Justin Hinds: “You have to be true in the spirit”

The late Jamaican ska and reggae performer Justin Hinds on the message of his music — as told to David Katz

Justin Hinds. Photograph by Urbanimage.tv

I was born in the little village of Steer Town, St Ann, on the 7th of May, 1942. I was raised by my parents, with the rest of my family around me; my father used to work on the quarry, chopping stone for making houses, and my mother is more a housewife. I started singing from maybe seven years old, used to sing in church, and after leaving school I learn mechanical engineering in a village they call Golden Grove; I have to work underneath cars and drop these crankcases, but I find the vision of the music still inside of me.

Ernie Smatt started the water sports enterprise in Jamaica and I become a part of it when I was about 16. I was teaching tourists how to do skin diving and scuba diving, used to take people to Dunn’s River Falls and teach them to dance at Candle Beach. Those days I used to sing the blues, like B.B. King, Chuck Jackson, Louis Jordan, Smiley Lewis, Fats Domino, and that’s why I name my group the Dominoes: all of us grew up in one village, and we have that group together from about ’57 or ’58.

We used to go to the Windsor Hotel in St Ann’s Bay, close to where Marcus Garvey was born, and sing for people there, but we don’t have any pay in those days. Charlie Babcock was a disc jockey who used to be at radio station RJR — we call him “CB, the cool fool with the live jive.” He came to work at the Arawak Hotel as the entertainment manager, and he said to me one day, “We need you to sing for this party,” so I sing that night and the people love my show. Then he said to me, “You should go to see the Duke.”

Before that, Carl Young was the first man I used to sing for — he’s the guy that now owns radio station Irie FM and Grove Recording Studio — and he had a big sound system called Strand in St Ann’s Bay, competing with sound systems from Kingston like Sir Coxsone and Duke Reid, so he said, “Go to see Sir Coxsone.” I went to Kingston one day to see Coxsone, just by myself, but Coxsone don’t have time to talk to me, so I went over to see the Duke, and there comes the rest of Dominoes. We didn’t plan to go together, but they realised that I was in Kingston, and realised they should be there too.

Duke was having an audition with about a hundred boys and girls lined up along the street. If you sound good, they would say, “Go over there,” or if not, they say, “You should go back to trade . . . next!” I was shaking when it was my turn, and I didn’t want to sing on the street, so I went to a place they called Back-O-Wall, where I meet Bongo Noel, one of the first spiritual leaders for the Rastafari, and they was chanting Niyabinghi, and I was there chanting with them.

A guy that used to stay by Duke come and get me, so I went back up to see the Duke, and he said, “What’s the name of your song?” and I said, Carry Go Bring Come, so he said, “Go upstairs.” Baba Brooks, Tommy McCook, Lester Sterling, Lloyd Brevett, Roland Alphonso, Theophilus Beckford, Jackie Mittoo, all the greatest of the music take me to rehearsal, and we went to Federal to record the song the next day. Carry Go Bring Come is just a everyday system that people live within, when people double-back on each other. Duke put it on the street and it hit Jamaica like a storm, number one for eight weeks.

I did a lot of hits for Duke: Rub Up Push Up and Higher the Monkey Climb, most of those songs are done by members of the Skatalites as a mixed group. Here I Stand and Save a Bread, those songs is telling the world about peace, and though man stand predominate, you have to stand up in life. You have to be true in the spirit and true in the work, and try to live up to the best of your ability. Drink Milk is actually saying if you go to Rome you have to do as the Romans do. If I come to England, I have to do what the English people do, and if I try to procrastinate, I try to change the laws of nature.

In the mid 1970s, on his dying bed, Duke tell me I should go and work with Mrs Sonia Pottinger, that I should do the best I can and they should take care of me, but it didn’t work that way. We was just doing music from within our heart, didn’t know about copyright, publishing, mechanical rights. We was just wanting to bring the world together. I ended up working with Jack Ruby, doing an album for Island Records. Jack is really a determined guy in music, but he doesn’t know the business part of it. He was on the north coast playing sound system, and I bring him into the business, do this album Jezebel and then Justin Time, but I didn’t get the best mix, didn’t get the best production from those.

Many years later I did two albums for the Nighthawk label, and with the Wingless Angels, I did a recording of Niyabinghi music for the Rolling Stones that Keith Richards give to Chris Blackwell to distribute, but I didn’t think the public was ready for that.

There was never a point when the Dominoes split, but they believe that all these companies are just robbers and thieves, so they don’t want to do it any more, and we didn’t make enough money from our music to enable us to do things on our own. But basically my music is the grasp of the Rastaman’s life, a positive vibration. It’s the spiritual vibration of gospel, related to love, peace, happiness, and life.