Tooting His Own Horn

Toots Hibbert is a reggae giant--and he's not afraid to tell you why.

A much wider audience discovered these sounds in 1973 thanks to The Harder They Come, a landmark movie that details, among other things, the exploitation of Jamaican musicians. It was a story to which Hibbert could relate: Like the characters in the film, the Maytals were manipulated by money men during their formative years. So it was appropriate that Hibbert and company joined the film's star, Jimmy Cliff, and other performers on Harder's soundtrack, which remains among the best-selling reggae platters of all time. "Pressure Drop," the Maytals' contribution, was the crown jewel of the album, a ghetto lament that combined Hibbert's throat-straining belting with trenchant political commentary. "Yes, it was about government oppression, but I didn't curse anyone," Hibbert points out. "The people suffer everywhere in Jamaica and America, so I just wrote a song about pressure, because people are under so much pressure. And it was very important. It let people know. It was a start for me, and it was a start for reggae music also. It was a good thing."

The success of "Pressure Drop," which was covered by the Clash, among many other acts, was matched by pivotal albums like Funky Kingston, Reggae Got Soul and In the Dark, which contained Hibbert's idiosyncratic take on John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Live, from 1980, earned a different type of notoriety: By releasing it the day after it was recorded at Hammersmith Palais in London, the outfit earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

Hibbert left the original Maytals in 1982 but won acclaim for his reggae reworking of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and his Grammy-nominated 1988 disc Toots in Memphis, which brought together musicians from Jamaica and America for interpretations of standards such as Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember" and Jackie Moore's "Precious, Precious." But when the dancehall style began to dominate the reggae world, Hibbert lost his record contract. Although he continued to be a steady draw on the concert circuit, he was left embittered by this turn of events. "Dancehall today is not important," he declares. "It's not culture, it's not reggae. It try to put a lot of hip-hop in it, but real reggae don't have those things. Hip-hop don't belong to Jamaica. Real reggae is roots, and the rest of what is coming out is branches. Reggae music always be on top."

In an effort to prove this contention, Hibbert started his own label, Alla Son, and has just issued his first long-player in nearly ten years, the aptly titled Recoup. He hopes that the CD will help him regain his place among reggae's elite. "People have to listen to these songs because these songs are what make reggae," he says. "It's not computer. Computer is too simple to drop reggae the right way. Pressure have to drop off reggae to make reggae stand out the same way. It is still important music when one like me and other good singers in Jamaica sing it.

"You have to have something with a gospel feel. It's wicked, you know? It's roots, rock, reggae. The roots: That's what I am."

Reggae on the Rocks, with Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals, Inner Circle, Michael Rose, Pato Banton and Culture. 1 p.m. Saturday, August 23, Red Rocks, $30.25, 830-TIXS; Toots and the Maytals. 8 p.m. Monday, August 25, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $17.85, 443-3399.

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