The beat of their own trod: Jamaica’s No-Maddz

Their infectious melodies, smart lyrics, and playful stage presence make No-Maddz Jamaica’s band of the moment

Clockwise from left, Everaldo “Evie” Creary, Sheldon Shepherd, O’Neil Peart, and Chris “Birdie” Gordon. Photograph by Marlon JamesPhotograph by Ikem SmithPhotograph by Marlon James

Suddenly, they’re everywhere. The tongue-in-cheek Puma ad (with a cameo by Usain Bolt), popular videos, crowd-pleasing performances at major shows like Rebel Salute and Reggae Sumfest. Then there’s “Pu Pukku Pu,” the phrase you can’t help but hum along to.

No-Maddz are the band of the moment in the Kingston music scene.

It might seem like they came out of nowhere, but the foursome — Sheldon Shepherd, Everaldo “Evie” Creary, Chris “Birdie” Gordon, and O’Neil Peart — share a brotherhood built through a love of music, poetry, drama, and shared experiences that span more than a decade, forged in their early days at Kingston College.

The best place to catch up with this eclectic band is on their home turf: the sleepy beach-side town of Bull Bay, about ten minutes east of Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport, but many more psychic miles away from the city’s hustle and bustle. No-Maddz has made Bull Bay their home for the last seven years. Sunday mornings find them at their regular Bongo Ball Game — a friendly match with players from other Jamaican bands, including Pentateuch and Raging Fyah.

You don’t really have a conversation with No-Maddz. You participate in a performance. It’s spoken-word in four-part harmony, interspersed with comedy, dramatic soliloquies, spot-on impersonations of Kingston celebrities, dancing, and — at any given moment — singing. Someone starts a sentence. Someone else finishes it. Voices blend on a shared thought, rising like a chorus. Their conversation echoes the way they describe the band. “Don’t pree [look at] the group as individuals,” they warn. “There are no parts. Just four lead vocals.”

Their post-game hangout is a roadside bar called Pu Pukku Pu, where the coconut water flows. The Bongo Ball Game takes its name from the term they use to describe their music. Their origins lie in dub poetry, but their eclectic approach to music, poetry, and performance outstrips the confines of that definition. “Bongo music” is their attempt to define their sound on their own terms, while declaring its African connections. They mark themselves as new and different, yet indigenous and connected to the past.

“The dub is the music and the poetry is the words,” Everaldo starts. “Sometimes it’s more magic than music,” Chris chimes in.

“That’s why we call it Bongo music,” Sheldon adds. “We know we have a different sound. The unkempt nature, free-flowing expression — words leading music,” he says. “It has to send you on spirals of imagination, or it’s not Bongo music. It has to give your mind a workout.”

To understand Bongo music, you have to experience the band performing — see Sheldon’s swagger, hear O’Neil croon either with sultry sincerity or ironic playfulness, watch Everaldo concentrate on playing the rhumba box or scratching at a grater, feel Chris’s dramatic call and response. Their on-stage delivery is always enhanced by the fact that each is an accomplished actor, with experience on both stage and screen. Both Shepherd and Creary had roles in Storm Saulter’s 2010 film Better Mus’ Come, with Shepherd copping a Best Actor Award at the 2012 American Black Film Festival.

Their onstage chemistry comes from their long years together, starting from school days. As members of Kingston College’s dominant drama club, they entered the National Festival of the Performing Arts several times, winning numerous medals, as a group and individually. They are the only record-holders of a perfect score in the competition. It was during those years that they coined the name No-Maddz, and began performing as a dub poetry ensemble. Even then they had begun to distinguish themselves as daring and different, as they played with the rhythms and tapped into beats more in keeping with dancehall than traditional roots reggae.

Along with performing the works of literary giants from Shakespeare to Louise Bennett-Coverly, they also delivered their own dub pieces that pulled from their lives in the inner city. After leaving school, they began to create their own opportunities to perform, staging concerts and launching their first EP, The Trod. In 2010 they did a tour of Kingston that took them to conventional and unconventional spaces across the city. It ended with a summer launch concert that rocked Emancipation Park.

Among their growing hits, “Rise Above Profanity”, with its hypnotic onomatopoeic call of “Pu Pukku Pu,” has become their signature tune. Like much of their music, its genesis lies in their chemistry and closeness. The sound originated with Everaldo, walking and humming around the home they all share. “Out of his own madness, he just started doing it,” O’Neil explains. Gordon joined in, knocking his lighter against a wooden chair. The rest of the words fell into place. “I opened my mouth and Jah fill it up with words.”

The song became a hit. On the strength of their live performances, and with very little airplay, they have built a sizeable following of dedicated fans. They rue the complaints from radio stations that their intros are too long and their songs aren’t beat-driven enough, but they have refused to comply, preferring to forge their own path and committing to their unique combination of lyrically rich, infectious, melodically original music that defies the conventions of both contemporary reggae and dancehall. They’re “word artists” with something to say, and an always evolving sound built on experimentation with new instruments.

For that spirit of independence, and the willingness to take risks, Mo-Maddz credit Kingston College, where they were drilled with knowledge of the school’s history which filled them with the idea that they are free to dream and they can accomplish anything they set their minds to. They see themselves as attempting to embody the KC motto: “The brave may fall but never yield.”

Lately, their bravery is taking them into new areas: they’re currently working on a new theatrical production, Breadfruit Is the New Bread, Baby, opening in May 2013. The name plays on the idea that breadfruit is a more natural, nutritious, and Jamaican alternative to bread. A “dubical” rather than a musical, the production combines poetry, dramatic performances, and music. They’ve also written three feature films in which they will star, and are translating their iconic sense of style into a clothing line called Manalion. Their many projects are helmed by a tight team of twelve — their very own tribe — that includes their musicians and management team.

That closeness, and a commitment to constant forward motion, are central to the way they define themselves. Long after they chose the name No-Maddz, they came to learn about nomadic tribes that used music as part of their mission of revolution. It’s now the way they see themselves and their mission: using music to tell stories that honour their past, speak their truth, and move the country forward.

“All of us are nomads,” says Sheldon.

“The mind of a ghetto youth is always moving. His imagination carries him places.”