Like rock 'n' roll and funk, the very word reggae suggests dirt or sex. "Streggae" was Jamaican patois for anyone dressed too "raggedy"--a term of slang customarily lobbed at prostitutes. Yet the name that still serves as a synonym for "Jamaican popular music" was chosen on a Sunday morning by the neatly dressed son of a preacher man.
There was perhaps subconscious poetry in his choice of names. The syllables evoked both the Rega, a Bantu-speaking tribe in Africa, and "regular," meaning "of the people." But only Frederick "Toots" Hibbert knows for sure what he was thinking when one day, during a practice jam in the mid-Sixties, he started exhorting his backup singers: "Come on, man, let's do the reggae!"
"It just fly out my mouth," he says now, speaking over the phone from his home in Kingston. "We get the ideas from in the night, and we gather in the morning. Words always come out in the morning."
With their breathless hit "Do the Reggay," Hibbert's trio the Maytals named the emergent style of 1968. But the busy sound had been rippling through Trenchtown for months. At once faster and slower than rocksteady's vocal-harmony hypnosis--a rockier top for a steadier bottom--the new tempo fit the fidgeting mood of West Kingston tenement dwellers.
Their archetype, the "sufferah," had already supplanted James Bond as the star of Jamaican pop culture. That year, sufferahs took to the streets when Guyanese black-power leader and University of the West Indies professor Walter Rodney was turned away at the airport after returning from a conference, having been dubbed a national-security risk. Before long, James Bond's real-life counterparts in the U.S. were getting fidgety themselves: How could the rebellions of Prague, Paris, and Chicago infect our favorite island resort?
Yet all this history may be unnecessary for an appreciation of Toots Hibbert: He's the silk cotton tree of Jamaican voices--a unique warble that towers above even the late greats. His ecstatic live act, which he brings to First Avenue on Monday, earns and re-earns his rep for exuberance. Even on CD, the power of Hibbert's songs invariably lies in an almost abstract soul stirring--the "Naaaaah-nah-nah-nah-nah" of "Reggay," the spine-tingling scat of "54-46 (That's My Number)." The latter described the 1967 prison sentence he served for marijuana possession--an arrest he maintains was a frame-up--but its "Dah-dah-dee-dee" digression expressed the elated rush of freedom better than words ever could.
Hibbert was never an overtly political singer. His message was in his voice. He wasn't even a cryptic revolutionary in the mold of Bob Marley, which may go some way toward explaining why his gospel-funk is mistaken for so much shucking and jiving by the dancehall massive--reggae's sufferah inheritors. Hibbert's Eighties experiments with Memphis soul pleased mainly American ex-hippies. His public remarks of the time, that ragga was "not reaching the white audience properly," betrayed a gawky universalism. And whatever roots-hip-hop cred he exchanged with the Tom Tom Club last year was cheapened by a recent studio teaming with Steven Seagal--whose forays into reggae Hibbert deems "great."
There is an eagerness to please behind these alliances. But like everything about Hibbert, it's rooted in the experience of an impoverished but optimistic rural teen who, like thousands of others, arrived in Kingston in 1962 with hope that national independence would bring prosperity.
"I thought it was America," he now says of the vast city that lay before him and its sundry opportunities. "I was trimming people's hair--that's the trade I learned when I just come to Kingston. And people would come to hear me sing at the barber shop."
Hibbert was indeed a natural: He had sung in church all his life, beginning back in May Pen, Clarendon, where his father was a Seventh-day Adventist minister. He was a country boy, like Marley, and "country," like Otis Redding, to whom Hibbert is always compared. But two other backwoods émigrés, Jerry Matthias and Raleigh Gordon, immediately recognized his artistic intelligence. And they must have heard some of their own longing in his voice.
As a trio, the teenagers tried out for legendary producer Coxsone Dodd, but Studio One session man Johnny Moore remembered them as little more than a "Temptations impression." Moore later told writer Mark Gorney that he "encouraged them to go deeper into themselves and find something original."
Hibbert looked inward and saw the flipping pages of the Old Testament. In short order, the Maytals began cutting Sunday-school lessons on 45s: "Hallelujah," "Six and Seven Books of Moses"--songs that found a new pop audience among Rastafarians. As with the term Reggay, the trio arrived at its name half-consciously, perhaps combining May Pen and "ital" (Rasta for kosher). But Hibbert never fully embraced Rastafarianism itself, even if guilt by association excluded him from the tourist board's hand-picked ska delegation that was flown to New York's world's fair in 1964. However disreputable his audience, Hibbert became a star, and vocal star Alton Ellis soon paid tribute to "The Preacher." By 1966 the Maytals' "Bam Bam" took top honors in the Jamaica Festival Song Competition.
With its vaguely defensive lyric, "Bam Bam" implicitly opposed the sort of government crackdowns on "rude boys," or hooligans, that have since become a fixture of Jamaican life. But the irony was that youth violence at the height of rude-boy hysteria palled next to the mayhem unleashed by the CIA in the 1970s when the U.S. flooded Jamaica's underworld with guns in hopes of destabilizing socialist president Michael Manley. By the time Hibbert was calling out evil on his epochal "Pressure Drop," which reached its widest audience via 1973's The Harder They Come soundtrack, there was no mistaking the angry intent in his quaver--the outrage of "regular" Jamaicans.
Yet in classic Hibbert fashion, the song held out the possibility of redemption even for the oppressor: The lyric "When it drops, oh, you going to feel it/All that you was doing is wrong" might be a damnation, but the sheer joyfulness of the vocals suggests amazing grace. Hearing it today, any resident of Babylon who thinks he might escape the implications of that "you" should think about what he has done, if anything, to alter the fate of the sufferah. Spend an evening with the question. Words always come out in the morning.
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