Stay Positive is more than just the title of reggae star Pato Banton's new album. It's become something of a life philosophy for the Birmingham, England, native--and that, he believes, has everything to do with his success as a performer.
"For me, personally, it means more than anything," he says. "It means more than my career, more than making money, more than anything. I just feel as though the talent I've got is a God-given talent, and the only way I can show my gratefulness is to use my talent in a positive and uplifting way."
Banton credits both this attitude and his love of reggae music to his stepfather, who operated a traveling reggae sound system when Pato was growing up. "He used to keep late-night parties at our house on weekends," Banton recalls. "I started out by just carrying the records and opening doors, and eventually I helped to spin the records and just do little things on the microphone, like imitate singers. I was only eight or nine, but the people thought I was cute, and they started giving me money to do it."
An eager young capitalist, Banton soon found his services in demand, first as a record-spinner and later as a vocalist. "During a deejay session, a band invited me to sit in with them," he explains. "We became friends quickly, and when their singer moved away, they asked me to join."
As the frontman for Crucial Massive, Banton had a rude awakening when he discovered that others in the British music universe didn't share his congenial outlook. "In the reggae scene in Birmingham, it was very difficult," he notes. "Number one, if you're not from Jamaica and you're playing reggae music, you're going to get a fight. It's like Jamaica is where reggae started--if you're not from Jamaica, it's not real reggae. Then it became an issue of, if you're not from London, it's not reggae. I had a long fight for a long time, but after a while people got the message that we could do as good as anybody else."
Crucial Massive eventually earned acceptance, in large part because of Banton's diplomatic efforts. "During that time, UB40 was starting their band up, and we became very good friends," he recalls. The UB40 players subsequently offered Banton a guest spot on their Little Baggariddim album. At the time, this move was seen as unusual by most reggae scenesters--but not by Banton, who soon appeared on a platter with another popular combo, the English Beat.
"They were doing a concert in Birmingham," Banton remembers, "and there was a talent contest before the show instead of an opening act." Banton won the contest, which was judged by the band--and after the show, Beat toaster Ranking Roger offered his personal congratulations. "He really liked my style and wanted to hook up with me," Banton boasts. "It became a good relationship. We eventually did a track together called 'Pato and Roger A Go Talk' on the Beat's Special Beat Service record."
Ranking Roger returned the favor by dueting with Banton again on Never Give Up, Pato's 1987 solo debut. But Roger was hardly the only prominent artist to collaborate with Banton. Steel Pulse, perhaps the best British reggae band ever, served as his backing band during this period. A few years later he brought Steel Pulse and another British reggae favorite, Aswad, together for the first time on the title track of Wize Up, his 1990 release. And Banton's version of Eddy Grant's "Baby Come Back," which teamed him with UB40's Robin and Ali Campbell, hit the top of the British charts in 1994.
But Banton hasn't simply ridden the coattails of famous friends; he's earned deserved renown for, among other things, his unique toasting style. He regularly narrates entire stories within a single song, even going so far as to use different voices for different characters. (His composition "Don't Sniff Coke" is a classic example of this approach.) He also exhibits a clever sense of humor and puts on concerts that sport more crowd participation than anything this side of Oprah. "For me, it's a must giving an exciting, interactive live show," Banton states. "If you give the audience your all, they give it back to you. To see people dancing and singing with you and sometimes grabbing people up on the stage--they never forget that for the rest of their life. I enjoy that."
Still, Banton attributes his standing in today's reggae world primarily to "friendliness." He explains, "It's one thing to be competitive. That's cool. But we also need to be cooperative."
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The new album benefits from this outlook. Sting assists Banton throughout a reggae version of "Spirits in the Material World" (the track also appears on the soundtrack for Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls). Elsewhere, the production touch of the Beatmasters improves "Groovin'" and "One Love," and the crooning of Banton's younger sister Audrey boosts "Live As One."
With Stay Positive earning good reviews, Banton understandably finds himself feeling more optimistic than ever. "The feedback I get from doing positive stuff is incredible to me," he raves. "Like parents writing letters saying how their kids have changed, or people who were doing coke and crack and all kinds of stuff writing and coming to shows to tell me how I've helped them out. And people who are just down and out who, after leaving the show, feel a lot better. To me, that is the essence of making music--to have a career out of it, but at the same time to make some form of contribution back to society."
Pato Banton, with Roots Revolt. 9 p.m. Thursday, September 26, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $14.70-$15.75, 443-3399 or 830-TIXS; 8 p.m. Saturday, September 28, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $14-$15, 830-