The seventies was a period which spawned the type of roots music that producers nowadays often struggle in vain to reproduce. When Burning Spear hit big in 1974, he had made a strong impact on the youths on the island. You could be assured there would be a bunch of copycats coming up soon thereafter with a similar sound, with just enough 'originality' to stand on their own. But who can blame them to ride on a bandwagon when money is often scarce. Each one have to pay the bills, so you go along with what's happening, what becomes hot - what you could make a career from. Each one wants to become a star, you try to come out of the ghetto, the poverty, so you go with the flow. Now, you had one of those young men at the time named Sylford Walker, lived deep down in the ghetto on Gold Street on 'South Side' in Kingston, achieved fame with producers such as Glen Brown, but got his start with Joe Gibbs back in '75 with the classic 'Burn Babylon'. You might have heard it, it is the pure embodiment of what real roots music is made of. Not only, but if you get locked up in jail you could easily write a tune like this. Sylford's story is no different from many others from the golden era, it is a story of trials and tribulations, but perhaps even sadder. This conversation tries to put in detail what became of the man called Sylford Walker, so read on. My thanks to Sylford, Steven and Asher (Raspect Crew), Donovan Phillips, Sis Irie, Steve Barrow and Michael de Koningh.
Q: So you grew up on Gold Street (a JLP enclave, inner city district of lower St Andrew) in Kingston, that's the base for the most part of your life?

A: No, well, really I've grown up on Lobban Street, y'know, same part in 'South'. But I'm really from country, y'know what I mean, from the hills.

Q: Oh, really?

A: Yeah, I run away from I was round nine year old (laughs)! Ca' I couldn't take the vibes, and then...

Q: Where in the hills?

A: It's there in Penlyne Castle, that's where I was born, near the Blue Mountain Peak in St. Thomas, at least St. Andrews.

Q: That was the home for the first nine years.

A: Yeah, I walk all the way from that place to town, man (laughs).

Q: And didn't go back (laughs)!?

A: No, well, when I go back - I mean I'm a dreadlocks, and then my mom she's kinda 'fraid to see a dread, so I had to leave again.

Q: Why were they scared of dread culture?

A: Well, I waan show you now brethren, it caused through the vibes and the tribulation. I wasn't a man that get any, like a very good care coming up, y'know what I mean. So, then my schooling wasn't so brilliant, and then after leaving and living in town where these wars and crimes an' t'ing, them fed in the same area (my youths), I'm saying that gettin' my firs' yout' an' t'ing, there's no way out to help dem. An' I jus' siddung an' smoke some 'erb each day, and from the herb I get some vibes wherepart police hold me with the firs' draw of weed and then I build the first song in Central by the name of 'Burnin' Babylon' for Joe Gibbs, yunno. And then I never achieve nutten, he told me to come back and I go back again then, and then go sing ' (Jah) Golden Pen' for him and leave again, 'cause nutten, and then I return to Glen Brown.

Glen Brown (Photo: Dave Hendley).

Q: Tell me more about the environment at Gold Street, that's where you've been most of your life.

A: Yeah, that's where I'm even living right now still, y'know. I'm about to move but not as yet, 'cause I'm workin' on a lickle programme.

Q: Like what?

A: Eh? Oh, tryin' to build a lickle home in the country, where I have a lickle piece of land. So, then I did lose one of my sisters, so I finally had to go beside my mom now, 'cause is she alone.

Q: Same place up in St. Andrew, up in the hills?

A: No, there so in Yallahs, St. Thomas, where the beach side is an' t'ings like that.

Q: Anyhow, the 'South Side' area, what part of Kingston are we talking about there?

A: That is Kingston 5, central Kingston, yunno. Central Kingston, you know there was a time when which they cool down and a next time they, y'know, ignorant. So, with me living in the ghetto, knowing all of the systems and life would not like to caught up, y'know wha' I mean. So I see that it's only music alone could free the people of its mind, because it's even what they do now they bring together some peace where everyt'ing is OK now. But they also use the same badman to beat the badman dem. So it kind of a cool dung now. So my line was just to get up and give thanks for the Rastaman (Asher, Raspect Crew), I mean he move my feet from the lower ground (chuckles), so I can have a studies. 'Cause I give up the music for a good while, tell you the truth. Because through I never believe in seh, well, then people would react to it, yeah, the whole music business. I never know that people would really react to it that way. Because I was in a big car accident a couple of years ago, yunno. And from that there now I see Joe Gibbs come, GG's come, they has a lot of work now to put out with me, and I also have to leave them same place because they're not making any move, y'know what I mean, what they keep promising me.

Q: Sitting on it.

A: Yeah, I still in it, I still in it, beca' there's no alternative for me right away. I was boiling a lickle roots before, singin', you know where I use fe see my children dem come up, but all a dem come big now. So all I have to is change up my vibes, yunno. Yeah man.

Asher Selector & Sylford Walker.

Asher Selector & Sylford Walker.

Q: Before you linked up with Joe Gibbs, what brought you into the music? Were you part of any group as such?

A: No. No, no, I just - like how I tell you in the South Side where I was living, I just wake up every day and see nutten much to do an' t'ing like that, an' I find there's a lickle man over there that I use to juggle some weed an' eat me lickle food, y'know. So each time of the day I would burn a spliff, and when I done burn that spliff, I see that t'ings much more tighter in the sky.

Q: (Giggles)

A: So I sit down now, and start to sing, sing, sing. 'Cause when I much younger I used to go to church an' those t'ing, yunno. And I leave the church an' tek the reggae, and then it becomes a impact on me now where I understan' that I'm all in the black magazine up a Africa, they send me a book in Jamaica an' t'ing like that. So, I see a lot of people stretch out towards the music an' a lot of fans, so I say I just can't put it down yet, I have to continue with it, 'cause a works. I think it's a gift from the Father. Yeah.

Q: Judging by how you shaped your vocal style from early on, Burning Spear was a natural inspiration to a lot of young people back then, Spear had a profound influence on your works - a big influence, right?

A: Yes! Those men like Burning Spear and Horace Andy, even Bob (Marley) and those, Jacob Miller, a couple great artists there that I listen, Alton Ellis and those top star for years, y'know wha' I mean. So some of them they even told me that I mustn't stop, I must continue. Even Horace the other day, I and him was in Joe Gibbs' studio, and he told me that I must continue, because it's great for me.

Q: Of course, you still have the name out there.

A: Yes sir, yes sir.

Sylford Walker.

Sylford Walker (photo: Sandra Daveau).

Q: Did you audition for anyone else before you ended up on Joe Gibbs' premises?

A: Yeah, I really was walkin' around, checking like Randy's and a couple more all around the place, like Gussie Clarke an' those man, Niney an' all those man I was checkin' in my younger days, but all of them goes around me. How I come to be at Joe Gibbs, I am passing an' aks him - 'cause I hear 'bout him an' t'ing, producing like Dennis Brown an' some man, so I aks him seh bwoy, if him can give me a lickle burst or help me. He said to me that I've got to walk to the studio up by Retirement Crescent, that is way up - uptown, yunno. That time he just had a lickle shoemaker shop by Parade, wasn't so big, and I did walk. And as I told you I do the first song, I see nutten much come and he tell me that - I don't see nutten come, so he told me that I mus' come back and do somet'ing else. So I turn 'round one of my Christian song now that named 'Golden Pen', I turn it around on him an' sing 'Jah Golden Pen'. And it goes well, y'know, an' still nutten. So I has to leave him. While I leave him now Glen Brown was living in my community, that is in South Side.

Q: Before we go into that, you did more songs for Joe Gibbs, at least one more, titled 'Mother In Law'.

A: No, is only two song I done for him in 1975. And then now, whatsoever song done for him now is just from last year come down.

Q: Right, you have a recut, you revoiced the 'Jah Golden Pen' riddim a while back for Gibbs, true.

A: Yeah, 'Golden Pen'. I told them where to put their name now on 'Jah Lawbook of Life', in 'Jah Lawbook of Life'.

Q: How did this come about, doing new work for Gibbs?

A: Well, that's another t'ing, it's like after the accident with me, with the car, I just sit in by my yard and nutten, considering what else to do, if I have to go back and boil some roots when I get better. But they, Joe Gibbs and GG, they was in England. So it's like it's a meeting come up where they've been asking 'what 'appen to this singer Sylford Walker?' But through Joe Gibbs know now, he was the first one who put me out, he call Mr. Thompson - before he died, and tell him to look for me. Well, he look for me and he tell me that Mr. Gibbs would like I to do an album for him and I'll get $ 250 000, y'know wha' I mean. Well anyhow, I didn't get it one time - piece, piece, piece - until I end up doing nearly three album now for him. I had to leave them there, 'cause he's still not making the move. So from that now, there was somebody come an' told me that GG heard it an' need me. So, through I didn't know him, when I reach to him still he told me that he was in England and they asked him, him an' Joe Gibbs meet up an' they was conference about me. So he still want an album too, I end up doing eighty song for him too an' leave dem.

Sylford Walker.

Q: How many, you did like eight songs, or you mean eighteen?

A: Eighty! Eighty, eighty.

Q: Oh boy.

A: And Joe Gibbs maybe around a 150 (chuckles)!

Q: OK (laughs)!

A: (Chuckles) You see? So I could never sit down in that, sah! And turning a grandfather. Yeah!

Q: What was the inspiration for 'Burn Babylon' again? You got busted by police for a stick of weed and thrown in jail for it.

A: Yes, that track is like the first time I've been building a spliff with a tall breadbag, and wake up one morning out of me bed early, just cool an' build a spliff. As I done build the spliff and gone to call this singer by the name of Glenroy Richards, the one who sing (sings): 'Wicked can't run away on the judgement day...'. He is there now still, y'know. And by the time I reach down the lane, it's pure police (chuckles), and they grab me an' take away everyt'ing, y'know what I mean, an' lock me up (laughs)! Yeah. And in jail I build that song, while I was in jail, that's the time I build that song. Because, laying down on me back and considering what them really jus' hold me for - a spliff. So I say (sings): 'It's a long, long, long, long, long, long, it's a looong time I man a burn up the collie weed...'. Then all of the police an' everybody: "Who is that inside there can sing? You should not be in here!" (laughs). But them still lock me up (laughs)! It was a joy an' a great experience for me anyhow, trust me. Then when I come from jail now, it takes me one year to record that song, walk up an' put it out, 'til Joe Gibbs could do it.

Q: And that's 1975. So what was the response for it? Indeed a typical theme of its day.

A: Yeah. Well, it was very nice, y'know, because the only problem I has that was a lotta people was sayin' that it was Burning Spear.

Burning Spear.

Q: Right, a little mix-up.

A: Yeah, a similar lickle - 'cause through the vibes he has with (sings): 'Marcus Garvey word come to pass... '. So it kinda give me a vibes to get deep in it.

Q: Obviously you were very fond of how Spear moulded his vocals at the time?

A: Yeah, I did just like his style, an' then it give me more inspiration to the vibes of the music, 'cause at those time there was a type of loose music that people not listening to an' t'ing like that. So, when I put out that song, that's where it give me I would say a great honour in my community, because it's not pretty, y'know what I mean. And then I find the world now start from England and all about, people start fe say 'Sylford Walker is great' an' t'ing.

Q: You got some type of feedback what the music did overseas?

A: No, well, everybody overseas was just telling me that they like that song, liked that song. But still a lotta people didn't know it was me who do it.

Q: They thought it was a new tune by Spear?

A: Yeah, yeah. They thought so, y'know what I mean, 'cause even a man beat me up out here because of that.

Q: Beat you up for it?

A: Yeah man, buck me down deh, they kill me, man (laughs)! They say it's not me, it's Burning Spear! Now, you living in a community whe they underrate you, to the system of life! Yeah, because I also was a sufferer, great suffering I've been through, bredda. Great, great, great. Great!

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