Tooting His Own Horn
There has been one constant in Jamaican music from the early days of ska through the mid-Sixties rock steady period to the development of reggae and beyond: Frederick "Toots" Hibbert, leader of Toots and the Maytals. You might think of him as the Forrest Gump of modern Jamaican music, although Hibbert prefers a more stately title. "I am the father of reggae," he asserts.
Hibbert has the resume to back it up. He is credited with coining the genre's name in the Maytals' 1968 dance classic "Do the Reggay," and since the deaths of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, he has been widely acknowledged as the format's most prominent progenitor--a living embodiment of reggae.
Today's version of Toots and the Maytals is not quite the real thing; Hibbert has not worked with his original collaborators, Jerry Mathias and Raleigh Gordon, since embarking on a solo career in 1982. But his music remains the sum total of reggae's strongest and purest influences: the soulful grooves of American rhythm and blues, Rasta nyabinghi percussion, and the heavenly sounds associated with the evangelical churches Hibbert attended during his youth.
"I grow up way in the country, in May Pen, Clarendon [in the western hills of Jamaica]," Hibbert recalls. "Singing I was taught from the church from when I was a baby. I grew up into the gospel church, Seventh Day Adventist, and I hear people preach and people sing."
In this regard, Hibbert was hardly unique. May Pen was the home of many religions, including Pocomania, Pentecostalism, Coptic and Cumina (a Yoruba variation on ancestor worship that's related to Santeria), and music was central to virtually all of them. The elements common to their songs of worship eventually found their way into the catalogs of acts like Culture, among many others. But the inspiration of religious shouters and chanters is perhaps most apparent in the Maytals' signature call-and-response harmonies and Hibbert's revivalist approach to singing.
When Hibbert was in his early teens, he moved to Kingston, where he met Mathias and Gordon and was exposed to the Rastafarian drumming made by believers living in the nearby hills of Wareika. But his first love was another new discovery, ska. "It was the music the Skatalites were playing when I go to Kingston," he says fondly. "That's the kind of music that was there. You could just write something and they make it to be ska."
So, too, did Hibbert, Mathias and Gordon. Beginning in 1963, they cut ditties like "Six and Seven Books of Moses" and "Broadway Jungle" for legendary producers like Coxone Dodd and Prince Buster. Some so-called reggae experts claim that the trio was known as the Vikings during this period, but Hibbert vehemently denies it. "The name of the group was the Maytals, not the Vikings," he says. "People call me that to collect money off my name." Hibbert is just as quick to debunk other misinformation about his combo. For instance, he swears that he was not introduced to American R&B hits via faint signals from New Orleans and Miami radio stations, as is commonly believed. "On the radio in Jamaica, I used to listen to Ray Charles and Otis Redding," he reveals. "I never heard any of that stuff from Miami. They play all kinds of music on Jamaican National Broadcasting, and that's where everybody hear it."
Before long, the Maytals were rising ska stars--but the band was almost derailed by Hibbert's 1967 arrest in Kingston for possession of marijuana. Although he doesn't suggest that he's unfamiliar with the effects of this particular herb, Hibbert insists to this day that he was framed. As he tells it, he was en route to a show that evening when he stopped by jail to bail out a friend. He carried with him a bag containing the Maytals' clothing, but forgot to bring along his driver's license as well. "At the police station, the police officer told me I cannot bail the person out--that I have to get someone with a license to do it," he says. "I had our suit bag with me with all the suits we were going to wear that night, and I asked him to keep it for me until I come back. I give him the key to hold. But when I come back at 11:30 in the night with the money, he told me that in my suit bag, he find ganja in it. But I knew it couldn't be. It was all a setup."
Fortunately, the tale has a happy ending. Hibbert was jailed for a time, but his experiences led to one of the Maytals' most popular tunes, "54-46 (That's My Number)," titled after his prison digits. Shortly thereafter, the threesome recorded "Do the Reggay" and cemented its stardom. Given his lofty claims about his place in musical history, Hibbert's comments about the latter cut are unexpectedly modest.
"Yeah, because of that song I get famous," he allows. "But I didn't come up with the name for it. I was just writing songs and meditating and that word comes in my mouth. So I say, 'Let's do the reggay.' It's got to be a message from God. But reggae was really born in Jamaica a long time before that and nobody know what to call it. It's just a different nature of music. Rock steady has a one-drop beat, and reggae has a one-drop beat also. Some of them have shufflin' with the organ and shufflin' with the guitar; the licks is quite different. But it's the same kind of music--just a different name and a different touch. That was just the natural evolution of music."
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.