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Looking into the glazed eyes of Herman "Preacherman" Wynter, you can sense a life marked by both joy and hardship. In a lilting patois that is both simple, direct and inflected with rural wisdom, he relates tales of his early years, when he lived among ten brothers and sisters in the red-dirt hills of St. Elizabeth parish in Jamaica.
"My father never believed in working for no one, so he had many children," Wynter explains, a hint of admiration in his voice. "We was always working in the fields, planting and cutting. We worked hard to survive, you know."
Since his youth, Wynter has worked hard to survive as a performer, too. At the age of fourteen, like many young boys from the "country" (pronounced with a long "o"), he left St. Elizabeth to seek greater opportunity in the capital of Kingston, where he found work as a barker. With the help of a microphone and a portable speaker, he spent his days attempting to lure customers into small department stores using animated sales pitches. Eventually he transferred these skills to the realm of music, performing as a street singer cum free-form rapper.
"That's how I get the name 'Preacherman,'" he says. "I was performing on the sidewalk in front of a record store in Kingston, and a big crowed gathered. The people at the back couldn't see. So they started asking, 'Who is dat up dere?' Someone said, 'I don't know. It sound like a preacher man.'"
The moniker stuck, and Wynter continued to polish his act, eventually touring the island as part of a traveling reggae road show that featured vocalists and DJs. "I would stand up beside the DJ with a microphone and make up music in my head. Smoke up a spleef, and then things come flowing out," he recounts.
Despite Wynter's strong vocals and knack for improvising, his singing career didn't gain much momentum until later in his life. Because of the profusion of musical talent on the island, scoring time behind a professional microphone could be difficult. He performed for the same talent group in Jamaica that launched reggae vocal stars Yellowman and Freddy McGregor.
"In Jamaica, I was coming up around the same time as artists like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs and others like that," he says. "You know, great performers who inspired me a lot, but that's the kind of talent I was up against. Some of them said I wasn't ready yet. So I kept on practicing, singing down near the riverside and in the shack I lived in."
Wynter can vocally approximate a range of artists and their sounds, from the soulfully plaintiff wails of Marley to the visceral and bassy braggadocio of Shaba Ranks -- a skill that comes in handy when working through dub medleys with a DJ, or even when conveying some of his own lyrics.
"People always tell me I have a powerful voice and I get a good response," he says. "I've roamed around singing with a lot of bands. And sometimes I sing with a toaster-style DJ, using maybe a touch of dancehall and dub style or hip-hop reggae. I like to do dub versions of music by Bob Marley, the Skatalites, the Maytals, the Heptones and people like that. A mix of styles. Of course, people usually prefer live instruments so they can have their favorite groupie player and things. A band is more attractive, but at the same time, if you have the right DJ and if done at the same system level, it can be good."
In 1987, at the age of 35, Wynter came to Colorado to be with his wife, whom he had met in Jamaica while she was visiting the island. They now have four children. Wynter says his transition to the United States has had its ups and downs.
"When I first get here, I definitely experienced some culture shock," he says. "Not having a lot of formal education, it was difficult to find jobs. But I soon started working for myself, doing painting and cutting trees and things. I'm mostly glad to be here. Life in Kingston is tough both political and drug-wise, and there's lots of gang violence. It's pretty crowded and violent. You go to Kingston, you got to watch yourself or you'll get robbed or cut up. It's a really serious place. I used to drive a cab there, and I lived in a lot of different neighborhoods there."
Fortunately, he discovered that he didn't have to leave his music in his home country. He has played with several outfits since moving to Colorado, including Zion Express, the Lion SoulJahs and Jah Family and the Lion of Judah Band, and he's opened for the current incarnation of the Wailers, as well as for Steel Pulse. He also played with DJ the Muzik Maker at Reggae on the Rocks in 2001. Wynter recorded a CD, Jam Down Fever, in 1996 with his former group, the Congregation, which performed at 'Round Midnight in Boulder through 1998; played as part as part of Reggae on the Rocks in 1997; and headlined the Fox Theatre on a few occasions. Wynter is currently in the rehearsal stage with his yet-to-be-named new band and hopes to release a CD of original material soon.
"I have quite a few originals to work on, and I'm looking forward to putting out another CD," he says. "Hopefully, it will all work out, and things will come out for the best."
Wynter has discovered some common ground with American fans. Many of the artists whom he considers to be influences -- Tosh, Bunny Wailer and, of course, Marley - are familiar to fans of reggae in the United States; the iconic Marley remains one of the most popular artists in music, even among those who wouldn't know Jah from Jar-Jar.
"Bob kind of liberated most of us musically and some of us financially. People watched him as a role model and emulated him. He also came from the country originally. He was a very strong part of the foundation of reggae music and the reggae culture."
As Preacherman, Wynter has elevated local awareness of reggae culture, too. His lyrics echo a bit of the Christian Scriptures and reflect his life philosophy: "Jam down fever, jam down fever, Jamaican fever/I got nowhere to rest my head, I cannot find nowhere to live/I can't break my daily bread, that is why my eyes turn red/Life 'round here's heavy like lead...I have my family I got to feed, that's why I planting this a seed/Yes my family they are in need, while some people are set in their greed."
Trouble is a theme that defines a lot of Wynter's music, and he's seen his share as an artist. He's bounced from group to group, juggled band politics and wrestled with egos, jealousy and bickering. He says he sometimes confronts a kind of reverse racial discrimination: Over the years, he has at times been chided for associating with white artists. Yet despite some infighting and contentious relationships, a relative sense of solidarity seems to pervade the Colorado reggae culture, which is struggling to gain firm footing on the local music scene.
"I try not to see color when I look at people," he says. "People are people, and they're cool or they aren't. When I consider a musician, I just want to know that they're into the music and that I can get along with them okay. Music is not about color. We're divided among ourselves, but the Rasta man supposed to unite. It's a shame there's jealousy and bitterness in the industry. Everyone is a star in the band."
At a recent "Reggae on Broadway" show at Herman's Hideaway, sponsored by Denver's newly created Reggae Movement organization, reggae artists and fans bumped fists in greeting and shared the positive vibrations emanating from the stage. Wynter shared the light with a white DJ named Thomas Behler, aka Blood Presha, laid down bongo rhythms and sang a few tunes with the Lion SoulJahs.
When he asked the Herman's audience how it was feeling, he got the only answer he was looking for: Arms raised, the group of reggae converts, old and new, shouted "Irie!"