Judah Eskender Tafari Interview – Part 1
The seventies was the so called ‘golden era’ where reggae flourished with innovation, inspiration and power. Roots music was at its very peak during most of that period, and the activities down at Sir Dodd’s 13 Brentford Road, the address for Jamaica Recording Ltd AKA Studio One, was perhaps not in the same productive scheme as it had been a decade earlier, but the creativity was nonetheless extraordinary. Albums by names like Jennifer Lara, Sugar Minott, Pablove Black, Johnny Osbourne and Freddie McGregor springs to mind, as well as several brilliant 45’s by a plethora of artists..
TWELVE TRIBES VIBES
‘Jah Light’ is a late seventies Studio One masterpiece, anyone who was picking up the original seven-inch – or more likely Coxson’s ‘Pirates Choice’ album in the early eighties – is aware of this track and will easily testify the beauty of it, written and sung by an artist we didn’t get more than a handful of 45’s from following ‘Jah Light’ in 1978. The songwriter, Ronald Merrills, known to one and all as Judah Eskender Tafari, was a shadowy figure in the music until the long-serving Small Axe fanzine gave us a more detailed history of the man about twelve years ago. It was a long overdue piece to say the least, but indeed very welcome. Coxson Dodd had an album ready for release in 1979 but, sadly, he never fulfilled what was surely a highly anticipated project by roots reggae aficionados at the time, so the debut album was never to be on the Coxsone label. Instead Gussie P got the debut album, a computerized production, and out of England in the mid nineties. It was followed a few years later by another – and even better – album out of New York on Phillip Smart’s Tan-Yah label, which disappeared shortly after release.
Judah Eskender is an exceptional talent with a remarkable voice but is, unfortunately, largely unknown for the wider audience. But I’m positive the tide will turn in his favour, and soon. My thanks to Judah, Gabe Moses, Michael G, Michy, Tim Barrow, Donovan Phillips, Janis Punford, David Corio, Michael de Koningh, Tim P, Russ Bell-Brown, and Steve Barrow.
How did you grow up Judah, what’s your background?
I man was born in the University of the West Indies, grew up in a cool lickle town named Gordon Town, St. Andrew, Jamaica, next by Kingston. So, that’s where I was born, yunno.
Yeah, a mighty big family, y’know. The only t’ing, we don’t have a whole heap a money. So it’s like it’s a rough struggle to earn a bread dem times. Whatever yu as a youth love fe have, y’know, I could not have everyt’ing right now as a youth, it wasn’t afford(able) in that time. But I man had all major t’ings dem I suppose to get, which is child discipline, growing and everyt’ing, I have all a that, y’know.
What was the family income in those days?
Basically my parents dem is some self-sufficient people, they have land and they jus’ sort of make their land and live offa the land.
My grandfather is a basic all-around tradesman, so he can do everyt’ing. So, that’s the way, y’know. Yeah.
Anything to ‘keep the motor going’, right?
Yeah, you know, and it’s always like sufficient. So God bless the lickle man deh, him jus’ pass away the other day, some few years ago. Both of my grandmother just pass away, recently pass. So Jah bless them souls inna Zion, ’cause these people were good people, y’know. Yeah. ‘Cause I never grow with no father. My mother leave, from early childhood she go to England and she never really returned, she pass away in England. So you can understand I-self growing up – never a nice, easy childhood I had. But I always have the love of God inna my heart, man who always know say ‘One day the Almighty God will work out fe I and make things right’. I was always a man of hope and faith, y’know.
As a child, the musical surrounding, what was that like?
Well, from I was a kid I always have a love of music inna my heart. I didn’t dream of me to be a musician or a singer, I didn’t really have dem kinda dreams deh, I didn’t really… I wasn’t the one growing up saying I was born to be a singer or I want to be a musician. So these t’ings happen when I was growing up. I know that at a certain age I see a lickle youth with a guitar, man, in my heart I would have given to the youth anyt’ing in the world to get that guitar, I just had that love for that instrument, which I never really get, I never get it anyway. But faith I always have, right, as I get bigger from early teenage. But, Moonie Smith, he was the main man who really generate the love of guitar in terms of actually playing the guitar, ’cause he was a musician and he had his guitar and he jus’ lend me to practice and teach me the chords and stuff. So from then I man start play guitar and that was like probably in the mid seventies or early seventies. Since then I man just continue until me own me own guitar and I was able to back up people.
I always waan find a singer who really love to sing, fe really jus’ practice and back him up, y’know, try fe jus’ mek for him the chords and play for him a riddim. So basically that’s how I man get started, that I man find this lickle bredren in the area who love the music same way, who form a lickle group, y’know. Call weself The Captive Lions, the name was Asher Mackafat we call him. Those are good people. He’s the one who really turn I out then in terms of getting a show or such. Even though we used to like doing lickle t’ings in our area, but it wasn’t no major show or nutten. To really get on a good show was really Asher Mackafat & The Captive Lions, we used to sing harmony for him and play guitar. So, that’s how I really get inna the singin’, ca’ basically I never really had the singin’ inna my mind as such. Then as I go along I man get fe love it and start sing more and play me guitar. So basically now it happen that I man become a member of the Twelve Tribe of Israel in Jamaica.
How did that come about, it felt more natural to join that organisation than the Nyabinghi faction or the Ethiopian Orthodox Church or the R.M.A. or even the Boboshantis at the time?
God who make all things come about, ’cause it’s not I and I a plan it in itself. I check out all them faith, I check Nyabinghi and all a dem which… that wasn’t my spirit. Them man deh really too much, too much definition of words and all kinda ‘put’ in a everyt’ing. Twelve Tribes was the closest thing I man feel we a deal with, with what I man learn from coming up, inna the church I man learn fe love Jesus Christ and speak of him. So more of them teachings fe read the bible fe yourself, from Genesis to Revelation. So, that’s whe I really want it, and that’s how that come about.
What’s the story on the name you have, ‘Judah Eskender Tafari’? What made you decide for that name?
It came so it really come about still as the fullness is make me into a Twelve Tribe bredren along the way, ca’ Twelve Tribe bredren live inna my area whe I grow up, y’know, which them man deh kinda jus’ see I as a youth probably a seek for certain things and show I the Twelve Tribes, as I man attend Twelve Tribe meetings and accept it for myself. So nobody force about… down me throat or nutten, you see me? So, that’s how that come about. Being a Twelve Tribe now, Twelve Tribes have basically the areas which give I man even a bigger opportunity fe even penetrate more the musical area, the musical part of it. So, being a Twelve Tribe – also Mackafat is a Twelve Tribe, we do first lickle shows that Twelve Tribe do in terms of – like I said – a big show.
Where was the Twelve Tribes headquarters in those days?
Twelve Tribes a come from out of Trench Town. I man be a part of it from when Twelve Tribes was based in a place named Dread Heights. I don’t know if you hear ’bout Dread Heights, Dread Heights is like a valley, y’know.
I think this is the place where Israel Vibration stayed, when the group was living in Jamaica.
Exactly, them live in Dread Heights and I know all them man deh from them man deh live ‘pon nutten, seen. So, the whole a dem man deh I and I build dem man deh. Dem man deh I and I was close, me and Apple (Albert Craig) was very close and all that. So, a whole heap a t’ing and that’s how me know Twelve Tribes from, yu no see it, the days from Twelve Tribes deh a Dread Heights. I wasn’t really troddin’ when them deh a Trench Town, I no there yet. But from Dread Heights I man come forward in that time. Coming to the name t’ing weh you ask me ’bout, it’s coming from down the line. I know myself as being a Judah from being a Twelve Tribe member, you understan’. ‘Cause twelve sons of Jacob, when you read the bible you see that. And Judah was the fourth born son from Jacob and Leah, so I was the one who’s born in the month of July and acknowledged as a Judah, y’know. As July represents Judah, the month of July represents the tribe of Judah. So, that’s how Judah come about.
Now, I man was invited now to sing for Studio One, when I go Studio One now and start actually do things now, I figure seh I actually need a vocalist name, a singin’ name different from the regular name. So basically I was jus’ seeking and one day I bump into this sister, a sistren from Ethiopia, Ethiopian princess. She was there in Jamaica and I man asked her, y’know take a lickle time fe talk to her, and I man asked her: “What would be a good Ethiopian name for I man to put in?” She give me a few names an’ t’ing and I man choose ‘Eskender’, ’cause she said to me it mean a commander, y’know, being a singer it’s like it’s really commanding the people. So I man choose Eskender out of the rest of the names she give I man, y’know. So, that’s how that name really come about and I man establish it from the Studio One label. I man establish it and it become a t’ing whe everybody know me as the Eskender. So me is from the tribe of Judah, I man jus’ put ‘Judah Eskender’, y’know. And a Rastafari a different, so I just put ‘Tafari’ on the head name, which is my Father name. So that’s how ‘Judah Eskender Tafari’ come about, really.
How did this invitation to 13 Brentford Road come about, Coxson’s place? You didn’t enter any other studio prior to this?
Never, no other studio. Studio One was my first studio I ever go.
At the time there was several Twelve Tribes people involved in recordings at Studio One, wasn’t it, apart from Bagga Walker and Pablove (Black)?
Yeah, is not a whole heap of people, is just Pablove and Bagga, really. Yeah, I was invited by Pablove and Bagga, yunno, ca’ them man deh recognise I man talent, singin’. Them man deh see seh, well, I could be going on this site and perform my own songs, arrange everyt’ing, ca’ I play the guitar. So, the songs are always already arranged so them man deh have less problem with me than any other Twelve Tribe singer, you see me? So them man deh, I guess them see it inna themselves seh, well, them put I to the next level. So they take I to Studio One, yunno.
How did you get on with him?
Coxson love I man still, mon, no different from in terms of say any other human being now. When it comes to money is just dem t’ing, Coxson no likely talk money for nobody, him have a history on that, through everybody know an’ t’ing. Well anyway, him get along with we OK, him always deal with I OK, with the music and all that. Him give me a quick break, yunno, never really have no waiting and coming every day whe him seeing a lot of other people, him take I inna the studio and start deal with me right away. We had a lickle two-year deal an’ t’ing. In the space of three week time or a month he probably give me a first release, which is not like him do. ‘Cause as it is, the man is keeping the songs a long time before him release them. So him did a good thing in a sense like him release I man, have the song ‘pon the radio in Jamaica and establish it all inna Europe deh and all that. Him give I man a first break really, y’know.
You gotta be grateful for that in some way, even though it didn’t give you much in terms of compensation?
Yeah, most definitely. ‘Cause for recording you see, well, if I never really go to no Studio One, I probably – just probably – wouldn’t even be heard until now.
You didn’t think too much about recording before you got the invitation to Studio One?
Is not like I never have no intention to record, but I was young inna the thing, I don’t know the procedure at all, y’know what I’m saying. As I man grow I would probably end up with some other producer anyway. But my main object was to work for the Twelve Tribes of Israel, y’know what I’m saying, Twelve Tribe never really have no recording studio or nutten like that. That’s how I really end up going singin’ for some other producer. That was my aim, fe really having everyt’ing centralised within my organisation. Basically that was it, not like seh I never really have no prospects of doing a recorded song. But being a youth inna dem time deh I needed that direction, Pablove and Bagga did that for I man.
What was the first song you recorded?
Yeah, well, the first song I recorded was ‘Jah Light’, y’know.
Who played on that session?
Yeah, it was like Pablove, Bagga, Sowell was the guitarist, I think it was Freddie McGregor, ca’ dem time deh Freddie McGregor a play drum an’ t’ing, ca’ him just play drums ‘pon that song deh, y’know.
Sugar Minott & Judah Eskender Tafari performing at SOB’s NYC on 2-6-2006 (Photo: David Corio | davidcorio.com)
This is one of the best tracks recorded in the late seventies at Studio One as I see it, something of a masterpiece. What’s the inspiration for ‘Jah Light’?
Yeah, ‘Jah Light’ come about…
I mean, everything about it is so different from the rest of the music from that period, outstanding stuff, there’s no question about that.
Yeah, it’s arranged by I man anyway like I say with my guitar and stuff, and the melody and everything, y’know. But the lyrics first come about with one of my bonafide bredren in Jamaica who really strengthen me musically too, a bredren named Ivan Reuben. He really come up with the first few lyrics for that song deh ya, and I give thanks – him is an outstanding man, him give me the vibes and give me the lyrics and I just finish it up. That’s how that song really come about, yunno, with the inspiration of Jah.
Who did the actual arrangement on the recording?
Well, it was the basically the same arrangement, but just in terms of bass kinda melodies and everyt’ing, dem t’ing deh was taken care of by the rest of the musicians, Bagga played that bass and Pablove arranged some melodies an’ t’ing, and Coxson bring in some hornsman. He had some horns down for it and t’ing like that. There’s Sowell and dem man ‘pon it, I think Horsemouth did the percussions and all that. So it was various musicians who make up that song.
What was Coxson’s role in those sessions?
Yeah, well, Coxson was mainly the man who just had him other lickle engineer, who turn out to be Scientist. Them time deh we used to call him… I forget what Coxson used to call him. I don’t know if you hear about Scientist?
Sure. So Coxson wasn’t really present?
Him basically was just… probably like giving them a few little points here and there, but in terms of creativity now he left that up to the musicians dem, yunno. But in terms of the engineering part an’ t’ing like that, he was responsible for all of that, mixing and the takes and everyt’ing.
‘Jah Light’ sold well enough?
Yeah, well, none of my songs dem really sell a lot according to Coxson, y’know (chuckles). He was like that, I just have to take it as a fake. But I know it spread out ‘pon a wide range, y’know, that song spread out. Even children tell me about it, from all over they tell me about it, them hear it. So them have a copy of it, even if it no sell a whole bulkload it was internationally known.
What was the next song you did over there, was that ‘Danger In Your Eyes’?
That come down the line. I know I did ‘Rastafari Tell You’ was a next original, ‘Always Trying’. I did more songs, ’cause I did a lot of songs still which never release, most of the songs was never released. It was about six songs that was released, y’know. And we did over ‘Danger In Your Eyes’ which is another person’s song, which we lay the track and jus’ deal with it. There’s ‘Never Trying To Conquer I’, them song…
‘Never Conquer’, right.
By Delroy Wilson, y’know. Yeah. So it goes like that.
‘Just Another Day’ too. Did you know that that one came out in Italy on a twelve-inch recently?
No, I didn’t have no idea. Bwoy, I don’t know, I don’t know about them international t’ing. If some man don’t inform me I don’t know ’bout these t’ings, ’cause Coxson never really give me no information about it or nutten. Bless his soul still, him pass and gone now. But him never really give me no notice or tell me which place or where is this and that or whatever, yunno. Him was like that.
There was a bunch of 12″ releases out of Italy on the Winro label a while ago, but these were bootlegs.
So Coxson wasn’t even involved.
I believe that was the flipside to a Bob Andy song, the ‘Just Another Day’.
I think it came out last year.
Last year? Mmm. So them gwaan with a whole heap a bootleg inna Italy too, right?
Seems like it. I don’t think they went beyond the first pressing.
What about the Twelve Tribe Band, they had the Orthodox label too, whoever it was, Hugh Boothe or someone like that. Were you ever a part of that band?
Like I say now, I play guitar also. Eventually I start to play in the band named Generation Gap band, which was also a band who regard Twelve Tribe members, a band which was established ‘pon the road a’ready. But all of the band members dem hook up on Twelve Tribes members dem. I also used to play guitar with dem and sing with dem.
The Generation Gap had horn players like Lloyd Kerr and Mike Carroll.
Yeah. Mikey Carroll. Mikey was a good bredren, for long years I no see the man. Well, Dalton Browne was the major man who really give all the concept to we. Dalton is the man who teach Freddie, and Dalton’s bredda is the same bredren who play drums with Steely, who become Steely & Clevie. Yeah, Dalton was the main man who really got interested in me playing guitar with Generation Gap, at the same time I used to practice the bass guitar an’ t’ing.
Who taught you bass, was that Bagga?
Well, Bagga just kinda inspire me, y’know. He woulda tell me seh well, “Yeah that sound good” and, y’know, rey rey. But he no really sit down with I man like him teach me. But that just come from inside of me, jus’ play the guitar. So after a while Twelve Tribe bass-player had to go and marry, go to England, and them ask me if I would sit in on bass same way now. So I couldn’t really refuse that invitation either, so I started to playin’ the bass in Twelve Tribe Band, y’know, which never really leaving out my singin’ career. ‘Cause I man at that point so much people strain me ‘pon the singin’ and I never want to be a part of the singin’, that time I wouldn’t be singin’ more upfront, I practice the playing. But I sacrifice fe a portion of years really jus’ playin’ a instrument and hardly doing any singin’, really. So I used to play the bass in Twelve Tribe Band, backing up many singers, y’know. Back up Judy Mowatt, Freddie McGregor, Dennis Brown, all the major names dem, I play bass for them a’ready. Stuff like that, Brigadier Jerry, and most other artists, many other artists.
I think the Orthodox label was run by Hugh Boothe, Jahlove Muzik, these guys. Did you record as part of the band for them?
No, the Orthodox label, I never really get the chance fe record for the Orthodox label, but I did an album for Brigadier which is ‘Jamaica, Jamaica’, y’know. I play all a them bass deh, on Brigadier album named ‘Jamaica, Jamaica’, is the album name.
Right, I think you told me about a bunch of other groups and artists within the organisation, I forgot who some of them was, but Fred Locks was a major name. Another one was Dan Hutson.
Dan Hutson, yeah. Gilly Gilbert…
Albert Malawi, another vocalist.
Albert Malawi, he was both a singer and a drummer. He is the same Ilawi who play with Jah Love, select with Jah Love – Ilawi y’know.
Right, the long running sound system.
Yeah. Cherry Rock (which is Anthony ‘Rocky’ Ellis who cut ‘I’m the Ruler’ for Studio One), who used to sing.
Carl Fletcher, Ewan Naphtali?
Eh? Ewan Naphtali, a whole bunch of singers, man. I’m telling you, Spliffy Dan, Gilly Gilbert, so many singers, man.
And Sangie Davis as well.
Sangie Davis. Yeah, him used to play guitar in Twelve Tribe Band too.
There was some groups too, but the names has escaped me (The Light of Love was another female duo associated with the Twelve Tribes)… you mentioned them the last time we spoke.
Still Cool. Still Cool was another major group, them man deh was like really firm an’ t’ing and always carry them outfit and all a that, and singin’. Was one of the Twelve Tribe major groups, y’know.
Back to Studio One now, did you get the chance to back up other people down there?
Yeah, I sing some harmonies for people still. I sing harmony for quite a few, I sing harmony on Freddie McGregor song ‘Bobby Babylon’ and I sing for the sister deh all now, what’s she name again…?
Jennifer Lara (now deceased)?
Jennifer Lara and another sister too, one of them elder female singers, she was a beautiful voice. I did some harmony for quite a few artists.
Perhaps Winston Francis, his ‘Going To Zion’ was cut around that time I think.
Winston Francis, ‘Going To Zion’?
Yeah. Remember that song?
No, it’s possible, man, ’cause I used to do a lot of harmony also.
I forgot about another Twelve Tribes singer, you had the man called I Kong.
I Kong? I know I Kong, yeah, but I never really do any work with I Kong. I guess we sing ‘pon a few shows an’ t’ings like that.