Ijahman Levi interview
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During the Cultural Revolution which reggae music went through during the early seventies, many artists came forward who had, and probably still do have, tremendous talent. Some of them, like Burning Spear, for instance, were given a chance to move outside of the ‘Bob Marley Is Reggae Music’ dominated marketing approach. This was started by Island Records but is now carried on by well-placed systemites, who use Bob Marley as some sort of a yard stick which is used to measure other reggae artists by and ultimately beat them with.
The artists who took a beating, would include the likes of Bob Andy and Joe Higgs. They are the best examples, but there are many many more. A third group, and the largest, were bypassed altogether. Most of these artists could only be heard on single. It is to this group that I Jah Man Levi belongs.
IJAHMAN LEVI – TRADESMAN
When you first heard his singles released on the Concrete Jungle label, you could only wonder why a talent like this did not have a deal with a major recording label. It was artists like Ijahman Levi who first made it clear that some sort of waiting system was being operated. You got the feeling that most of these artists would be given a deal, but they would have to wait. It could be argued that this was a better approach than the ‘wholesale’ signing of a number of artists, first by Island in the mid-’70s and then by Virgin in the late ’70s. The artists who took a beating would include the likes of Bob Andy and Joe Higgs. They are the best examples, but there are many many more. A third group, and the largest, were bypassed altogether. Most of these artists could only be heard on single. It is to this group that Ijahman Levi belongs.
Yet it was clear then that neither approach worked. What was needed then, and still needed now is a long-term approach, at least a three-year or three-album contract with full artistic freedom. Then, if the album is a joke the artist can be blamed, not the record company. I Jah Man Levi’s wait came to an end around 1977. He recorded Africa in London for Island, an instrumental cut of which appears on Rico’s Man From Warika album, and then went to Jamaica to start work on his debut album.
In Jamaica, Chris Blackwell began working on the album as a producer. Ijahman was credited as excutive producer, while Robert Ash is given an associate producer credit. Recording of the album took place at Joe Gibbs studio with Errol T assisted by Flick Wilson aka Ruddy Thomas on the board. This choice of Joe Gibbs studio for recording is interesting, usually Island uses Dynamics or Harry J. One conclusion that could be drawn from this would be that Joe Gibbs was chosen because they were the studio of the moment (along with Channel One) and that Chris Blackwell was going for a certain sound.
This conclusion could be further backed up by the wide mix of musicians: Sly & Robbie, Val Douglas bass, Mikey Richards drums, plus many more familiar names. It looked like Chris Blackwell was trying to tap into the current sound of Jamaica, ‘Rockers’. The release couldn’t be further from that.
Haile I Hymn (Chapter 1) was way ahead of its time, much further than say Catch A Fire from the Wailers. For starters, it had only 4 tracks! One of which lasted for 12 minutes and 25 seconds! Added to these factors was the extensive use of lead guitar, still an alien concept in reggae music. However, reggae music wasn’t ready for such an album, and the rock fans to whom the album was extensively marketed, with full-page double-page ads, just didn’t care. Yet it has to be said that today the album must be thought of as one of the greatest reggae albums ever made. Time, and the evolution of the music, have made it possible to fully appreciate the wonderful intricacy of the work.
The following year, 1979 saw the release of Ijahman Levi’s second album, Are We A Warrior, also on Island. This time, Ijahman Levi and Island Records faced a new set of problems. The dancehall style was coming in, and with it, reggae music was turning inwards again. There was no way that Ijahman Levi’s music could be made to appeal to the dancehall fans, and rock music’s interest in the music was rapidly waning.
These two problems alone would be enough for most major companies to cancel the release of an album, but add to this the bad feeling caused by the release of Haile I Hymn, and, in total, there was a considerable amount of market resistance. Still as mentioned, the album Are We A Warrior was released, this time with Geoffrey Chung and Ijahman producing. Once again the tracks were very long, but this time there were five of them, and one of them, Moulding, became a hit. It fully deserved to be as it was a great track from another great album.
The lead guitar work had been toned down throughout the album, although it was still a very intricate and delicate album. There were beautiful ancient-sounding horn arrangements and wonderful vocal harmonies all from Ijahman. Chris Blackwell and Karl Pitterson also did a very good job at mixing the album. Sadly, all these great works were not enough. Although the album was an artistic success, it did not do well enough to keep Ijahman Levi on the Island label.
What must be understood in this context though is that Ijahman Levi was now outside of the mainstream of Jamaican music, in the same way that all the cultural singers of the seventies were. Only Bob Marley and Burning Spear survived this change, and the reason for this is that they had enough time to build up an audience for their music outside of reggae music.
Nothing was heard of I Jah Man Levi until 1981 when he released on Jahmani (his label in Jamaica) a couple of singles, one of them was Tradesman. This tune tuned into the realities of the economics of the system that have been with us since the early eighties. It was a song about mass unemployment, but it also said a lot more, in a way which only I Jah Man Levi can say it. Ijahman Levi had brought this message, Tradesman, to those who by all accounts no longer wanted to hear such a message, but they did listen to the words of the Levi?
When he released the album Tell It To The Children, containing similar reality messages, it was also well greeted. It had been a hard struggle for him up until now, but at last, it was his time.
Ijahman Levi at Rototom Sunsplash 2016
“I man is a handy man. Jack of all trade and master of none my friend. Never mind the skill I’m made of muscle and blood. Anything I’ll do I can be helpful I say”. ‘Tradesman’ by Ijahman Levi. Published by Tree Roots Music. “Lost… A million years of work”. Daily Mirror – 7th August 1982.
I want to work when I want to work. When someone else don’t think I should be working. Well, it’s a long story. I did only one record for Duke Reid Red Eyes People. Which is in fact my first recording. Then I came to England. Which is where I get my knowledge and experience as an artist going around a group, Youth & Rudi Shell Shock Show. I was gaining the experience, but… I don’t find any individuality.
Ijahman pauses and laughs.
It’s a long story to talk so far back in the past. Right now I would just like to talk about the future.
I agree. Although I would like to start with Jah Heavy Load. Now that was released on Dennis Harris’s D.I.P. or Concrete Jungle label?
Well, it was the DIP label, Concrete Jungle was the DIP label.
So the first tune was on the Concrete Jungle label?
How did it come about?
Well that come about, we both meet and decided to do something together. It was the first time I was going to record as Ijahman. And Gooseberry Studio, that’s where it all started from. I laid the track down. I arrange it, produce it. Did what needed to be done to the track Jah Heavy Load. At the same time, I did I’am A Levi same session which was released months after.
Was that the same rhythm?
No, two different rhythm.
Chariot Of Love was the same?
Chariot Of Love was also separate, laid the second night – three different tracks.
They were all very similar.
No, well, it is possible because all the material is coming from that one artist. So it’s natural like the same C chord, in a major root will sound like the same C chord in a middle root. Just a fraction different but the same C.
I’m not being critical…
No, no, no… I’m with you. You see, like I say, you could say that at the time, but I make it to be a bit different now. Because it’s three albums now. Obviously, I have time to express myself in three albums. There is another side of me, that no one has really heard of me as yet.
Can you remember the musicians who worked with you on those three singles with Dennis Harris?
Oh yes, you have Jah Bunny, who now plays with the Cimarons on drums. John Kpiaye the guitarist. You have me on rhythm guitar. I think the bass man name was Lloydie. On congoes you have some guy who was playing with a group from up north.
Someone from Steel Pulse?
They had a release on the Concrete Jungle label at the time.
Yeah, that is news to me.
Are you aware that even the dub sides of those releases are still sought after?
No, I’m not really aware of that through not living here, but since I have returned I hear that my music has been doing good – like Moulding I haven’t had the opportunity to have been to a dance to get into Moulding myself because I’m in Jamaica. Jamaica is different vibes again. You are working on different material. Those materials are already done. So you don’t think about it. You get into something else. The only time I get to get the feedback is when I come out and pick up the feedback, from the people… Oh, so this is happening.
After you made those records with Dennis Harris, Dennis in an interview with Steve Barrow in Black Echoes said something like – “Ijahman will never make another record as good as Jah Heavy Load. Was there any disagreement between you and Dennis?
Man and Man always disagree. Where I’m concerned as an artist, I don’t know what it is, but people always seem to want half of what I’ve got. You know what I mean. I’m a person who has written all these songs, for all these years. Yet so many artists have come to me and said Ijahman can you write a song for me. I say, no star. That’s selfish. But I don’t write for people. It’s not only selfish it’s just that I don’t know which song I’m going to sing or which one I’m going to… Father has given me a talent, to write and create. And also I’m trying to do some singing, which I think I’m doing well with. Nothing done before the right day. If I was to give away those songs a couple of years ago I wouldn’t have nothing for myself now.
As far as Dennis is concerned he has been proved wrong.
Well, it is for you to say that. I give thanks if you think he has been proved wrong. A man is proven by his works. And right now I’m on my third works and if I’m to be judged, judge me now on my third works. Not on my first singles.
How do you feel about Island Records?
What I feel about them now and how I feel about them in the past is two different feelings. In the past you’re learning, you make mistakes. In the past I have said that Island don’t treat me good no way, but taking up the groundwork for myself now and getting into it. First of all, Island is not to blame. If I’m to start to blame anyone I wouldn’t start by blaming Island. There is many people to blame first. Island just came into that position, but there is many people before Island. Like for instance, I have a track coming on my next album, 266701, which is expressing all my experiences in prison. There is lots of people to be hurt if I was going to talk. Father said do not bite the hand that feeds you. Whether Island is black or white, Island have done me good. I’m a person a Levite in this time. And I’m living and I can’t… If I & I can’t work together and see eye to eye in a certain direction. So if you and I can’t work together let’s be apart, but for what they have done for me as an artist, no other company could have done.
Do you think that’s sad? A sad reflection of the way things are. In that, there’s only one company that an artist like yourself (a reggae artist) could have gone to in that time. And even today, except perhaps a company like CBS.
The only way I can express it is in this simple manner. They say I’m a very unique artist, something special. And to be something special, you have to take special dedication to handle it. Which Chris Blackwell did.
You think so?
Yes he take it within himself to listen what I was putting out. Obviously, he is spending money, so he must have an idea on what he’s spending it on, before it come out into the world. At the time, what he did with that dedication it was marvelous. It is what bring I to the world as Ijahman, respected in music, and I give thanks. Now we can still work together and get even greater. We have an understanding. It’s not very easy to go into a recording company. A simple little Rastaman and deal with the head. So I give thanks. Although that cause a bit of confusion, because here is a simple Rastaman, he is not supposed to go and deal with the head. He’s supposed to go and deal with ankle, and the ribs, and then go to the shoulder blade, ad reach the ears. And then go to the head. Well I can’t be bothered with that. And I do believe that when you’re creeping, you want creep up until you can walk. You’re supposed to get the opportunity to walk, and even run, cause that’s advancement.
I feel that you overestimate your debt to Island, I think Ijahman’s success is due to Ijahman.
Well, I give thanks. Like I say that could be the reason why I have to have something for myself. I’m a Levite. There’s an old saying let’s not live in the past, because if you live in the past it’s inclined to blight the future.
How did the Tell It To The Children album come about?
OK, well Island have two albums. I haven’t got any for myself. So I decided to go home and get my head together. Father say everyman get paid according to his work. Except I don’t see I’m getting paid. So I stop work and seek somewhere else, but it’s really hard to find someone to work with. Again let me say I give credit to Blackwell. So Father say I have to help myself. I don’t have no money, but like I said ‘Thank You’ for help. So even though I don’t have a bag of money to do an album, I seek thee the kingdom of Jah which is seek Rastafari continually. I don’t have no money but there is work to be done. So what am I going to do? So I reason with myself… talk to myself you may think I’m mad, but I’m not talking to myself, I’m reasoning with myself. “So in that period call it 2½ years. My first album was ’78, Haile I Hymn, and Are We Ah Warrior was released in ’79. So it’s the third one – don’t rush it everything come in its season. So I go home find myself a wife, got married. Father said it better to be married than to burn. So here I am, people don’t hear about Ijahman, I’m working. Here it is Tell It To The Children. You have got to understand that I’m not really a 45 artist. I’ve got to concentrate on albums. So I take a message of ten years ago. Place it with yesterday’s message, and a message for the future, to make it into an album. Like Tell It To The Children was written over ten years ago. The song Are We A Warrior was written over fifteen years ago. And Moulding is a song that is just 2½ years old. I have a song that is 20 years old, and I don’t know when I’m going to sing that. At the present moment I form a company for myself. I form it around me so that I can sing when I want to sing. When the next man don’t think I’m ready to sing. I want to work when I want to work. When someone else don’t think I should be working.
Is there anyone else you would like to produce?
Well, I would like to produce my wife next. I would like to bring her on my next album. Do a track with her. She’s got a terrific voice. Checking out the right song right now that we should do. There are lots of artists in Jamaica I will be recording with in due season, but right now money is the limiter. Right now the Father say work on the main thing first. And the main thing is me. So I’m working on me. So that at the end of the day I can help others. I sing the earth need some moulding in 1979. And the earth was mould in 1980. Jacob Miller died/rest in 1980, Bob Marley died/rest in 1981. The whole system change. Everything change. The whole reggae music industry change. Everything change. I never know all these things. Many things have been sung out there, and the words backfire on them. I and I who are the singers and players of instruments. Even the scribe, who put it out on paper for the people to read it. Must be doing the right. You can’t write one way, and do the other thing.
The move towards more reality and love songs started on Are We A Warrior carried on to Ijahman Levi’s fourth album Africa. It was also the first album that featured Ijahman’s band. The line-up of which follows: Drums, Keith Deacon, Bass, Caswell Swaby, Piano, Christopher Hewie, and Lead Guitar, Stephen Wright. Other musicians are also credited on the album, but the aforementioned remain Ijahman’s band to this day. The sound they create is more minimal than usually found in the music of Ijahman Levi, but the space left is space that Ijahman uses very effectively.
One of the best tracks on side one would have to be Africa, the title track that draws a great deal of strength from yet another wonderful horn arrangement. The use of horn players, five on this album, and on most of Ijahman Levi’s albums are outstanding. Ijahman’s creativity with the horn section is second to none. Hopefully one day he will give us an instrumental album featuring horn arrangements by himself. Other outstanding tracks would have to include Play Girl. It’s the type of song that you can imagine Gregory Isaacs or Dennis Brown singing, but not Ijahman. That he does sing it, and that he brings such insight into a very sensitive subject is a tremendous credit to him. Side two opens with Jesus Selassie I Keepeth My Soul one of Ijahman Levi’s best songs ever, an equal to I’m A Levi and Jah Heavy Load.
By now, Ijahman Levi had a following in the same way that Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs, and Dennis Brown do. This allows an artist to experiment to a certain degree. A loyal following can be a two-edged sword in many respects. If an artist starts to experiment too much which Burning Spear did (up until very recently) you can end up losing more fans than you gain. Ijahman Levi is not the sort of artist to want to upset his following to any extent anyway.
Although it’s been clear for at least a couple of albums, that he had a full love song album inside of him and Lily Of My Valley is it. Sadly no horns are present on the album, which are always the highlight of any Ijahman Levi’s work, but thankfully their absence does not detract that much from the overall mellowness of the album. Of the 8 tracks on the album, my favourites would include My Time which sounds like an Alton Ellis song in its construction but isn’t. And is one of a number of songs on the album co-written with his wife Madge. On side two, we find Stop Playing With My Heart and Darling. Like Play Girl on the Africa album, these tracks are just so surprising. Most artists have a way of changing moods, but this is like another person. Truly amazing.
Ijahman’s next album, a duo with his wife Madge, came about from the success of I Do which was a very big hit in the UK around ’85/’86. I Do was unlike anything Ijahman had done before, it was a very tender song, very much in the style of the early sixties R&B/Ska duos from the likes of Keith & Enid and Derrick & Patsy. It sold very well to the so-called ‘Big People’ or if you prefer the M.O.R record buyer, who has always had a great influence in the Jamaican music scene, but who has never really been acknowledged. The reason for this is that it is a style within a style (lovers), but with the very rapid fragmentation of the music, more artists seem to be slowly drifting towards it, perhaps due to the steady sales offered by it. There are problems though as this album shows. It is very hard to mix other styles with it. Reality, cultural, covers and dancehall can all be_happily mixed together on an album. The same cannot be said for a big people’s track. It needs to be an entire album of ‘Big People’ music to work effectively. A sudden change of lyrical content which is what happens on side two of I Do throws the album out altogether. Side one though works very well. Madge has got a lovely voice that floats in and out of the music with ease. It would be nice to hear her in a jazz/reggae setting. There are certainly enough musicians around with a jazz/reggae background who could handle such a production and such an album would open up new markets for the music. Forward Rastaman, Ijahman’s next solo album, was recorded at Channel One, which is an interesting choice of the studio from the man. Perhaps with another set of musicians he would have walked out of the studio with a classic, but sadly this is Ijahman’s least enjoyable album to date.
Next came Jahman & Friends which presents various artists in a six-track showcase form. Featured artists on the album include Ijahman Levi with three tracks, Clive Brown with one track, His Majesterian with one track, and one from Black Uhuru. Out of all the tracks, it’s the one from Black Uhuru that is the most interesting. First of all, it has a strange production credit – ‘Produced by Sly & Robbie. Executive producer T.A Sutherland (= Ijahman Levi). This sort of music could have gone on Black Uhuru’s debut album, which is where it belongs. It’s certainly a lot better than Natural Reggae Beat. In fact, it sounds like a cover of a Wailers tune whose title eludes me at the moment. The Ijahman Levi tracks could have been better used 0n the Forward Rastaman album, although these tracks are a lot older. Struggling Times in partiîular is excellent track. They have a very distinctive ’70s Channel One sound, which still sounds fresh today. His Majesterian is probably one of the Majesterians, a little-known vocal group who worked with Lee Perry during the late seventies. His song Jah Is Coming Again is pleasant without being exceptional. The Clive Brown track comes across in the same way.
Ijahman Levi’s next album was going to be crucial to his career. Like others outside of the mainstream, he has no style to follow except his own. Artists like Ijahman can only build on their previous albums. They do not have the advantage of being able to turn to a hot producer to give their career a good boost. Although many would argue this is exactly what they should do. If reggae music was that much more advanced, it would be exciting to see someone like Ijahman turning to a number of producers for their skills, but production budgets for reggae albums, like everything else to do with the music, always tend to be just enough, and no more. Ijahman Levi’s music always works best when given the support of horns, but horn players in Jamaica do not come cheap, so something which would lift an album like Inside Out are sadly missing. The result is that we have an album that is a lot better than Forward Rastaman but it not as good as it could have been. Mr C.B is perhaps the most interesting song on the album. It’s not a bitter song, but it would suggest that Ijahman Levi is not exactly happy with the situation he currently finds himself in, a lot that he shares with many other reggae artists.
Since the mid-’80s, reggae music has gone ever more digital, with the extensive use of electronic keyboards and drum machines. This new era was and is called Ragga. It meant for the first time that one man (a very talented musician) could do everything without the aid of very expensive multi-track tape machines and studios. Typically it caused a division, a schism within the music. Artists like I Jah Man Levi were not expected to move in this direction. “Why?” is a question that only those who make such an assumption can answer. They should know that it is not the tool that does the work it is the man or woman behind it.
Artists like Ijahman reasoned this out years ago, but only recently have they decided to embrace this new way of working. It would be interesting to know why Ijahman waited so long, but the wait in his case has been very worthwhile. The work on Love Smiles is carried out by two sets of musicians Chris Meredith & Squiddlie Cole, and Desdale Wilmot & Dixie Pinnock. Also making a contribution are Stephen Wright on piano and Michael Nanton on piano. The recording was done at Trevor Douglas’s (aka Leggo Beast) Leggo Studio, and the results are very refreshing. Without a doubt, the most encouraging track is I Art Jah Watchman, one of Ijahman’s best songs for a long time. However, the real success of this album is that I Ijahman Levi sounds settled again as if he’s found something that he had lost.
To almost prove the point, Ijahman Levi gives us a second album released at the same time of Love Smiles. However, this album, On Track, is something else, something that is and would be totally unexpected from the man: a one-rhythm album. That alone would be a surprise, but this rhythm album, is a one-man, one-rhythm album! What we get are eight tracks, six songs and two dubs. The songs take in a variety of themes and moods and are that much different from each other. Four of the tracks are love songs and two tracks are reality songs. Now with the inclusion of one more reality song, we could have had one side lovers, one side reality. And Ijahman’s lyrical skills are such that the songs could have been connected together lyrically, and mixed together musically. Merged would be a better word. The main thing about this album is that Ijahman Levi seems to be looking forward. He sounds inspired again, and that is important. Ijahman’s work needs to be inspiring. He has been given a great gift, and it something that he likes to share. What artists like him need now, more than anything else, is encouragement, and that comes in many forms.