me until they passed away.
Q: And they passed away in the late sixties, almost at the same time-period?
A: Well, they pass away like a year between each-other. My grandfather died first and then my grandmother died about thirteen months after that. And then (chuckles)... that's how I get to migrate into England. I mean, plenty people in Jamaica don't even know that I am from Jamaica, they thought I'm from England (laughs)! So plenty people in Jamaica when they hear the name 'Ras Midas', most of them think 'that's an Englishman', y'know (chuckles).
Q: Yea, 'half of the story has never been told' (chuckles).
A: Yeah, well, you know (laughs)! The half has never been told. Yeah.
Q: So now you lived with your parents, but you hardly knew them. But did your father return to Ethiopia at some point, like taking you along, you never got to see life over there?
A: No, my mother and father they died in England too. My mother and father died in England during the race riots.
Q: When was that, you mean the riots in the mid seventies?
A: No, that was in 1968. Because, I mean the race riots and those things started from about 1966, when they used to have a neo-Nazi group there in Europe called The United Front. And they were like fightin' against immigrants to get out of England. And so their big account (?) was goin' on there, and they were fightin' against the Irish too. They didn't want any Irish there or any people from India or Pakistan or Africa. So from 1966 till about 1976, there was really a lot of animosity there in England.
Q: This is before my time, but I know there was one Oswald Mosley behind or at least inspired the forming of the National Front that I know of.
A: Mosley, yeah. And then they used to have a right-wing politician by the name of Enoch Powell, you've heard about him?
Q: Yes, I've heard the name from that era, made the famous 'Rivers of Blood' speech I think.
A: And he used to have a Nazi-party there in England, and the United Front used to follow his ideology. I believe this Jamaican singer by the name of Millie Small sing a song about Mr Powell too, I don't know if you've ever heard it? She sang about three protest songs against Enoch Powell.
Q: No, I don't think I've heard them, but I'm aware of things like 'Enoch Power'.
A: Yeah, it was on Island Records. 'Cause Millie Small was the first Jamaican artist signed by Island.
Q: In 1964, yes. But not the first one for Chris Blackwell though.
A: Yeah, Millie Small started Island off (chuckles)!
Q: What became of Millie by the way? Did she stay in England?
A: No, I think she leave England and I don't remember if she went off to either Singapore or she went to some country, I don't remember which country. But I think she left England about 1969, and she never returned (Millie is still based in England). Yeah.
Q: How was the reggae scene in the UK at this time, and how did this affect you getting into the music? How much did you get involved in music as a child in Jamaica to begin with?
A: Yeah, my grandmother kind of music was kumina, and she used to have - in Jamaica the Maroons' spiritual concept was pocomania. I don't know if you've ever heard the word 'pocomania'?
Q: Yes, these are traditional African cultures that the slaves brought with them and maintained while being enslaved.
A: Yeah, so it's a traditional Maroon, you know, it was mayal, it was pocomania, and kumina. But the music was kumina, so she play Nyabinghi drums and all those things. So I was kinda exposed to music through my grandmother because she was musically, y'know. And she was a well respectable person in the community an' t'ing like that, because she was also a healer, and sometimes on the weekends I used to go around with her an' t'ing, y'know.
Q: What was the village you lived in in Clarendon by the way?
A: Where we come from? Kellits.
Q: OK. So she played you a lot of this and was responsible for exposing you to folk music from an early stage then.
A: Yes. Yeah, you know, Maroon traditional folk music. And I've been a conscious child growing up because she taught me a lot about my African roots and history, and on my father's side I learned a lot of things too. So I grew up culturally aware. Yeah, educated about myself and who I am an' t'ings like that. My father is from Ethiopia so there was a great connection between my grandparents and my father, because he's from Ethiopia and she being a Maroon, and everyt'ing was link-up really nice in that way, y'know. So I get a good education about Ethiopia, ancient Egypt an' ancient Ghana an' those countries. So I have a good understanding of my cultural heritage and education about Africa and myself and African people and the struggle, yunno. I grew up knowing about the struggle, I grew up being revolutionary visionary.
Q: So, in England, you joined a vocal group, started to play in a band, or joined a sound, or what was the start?
A: Yes, when I was in England we used to - I don't know if you've ever heard about that group, when I was in England I used to be the lead singer for a group in England. And then after the group - the group was 'The Shadows', I don't know if you ever hear about The Shadows?
Q: Well, I've certainly heard about 'Cliff Richard & The Shadows', but this was hardly the same group, eh (chuckles)?
A: (Laughs) Probably!
A: Yes, ca' probably from I leave the group then Cliff become the lead singer, somet'ing like that (chuckles)!
A: We used to do mostly ska, yunno, and a lickle rock, mostly ska mixed with rock. Yeah, because at that time rock steady was just coming into prominence, y'know.
Q: So the late sixties.
A: No, we're talking about 1970 now, '69/70. That time ska was just on its way out, and rock steady was coming in (actually rock steady took over from ska around 1966 and gave way to the early reggae about 1968). That time Desmond Dekker was the first rock steady artist to really make it, he leads the way in that part an' that was like '69/70/72 going, y'know. Yeah. And then you have people like Jackie Edwards - you know Jackie Edwards?
Q: Yes, 'Keep On Running', things like that. Great artist.
A: Yea, 'Keep On Running', all those songs an' t'ings like that.
Q: For how long did you stay with The Shadows?
A: Just two years.
Ras Midas. the Netherlands (1985).
Ras Midas. Ghana University (1981).
Q: What happened after that?
A: Then a friend of my family that was living in England, we call him 'Smithy', he know Harry J. He was associate with Harry J, 'cause at that time Smithy used to have a band in Jamaica called Gigindri, and I believe they record one album for Harry J. Then Smithy one time, I believe it was 1972, yes, something like that - 1972, Smithy - it was 1974. Yeah, 1974, Harry J came up to England, I believe it was with Bob Andy - because Harry J used to produce Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths, and they did a song named 'Young Gifted & Black'. And Harry J came up to England to do some promotion for them, and Smithy introduce me to Harry J in England. And then he asked me to sing a few song for him, and I sing it for him, then he give me some encouragement an' tell me seh, well, "I t'ink you waan more seasoning an' you were showing me some weaknesses", an' t'ings like that. Then I met Smithy, an' Smithy seh, "What Harry J did say to you?" I say, "Well, he told me to check him in two years". So Smithy seh, "Oh, I goin' down the studio right now so hear wha' - I will tell Harry that he's here, an' we will plan a time to let Harry meet you, to hear what you have". And Smithy brought Harry up to where I was staying an' he tell me to sing some songs, so I sing 'Kude A Bamba' an' he say, "Yes, I like that!" An' I ask him, "Why do you like that?" He said, "Well, it sound different from the rest of the reggae song dem", meaning that he hear a very original sound and original melody. And I sing 'Trouble Town' for him an' I sing about six songs for him, an' he said, "OK, you are ready". He ask, "So, what time are you going back to England?" So I tell him, say, "I have four weeks before I leave Jamaica". Then he said, "OK, I will go and talk to Sly and Robbie and some of the rest of musician and I will tell you when to come down to the studio". And then it go two days after, he came back up to where I was staying and tell me he lined up some studio time there, so I must come down there tomorrow, the other day, about one o'clock. And I went there one o'clock and there was Sly and Robbie in the studio, an' Robert Lyn an' Geoffrey Chung, and a whole heap again. I believe it was Ansel Collins, an' Sticky. And Smithy was there also, and we lay like three track that day. We laid 'Kude A Bamba', we lay 'Rain & Fire', an' we lay 'Trouble Town'. And I laid the song, the riddim the day, in the night I voice it (chuckles). So when I was voicin' it, you know, he said, "I like how yu doin' it, it's raw. You know, you're really young an' raw, I love the style that yu was doin' - you sound different". So the other day now, Morris was mixin' the song.
Q: Sylvan Morris.
A: Yes, Sylvan Morris, an' Chris Blackwell came to the studio that day. Beca' in those days Harry J used to produce for Chris, for Island, he was the first producer in Jamaica that produce for Island Records. An' so Chris Blackwell came to the studio the day, this was about four o'clock in the evening, something like that, an' Morris was mixin' and Harry J introduce Chris to me and Chris hear 'Kude A Bamba'. And then he said to Harry, "I want to listen to this song". Because that day he came to get some material from Heptones, y'know, Harry J was finishing up some music for Heptones, that was goin' to Island Records.
Q: Right, they did the 'Night Food' album for Harry J and Island at the time.
A: 'Night Food'. Yes, it was 'Night Food', and it was a lot of song they was doin' there. Anyhow, Chris heard 'Kude A Bamba' an' thought it sound familiar, y'know. He say, "Oh, it have a familiar sound", and Harry J say, "Do you want to listen all of it?", and he said yes. And then he listened all of it and then he liked it, then he decide to take it over.
Q: So that's how the song ended up on Island's Black Swan or the Mango imprints, Mango for the US and Black Swan in England.
A: For Europe, yes. Yeah, because Island did have two subsidiaries, it was Mango and Black Swan in England, yunno. That's how I get started.
Q: Not a bad start (chuckles).
A: No, and then...
Article: Peter I|
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