maxwell barna speaks with reggae legends Toots & The Maytals …
I’d like to begin this by saying I have a confession to make. Realistically, it should be considered almost criminal for me to have been the person to interview this musician, as he’s had such a tremendous impact on my life. So before reading forward, pardon the blatant bias.
Some have pegged him (inaccurately) as the father of reggae music. He was, however, the man who gave reggae its name (spelled, at the time, “reggay”) with his 1968 hit “Do The Reggay.” At the time, and more importantly in the song, the term “reggay” was used to describe a dance that actually pre-dated the music genre by about two years. But really, who gives a shit?
The point I’m trying to make is that today’s man of the hour is someone who, although not a man of many words, is a legend in his own right. He most likely has records out older than many of the people who are going to read this have been alive. While we ordinary folk can just kick back, put on an old reggae/ska/rocksteady record, drink a beer or pack a bowl, and wonder what life must have been like, this man knows it all because, well, he was there for it (and greatly influenced it). The man I’m talking about is reggae legend, Toots Hibbert.
Tonight, he’ll be playing to a sold out crowd at the Brooklyn Bowl in New York. For those of you lucky enough to be in attendance, I’ll see you either at the bar or in the photo pit.
But before this turns into some creepy ramble-on about how I had to drink three beers before I could even work up enough nerve to pick up the phone and call the hotel he was staying at in Detroit, I’ll just come out with it.
We discussed what it’s like to constantly tour the world, what his upcoming plans are for his next album, how he became friends with Willie Nelson and even cleared up some of the confusion surrounding the release of his latest album, Flip And Twist.
The man I interviewed this week was Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert, the famous frontman for legendary reggae band Toots & The Maytals.
Pop-Break: You have been called the father of reggae music. From what I understand, however, you didn’t invent the genre, but you are credited with inventing the word. How do you feel about this sentiment and can you clarify whether or not it’s true?
Toots: I’m not really the father, but I am the inventor for the word “reggae.” I’m the one who invented the word reggae. Not the father, but the inventor.
PB: As a genre, reggae music has undergone so many stylistic transitions since its creation. You’ve been a dominant figure for most, if not all, of these phases. How have you done it and how have you maintained your popularity over time?
Toots: Well, you know, at home I keep making music. On the road, I keep meeting people who give me their energy, I give them my energy … (Stylistically) when I’m doing my recording I keep on doing my real drums, my real people to play instruments. I don’t hardly use any computers. So the rest of reggae may be too computerized. Real reggae is just real reggae; stuff like Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley — a lot of great people. But every generation uses more drum machines.
PB: You’re on tour solid for the next two months. I was looking at your tour schedule and you really don’t take many days off. Save for a few days after you leave America and go back to Europe, you’re pretty packed. How do you do it day after day, night after night? Does it ever get difficult? Do you ever get tired of it?
Toots: No, I never get tired of it. There’s a lot of driving, a lot of flying, but I always have the power and the energy to do what’s right for my audience and the people.
PB: We mentioned before that you were going to Europe soon. How do your fans in the States compare to your fans in Europe and across the world?
Toots: Well, to tell the truth, I’ve played some big big places in the U.K., and I’ve played some big big places all over the United States, and I’ve gotten the same reaction.
PB: You mentioned before that you always want to do what’s good by your fans and that you always make music for your fans. You just released Flip And Twist a little over a year ago. Personally, I like the album, but I’ve read reviews by fans who were pretty disappointed by it. A major complaint among them is there was an overall lack of brass instruments and reggae instrumentation that you’ve become known and loved for. They say songs like “Maybe Yow” and “Jungle” were too electric, too synthy, and not classic enough for the approach you typically take. How would you respond to that?
Toots: Every day, people always tell me, “Can you make an R&B record or something like that?” So what I did was a little bit of everything; a little blues, gospel, little rap, and a little reggae. And people said, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe!” And that’s why it’s called “Flip And Twist” — because it’s not something anyone expected. My next album now will be a lot of reggae and I always have gospel on my albums —- always.
PB: When is the next album coming out? Do you have anything in the works?
Toots: Yeah mon! I have something ready but I’m not putting it out yet. It’s more of a compilation with some other people.
PB: Do you have a name for this next album?
Toots: I have it but I won’t tell you it now. [laughs] I want to release (the album) but not right now because we don’t need it now.
PB: Speaking of compilations, how did you get involved with the Easy Star All-Stars?
Toots: Well, they offered to do it so I played with them.
PB: Did you know about Radiohead before you got on it?
Toots: No, I’d never known them. (laughs) You know, they sent me their ideas, I sent them my ideas, and we got into them.
PB: You mentioned before about how you tried to make this record a little bit of a flip and twist — you tried to change it up a bit. When I first heard “Bye Bye,” I immediately got a little of country feel from it. Is there a connection between this song and your friendship with Willie Nelson? I know you have been on tracks with each other, so did your friendship with him have any impacts on this song?
Toots: I’ve done country tracks before I met Willie. One called “Too Good All the Time” in Jamaica No. 1 and another one “Beautiful Woman,” also a Jamaican No. 1 reggae song in the country style. But this one now I have had it for a long time but decided just to release it. And it’s real country-style.
PB: Can you speak more about your friendship with Willie Nelson? I had no idea that you were doing tracks with each other until I picked up his reggae album, “Countryman.”
Toots: We know Willie from far back. Willie is my idol. We just came together, hooked up together, and went on tour. We always saw each other on tour so we toured together and recorded together. He’s a great guy and one of the greatest artists. We love him, you know? He’s like our family.
PB: One of my favorite songs off of Flip And Twist is called “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon.” But I noticed an unfamiliar female vocalist throughout the song who I absolutely fell in love with. Who is she?
Toots: The singer is a singer from Jamaica called Latoya (Hall-Downer).
PB: How did you find her and why did you decide to let her sing on this particular track?
Toots: Well, we do gospel together. She’s a good musician, too. I had a track and I wanted to do it, so I called her up and she just did it. She wanted to do it. She also sings some background for me too on another song with my daughter.
PB: I only have one more question. I ask it to everyone I interview, and you must answer it: What’s your favorite beer?
Toots: (laughs) I’m not much of a beer drinker, really. If I had to drink one more beer, I’d probably drink one more (glass of) water instead!