Nelly Stharre: woman of the earth

Singer Nelly Stharre is returning to her roots in Dominica. Paul Crask joined her on the way

Nelly Stharre. Photograph courtesy Paul Crask

Ten years ago, when I saw Nelly Stharre on stage in Dominica for the first time, she sang songs that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Dressed in a forest-green jacket, matching long skirt and black boots, she looked like a child of Che Guevara. Completely hooked, I rushed out the next day to buy her latest CD, Rain Jah. It was her second album, a collection of reggae that embraced Rastafarianism, challenged those who sought to “lick you with sticks and bricks and break your feelin’”, and, with ballads such as “Inside of Me”, offered insights into the artist’s innermost thoughts and sensitivities.

Rain Jah followed her 1995 debut album Wake Up!, an ensemble of mostly zouk songs recorded in Guadeloupe, during a period of her life that still conjures up sad memories but which, she says, has made her stronger and brought her to where she is today. Soul Country, in 2004, was an album that suggested Stharre (pronounced “star”) was on a musical journey, maturing as an artist, and not afraid to experiment. It is a fusion of cadence and reggae, and, though the sounds are collectively beautiful, it is the depth and richness of the lyrics that makes this piece of work such a success. “Problem”, for instance, is a no-holds-barred declaration of war on injustice through the medium of music (“Music is the weapons of the people with no guns and ammunition”) and the chilling “Leaders of the World” is an anthem of our time that simply demands your attention (“You’ve got the feed the people/that’s the only solution /children can’t get nutrition from wars and ammunition”).

“I don’t really write happy songs,” she says with a smile. “But when I perform live I see joy on the faces of the audience as they get consciousness from my music. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

When we were arranging the interview, Stharre asked me to take her hiking somewhere she had never been to before, “preferably somewhere green and with water”.

“I can’t get through a day without being in water,” she says. “When I come home I take off in the afternoons and spend hours by the river. They send out rescue parties looking for me.” She was back in Dominica arranging a jazz concert, the latest show she was co-promoting for a charitable movement aimed at helping children in need: those who find themselves either homeless, in trouble with the law, abused, or orphaned because of AIDS. She undertakes similar fund-raising work in Jamaica, where she has lived on and off for several years with her husband and three young children.

Born in the year of Dominica’s notorious Dread Act (1974), Nelly Stharre picked up the nickname “Revolutionary Baby”. (The Dread Act outlawed groups of alienated dreadlock-wearing youths, some of whom were violent.) It is a title that seems to fit perfectly with both a rebellious adolescence and a philosophical adulthood. “I have always been a rebel,” she says. “At school I would stand up for the underdog or against something that I thought was wrong. I was always getting into trouble.”

Stharre attended a strict Roman Catholic high school and found the attitudes oppressive. “The problem with questioning things and wanting to believe in something different was that people couldn’t accept it. If you didn’t conform, they thought there was something wrong with you. Maybe you were possessed. Maybe you needed medication. Maybe you should be put on a psychiatric ward.”

Was her non-conformity a factor in her becoming such a dedicated Rastafarian?

“You don’t become a Rasta. It is inside you,” she says. “It has always been there. You just have to connect with it. Everyone has it. I remember once writing that I thought Jesus was a bit of a Rasta, enduring everything he did. I got into lots of trouble for that too,” she grins.

After a short hike, we’ve reached a waterfall and she is delighted. In fact she seems eager to forget about the interview entirely and just jump into the clear waters of the pool.

“I have a connection to nature that is hard to put into words. I just feel it, you know? That’s why I am planning to come back to live in Dominica. It’s time. Nature is calling me, she is speaking to me. When I was a girl I used to run away into the bush, just me and my dog. The guys on their farms all knew me. I was always doing it. Trust me, if you spend enough time with me, you’ll think I’m crazy – talking to rocks and trees, that kind of thing. But there’s something about Dominica. I can’t stay away.”

She has spent time abroad, studying and living in the US and UK, and now she has a home in Kingston, Jamaica.

“There are good and bad qualities to Jamaica and Dominica. Sometimes I wish I could just take the best bits of both, put them together and live in that place. With Dominica, it’s nature. With Jamaica it is acceptance. Rastas are part of society there: completely integrated and respected for who they are. It has been good for my children. I think in Dominica people have never properly confronted nor dealt with everything that took place during the time of the Dread Act. Terrible things happened. The police could shoot you just for having locks – and they did. That legacy, the class attitudes, the misunderstandings, they are all still there somehow.”

But it is clear Nelly Stharre is ready to return. Just looking at her in these surroundings of rainforest and waterfalls makes me realise how difficult it must have been for her to leave in the first place. Stharre is a fam tew, a woman of the earth. Unable to wait any longer, she decides it is time for a bathe and as she swims under the water, she seems to be an integral part of the scenery.

She returns refreshed and beaming. Asked about new music, she tells me to expect an album in summer. It has been a long wait.

“It’s because I’m more interested in lyrics. If it takes me forever to write good words that can last 20 or more years, then so be it. I’d rather do that than write something everyone will just forget. Actually I don’t think I’m that good a singer anyway. I love words more. I like to write poetry.”

This time the songs are a fusion of blues and reggae and include “Pirates”, “Life Goes On”, and the wonderful “Moon Men”, a number that defies its catchy refrain by suggesting that if mankind can achieve amazing things like sending men to the moon, then letting people starve and live in poverty must be a deliberate act.

So the rebellion is still there?

“Of course,” she smiles. “Jah willing, the sun rises every day and will always give us the opportunity to do things better.”