The Woyingi Blog

Film Review: The Harder They Come (1972)

Posted in Films, Jamaican Film, Jamaican Music, Reggae by the woyingi blogger on January 30, 2011

Film: The Harder They Come (1972)

Director: Perry Henzell

Starring: Jimmy Cliff

Country: Jamaica

Genre: Action/Music

The Harder They Come, directed by White Jamaican Perry Henzell, is the first film made by Jamaicans for Jamaicans. Up until this film was made, Jamaica had been a popular film location because of its beautiful beaches and lush tropical forests, however, much like the country’s tourism industry, the films did not depict the harsh realities of Jamaican life. The Harder They Come is a grim portrait of a brazen criminal you just wants to be famous.

Ivanhoe Martin, played by Black Jamaican reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, arrives in Kingston from the countryside after his grandmother’s death. He has brought along several possessions, including a mango for his mother but all are stolen and he arrives at his mother’s shack with nothing but the little money remaining from the sale of his grandmother’s house. His mother, who is devastated by the news that her mother has died and she wasn’t able to attend the funeral, tells Ivan that he must return to the countryside because if he stays in the city he’ll just become a criminal. He also informs him that he can’t stay with her. He leaves her shack but as he is walking out the door she asks if he has brought a mango and he tells her that the mangos didn’t grow well in the countryside that season.

Ivan tries to find work but he has no skills and there is no shortage of labour in the city. But he persists. He gets work from “The Preacher”, who his mother has refered him to. He also develops an interest in Elsa, who he sees singing in the church choir. She is the ward of the Preacher. Ivan joins the choir just to get close to Elsa. At one point in the film, we see images of choir-singing at a revival juxtaposed to images of Elsa and Ivan naked on the beach. Elsa is seduced by Ivan and eventually leaves her home with the preacher to live with him. But she soon realizes that Ivan isn’t at all serious and seems to expect her to find work to support them while he goes and tries to become famous by making a record. Ivan pursues record producer Hilton, who agrees to record Ivan’s song “The Harder They Come”.

There is a Chinese Jamaican character in the film who works closely with Hilton producing records. This character reminded me that one of the leading record producers in Jamaica in the 1960s was Leslie Kong, who was the first Jamaican producer to get international hits. He started his career as a record producer after meeting Jimmy Cliff, who was singing a song outside of Kong’s family’s record shop/restaurant/ice cream parlour in the hopes that Kong would record him. This inspired Kong to launch his own record label, Beverly’s. He recorded Cliff’s song “Dearest Beverly”, thus also launching Cliff’s musical career. Kong recorded with the likes of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Desmond Dekker. He died young of a heart attack in 1971, allegedly due to a “curse” cast on him by Bunny Livingston of The Wailers because of a dispute over the release of the album, The Best of the Wailers. Kong died about a week after the album was released.

Hilton tells Ivan that he will distribute the recording and get it played by DJs but Ivan must sign over his rights and he will only receive $20 for the recording. Ivan refuses as he believes that he deserves much more money. Ivan tries to get his song played by DJs at clubs and at the radio stations but all refuse as they have agreements with Hilton only to play recordings he gives them. Disheartened, Ivan agrees to sign away his rights and only receive $20 just so that he can get his record played but Hilton takes revenge but telling DJs not to play it too much because he thinks Ivan is a trouble maker.

Ivan gets into the ganga (marijuana) trade with the help of his friend Pedro as there isn’t other work for him to do. But Ivan soon realizes that people like him and Pedro are just low-level dealers and are not making the real money. But at one point, to avoid getting caught by the police, Ivan kills a police officer. During this scene, we see a flashback to an earlier scene in the film when Ivan gets whipped for having slashed the face of a man who stole his bike. We realize that Ivan is afraid of receiving more corporal punishment so he kills the police officer. Ivan goes into hiding but he is ratted on by his friend Jose Smith. Ivan is able to escape from the police who are after him, killing most of them. Ivan then goes on a spree through the city, robbing people, stealing cars, and at one point demanding that a photographer take pictures of him at gun point. He wants to send one of the pictures to the local newspaper to be published. He seems proud that he has achieved fame because of his ability to avoid getting caught by the police. Hilton starts getting Ivan’s record played now that he’s a famous criminal and it becomes a hit.

The police decide to force the local people living in the slum who are surviving off the ganga trade to give Ivan up. They stop the ganga trade so no one is able to make any money. People in the slum begin to suffer, including Pedro’s son, Rupert, who Elsa has grown close to. Elsa decides to turn Ivan in so that the trade can start-up again.

Ivan is supposed to escape to Cuba by boat but he is unable to swim out to the boat in time and is left on the beach. He decides to go down in a blaze of glory in a shoot-out with the police.

The Impact of The Harder They Come

The Harder They Come inspired a novel of the same name by Michael Thelwell. The novel follows Ivan but develops the plot further; including giving the reader a portrait of what Ivan’s life was like back in the countryside before he came to the city.

The film brought reggae music to an international audience and although the film was not well-distributed, its soundtrack was, paving the way for the success of Jamaican musicians like Bob Marley. The film is referenced in the legendary British Punk band The Clash’s song The Guns of Brixton, a song with has obvious reggae influences. From the song:

You see, he feels like Ivan

Born under the Brixton sun

His game is called survivin’

At the end of the harder they come

Personal Reflections

I didn’t really like the character of Ivan at all. He frankly has no admirable qualities, other than blind determination. But this didn’t stop me from enjoying the film. The “realness” of the film is what captured my attention, as well as all the small moments that make up a portrait of slum life in Jamaica. From Ivan’s mother asking, so sadly, if he brought a mango for her from the countryside, to an elderly drunk laughing at Ivan when he sees him running the streets with a gun and only his underwear on, you can tell that this is a film meant to resonate with people in Jamaica. Its gaze isn’t from outsiders looking in but for insiders finally having a chance to see themselves on-screen. One of the most brilliant moments of the film is at the end, during Ivan’s final shoot-out with the police on the beach, we shift from seeing the shoot-out to seeing an audience of Jamaican movie-watchers laughing with excitement at the image of Ivan on-screen confronting the police. We had seen a similar audience, equally as excited, watching a shoot-out in a  spagetti(Italian-made films copying the style of American Westerns) starring Franco Nero earlier in the film. It is as if Henzell is trying to say “We have our one anti-heroes, our own outlaws to watch, admire, and be entertained by. We don’t need to consume the stories of others. We have our own stories.” That said, is this really an image these people should be looking up to? As Julianne Burton observes:

The action of the final scene reverts to the massacred sob and the cheering crowds at the Rialto. Jose’s contemptuous dictum that the hero can’t die until the last reel rings in Ivan’s ears an he faces his own posse. Amidst the indistinguishable shouts of the audience, one cry—“Ivan”—stands out because it was absent from the original scene. Whether it is an indication of Ivan’s mythification of his own death in order to face it, or a cry from the masses of his downtrodden countrymen/women who (either, at that moment or long after his death) hail him an a hero, is not a crucial distinction. In both cases his is revealed to be a hollow heroism.

Further Reading:

The Harder They Come by Michael Dare (article available online)

The Harder They Come: Cultural colonialism and the American dream by Julianne Burton (essay available online)

Interview (2001) with Peter Henzell available online

The Harder They Come Musical Website

Radio Documentary: Feeling Good The Nina Simone Story

Posted in Documentaries, Jazz, Nina Simone by the woyingi blogger on January 18, 2011

I just discovered that BBC Radio 2 is playing a two-part documentary about the life of Nina Simone. Unfortunately I missed the first part because I didn’t know about it. The documentary is narrated by Nina Simone’s daughter Simone (born Lisa Celeste Stroud), whose father, a former police officer, was Nina Simone’s manager for a time. According to the BBC Radio 2 site:

Nina’s daughter Simone explores the life and career of her mother – the protest singer, jazz chanteuse, blues artist and live performer – sharing her personal thoughts and providing a glimpse of the real woman behind the distinctive voice.

In part one, we hear about Nina’s musical beginnings as Eunice Waymon, a 5-year old child protégé, learning classical piano with the help of people in her home town. She won a place at New York’s famous Juilliard School but was turned down by the elite Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. This was an incredible blow to the young Eunice Waymon, who turned to teaching piano and playing in bars to make ends meet. At this point she took the stage name Nina Simone.

She moved to New York City and signed her first record deal [not reading the small print which would cost her dearly later in her career]. New York was the place to be and Nina became closely associated with the civil rights movement, connected with both the radical black playwright Lorraine Hansberry and Malcolm X. She wrote her first protest song, Mississippi Goddamn, in 1963 – an enraged reaction to the deaths of four children in the bombing of a Sunday school in Alabama.

She also met and married Andy Stroud, who became her manager [and Simone’s father]. Throughout the 60s her output was prolific and she toured constantly in the US and Europe, always highlighting the civil rights message. When her marriage ended in the 70s, she left the US and became a global nomad, moving between Liberia, Switzerland, the Caribbean, the Netherlands, and finally France.

I was able to listen to the second part of the series, which concentrates on her later life, and her live performances. The second part is described as follows:

In part two, Simone explores her mother’s musical style and what she was like as a live performer. She began her performing career working as a singer-pianist in Atlantic City, taking her stage name from the French actress Simone Signoret. A commanding, if sometimes difficult, live performer, Nina often displayed an irrational temper but her shows were always an experience. Friends explain that this was due to her being bipolar, a condition she refused to admit to during her lifetime.

A fluke UK hit of My Baby Just Cares for Me, a resurrected 50s master, pushed the singer into the commercial spotlight when it reached number 5 in the 1987 UK charts, thanks to its use in a Chanel No 5 commercial. She also gave a series of mesmerising performances at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club during this decade. She recorded the classic album Baltimore and her last album, A Single Woman, was released in 1993. We hear from A&R man Michael Alago about how he signed Nina and got her to record again.

Her musical style can only be described as fearless: she refused to be categorised and often sang soul, jazz, blues, gospel, and Broadway tunes over the course of an album or concert. An uncompromising personality, Nina Simone was one of popular music’s great divas.

During the documentary, Nina Simone’s friends and family are interviewed. So are her drummer for 18 years, Paul Robinson, and music producer turned photographer Michael Alago. But the majority of the documentary is occupied by Simone’s reflections on her mother’s life. Sometimes she shares anecdotes while recounting her mother’s career from the 198os to the time of her death.

Here are some of the highlights:

Mommy’s regal bearing and unique stage presence earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul”. Her live performances were regarded not as mere concerts but as an experience. She compared it to mass hypnosis. On stage she moved from gospel to blues, jazz and folk and classical to numbers infused with all types of different stylings. She incorporated monologues and dialogues with the audience and often used silence as a musical element.

She’d be under incredible pressure form a young age, being the musical genius and having the onus of a whole town depending on her success. It is understandable that she developed certain mental problems call it manic depression, call it bipolar disorder, whatever you choose to call it, she suffered.

She had quite a painful life. She lost many of her closest friends and family. She had a number of broken relationships, and she was angry with a lack of equal rights progress in America. But on a more personal level Mommy didn’t love herself and was always looking for peace outside of herself and not within. Amazingly, she was able to channel this, all of this, into her music.

She always paid great attention to the musical expression of emotions. Within one album or concert, Mommy could move from extreme happiness to tragic melancholy. You realized that on stage Mommy was truly free. She was able to express herself without being edited or judged and it was there that you actually saw the real Nina. Her gift to give new and deeper dimensions to songs resulted in remarkable versions.

Her on-stage style could be somewhat haughty and aloof, but in later years Mommy particularly seemed to enjoy engaging her audiences by recounting humorous anecdotes related her to career in music and soliciting requests.

At this point, we get to hear a recording a live performance by Nina Simone, where she chats with a very enthusiastic audience:

Love songs are never ending. Sometimes I listen to the radio and I say “They’re still at it!” (Audience laughs) No matter what the language, they’re still at it. They want it and when they get it they run from it. (Audience laughs) Then they say we want a natural woman. Then they get one. Scares them half to death (Audience laughs and bursts into applause)

Simone continues to tell her mother’s story of the reemergence of her mother’s career in the early 198os thanks to a perfume ad and in the early 1990s thanks to an action film. Simone explains:

30 years after Mommy had originally recorded “My Baby Just Cares For Me” for her very first album, the song was re-released after it was used in a European advertising campaign for Chanel #5 perfume. It became a Top Ten Hit in the UK, bringing Mommy to a new generation of listeners and her career soared. And “My Baby…” became one of the most listened to songs of the 20th Century.

Mommy returned to Europe and as the 90s dawned, she enjoyed a revival of interest in her music that’s to the publication of her autobiography “I Put a Spell on You” and the release of the hit movie “Point of No Return” starring Bridget Fonda who played a character fascinated with the music of Nina Simone.

Towards the end of the documentary, we learn about Simone’s own career and her mother’s declining health:

Towards to end of the 90s, my own theatrical career was beginning to blossom. I was playing the role of Mimi Marquez in the musical Rent, on the first national tour of the United States. I remember we were in Chicago at the time, and I got a call from Mommy. “Hi darling, I’m here. Just flew in from Poland and I want to see your show. So typical. She came the next night and she came the night thereafter and enjoyed the show immensely as she sat right next to my husband who regaled me with her reactions to every scene.

There’s a point for every parent and child when suddenly the caring roles are reversed. This happened for my mother and I in January 1998 when I received a call that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had had to undergo and emergency mastectomy. I knew exactly where her mind was and that I had to get to her quick fast. Mommy had previously lost her father and her elder sister my aunt Lucille to the disease and it was something she hadn’t gotten over. When I got to her, she was almost catatonic with shock. But I pulled her out of it and I let her know how much I loved her and how much I needed her to stay with me. I told her not to let this thing beat her and that if she wanted to live, and not for herself, then perhaps for me. Then she looked at me and said “Baby, I’ll do it for you.” And sure enough a year later, I fulfilled my dream of sharing the stage with her at the Dublin Music Festival in Ireland, July 24th 1999.

My favourite parts of the documentary are the interviews with Michael Alago, who, at the time when he met and worked with Nina Simone, was the A&R representative for Elektra Records, during which time he also signed Metallica. Alago’s anecdotes about Nina are often outrageously funny. Here are a few:

I first met Nina in 1989. I knew she was coming to do a gig in New York. I had been in touch with her brother Sam Waymon. I told him I did A&R for Elektra and I wanted to meet her. So I decide that I’m going to go to sound check. She’s already at the piano. And the hall is half-lit and she sees me in the back of the room and she says “Hey, man! This ain’t a freak show. Who are you? What do you want?” I said “Hi, I’m Michael Alago. I work for Elektra Records.” “Ah! You’re the man.” And she starts laughing and she says “You have any money for me?” And I said “No, I came to say hello.” And I went up on the stage and I kissed her hand and she just kept staring at me curiously and I just kind of went off just telling her how much I loved her all these years. And, you know, of course she loved that so immediately she said “Would you like some tea?”. And I said “I’d love some tea.” Like did I know that her favourite tea was a Black Tea with honey, lemon, and tonnes of cayenne pepper. So I take a huge sip of this tea and I’m almost dead. I can’t speak for a moment. My eyes are watering and she’s laughing and when I got my bearings again, I was laughing. I think it was three years later in 1992 when I actually signed her. We made a beautiful recording in Los Angeles with a 50 piece orchestra. She was a big fan of Frank Sinatra. One of the records she loved most was called A Man Alone. She reinterpreted it as A Single Woman. Little did I know that that would be the last full-length record that she would make.

There was a story that one day there was a fire at her place. So immediately I dialled and I said “What happened?” They said “Oh, she doesn’t want to talk to you. She says the fire was your fault.” I’m sitting here in New York City and the fire is my fault. Explain. She says “You sent her too many faxes that day. She’s not a White Man, she’s an artist, and why are you sending her all this paper work?” I said I think you should remind her that I was sending her all that paper work ‘cause it was part of the advance that I needed to send her. And he said “Oh, when I tell her that, she’ll be happy.” And I said “I know that why I tell you. Now tell me the real story.” He said “Well, she was walking up to the second floor and underneath those stairs was a linen closet and unfortunately she dropped a cigarette, didn’t pay attention, and there was a fire.”

Alago also makes a great observation about Nina Simone’s covers of other artists. I know that I personally often prefer the Nina Simone version of a song than the original. Alago states:

When she sung Bob Dylan, Kurt Weil, George Harrison, it made you feel like she wrote those songs. She sang with such heart and soul that it could tear your heart out, it could make you smile and that was the beauty of her.

Nina Simone’s drummer for 18 years, Paul Robinson, also has some interesting anecdotes about working with Nina, who he met at London’s Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. He recalls:

She would look sometimes and she’d give you this look and you’re not sure what it was. So if you were unsure of yourself, you might take that look as being a look of hatred, whereas really she was just trying to find out what’s going on. Nina never told anybody what to play, or how to play, she didn’t even tell to what key you were going to play in, she would just start going and the guys, if they didn’t know it, had to find it pretty quickly and then get on with it. You never really knew where we were going, which, you know, was sort of spiritual jazz. That was the beginning of creating a chemistry between Nina and myself. And it was working really well. But we went backstage and I said “Nina, I got to talk to you about money.” And she had a glass of champagne in her hand, and she got angry and she threw this glass of champagne. But I’m still staring at her and I’m only a couple of feet away. And it hit the wall right next to me and I knew that I got my money because otherwise she’d have punched me or the glass would have hit me. It just hit the wall. She was just showing her anger that I’d broached the subject. And I went away feeling quite confident that at the end of the week I was going to get it, and I did, I got the extra money, which was great.

At list of songs available on Youtube that were played during the documentary and that I particularly like:

Sinnerman (Original), Sinnerman (Remix by Felix Da Housecat)

Baltimore (Written by Randy Newman)

Pirate Jenny (Written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil)

Wild Is The Wind

Feeling Good

See-Line Woman (originally an American Folk song) See Line Woman (Remix by Masters at Work)

Further Reading:

Nina Simone

Interview (1999) with BBC News available online

Obituary on BBC News available online

Profile by James Gavin the New York Times available online

Profile available online

Audio Profile on NPR available online

Excerpts from the biography of Nina Simone Princesse Noire : The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone by Nadine Cohodas available online

‘Why?’: Remembering Nina Simone’s Tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. on NPR interview available online

1969 Documentary by Peter Rodis about Nina Simone available online

Simone

Simone’s World: The Website of Nina Simone’s Daughter

Interview (2006) with Simone on the All About Jazz site available online

Simone, daughter of famed singer Nina Simone, wins rave reviews for her performance in ‘Rent.’ article available online

Michael Alago

Interview (2009) with Michael Alago in Gay Life Maryland available online

Documentary Review: BBC Radio 2’s The Story of Funk

Posted in Documentaries, Funk, James Brown, Sly Stone, The Last Poets by the woyingi blogger on January 13, 2011

As you know, I love that I can listen to the BBC online. Bizarrely, I have probably gotten more high-brow Black, African, and Caribbean programing off the BBC than off of Canadian or American radio or television.

I just finished listening to part one of BBC Radio 2’s One Station Under the Groove, The Story of Funk, hosted by Blaxploitation film diva, Pam Grier.  The first part of the series, Funk Used to be a Bad Word, can be summarized as follows:

In this first part, Pam goes back to the source, when funk – in the words of George Clinton – ‘used to be a bad word’. Pam reveals how jazz and the R ‘n’ B music of the 50s informed the rhythms and energy of funk music. As well as the all important architects of the sound like James Brown and Sly Stone, the programme also shines a spotlight on some of the unsung heroes such as Charles Wright and the Last Poets.

At the beginning of the documentary, Pam states:

…Funk was not just the soundtrack to my films but also to a very important time in African American history, a time of struggle and self-discovery and ultimately finding pride in who we were. The music reflected all of that.

But the fact that this music came to be known as Funk is strange, seeing as Funk used to be a bad word. According to journalist Rickey Vincent, who wrote the book Funk: The Music, The People, and the Rhythm of the One (St. Martin’s Press):

Funk was in the vernacular as something dirty, something downtrodden, something kind of country and unrefined. If it’s funky it’s not quite refined, it’s not smooth, it’s not together.

One of the first times the word funky was used in the title of a song  was with Funky Butt, controversially attributed to Buddy Boldon (1877-1931), of of the key figures in the development of jazz. The song goes: She got stinky butt, funky butt,/leave it alone `Cause I don’t like it nohow.

The documentary explores the possible origins of funk. According to Grier: “Many people credit Little Richard as the originator of Funk for switching the emphasis of the beat to the beginning of the bar.” But it is clear that James Brown was the key figure in the development of funk, even though he is also the “Godfather of Soul”. But Brown’s choice of musicians was also very important. He worked with some of the best musicians in the industry such as Alfred Ellis, Maceo Parker, and Jimmy Nolen. Brown and these musicians created the blueprint for funk. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, is considered the first funk hit because of “its funky backbeat, choppy guitar licks and syncopated brass riffs. Brown’s success did not blind him to the conflicts of his times, and he risked his career by going political but he found support in the Black community. According to Grier:

This is when James Brown realized that he was in a position of power that could affect change. He assumed the role of a soul-powered preacher standing up for the rights of African Americans like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were also advocating, Brown encouraged African American communities to stand on their own two feet and run their own affairs. He led by example, purchasing his own businesses like radio stations, restaurants and hotels.

According to journalist Rickey Vincent:

Even at his shows, backstage, he would hold court with local leaders in the community and by leaders I don’t mean city council people and that type of thing, it would be folks who are respected in the community for doing activist work, organizing work, preachers, spiritual work, and so in every town James Brown went to he was hearing, he was aware of what was happening in these communities and these communities were filled with rage and anger and a sense that its time for change to come.

It was during this time that Brown wrote a song that would become an anthem for that time in African American history: Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud. According to Adiodun Oyewole, from The Last Poets:

That was a very important piece because it really served almost as a chant for our movement. I don’t think there was anybody in America, Black or White, who did not know “Say it Loud- I’m Black and I’m Proud” and as a matter of fact even today if I say it to the kids in the classroom they know it, they’ve heard it, it’s in their DNA.

According to Khalis Bayyan (formerly Ronald Bell) of Kool and the Gang: “The music’s part of that besides the message. That’s some serious funk, I mean listen to that, that’s some hot stuff, man.” According to journalist Rickey Vincent:

Say it Loud, it kind of was a watershed event, he was saying what people were feeling but weren’t sure if they had the courage to say that out to the world in triumph and Brown gave a whole generation of Black people the freedom and the courage to say that to do something like that to say yes, I’m black and I’m proud and the whole world needs to know it.

James Brown was a notoriously strict bandleader who would fine his band members if they made mistakes on stage, eventually, most of the musicians who help to make Brown’s sound in the 60s left by the 70s. However, he would find other great musicians to work with, such as bassist Bootsy Collins who recorded such funk hits with Brown as Get Up-Sex Machine, Soul Power and Super Bad. Brown’s tracks were key to the development of hip hop in the 80s and 90s as it was often his tracks that were sampled from to form the backbeat of hip hop hits.

The documentary continued by focusing on the group The Last Poets.

One of the most influential to funk and later hip hop was a New York band of Soul Brothers called The Last Poets. The Last Poets were the single clearest articulation of revolution in Black music. Nobody delivered the message harder, or clearer or with more insight and love for Black people than The Last Poets were able to do.

According to The Last Poets’ Abiodun Oyewole:

Gotta understand Martin had just been killed on April 4th of that same year so I was fired up ‘cause I had completely changed when they killed Martin Luther King even though I would never had marched with Martin because Martin was letting the dogs bite him and letting people call him names and pushing him and mistreating and abusing him and I’m a fighter I mean you push me I’m gonna push you back, you know, you get a dog to bite me I’m gonna get a bigger dog but I really respected what he was trying to do because somebody had to do something in the south, it was just total out of control.

At this time, the Last Poets included Abiodun Oyewole, Jalal Mansur Nurridin, Umar Bin Hassan,  and percussionist Nilaja Obabi. The purpose of their music was to wake Black people up. Their style included the use of proto-raps/Spoken Word over conga drums. Key songs from this time included Niggers are Scared of Revolution.

Motown Records, based in Detroit, Michigan, ruled pop at the time and Berry Gordy despised the word funk so much that he would veto any record with the word on it. But the studio’s musicians, who backed most of Motown’s tracks from 1959 to 1972, were nicknamed the Funk Brothers  and are considered the unsung heroes of funk, most notably drummer Benny Benjamin and bassist James Jamerson. Motown producer, Norman Whitfield, kept the label competitive while funk became the dance music of choice. He’s considered responsible for turning The Temptations funky with tracks like Cloud 9. Motown’s Southern counterpart, Stax Records, based in Memphis, Tennessee, took to funk more easily and produced funk hits like Rufus Thomas’s Do The Funky Chicken.

On the West Coast, Charles Wright, another of Funk’s unsung heroes, was writing great funk tracks like Express Yourself. Wright grew up in Mississippi with no education. His exposure to music began in church. But although blues legend Muddy Waters lived across from his grandmother he didn’t get to hear much R’n’B until he left home because his father considered it to be the devil’s music. In the documentary, Wright spoke about his experiences of police brutality and how this was leading to civil unrest at the time:

You know that at that time I had moved out of town because the police were giving me a hard time, the police were really really brutal. They are the reason it happened because of their brutality and the way they were treating people. I mean they would stop me-I hate to say this on the radio-and feel my testicles, you know I just got tired of that and I moved out of that part of town.

Wright worked with DJ Magnificent Montague, who was key in turning on thousands of West Coast radio listeners to Funk. His famous catch phrase, “Burn, Baby, Burn!” became the rallying cry of the 1965 Watts Riots.

According to British soul singer Beverly Knight:

One of the great funk classic songs is Charles Wright’s “Express Yourself” which very famously was sampled by N.W.A. and became a world-wide smash hit record and again took on that mantle of civil rights struggle , the whole I’m black and I’m proud thing which he was at the forefront of.

The documentary then went on to explore the contributions to Funk of Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart) and is considered the “Godfather of Funk”. His creation of Sly and the Family Stone was innovative as bringing together male and female vocalists, as well as Black and White musicians, was unprecedented at the time, and also spoke to the group’s values of racial harmony at a time of racial conflict. They were initially not very commercially successful, with only a few hits, like Dance to the Music. But with the album Stand! (1969), the band achieved mainstream success, with tracks promoting racial harmony like Everyday People, written by Sly. They even performed at Woodstock.

In the documentary, Italian American Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico reflected on an incident with National Guard Troops:

Just looking for a gas station in an inner-city somewhere, you know we get pulled over by National Guard Troops protecting a city that is in riot, racial riot, pulling over a van full of male and female, black and white, dressed funny and “what are you doing here?” “what are you” and it was like get out of the car, hands up against the wall, spread your legs and we got machine guns . The thing that made it a little more scarier was Sylvester was frisky at this point and he kind of challenged the situation and it got hairy and you don’t want to do that when you got 20 guys with whatever kind of machine guns they were lining you up against a brick wall in the inner-city during a riot at 2 o clock in the morning.

Unfortunately, Sly Stone’s growing drug addiction led to erratic behaviour, like not showing up to shows when thousands of people had bought tickets. Eventually, the band slip up. Sly Stone’s addiction continued, eventually leading to imprisonment. In the documentary, Grier states that he now lives as a virtual recluse, in relative poverty as he had signed away his recording rights.

BBC’s The Story of Funk Part Two can be heard online for the next 7 days.

Further Reading:

Rickey Vincent

Rickey Vincent’s Website

Interview (2009) with Rickey Vincent available online

James Brown

Interview (1980) with James Brown and Al Sharpton available online

The Last Poets

Profile of The Last Poets on the PBS Website

Profile of The Last Poets by Russell Porter available online

Profile of The Last Poets by Jalal Nurriddin available online

Interview (2009) with The Last Poets available online

Jalal Mansur Nurriddin’s Website

Umar Bin Hassan’s Website

Charles Wright and DJ Magnificent Montague

Charles Wright’s Website

DJ Magnificent Montague’s Website

Radio Documentary Review: Arise Black Man The Peter Tosh Story

Last week, I had the chance to listen to Don Letts’  BBC Radio 4’s Documentary about the life and work of Peter Tosh.

Here’s the description:

Peter Tosh found international fame alongside Bob Marley as a member of The Wailers. As a solo artist he released several landmark reggae albums and even recorded with the Rolling Stones. But he was more than just a successful pop star: he was a revolutionary and a hero to many of Jamaica’s poor. He spent his life as a strident campaigner for civil rights and for the legalisation of marijuana. He was more militant and political than his former band mate and his uncompromising arrogance often landed him in serious trouble. For that reason, as this documentary reveals, his life could be as brutal as the way it ended. Grammy award winning film-maker Don Letts explores his career.

The documentary opens with excerpts from interviews with people who knew Peter Tosh:

Peter Tosh was the Malcolm X to Bob Marley’s Martin Luther King. One was the arouser and one was the healer. But Peter was much more on the side of militancy. (Roger Steffens, Reggae Historian)

His songs have been recorded by Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel, Jackson Brown, Ben Harper, Chrissie Hynes from the Pretenders, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Sinnead O’Connor. (Wayne Jobson, DJ and producer)

Peter was adored as a revolutionary in Jamaica. He was so charismatic and he was saying  very much what the people thought. (Vivien Goldman, Journalist)

Don Letts’ opens the documentary with the following statement:

Peter Tosh was not your average rockstar and as a person you probably won’t even like him. He could be arrogant, unpleasant and intimidating. But for me he was also a completely awe-inspiring performer, a revolutionary who stood up for the equal rights of the Jamaican poor and Black people all over the world. They always call Bob Marley the Reggae Rebel but Peter Tosh was far more militant and political than Bob ever was. His uncompromising attitude often caused controversy and landed him in serious trouble and as you will hear his life could sometimes be as brutal as the way it ended.

As Bob Marley archivist Roger Steffens states:

He made a guitar out of wire and a sardine can and taught himself to play by watching an older man who actually had a guitar.

According to Jamaican-American Wayne Johnson, producer of the documentary Red X, about Peter Tosh:

I think with him growing up in Jamaica during the colonial days in the 50s and so it was you know as Peter said you never saw a Black school teacher, or a Black preacher or a Black bank manager or anything like it was all English people who came down and took the big jobs and therefore you know eventually you would want to rebel against this especially with the church where he was forced to go to church two, three times a week and every day he was singing “O Lord wash me and I’ll be as white as snow.” You can’t oppress anybody worse than that you know and so Peter said it was almost like apartheid in those days.

In a 1983 BBC Interview, Peter Tosh explains:

I was the first one in the group who played music. I used to play my guitar. I used to play  the keyboards. I taught Bob to play guitar and I taught Bunny to play guitar because it was a part of making your music perfect see. And in those times is like we had a good voice but we wasn’t creating music that music that much it was just singing people song and singing people son and the people been telling us that we sound good why don’t go to the studio so we got together once and we did some recording recorded the first one which was Simmer Down and the people loved it. It sold well.

 As Vivien Goldman explains:

I don’t think I’ve ever had as many arguments with anybody in my life as I did with Peter Tosh.I remember once I was interviewing him, he was like “Women are inferior to men!” I was like “Why is that?” you know “Oh look at the docks , if you go down to the docks a woman can’t pick up a heavy bag and carry it the same way a man can.” And there was you know there was quite embedded in Rasta certain things for women their period was regarded to be unclean but he was really into it “Oh!!!!” you know  “ Are you having your period? Should you be in the room with me know?” I was like excuse me, I’m here as a working professional matey.

Further Reading:

The Guardian’s Review of Arise Black Man The Peter Tosh Story by Elisabeth Mahoney

Roger Steffens’ Reggae Archives Website

Vivien Goldman’s Blog

The many voices of Rastafarian women : sexual subordination in the midst of liberation by O. Lake (essay available online)

Barack The Magnificent by Mighty Sparrow

Posted in Barack Obama, Blacks and Music, Calypso, Calypso, Countries: Trinidad and Tobago, Reviews, Songs, Trinidadian Music by the woyingi blogger on August 14, 2009

The following are the lyrics to the song “Barack The Magnificent” by legendary singer and self-proclaimed King of the Calypso World, Mighty Sparrow. Originally from Trinidad (born in Grenada), Mighty Sparrow’s career in Calypso spans over 40 years.

He is a naturalized US Citizen who lives in New York. Sparrow endorsed Obama back in 2007 during an exclusive meeting at the Marriott Hotel in Brooklyn.

Mighty Sparrow and Barack Obama

Mighty Sparrow and Barack Obama

Sparrow’s music has always been socially conscious and political. He was a supporter of Eric Williams, who he referred to as “The Doctor” and his People’s National Movement (PNM) which formed in 1955 and led Trinidad and Tobago to independence in 1962.

My favourite Sparrow song is about the Crown Heights Riots between Blacks and Jews back in 1991.

Here’s the link to Mighty Sparrow’s song on Youtube. Sparrow pretty much outlines Obama’s entire election platform in this song. This is why Barack Obama won the election. Sparrow is supposedly working on a whole album dedicated to Obama.
Lyrics: Barack The Magnificent by Mighty Sparrow

The respect of the world that we now lack,
If you want it back, then vote Barack!
Because this time we come out to vote!

Stop the war!
Stop genocide in Darfur!
No matter what,
Get health care for who have not!
The Foreign Relations Committee,
Can attest to his tenacity,
For homeland and job security.

He stood his ground
When the war was a conception,
Said it was wrong,
So he didn’t go along,
Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton
They said of Barack’s opinion,
“He’s a man of resplendent vision!”

I know the warmongers are anxious, ready and set,
Saddam is who posing to us our really main threat,
They magnified Saddam’s offences,
Now we’re paying the consequences,
Everyday our soldiers joining the trenches!

Barack! Barack!
He’s fighting for openness and honest government!
Barack!
He’s doggedly defiant,
Phenomenal strength and wisdom beyond comment!

After you put we in a quagmire!
Not this time!
We come out to vote!

What’s at stake?
Clean up Washington overall!
In the wake
Of the Jack Abramoff scandal.
The middle class done elect a man,
It’s without representation,
This régime has too much corruption!
He wants to see,
A whole energy policy,
Inclusively,
Extent? Comprehensively:
Renewable fuels to clean coal,
There’ll be no price gouging at all,
These things are Barack Obama’s goal.

Entrenched in the crooked régime, we must all, take note,
They’ll be kicking and screaming at me, so we all must vote!
By not exercising these rights,
It’s refusing to see the light,
Democrats! Rise up! Stand up and fight!

Barack! Barack!
On the Senate Affair Committee he’s a giant!
Barack!
Dignifiedly resilient,
And with rock star status he’s Barack The Magnificent!

You talk about how you won’t cut and run,
Rumsfeld and Rove, that’s what they done!
But not this time!
We come out to vote!
Not so government work!

As a grad,
From both Columbia and Harvard,
This GI lad,
Want all others to study hard,
We’re the wealthiest in less respects,
Without proper health insurance,
Walter Reed Hospital, for instance.
Quality check!
Every wounded soldier should get,
Not abject neglect,
All providers must give a heck!
Health care must be affordable
And easily accessible,
Make existentialism enjoyable!
Without that we could be living in pure misery,
Psychological, mental, even insanity.
Loving husband, father of two,
That is Obama’s point of view,
Religiously-urged family value.

Barack! Barack!
Civil rights lawyer who taught constitutional law.
Barack!
Super terrific, I quote,
“Candidate of note!”
So, make sure he gets your vote!

Subpoenaing them gets you no answer!
The Attorney-General can’t remember!
Not this time!
We come out to vote!

We know he’s young,
But, with the Wisdom of Solomon,
Not like that one!
He has experience, look what he’s done!
Insurgents have just one focus:
That’s to put a hurting on us.
Worldwide security must be enforced!

Immigration
Could even get further outta hand,
The border plan,
He’ll protect in legal fashion
Undocumenteds would get time,
They’ll have to atone for their crime,
Criminals would be kicked out, behind!
Employers who hire illegals and who outsource,
Know it’s unconstitutional and time to change course,
Special interests ain’t facing facts,
Illiteracy and slavery could last,
Disenfranchisement gone, the time has passed!

Barack! Barack!
The first black President to lead this mighty nation!
Barack!
We’ll regain worldwide respect
with Obama’s vision and excellent comprehension!

The respect of the world we now lack,
If you want it back, then vote Barack!
Not this time!
We come out to vote!

Read the article Singing Obama’s Praises about all the reggae and calypso songs written about Obama and presented at this year’s Canadian Calypso Monarch Finals.