Judah Eskender Tafari interview (R.I.P.)
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Very sad news has reached the reggae world again. Judah Eskender Tafari, who was seriously ill for awhile, has peacefully transitioned in Burbank CA surrounded by loved ones. To pay tribute to this great artist we (re)publish this interview done by Ray Hurford & Colin Moore (with thanks to Sonia).
Judah Eskender Tafari with his captivating melodic voice, delivers the positive message of faith, hope and charity through music. As a youth growing up in Jamaica, Eskender enjoyed listening to music by artists like Delroy Wilson, Ken Booth, Bob Marley, John Holt, Burning Spear, and Dennis Brown, Smokey Robinson, Luther Vandross, and Stevie Wonder, to name a few.
Driven by his musical craft, he sang harmony and background vocals with a group called Captive Lion. Later on, he teamed up with one of Jamaica’s leading reggae bands of that era called the Generation Gap Band and played rhythm and bass guitar as well as doing lead vocals. He is best known as a member and one of its top vocalist of the orthodox faith, The Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Coxsone Dodd released six classic songs with Judah Eskender Tafari, “Jah Light”, “Rastafari Tell You”, “Always Trying”, “Conquer Me”, “Danger In Your Eyes” and “Just Another Day” a 12″, from 1978 till 1980, the first of which was the magnificent “Jah Light”. He was then due to release an album – “African Blood”, but it never appeared.
In the summer of 1993 – Judah arrived in the UK for a O.A.U. (Organisation For African Unity) Concert in Manchester. It was then announced in Station To Station – Penny Reel’s reggae listings section in Echoes – that Judah, was due to sing at a dance in Hastings, with Bobby Melody. Hastings is a sleepy seaside resort on Britain’s south coast. The last big event in Hastings was the battle in 1066.
Judah apparently had linked up with King Tafari Love Music, the only big sound system based in Brighton, another seaside resort and also a major town on the south coast. They had taken him to Hastings, and then to the A-Class studios in London to cut some specials. When Judah Eskender Tafari walked through the door no one was more surprised than producer/engineer Gussie P. Reggae legends just don’t do things like that.
It didn’t take long for Gussie P, or Sir G as Judah called him, to strike up a deal, and the result is the much delayed, but eagerly awaited excellent debut album “Rastafari Tell You” released on Gussie P’s own label.
Judah Eskender Tafari at SNMWF 2010
(Photo courtesy of Lee Abel)
How do you acquire the name Judah Eskender Tafari?
The name Judah is the name of the tribe that I’m from according to the Twelve Tribes Of Israel, according to the month of the year. I was born in July, which represents Judah.Eskender now is an Ethiopian name, I really wanted to have a different name away from Ronald Merrills, I wanted to have a different name in the music world. Meet this Ethiopian sister sometime down in the seventies in Jamaica, so I was asking her for some Ethiopian names, and she mentioned a few names, and I like this one Eskender, and it mean a commander, and I’m doing singing which is commanding the people, so I like this one, so I kinda hold onto it. Now Tafari now is my father’s name, which I’m called by. So I put it together – Judah Eskender Tafari.
How did you get into the music business, when did you start?
I learned to play the guitar, I was playing the guitar, I wasn’t really born to be a singer. I didn’t really have that as my dream to be a singer. I wanted to play the guitar, and while playing the guitar I started backing up singers and started to sing harmonies, and automatically I started doing my own little singing and start making one or two songs. Being a part of the Twelve Tribes Of Israel over the years, it inspired me to write more meaningful songs towards people. By reading my Bible I get more conscious minded, that’s how I ended up singing the way that I do, yu know.
What year would that have been?
My first studio work was in 1978, till 1980. I was with Coxsone for those two years.
How did you come to work with Coxsone?
Actually meeting with Coxsone, was through one of my bredrin who is also a member of the Twelve Tribes. He play with Coxsone, Bagga Walker, he play with Pablove Black, the bass and the keyboardist at Studio One at the time, he was the one who introduce me to Coxsone and Studio One. Coxsone, never had any doubt in me, because they are very good musicians, so he put me straight into the studio, and release my singles quick too.
How many songs did you do for Coxsone?
I did a few covers, I can’t count the amount of originals that I did, but I know I did sixteen to eighteen songs in those two years. That was a lot of work there.
“Jah Light” was the first song that he released?
It got a very good response over here; did you pick that up?
I get good reactions from Trinidad, Canada and England, but I really didn’t know it had that big an impact until I fly outside of Jamaica.
It’s a wonderful song, what inspired it?
“Jah Light”, it written by me and one of brethren in Jamaica, Ivan Rueben. He came up with the idea of “Jah Light”, and I get the guitar, for I always have a guitar. I do all the arrangements and melodies, and put more lyrics to it, and that’s how it came about.
It was the Studio One Band, who played on that?
Bagga Walker on bass, he’s like a teacher to me.
Who played sax?
That’s the mystery, this guy is unknown he just come up from the country. Coxsone sent for him to do sessions, he is one of these countrymen that play in the hotels on the North Coast of Jamaica. I never get to meet the guy, because Coxsone dubbed the horns on.
The drumming was also very good.
I think that was Freddie McGregor, it was between Freddie McGregor and Horsemouth. I think it more Freddie McGregor though. He was the drummer.
Most Twelve Tribes members seems to be multi-talented when it comes to music. Was there any other songs recorded at the “Jah Light” session?
Yeah, I did “Jah Light” and “Rastafari Tell You” the same day. You see all these songs were already arranged, being on the guitar I arrange all my stuff. So I just go to the musicians and tell them the chords, and they just create whatever… Bagga put in the bass line (Judah hums the memorable opening to “Jah Light”).
It seems like your time at Studio One was very condensed, while a lot of artists come and go over a period of years. You must have spent a lot of time in the studio?
Well I couldn’t really tell you the times and the dates, but I made a note of the songs that I did and when I did them, I have them in my own records, I work that way.
Coxsone was going to release your “African Blood” album back in 1979. John at Dub Vendor who was visiting New York at the time, actually saw the sleeve. Do you know anything about that?
I know nothing about that, I know that people have been asking for songs from Judah Eskender, but he was always promising them… but not releasing the stuff.
He told Rich Lowe at the Reggae Directory that they were not finished.
He’s got enough tunes to put out an album, I know that.
So what happened then, the last we heard from you was in 1980, and then nothing?
Being blessed from the Almighty God, with this gift of playing and singing, there comes a time when the Studio One thing become like a pressure, cause you find that you sing out your heart and don’t really see nothing in return. Basically I just started to play bass in a band.
What band was that?
The Generation Gap, I started to play bass with them, for quite a few years, backing up singers.
That was in Jamaica?
That was in Jamaica, for quite a few years.
And then you visited Canada?
No, the trip to Canada was different. It was just a visit. It wasn’t a musical mission, it was just a trip to see my brethren. Although I was at a show in Montreal. On my second trip I did some work with Brigadier, I played bass, me and Malawi, Malawi he played drums. In a studio in Toronto.
Have you ever recorded anything with Twelve Tribes?
No, but I have an album. All the ideas, the lyrics, the arrangements.
So you have only music with Studio One on tape?
Actually, there is a brethren of mine in America that I did a few songs for.
No, Jah Mel is a brother I did some harmony for, this a brother Jeff Sarge he run a radio station in New Jersey, 91.1 FM. He just’ have the songs I don’t think he’s trying to release the stuff. He was saying that we need a good distributor.
How many songs did you do for him?
It was an album that I did with me and a sister. I had about 4 or 5 songs on it. It seems like he got into the dancehall thing, he was a cultrual radio personality, and then he got into the dancehall thing. I did some good songs for him, people like them. I did over a old, old song for him. Do you know a song called “May I” (Judah starts to sing) “May I, ah ah,ah May I”. I just reggaematise it, and a few more songs that he came up with. I also did a version of “Rastafari Tell You” for him. These were all done in 1987. We started the album in Jamaica in ’87, and nothing happen. That is the only other recording I’ve done outside of Studio One, on tape for anybody.
With Jah Mel, you only did harmonies on the “Watchful Eyes” album, which is a very good album, featuring the Wailers playing on the album.
Jah Mel is like a brother of mine, we used to live together, eat, drink, smoke, everything together from way back in Jamaica. He always loved how I sing, and I sort of inspired him. He wasn’t really recording anything then, and he liked my vibe, and people say he sound like me, whatever. Somehow we just get tight together.
I don’t think anyone sounds like you! Laughs. Jah Mel is more of a sort of an Horace Andy style.
What is he doing now? Do you still keep in contact with him?
I really don’t have any contact with him since I came to America. He leave me Jamaica, and came to America, years before I came. He was living in upstate New York, Rochester. I meet him once during the years, I meet in New York. I had his number, but his number get change so much. I lost track, but I’m confident that we will meet again.
When did you leave Jamaica for America?
In December of ’86, that was when I came to America for the first time.
You have been more or less resident there ever since?
I’ve been back and forth to Jamaica, quite a few times, get a chance to reach Africa in 1988.
What country in Africa was that?
I landed in Kenya, and went to Ethiopia, I went to visit my brethren in Shashamane Land, I have people living there that I knew from Jamaica, living in Ethiopia and speaking Amharic.
How were they finding it, was it hard living in Ethiopia?
It was never going to be a bed of roses, so you know. They have really come through some rough times, but it’s getting more easier as the years go by and things get more develop,
You don’t often hear about reggae artists visiting Africa.
Right, give thanks to The Most High, for really helping me to go and see the land, because Africa is certainly a mystery in the hands of the Almighty. Africa represents the future, well underdeveloped and enough land. Africa will be the fruit basket of the world.
You have the potential to do anything in Africa, it’s just the people who run it.
One day Africa will be free.
It will happen, but it will take a long time.
Oh man… Africa is for the Africans, those at home and those abroad, Marcus Garvey prophsied these things, for many years, and with our people living on the land it’s not a dream no more it’s a reality. I know I can live there too.
It’s a very important link musically as well.
The funny thing is, when I went to Ethiopia I just feel the music vibes so strong. I just wished I had a band and some things organisied so I could start doing some gigs. That the spirit that I feel, the people are receptive.
Jah Shaka who operates the sound system of the same name, often visits the East coast of Africa, Tanzania etc, working on various projects, and he says the same thing.
Actually when I was in Kenya, I see this album with Brigadier that I play bass on “Jamaica Jamaica”.
How did you come to be playing bass on that album?
It was Jah Love management – Mr. Belcher. He wanted to do an album with Brigadier. He chose the musicians, and he called on me to play the bass, and I give thanks for the opportunity too. It was the first album that I ever played bass on, but from over the years backing up singers, I learned that singing is my thing, because I never really enjoy backing up singers, as much I enjoy singing. When I sing, the feeling that I get, I don’t get it from nothing else.
It certainly sounds like you enjoy singing.
(Laughs) I really love it.
I wished there was a few more reggae artists who enjoyed it as much as yourself. Brigadier Jerry, why doesn’t he record that much?
Well, let me clear one thing from your mind. It’s nothing like the 12 Tribes Of Israel restricting Briggy from doing any recording. It’s more like Brigadier’s choice to just to do the things that he does.
He’s more interested in working on the Jah Love sound system.
Really the cassette is the thing that promote the Brigadier, that make him known worldwide. It wasn’t no recording.” Have you ever sung on Jah Love sound system? “Yeah, maybe once or twice. People always love it, but I’m not really a sound system singer. I don’t really like it as such, but I did it one or two times. Brigadier always wanted me to do it.
What is your reason for visiting the UK now?
England – blessings to The Twelve Tribes Of Israel – England was a long standing desire, cause I had three sisters born here. My mother come here and die here, and I’ve never been here before. The Twelve Tribes Of Israel sent for me to come and sing on the 25th May 1993 – The O.A.U. day celebration. The Organisation of African Unity. They invited me to come and sing on that celebration.
That was in Manchester?
Yes, and I did that and, man, it was mega. People really accepted me, everyone was really waiting on me to come on stage. From there I come to London, and I was doing a special for a sound, and they took me to Gussie P studio (The A- Class Studio) to voice it.
Everything, is just the works of God.
Myself and Colin Moore was at the studio the day before you cut the special, and Colin came back the next day to look for a dat belonging to John Mason.
When he meet me, he was telling me all my history.
He phoned me up at midnight on that Friday, to tell me that he met you! Prior to that, just a few weeks before I was talking to John Masouri from Echoes, and we were talking about his first trip to Jamaica, and I asked him to look for you while he was there to interview you. Three weeks later he was interviewing you in England!
I always ask God to lead me into the right way, and I like it over here, the vibe is much more positive.
Where do you live in America?
I’ve been living in New York for quite a few years, living in Brooklyn, until about 1990 when I went down to Maryland.
So you’ve been working on an album with Gussie P, what kind of album is it?
Yeah, well the album… When I reason with Gussie P at that special session, he was really pleased to meet me also. He started to sing the intro from “Always Trying”. I thought this guy singing out this song… So we start reasoning, tell me “Judah, you have to do an album”. We start drawing up a concept, and we will call it “Rastafari Tell You”. His vibe was… you know… I like his vibes. One day we will do something you know. I was due to leave England the 2nd of June ’93, and wanted to put off the project till I came back to England. The ticket that I had couldn’t be extended. So I checked out some sister here, and she said “It can be done, Judah.” So she called up some people that she knew, and she got it extended for another 28 days. Right away I called Gussie P. I really wanted to leave something going in England, cause I see the people love me so much. So I called up Gussie P to ask him if he really wanted to do this album, and right away he was ready. So we started on it, and I appreciate the way it turn out. I wrote some of the songs here in England for the album, I finished doing the lead vocals. I worked all night on it last night, all it needs is some harmonies and a few overdubs, and Gussie should be ready to go. I can leave on Wednesday… this time.
With a peaceful mind.
Yeah, I really feel lighter this morning, knowing that. I could have finished it a while ago, but I got a cold. I couldn’t even speak.
(Originally published in the Small Axe Files #21, 1995.)
JUDAH ESKENDER TAFARI SELECTION