Var Hillsman: Music is more than sound

by Nov 4, 2022Articles, Interview

Var Hillsman


Where: Nevada USA
Reporter: Soul Sis
Photos: Courtesy of Hillsman Records
Copyright:  2022 – Soul Sis

There are some songs that after just a few seconds we know we want to listen to again and again… until it becomes clear to us what captivates us about it. There are such songs that after hearing them we want to hear the whole album as soon as possible. Such a song is “Jah Love” by Var Hillsman, or actually, Kevar Williams known as Var.

The singer, songwriter, and musician is known for touring with the reggae collective Inna De Yard. Var joined the group five years ago. His original music, which is featured on the tour and film project titled “Inna de Yard: the Soul of Jamaica”, delivers a distinctive raspy sound with conviction in his voice. But of course, this is just one of the elements that make his music interesting. Var deeply understands his cultural roots, respects this legacy and at the same time has the courage to follow his own path and share his experience as he feels it.

Kiddus I, who needs no introduction since “Graduation In Zion” and whose “Jah Power, Jah Glory” sung almost 40 years later sounds just as great, announces Var’s “Crime” as follows: “Alongside the ’70s singers, there will be young singers, bringing energy and freshness. (…) Var is part of this new generation that will uplift acoustic music. He don’t need a drum machine and a digital loop to sing about the violence, crime, and often sad reality of Kingston streets in 2017. Listen to his voice, he’s a true new talent”.

Indeed. “Crime” not only sounds great, with its drum rhythm section and natural piano sound but is also a meaningful voice on behalf of a generation growing up in poverty. “Live Good” is an expression of a natural, pure honesty in sharing what life reveals to us. In both songs we can find a kind of musical mindfulness that “takes the listener on board” and allows him to experience, in a sense, what is the essence of Var’s story. This makes us feel, even before we listen to the lyrics of the song, that it is something genuine, something very original, something that resonates beautifully.

This is exactly what happens when we listen to “Jah Love”. Two acoustic guitars and a singing voice: “Jah word is my guide shine the light like a lighter…” make up the whole song and nothing is missing there. A song you can listen to over and over again – it doesn’t get boring. The way it was recorded, especially the way the vocals sound – with a slight echo – gives the impression as if the musicians are sitting next to us. It seems to me, however, that this effect Var achieves regardless of the production style. He just adds that quality to the tune. An example is the song “New Day,” produced by Addis Record – different production style but mature lyrics and heartical interpretation makes the vibration recognisable.

But back to Var’s productions: “Jah Love” is his first solo release under Hillsman Records and it is a real musical pearl. Another one is “Revolution.” A song unique in many ways. Full of sadness, it reflects on the reality around us and touches us with its simplicity, which, despite appearances, is not easy to achieve, and certainly not very often chosen by artists lately. Andrew Dawner’s keys in this song are unmistakable. Jason Walsh, who we already know from JahSolidRock’s brilliantly arranged and produced “Poor And Needy,” played acoustically this time. The lucidity of form combined with the beautiful composition of sounds and moving message does not allow us to remain indifferent. What inspires me most, however, is that in this sad tale there is no room for any negative emotion; there is not an ounce of anger beneath the surface of the sounds. Pure beauty of a vulnerable confession. Really positive vibration in tough times…

Today Var released the third single leading up to the debut album that is set to be released in 2023. “Count Your Blessings” (produced along with Torsten Von Olleschik arranging and mixing the record and Stephan Hager as mastering engineer). This semi-acoustic song was written while working on his farm in Portland, Jamaica, and was recorded in Germany while on tour with Inna De Yard. “Count Your Blessings” is “an expression of gratitude and encouragement for everyone to stay positive in times of difficulty” – as Var says.

I admit that it’s been a long time since I’ve looked forward to any album so much. I was fortunate to hear this song moments before its release because I had previously asked Var to answer some questions about his music. We talked right after I listened to “Count Your Blessings”. We both laughed at the time because I joked that his music pushes me to redefine my understanding of the word ‘reggae’. The comment Var then gave is the best point of the interview and a commentary on his music. The quote is written from memory because I did not record the conversation, but it went something like this:

Yeah, I know… In Jamaica, we understand music a little differently. Some people think that reggae is a big drum, or heavy bass… Sound is part of the music… but music is more than sound. Music is message and vibe. Reggae is a positive vibe.

Jah love

Poor And Needy

You Alone

Var Hillsman - Count Your Blessings
What follows is a short interview with Var Hillsman.

You joined the Inna de Yard project when your band, Pentateuch, had already toured Europe and the United States (promoting the album “The Genesis”). It has been written about you guys that you are “one of the bands that are fueling the renaissance of Jamaican roots music”. The song “Crime”, which you recorded with Pentateuch, was later released in a version prepared for Inna de Yard. Can you tell us how you became part of this project?
I got invited to a band rehearsal with Inna De Yard by a friend, Kush McAnuff. I started participating in the rehearsal, just singing and enjoying the music, when the band manager asked me to sing a song with them. I sang “Crime”, and the band loved it and asked me to be part of the project. It might not be 100% accurate, but it happens somewhat of this nature since it’s been a while since this happened. It was a natural and easy connection.

Inna de Yard project has resulted in many interviews with the artists involved, and a great documentary by Peter Webber. Worth reading and a must-see. Surely there will be an opportunity to talk about it some more, but this time I would like us to look back even further into the past. To the time when you realised that you wanted to deal with music. Or maybe even earlier, to your childhood. I have the impression that what is so characteristic of your art (respect for creation and the creator – Jah love, respect for others – Revolution, self-respect – new day) is grounded in the way you grew up. Besides, you mentioned this in interviews. Can you relate to this?
I was born in the mountains of Portland Jamaica in a community called Bellevue district. I was raised by my grandparents on the farmlands in the Maroon territory until I was a teenager. I moved to Kingston city with my Mom. Growing up I would go to church with my grandparents and I remember loving the hymns they would sing at church services. Life was simple as a little boy. I would follow my grandparents to work on the farm and fetch water at the spring. We never had a lot of money growing up, but I never felt like we were in need of anything either because we lived off the land. We had an abundance of food and good family vibrations. It was difficult at times, yes, but it was a natural and simple way of life. In our community growing up, there would be a lot of drumming and singing as well. My love for music really came alive when I moved to Kingston to live with my mom. She never wanted me to get involved in the violent side of Kingston so it was a must that I go to church with her as much as she could (as to keep me away from the rude boy gangster lifestyle in Kingston). Going to church in Kingston and seeing the musicians play instruments was what made me decide to do music professionally. From church, I went to study music in school, at the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing arts. I really enjoyed my teaching in school as I wanted to sing and write my own music so I started a band called Pentateuch while in college and that was the official beginning of my musical journey.

You have already collaborated with many artists. I would like to ask you about one such collaboration. I am thinking of “Building Bridges”. A great tune with David Cairol and Brinsley Forde. The double question: how did that happen? And… on Brinsley’s website there is a photo of you making food. I also remember you said ” What I love most is Music and Food because both have the power to unite the people. So, as long as I am alive I will be planting food and making music.” Tell us more about it, please.
David Cairol linked me up and said he wanted to do a collab, so I said yes right away, because he is a brother from another country whose music I love, and who is on the same path of unity and one love for all mankind. So it was an easy decision and to top it off. He had legendary singer Brinsley Forde on the track. This was just a great opportunity to work with an artist I love and respect.

Growing up I never know anything about ital food but what we know was “PLANT AND GROW THE FOOD THAT YOU AND YOUR FAMILY EAT”. This was the only way we could survive and maintain our good health. This way you truly know what you are nourishing your temple with. It’s my ultimate mission to improve and develop this way of living until my community can be fully self-sufficient with food and then into business in the future. Local farming is the future, so massive respect to all local farmers worldwide, “SECURE YOUR OWN FOOD”.

I grew in a place where it was normal to cook by the river and have big gatherings and togetherness. So for me, cooking for people and making food is something I love. Many will tell you that visit me, whether in Kingston or Portland, that part of my life as feeding people is something I now get to understand on a deeper level. Because growing up in my village food and music would always bring people together, no matter their differences. We could always work it out over some good food and good music. So I want to continue that legacy left by my ancestors…

Music is a natural form of expression of what we feel and how we see the world. There are places on earth where people have preserved this gift and Jamaica seems to be such a place. Your music somehow nourishes and rejuvenates the cultural roots from which Jamaican culture springs. Half the world revels in this Jamaican heritage. Even though there is still good music being released in Jamaica, it is no secret that on the island today music is already seen in a different way and sometimes has nothing to do with the values it grew out of. You know what I mean? How is that from your perspective?
Good music is still being created in Jamaica and I think a lot of the younger artists today are on the right track. However, I see how the media is promoting only certain types of songs which is misleading to the public. Genre is not relevant as we have seen songs from reggae, pop, jazz dancehall, hip hop, you name it, all these styles of music have produced some great songs in the past and still doing it. I believe that all music was created with its roots from the African continent simply because it’s the first civilization, so anything that we create today has its roots in the Motherland. What makes the difference is what we say in the production, the word of the artist is where it is for me. Words can either break or build the people of today. As an artist, I learn never to criticize another artist in a negative way as that’s not the trait of a great artist and good human being. I always want to see another artist grow from strength to strength in their work. I listen to everything that is being created by both the older artist and the new ones because I am a musician so I listen for many things in a song and I am inspired when I feel the connection. What I love is to discover a new song or new artist that has a unique style to his art. I love music and I just want to use what the Almighty God gave me to inspire the world. So I am always thankful for every chance I get to create a song.

In an interview related to the Inna De Yard project, you said: “My style of singing I like to call soul. Because that’s all I write – I feel the music, so it’s from the soul. So I sing (…) I just carry it and make it manifest.” You also once said that it doesn’t matter what musical genre someone classifies a song into – good music is good music (somehow it sounded like that). What do you call good music? What do you look for in music as an audience, and what is important to you when you make your own music?
For I n I Music is a very important balance of life and without music, the world and life would be different in a negative way. Music is a spiritual thing and we all have to be mindful of it. When I write and sing music I have to feel it and if it feels good in my heart then that’s enough.

For me music is a form of speaking up for my rights as well as it is fun because life is not only sadness and spiritual. It is about love and funny moments in life. It is also about love for my family and friends. It is also about the love between a man and a woman and partners who share sexual and emotional connections, and above all my music is about the ultimate love and unity for humanity in general. I write music that speaks to all aspect of my life journey, so that the common normal people can relate and share this experience.


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