Exclusive: Toots and the Maytals Interview

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If you're sorely missing classic reggae in your life, it might be wise to plan a trip to Hermosa Beach to see Toots and the Maytals perform at Saint Rocke on Saturday, May 15. Read Drew Tewksbury's interview with the legend after the jump.
Toots Tells The Truth
by Drew Tewksbury

The digital age is all about copies. The endless well of the internet inundates listeners with thousands of bands and musicians that copy sounds, cover songs, and steal ideas from those who came before. The availability of free MP3s, Youtube videos, and online streaming music devalues most music as disposable commodities. If you get what you pay for, and if you pay nothing, then you get nothing, right? Maybe. But with all these endless copies metastasizing across the web, another effect occurs: true innovators become invaluable.

Fredrick "Toots" Hibbert, founding member of Toots & the Maytals is an originator, he is indispensable, and, if possible, should be designated a monument. In Japan they deem certain people (artists, dancers, musicians) as national treasures. Toots is undoubtedly a treasure.

In 1968, Hibbert 's song "Do the Reggay" put a name to a sound, introduced a new genre to the musical lexicon and crystallized reggae as a relevant movement.

With a voice that gleaned sounds the smoky sounds of soul, gospel and early R 'n' B, Hibbert mixed spiritual call and responses with bouncing bass lines and playful guitar lines. His indefatigable spirit kept reggae alive during his endless tours.

But on the phone, Hibbert is exhausted. "I'm tired, man," the 64-year-old huffs from his room at the Houston Holiday Inn. The tour has just begun, and he is resting before their show in a few hours. The night before was a long set, the audience kept shouting requests.

"We have to give them what they want, man," Hibbert says.

With more than four decades of music-making behind him, Hibbert's career is not an arc or a constellation delineated by bright points and one hit wonders. Instead, Hibbert's career is a cloud or a haze (an apt metaphor for the ganja lover) that encompasses a general trajectory rather than a linear path.

His music, he says, comes from an inner spiritual space that he found while singing in the choir as a teenager.

"I come from the church, my whole body is a church."

His songs were celebrations, and he stayed clear of the political messages that his contemporaries espoused about Jamaica's poverty, or the back to the homeland movement popularized by many in the African Diaspora.  

"My songs are about spirituality," Hibbert says. "You don't have to sing about Babylon all the time. I wanted to write songs you can relate to."

Hibbert's songs were instantly relatable, inoffensive, and inspiring to people from Kingston to Brixton. "54 - 46 Was My Number" was his 1968 ska-tinged hit that helped break the genre outside Jamaica. The song refers to his time in prison after a marijuana bust put him away for 18 months in 1966 (he says he was framed). Toots & the Maytals found success in Jamaica alongside Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley but never quite achieved the same notoriety in the U.S. In the U.K. during the early 1980's ska and reggae revival, Toot's "Pressure Drop" was covered by the Clash and the Specials.

Over the next 30 years interest in ska and reggae waxed and waned as musicians discovered and rediscovered Toots and his contemporaries. But by early eighties, they had broken up just as the Second Wave emerged in England.

Then Third Wave ska began in Southern California, bringing Toots' music back in  with the reggae and ska resurgence. During early 1990's, when suburban punks scrawled names like Sublime, No Doubt and the Hippos in white out across their backpacks, Jamaica's music made ripples then disappeared again. Bob Marley posters on the walls of private school dormitories largely represented reggae at the turn of the millennium.

But now Toots is back. His new album, Flip & Twist, dropped recently and Toots' voice, gristley and soulful, sounds more like R 'n' B stars he used to listen to on the radio  as a boy in Jamaica. The throwback sound comes from his desire to return to those old days in Kingston's legendary Studio 1.

"We had just a four track and a two track back in those days, none of this digital sound," Hibbert says. But Hibbert still loves reggae, flaws and all. It's his church, it's his body.

"I feel pretty good about it, seeing as though I invented the word reggae. But I want to show people what reggae really sounds like. If it's negative, it's not reggae. Reggae is positive words and carries a message. Reggae will never change. The beat goes on, the beat goes on."



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