For the past thirty-five years or so, the most featured session guitarist on the Kingston music scene has got to be Earl 'Chinna' Smith, popularly called 'Melchezidek, the High Priest of Reggae Guitar'. You would find his name on countless album sleeves, and he is probably there on most of the big, as well as obscure, 45s during the 1970s and '80's. Chinna was foundational member of the Soul Syndicate band, and he branched off with creating his own High Times label and the High Times Players, a band that became the touring outfit for dub poet Mutabaruka during the eighties, among others. It is Chinna who made the sparse but brilliant arrangement for such classics as Junior Byles' 'Fade Away', and he is the creator of such revered Keith Hudson productions as 'Satan Side', released in the early seventies under the alias 'Earl Flute'. Mr Flute appears once again on the first in the so called 'Inna De Yard' series of acoustic 'unplugged' Makasound albums, devoted to a few of Chinna's own compositions and a couple of known but mostly unknown names and their performances at the mic. Read on for more information about this project and for a glimpse into Chinna's long but distinguished career. My thanks to Chinna, Romain & Nicolas (Makasound), Teacher & Mr T, Donovan Phillips, and Steve Barrow.

Q: So give me the background to this project, 'Inna De Yard', how did it come about? It felt like the right time now for a striclty acoustic, wooden album?

A: Let me tell you wha' really 'appen. It's somet'ing that we do every day, when I'm not like touring an' not in the studio. So, Winston McAnuff, a brethren of mine fe years, more time when I'm in Jamaica he come by the house an', y'know, we do the same kinda t'ing. So I guess him partner, Nicolas (Makasound) an' them, I guess him have this idea about some 'Inna De Yard' t'ing, which is our programme that, we do it all the time. So I guess him bring Nicolas up there, y'know wha' I mean, my gates, an' him seh the whole t'ing, an' we jus' say "Let's record it!" Through it a natural t'ing, then wha' him wanted was me to sing, an' I said "No man", I mean "Yeh, I'll sing some tune but then all of my brethren them that is there 'ave to sing a song or two, too". So Kiddus I was there too, y'know wha' I mean, an' so him say, well, they wanted a Kiddus I too, so him say "All right, nice". Kiddus I can do his t'ing an' I'll just represent me an' the brethren them that 'inna de yard'. You know, it happened an' I mus' really - it irie fe hear that the people them pick up on the vibe natural, ca' it a natural t'ing. Like invite them to a lickle quiet space in Jamaica, so is a natural vibes.

Q: And everything was recorded in your garden.

A: Yeah, the whole t'ing. Yeah. I think the whole t'ing, Clive maybe do some mixin' an' different people deserve the credit, at Bunny Lee studio, Clive an' my son is the engineers. All of these brethren, they are at my yard every day, sometime is different, different people. You are lucky to come there an' see a bunch of big names too, an' sometimes jus' upcoming artists. So it's like a day to day t'ing, and it rolled tape. You know, who are there at the time, some artists who are on tour you might not see them there, but is like every day you can have like six or a dozen artists pass through, an' we jus' come an' hold a vibes, play music, chant and read bible an' different, different t'ing. Study music, all kinda different t'ing. So, it's an event, yeah.

Q: Did you feel like when this suggestion came up, that it was something missing in the industry, it felt the right time to do this, a wooden album, not the 'usual' approach?

A: Yeah, but is not a planned t'ing... Me understan' wha' you sayin', but more time when you plan t'ings sometime things just don't go the way how you want it, most time.

Q: You want the spontaneous flow.

A: Yeah, you jus' work on it, let the whole programme - 'cause I've done almost everyt'ing a'ready within certain t'ings, so is jus' the t'ings dem that you don't do naturally. 'Cause everybody is always like 'booking' something you do, studio time, 'let's go an' make a hit' an', y'know wha' I mean, 'let's go on tour'. So things are always like fixed an' programmed for you to do, so it's good when things jus' happen, naturally.

Q: Sitting down, relaxing, letting it flow.

A: Right, right, right. That's what it is. If you like starting over again you do it, I mean it's not about 'right' or 'wrong', it's just what happen at the time.

Inna Chinna's Yard

Inna Chinna's Yard

Q: I know a little about a couple of the artists featured, such as Ken Bob, he cut 'In Danger' for Roy Cousins for example, a great tune. And I know that Ras Michael Jr, Michael Enkrumah, he has done some stuff in the eighties and nineties, producer for 'Monty' Morris and so on. But the rest?

A: Ah, that is what it's all about, beca' why they are there is not jus' about bringin' out singers that is already known, there's a bunch of new artists. Like you 'ave Joseph Israel... no, Israel Voice, terrible new artis' that too. You know, mash up the place too, ca' him 'ave him own lickle vibes. You have Ade Dread (or 'Ade Culture' as credited on the 'Earl Chinna Smith & Idrens' album), y'know. Jah Youth, Darajah. You have Emmanuel I, spiritual, terrible yout' dem youth deh. And there's so much of dem. You know, within time I always love to introduce these kinda green talents to the world, beca' from what they represent.

Q: No one here have been recording or issued 45s so far, of the deejays you feature there for instance?

A: Yeah, they 'ave lickle stuff, y'know, elsewhere, but this is like the person that give them that kinda universal exposure, of which they are so happy an' pleased. They'd love to come out here one a the time too, y'know wha' I mean, expressing themselves.

Q: So they're not totally fresh.

A: Like Ade, is the first time him actually record, and him record for me. You know, Israel Voice too, so dem do dem lickle t'ing, ca' I'm not a prisoner producer, artists are free to do what they want to do. Is jus' that they understan' my feeling of music an' concep', so when they are with me they, y'know wha' I mean, it's not a restriction, but it's just order.

Q: I'm sure there's a few out there wondering how much of this was rehearsed, or if most of it came spontaneously.

A: Mmm, I jus' do the song, Ken Bob he jus' do that song. It just 'appened right there. Yeah. I wish you'd come to Jamaica one a the time an' have a lickle of that experience, ca' as I say it's a day to day t'ing.

Q: And it was nice to see you doing some of your own compositions, like the old Soul Syndicate 'chestnut', 'Satan Side', once cut for the late Keith Hudson.

A: All right, yeah. Nicolas come in an' wanted me to do some tune, so I t'ink of some tune, yunno. Right now I 'ave a problem with a publishing company, a guy named Warren Smith (founder of the Sierra Nevada festival in California and of the Epiphany label, producer for both Soul Syndicate LPs in the late seventies). It's like whenever time I sing a song, whatever the publishing goes to him. So I haffe try find songs that I've written back then in the past which I sing, my songs. You know, the business more time is not there to protect the artists and the musicians, it's more there to rip...

Q: The 'art' of ripping off.

A: Rip a t'ing, yeah. That was the idea, so I remember I did the song, my song for Keith Hudson years ago, so spontaneously the thought of whatever, what song I can't remember, jus' come to my mind. You have a song I've written for Dennis Brown I did never get to sing, 'Humble Servant of Jah', I throw that in too. A couple of dem, one that I did on my album, 'Home Grown', 'Daniel'.

Q: 'Daniel'?

A: 'Daniel In the Lion's Den'.

Q: OK. And there was 'We Got Love', a song I think Freddie McGregor did for Niney back in the days.

A: You know, that was my song, that was Soul Syndicate. It was released on a Soul Syndicate album, 'Harvest Uptown, Famine Downtown'.

Q: Right, on Epiphany.

A: Eh? Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Q: What is to come from this project, 'Inna De Yard'?

A: Well it's a concept that can be when we're doing it, it's somet'ing that's pretty much alive, and it's just the beginning. We did actually, like, we did three, two are already out. Me, Kiddus I, and you have one to come which is supposed to be with the Congos. All right, so we're thinkin' about doing a next one again, but it's going to be different every time. So, it's not for me to talk about what it can be next, beca' I don't even know what it will be next, but I know it's going to be a next one. And whichever will come out. It's a natural with the same, yeah, we 'ave the guitar already, so we're gonna do it on different instruments.

Q: So there's some stuff recorded already, in the can.

A: The Congos is recorded, yeah. It will continue next year an' we're talkin', y'know, it's lookin' like we have featured artists, like tryin' to get the Abyssinians, hopefully the (Mighty) Diamonds, a couple Toots, y'know, an' different, different people. It's also some instrumentalists, yunno, not just vocals.

Q: What has the response been so far to the album?

A: We have been getting good vibes, y'know. Good vibes. I think people respect it for the natural vibes, and the difference. And that's the response I'm getting, it feels good.

Q: To be honest, first it felt like a very low-budget project to do it like this, not having the funds to go into a studio and do some 'proper' recordings. But it wasn't like that?

A: (Coughs) No man, we don't have that problem. I mean, I have a load of multi-track recording, like I can put out an album at least for the next few years, like every month. (Chuckles) It's not about we're loading the music like that, y'know, music that haven't been released from in the seventies, through the eighties, nineties, and 2000.

Q: How much of this stuff do you have in the can?

A: It's what I'm tellin' you, man, I'm loaded with multi-track tape, but I haven't been releasing anyt'ing. I just put out one album out of them all, in fact 'Check It In Dub', Mutabaruka. So I just have loads of stuff in the making, I mean under pot ready to just come out. So we haffe try an' find a way of doing it and consider doing pretty much vinyl. CD is kinda weird business, to find a good distributor to handle that, universally or in different areas, different people to treat it right.

Q: Has the 'Inna De Yard' album been released in Jamaica?

A: No. Only France here.

Q: You plan to do a pressing for the Jamaican market?

A: Well, we haffe deal with Jamaica different. What I'm gonna do is like promote it on the radio first and see what response we get from the radio, y'know, and promote it from there too, we gotta do all a that from there. The system in Jamaica kinda different, kinda payola t'ing, and you don't want to be in that competition. So I'm tryin' to approach it from a different end. And same way with any other part, even with America too, I want it to come in to America from here, y'know, let people talk about what is happening here with it. And so far The Beat magazine give it a good article, so America kinda know about the whole t'ing too, and a lot of people on the net pick it up an' give it good response so far. You know, I don't know 'bout the rest of the world, like Germany and Italy an' elsewhere, but just that article in The Beat magazine says it's got that freshness an' all of that, so...

Q: What's the attitude in Jamaica to record something like this, it's not exactly reflecting what the market looks like?

A: Well you see, through I as a musician is not really so much for penetrating the market, I penetrate music, just music, to what you feel, and this is what you do. We put it out on record and that's the next level, people kinda want things different. Maybe not everybody, but serious music lovers will appreciate anyt'ing that is totally different, done a certain way.

Earl 'Chinna' Smith (Photo: Donna Cline)
Q: To get into some of your background, how come you choose the guitar? You felt that this was the instrument with the most appeal, so you could color the music more?

A: I think that is what I was connected to, 'cause I remember the first time I actually see a guitar close, the attraction, and how much I was in love with it. You know, the passion for it, the intimacy. The first time I get to touch one, I think that's what it was.

Q: The interest was wider than just rhythms or grooves, it had to be melodies.

A: Everyt'ing, ca' you know the guitar represent all of that, it's a melodic instrument an' it's also a rhythm instrument. It's both. It's like a piano, you can play a melody an' you can use it to play the rhythm. I use it for one t'ing, but it can be used for more than one t'ing.

Q: Who made you pick up the guitar, was it Cleon Douglas?

A: No, it was me. Cleon was one of the first guys who actually show me to get the guitar in tune, ca' I used to go up there an' watch them (Soul Syndicate) rehearse every day, when there was rehearsal. I used to play the guitar, but it wasn't in tune, so Cleon say "Hey man, the guitar's not tuned". So I realise seh 'wow, you don't just play the guitar', the guitar haffe be tuned to get it sounding right. So, with information like that, I take it in, yunno, an' take it to a next level.

Q: The first session you did, Carl Gayle wrote about you for Black Music magazine in the mid seventies, and it was apparently a session for a UK producer, Sir Collins.

A: Yeah, yeah. I can't remember wha' the songs them... Yeah, yeah.

Q: When was this?

A: It was probably about '67, y'know. Yeah, about '67, or '68, somewhere there, about that time.

Q: How did it come about? He came down there from London and handpicked a few guys, you being one of them.

A: Yeah, it was a Delroy Wilson song, I cyaan remember the song right off-hand, yunno. But it wasn't anything that was really successful in that sense. I don't even remember if - maybe it haven't been released, y'know.

Earl 'Chinna' Smith
Q: It came out on an LP called 'Sir Collins' Musical Wheel' in England only.

A: Yeah, well... yes (chuckles), I'd love to find that album too! That's good, at least someone know the record then.

Q: (Chuckles) Right.

A: Due to we play that stuff so long ago, we lose track of all those t'ings.

Q: Yes. But this was the first session, I think that album got released in '69 or so. But after this, it was a longer time-gap before you did the next session, or what happened after that?

A: No, after that was just the Soul Syndicate t'ing an' it was like sessions was our game, man.

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