Interview with Alborosie - Freedom & Fyah
05/09/2016 by Angus Taylor
Alborosie moved to Jamaica from Italy because he wanted to learn about the music and the culture. But he still does things his own way.
His driver collects Reggaeville at a strictly agreed time to take us to his home in an undisclosed location. This turns out to be a fenced-off gated community in the suburbs of Kingston. Alborosie is standing outside his house to greet us. He looks relaxed and friendly. He smiles a sleepy enigmatic smile.
En route to the studio for a preview [read the track by track preview here] of new album Freedom & Fyah we pass through his room of instruments – many of them nods to an obsessive interest in reggae’s foundation. There is a Ludwig drum-kit like Sly Dunbar played at Channel One, a rebuilt replica of Peter Tosh’s M16 shaped guitar and a Russian stringed instrument whose name he doesn’t know, which he has been fiddling around with on a particular dub.
He can play everything in the room. “I try to save some money without hiring too much musician” he grins. You could always go full digital like they did in the 80s when they got tired of paying the musicians – we tease him. “No. I’ve always loved the vintage so that is where my heart is right now”.
We talk a little about production. He agrees that digital producers had to work harder processing synthesised sounds – so when the live thing came back in, many subsequent albums felt overproduced. He adds that drummers these days try to sound mechanical and quantised, losing the groove and feel.
Alborosie generally builds his rhythms from the ground up – starting with the drums, then the chords, followed by bass and guitar. Other times he likes to write songs on his guitar – the instrument he tried to chop reggae on as a youth. He can build a rhythm entirely without help. “I fool around the drum. Bass, guitar. Keyboard, rhythm section. And then of course I’m an engineer – a mixing engineer. The full hundred. I could do an album by myself if I wanted”.
Does he ever pick up a horn and play? “No, I don’t like it!” he laughs “And I work with musicians too. It is boring to do everything by myself. I like the feedback and for certain specific sounds I have specific musicians – when I need a certain type of vibe for a bass line or whatever.”
So were there certain situations with this album where you thought “I need this specific person to come in and give it that special something?”
“It’s never really so drastic like that. Because if I really want I can do everything. I’ve been studying reggae for the past 25 years so I kind of know how to move around if I have to. It’s just more time to ease the pressure from my shoulders… so the man can just come and play the drum. It could be very challenging by yourself. You do the production, the concept, the album, the song, the lyrics and everything… after a while you start to feel a little bit dizzy.”
“Sometimes I like to work with musicians more because I want to study... I like to see how them play. I like to watch Sly. I liked when Style was alive… I like to watch certain people play to see exactly what is the situation.”
Alborosie is a quiet man, like his dub hero King Tubby. Listening and watching are very important during his journey into the sound of the musicians from the Tubbys era. It turns out that one of his main sources is unbridled access to the recordings.
“I have a lot of sessions from the 70s and I learn a lot from the sessions themselves… the sounds… how they used to record reggae. Right now my studio is one of the few in Jamaica where you could get a certain sound… especially the rub a dub sound… the original… if I really want to pull that… we could pull the real proper thing.”
Where do you get those sessions from?
“Erm… from friends and…”
They’re not available on the internet like some classic soul sessions are?
“No no no… you have to be involved… you have to be here. You can’t just get them and then you fly back to Germany… you have to be inna the thing… and you have to have certain amount of respect. You have to give and give back respect. So there is a balance right there and people start to work with you.”
“And to all the people out there wondering “How people in the past do all these things?” I’ll tell you… there is no secret. The only sound is you. You is the sound. If you buy exactly the same thing that I use, you’re not going to get my sound because the sound is me.”
But you had key influences – a lot of people compared your early singles to the Waterhouse style?
He laughs. “When it comes to dub I like very much the 70s and the early part of the 80s. From the early 70s to Junjo Lawes – the whole Channel One and whatever. That is where my heart is. But of course, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer. I mean reggae – I really attach to the full hundred from A to Z without any limitations. Nothing wrong with the new set of artists but I really learn more from the past than the present. From the present you only see where the music is going and you can only decide to go or not to go there. But the past is my teacher.”
He takes us upstairs to his tiny studio – its mixing desk sourced from the famous Harry J’s. “It’s designed for me and only me. You know them say “The chef never go to a restaurant” he likes to eat at home. I do so much shows that when I’m at home I like working with nobody around me. So that’s why I designed the studio very small.”
Unlike the two other album preview sessions with Jamaican artists that morning Alborosie insists we turn the recorder off when he is playing the tracks. (He has a studio engineer’s sensitivity that stopping the recorder between songs would create more work for the interviewer. So he suggests we do the talking first and then we listen.)
Alborosie has been sceptical in past interviews concerning the last 5 years’ “Reggae Revival” on the island. Today, he seems to be saying something else – that he had a hand in launching it.
“This album’s like a statement. I remember when I used to do the rubadub style not many artists were doing it at that time. I was one of the few. Everybody followed the Jamaican vibe. People used to tell me “Oh, this is the European reggae. We don’t like this thing in Jamaica” and now I live to see many artists in Jamaica doing it right now. So that’s why the album has that rubadub. It’s a bit like to say “Alright, this is my music. This is my sound. This is the way I do it. From that time up to now.” So I did want to take a picture of that moment.”
He moves away from his individual achievements to what he sees as his higher calling.
“I believe my music is not any more about myself. Many artists out there are promoting themselves still. To me now it’s important I do something for the genre. Because I believe the genre needs help. Because it’s not like before when reggae had much attention. Right now we have to create that. We have to go knock people’s doors and say “Hey – we still here”.”
“I see my journey move from being the artist more into like being a part of a university. You contribute to the genre for the youth to educate them about the music. Reggae needs people that support the genre. Reggae doesn’t really need artists that are just trying to support themselves. That’s why I like to invite a lot of musicians up here – people ask me to mix, to do things and I like the movement, the energy. It’s a bit like an organisation. Of course I have to push my music to keep the thing going. But in the meantime I support the music full hundred. So it’s a different mentality from when we just started.”
“One good thing about me is I never had in mind the charts, the popularity. I believe when you deal with reggae it’s a necessity. It’s like a Christian doing gospel because of Christ. I like to be very old school - very – how can I say – orthodox when it comes to certain things because that’s how you make things survive. Computers are not the future. We need it. But the future is us. We control the computer. I like to see the machines. The analogue. And I like to see when the youths want to do the same. You can never really start the journey if you have to be Puff Daddy and make so much money that you can have a helicopter. You do it because you need to. There is a lot of passion.”
Then we start the interview proper. He has some interesting things to say: particularly how his lack of presence on the music scene in Jamaica is not an accident but very much by design…
When did you first move to this location?
I came to Jamaica in ’95. I went to Portland from ’99 up to 2002 and then moved to Kingston. I moved to this location in 2009.
What was behind the decision to move into this gated community?
I was following somebody and I just found myself alone. So I was here. Portland is a nice place. You have the beach and everything. You just eat some fish and jump in the water. For a European that is ideal. But then we moved to town because of the work and then the person kind of went a different way so I said to myself “What am I going to do?”
Luckily, we put out a couple of songs and one was Kingston Town. Within days the phone started ringing and everything just started. But I never came to Jamaica to do this. Jamaica is my journey to discover myself. I was doing very well in Italy. I was very popular but I left because I felt a little bit like Babylon. The label people and everybody were just stressing me over foolishness. “You have to be this” “You have to smile”. So when I came to Jamaica I came to be myself.
When my manager put out songs like Herbalist and Kingston Town – to tell you the truth I didn’t know if I was ready for it. I didn’t want to go back there. But then after a proper meditation I said to myself “If the phone is ringing and you believe what you do has a reason – you have to go follow it.” And I started following it.
This community has a fence around it. Is living in Kingston dangerous? Is this a necessity for you?
In Jamaica you can’t move like you would move in Switzerland. (laughs) It’s a bit tense now in Europe. France knows it has to adapt to the same lifestyle we go through here in Jamaica. In Jamaica you really watch. You don’t move like a tourist. Junior Gong told you “Welcome To Jamrock”. Come to Jamaica and always keep in your head “You’re no good”. You’re not good enough. If you live here you have to be aware of your surroundings. Sometimes even if you know how to move the problems will come and you will have to deal with it.
I remember when I first interviewed you back in 2008-2009 and you said “Jamaica is like a school” and “You have to not invade people’s personal space”. It made me think about I first went to reggae concerts as a teenager in. I was acting like it was a rock concert, jumping around, invading people’s space. Nowadays I find at a reggae show that it’s younger people annoying me, invading my space, spilling beer on my shoes!
Thank you. Very nice. You have to be visibly invisible. When I’m in Jamaica I don’t really work in Jamaica. I don’t promote my thing in Jamaica 100% like that. It’s a choice. If you come to Jamaica, you’re not going to see Alborosie left right and centre. You’re not going to see me all over the place. You’re not going to hear my music all over the place. They play my music on the radio but if I wanted to push my music you’re going to tire to see my face and to hear my sound. I choose not to do so because this is my home and I want to be able to walk with my slippers without any pressure. This is my choice. I try to keep myself very private, very humble and very small.
That’s very interesting and explains a lot. But don’t you worry that outside Jamaica there is a perception that you are not interested in making reggae music for people in Jamaica? That it’s all about Europe or America? Or even that Jamaican people don’t rate your music?
Oh, I don’t care! I only care what I think. What people think is not important to me. I put out my work and I know my work is what I like. Until people like it I go with it. I like to go fishing too.
Hey, it’s like when we step on stage we are aggressive and have something to say. Jamaica is a different place. I don’t have to prove anything. I don’t have to be number one in any chart. I don’t have to be the top selling artist. I don’t have to be the prettiest one or the baddest one. I have to do what I like and what I love and I only take care of my family and I stick to The Most High. Anything else, it doesn’t matter to me.
It’s nice when somebody acknowledges your work though? I see you have a MOBO Award on your mixing desk…
Yeah, you know? The people vote. It’s not me. The MOBO is like people voting and they did their thing. I couldn’t refuse it. I didn’t go to the function.
Which is strange as often awards are given to the person who shows up!
They sent it to me. I didn’t go and they were upset at that time but I explained the situation. I didn’t even know I was going to win. It’s not a situation where you know so you go. Why from Jamaica must I go to England? What if I’m not winning the thing? (laughs) It’s expensive you know? If I was from Italy or Germany I would take a plane and come check you guys – but from Jamaica? It’s like $2000 US just for the flight. I’m going to spend $4000 US just to see Jah Cure getting the thing? Maybe I could just link up with Jah Cure when he comes back and say “Let me see the MOBO! Congratulations man!” But I am really grateful and I appreciate it.
Has anyone ever followed your example and come out to Jamaica and said “I want to do what you’re doing – can you show me how?”
No. Nobody here really came to me. I know a few artists who just came and I see them. I see maybe some Instagram posts or whatever. When we used to put out Kingston Town, Herbalist, Waan The Herb, Sound Killa and all those songs, Jamaica, at that time never really gravitated around that sound. Now – you don’t hear any one drop sound – everything is rubadub style. Somebody must sit down and say “one second people!” So I have to blame who pushed out that type of recipe at that time for people to say “We have to do this in order to do that”. And I was one of the few. Nobody came to me and I don’t need anybody to come to me with anything. But I believe that the work that we did inspired a lot of people. That is what I believe.
The artist Lion D came from Italy to work with you on his last album. How was that?
Well these people are brethren long time. Lion D and Bizzarri. I always try to work out with the younger generation for the genre. We need to help. We need to share. We can’t just be selfish and into ourselves. This is reggae. Reggae is for the community. Reggae is sharing.
Lion D has said in interviews that he is not very positive about the situation in Italy for black people.
I wasn’t positive when I left Italy almost 20 years ago. Imagine now!
Do you ever go back?
Just to see my parents – although they are here in Jamaica most of the time now. Italy the country itself is not really… just the mozzarella. The mozzarella is my favourite. We can’t get that in Jamaica so when I go to Italy it’s just “Please, mozzarella!” (laughs) Mozzarella in Jamaica is not possible, I need the real Italian mozzarella.
In Jamaica right now there is a lot of discussion, the newspapers, on the airwaves and in the concert venues about how Jamaican reggae is the real reggae and it has been taken away by foreigners. Have you experienced anything from this backlash?
I have to apologise to you guys. Because when I hear arguments like that, that’s the only thing I have to say. It’s like if a rapper says “Every European rapper shouldn’t do that because that’s our music. We created that in the United States”. To me that is nonsense. Reggae is a genre. It was created and promoted. Once you promote there are going to be people who endorse it and then you will have people like me start to play the guitar and then boom bam boom. There is no royalty that we have to pay to anybody. This is not an extortion. The music doesn’t belong to anybody. It’s like Americans saying “Don’t play my electric guitar because we created it”. Italians are going to say don’t sing “Do rey mi fa so la ti” because we created that.
Or the Chinese say to the Italians “Give back the pasta”?
Or the Italians say “Remove all the pizzas from the world. That’s our thing.” So I just see it like that. It’s a comedy. The only thing I agree with – and I have to tell you because it’s very important – let’s be clear because I don’t want any misunderstanding. Reggae is a genre. Anybody can play reggae. Sell it, give it away, anything you want to do.
But I agree with certain people in Jamaica that if you chat patois that is Jamaican language. So what I did? I moved here. My band is from Jamaica. My son is Jamaican. My wife is Jamaican and I live here in Kingston. That is my contribution to the cause. So by me hiring so many people from Jamaica to travel the world I am giving back. That is what Alborosie is doing.
Two weeks ago somebody called and said “Somebody is speaking about you and Gentleman on the radio” and I couldn’t listen. They were saying me and Gentleman – we thief the culture. Which is very, very ignorant. It’s a very stupid statement. Because if you know me you will see my band is from Jamaica from day one. So we give back to the community. I don’t care about anybody else, what they do, but this is what I do. But, as I said to you, remember the two factors. Reggae is global and nobody can do anything, so Joss Stone can do her reggae album, Beyoncé can do a reggae album, they can do anything they feel like. But when it comes to the patois, now, I believe you should somehow give back to the community and the culture. I did, now you have to do it too.
You’ve also said in response to the new reggae resurgence, I don’t want to get into the nomenclature, but that “Jamaica is a dancehall country”. Is that still the case and will it remain ever so?
Jamaica is a dancehall country. Dancehall is the dominant music in Jamaica. Simple. Plain. Clear. The new generation of artists – it’s just like Sizzla when he came out and the movement at that time with Sizzla, Capleton, Norrisman and Luciano. Reggae’s been there from day one and will always be there. But in Jamaica, dancehall music is dominant. Could you name the biggest reggae song of last year? We could mention many dancehall songs – from Alkaline, Jahmiel, Dexta Daps, Vybz Kartel, Mavado, Popcaan.
But reggae, roots reggae, whatever? Who Knows was 2014. Rockstone was 2014. You can see there is a lot of energy in the movement but the attention to reggae is not really like how it used to be. This is not certain people trying to push certain things. This is the crowd that are deciding. Some youth nowadays they see reggae as Major Lazer and that is a bad thing. The new artists out there, some of them are nice. Nice lyrics, nice music – everything nice. I just believe reggae is not really so strong like how it used to be.
The final track on the album is called Zion Youth. This concept seems important to you. Is a Zion Youth a way of saying someone loves reggae without having to get into whether they are Rasta or not?
No absolutely not. The Zion Youths I see them whenever we do shows in Europe. The fact that you come to a reggae show means you are a Zion Youth. There is a seed in you and from that seed you grow your own tree. You decide to go left or right or centre or stay right there. You are a Zion Youth. You guys are Zion Youths. All the people who love the righteousness and the reggae music are the Zion Youths. But all dancehall people are Zion people too. Because some of the dancehall is involved in reggae and reggae is involved in dancehall so it’s one thing. You don’t have to be bad and you don’t have to be good. You’re just a Zion Youth. You don’t have to be a vegetarian or whatever. You’re just a Zion Youth. Free – for the masses. “He is the youth from Zion come to mash down Babylon with him flow”.
One of the problems with calling yourself a Zion Youth is that most people outside of reggae would think you were taking a position in relation to the Israel Palestine conflict – which has already had an effect on the reggae festival scene.
Well Zion is a term. Rastas utilise it. That’s politics. It’s when people try to fling politics inside something genuine. (pauses) I wouldn’t go there. If someone asked me “You’re a Zion Youth? Do you support this” I’d say “I support Zion. I support Jah. Anything other than that, I don’t know what you’re talking about”. I don’t involve in politics.
Another thing we’ve talked about in the past is whether you prefer touring or the studio. You give a balanced answer, but reading between the lines, I think you prefer being in the studio!
No, touring, the show itself, is lovely. But touring is just travelling. I don’t remember shows. I just remember travelling. Sometimes you’re right there to the edge – like you think you’re getting a stroke. I could be a travel agent. Listen, when I go to the airport I don’t join the line. I am an airport rat. I can go through any security or anything. I know exactly how to move. When you see the big hundred people line up – me and the drummer Dave Primetime Green we just go straight to the top and we go beside the two elders and ask them something to make it look like we know them and we’re travelling together and we just go straight. The same thing when we go through security. That is what you learn. We really know the thing. I remember some shows but then you have the autopilot when you’re going on stage and you close your eyes and sing and jump and by the time you open your eyes you finish. Then you remember you have to go to the airport! So you ask me? You see my studio now? After you are gone I just take off my shoes and go sleep or eat some food and watch TV. You want to be on a plane your whole life or do you like this environment?
I like being in the studio and what is necessary to be on stage without killing myself or putting myself at risk. I like to be at home when I can. And especially when you have a family – you like to be close to your family. Because I’ve done this now from 1993. Ask any musician, after 20 years they will tell you “I’m tired yunno? Flying flying flying. Sleep three hours. Wake up. Fly. Drive. Fly. Drive”. Music is nice. Gentleman tells me that every tour, after ten shows, “It turns into a joyful noise”. After ten or twelve shows it’s a blur. And you have to be nice to people. Imagine if you went on stage and said “Fuck everybody! Fuck you - mi no want to do this thing today!” You have to be nice “Hey! Yo! Wooah! Freedom and Fire!” - when it’s only fire you want! (laughs)
Do you get to do much fishing now that you live in this place?
It’s a long time that I don’t go fishing. Fishing is just a meditation to me. I just throw line. I don’t want to catch any fish. Poor little thing. I don’t want to kill a fish. If I catch it I’m happy but I release. I don’t keep him. In Jamaica it’s strange because people think you’re mad. But fishing is a meditation. I can’t wait to fling the line and just look outside. And the Caribbean is even better because this is an island and all around you there is the ocean. I need some of that meditation right now because I did a lot of studio work on my album and I have a next album, my next compilation so I have a lot going on. I really need to breeze out.
When you’re cooking at home – how much of it is Jamaican and how much Italian?
At lunchtime Jamaican, dinner time, Italian. I would say lunchtime Jamaican and dinner time Italian/International. Sometimes you get some little vegetables or whatever or some sushi - but lunchtime Jamaican.
I hear you’re doing some work with Dubtonic Kru at the moment.
Yeah, it’s a long time we’ve been doing work. We’re trying to put together some music. I think I am in the position to do some nice dub music with them. This is my Dub Club. The real Dub Club (laughs) with the real machines from Tubbys and my humble collection of vintage, most of them from Jamaica – from Studio 1 to Channel 1 to just name it. Dubtonic Kru, I like what they do and we could do some nice things utilising the real space, the real echo and spring reverb and the two track and the filter. Not the plug in on the laptop but the real machine.
Your album with King Jammy was called Dub of Thrones. Do you watch Game of Thrones? It didn’t seem like your thing. It’s kind of a pagan thing.
No, absolutely not! I don’t even know what you’re talking about. VP called me and said “The title of the album would be Dub of Thrones” and I said “OK”. I don’t even know if it’s a game or whatever! Sometimes when you do so much work in the studio you actually need someone to help you with ideas. You don’t want to do everything like the songs and the titles. Before you guys came I was writing the credits for the album. I mean, like really, give me a break!
So Jammys was saying “You haffi think about the name of the album” and I said “Me? You think about” and he said “No, mi have no name” so when the label called and said “I think we have a title” – it’s good! Just make sure the word Dub is in there! People said “So you you’re watching the show?” I don’t even know the name? Game of Thrones? I just work in the studio. I carry my son to school, I go in the studio and then I go on tour. I don’t watch any shows. The only thing I watch is the news and then I go to sleep.
Finally, you once said in an interview that if you had met Haile Selassie he would have said to you “Follow the spirituality and don’t follow no man”. What does that mean?
You see this? I got a tattoo “Jahnhoy”. Because when Selassie came to Jamaica people in Ethiopia called him Jahnhoy. He never knew about anything else. When he landed in Jamaica people called him names and this and that. Selassie was a king but he was a Christian too. He himself believed in Christ so he never really understood why. Certain topics we have to be careful because some people could take it wrong. But the vision was like the man said: “A man is just a man” and so it goes.
Read Alborosie’s track by track guide to Freedom & Fyah here!