This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Tulsa World
Walls of wailing
By Thomas Conner 06/28/1996
Lloyd “Bread'' MacDonald and Winston “Pipe'' Matthews, together
known as the Wailing Souls, learned by doing. In their early teens, the two
would finish up a typical school day in Trench Town, Jamaica, with a vocal
jam session in an unused kitchen. Hanging out in their government yards (the
Jamaican equivalent of the projects) with the likes of young Bob Marley, Ken
Boothe and Delroy Wilson, they learned how to sing and how to mean it. Pipe
and Bread went on to record a string of reggae hits and establish themselves
as an important part of the reggae scene in the late 1970s and early '80s.
In 1988, they relocated to Los Angeles, but their mission and message stayed
the same. In fact, they discovered that the social worlds of Jamaica and Los
Angeles offered the same hope and despair.
We caught up with Bread in Los Angeles this week before his
Tulsa appearance as a part of Reggaefest this weekend.
Tulsa World: How did the environment of the government yards
in Trench Town contribute to the music you created?
Bread: When all the people are put together like that, it
teaches you how to get along with your neighbors. It helps to
develop a sense of family among many families. There is so much
poverty, and out of that is where most of the music is spawned.
People like Bob Marley and so many of the reggae singers are always
singing about oppression and suffering. That's our roots, really.
No matter where we are, we always remember the places like Trench
Town. It's easy for me to put myself right back into that frame of
mind in Trench Town. That picture stays with me wherever I go and
will be there all my life.
How are Trench Town and Los Angeles alike?
Trench Town in Jamaica is very much like Compton in Los
Angeles. Both places graduated many talented youths into musical
careers and both places have a lot of gangs. Lots of our friends in
school took the wrong path and did not survive. If Pipe and I
hadn't latched onto music when we were youths, we wouldn't be here
today ... Trench Town is a strange place. If you mix with the wrong
crowd, you could end up in prison or dead. We're thankful we found
guys like Bob Marley to hang out with and learn music.
And these conditions are pretty universal? Is that why you
wrote anti-violence songs like “O.K. Corral'' and “What's a Life
These things are happening all over the world. There is
violence going on all over. We always try to write songs that
reflect what's happening all around the world. Most of our songs
from 10 years ago are still relevant. I don't know if that's good
What's unique about reggae music? Why can it spread those
good messages so effectively?
That message itself is unique to reggae music. The rhythm is
very unique, too. You hear a reggae song and you know it's a reggae
song. We Jamaicans talk a different way and walk a different way
and dance a different way. The music basically reflects all those
things. It's music born out of the ghetto, not out of a
conservatory or something. The people who play reggae music learned
to play music by ear. It's created in jam sessions. In that way, we
have no boundary, nothing to say you can't do this or don't do
that. You just do whatever is natural in the context. It's freedom
Is it difficult to balance the demands of writing good music
and good messages?
We look at music as a spiritual thing, and the lyrical
content is most important. If we have a great track going but the
lyrics are not right yet, we'll take two months or whatever it
takes to finish the lyrics before we finish the track. The words
What do you think of other forms of reggae — ska, dancehall,
It's all the same music, man, it's just the music growing.
It's the same thing and we love it. You have to have the roots and
you have to have the branches. To me, it's just Jamaican music,
whatever you call it.
Walls of Wailing II
By Thomas Conner 06/28/1996
Bob Marley's last birthday party was thrown in Germany where
the Wailers had convened briefly after a tour. It was clear by that
point that Marley was not well, that his cancer was a formidable
foe even to someone as positively charged as Marley. Amid the
tempered revelry, Marley pulled aside the band's guitarist, Junior
Marvin, and bassist, Aston “Familyman'' Barrett, and told them to
keep the Wailers together.
“He said if worse came to the worst, he wanted us to keep
the positive energy going, to keep the music and the spirit and the
vibe going,'' Marvin told the Tulsa World last week in a rare media
interview. “We thank Jah we're still here, doing this for him and
True to Marley's wish, the Wailers have not stopped. They
played at Marley's funeral in 1981. A few months later, they were
already playing tribute shows in San Francisco. The occasional
legal wrangle has delayed recordings since then, but the band has
released three albums since Marley passed, and the members continue
spreading Marley's positive vibration around the world.
The Wailers without Marley are a different band, certainly. A
lot of technology has come around since Marley was in the studio,
and the Wailers make use of it to create their own sound, their own
songs. But they will always carry the legacy of Bob — a legacy in
music that extends far beyond the confines of “reggae'' or even
“black'' music — and they'll probably always play the old Marley
“Our show is about 50-50 old and new,'' Marvin said. “We do
about six or seven songs from our new album, and we do the Marley
classics like `Exodus' and `I Shot the Sheriff,' stuff like that. A
lot of people want to hear the old songs, but that doesn't mean our
audience is always old. There's a brand new generation out there.
Our crowds are full of 12-year-olds, 17-year-olds, parents,
grandparents, delinquents. They want to hear the things Marley sang
about. We don't get tired of it. It's like the Olympics, it's like
with Bob we won the Olympic medal. It's an honor. You can't decide
one day you just don't want to talk about it anymore. It's an honor
to keep the message going.''
The Wailers started humbly enough, as a trio of singers
wanting to take the doo-wop sounds they loved on radio and fit them
to the island rhythms of Jamaica. Marley's smoky voice led the
group through two albums that launched the band onto international
charts, and the peaceful revolution began.
Marvin hooked up with the Wailers in London in 1977. He had
played guitar on Steve Winwood's “Arc of a Diver,'' but he had no
steady band of his own. Marley recognized Marvin's ability to play
a wide variety of styles, from rock to blues to reggae riddim and
brought him into the fold. The first project they worked on
together was the “Exodus'' album.
“Our first session together was when I came in to play one
day with Bob and Tyrone Downey, the keyboard player. They were
jamming, so we became a trio. We were really happy with the way
things sounded, and I thought it was great to be playing with a
reggae band like this. Dreams really do come true,'' Marvin said.
Marvin's lead guitar gave some presence to the typically
bass-defined reggae pocket. His grasp of different styles came from
his upbringing — a jazzman father, an uncle who was a sound man,
schooling that exposed him to classical music and rock 'n' roll.
Marvin refers to his own playing as a mix of Jimi Hendrix and
George Benson, and Bob used that versatility to explore all the
Had Marley's popularity not taken off as it did, Marvin
wonders if Jamaican artists would have seen the acceptance they now
enjoy. Before Marley's reggae music got around, few off-island had
heard the style at all.
“Nowadays you see many reggae bands all over the world. In
Bob's time, hardly anyone from Jamaica was touring. Many were
putting out that positive energy in the music, but they hadn't been
able to get it out to the world,'' Marvin said.
So that's another reason the Wailers determined to carry on
with the band. Reggae is one part groove to one part sermonizing --
most of these musicians have a message of love they want to preach
to the masses, and in the wake of Marley their jamming can reach
wider audiences. The groove makes the message easy to take, and the
message makes you feel like dancing. It's musical mission work.
Marley was able to break through, Marvin said, because he
kept his messages simple. Plus, he practiced what he preached, a
rarity among musicians, Marvin said.
“Bob always said he wanted even a baby to be able to
understand what he was saying,'' Marvin said. “He was direct,
strong and forceful in a very loving kind of way. He didn't put you
off or upset you. He made you happy to talk about thing you might
be afraid to talk about.''
The latest Wailers album, “Jah Message'' on Ras Records,
uses a lot of new technology — drum machines supply a lot of the
groove and eerie guitar effects flavor the mixes — but the message
is the same. Some titles: “Rasta,'' “Jah Love (Believers)'' and
“Many Roads to Zion.'' “Know Thyself'' even reflects the Wailers'
doo-wop roots; Marvin and company open the song singing, “Shoo
whap shoo whap, do do do day.''
The world needs reggae, Marvin said. We need that message,
that reminder of peace. Music being a universal language, it can
reach cultures all over the world, and we always need it, he said.
“We need the message all the time. The conflicts and
troubles are the same around the world in every time of history. We
have a negative, warring side to us and we need to calm that
vibration. Music helps us stay calm and balanced,'' Marvin said.
“The message is very simple — 'Let's get together and feel all
right,' like the song says. It's that simple.''
By Thomas Conner 07/02/1996
It's easy to hype Reggaefest with lots of cutesy,
condescending ignorance — talking about musical styles you really
don't understand, insulting overuse of the word “mon'' — but when
the whole thing comes together, it really is something special. For
all the advertised peace, love and understanding, there is a
unified feeling of happiness and hope that actually delivers.
Or that could just be the delirium of heatstroke.
Either way, Reggaefest is the best party around, and this year's
bill was the finest lineup of world music talent in years — a
truly impressive bunch of international stars in lil' ol' Tulsa.
The crowd Saturday evening appeared to be a huge turnout even for
the perennially popular Reggaefest. The big draw was the featured
act, the one and only Wailers band. This continually evolving group
that once backed the legendary Bob Marley continues to tour and
perform Marley's songs as well as its own originals. But the crowd
came to hear those classics, and the Wailers came through.
What a show — you've got the expectation of seeing several
historical figures in the pantheon of world music, you've got a
catalog of timeless songs that by their very nature instill
positive vibrations and singing along, and you've got a band that
in spite of anyone's huffing about composition of original members
versus new members delivers a powerful performance. Lead singer and
guitarist Junior Marvin can perform “I Shot the Sheriff''
repeatedly and have his ticket written for him for the rest of his
life, but if he's resting on his laurels he doesn't show it. He put
every bit of his vocal strength and showmanship into Saturday
night's set, and they way he sermonized the sweaty congregation
hinted that his heart was in it, too.
The Wailers are still an impressive band. Aston “Familyman''
Barrett is the best bassist in reggae, a genre that revolves around
the bass guitar. Alvin “Secco'' Patterson is the happiest
percussion player you'll ever see. Saturday night he slapped his
drums and wore a towering rave hat with Rasta colors. During
“Where Is Love,'' he removed it and, sure enough, that huge hat
was stuffed with dreads.
Many Marley classics were covered — “Natty Dread,'' “I Shot the
Sheriff,'' “No Woman, No Cry,'' “Positive Vibration,''
“Exodus,'' even “The Heathen.'' The new Wailers material varies
between good progressive reggae, like “Jah Love,'' to silly filler
like “Rasta,'' sort of a Rastafarian “Jesus Loves Me.''
Marvin pulled out the 12-string guitar for “Redemption Song,''
and the performance of “One Love'' was as inspiring as any gospel
music. It is gospel music. Listen to those lyrics, “Give
thanks and praise to the Lord, and I will feel all right.'' It's a
devoted religious message being played to a multitude of eager
listeners, and it succeeds where much religious music fails because
of that extra step — feeling all right. Thousands of Tulsans held
hands and felt all right for two solid hours. Amen.
The two-day festival featured 10 other high-class musical acts.
Here are some highlights:
Festival organizers tried to branch out a bit this year. One of the
results of that effort was the appearance of the Grown-Ups on the
second stage Friday and Saturday. This is a ska band from Denton,
Texas, and they're pretty hot. Ska is a fairly rigid style of
music, but the Grown-Ups found ways to loosen it up a bit, chiefly
due to an energetic trombone player (with great shoes) and an
innovative drummer. The lead singer, though his lyrics are pretty
amateurish, barks with the force of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
When someone on Friday shouted, “Play some Bosstones!'' he said,
“What are the Bosstones? Is that 'More Than a Feeling?'''
Another result of branching out was Friday night's main stage set
by O.J. Ekemodie and the Nigerian All-Stars. Ekemodie and his two
female dancers, one on either side, must be the Tony Orlando & Dawn
of western Africa, playing their Afro-beat and singing songs about
“social concerns.'' He played a mean sax and a cool drum out of
which he got a surprising array of tones. His frequent dedications
to a free Nelson Mandela helped both charge and date the festival;
Mandela's freedom was still nebulous during last year's Reggaefest.
Billy Goat returned to Tulsa to ply us once again with its tribal
rhythms. This band, now based in Lawrence, Kan., played the
festival's second stage Saturday evening and actually got some of
the typically staid second stage audience members to dance. Billy
Goat always does. The rhythm is the thing for them, evidenced by
two drummers and a band member who's sole purpose is to dance.
Local Hero kicked off the main stage Saturday evening after a brief
delay caused by power problems. This Tulsa-based band has played
almost every Reggaefest, and the band deserves its billing on the
main stage. After seeing Local Hero a million times at venues
around the state, it's easy to forget how good they are until
they're in a festival alongside the international stars and they
hold their own. Heck, they were better than a couple of the main
stage acts from exotic islands. Lead singer and bassist Doc James
introduced the band's final number, “Put Your Hand in Mine,''
saying, “Everybody asks us why we're not bigger, more famous ...
I'm happy right where I am.'' We're happy to have him here, too.
Arrow is a tiny man but very mighty. He has taken soca music across
an astonishing number of borders, primarily due to the success of
his song “Hot Hot Hot'' — a terribly appropriate song for the
occasion — which he served up in the middle of his Saturday night
set on the main stage with infectious energy. His band was
incredibly tight and proficient; the drummer did not stop whacking
the same beat for the first 20 minutes of the set, and Arrow knelt
down before his three-man horn section for good reason. By the time
they blasted into “O'La Soca,'' everybody's feet hurt.
Bless those Rhythm Lizards. This local band of worldly music had
its own stage throughout the festival, playing sets while the main
stage was changing acts. They somehow came up with enough material
to perform for nearly six hours on a frying pan of a stage and
played their hearts out to a captive audience among the merchandise
booths. They win the endurance award.
Festival organizer Tim Barraza made a special dedication before the
Wailers set, dedicating this year's event to its former emcee, J.T.
“Dread'' Turner, and presenting a plaque to Turner's three
children. Turner died in September in a California hospital.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.