Ras Michael

Down in Kingston, Jamaica, Ras Michael (Michael Henry) is known as a supreme rootsman. Translated, that means a couple of very important things. It means that Ras Michael is highly regarded among Rastafarian elders. They consider him and his band, the Sons Of Negus, as sort of musical mouthpieces to carry the Good Word as expounded in the teachings of His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie, Lion of Judah and King of Kings. It a/so means that Ras Michael can cruise the Kingston ghetto as a man on a mission would. Ras Michael has practically attained the status of reggae holy man, and like the Rasta elders, most ghetto folk pay him reverence, too.

Finally, being a supreme rootsman means that Ras Michael is a musician who carries on a powerful tradition in reggae that musicologists have traced back to Jamaican slaves, and ultimately, Africa. A roots drummer—in fact, the roots drummer—Ras Michael is also a builder of drums and a devout believer in the spiritual abilities of the sacred beat not only to move and inspire people, but to educate them about their culture as well.

Ras Michael was born and raised in Trenchtown, the most infamous of the Kingston ghettos, about the same time that Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and other members of the Wailers were cutting their musical teeth. His first exposure to music came from watching Rastafarian drummers who, during the evening, would make their way down from the hills that surround Kingston, and gather in yards to play and philosophize. Ras Michael’s mother was a Christian whose singing in church exposed Michael to still more music. “There was nothing else in my life at this time that was more important to me than music—especially drum music,” he says.

Ras Michael began recording in the mid-60s, and although he never became a pop star in the pure sense of the term, his records sold consistently, and he gradually became one who was known as a purveyor of traditional or roots music. Later, when rock steady evolved into reggae, Michael became one of the driving forces behind roots reggae. “Me like pop reggae,” he told one journalist, “but it is the music with history that I love to play most.” Being the high priest of roots reggae drumming didn’t mean resistance to change, however. Despite the nature of roots reggae, namely the adherence to simple “riddims,” uplifting harmonies, and spiritually or culturally significant lyrics, Ras Michael, throughout the ’70s, sought to make roots music more relevant in the rapid expansion of contemporary reggae. He was, for example, one of the very first Jamaican roots drummers to marry electric instruments—guitar, bass, keyboards, even synthesizers—with the acoustic sound of his drums. From him, young reggae musicians learned that it was possible to blend old and new without diluting either.

Usually a private man, Ras Michael doesn’t a/ways consent to interviews. Once in Jamaica, I tried for more than a week to locate Michael, and then sit him down to talk into my tape recorder. But it was a futile task. Phone numbers I had proved incorrect or nonexistent. Friends who promised to contact him couldn’t or wouldn’t, for one reason or another. Finally, I decided to take the big risk and venture forth into Kingston’s inner city, where I heard he might be rehearsing with his band. But white boys from the States have no business riding around in a taxi in certain parts of Kingston. I almost learned that the hard way.

So it was with great joy that I pinned down Ras Michael after a very rare appearance at the Manhattan club, Sounds of Brazil (or simply, S. O. B. ‘s) a few months ago. Backstage, as I dodged clouds of ganja smoke, I explained to him how long I’ve been waiting to interview him. He seemed genuinely touched by my tenacity and agreed to meet me the next morning for, as he said, “a little chat about drums and things.” I knew the chances of that meeting ever occurring were less than 50/50, since Jamaican musicians often find bigger and better things to do in New York City than talk to journalists. But I had no choice.

As it turned out, Ras Michael did meet me at the predetermined location in Mid-town, although he was two hours late. But it didn’t matter. I got what I set out to get: a rare glimpse into one of the most important drummers in the history of Jamaican reggae.

RS: You rarely perform in America. As a matter of fact, you’ve done only one full-scale U.S. tour, and that was in 1985. Has this been due to lack of desire on your part?

RM: I’ve always been more popular in Europe than in America when you speak of places outside Jamaica. And I think the reason why this is so is because I never had the proper distribution of my records here. But now I think that is finally being taken care of. Shanachie Records in New Jersey will be releasing my records in America. So perhaps more people will hear my music and my message, and perhaps then there will be a demand for me to return to the United States again and again.

RS: Are there any plans for Shanachie to release any of your previous albums— those which were available only in Jamaica?

RM: Yes. They will bring out albums from my past, as well as albums from my present and my future. People who would like to sample some of the good songs from my earlier days should obtain a copy of Rally Round. It is a compilation record and is put out by Shanachie.

RS: You’re generally regarded as one of reggae’s most significant “roots” artists. The term means different things to different people. What does being called a “roots” reggae artist mean to you?

RM: Some people in Jamaica say the roots artists have the antique sound. [laughs] Yeah mon, the antique sound. But I think roots artists like myself deal with the true roots of what they call reggae music. We carry on the roots of African music that can be heard in reggae. I accent African drumming in my music. I want to stress the roots vibration of the black man’s heritage. It’s very inspirational for me to play roots drumming. We bring reggae out into the open, not just on the electrical side, but on the acoustic side as well. And drums are always in the forefront of my music.

RS: There are some people who feel that roots reggae is on the verge of a revival or comeback in Jamaica. They say that contemporary reggae has strayed so far from the music’s original form that it has to happen if the music is to retain its uniqueness. Do you agree?

RM: Yeah mon. You see, some musicians just put anything in front of the reggae riddim. But me, Bob [Marley], Peter [Tosh], and Bunny [Wailer] put such things in front of the riddims that people can relate to. We put things into the music so that people can find out about themselves, and something about their culture and history. That’s why our music is important and can never go out of style in Jamaica.

RS: It’s no secret that a lot of Rastafarian ideology finds its way into roots reggae. You can certainly find it in your music. Do you feel that your music is religious or philosophical in terms of the lyrical message you present with your musical message?

RM: What I try to do is concentrate on things that are righteous. We try to do that, and send out a Rasta message to the people every time we make a record and every time we play in front of an audience. I am committed to doing that.

RS: It seems that, as a drummer, you’ve been highly influenced by the legendary Rasta roots drummer, Count Ossie. Would you say that’s true?

RM: Yes, that is true. When I was a youth, I used to go into the hills outside Kingston. I used to live in the Trenchtown ghetto, and Count Ossie used to live in the Rockford Gardens area. We used to exchange ideas, y’know. Sometimes he would come and look for me; sometimes I would go and look for him. It was a give and take thing, y’see. I can always give thanks to the brethren who came before me, like Count Ossie. They kept the light burning, so that I could learn about the elements of African drumming and the special meaning of it in our culture.

RS: Tell me about those days you spent speaking with Count Ossie. What was it like when you would sit and exchange ideas with him?

RM: Well, we’d meet in a small shack, y’know, and we’d chat. Then we’d play the drums. There would be other brethren there who would play, too. It was easy for me to communicate with Count Ossie. I appreciated him as a drummer and spiritual person. We would play together at festivals and groundations [Rasta meetings]. I came and strengthened what he already gave to the people. He was most wise and a very good roots drummer. I came and took the music further. Count Ossie used horn players to emphasize his message and his drumming. Sometimes I use horns, but sometimes I like to keep it real basic, so there’s no question about what the message is.

RS: Tell me about his drumming. What made Count Ossie so respected as a roots drummer?

RM: The patterns he played told stories. They told of suffering and indignation. But they also told of love, peace, and hope for the future. A lot of what he played was purely African, y’know.

RS: Was he your only mentor when you were a youth?

RM: No. There were other drummers, too. You see, Count Ossie didn’t teach me how to play the drums like some people think. I was already playing the drums. He taught me about things to put into my music—things about life. That is the most important thing he has done for me, and for that, I still glorify him.

RS: When did you begin playing the drums?

RM: From the time that I was a youth living in the ghetto. I came from a place in the ghettos where the Wailers—the original Wailers: Bob, Peter, and Bunny—would come and hang out. There were also some brethren there, like Mortimer Planner. He taught us about Rasta Fari. And so it was natural that I began to play the drums. This was at a place called Salt Lane, off Spanish Town Road. There was a big grass yard there where the roots man, or the man who didn’t have fear in his heart, would come. But me and the other youths would learn so much there. So from the beginning, I was a roots youth. I began to play the tin drum. It was a big can that would hold oil, food, and other things. I played cans and boxes, until one day everyone was sitting around and someone said, “The people should be listening to our music rather than the ‘Darling I love you so’ music that the radio plays. Not only Darling, but the whole world should be loved.” So we started to make real African drums, and soon we began to get requests to play for groups of people. Then it took off from there.

RS: Do you remember the first drum you played?

RM: Yeah mon. It was a big tin can. And I’d use a wooden box for the bass. I would hit the tin can and then come in with the bass box. And everybody listening would begin to chant with my beat.

RS: So you never had any formal training as a drummer, correct?

RM: No school training, mon—none of that. I was inspired to become a drummer by living on the streets.

RS: At the time you were growing up and learning about roots drumming, wasn’t the Jamaican government frowning upon roots music? Weren’t Rastas singled out and hassled? Weren’t there cases of police brutality?

RM: Yes, that’s all very true. But these kinds of things don’t discourage the true roots man from carrying out his message to the people. I needed to learn how to play the drums and how to improvise drums because it was in me. I had a natural riddim that was most important to get out. Jazz drummers and rock ‘n’ roll drummers can probably say the same thing. It’s the inner feeling I have now that I also had back then in my youth days. No one or nothing could suppress it. When you know you’re doing the right thing, you keep on going. It’s the only thing you can do. Today, I play my drums in prisons, and for the police and soldiers in Jamaica. I try to bring the two sides together. But at the same time, no government can exist without critics. So I criticize, but I unite. This is a complicated world we live in.

RS: Most readers of Modern Drummer probably aren’t familiar with the Niyabingi style of Rasta drumming. Could you offer your explanation of what it is and how it figures into your drumming?

RM: Well, the Niyabingi is the source of all Rasta roots drumming. It’s a spiritual style of drumming that sends out a message to all those who practice injustice and prejudice. Beware! The Niyabingi will strike you down! Niyabingi is color-blind. The black man and the white man can hear and see its vision message. I have many friends who are not of my color, y’know. They know the sounds of the Niyabingi drums. They understand the message of Rasta. So when I play my drums in a Niyabingi style, they can listen, and understand and appreciate the riddim.

RS: I’ve heard you say that the Niyabingi style of drums is one of order. What exactly do you mean by that?

RM: The riddim brings on order; it keeps people’s thoughts and vibes in a righteous place. See, there’s a family of Niyabingi drums—the akete—which is where the message comes from. I am a Niyabingi drummer; brother Bob Marley used to call me a Niyabingi drum specialist. Once when he went to Paris, he told the people there who had never heard of the Niyabingi or Niyabingi drums to check it out if they wanted to understand the black man’s culture and destiny. He said, “Check him out, the Niyabingi master, Ras Michael.” It was a great honor to know what he said. And today, y’know, I am very popular and very well received in France and other European countries. I must give thanks to brother Bob for passing the word about Niyabingi and Ras Michael.

RS: Did you ever play with Bob Marley?

RM: Yeah mon. I played with Bob Marley and backed up Jimmy Cliff, too, y’know, and Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, and lots of others. I play with many brothers over the years. Too many, though, to remember them all.

RS: Sly Dunbar is unquestionably reggae’s most successful and popular drummer, especially here in the States. He’s certainly not considered a roots drummer, but rather a pioneer, one who is constantly exploring new realms of reggae drumming. He’s also brought the idea of electronic drums into reggae. What are your feelings regarding the use of electronic drums?

RM: Drums are the core of reggae music. Electronic drums are just another creation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with electronic drums if they serve to give order to the music and communicate a message. Sly finds it necessary to explore new riddims with new kinds of drums. That is good. That is important for the growth and expansion of reggae music, is it not? But someone must keep the beat of roots drumming, too. That is the reggae heritage. It must be preserved. It must move forward, too, y’know. It’s not a matter of which style of drum is better or worse than the other. No mon. It’s what you do with the drum. Sly Dunbar is a master drummer. Ras Michael is a master drummer. People can enjoy both of us and learn from both of us.

RS: Let’s talk for a moment about the specific drums you use on stage when you perform.

RM: Well, okay. I use a big, round-faced drum as a bass drum. It gives my music a deep, bottom sound. It’s the sound that Bob Marley sings about when he chants, “Listen to the one-drop, boom! I say, listen to the one-drop, boom! Ain’t got time to rap, boom!” Then we have the funde [pronounced fun-day]. Now the funde, it keeps the Niyabingi heartbeat, boom-boom, boom-boom. I play the funde sometimes because it leads the singer into the song. Then we have the repeater drum, or sometimes it’s called the talking drum. That drum gives the color to the music, y’know—spices it up. It can be fancy, and you can dress up the music with it. I play the repeater drum the most, even more than the funde. So you have the bass drum, the funde, and the repeater. And all of these drums are of the akete [a-ket-tay] order.

RS: Is it common to use, say, more than one funde drum on stage?

RM: Yes, sometimes we have a brother playing another funde drum. Sometimes we have three funde drums being played. And sometimes we even have the congas to fill out the sound. And when we electrify our sound—meaning we use the electric guitar, bass, and keyboards—then we use a drummer who plays a regular drumkit. All these drums work together; all bring order and a spiritual message of love to the listeners.

RS: How do you fit a drummer playing a standard drumkit into your music?

RM: It’s not really difficult. The musician who plays behind the drumkit—well, his role is to keep on top of the music. He has the special relationship with the electric guitar, bass, and keyboards. He keeps the backbeat, but he must work with the one-drop riddim and work with the rest of the drummers on stage. Sometimes he works hard; sometimes he cools out. It looks difficult, true. The guitar player and the bass man move off his groove. He give the music the “pop-pop” sound. The snare drum is a good drum for reggae, y’know.

And my drums—the akete—go on top of his beat. If the trap drummer doesn’t have the timing of our drums in his head, he cannot play with us. He can’t get confused. Timing is important—very important. As one brother says, “Know when to hit; know when to hold.”

RS: Is the repeater your favorite drum?

RM: Well, I love them all, y’know. But yes, the repeater is my favorite drum. If you listen to the old tracks I cut at Studio One [Kingston recording studio], you can hear some of the best repeater drum playing I ever did that came out on record.

RS: Are these records still available?

RM: Well yes, but I did not record them under the name Ras Michael & the Sons Of Negus, but rather under the name Soul Vendors. I did those sessions with Coxone [Clement Dodd, legendary reggae producer] . The man love my drum sound.

RS: Can you trace the roots reggae drum sound back past Count Ossie? How far back does it go before you reach purely African drumming?

RM: Hard to say. Some people trace roots drumming back to the Maroons [runaway Jamaican slaves who lived off the land in the island’s interior prior to emancipation and kept alive many of Jamaica’s African traditions]. They are a very historical people, and the drum meant so much to their survival, especially in the days when they were being hunted down by white slave owners. They had many drum rituals, and they communicated with drums, too, y’know. But it is not just them who passed on the tradition of roots drumming. There were others. But I can trace the akete straight back to Africa. Once when I played the drums in Antigua, some people came up to me there and said it was an African beat I played. Yeah mon! Olatunji and Hugh Masekela respect my drum playing. They tell me they know the African vibration is very much present in my music. Well, that makes me feel good. I am part of history; I carry on a tradition for future sons and daughters, brothers and sisters to hear. That is my contribution— roots drumming—in the natural style.

RS: Have you ever performed in Africa?

RM: No, not yet. That is a future step. Before he died, Bob Marley used to say, “Ras Michael, them playing your music and your records in Africa, y’know. You must go there.” He said that over and over. So yes, I must go there, it’s true. And the time is coming up quickly. So the African people—the Nigerians, the Kenyans, the Ethiopians—they know about Ras Michael. They know that they have blood brothers in Jamaica. Soon all black people will be of one nation.

RS: Is it true that you build your own drums?

RM: Yeah mon.

RS: Can you explain to me the process by which you construct one?

RM: Well, you can use the wood from the cottonwood tree. The wood from that tree is quite light after it is cut down, dried, and dug out. You know, you can also make a drum out of a barrel. You get a big barrel, and you take out a few of the ribs and restabilize the barrel to get the right sound. The ribs are like big fingers, y’see. I put the putty and the glue and the ribs back together. And outside of it, I use an iron casing that is used to draw the goatskin on top.

RS: When you decide to make a drum out of cottonwood, is there a special place in Jamaica where you go to get the wood, or do you simply pick a tree out in the woods and cut it down?

RM: Well, lately I make my drums out of barrels. But if I find a cottonwood tree that looks good, I can dig it out, burn out the inside of it, and make the drum from scratch.

RS: And where do you get the goatskins?

RM: Well, to get the goatskin you have to be smart. [laughs] You have to be a scientist to get all the hair off—a secret remedy. Some people don’t understand how I do it. But I do it like this: I throw ashes from burning wood on the hair part of the skin, and then I use a bottle to rub it right off.

RS: The ashes burn the hair off?

RM: No mon. You rub the ashes on the hair, and then it helps ease it up. You use a stout bottle with a round mouth. But you have to know how to use it skillfully. You push the bottle and rub in the direction that the animal’s hair grows.

RS: Is it a long process?

RM: No, not a long process. If you have the right style and the right feel for it, it take but a short while.

RS: Where did you learn the process?

RM: From some ancient drummer man in Kingston. He works a little bit outside Kingston, actually. He dedicated himself to making drums; he’s very good at it.

RS: Do you concern yourself with miking your drums on stage, or do you rely solely on their natural acoustic volume?

RM: I try to balance the sounds of the drums naturally. But yes, I do use microphones because I want a delicate balance with all the drums. The bass drum takes time to be miked properly; otherwise it can dominate all the other drums. We keep the mic’ a distance away. When you use microphones on the drums, it’s a question of balance, that’s all. That’s what Bob used to say, too—a question of balance.

RS: You’ve mentioned Bob Marley’s name quite a bit during this interview. It seems as if you two were very close.

RM: Yes. Bob and me came from like one family of people. We grew up together. And while he was of this life, we would always meet. We had a special vibration that we shared. Bob played the guitar and I the drums, but we were on the same musical level.

RS: When you and Bob were growing up in the ’50s, there was no such thing as reggae. And there were few places, if any, I presume, where you could go to hear other musicians, except on the street. Is that correct?

RM: Yeah mon, it’s true. It was the ghetto, but it was very rich with music. But I’m going to tell you something about how far ghetto music can expand. I made a song called “Time Is Drawing Nigh” and the Beatles got that song somehow. And they name the song “Norwegian Wood.” They made a lot of money from it.

RS: You’re saying you wrote a song that the Beatles, shall we say, “borrowed” from you?

RM: They take it and make it a big seller, mon! But it’s my music, and I sing it with the pure drums.

RS: When did you write it?

RM: When I was a youth, in 1963 or 1964. [He starts singing the melody to “Norwegian Wood” with the words, “Time is drawing nigh for us to go where we belong/hear what the Rastaman say.”] When I hear that record, “Norwegian Wood,” I get a shock!

RS: Did you ever record your version of the song?

RM: Yes. But the company I did that music with in Jamaica burned down, so I have no case. It was known as West Indies. Now it is called Dynamics. All the masters burned. The only way I can prove that the song is mine is to trace some Rasta brothers who live in the hills. People tell me that one of them has a 45 of the song. Someday I’m going to venture there and contact him.

RS: Do you know how John Lennon or Paul McCartney might have heard your version of the song?

RM: No. The only thing I know is me and some brothers were playing at the library in Kingston, and a lady hear me sing and play that song. She said, “Ras Michael, I love that song.” Then, I start to hear the Beatles song on the airwaves and also I hear it in advertisements for a travel service. I don’t know how they got it, but they did. As time goes on, things improve. What can I say?

RS: With that in mind, what are your feelings about rock ‘n’ roll and how, over the last five to seven years, so many artists and bands have “borrowed,” shall we say, large elements of reggae, and made fortunes from it?

RM: Well, you see, when you talk about reggae, you have to understand that it is a message music that appeals not only to Jamaicans and not only to black people, but to all peoples, of all colors and all creeds. So, I cannot be angry that bands like the Police and UB40 come in and take reggae and interpret it with a rock ‘n’ roll feel. Reggae is an appealing music; its beat knows no bounds. These musicians, they want to spread the message of love and peace? Well, that’s good, y’know. But I say this: I think in due time the people who buy Police records and UB40 records will come searching for the real thing and try to discover the place where these groups got their inspiration from. They’re going to discover the roots reggae. They’re going to want to know where it all comes from and who are the ones who supply these white bands with the sound. Do you think this will be true someday?

RS: It’s difficult to say, actually. However, in the 1960s, many white rock fans, after hearing American and English blues-rock groups play their versions of blues, went searching for the original black blues artists. And what they found in cities like Chicago were artists such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and others. Perhaps the same thing will happen with reggae. I hope so.

RM: That would be nice, yes. Perhaps roots reggae artists in Jamaica can hope for the same thing. It would be nice if everyone shared in the wealth. [laughs]

RS: Speaking of going back to the roots, even roots artists such as yourself can look behind you and find, say, drummers whom you were inspired by or borrowed from. Have you ever spoken to any African drummers about reggae or the art of playing drums?

RM: I speak to many Africans, yes. They tell me that the kind of drum style I have comes from West Africa—Senegal, Nigeria, and all them places. But it is also true that the vibe of my music—the spiritual thing that is found in it for those who truly listen—comes from the East. It’s Eastern business. This is true especially when we chant along with the beat of the drums. This sort of thing can be traced back very far in history. My African name is different from Ras Michael. I hold my African name strictly for myself. I don’t usually share it, y’know. I hold it for a brighter day. My ancestors were drum builders, drum players, and also builders of churches and holy places. With the beat of their drums, they scolded the wicked and glorified God. That is how it was. And that’s what I try to do whenever I play drums for people. [He starts singing.] “Keep cool Babylon, you don’t know what you’re doing. King Rasta come now soon.”

RS: Will you go to Africa soon? I heard through the grapevine that perhaps this is the year you’ll play there.

RM: Nothing has really been scheduled yet, but it is in the making, and the reason why that is so is because, when I go to Africa, I want to go for a very long time. When I was in Paris to play a concert, I met brothers from Cameroon who want me and my band to come there as their guests and stay for a long while. I think it would be very, very good to do that. So I hope I can travel there soon. We are making the arrangements.

RS: Do you look forward to trading ideas and maybe performing with African drummers?

RM: Oh yeah! I long to play with them on African soil. And I think they long to play with me. I know that because, when I was in England doing some lectures on drumming, I met visiting African drummers. They say, “Ras Michael, we love your style, mon.” Yes! That was good news. They say, “How can you play drums so good? You were born in the West!”

RS: I remember reading somewhere a long time ago, perhaps it was in Jamaica, that you feel you and all drummers were born to be drummers—that it is a drummer’s destiny to “carry the heartbeat of life from one generation to the next.” If you indeed did say that, do you still believe it to be true today?

RM: Well, it is said, “Leaders are not made; they are created. “It’s like that with drummers. You cannot make a man a drummer. A good drummer has natural talent and a natural ability to keep the beat—the heartbeat of life. Others can play the drums for enjoyment. It’s true y’know; there are many people who do that. But the innovators and the ones who blaze new trails are born with their power. There is no mistake about that. It’s God’s will. Drummers, I can tell you, are different than the rest.

RS: Do you ever see yourself experimenting with electronic drums in the future? When we discussed this before, I got the feeling that you were leaving the door open.

RM: I’ve got to tell you something. I am working on my next album. Actually, it is mostly finished, but there are certain other things that have to be done and things that have to be changed. Well, on it I play the Simmons drum in some places. I use it with my akete. It’s something different, but, you know, it works nicely and sounds good. It can be done. I am meant to explore these things. If I don’t, I will not do justice to the ability and foresight God has given me to play the drums.

RS: You’ve obviously accomplished much in your role as a roots reggae drum master. Looking into the future a bit, do you have any personal ambitions or things you would like to achieve as a drummer?

RM: I would like to tell Africans how important the drums are in my culture. And maybe when I go to Africa, I can do that. I would also like to do my part in telling young musicians so that they understand from the start very clearly that the foundation of all music is the beat of the drum. Young musicians need to be conscious of that, whether they play the drums, bass, keyboards, guitar, or a horn. But most of all, I would like to do my part as a spiritual musician, so that the world can communicate with music and it will be a better place to live. The whole world is a garden and all the people who inhabit it are its flowers. They all beautify the garden, regardless of their color or creed. Rasta Fari!