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A REGGAE ICON REMEMBERED

 

By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

Friday, August 26, 2011.

 

Maxwell Livingston Smith (Max Romeo) was born November 22, 1947 in rural Jamaica and recently retired from regular performing. For nearly half a century, the man has stayed the course, offering top notch reggae regardless of the rocky path he has trod. Max Romeo is an inspirational example of a true believer in both the power and the message of his music.

Romeo’s story is an old story. Not about love gone awry, but life derailed by malevolent social systems and hard choices - an especially deadly combination when dealing with the music industry. Back in the early 1970s when I first got into reggae, I related to the music not just aesthetically but also in terms of content. Max Romeo’s Lee Perry produced War Ina Babylon sounded accurate to me.

The 1976, War Ina Babylon album and it’s follow-up, Reconstruction (1978) were on Island Records, which at that time was becoming the major reggae label on the international level thanks to Bob Marley. I had no idea at that time that things were not as clear as it seemed. So when I heard no more from Max Romeo, I really didn’t worry or wonder. Same could be said for the band Third World and a number of other major reggae artists from the early days who seem to fade away.

Who knows what prodded me to focus on Max Romeo this week but once I did the other half of the story became clearer—or once again, that’s what I thought. Max had been off the scene for a minute, or should I say more like a handful of years working in a Broadway show about reggae music. No doubt it was a smart move financially, but artistically it meant that he was sequestered away from his Jamaican audience and also meant that his fans worldwide didn’t receive a steady diet of Romeo recordings.

Once out of the spotlight it was not easy to return. In the 1980s styles had changed and by the nineties roots reggae was almost an anachronism. So I figured I’d snatch three or four tracks from the two major albums, do a little research, offer a little background and that would be that.

But while digging around I ran up on an in-depth interview with Max Romeo. And the complexity of his story began to unfold. Between Max’s support of Michael Manley’s attempt to steer Jamaica in a politically independent and economically socialist direction combined with Island Records attempt to monopolize the international market for reggae music Max was de facto muzzled and the development of reggae was devolved – that is sent backward.

In addition to talking about the ups and downs, as well as the political intrigue of Jamaican politics, Max Romeo offered his view of Island Records.

Q: How did that Island deal come about for you?

A: The ‘War In A Babylon’?

Q: Yeah.

A: It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done in my whole life! Until this day I have yet to collect a penny from Island Records. Now they’re coming up with a bogus contract claiming that I signed a publishing contract with them in them days, ‘Writers for hire’. Now, I was never born a stupid person, in no way would I sign a contract ‘Writers for hire’. So, I’ve got a lawyer with them in court now trying to retrieve back at least even some of that money. And the whole irony about it, it’s one of the biggest record companies in the whole entire world that is handling that album - Universal, and there’s nothing forthcoming, which is a sad story but I don’t bother by it ‘cause I’m on the road working and I’m earning. So I get around to them very soon.

Q: What was Perry’s role in terms of the whole songwriting aspect on that album, ‘War In A Babylon’? There you have the publishing aspect once more.

A: Perry? At the time I did that album, he had a one hundred percent scrupulous function, so it was a very serious project. Although, at the time starting the project we didn’t have a company in mind. I didn’t even know Chris Blackwell or Island Records then, and he came later on after releasing the track ‘War In A Babylon’ as single, that’s when he decided to give an ear to the album. But he had his plan, and his plan was to put the whole reggae machinery behind Bob Marley and nobody else. So what he do, he come to Jamaica with his chappo, and he signed up all the bruk-pocket artists like Burning Spear, Heptones, the Maytals. I know it was a conspiracy, the conspiracy was to sign us and put us under the shelf, put us on the shelf and then send Bob Marley. So any other company come to sign an artist after Bob Marley bust can’t sign us, beca’ we are already signed to Island and that is exactly what happened in my case. Because other companies tried to sign me but I was in contract with Island Records and Island wasn’t doing anything for me. They just shelf us, all of us: Third World, Toots & The Maytals, Heptones - you name it. Anybody that had any potential that would be a competition to Bob Marley is already signed to Island, that was the conspiracy. So when I hear about that I rebelled. Because I said: ‘Look man, I ain’t nutten or no-one on earth worth the time - ease off!’ You know, I rebelled and tore the contract up and claimed that I’m free. Now they’re coming with one and a signature that I don’t recognise, claiming that I have a publishing contract with them, and I signed all of my publishing rights to them on a contract called ‘Writers for hire’. They’re crazy!

Q: But still you did a self-produced follow-up for Island with ‘Reconstruction’ the year after.

A: Yeah, they came along before the controversy come on, y’know, that was the album called ‘Reconstruction’, it was an unfinished deal with them. And what they do they go ahead and do a deal with Universal and throw that album in the package as well. I had to let them know ‘Look, this album is mine’, it is an unfinished deal between me and Island, they didn’t honor the end of the deposit that they should give me on the album. And we don’t have an agreement with the album. So they backed off, but they still hold onto ‘War In A Babylon’.

Q: But ‘Reconstruction’ produced at least the memorable ‘Melt Away’, did it ever become a substantial seller at the time?

A: ‘Melt Away’? No, it go as what you’d call a ‘creeper’. It’s big in England and it’s big in Europe, it’s not known in Jamaica. Because most of my stuff, they ban it so much in Jamaica that Jamaican people don’t have access to my music that much.

Q: What happened after ‘Reconstruction’ failed to make it, you left JA and settled down in the States for a while?

A: Yeah, in 1976 I migrated. No, I actually migrated because I had a job, a Broadway stint, to write some songs for a on-Broadway play, called ‘Reggae’.

Q: With Ras Karbi, yes.

A: Ras Karbi was doing it as well. So I took the job and moved my family up to New York with me, and at the end of the project, which run for about eight months, I found me refused to come back to Jamaica. So I just hung out with them for a while. And that ‘hangin’ out’ took me fifteen years actually. When I finally go back home - minus the family, ca’ they’re still not coming home (laughs)!

Q: (Laughs)

A: They get trapped in Babylon, y’know (chuckles)?

—Max Romeo Interview

So, I ask the question: in what directions and at what depth would reggae have developed had not Island had a lock on the major artists in the mid-seventies, the same period often called the golden age of reggae?

Obviously things would have been different. I remember meeting some of the members of Third World on a flight to Jamaica during that era. We had met on their first tour through the States and they were excited about a new theatre/performance project the band was undertaking in Jamaica. I asked about a recording and they said they hoped the project would be released because not only were they proud of it but also there was widespread acclaim in Jamaica. But the recording never came.

I’m sure the Island people have their own explanations but Max Romeo’s fights with them about publishing rights is evidence that the modern factory model on which the recording industry is based is not too far removed from the colonial plantation. The record industry is not literally slavery but it is a still a long, long ways from artistic and economic freedom.

Ok, let me wrap up this discussion with a word or two about how the Mixtape is put together. The bulk of the selections are from War Ina Babylon and Reconstruction, but I’ve also ended with a healthy selection from 2008’s Best Of - (Old Tracks Revisited), an album that is a remake of noted Romeo compositions done in collaboration with contemporary artists and modern production values. Best Of is far from a traditional compilation. The remakes have a sparkle and energy that elevates the tracks far above mere treks down memory lane. Indeed the album stands as the best introduction to Max Romeo.

The opening selections are from Romeo’s political and roots period. Included here is “Let The Power Fall On I,” which became the theme song for Michael Manley’s People’s National Party. Also in the opening batch is “No Joshua No,” which was a word of warning to Michael Manley, aka Joshua. Eventually, Romeo ended up leaving Lee Perry, Michael Manley, and Jamaica for over a decade. Except for the Best Of project, none of his subsequent recordings had the same massive impact as his earlier work.

Rather than continuing to speculate about what might have been, let us give thanks for what Max Romeo has given to us. Thanks and praise to you brother Max, your songs are comfort to the afflicted, anthems for the warriors, and a mighty contribution to the treasury of music known as reggae.




Max Romeo Mixtape Playlist

max romeo cover 01.jpg 
The Coming Of Jah
01 “Wet Dream”
02 “Jordan River”
03 “Black Equality”
04 “I Man A African”
05 “Let The Power Fall On I”
06 “No Joshua No”

max romeo cover 02.jpg 
War Ina Babylon
07 “One Step Forward”
08 “Uptown Babies Don’t Cry”
09 “I Chase The Devil”
10 “War Ina Babylon”
11 “Norman”

max romeo cover 03.jpg 
Reconstruction
12 “Take A Hold”
13 “Reconstruction”
14 “Let’s Live Together”
15 “Melt Away”
16 “Where Is The Love”

max romeo cover 04.jpg 
Best Of
17 “Three Blind Mice” - With Warrior King
18 “War Inna Babylon”- With The Viceroys
19 “Chase The Devil” - With Kamau
20 “Macabee” - Version With U Brown
21 “We Love Jamaica” - With Winston Francis
22 “A Little Time For Jah” - With The Congos
23 “Tell Jah She” - With Brady 

Kalamu ya Salaam is a writer and filmmaker from New Orleans. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.

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