Born Tony MacKay fifty-some years ago on Cat Island in the Bahamas, Exuma looks like a cross between Bob Marley and Mr. Magoo. His music, his career, his public persona and even his stage name, which pays tribute to a mythical Bahamian shaman, also juxtapose unexpected elements. For example, the exotic musician got his start in the United States by making the rounds in the early Sixties Greenwich Village folk scene.
"I started playing around when Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, Peter, Paul and Mary, Richard Pryor, Hendrix and Streisand were all down there, too, hanging out and performing at the Cafe Bizarre," Exuma explains. "I'd been singing down there, and we'd all been exchanging ideas and stuff. Then one time a producer came up to me and said he was very interested in recording some of my original songs, but he said that I needed a vehicle. I remembered the Obeah Man from my childhood--he's the one with the colorful robes who would deal with the elements and the moonrise, the clouds and the vibrations of the earth. So I decided to call myself Exuma, the Obeah Man."
Under his new moniker, Exuma was signed to Mercury Records, which released two of his albums, Exuma, the Obeah Man and Exuma II. He recorded another pair of discs for the defunct Buddha/Kama Sutra imprint before striking out on his own. He's made a handful of subsequent recordings for his own label, Nassau Records, including Rude Boy, a 1987 release distributed by Roir Records. But he remains better known in some quarters for the inclusion of a song from his first album, "Don't You Know What's Going On?", on the soundtrack of Joe, an early Seventies cult film that starred Peter Boyle and Susan Sarandon. "It was in the very beginning," Exuma recalls. "I think it was when the guy goes to shoot some dope or something, the song comes on the radio."
Exuma's early music was often as dark as this sequence, but it's undergone a gradual transition over the years. His sound remains both easily identifiable and impossible to categorize: part reggae, part Pete Seeger, with dashes of New Orleans jungle-funk, cowboy crooning and traditional Bahamian rhythms derived from soca and junkanoo. The themes, however, are less disturbing. According to Exuma, "It's fun music. Great music. Sunshiny. Messages, sometimes--life messages, deep messages. Depends on my mood. It's a concoction of a lot of stuff, influenced by different people that I've had the pleasure of touching bases with from different cultures. I interpret it my way and give it my energy. Then it becomes the sound of myself, Exuma, mixed with all of these beautiful, different energies."
The latest examples of Exuma's work should be available this spring. He has recorded thirty new tunes--many written in Colorado, about Colorado--and he's presently in the process of deciding which will make the final cut. In addition, he is an accomplished author ("I've written two books, and I have a movie script and a children's book. I have a lot of things in me that I have to bring out and share," he says) and has a flourishing career as a visual artist. The primitive beauty and vitality of his work with oil, pastel and watercolor paintings, as well as his ink drawings, earned him a national tourism award from the Bahamian government. And in June 1988 Exuma was the recipient of the British Empire Medal, presented by England's Queen Elizabeth to honor his contributions to Bahamian music, art and culture. Not bad for someone who received no formal music or art training. (Some of Exuma's paintings will be on display during his upcoming Denver performance.)
Today Exuma exudes peacefulness. The sinister air of island magic that was reflected in his earlier works has dissipated, leaving behind goodness and light. "It comes from the love of what I am doing," he says. "Music is like eating and breathing--every fiber of me is in music. I've always been like that. The music energizes me and keeps me alive, I think. I have a lot I want to say in a positive way. I don't want to say anything negative. I try to go through every word and make sure that there is nothing negative gender-wise or any-kind-wise. If I have done anything in the past that is not that way, well, I beg forgiveness for that. But I try to move on a positive note."
Exuma. 9 p.m. Friday, January 21, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California, 294-9258.