A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable to envision a music form born in the steamy slums of Kingston, Jamaica, becoming one of the more exciting influences on contemporary music. The simple “chinka-chinka” rhythm and the infectious off-beat have worked their way into everything from hard rock to soft, middle-of-the-road pop music.
Today reggae, in its true roots form, represents a real alternative to the Madison A venue mentality currently sweeping rock ‘n’ roll. Reggae is a music that’s political, religious, and most of all, revolutionary in scope and content. It’s a grass-roots music closely tied to the people who support it. And over the past few years, interest in reggae has helped the music finally achieve a legitimate position in contemporary music.
I have been writing about reggae and reggae musicians for some time now. And at least once a year I make a pilgrimage of sorts to Kingston, Jamaica, in search of the latest sounds and trends bubbling in the recording studios there. Over the past few months I’ve spoken with a number of drummers and percussionists about the music and their role in it, about the problems they encounter being Jamaican musicians far removed from the music capitals of New York, Los Angeles and London, and also about the joys of “carrying the beat” or “riddim” reggae style.
The following interviews are made up of the words of reggae’s most innovative and important drummers. The comments of Sly Dunbar, Carly Barrett, Nelson Miller, Skyjuice and Horsemouth Wallace offer a rare introspective glimpse into the world of Jamaican reggae drummers.
Sly Dunbar (some insist on calling him Sly “Drumbar”) is one half of the most celebrated “riddim” team in all of reggae, and is currently the undisputed kingpin of Jamaican drummers. Together with bass player and long-time friend Robbie Shakespeare, these two Kingston-based session studs/producers/arrangers/songwriters and record company owners have set new standards of excellence for Jamaican musicians and have helped reggae leap into the ’80s with spirited, innovative instrumentation and razor-sharp live performances.
Sly Dunbar began playing drums the day he left school some 15 years ago. He joined a group called the Yard Brooms, a Kingston ghetto outfit that included at one time or another Lloyd Parks, Ranchie McClean and Ansel Collins, all top-notch musicians in their own right. Dunbar was a fanatical fan of the Skatalites, one of the most successful ska groups ever to record in Jamaica, and from the start he patterned his drum style after that of the legendary Skatalites drummer, Lloyd Nibbs.
Sly and Robbie teamed up in 1975 and have been together ever since. The Riddim Twins, as they ‘re often called, first drew acclaim outside Jamaica when they toured with Peter Tosh and the Rolling Stones in 1978. From that point on the duo has worked with such reggae luminaries as Gregory Isaacs, the Tamlins, Jimmy Riley, Wailing Souls, the Waiters, Big Youth, Dennis Brown, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Black Uhuru, and non-reggae artists like Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, lan Dury and Joe Cocker.
Sly and Robbie are virtually inseparable. I met them for the first time at Com pass Point Recording Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, and have since spoken with them on numerous occasions. Sly is generally a quiet, unassuming person who shuns publicity, but sit him down and get him rolling and he’ll answer all the questions you have about reggae and drums—his two favorite topics—without any problem at all.
RS: You and Robbie are recognized as two of the very best musicians in all of reggae. What is it that you two do that makes nearly everything you play sound, well, right?
SD: We take the music serious. We go into the studio and try to figure out what is the right way to play the music. And because we are musicians first, we can hear things other producers cannot. When we do our recording sessions, we always listen back and listen back and listen back to the tapes. Sometimes we make mistakes, mistakes that nobody understand, but we fix ’em and make the music sound right.
RS: You play with reggae and non-reggae artists alike. Is the formula, as well as your drum style, basically the same once you leave the reggae format?
SD: Disco, rock, funk—it’s the same approach as for a reggae tune. There are many riddims you can play, so you pick the one which can soothe the song, seen? Reggae can be played in all forms. Some people put a limit on it, but there’s no limit. Like when we have to create certain riddims, what we do is put a kick down on the first beat; put more syncopation in it.
RS: You began playing drums right after you finished school in Kingston. Did you have your own drumset?
SD: Well, the band I joined had a kit and that the one I used until I could save enough money to buy one. But in those days, money don’t come easy, so it take a while.
RS: Aside from the great Lloyd Nibbs, was there any other drummer who influenced you?
SD: Yeah mon, Al Jackson from Booker T. and the MG’s. Me see him on the TV show, Shindig in Jamaica and I knew he had a good groove. So I watch him and go out and get his records.
RS: Skin, Flesh and Bones was a popular Kingston band in the early ’70s; it was probably the most important band you played in until you and Robbie joined up with Peter Tosh for the Stones tour in ’78. Were you in any other bands between Skin, Flesh and Bones and Tosh’s Word, Sound and Power?
SD: Well, I played with Tommy McCook and the Supersonics for a little while and a band called the Volcanoes. Then in the studio I would sit in with many bands that I can’t think of right now.
RS: Lloyd Nibbs seems to be the godfather of Jamaican reggae drummers. What was it about him that made his style so convincing and admirable?
SD: For one thing, Lloydie used to play variations of African riddims that no Jamaican drummers had ever heard of before. Lots of rim shots, but with a spe cial style. It’s hard to explain the feeling the man had with his drums, but it influence all the drummers around today in one way or another. You can ask any reggae drummer in Kingston and he will tell you that Lloyd Nibbs had an influence on him. But I think he had more of an influence on me than most because I loved dat band the Skatalites and would listen to them when I was growing up as much as possible, y’know? Youths at school would call me “Skatalites” because I love dat band so much.
RS: I’ve been to Kingston numerous times in the past five years and it seems that whenever I visit a recording studio there—Harry J’s, Tuff Gong, Dynamic, Aquarius—there’s always a drummer I run into that’s complaining about how he can’t get any work whenever you’re in town. Is there really that much of a demand for you?
SD: Well [laughs], I don’t really know. I always have plenty of work, y’know, and I have to turn down some sessions. But in Kingston, the reason why drummers can’t get no work is because first they have to prove themselves. There’s like a pecking order in Kingston. When one drummer leaves to go on tour, dat’s when a younger drummer can step in. But he has to wait his turn, y’know. The best drummers in Kingston always get the best sessions and the best gigs. It’s like that in rock and jazz and funk too, but it reggae it’s even more so because all the energy and all the studios are in Kingston. In the States you have studios in New York, L.A., Memphis, Miami—all over. In Jamaica, the studios are just in Kingston so that’s where all the musicians come. Sometimes it jus’ get crowded.
RS: What made you and Robbie decide to start the Taxi record label and production company? Surely you two have enough to do with session work and tours and producing other artists.
SD: We were playin’ for everybody else. It was time for us to play for us. I have lots of ideas, y’know, that I want to try in the studio—new drum techniques, new sounds. Taxi is the best way for me to do it.
RS: One of the highest compliments I ever heard about your drumming was that it never sounded stagnant or dull.
SD: Hmmm. I try to sound good everytime I play my drums. I no get stagnant, but sometimes reggae get stagnant. Robbie and I watch most of the growth in the music, right? And whenever anybody start a new riddim in Jamaica or a new beat, everybody try to get on top of it. And for a while every song dat come out sound the same. Me and Robbie, well, what we try to do, we try to move away from the pattern. Whenever you hear a song from a Taxi album you hear a new sound, a new beat, not some stagnant sound from 1977. Most musicians don’t take the time to really check it out. But we watch the scene and whenever it start to get flat, we switch and move on.
Carlton “Carly” Barrett has been the drummer for the late Bob Marley’s Wailers ever since Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston Wailer—the original Wailers—decided to add a permanent bass player and drummer to the band more than a decade ago. It was Carlton Barren and his bass playing brother, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, both formerly of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Upsetter band, who were chosen to fill out the Wailers. Together these five musicians formed the nucleus of what soon was to become the greatest reggae band in the history of the music form.
Even after Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer left the group to pursue solo careers, the Wailers flourished. And it was no big secret that the driving power of the Wailers’ music came from its bottom: the throbbing bass riffs of Family Man and the exception ally tightfisted drumming of brother Carly.
Since the untimely death of Bob Marley in 1981, Carly Barrett and the rest of the Wailers have kept a rather low profile. For months after Marley’s passing, the group agonized over whether it should remain intact as the Wailers. The band did a brief tour of California and the enthusiastic, supportive response it received from loyal fans in Los Angeles and other parts of the state convinced the Wailers to carry on. Since then the band has been working on an LP of Wailer originals which should be released in the States very soon. Called Out of Exile, the record features some of Carly Barrett’s finest moments as a drummer.
RS: Before the rise of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, you and your brother Family Man had no rivals in reggae. You two were responsible for popularizing bass/drum combinations in reggae, as well as helping bass players and drummers get the recognition they so obviously deserved.
CB: Yes dat true, y’know. Fams and I, we always had a special pattern for playing, a cool drive that everybody take notice of, ever since the earliest days of reggae. The Barrett Brothers—Aston “Family Man” Barrett and Carlton Barrett, a one-two punch.
RS: You’ve often described your drum playing as a spiritual experience. Can you explain what you mean by that?
CB: Well, it’s a spiritual vibe that I try and get from my drums to the music. Because drums come from the slavery days and from Africa, it comes from a lot of history. The reggae drummer carries that history more than the guitarist or keyboards player, and the good reggae drummers make playing a spiritual experience.
RS: You’ve been a member of the Wailers right from the very first album the band put out, Catch A Fire, back in 1972. Why was it that Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer quit the group just at the time the Wailers were breaking big in the States and in Europe?
CB: Well, at dat time the group was called the Wailers, not Bob Marley and the Wailers like later on, y’know? Everything was cool until some people tell Peter and Bunny to break free. Instead of sayin’ to Bob, Peter and Bunny, “You are three singing together as one,” they say to Peter and Bunny to break free and be their own superstars. Dat’s why the Wailers separate.
RS: I understand that Bob Marley gave his musicians a free hand, so to speak, when it came to song arrangements. Is that true?
CB: Bob never interfere with his musicians. He always leave the basic parts for his musicians to figure out. He had a lot of respect for the Wailers.
RS: What is your favorite Wailers album, or better yet, what LP best reflects your best drumming?
CB: I think it Kaya.
RS: And why is that?
CB: Because Kaya have some directly emotional songs on it, things that hurt and feel, y’know? So I got to play deep; more within.
RS: Have you ever played with any artists other than Bob?
CB: Well yes, Scratch Perry and the Upsetter band and before that the Hippy Boys in the ’60s. When I first start to play drums I think I played on some gospel records too.
RS: Is it true that the Ludwig drumkit you used to play whenever the Wailers toured was a rented kit?
CB: Yes mon, it true. Finally Bob get the Ludwig drumset and buy it. Today it’s in the Tuff Gong studio like a shrine. The first drumset that Bob give to me was a kit he bought in Delaware when he was living there and working in the car factory. He bought it for himself, but later he give it to me as a present, y’know.
RS: What happened to it? Do you still have it?
CB: No mon. It get burned up in a fire at the Green Mist in Kingston. Dat’s when I get a new kit. Bob go to Manny’s in New York City and buy me a new kit after everyting cool with Island [Records].
RS: Are there any tracks from the Bob Marley and the Wailer LPs of the past that you did not play on?
CB: One record, Survival. Nobody knows this, but I’ll tell you, right? One side of the LP is the Wailers, but the other side is not the Wailers.
RS: You’re right, I didn’t know that. What side isn’t the Wailers?
CB: Well, let me think now. [hesitation] The side with the song “Africa Unite.”
RS: Why didn’t the Wailers play on that side?
CB: Well, some people try and convince Bob that he should try playin’ with some new players. Y’know, to see if the Wailers really as good as everyone say. So Bob brought in some players—Mikey Boo played drums—and dey cut the tracks. But after Bob hear the results, he realize the Wailers the best reggae band in the world. [laughs]
RS: Speaking of other Jamaican drummers, if you had to nominate, say five Jamaican drummers for a reggae hall of fame, who would you choose?
CB: Boy, dat a tough one, y’know. Let me think on it . . . okay, you got Sly Dunbar and Lloyd Nibbs. And then Hugh Malcom and Winston Graham of Soul Vendors. And one more—Carlton Barrett. True.
RS: It’s quite difficult for drummers to get live gigs on a steady basis in Jamaica. Why is that?
CB: Because there’s not enough nightclubs in Jamaica. Ghetto people mostly listen to reggae and support the music. But ghetto people don’t have the money to go to nightclubs so the clubs close down and fold up. Most drummers don’t get the chance to show their stuff live on stage unless dey join a band that tours the States and Europe.
RS: Another thing, you don’t see many music stores in Kingston. Where do you and other drummers get your equipment?
CB: Most of the drummers get their equipment in the States when they go on tour there. Youths get drums, if they’re lucky, from relatives or friends in New York or Miami or someplace else in the States. A drumkit is very very expensive to buy in Jamaica plus you have to pay cash, mon. No monthly payments or credit like in the States. Pay it all in cash.
RS: You once told me Ludwig and Rogers were the drumkits you preferred to play. But you’re playing Yamaha drums. Why the change?
CB: I have been touring Europe for years and the Ludwig company never offered me any drums or an endorsement agreement. But the first time the Wailers go to Japan, the Yamaha people want me to endorse their drums. So they give me a kit since the Wailers was the top reggae group in Japan. I cannot turn down an offer like that!
Nelson Miller’s ideas on drumming are quite typical of the second generation of reggae drummers who actively seek to open up and expand reggae’s untapped rhythmic possibilities. The drummer for Burning Spear’s band was born and raised in the old coastal resort town of Port Antonio, unlike most of his contemporaries who are products of the Kingston ghetto. Yet Miller’s early education and experience with reggae, and drumming in particular, were just as basic and crude as those who lived in the city.
Miller’s view on what makes a good reggae drummer as well as his interest in other forms of music, namely jazz, help to round out his powerful drum style. Along with other up-and-coming reggae drummers such as Style Scott and Barnabas, Nelson Miller envisions reggae riddims more complex, but never to the point where the inherent richness of reggae’s compelling beat is smothered or less important than it is now.
Onstage, Miller’s drum style can be summed up as determined and a bit more aggressive than most other reggae drummers; his recent tour with Burning Spear— in this country and in Europe—accurately reflected his instinctive ability to build interesting and strong foundations. Miller’s drumming did much to keep Spear’s often windy and cumbersome songs in focus.
I saw Miller twice in the last few months: once in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where Burning Spear played to a sold-out audience that included Bruce Springsteen, and another time at the Tuff Gong studio down in Kingston. Both times we talked about drums and the current state of reggae drumming.
RS: In your opinion, how has reggae drumming changed over the years?
NM: Initially, reggae was confined to like direct rim shots with just a few different variations and patterns. But when disco came popular, many reggae drummers began to pick up on that beat. Some kept in mind a reggae mood, but others did not, y’know. Today I think reggae drumming has more complex bass drum patterns and instead of playin’ rim shots all the time, you do a lot of slappin’, just like in funk.
RS: Then the advent of disco has had a rather significant impact on reggae, even though a lot of reggae musicians don’t like to admit it.
NM: Yea, I think so, y’know.
RS: You’ve been playing drums with Burning Spear for a couple of years now. Your drumming style is much more complex than Spear’s mostly roots approach to his music. Does this cause any complications?
NM: Well, I just learn to adapt. If you are a good musician, you can adapt to any style or brand of music.
RS: You once mentioned to me that jazz has had a big influence on the way you play drums. Who in particular do you listen to and what artists have had an impact on your overall style?
NM: For me I like to listen to Weather Report, Return To Forever, Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd—all of these have made a big impression on the way I play drums, y’know. Jazz has always had a pronounced influence on me.
RS: Do a lot of other reggae drummers listen to jazz for inspiration or technique?
NM: No, not really. Not a lot. You see, when I first started to play drums seriously I wanted to come up with a style that was different than all the other drummers in Kingston. I didn’t want to sound like everyone else so I search for new inspirations. That’s when I picked up on jazz.
RS: Most reggae drummers have little or no formal training. Is that true of you as well?
NM: Yes, yes. [laughs] I learned to play drums by watching, y’know. There was a friend of mine who played in a band and I used to watch him until one day I went around to where he was sitting and said, “Y’know, I can play that there ting.”
RS: How did you practice? You didn’t have a drum kit, did you?
NM: No, I didn’t get a drum kit until a long time after that. I built a little pad to practice on. I got a piece of wood and cut a piece of automobile tire to put on it. That’s what I practiced on. I still have that pad today.
RS: What makes for a good reggae drummer?
NM: Well, for one thing, he has to be able to keep a pulse going right through the music. It’s very important for a reggae drummer to keep time properly. A lot of drummers are good technically, y’know, but for the timing they are not there. I concentrate on keeping a steady time and then I worry about coloring the music, y’know? Then I think about playing a certain lick to get a certain feel or coloring. Like right now I’m playing a lot of different bass drum patterns.
RS: In reggae, the relationship between the bass player and the drummer is especially important. How does a reggae drummer go about setting up that relationship?
NM: He tries to have the same groove as the bass player, even before the music starts, so it’s easier to lock in with what he will be playing. You listen to him and concentrate on what he’s playing so the timing is tight. Sometimes I listen to the bass player and I will play something counter to what he’s playing, but it’s always with the same timing. I think that’s where jazz has helped me out, y’know?
RS: The last time we spoke, we were talking about the differences between a rock drummer and a reggae drummer.
NM: Yeah, well the rock drummer tends to do a lot of playing, like busy drumming. Most reggae drummers, especially the older ones, like to keep things simple. Reg gae is different from rock because rock drummers that I hear tend to make a lot of noise. I’m not putting down rock ‘n’ roll, but reggae is message music. As musicians we try to put across a musical and a lyrical message. It’s not just entertainment.
RS: How much of the riddims that you play and that the average Jamaican drummer plays would you say is a direct result of the influence of African drum patterns?
NM: Well, all drums come from Africa. The first drums were built in Africa. Some of the more roots-oriented performers, like Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, for instance, have a lot of African roots in the riddims. But I think reggae also has a lot of mento roots too [Jamaican folk music] and a bit of calypso. And also jazz and rock.
RS: Once again, jazz drifts into the conversation.
NM: Not just because I listen to jazz, y’know. Before reggae, before rock steady and ska, most Jamaican drummers were jazz drummers. Like in the ’50s before ska came out, Jamaican drummers were playing jazz up on the North Coast, in the hotels and the ballrooms there. And from there, when ska came in, a lot of these drummers brought their jazz influences with them.
RS: It’s no secret that trying to make it as a musician in Kingston is no easy task. The competition and the limited number of gigs, both live and in the studio, put a lot of pressure on musicians to excel. Is it better, you think, to be a member of a permanent recording band or a free-lance session drummer?
NM: Well, if you’re going to be on tour most of the time out of the country, you can make some money and get some recognition. If you know the right people you can get on recording dates and make some money, but you hardly get any recognition. Sly [Dunbar] was one of the first drummers in reggae to become a star. Maybe now other drummers will get some attention, y’know?
Along with Sticky Thompson and Skully, Skyjuice is a name that’s synonymous with percussion in reggae circles. Together these three own more than a lion’s share of the work in Kingston recording studios, and virtually dictate the stylistic trends that occur within Jamaican percussion.
Of the three, Skyjuice is the youngest and undoubtedly the most ambitious. When we spoke, Skyjuice was on tour with Black Uhuru and had just returned from a shopping blitz with good friend Duckie Simpson in New York City. After modeling the half dozen or so shirts he had bought, he unabashedly told me of his grand plan: “First I want to be the best percussionist in Kingston, then the best percussionist in reggae, and then the best percussionist in the universe. It is not a joke or light thing, y’know. Skyjuice want to reach for the sky, reach for the stars, seen?”
RS: I know you are quite close with Sticky Thompson. Is he the one who got you started with percussion?
SJ: Sticky was the one who get me into reggae. But nobody never really teach me ’bout percussion. I jus’ watch as a youth from Trenchtown. I jus’ watch people like Toots Hibbert [Toots and the Maytals] and Sly and Sticky and I pick up the feel. It was jus’ a natural ting for me to do.
RS: How does your percussive style differ from Sticky’s?
SJ: Well, you see I don’t try to have his style. My style of playing percussion has always been different from his, even from the early days. It’s like the other day I was at a session at Dynamic [Dynamic Sounds—a popular Kingston recording studio] and I was dubbing some tracks for this dude and he say, “Skyjuice, I want you to play like Sticky.” So I say, “My name is Skyjuice. I’m not Sticky. I create my own sound. If you want Sticky you should get Sticky. I play like Skyjuice.” Every percussionist should have his own sound, his own feel. Nobody should ask a percussionist to sound like someone else.
RS: Percussion, it seems, is playing a more and more important role in reggae. Why do you think this is so?
SJ: It’s because people are demanding more from the music. Percussion is an added element to the music, like a seasoning. If you don’t use any seasoning when you cook your dinner, the food taste flat, true? Well, the same with music, especially reggae music. If you don’t use percussion, the music don’t sound right. It sound dull.
RS: What equipment do you find yourself using most during recording sessions?
SJ: Well, I try and use everything: drums, maracas, tambourine, wood block, agogo bells. But I don’t use them if they don’t fit. You can’t force a percussive instrument into the music, otherwise you can ruin the feel of the song. Lately I think I use the maracas a lot. If you listen to Coxone’s early Downbeat records [Downbeat was the name of one of Coxone Dodd’s labels] you will notice the maracas in most of the songs. Back in the ’60s the maracas were there, but not right out on top. Today I’m playin’ the maracas way out in front and on top. I also use the tambourine a lot to build up the sound when the song calls for it. But it’s real hard to say anything ’bout what instruments I’ll play on a song until I hear it and know what kind of feel goes with it.
RS: How did you get the name Skyjuice?
SJ: The name Skyjuice is a very powerful name. The way I get the name is because my father was a juice man; when I was young he sell juice all around town. Then when I start school they usually call me Juicy because of my father. They say my family was the Juicy family. In Jamaica they have a drink called skyjuice [skyjuice is a mound of shaved ice with a sweet syrup poured on top of it. It’s sold by street vendors]. Well, because of my father and because I love skyjuice so much, the youths call me Skyjuice and the name stick.
RS: So many reggae musicians have nicknames.
SJ: True, true! Everybody have nicknames like Skully, Sticky, Flabba, Crucial Bunny Tom Tom, Horsemouth. My real name is Christopher Burth, but no one ever call me that.
RS: Much of your work has been done with Sly Dunbar on drums. Does your friendship with him go back as far as your friendship with Sticky?
SJ: I played on Sly’s first hit records, the ones on the Taxi label. But I would go around with Sly every since his days with Skin, Flesh and Bones and the gigs they used to play at Tit For Tat [Kingston reggae club]. He introduced me to many musi cians and later on, when they find out that I play percussion, they come and check me. I played on Jimmy Riley, Junior Delgado and Tamlins’ tracks because of Sly. Tunes like “Love and Devotion,” “Baltimore,” “Fort Augustus”—all the good tunes that Sly and Robbie put out on their Taxi label.
RS: As a percussionist, how do you work with a drummer? Is it a mutual give-andtake thing, or do you simply follow the lead he throws you?
SJ: People think percussion is very easy to do, but it’s not true, y’know. A percussionist, a reggae percussionist, has to listen to the drummer. That’s the most important thing, listen. What I do is follow him, like you said, and fill in the soft spots with some nice percussion so the song has more feeling. The percussionist has to fill in the gaps and color the tune. The brightly colored tunes need bright percussion. But it is up to the percussionist how to do it; what instruments are right for what tune. It’s a gift to be able to do it right.
RS: You’ve often mentioned that, if given the chance, you’d always pick Sly to play with because he gives you plenty of freedom. What kind of freedom in particular are you talking about?
SJ: The freedom to color a song the way I think right. With Sly you can say, “I want to try this ting for special effect” and he say, “Go ahead, Skyjuice.” That gives me inspiration to come up with the best sounds I can. A lot of reggae drummers you can’t do that with, but Sly takes the music seriously and is very open, y’know. That’s why he’s the best drummer on the scene today.
Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace
Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace was one of reggae’s most popular drummers in the mid-1970s, primarily because of his star role in the movie, Rockers. Wallace got the lead part in the film after director Ted Bafaloukos noticed Horsemouth’s magnetic and affable stage presence at a 1976 Central Park concert in New York City when the drummer was a member of Burning Spear’s band. Bafaloukos felt that Wallace was somehow “spiritually tied” to reggae and would be perfect for the role of the main character in Rockers. “Horsemouth is reggae,” Bafaloukos once said of the drummer.
In the movie Horsemouth played himself— a Rasta reggae drummer who takes life day by day, gig by gig. The movie turned out to be as successful as reggae’s first film, The Harder They Come, which starred singer Jimmy Cliff, and overnight, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace was a movie star.
But, strangely enough, Horsemouth’s appearance in Rockers did not help his career as a drummer. According to Wallace, it nearly destroyed it. “People were jealous of me,” lamented Wallace. “They tried to hold me back because it was I and not dem that was a star, y’know?”
I ran into Horsemouth late one afternoon outside the gates of the Tuff Gong recording studio in Kingston. He was sitting on the curb and “meditating on the mysteries of life” as he remarked. He told me he had been looking for a gig to play to make some money, but that he had found none. He then proceeded to tell me about how his life had changed since his appearance in the movie. Wallace is a bitter man; he still remains disappointed, even rancorous at times, because his role in Rockers made him neither a Hollywood star nor a highly paid, in-demand session drummer. I’ve included some of our discussion here because Horsemouth’s background as a once-noted studio drummer for producer Coxone Dodd, as well as his comments on drumming and reggae in general, are particularly direct and candid. They shed further light on the largely misunderstood music form and the musicians who pump life into it.
RS: For years you played drums for Coxone Dodd. You must have played on hundreds of tracks. Despite your reputation in and around the studios of Kingston, you never received much outside recognition.
HW: True mon. Coxone don’t advertise the name of the musicians on his records in the early days, so I play but nobody know about it. If you are a drummer or other instrumentalist who really love de music, you try to set up a reputation at Coxone’s studio because in those days he had the right riddims, dem that you really love with your heart. It’s not so much the money, ’cause Coxone, he sometimes don’t pay you. It’s the love of music.
RS: When you were approached by Ted Bafaloukos to be in his movie, Rockers, what were your immediate thoughts?
HW: Well, at dat time I really didn’t like white people. I was a very prejudiced person, y’know. I wasn’t interested in listening to white men talk, talk, y’know? I jus’ come to de States with Burning Spear to mash down Babylon. Dat’s what I want to do with my drums all the time, y’know? I jus’ do dat. But this white guy talk to me very nice, seen? Dis guy make me feel like a human being. Dat get me interested in the movie.
RS: Did you enjoy making the film?
HW: Yes, mon. I really enjoy it. From the time I was a little youth I always wanted the opportunity to be in a movie ’cause I felt I was a natural, y’know. Acting for me is real life; I cannot pretend.
RS: But the movie…
HW: Let me tell you a fact, mon. The producers, y’know, dey rip me off. Dat shack you see me live in [in the movie], well I live there for real. Still today I live there, in the ghetto. Bafaloukos, he cool, y’know, but the producers owe me money still. They are the ones to see dat I get my money and my children don’t starve. I could have been a movie star in the States, but they hold me back, mon. It’s true, y’know.
RS: Didn’t your appearance in Rockers open up other doors for you? Wasn’t it easier, for instance, to find session dates and gigs with bands because of your popularity?
HW: It’s a very weird ting to be a drummer in Jamaica who becomes a star. Other musicians don’t like it. Dey prefer you to jus’ keep de beat, y’know. Jus’ stay in the background and say nothin’. But I can’t do that. You try and make it and some black brothers keep you down. It’s that way because it’s the way of the ghetto and most reggae musicians come from the ghetto. People who live there want to see themselves drive a big car and see dem belly full, but your belly hungry.
RS: Did you have any formal training as a drummer?
HW: Yes, mon. Unlike other reggae drummers I learned to read music. I used to play overtures, y’know, before reggae music come out. Classical music too.
RS: You had this training in school.
HW: At Alpha School. Alpha is a reformatory school in Kingston. It’s for delinquent youths and if you don’t have a mother or father. The Catholic nuns who run the school teach the music to me. I used to play in the school band.
RS: When did you begin playing for Coxone?
HW: Well, I leave school in 1964. The nuns wanted me to join the army, but I decided to play drums for a living. Most of the youths at Alpha joined the army. But I was a roots person. Roots mean freedom for me.
RS: Back in the mid-’60s, drummers like Lloyd Nibbs of the Skatalites or Hugh Malcom of the Supersonics were Jamaica’s top drummers. Did they have an influence on your drumming style?
HW: Yes mon! In the early days I would listen to Lloyd Nibbs and Hugh Malcom, true. When I started playing drums, there were only three serious drummers in all of Kingston—Lloyd Nibbs, Hugh Malcom and a roots drummer, Drum Bagle. Yes, he was a roots person, the way I am today. He never played no foreign beat, jus’ the local beats; the roots Jamaican beat.
RS: Reggae music has come a long way since you first began recording at Coxone’s Channel One Studio. How do you see yourself fitting into the reggae scene in the 1980s?
HW: I am like a mercenary drummer. I have no group; I play with whoever can pay me. But reggae music is not a rich thing, y’know. It’s a ghetto music. You can’t earn a million dollars in the ghetto. People who look at reggae and at a superstarthing don’t hear the music right. That’s why I and I not rich. I and I a roots drummer playin’ a roots music.