Here’s to the great survivors of Caribbean Music

Garry Steckles pays tribute to living legends of Caribbean music

The inimitable Burning Spear. Photograph by David CorioThe wildly eccentric Lee Perry. Photograph by David Corio

One of the saddest things involved in writing this column has been paying tribute to the great musicians who have left us over the years. And the past decade seems to have taken a particularly heavy toll, particularly in the world of reggae. So I thought it would make a pleasant change to devote a column to some of the great survivors. To say thank you to just a few of the veterans who continue to entertain us with their melodies, enlighten us with their lyrics and enrich our lives by sharing their gifts with us.

In no particular order, and with apologies to the great musicians I don’t have room for, a tip – no, make that a flourish – of the Steckles hat goes to these living legends of the English-speaking Caribbean. Long may they all continue to spread the joy of Caribbean music.
Ernest Ranglin may be the only surviving musician to have played a significant role in creating a major new genre of popular music. Ranglin, who helped invent the ska beat in the late 1950s, also arranged and played on dozens of the hit singles coming out of Kingston’s Studio One in the Sixties.

Revered in Jamaica, Ranglin has been held in equally high esteem in the world of jazz since his days as house guitarist in one of the world’s leading jazz clubs, Ronnie Scott’s in London. Most recently, Ranglin, born in 1932, was bandleader for the legendary survivors from the rock steady era who came together for the acclaimed documentary Rock Steady: The Roots of Reggae.

It sometimes seems Toots Hibbert has been on the road for ever, and the familiar gravelly voice – his pipes have been compared favourably with Otis Redding’s – continues to cope admirably with the demands made on it by a gruelling tour schedule and a wildly energetic stage show.

Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert, born in Jamaica in 1945, has been regarded as one of the island’s great vocalists since he burst on the ska scene in the early 1960s as lead singer of a vocal trio called the Maytals. Four decades later, he would win a Grammy for the best reggae album of 2004, True Love. The esteem in which Toots is held in the mainstream pop world was reflected by just some of the big names who were happy to sing with him on True Love: Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton and No Doubt.

Few Jamaican musicians can trace their roots back further than the Jolly Boys mento group, whose latest album, Great Expectation, includes a hugely popular version of the late Amy Winehouse’s monster, “Rehab”.

The Jolly Boys, in various incarnations, have been around since the days when they were known as the Navy Island Swamp Boys, band of choice for the bacchanalian parties thrown in the late 1940s in Jamaica’s Portland parish by the hard-living actor Errol Flynn. The three longest-serving members are all over 70: Albert Minott, lead singer and guitarist, Joseph Bennett, maracas, and Derrick Henry, rhumba box – who first joined the group a staggering 56 years ago.

Like many people in the Caribbean, I have a special affection for the man widely regarded as the greatest calypsonian of them all. The Mighty Sparrow, who was born in Grenada in 1935 but whose family moved to Trinidad when he was an infant, still performs in concert regularly.

Sparrow ruled through the Sixties and Seventies, a golden era of calypso, and won his most recent Trinidad & Tobago Calypso Monarch crown – his eighth – in 1992, to go along with his eight Road March titles.

With a career spanning seven decades, Calypso Rose is a pioneer in more ways than one. Widely regarded as only the second professional female calypsonian, she was the first to break a male stranglehold on the genre’s most coveted accolades.

After many years, Rose won Trinidad & Tobago’s 1977 Road March title and the 1978 Calypso Monarch crown. At 70-plus, she performs regularly around the world, and broke new musical ground with ska and reggae-esque songs on her most recent album, Calypso Rose.

The only living member of the original Wailers, Bunny Wailer shares a special place in Caribbean music history. Bob Marley left us in 1981, Peter Tosh in 1987 – but Bunny is still soldiering on. His remarkable body of work includes landmark recordings in two reggae genres: Blackheart Man, his debut solo album in 1976, and Rock ‘N’ Groove, his then cutting-edge dancehall classic from 1981.

Born in 1947, Bunny, who won reggae Grammy awards in 1990, 1994 and 1996, continues to play live occasionally, and his concert performances are a vibrant link with the music’s storied past.

Two Grammy awards in the 2000s – along with 12 nominations during his long and distinguished career – should dispel any notions that Winston Rodney, better known as Burning Spear, is showing the slightest sign of slowing down in his mid-sixties.

Spear is one of the few roots reggae survivors recording regularly these days. And his touring schedule remains intense – he’s a staple at reggae festivals worldwide.

He was well into his sixties when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, but Jimmy Cliff is another reggae legend. Cliff, who starred as aspiring singer Ivanhoe Martin in the landmark Jamaican film The Harder They Come, still has movie ambitions: he told me after his induction he was determined there would be a sequel to the 1972 cult classic, and that he would star in it and write all the music.

Many reggae connoisseurs consider the songs the Wailers recorded with studio genius Lee “Scratch” Perry in 1970/71 their finest work. That probably just as many regard them as not even the best of Perry is just one yardstick of the accomplishments of the wildly eccentric and hugely talented Rainford Hugh Perry. Born in 1936, Perry is a producer, singer, songwriter, dub innovator and creative whirlwind who continues to astonish.