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By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


Thursday, January 14, 2009.



My mother was born in the city, my father in the country. From time to time when I wasn’t yet a teenager, we would journey to the country to visit relatives. I was too young to fully understand the treasure set before me. At my mother’s parents house we ate chicken and ham, pork chops and groundmeat. In the country I remember raccoon, possum and other wild game served with yams and rice. We went to the store in the city to buy food, but my father planted vegetables and taught us to grow food in the city.

You all may not understand what the above has to do with music but there is a real connection. When we talk about roots music we are inevitably talking about music that is country at the core. Some view roots music as raw, the real deal. They romanticize roots but most of those same folks don’t dig roots living. They want the funk without the skunk stink.

So, the first time I go to Jamaica, I trod tenement yard. Go where you make way on foot, no automobile there. Even though as far back as I can remember our family had a car, I grew up in a part of the city that was isolated from the city. Most of the people moved into the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans straight from the country.

The point is that music that comes out of the country and out of quasi- country environments has a potent strength that’s basic. The harmonies are elementary, even rudimentary. The physical sound is hard, definite, even when it’s tender. Body fluids are all up in this stuff; plenty of sweat and plenty of tears spangle the roots sound.


As soon as I heard Toots I knew (and loved) the sound. Obviously, I thought of Otis Redding as an immediate reference but I could just as easily have thought of the barroom around the corner that was shut down by the time I was old enough to go there and hang out all night. Sometimes, while making the long walk back home after school, we would pass the joint and the festivities would already be in full blast, some short-skirted woman stepping across the threshold—her sturdy thighs flashing a promise of what was inside. Or a lanky dude in the doorway tilting a beer to his lips with his right hand, a pool cue held at rakish angle in his left hand. They didn’t play Toots in that barroom but had we been in Jamaica, for sure Toots would have been the dominant voice on the jukebox.


Like my father, Frederick “Toots” Hibbert was born in the country (Clarendon, Jamaica in 1945) and moved to the city (Kingston when he was 16). Along with Nathaniel "Jerry" Matthias and Raleigh Gordon, Hibbert started a trio that eventually became the Maytals around 1962. Toots took his gospel trained voice into the popular music of the early 1960, which was Ska. He won the first Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Competition.


In 1966, he did an 18-month bid. Toots made gold out of shit; “54-46 Was My Number,” a song about his time in prison was an early 1968 hit.


While it is debatable who actually started “reggae” music, most folk in the know credit Toots’ 1968 “Do the Reggay” as the first record to refer to reggae by name.  

I love the way Toots’ sings. Full out, swinging hard as a machete at a sugar cane harvest. Two other things I dig about those classic early tracks: 1. The drum intros and 2. The bass lines. In a sense, Toots was the beginning of drum and bass, because his songs set the tone that became the signature sound of roots reggae.

I don’t remember the last time I was physically in the country where my father came from. But I’m there on a regular when I listen to the country blues or to Toots and The Maytals covering John Denver’s “Country Roads.”


And you know what’s really dope—Toots is still doing it, still keeping the roots sound alive. All power to Toots. Remember, no matter how sweet, there ain’t no fruit without roots.


01 “Do The Reggay”
02 “54-46 Was My Number”
03 “Funky Kingston”
04 “Time Tough”
05 “Pressure Drop”
06 “Take Me Home Country Roads”
07 “Got To Be There”
08 “Pomps And Pride”
09 “Sweet And Dandy”
10 “Louie Louie”
11 “Redemption Song”

12 “Get Up, Stand Up” - Pass The Pipe


All of the tracks except for #12 are available on The Very Best of Toots & the Maytals.


Kalamu ya Salaam is a writer, musician and film-maker based in New Orleans, USA.

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