CRUCIAL GENIUS

Garry Steckles says today‘s best reggae is in St Kitts. Meet Crucial Bankie

Crucial Bankie. Photograph by Geoffrey Spencer

For fans of genuine roots reggae, the sort of music Bob Marley
conquered the world with, the past decade hasn’t exactly been a time for
rejoicing. Apart from the occasional album from Culture, whose charismatic
leader Joseph Hill shows no sign of slowing down after something like thirty
years of superlative recorded and live music, the pickings have been on the
slim side.

All of which makes the acquisition of a good roots CD a special and all-too-rare
treat. Which, in turn, makes the acquisition of a superb roots CD
an occasion for serious celebration. And I’m delighted to report I’ve just
laid my eager hands on one of the best reggae albums I’ve ever heard.

Come to think of it, the CD I’m talking about is the best new release I’ve
heard so far this century, period, no matter what the musical genre. It’s
called Shake Down, and what makes it even more special for me is
that it’s by an artist from St Kitts, the tiny eastern Caribbean island
I call home. His name? Crucial Bankie — not to be confused, as he sometimes
is, with another fine singer-songwriter, Bankie Banx, from the nearby island
of Anguilla.

Shake Down — and please excuse the superlatives; trust me, they’re
justified — is musical nirvana from beginning to end. As they used to say
in Jamaica, all killer, no filler.

Let me tell you a little bit about its multi-talented creator. In poker
parlance, Crucial Bankie has been dealt a royal flush when it comes to making
music. First, and perhaps most crucial, if you’ll pardon the pun, he’s got
the rare, Jah-given gift of churning out, seemingly effortlessly, melodies
that are instantly addictive, which then continue to grow on you. The sort
of tunes you wake up in the morning humming. The sort of songs that keep buzzing
around in your head all day long.

To accompany these sublime melodies, Crucial’s lyrical gifts range from
the conscious and profound to the clever and catchy. He’s equally at home
with biting social commentary, heartical Rasta anthems, joyous and jazzy odes
to love, and philosophy about the world in general and our place in it. He
knows his history, he knows what’s going on in the world today, and he knows
how to come up with lyrics that put it all into a Rasta-tinged, always positive,
perspective.

Then there’s the voice, a hard-edged but elastic tenor that asserts its
presence instantly on the listener. It’s ideally suited to the Marleyesque
mid-tempo reggae that’s Bankie’s musical stock-in-trade, but can segue seamlessly
to driving uptempo rhythms or hypnotic African-accented chants.

There’s more. Live, Crucial Bankie is riveting. At 39, he’s seasoned enough
to have a commanding and charismatic stage presence, and young enough to
combine it with boundless energy and a synergy with the music that transcends
showmanship.

OK, he’s a superb songwriter, fine singer, and great stage performer —
but what is it that makes Crucial Bankie really special? Oddly enough, it’s
something that might be regarded as a trifle old-fashioned: a deep-rooted
determination to make good music, no more, no less.

In an era dominated by corporate greed and dance acts masquerading as musicians
— sorry J-Lo, sorry, Janet, sorry Justin, but the cap fits — Crucial Bankie
is an all-too-rare beacon of musical integrity. After more than twenty years
as a professional singer-songwriter — his first single, Cocaine,
came out in 1983 — Crucial doesn’t hesitate to express his disdain for today’s
popular music and the record company honchos behind it. Quote: “These people
in the charts today can’t sing a melody line. This is just a trash generation.
If it isn’t sexual, you don’t hear it. If it isn’t violent, you don’t hear
it. And the people behind the scenes are making sure that real music doesn’t
get out there. It’s almost like a conspiracy, like they’re trying to brainwash
people.”

Does he find all this frustrating?

“It’s past frustration. Maybe they would like us to dead so we don’t bother
them no more.”

Perhaps. But this musical rebel’s not about to go away.

“I’m just an artist that does roots. I just want to make music the best
way I know how, to move forward, and after more than twenty years I’m getting
there.”

With Shake Down, Crucial Bankie is, indeed, getting there. It’s
not only a landmark CD, it’s got the backing, for the first time in his
career, of a label with international marketing and promotional clout —
the Minneapolis-based V-Records Entertainment. Unlike the bottom-line-driven,
bottom-feeding behemoths of the pop music world, V-Records is an artist/music-driven
label with a down-home feel. Here’s founder-president Stevie Renner’s quick
take on why his label hooked up with Crucial Bankie:

“We discovered Crucial on a trip to St Kitts in 2002. My wife Patty is
the one who really fell in love with his music. She played it non-stop night
and day. We immediately signed Crucial to V-Records, and have spent the last
two years putting Shake Down together.

“We at V-Records are proud to be Crucial Bankie’s label. We feel Crucial
is the most significant artist in reggae music today.”

Will the combination of Caribbean musical genius and North American business
acumen be enough to take Crucial Bankie to where he belongs in the entertainment
world? It’s certainly the formula that worked — and how it worked — for
Robert Nesta Marley, who rocketed from Jamaican star to global superstar
when he was signed to Chris Blackwell’s fledgling Island Records label in
the early 1970s.

As a youngster in St Kitts, Crucial Bankie grew up listening to and learning
from Marley’s classic Island albums. His other influences from the golden
age of roots reggae include Culture, Burning Spear, U-Roy, I-Roy, Big Youth,
the Mighty Diamonds, Dennis Brown, Jimmy Cliff, Bunny Wailer, and Peter
Tosh.

Back then, he was listening to the best in reggae, which, in my books,
means he was listening to the best music in the world.

Today, he’s making it himself.