Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare: Rhythm Twins of reggae

Garry Steckles runs into legendary musicians Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare

At Island Records, St Peter’s Square, London, mid-80s. Photograph courtesy UrbanImage.tv/Adrian BootIn New York around 1990. Photograph courtesy UrbanImage.tv/Adrian BootIn the kitchen at Sly`s house in Kingston with Keith Richards, 1978.  Photograph courtesy UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot

The last place I expected to catch up with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, reggae’s legendary Rhythm Twins, was at a music festival at a remote open-air location in the middle of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.

For one reason and another, I hadn’t seen them play live since the days they were touring with the late Peter Tosh, the key members of his awesome Word, Sound and Power Band, and that—hard to believe—was back in the late 1970s and early Eighties, well over a quarter-century ago. I’d been the promoter for many of the Canadian shows on these tours; Sly and Robbie, somewhat more prominently, had played drum and bass.

It was the apex of what veteran reggae fans regard fondly as the golden “roots” era of Jamaican music, and the only rhythm section in the same ballpark as Sly and Robbie in those days were Aston and Carlton Barrett, who were responsible for the crucial bottom line anchoring most of the Seventies output of a fairly successful reggae singer-songwriter by the name of Marley. Bob, that is.

I had looked forward eagerly to the Vancouver Island gig. What, I wondered, would Sly and Robbie sound like after all these years? Would they still have that wicked, straight-from-yard sound that had helped define roots reggae back in the days when they were the drum and bass masters at the legendary Channel One studio on Maxfield Avenue in Kingston and live musicians dominated the Jamaican scene? Would they remember how I used to beg them to stay on stage and keep on dubbing the riddim to Peter’s traditional finale, Babylon Queendom, long after Tosh and the rest of the Word, Sound and Power musicians had left the stage?

I needn’t have worried. Sly and Robbie, accompanied by the latest incarnation of their now legendary-in-their-own-right Taxi gang, mashed up Vancouver Island. For 90 mesmerising minutes or so, I was half-expecting Tosh himself to stride out on stage, grab the microphone, and start singing Legalise It.

Playing rhythm and lead guitar, just as he had in those days, was Mikey “Mao” Chung. If you’ve ever seen Peter Tosh’s famous Saturday Night Live appearance in 1978, duetting with Mick Jagger on Don’t Look Back, that was Mikey on guitar just behind them.

On trombone was another Jamaican legend, Ronald “Nambo” Robinson, whose decades-long reggae CV includes membership of the wonderful Rass Brass horn section and sterling session work on many of the tracks Bob Marley recorded during the last couple of years of his life.

Adding some youthful exuberance—not that there was any lack of exuberance from the vets—was the delightful Cherine Anderson, who co-starred with Ky-Mani Marley, Bob’s youngest son, in the excellent 2003 Jamaican movie One Love, and whose single and video, Kingston State of Mind, is one of this year’s top songs out of Jamaica. Cherine didn’t do herself any harm with me by opening her part of the show with a gorgeous version of Redemption Song. And, at the risk of being branded sexist, I have to say it also didn’t do any harm that she’s drop-dead gorgeous herself…as well as smart, modest and a real pleasure to chat with in the musicians’ backstage tent.

If you’ve been wondering what Sly and Robbie have been up to in the quarter-century or so between their Tosh era and their recent Vancouver Island appearance, well, they’ve been busy establishing themselves as perhaps the most prolific players of instruments not only in the history of reggae, but in the history of recorded music.

Among the mainstream musicians they’ve worked with—and I mean among: a full list would be prohibitively long—are (hold your breath here): Ben Harper, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones, Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, Robert Palmer, Gilberto Gil, No Doubt, Cindy Lauper, Queen Latifah, Carly Simon, Monty Alexander, Fugees, Herbie Hancock, Joe Cocker, Serge Gainsbourg, Simply Red, Michael Franti, Sting, Khaled, Doug E. Fresh, Carlos Santana, Marianne Faithfull, Sinéad O’Connor and Alicia Keys.

On the reggae front, apart from Peter Tosh they’ve recorded and/or performed live with (keep holding): Bunny Wailer, Black Uhuru, Chakademus and Pliers, Charlie Chaplin, Cornell Campbell, Culture, Dennis Brown, Frankie Paul, Foundation, Gregory Isaacs, Max Romeo, U-Roy, Half Pint, the Tamlins, Horace Andy, Junior Byles, Prince Far-I, Luciano, Michael Palmer, Junior Delgado, Jacob Miller, Jimmy Cliff, Jimmy Riley, Junior Reid, Ky-Mani Marley, Brent Dowe, Ansell Collins, Linval Thompson, Mad Cobra, the Itals, Cutty Ranks, Beenie Man, Matisyahu, Marcia Griffiths, Toots Hibbert, Maxi Priest, the Mighty Diamonds, Johnny Osbourne, Yabby You, the Paragons, Big Youth, Echo Minott, Barrington Levy, Horace Andy, Junior Byles, the Meditations, Rico Rodriguez, Lone Ranger, Ini Kamoze, Ronnie Davis, Shabba Ranks, Wailing Souls, Sugar Minott, Yami Bolo and Yellowman.

Phew!

And apologies to the many musicians, both mainstream and reggae, I may have inadvertently missed out (as I wrote those words, I remembered that Robbie played bass on some of the tracks on Catch a Fire, the album that broke Bob Marley and the Wailers internationally).

In case their session work, along with constant touring, might have left some spare time in their schedule, Sly and Robbie also founded their own record label, Taxi, in the early Eighties, and have turned out dozens of albums and hundreds of singles on it.

It’s estimated, perhaps conservatively, that they’ve recorded something like 200,000 tunes—making them, I would assume, shoo-ins for a Guinness Book of Records spot as the most prolific musicians of all time.

But for me, they’ll always be the bottom line behind Peter Tosh, and perhaps my single most enduring memory of them is from the momentous One Love Concert for Peace in Kingston in April of 1978, where Peter delivered three inflammatory political diatribes directed at the politicians making mandatory appearances, specifically, Prime Minister Michael Manley and Opposition Leader Edward Seaga, and Robbie marched defiantly across the stage brandishing his bass guitar like a machine gun while Sly pounded out his militant “rockers” riddims and the packed National Stadium roared its support.

Things were a touch less tense at Vancouver Island, but that incomparable drum and bass sounded every bit as lethal.