Interview with Jamaica Papa Curvin
10/03/2013 by Valentin Zill
Despite him never having a big hit, Jamaica Papa Curvin is a household name in Germany, since he has provided a lot of development aid for the reggae movement there since he settled down there in the 1960s. “Germany‘s Grandfather of Roots, Rock, Reggae” turned 70 on September 19th. He‘ll celebrate his birthday with a concert at his property in Jamaica on October 5th that features Iba Mahr, Aaron Silk, Jah Bouks, and others. REGGAEVILLE called Papa Curvin in his native Jamaica, where he returned to ten years ago, to wish him a happy birthday.
You arrived in Europe four decades ago. I guess you travelled by ship at that time, not by plane?
Yeah, we came here with a ship called Prince der Nederlanden. So we took off from Kingston at the time and went to Holland. It was around October, November time. We didn't even have nothing named no winter coat! We thought, cho, everything in this world is hot, the snow business that we see is only a fake. Oh bwoy. When we get to Southampton, everybody stay in the cabin now. Nobody's coming on deck, because on deck is too cold. So when we get to Amsterdam or Rotterdam, one of those ports, we decided that we not coming off the ship. So the guys who brought us there on that tour, they went shopping for winter coats and socks and all. And they brought it to the ship, so we all wrapped up in some big things. But it was fun. We stayed in Holland and we practice in Holland and we did some shows in Holland in our big winter clothes.
You proceeded to Germany at some point, equipped with a nice winter coat, and ended up spending a whole lot of your lifetime there.
Yes, my bredren. I was sent as a messenger from the Most High, Jah, to do all of that mission. Because if it was my own choice, I wouldn't be up there because of the weather! But everything went good, and I'm very positive towards the things that I experienced. In life, you experience a lot of positive and a lot of negative things. But the positive things rule for me. So I stayed on there, and I enjoy Europe, Germany, and I started out in Germany at that time forming a ska and reggae band. At that time, there was nothing named reggae music.
You founded one of Europe's first reggae band, called Malcolm's Locks.
Malcolm's Locks, that's the time when I decided now - when the band went back to Jamaica and I stayed on in Düsseldorf, I started to do play some jazz. But that didn't satisfy my soul. So I heard about this singer who was singing with the group Les Humphries Singers, and he was looking for some musicians to start something new. So I went to Hamburg, and I met with Malcolm Magaron. And Malcolm and me and some other musicians, we get together and form a group named Malcolm's Locks. Malcolm's girlfriend, whose name is Liz Mitchell - before the whole Boney M. thing - was also a singer in that group, in the backing vocal section. We were playing a type of a music which we called Caribbean rock. It's a kind of a soul funk and some Caribbean melodies going inside of it. We did a album. It didn't go too far.
You already mentioned Boney M. How did you get involved in that chapter of German pop music history?
The Most High sent me in different directions. Because in everywhere I went, we were preaching love. Even in the pop music section! Even though there was no love, we was keeping up that love thing. Because as a messenger, you have to go in different directions and to spread the news and the vibes. After Malcolm's Locks kinda fade away, Liz Mitchell get a call to go to Boney M. and meet Frank Farian. She said, alright, if I go there and things is working well, I'm gonna call you guys. She went to the group, and they had a hit named Baby Do You Wanna Bump. Some pop section thing. So after that, they decided that they want to tour with band, so they call us. From Malcolm's Locks, it was me, the guitar player, and the keyboard player, and Malcolm was doing at that time the tour management. We brought two great songs to Frank Farian, Brown Girl in the Ring and Rivers of Babylon. Those was the songs that we had recorded before on the album from Malcolm. When we decided to build up the program with Boney M. and realized that they didn't have enough songs, we started to play Rivers of Babylon on stage, and Brown Girl in the Ring. Which Frank Farian took and take it to the other section of musicians that he had in Offenbach, and they recorded a studio version of those songs and make millions out of it.
I knew Rivers of Babylon long before I started to listen to reggae music, and you just explained to me why.
Ah so life go. You cyaan hide the truth. The truth is that it's in you, and now you know how it is, because it's reality. It was a great success. It ah great tune. This is songs from our traditional thing. But it went out very negative from the side of Frank Farian, because he decided to own the song as a writer and a owner of the song, when the song is a traditional song. There was some conflict that took place between the producer of Malcolm's album and Frank. So they war in the court for many, many years. In the end, Frank win the case, because if you have money, you win. You know how it go in this world (laughs). Ah so it go, Valentin!
You're often referred to as "Germany's Grandfather of Roots, Rock, Reggae". I guess that is in parts because you had a studio in Hamburg, and your annual X-Mas Show.
Yes, I had a little studio which was a record shop. Because I had also the first reggae record shop in Germany. When I realized that you couldn't find no reggae records in Germany, I decided to open a little shop. A friend of mine had a shop and was going back to Jamaica. I took the shop from him and I went to London with a friend of mine, and we bought a whole car load of records, drive and put it on the boat and come out in Hamburg. We were very lucky that the customs didn't check the car (laughs). We start the little shop with records, and we built up some contact with people in Holland who had a connection to Jamaica, and getting records in Amsterdam, in London, and in Jamaica. That little shop went on very, very, very good. But then we decided now, bwoy, we have to start producing something also in Germany. As a drummer, I decided I have to teach a few young people about the riddim of the reggae music. So when the shop is closed in the evening, it's turning into a studio! We put up the mics, and we have a little room where you could go in and sing. And the band is playing outside, and we drawed on the curtains and so on. So it was a shop, a studio, a office, and we book our shows from that little place. And the name of the place was Reggae Center. We had also the first sound system, coming out of that same shop, called Reggae Center Sound System. We didn't do a lot of sound all over, we were only playing in a special club in Hamburg. Then later I decided, bwoy, the Christmas is so kinda boring in Germany, nuttin is happening. So we went to the Markthalle (he pronounces it like a Hamburg native) and had a talk with the owner and said we like to do some things on Christmas Eve here. Well, at that time, this man name was Wolgang Landt, he says: “OK Curvin, you can take the place, and we do some percentage deal. I know is not gonna work, because German people don't go out at those days.” But it went good, it went very, very, very good. And for years, it's running in the Markthalle, and we're having sold-out shows every Christmas for many years until we changed the venue to the Fabrik. That starts to grow a lot. I've seen people who met in the reggae shows, got married, invited me to their wedding, and then to the christening of their children! So it's one beautiful thing that took place at that time, and still going on. As I'm saying, is not really me who did all of that. This is as a messenger, the works of Jah. Because we brought people together, nations together through the music. And generations, children born with Africans and Germans, families mixed together. Those shows, nowadays if you go there, you see a whole heap of German-African children or German-Jamaican children. And they're having their children, too. So it's a love thing.
You moved back to Jamaica in 2003. Why did you leave Germany?
It's the Most High just moved me and say, alright, Curvin, you have done a lot of work, and your work prevails. I've got six kids in Germany, and I have got seven grandchildren in Germany. So my family side is in Germany. I am a Germaican! If I tell you, I love Germany, Germany is my second home. So Jah says, alright now, things and things are gonna happen, because life is full of joy, and sometimes there are some negative things that happen. And in my life, some changes took place. At that time, I had found a little piece of land in Jamaica which nobody wanted to buy, because it was a garbage place. I cleaned it up and built a house here. I tell you, it's a beautiful place now. When I came here, they used to call me the “mad Rastaman”, because only a mad Rastaman could buy this piece of land! Nobody wanted it. I got it for almost nothing. Today, I'm sitting on the veranda and looking around and seeing the flowers and this beauty. The nature, it's full of fruits! The place is so beautiful, Valentin, you have to come here one day! I'm telling you, man. So I have a little studio. The studio that I had in Hamburg - when I decided to come back to Jamaica, I took a container and pack everything in it and went back to Jamaica. It was not that I was running away from Germany. I'm in Germany twice a year. I'm up there in the summer, and I'm up there in the Christmas, doing the X-Mas Reggae Show. I'm not doing so much as I used to do, because I am 70, and I kinda screw down the running around that much. So I'm doing maybe one or two shows in the winter, and in the summer three or four shows. Then I'm back here. I'm also helping young people inside of the music in my community here. A lot of young guys come here. I teach them, I show them, and I tell them, listen, if you wanna get in the music, get into the business. Learn about the business, as well as learning about the music. As you know, the culture in Jamaica was so much on the DJ side, now it's going back to the roots! People like Chronixx and people like Jah Bouks, for whom I produced that song Call Angola*, which is a hit now in Jamaica.
[*Reggaeville has been informed by the management of Jah Bouks, that the tune Angola was recorded and mixed at Curvin's studio, but NOT produced by Papa Curvin!]
So you didn't get to sell your winter coat.
I still have the winter coat, man! When I'm going up to Ger… (laughs). When I'm going up to Germany, I pull out my winter coat. It's hanging upstairs.
Since you just turned seventy, looking back at your career, is there anything you'd do differently if you could turn back time?
No. Nothing! Because everything is everything, and everything builds you and makes you grow. A lot of people said: “Curvin, you never have a big hit! You don't wish to have a big hit?” I said, listen, I give thanks for the life I'm living. I give thanks for the joy. Maybe if I had a big hit, I would then really go crazy! Give thanks to Jah for what he gave me! Because I am totally happy, I'm healthy. I'm not going through too much stress, I am living in the Garden of Eden, so what more can you have or need? I don't have a lot of money, no way. My account is sometimes zero. But sometimes some little thing comes and me eat again! So give thanks.
You look so vital, in fact, that I'm one hundred percent sure you still have future plans.
Yah man, the Most High always have future plans fi I. Right now, I'm working on a Nyabinghi album. Because it's one of the music I love a lot. I did some rough cut, some remix of some songs I had, and found out that the people them love it. So I decided, alright, I'm gonna do an album. So I'm working now on a Nyabinghi album with some Nyabinghi drummers. We're really getting into this thing. It's gonna be a great album, I tell you. It's only drums and vocals, and I'm putting some acoustic guitar and a bass guitar to that Nyabinghi, even though traditional it is totally… Well, I'm breaking the tradition. But I know the bass and the guitar gives me a certain melody which you have to respect. In the Nyabinghi, without chord instruments, what is happening is that you sing anytime in tune or out of tune or whatever. But if you're having some chord instruments, it keeps you in tune. And it gives another flavor to the music. I love to put some spices to the thing. So that is what I'm doing right here now, and at the same time taking care of my brothers and sisters who come to the Real Jamaica. That's what we call this place. This Saturday, I'm having a great big party in the back of this property also. It is a great place, people love it. A lot of artists is coming to support me on this day. I'm looking forward for that, and looking forward for the future.
Real Jamaica, that‘s the guest house you‘re running.
I had the idea to build a few cottages in the back. This land that I bought, it goes straight to the sea. This thing came through with some friends of mine in Germany. We built up three cottages on this ground, in the middle of the forest in the back, a lot of trees and thing. It's fantastic. I don't see me as a guy who's running a guest house. I have some cottages and some friends and some fans, they come here and stay. I treat them like how they treat me. I show them good places in Jamaica, not the typical tourist places. When you go there, is like you are in the middle of nature alone. But as things go by, you take a person to a very secret and beautiful place, but they have their smartphone and they picture the place and put it in the facebook. And then all of a sudden, you realize, what the hell is happening? (Laughs) The place full of people, so we have to find some new strategy now for the new place that we're moving them to, no cameras! (Laughs)
On behalf of REGGAEVILLE and myself, once more, blessed belated earthstrong, King!
Thank you, Valentin! Bless up the whole REGGAEVILLE team. Give thanks. Bless up the fans over there, bless up everyone!
PHOTOS BY DENIS GIRISKEN