Sylford Walker interview
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.
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?
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.
Yeah, I run away from I was round nine year old (laughs)! Ca’ I couldn’t take the vibes, and then…
Where in the hills?
It’s there in Penlyne Castle, that’s where I was born, near the Blue Mountain Peak in St. Thomas, at least St. Andrews.
That was the home for the first nine years.
Yeah, I walk all the way from that place to town, man (laughs).
And didn’t go back (laughs)!?
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.
Why were they scared of dread culture?
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.
Tell me more about the environment at Gold Street, that’s where you’ve been most of your life.
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.
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.
Same place up in St. Andrew, up in the hills?
No, there so in Yallahs, St. Thomas, where the beach side is an’ t’ings like that.
Anyhow, the ‘South Side’ area, what part of Kingston are we talking about there?
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.
Sitting on it.
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.
Before you linked up with Joe Gibbs, what brought you into the music? Were you part of any group as such?
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.
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.
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?
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.
Of course, you still have the name out there.
Yes sir, yes sir.
Did you audition for anyone else before you ended up on Joe Gibbs’ premises?
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.
Before we go into that, you did more songs for Joe Gibbs, at least one more, titled ‘Mother In Law’.
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.
Right, you have a recut, you revoiced the ‘Jah Golden Pen’ riddim a while back for Gibbs, true.
Yeah, ‘Golden Pen’. I told them where to put their name now on ‘Jah Lawbook of Life’, in ‘Jah Lawbook of Life’.
How did this come about, doing new work for Gibbs?
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.
How many, you did like eight songs, or you mean eighteen?
Eighty! Eighty, eighty.
And Joe Gibbs maybe around a 150 (chuckles)!
(Chuckles) You see? So I could never sit down in that, sah! And turning a grandfather. Yeah!
What was the inspiration for ‘Burn Babylon’ again? You got busted by police for a stick of weed and thrown in jail for it.
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.
And that’s 1975. So what was the response for it? Indeed a typical theme of its day.
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.
Right, a little mix-up.
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.
Obviously you were very fond of how Spear moulded his vocals at the time?
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.
You got some type of feedback what the music did overseas?
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.
They thought it was a new tune by Spear?
Yeah, yeah. They thought so, y’know what I mean, ’cause even a man beat me up out here because of that.
Beat you up for it?
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!
But even before you did some work with Glen Brown, there was a tune for Clive Hunt, remember ‘Bad Bad Bad’ (aka ‘I Can’t Understand’)?
Oh! OK, yes that was a next man, yunno, wherepart he is a next man who draw a card ‘pon me that ’til I don’t even t’ink about him, and because I do one song for him in the earlies before Glen Brown, ‘im go away with it ’til I don’t quite remember it, y’know wha’ I mean. If I don’t untruth I t’ink I do it back fe Joe Gibbs now with the sneak preview that coming out.
And that song was basically about the tribal war during that time.
Yeah, I t’ink somet’ing like that.
Too much killing over nothing.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And he didn’t, y’know wha’ I mean, he told me that that song, nutten ‘appen.
I suppose you don’t know that Trojan released it back in the seventies, and they still put it out. It appeared on a compilation titled ‘Babylon A Fall Down’ circa ’91, and I believe it was included on a box set a few years back.
Yeah, OK. You see, you see, all those song I have no… Since I’ve been here now I learn ’bout all copyright, y’know.
That’s it, you have to register the songs in order to get some compensation.
Yeah. Because what they do, they told me they register it in my name an’ t’ing like that, but it don’t goes like that.
Who? Who said that?
Ahh, of course he said that!
Even Joe Gibbs told me the same t’ing, because there’s no royalty I was gettin’ from ‘Jah Golden Pen’ or ‘Burn Babylon’. So right now I’m plannin’ that when I get back to Jamaica, I’ve got to take out some sheet an’ jus’ fill them up an’ send them off straight to England.
Right, you have to.
To get some dunny at least.
Yeah. But you see sometime what they do to me, the name I gave my song, they put it out on a different name! You see me?
Like how Glen Brown would put out ‘Lamb’s Bread’ there now an’ I think there’s a song on it by the name of ‘Roots Rock Reggae’, and yesterday I see it in a radio station there’s a different name them call it.
Yeah, you know so he calling it from that name, from what he call it, y’know wha’ I mean.
Sneeking behind your back.
Yeah, yeah. Those way they get around. You see, to me, there was a one-foot man in the first time when I went to ‘im up by King Jammy’s, was to do some recording an’ it never work. The one-foot man said to me, say “Mr. Walker, every artist don’t get this, you have to have a lawyer, but out there you has to pay the lawyer before the work” (laughs)!
(Laughs) And I don’t have those money!
You should be aware that Joe Gibbs has ‘Burn Babylon’ included on several collections over the years, he’s still doing that.
OK, yeah. Yeah man.
And there’s not a penny in your hand for it.
I don’t get nutten from Joe Gibbs away from what he’s done just lately.
So after Clive Hunt now you went to Glen Brown, Glen lived in the same neighbourhood there, didn’t he? Close to Gold Street.
Yeah. No, well, Clive Hunt you see, how I really met Clive Hunt is in the studio, but he did end up married to a girl round in my community, and that’s where I finish get to talk to him an’ deal with him, and then reach to his studio an’ do a t’ing. But Glen Brown, he was living below just where I am, I and him and Dennis Brown and Freddie McKay, we used to be around there every day, jus’ smoke an’ cook food an’ eat, until he’s still – he never have no riddim wherepart he do all those riddim that he use, is some old-time long King Tubby’s an’ Channel One an’ all ’bout riddims, y’know. And him jus’ told me that bwoy, he feel that I can voice them. And him book some lickle times an’ get around an’ I just put me time together and find somet’ing put on them. And from there him go make me a promise that he will be back. When the car hit me, he send me $ 80 US dollars with a tape with some music, riddim on it, and tell me that I must take that money an’ go voice some music and send back to him, after me done bruk me foot a’ready, you see sah? You know how I got a dollar off that album? And is eight song him put from them, tek it all ’round a Joe Gibbs song, which is ‘Golden Pen’, and put on his album, yunno. And you know how I get a dollar from that? The man sell out the rights an’ everyt’ing to a brethren, a company whe he told me was a group in England, but I t’ink they get wealthy now, y’know. And then they send me a £ 1000 pound, which I set a use fe start the house. And what lickle they give me, I buy lickle material an’ couldn’t get no further. You know, so I have to make up me mind and jus’ – not one a dem don’t even know I’m in foreign, that mus’ be somebody tell them.
You mean the Blood & Fire label in England, what you were talking about regarding compensation?
Eh? Yeah, I mean Joe Gibbs an’ GG, nobody know that I’m here. Because you know, they didn’t give me that vibes to even go an’ tell them that I gone an’ get help, I told them before an’ then they tek it like joke. All they want to do every day I mus’ come a studio an’ sing an’ bus’ me chest, sometime hunger kill me, y’know what I mean. That cyaan work again, brethren. If me go stay alive to next year I’m 50 year old now, man. So I mean, I’ve got to do me best from now, that mean at the end of the day I can know where I stop.
What was your first impressions of Glen Brown? You became pretty close from what I understand, you used to come over and eat at his mother’s place, right?
Yeah, yeah. We almost live together like brothers, any lickle problems me an’ him on the road an’ t’ing. I mean, you know sometime him prove, some man prove very good brethren, but in another way around. I mean, they’re not conscious in helping or doing things right. You know, once they buck a deal, they deal you out the deal. Then, it’s when t’ings get down back weak with him now, him want me now to put back some of my voice on the tape to help him. Well I say, bwoy, better then Joe Gibbs bruk me foot again, because I still can see him, see the place where him have out here every day out in Jamaica, that weekend time I do as nutten for me children fe eat, I a go there an’ all I get is a thousand dollar, y’know (chuckles). But it still, y’know wha’ I mean. But doing t’ing for Glen there now, I not seeing Glen. From Glen gone to foreign, if him don’t want somet’ing, I don’t hear. The man send me some clothes now as a big singer you know brethren, some clothes whe like them wear them a’ready. Is a second me burn them, y’know what I mean. Man no work dem way deh, you see me? Ca’ me no waan dem fe keep me back in life brethren, an’ waan me do certain t’ing fe him now, but me jus’ rest it. Him cyaan no bother tell me once seh bwoy, me going come fe him again, because they is no help fe people you hear sah, they try to do the same t’ing what people do to dem.
You made a living from selling juices, health drinks, or ‘wood roots’ as you call it.
Yes man, I used to sell roots.
What’s the ingredients for such a drink?
Those t’ings was like in the country where I go, and then I look an’ I know some a dem. I did have a lickle book that show me the rest of roots dem, like I use young banana, coconut root, sasparilla, manback, blood wisp, poorman friend, ganja-stick, higher weed, strongback, womanback an’ t’ing, and chop up everyt’ing, then have it there to cure. But eventually the bottle them bus’, so I have finally have to walk an’ trust dem out. And some pay while some don’t, because some don’t have it but dem would like the drink. But anyway, I still go through with it and mind these kids that I get, and finish them in school now. So I think it’s time now, because I never even would have dream that I would reach France brethren, or Europe. Believe it. You see, it’s by the help of the Father and the dread, it’s like the man dem a look out and see seh bwoy, ‘Sylford Walker, nutten a gwaan for him and he’s a talented youth’. So they break me away, so I have to give thanks fe the I them – nuff!
Sometimes good comes your way.
Yes I, yes I.
When you least expect it.
Yes I, and then it kinda see, shows me that the more good you do, good will always come. ‘Cause all those pressure that reachin’ me now, it’s like no one hear me cry, no one hear me feel. Sometime I jus’ sit by meself an’ just seh bwoy, is just Rasta. Because is only a Rastaman can bear these vibes, an’ it come like nutten. ‘Cause if I man faith never strong I gone a Bellevue, or dead (chuckles). Yeah man.
You mean the mental hospital there.
Yes I, because lotta artists out there even only do one song an’ gone a Bellevue, because him think him gone rich (laughs)! Yes, it don’t work. Not even the producer call back to them. So it kinda difficult fe deal with them. You only have to give thanks that when they break you they give you a start, like put you on a plastic and say ‘yes, is you that’. But don’t bother look seh dem gone tek up anyt’ing an’ lift you up from deh so. All they do is jus’ spend their money an’ looking for their self, you see.
A rat race.
Yeah, as Bob say – reality. Yeah.
The first tune Glen Brown released was upon Tapper Zukie’s Stars label for some reason, ‘Chant Down Babylon’.
Yeah. On a 45, yeah, and then now he leave. Yeah, he leave to America with the rest and that’s where him put them together, single, single, and put them back together and get ’round eight, and then the other one that make nine, that’s ‘Golden’ – that’s Joe Gibbs’ song. So I don’t know how Joe Gibbs and him work out that part.
You started to work with Glen around ’78, what happened for you down in Jamaica at that time?
Yes. Yeah man, nutten at all me brethren! Nutten, nutten. There’s a God-man, I tell you if somet’ing ‘appen, it’s just like more, y’know wha’ I mean, more stress. Because at the time I started to sing, a lotta people feel like how I would’ve achieved somet’ing great, so more people more look upon me an’ say ‘zed’ (?). At the same time my girlfriend, they was like – their people would send me a pair of shoes or a piece of pants, I really try to keep myself in tune, lookin’ as an artist. But it was lovely, it was lovely. Even my first youth, when I get it, I has to send it back home, send home the mother an’ everybody back to where they’re from, ’cause I couldn’t control the life. So after that now I jus’ seh all right, I have to let off the music because is pure ginalship.
There was never a split between you and Glen, he simply left to New York (’79). No such thing as conflict behind it?
No Iyah, he just left me and make me a promise that he will be going to America, and when he used to put out those music an’ t’ing, in certain times he would send for me. And when I see time gone, time gone, I don’t even hear from him. So I just say bwoy, me give up, and leave it an’ gone boil the roots deh now.
Most of your tracks were voiced at Tubby’s studio in Waterhouse.
Yeah. Yes, yes.
How did you find Tubby’s?
Well, yeah, I mean the studio was very good, because I think you’re supposed to know some good music come out there. So, they voice there, ’cause that’s all I do there – voice. I don’t think none a the riddim dem did build there. The riddim that’s built there is earlier in dem days, ’cause ‘Merry Up’ ‘pa pam pam pam panaaana’, Glen Brown – all that one is Glen Brown did voice it first and then I go voice it too. Yeah.
What about Tubby himself, did he assist you in some way?
Well, he was a very nice man, yunno. He was a very nice one, because even doubt in myself, the days doing those music for Glen, is he who encourage me and mek me know that bwoy, from me can do a t’ing jus’ do a t’ing. So me jus’ do a t’ing an’ dem jus’ go ’round deh an’ dem mix it an’ it was… I still don’t enjoy some of the riddim dem, like even the one that name ‘Lamb’s Bread’. It wasn’t a riddim that I love, none at all! And I just sing that song like a joke, because like you wake up in the community an’ every morning you burn a spliff. But people now, it used to be ‘collie weed’ ’til it become ‘lamb’s bread’. And then now, each time I see somebody with one, hear them ‘what, the dread a burn the ganja now’. You know, people mek dem do t’ings, so finally me seh (sings): ‘This ya one ya it mek me do no one no wrooong…’. And trust me, it go! It go! I don’t only wanna achieve the greatness out of it, but I know that it go. Because even here in Europe there’s a lot of people told me that ‘bwoy, those song very good’.
In the space after Glen had left, you hooked up with some other people, like one called Sir Clough – R.G. Clough. He had a label with this name as well, you did a tune for him titled ‘God Love’. You recall that one?
OK! No, watch here, I think that song done before Glen Brown. Yeah man, long long time. But I waan tell you that it was more than one song I done for him, but nobody end up nowhere neither. I cannot even find a 45 of that in Jamaica now, ca’ it never do well here. And then the youth that I did do it for, that is one of Clough’s son. So he did end up in America doing pieces there, I don’t know what him do with the tape nor nutten at all. So all these songs jus’ die out. Those song now, ‘God Love’, well I don’t do over back that one. But I think there was one on it by the name of ‘Books of the Old Testament’, that I just done for Joe Gibbs I think.
That one was cut for a producer called Stafford Douglas.
The Art & Craft label.
Right, Stafford Douglas. I believe he is the one who ran the Now Generation label and store in Birmingham after Art & Craft went down.
When was this?
Stafford? Yeah man, him die, man. Like him come out here an’ give some man some pound, and the pound them a bogus. So I hear them mus’ seh chop him up an’ hold him up or sup’m about deh.
You recall when this happened?
Couple years back, man, ’cause is long time that, yunno. You see, Stafford now, I had done a song for Stafford by the name of ‘Tra La La La La’, it says (sings): ‘Tra la la la la, I looove you baby’. You ever hear that one?
The one titled ‘I Love You’. No.
Yeah. But for Paul Clough now was the ‘Book of the Old Testament’.
What was the link to Stafford at the time?
I waan told you that I was in South, yunno, and then I think I meet him somewhere out by Maxfield (Avenue), I don’t quite remember if it was in a studio I meet him. But he told me that he love my voice an’ in England he hear songs with me like ‘Burn Babylon’ an’ t’ing, so I go. Even bought me some t’ings that he bring them from England, y’know wha’ I mean, try to do me a lickle money an’ t’ing, but his card him draw same way. So, from him take those work I don’t see him again ’til I hear him die. I don’t know how true it is, ca’ I don’t search him still.
How did you feel about the emergence of the dancehall style in the eighties, that style took a lot of the cultural singers off the scene for a long while. You liked the Radics stuff, all the deejays taking over?
Yeah, yeah. It was irie, it was irie. But after not seeing that – because you know you had those songs playing you would get into dancehall to go sing or do stage show. Nutten like that! So, to me, I never checkin’ whatsoever like what ‘appen in the music world. Because Jamaica, if no one hear you on the radio or not, that mean you come out with nutten. But what they do is just that work you there an’ take away the work to a different country, release it there an’ tell ‘nutten no gwaan, yunno’. Just because why, you cannot fly! You see, and you got to take their word for it. You see, you has no lawyer, nobody to talk to, I mean nobody! You got to just tek it up in your own thing or somebody see that you need help an’ try help in his own way. Yeah.
How did you react when Glen released the first album on Greensleeves, ‘Lamb’s Bread’?
You knew at the time that he would put it out in England, through Greensleeves?
No, you know who told me about it?
You know Nighthawk, the company that name Nighthawk?
I think they, that’s the time they told me about it, and then its way down after I know about Greensleeves.
This LP was issued in 1988, ten years after the tracks was laid. By the way, come to think of it, I believe Nighthawk had one of your songs for Glen on an album too, almost forgot…
Yeah, I think so, yunno.
A various artists set titled ‘Knotty Vision’. Different people on it, like Little Roy, Burning Spear, Jackie Brown, and so on. This was licensed through Glen Brown for that album, your track on it.
OK, OK. Yeah, I think… I waan tell you me brethren, there’s a lot I know nutten about a whole heap a t’ings, you hear sah. Trust me, nutten. That’s why its like the kinda vibes that they deal with it drive… fearing me to even talk to them again, trust me.
You had some talk about an album back then before he moved to New York?
Well, you see, to his ways he really couldn’t show up that fullness, he would like it but the way how I react brethren, I man mash up six of me ribs, my hand drop off an’ t’ing, an’ you don’t consider seh well, then seh bwoy, the man even woulda need a doctor fe a somet’ing. He send me $ 80 US when those time is only $ 1500 dollars a hour – or more – fe book studio time, right. So even me book two hours an’ cyaan run the two, the money no burn up sah! Me no have nutten fe eat, me cyaan even walk ‘pon crutch-stick me deh, me jus’ haffe set the dollars an’ buy lickle food an’ eat brethren, an’ from that him send-send some people an’ talk me, like all now me no get no answer from him from him sell out me works.
So there was no compensation involved in the Greensleeves album you mean?
No sah! I mean, all me get is from as I tell you that the brethren from London (Steve Barrow), that him sell out, sell it out to some white brethren. I think the brethren come here an’ give me a £ 1000 pound, when him go back in England. ‘Cause I meet the brethren up by Mixing Lab.
OK, Mixing Lab studio.
Yeah, he told me that Glen Brown sold him some works an’ t’ing like that. He even did plan to come back here an’ to do some recording in Jamaica with me, but you know I don’t hear from him still. I don’t call him back an’ so forth from that.
That’s the Blood & Fire label. Well, I suppose Steve Barrow is a busy man, always up to something.
Yeah, yeah, yeah – Steve Barrow! Yeah man.
That album came out once again five years ago, on a CD in combination with Welton Irie for Blood & Fire, ‘Lamb’s Bread International’.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah man, that’s all two of us together. I think Welton get £ 1000 pound too. That’s it.
Welton is on the Jamaican airwaves nowadays I heard, a radio discjockey now, right? I forget which station though.
Yeah, yeah! He was drivin’ a taxi on the road here now down in Jamaica, but I don’t know – he was among a lickle sound in Rae Town going on. I think – I don’t remember if it was Classique or one a dem.
Your first tour was supposed to come off when Glen put out the first album, were you aware of such plans?
There was talk about it, I guess when the album failed to sell properly it didn’t come off as planned, what was intended, to promote it at the time.
It didn’t came through. I has a brethren in New York by the name of Ira, he has a studio in Mount Vernon, and is he let me know what’s going on even in New York with my works them. ‘Cause before the dread sent for me, is he who tek out me passport, and decide whe to send for… When he send the things them, he didn’t send the work permit which is the pity son, so I didn’t get to go. So from that really I don’t get to call him back or hear anyt’ing from him, ’cause he say he will be coming for the end of the year with the rest of the papers them to mek me an’ him go to Mount Vernon.
The last recordings you did now was for Joe Gibbs last year, so you’re saying nothing has been released apart from the revoiced ‘Jah Golden Pen’?
No, that’s what really caused me fe jus’ mek up me mind an’ leave them one side, because time is getting out. And from I start this lickle (inaudible) with the dollar all now, he keep promise me he give me some plyboard an’ a few piece a steel an’ tell me sixty odd thousand. So he reduce it from my money, he told me that he will give me a money so that I can start slab the house – all now him put on the biggest, prettiest restaurant right now. Yeah. I mean, it’s like to me is a man that only take on himself you hear sah, not to me not even him own kids them. Beca’ if them do themself, them jus’ stand up. The best lickle man was in his league, he die, yunno.
Errol Thompson, the engineer?
Yes man! Brethren, let me tell you somet’ing, is not that he get somet’ing big, yunno, but at least you don’t – Mr. T is not there an’ you hungry or you want maybe a four or five thousand dollar fe do somet’ing, an’ you cyaan get it, Mr. Gibbs dem won’t give you a five hundred dollar – much less. And him want you wake up an’ sing every day like you a mad man. So, true me know he have some lickle pipes in him, I don’t even bother mek him no wiser, because I don’t lose work an’ he keep promise me an’ right now we no deh ya for him. If him hear, somebody tell him, you see. ‘Cause with me, I’m a man jus’ like this, if I’ve done somet’ing for you an’ I know I man can achieve, man – let me achieve, man. Because the problem is this: I won’t mek my voice mek me a feel nutten, y’know. You a go thump me down or me a gone beat you or me go ‘ave a plan fe do it. Easy, I come there, he see a walk an’ walk go back, you understan’? Yeah. Ca’ through I find that the vibes is not there with me an’ you, it don’t reach far. So, if I done two hundred song or three hundred for you, I just leave you to it with time an’ everyt’ing like that. Yeah man.
How did this European tour come about that you are about to start right now in June this year?
Believe you me brethren, is this Rastaman, Asher, he said I met him some years ago, that time when him talkin’ there it must be even more harder sufferin’ time, and I never remember him. And then him seek out me, try to find out me, try to seek about me an’ t’ing like that, and believe you me when I come in from the studio an’ see some documents, I say bwoy, trust me, it kinda tremble this beca’ I never travel or never reach here, so it kinda worried me and I seh bwoy, wonder wha’ me go leave me family them an’ t’ings. But after I tek it serious, there’s a daughter also there that she help me get around the papers them and documents an’ so forth – God bless it, man. I ride on the iron-bird, trust me. So now I’m just here trying to show me face to the people, mek a certain lickle impact, that mean in time to come I will go back again.
I truly hope so.
Will you try to reach the UK to record, or that’s not planned for this trip?
Well, I don’t know, y’know. I don’t know how that will go about. If somebody interested, well, I think I will. With me, I’m more now trying that if anyt’ing, if I get back home, if I can try to produce a few lickle songs, I don’t know if it reach a album or what I can put out, somet’ing for meself.
That is what you have ahead of you now.
Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir. Because with all what done still, yunno, those type of people is like I wouldn’t put me heart an’ lean on them an’ seh when I’m all them going remember that, you see. So if I don’t straighten out my lickle ends from now, when them old them has just got me like… y’know wha’ I mean? Ca’ there’s other, a whole heap a artist that sing fe dem there an’ when them dead them put a lickle money towards them an’ bury them all them t’ings. Them family na get nutten brethren, you see. So you cyaan put no trust in that. God don’t give us the voice to sell it but if a one don’t have no fear about life, it don’t give the vibes that music is life, and I know that music is life and love.
What kinda vibes do you get from hearing the music nowadays, the modern Jamaican music?
Well, I tell you the truth, y’know, to tell you the truth – its a younger set of people now in dancehall an’ all those place. Now, in Jamaica the type of music, the dance whe I more try doing – if I should go to dance in Jamaica again, you see more like how Stereograph come back, or you see Jah Love is around. Because the average Jamaican now, their type a song, me no dance it – you get me? Me don’t dance it, because some a dem try to get the music directly out of hand, some of dem mek reggae look like its not. ‘Cause dem inna dance, under gal an’ rey, rey, rey. And back out your gun an’ me no ’bout them way deh. Beca’ me too remember when dance used to keep right back ’til daylight, an’ Josey Wales, Brigadier (Jerry), Charlie Chaplin an’ a lotta man jus’ deh-deh. But now in these days Jamaican dance a cheaper, man. You know how many years I stay out of the dance? Well, Jamrock was playing sometime week before last, right ’til daylight, and I was there. It was beautiful, through the community trying to come back together, an’ it was nice. But is only since I in for it now I really realise that dance so nice an’ the people them so nice brethren, trust me. ‘ Cause you don’t hear a man bruk a bottle, you don’t see a bottle inna the dance, trust me. And everybody jus’ nice. Yeah. You know the first time I enter a stage show with me an’ Glen Brown inna Palace in downtown Kingston? The first time I enter a stage show? The fool a the community is pure rotten head, dem go to dance fe mash up people (laughs)! So me cyaan sing! And when me hold one of the bandsman, then dem lick down with it, that time you did have this George Nooks – he was a deejay those time.
As ‘Prince Mohammed’, yes.
Yeah! That time he done ‘Dread A No Forty Leg Inna Him Head’, is for Joe Gibbs same way too. Yeah man. I see him leggo that an’ start sing now, I don’t think him go back a Joe Gibbs, although him have music there whe no release too.
So in other words there was never any performance in the seventies – no stage shows?
No sah, no.
What is the acceptance for the vintage music now, would you call it a resurgence of long time singers in Jamaica now?
Yeah. Well, it look like, because…
You have Heineken Startime doing a good job to create a forum for vintage music down there, for example.
Yes, yes! And the great Alton (Ellis) an’ Ken Boothe we see there, I think that’s much more even some of their greatest times now coming through, y’know. ‘Cause even Toots (Hibbert) is one of my greatest Jamaican artists, and me love how the system turn around. Even myself now, is that type a t’ing. I am seeing wherepart the people need good music to listen, the people want see different styles on stage and different… y’know wha’ I mean? So, that’s what we all has to do. They trying to fill up them this an’ them that ’bout it, but nutten beat the good of music. And the best music, because people want ever waan to hear the best, no care what riddim deh behind it. But if dem listen it an’ it dirty them na go dance it.
I suppose they have to clean up their act sooner or later.
Yes Iya, yes I – serious! So it haffe go, just like that.
So how was your first real stage show the other day, you did something in Geneva there?
Oh my, oh my, man! The people react very good, and then I see that I never know but as I told you like in Jamaica, you is a singer but you is no one. Because the type of song whe you sing, dem na dance it. You see, these set of people who used to dance those song gone, those (young) set of people tek over now. So, gradually you woulda say seh well, then seh bwoy, you no singer deh no more. You stay a bush an’ hum some song, yes, an’ rey, rey, rey. But you na go really feel fe come out fe go do no song, because when you come out here now an’ see the reaction of the music, it go help you fe go sing some better now that the people can say ‘yes, is Sylford number one this, yunno’. Be sure of that, y’know wha’ I mean. Yeah man.
More than ten years ago you wouldn’t believe what is actually happening out there now for certain artists, it would be more than unlikely to see someone like Sylford Walker on tour in Europe for the first time. Which has happened now though, he had just done his first show ever in 2005 when this interview was conducted. And he’s been back to Europe since in the company of the great Prince Alla. The Joe Gibbs project, ‘Nuttin Na Gwaan’, was a welcome return of this old-timer to the business. If only the issue of ‘Jah Golden Pen’ could’ve been the original and not an inferior later cut, but hopefully we’ll see the original version released sometime soon by the European Gibbs stable. ‘Book of the Old Testament’ came out on what looks like a pirated Art & Craft 12″, some twenty-five years after the original had sold out. Another good shot by Mr Walker it is. And, of course, lets not forget the combined ‘Lamb’s Bread’ album with Welton Irie’s ‘Ghetto Man Corner’ on the Blood & Fire ‘Lamb’s Bread International’ CD. A decent deejay set in combination with one of the better roots albums of the later 1970’s, it would be hard to fail with such a release and they surely didn’t. It is a must, although, personally, I would’ve preferred the albums in separation and placed after each other instead of the track-by-track combination. More power to the man Sylford Walker, may you get your reward in this time, it is long overdue.