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Although numerous reggae lovers feel that 55-year-old Justin Hinds is one of the best vocalists in the music's history, only a handful of Americans are familiar with him--and many of them know him better as a hotelier than as a singer.
"I have a big house out in the country, and I've been taking care of hippies for years," he reveals in his thick, backwoods Jamaican patois. "I take care of the foreigners, make sure they come to my country, and make sure whether they have something to eat or not." He especially enjoys such visits because, he says, "the hippies is Rastafari. I admit that because I can see the vibration inside them. They have true love inside of them. That's why the Rastaman in Jamaica love the hippies--because the hippies is we."
Despite this philosophy, which should endear him to members of a key reggae constituency, Hinds remains one of Jamaica's best-kept secrets. Why? During the mid-Seventies, he explains, "the music become so confusing, and rat race, and burnout. So I walk away and go back in the country and stay in the hills." He has spent most of his time since then in bucolic Steertown, St. Ann, which he describes as "a garden where you have the most rivers. I'm livin' in between eight rivers, in the woods and the falls. I have this quietness, this mountain around, and fresh air." But his years out of the spotlight have not dimmed his gifts. Far from it: Today his voice seems every bit as remarkable as it did in his youth.
Listeners first became aware of Hinds's talents when he was in his teens. "I first leave St. Ann for Kingston when I was seventeen years old," he recalls. "I used to work for the water-sport concession in my early days--hang out at the beach and play for all these people. Tourists come from all over the world to skin dive and scuba dive." In short order, he landed a position as the entertainment manager of a local hotel--and more often than not, the act that he booked was himself. He performed regularly on an 85-foot cruise ship that sailed from the Jamaica Hilton to either Port Antonio or Montego Bay, and on one such voyage, he received his first big break. "I start to sing for these people, and they say me have good voice," he notes. "They throw a party on a boat and I sing for them, and this man say me should do some recording. So he sent me to Kingston to see Duke Reid."
Reid, a prominent producer, soon received more testimonials about Hinds's prowess. "In those days, you have to line up to sing out in the street," Hinds says. "I was a little insecure country boy, so I didn't want to. Instead, I went to Back o' Wall [a Rastafarian shantytown later bulldozed by the government] and I was singing with Little Lord Creator and some of the Skatalites. They listen to me and run and tell Duke that this guy from the country was singing very much."
The first song Hinds cut with Reid at Kingston's Federal Recording Studio was "Carry Go Bring Come," the ditty the Skatalites had heard him crooning. He was so inexperienced that the players had to teach him how to sing with a band, but he proved to be a quick study: The single, which Reid recorded in one take, was Jamaica's top ska hit for eight weeks in 1963 and is still selling briskly almost two generations after its original release.
Over the next seven years, Hinds estimates, he and his group, the Dominoes, recorded seventy singles for Reid, including "King Samuel," "Botheration" and "Jump Out of the Frying Pan," a phrase Bob Marley co-opted for a composition of his own, "Maga Dog." He maintained his stardom through the rock-steady period with the 1966 smashes "Once a Man" and "Higher the Monty Climbs," and ably made the transition to reggae with Jezebel, a platter he created for Island Records in 1975.
The reasons for Hinds's subsequent retreat had as much to do with Jamaica's unstable political and social climate--imagine the Wild West set on a Caribbean island--as it did with the demands of being a star. Hinds cites an incident that contributed to his decision: "There was a time when I have some friends from the U.S. and Amsterdam, and I decide to take them to Kingston with me 'cause they want to see the studio, and I decide to record. When I was in the studio recording, I finish one track and came outside to get some fresh air--and here comes some gunmen. Ten of them held up the studio with machine guns. Three was dreadlocks but was wolf in sheep's clothing; the rest of them was baldheads. And they stick me up and take my watch. They hit a woman in the head with machine gun and rob up the place and disappear. It hurt me so much. I don't want to be among the wolves."
Back in St. Ann, he inaugurated his open-door policy. "As one of the prophets say, peace and love to all nations," he points out. "Don't matter what color, creed or race you may be, because the true Rastaman doesn't believe in color, nor creed nor race. It's just love."