Winston Grennan is one of the master drummers of Jamaica. His new band is the Ska Rocks Band. They have just released a CD in America called 'Wash Over Gold' on Skegway Records. Carter Van Pelt from '400 Years' reggae magazine thought it was time that Winston told his story - Here it is... Thanks to Nan Lewis, Entertainment Works, for making this interview possible. (The original can be found in the (out of print) "More Axe 8: Mud Cannot Settle Without Water".)

CVP = Carter Van Pelt
WG = Winston Grennan
WG: I made my own drum because in the beginning I started to play on my mother's plates and pans. I was breaking them up, and she didn't like that, so I moved from the pots and the pans to the condensed milk can, and butter pan. I gather them and make myself a nice drum set, out of cans. I started playing that, banging that. Eventually even that started to bother her, she didn't want that, but what she really didn't want was for me to be involved with the music. She was trying to stop it, but I was defusing it all the time.

I moved from that, I was playing in the yard. Then she grabbed them up (the cans) and threw them out. So I decided to make myself a set out of something really good. Then my brother cut down this tree, called a cotton tree, and we cut it down and we divide it up, this big tree into about five pieces, and we started to dig them out, using a chisel and hammer. Then we got goatskins, clean up the skin, put it on the drum and tune them up, set them up and try them out. I didn't want to do it when my mother was around because I know she would break them up. So I waited until she went to the market. She went to the market every Saturday, and I waited till she's gone, and then me and my brother started to jam in the back yard, and the place was packed with people.

Someone must have told her what was going on. So one Saturday, she decided to play a trick. So she leave like she was going to this market. We set up, and was jamming, and in the middle of this jamming, here comes mum. We was charging these people to come in and listen to us. So she started to chase everybody out of the yard, and they had to get out. She wanted to break my drums and throw them out. I said "No you can't do that. You've broke up everything already, and I've spent time on this set." So she kinda save it, but in reality she just wanted me to pay attention to my books. I think I was a very good scholar in school, but Jamaican parents really want their kids to get the best of education, blah blah blah. So I decided to stop playing the drums for a while to satisfy her. So I kinda put them away. I started going to school, and dealing with school.

All of my uncles they play music. They had a band. I have six uncles, Chris Scott, Jeffery Scott, Danny Scott, Lowlyn Scott, Ossie Scott and one more. I forget.

Winston Grennan
CVP: When was this?

WG: This was in the fifties. In Kingston. When I was a little boy. I was like watching them in the fifties. So I figure it was about '55/56. In that period I was really following them around.

CVP: And they played what kind of music?

WG: They played boogie woogie. This was before any kind of music develop in Jamaica. They did this for a while, and was playing with a saxophone player named Val Bennett, and also one of my uncles was pals with Roland Alphonso, Tommy McCook and Lester Sterling. See my uncle he used to teach. I remember when I was a boy I used to spend time with him at the holidays. I remember seeing him with blackboard and chalk, writing down music notes, and all these guys would be blowing and doing their thing.

As a little youth I was just watching and studying everything. After that period I decided, you know... I quit college, and that really upset her, so she threw my stuff out, and threw me out of the house. So I was on my own now, and I was sixteen/seventeen. So I decided to go to Kingston to see if I could find some work. I have a friend who work on a bus, and I ask him if he could give me a lift to the city. I didn't have no money. So he told me yes, and I get my things ready, and the next morning I hop on the bus, and get into town. I was hanging out with my friend who was living by D'Aguilar Road, out by Rockfort, near to the hills where Count Ossie used to have their place.

CVP: By this time, did you have any influence from the Nyahbingi drummers?

WG: Well yeah, that's how I get in touch with the Nyahbingi thing. Count Ossie, used to live up on the hills. Where I was living wasn't far from there. It was at the foot of the hills. Wareika Hills I go up there, and I used to run into Count Ossie, Bongo Herman and a next guy named Suner. That was when Roland, and a couple of other guys used to come there and join them.

Count Ossie

Skatalites

Lord Tanamo
CVP: So the Skatalites used to spend a lot of time with Count Ossie and the Rastas?

WG: They weren't Skatalites at the time.

CVP: But the people who became the Skatalites?

WG: Yes, some of them. From there you have this guy called Lord Tanamo, and he got together with Lloyd Brevett, and this was the beginning of the Skatalites, this was how they was going to get together. So Brevett and Tanamo they started jamming together until... Their drummer at the time was a guy named Wacky Aston. Aston Henry is his real name. So in the course of that time. I was just like trying to play, real drums now. But I was like under cover, because through I wasn't sure of myself, I didn't want to show myself up to much. So I played with a gentleman name Trenton Spence, but the thing with Trenton Spence, when you play with him, you would hire the drums from him. So everytime that I play, as soon I got my money, half of my money had to go to pay for the drums.

CVP: You're talking about stage shows, not studio work.

WG: Well this was like playing a tiny little bar. So then I said, well I don't think I want to pay for playing the drums. So I went to this gentleman Mr. Myers. He was a saxophone player, but he was also renting the drums. So then I said that's it. So I broke off with the music, because I didn't know if I was going to be a real drummer or not, I was just testing out these people. Then I went to another guy named Raymond Harper, who blows trumpet, and Carl Masters who blows trombone, but I didn't have no drum. So when I was with these guys I just used to knock on a little conga or something like that. I stopped then, and got into Boxing. I needed some money to buy a good drum set.

CVP: Into boxing!

WG: Yeah, When I was in school, you have different sports, Long Run, Boxing, High Jump. I was good at the Boxing. I went to a gym, out at Rockfort Road. I was hanging out there, and a gentleman by the name of Scotty ask me, "Do you like to box?, I could train you." So I said yes, and we became friends. He took me by his place, over at Seven Mile. He had a beach, and we train, and train. I was really up for this, I was really excited about it. He then took me over to fight in Belize. Most of my fights were in Belize, Mexico and Guatemala.

Winston Grennan

Winston Grennan
CVP: Was that a good living, Boxing in the Caribbean?

WG: Well, in Jamaica you have to do whatever you have to do to make some money.

CVP: I suppose you made more money, the more people, you knocked out.

WG: Well I made some money, it wasn't a lot, like what is going on now. But I made enough money to buy me a drum set. I ended up stop Boxing after 32 fights, and I was undefeated. They wanted me to move up into an heavier weight, and I said no I'm going back into music. I'm not going to fight anymore. The thing is, no one in Jamaica, know that I boxed. This was very quiet, and I keep it like that. One or two guys might know, my family didn't know. If they knew, they would have disowned me.

CVP: They thought that was worse than being a musician?

WG: Right, the whole thing with my mother, was that she didn't want me... she wanted me to be a doctor. I couldn't see that, because I know from a little boy that I wanted to play drums. It was in my mind all the way through, but instead of letting my mother know, which she would get crazy about, I just hide everything. I came out of Boxing, without no cuts or anything, a clean face.

CVP: What age were you, by this time?

WG: I was like eighteen or nineteen.

CVP: What year was this?

WG: This was actually 1959, 1960.
CVP: What was happening musically then?

WG: What was going on then, then was blues, boogie woogie, lots of Elvis Presley, lots of Paul Anka, Louie Prima, um the one from New Orleans... Satchmo. Them kinda things. We listened to a lot of Spanish radio stations as well. In Jamaica you could get Cuban stations, a lot of stations from Miami. When it really started though when everything was really getting the swing was in 1963.

CVP: Ah, how about... What about the recording of 'Oh Carolina'?

WG: What about it?

CVP: That was a bit earlier. Was it popular?

WG: It was popular, but what happens in Jamaica sometimes is that when these guys cut records, they make a test disc, and give it to sound system to play. Then they rush it off to England, it get a lot of play in Jamaica. You see I wasn't in the studio when those tunes were recorded.

CVP: So you had given up Boxing, and had bought a drum kit.

WG: I had heard about this band called Bim and Bam. They used to do plays. Like soap opera kind of thing.

Bim & Bam
CVP: Like Vaudeville?

WG: Yeah. So I go by his place. I chat with him, cause he know my uncle. He said yes, and he gave me a script. Then we did a next one called 'The White Witch Of Rosehall'.

CVP: That place near Montego Bay?

WG: Right. So I was in those plays, and then I run into Bobby Aitkin, and Bobby Aitkin have a band called the Carib Beats. A nice little band, and that band back up Bim And Bam. My part in the band... Bobby wanted me to play keyboards. He was looking for a keyboard player. So I said well I could play the keyboards, because when the band played, I wasn't acting then. So I started playing the keyboards. Then Bobby say "You want a job". I said "Sure." So I became the keyboard player for the Carib Beats. When the Bim And Bam had finished, we had a gig to play at Mandeville in a school. We all went, and the drummer didn't show up. The good thing was, that the guy sent his drum kit on before. I never found out why he couldn't make it. When we got to the school, we wait and wait and wait, no drummer, and everyone started to panic. So I said to Bobby, I could play the drums. He laughed at me. They didn't know I knew drumming, because I didn't tell them anything.

So they said, "No man you can't play the drums". I said "Yeah", so they said "Try to play." I said to them I didn't know how to set it, and asked them to help me set it up. Which they did. I didn't have no sticks, so I borrow a knife, and cut a nice branch from off a guava tree. I shape out two pairs of sticks. Then I came back, and said I'm ready. So they started to laugh. So we set up the drums, and get everything set up, mic up everything. We got ready, and he started to count. When I finished the show, Bobby say to me you're a good keyboard player, but you stick to the drums. From there on, that was it. I felt great, I was a full member of the Carib Beats.

CVP: Had the Carib beats been in the studio, by that time?

WG: That came next. We was practicing and practicing and getting things together. We was practicing at 25 Galloway Road, between Maxfield Avenue and Waltham Park Road. Then Ansel Collins started to visit us now, and through we didn't have a keyboard player I said "Would you like to play keyboards?". He said "I would like to play drums." I said "You don't know drumming, there's a keyboard there, we need a keyboardist." So he started to play the keyboards. But he was new, and didn't mind that I was teaching him to play. I said "Cool." So we sit and exchanged things. Then he started to play this tiny little organ. Bobby got a bigger one later. It was then that we went to the studio to record. We went to Federal. At that time Federal was one little room, I would say 10x10. All the singers, would have to wait outside until their time had come, it was so small, you could not all fit in there.

Bobby Aitken

Ansel Collins
CVP: The recording was two track?

WG: A tiny two track reel to reel machine, one mic in the middle of the room, everybody surround the mic, all the musicians, that's how we used to record. So anyway we go and record some tunes, and put them on wax. We take them to record shop, and people start to play them. Everybody start to hear it and Bunny Lee come by, and decided he want us. At the same time we was doing some work for Jet Star, Mr Palmer. So we do a lot of recording for him too.

CVP: So the Jet Star company goes back that far?

WG: Oh yeah, Mr Palmer, he was there, under cover doing the work. So most time when a guy cut a tune the next day, Mr Palmer he caught himself a plane to England. After a while I ended up playing with a guitarist by the name of Ronny Bop, and we ended up doing some work for Palmer too.

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1997 Carter Van Pelt / Ray Hurford. Reprinted by kind permission of the publisher.
(Please do not reproduce without permission)