Interview with Earl Chinna Smith in Jamaica [Part II]
by Angus Taylor
Read and listen to part 2 [click here to read part 1] of our interview and music lesson with Chinna at his yard where he takes us from the end of the 1970s through to today.
When did your High Times label and band start?
High Times started from about 1980 and closed about 1996.
You did a lot of work with Freddie McGregor on High Times. And songs like Sergeant Brown, Mark of the Beast and I’m a Revolutionist showed a more militant side to him.
Ah, well, Freddie was a part of Soul Syndicate but Freddie was really into big success in a certain way. Which is a good thing. We’d be up on the road and Freddie would just live up on the road – him and the next brethren named Arnold Breckenridge and that was how he started to sing. So we were on the road with a great keyboard player named Leslie Butler and if you’re a band and the commerce thing doesn’t work a certain way maybe the guy wants a little bit more or he thinks there’s more in it, so two brethren decided they were going home. So Leslie Butler said “They gone? Fully you sing, Tony you sing, Santa you sing, and Chinna you sing” so we did our album Was, Is and Always in maybe about ’78. But we did a whole album with Freddie which we put out on vinyl named FM. Songs like Natural Collie, some cover songs.
You co-produced Mutabaruka’s first album Check It in 1983.
The Mutabaruka album had a nice history to it. After Bob trod on, Jimmy Cliff came up with a concept of African Oneness and he had this programme for a show so he gathered all the Rastaman. For a while I thought he was almost dread too but he never got that tall. So he was bringing all houses. He gathered all the musicians from Kingston, Augustus Pablo was in the programme too and he gathered musicians and artists from his area. So during the audition we saw this brethren, Muta, from the hills, serious you know, trod ancient way, no shoes but very cultural. He came with this song, Every Time I Hear The Sound, and the song was a hit just from hearing it the first time. So I remember the Rastaman brethren named Planno – passed Jah bless his soul - said “Chinna, that’s a good one. You should record it” and I said “Anything you say Planno I am going to do it!”
Is it true that you gave Frankie Paul his name?
Not his name, but in a way you could say that too. Because my brethren, a rude boy from the Garden, Barrington, from the west came and said “You see this little mad artist there?” So we started working upon him seriously and put him upon certain big stages and got him recording an album. We had him on a contract but he kind of got loose and all over the place. We just loved the youth and wish them could have stuck with the thing and maybe it could have been something else but still good came out of it because he became a renowned star globally so I guess it worked same way. It never worked the way we would have loved to see it work but it worked Jah way. And I have to give way for Jah way. (laughs)
What did you think of the digital thing when it came in the mid 80s and the live bands got less work?
Everything right now is like a controlled system. Music used to have a freedom in itself where you have your vibes. Just like here. We are all nature’s greatest miracle because no one is exactly the same so it’s the uniqueness. Now with a digital concept you want to put everything into this little package and everything becomes one. You want to control the thing.
I remember years ago I was working on this album for Judy Mowatt with brother Sangie. You had a brethren from California named Skip Drinkwater who was the first guy that brought down this Linn Akai drum. When he came with this drum that he had to program to play. When the album finished the album name was Working Wonders and it was Grammy nominated and he came and worked wonders on the thing. After a while in the 80s the man would complain about the drummers and say they didn’t play tight and get all drums with drum machine and from there they brought the virus into the thing.
They brought the virus into the thing because you don’t know what they program. Because they make you stop to make their sound. They could just say “Get rid of reggae”. Because it is a program they put in the thing. And that’s what really went on because you’d see the music that started coming up – pure violence. Everybody kill, war, man sing tunes “Blood deh pon mi shoulder, Murderer!” and “Murder She Wrote” that everybody sings about and the gangster thing. Gangster, monster and all of the people the Killa, the Assassin and you have all the different tools come in, the Pliers, you have the Fenda, then you have the animals, the Tigers and the Elephants, the Cobras, everything.
So what did you do in that time?
I just sat in and I drew my chalice and I said “No”. Movements of Jah people same way. So we said “NO” and then the material thing went up but our part of the music created the most material part of the thing. Because Bob still generated the most money ever and through Rastafari. Even though he is not here to enjoy the material part of it but which one is more valuable? We left the legacy, the rich heritage, the pyramid that the ancients formed where you can’t make a replica.
Through all that is going on life is simple – inhale and exhale. It can’t get any simpler than that. That’s life. That’s survival. Just like His Majesty said, even in the 21st century, David can still defeat Goliath. So we can’t look upon it like it’s a losing battle. We have to feel confident of the victory of good over evil. Like all these genetic things that we see going on but you still can find a farm where you can get organic produce. Maybe it’s not as popular as many things but it still exists. If you smoke you can still find a good organic draw herb where you know it has not been tampered with. You still can find brethren who you can sit in with and hold a vibes. You can still find great musicians if you are on that search.
How did the Inna De Yard series get started with the French label Makasound?
That’s a good one. I’m touring with a whole heap of little young musicians because I respect the music and I realize how important it is to keep the thing alive. When you go out on the road the direction where we set the music – it is like it went somewhere else. It’s like everything had gone up to a level and it goes down so now. It kind of frustrated me, the songs became boring so I decided “I’m done with the road thing. Come upon my veranda”. Because what I really loved as I told you from the beginning was my guitar. I fell in love with the guitar when I realised the sound I could get out of it and what I could do with it and the relationship I had with it grew over the years. I can’t afford to play this thing and not be comfortable. It was kind of getting to that stage. So I said “No. I’ll come back inna me yard and play my guitar”. Everybody thought I was a madman because I just drew the chalice every day and played the guitar right through until my fingers were sore.
Then one day some men realised and said “What Chinna doing?” So me and my brethren decided “We want to make music” so we formed the Three Hola Natty – that was the production company – and I had a little bit of money and he had some and he had some. We said we were going to record for one year straight. We booked Tuff Gong every Tuesday for one year straight and just called in a bunch of artists and recorded and that was the movement. We did about three months and the people at Tuff Gong said “What happened to them man? Them man must inna some business because they are recording all these songs and we are hearing nothing upon the radio!” But we went on til things kind of got away too because some artists when we recorded them they’d go in and they’d not voice the tune right and all kinds of things where they would say “Bloodclaat, where the thing result?” and coming on like we were mad too.
Anyhow the thing kind of started to splinter through economics but we are brethren same way. We would come into the yard until two Frenchmen and an ex-Jamaican came inside and saw we are sat up be heating the chalice and praising Rastafari. They say these two guys have an idea for some people to just record music in a relaxed environment like this. I said “Yeah that sound good. If you guys don’t mind I will draw my chalice and do the thing naturally” and they said “No problem with it”. I said “Mic up the thing same time” and they did a thing with Kiddie. And yard looks like how it looks now [with all these people here] so I said “Alright, if all of the man dem here sing a tune?” and they said “Alright”.
So some of the men are kind of “Hmmm” because the business thing didn’t work out and they wouldn’t do anything if the business thing didn’t work out. Sometimes I rate those men and wish I was like that but, no, I wouldn’t be like them because nothing creative would really happened if I behaved like them! So because of the law of allowance I was able to allow the thing. So anyhow, we recorded the thing. We didn’t look at it like it was a breadbasket – we looked at it like it was an opportunity to play some music. So we did it and we drew our chalice same way like nothing ever happened. A couple of months later I was in Miami and I got a call saying that the little nothing we did was starting to be something and then the history goes on. Then it started to become important and then this Inna De Yard thing started until the company bankrupt! (laughs)
The first Inna De Yard releases were very rough and acoustic – then they became more electric and polished.
It’s like the gathering. Because I would never really go out. After a while they had concepts like maybe do a Ken Boothe, a Diamonds, all different people but the first concept was we gathered here Inna De Yard.
Tell me a bit about Gyptian who has a new album out now. He credits you with helping him find his voice and being the most important person in preparing him for the business.
Gyptian came out of the same project. He came here through a brethren name Rice who is now the bass player and I think maybe the bandleader for the group Uprising Roots. When Gyptian came here he came with a song. I still have it on tape – Serious Times. We were first to record it. That was his birth. Yeah we put him on a serious mic. First big international studio. Great youth. I recognised he had the voice. Back you used to have artists like Jah Cure and he was kind of similar to Jah Cure but there was something about him that cut through. You could see the difference. You could hear the quality and the tonality of the thing. Once he got that kind of opening it would be easy for him to cut through.
You are credited with being one of the architects, along with Ibo Cooper, Jamnesia and others of what they are calling the roots revival.
No, I don’t think roots is in revival. It’s just a natural foundation. The foundation can never be destroyed. It’s the business and how the business has become.
Kiddus: Because the tree’s roots are always alive. The branches are there but it’s just like how you go through a fall and after how Bob and all the reggae music was treated they shook the tree so it was like a fall and all the leaves came off. Now with the rebirth of these leaves springing from the root of the tree it is not a revival.
Sangie: What they did was they grafted it. Put a lot of fruits on one tree. So you find you have a mango tree with five, six, seven, eight species of mango upon one tree. The same thing they are trying to do with the music. They graft all kinds of things in the music. They say they big up the music but the music the big thing not the thing that they graft in.
But whatever you call it what do you think of these young artists?
Everything must change. The young become the old and mysteries do unfold because that’s the way of time. But like my mango tree, mango shall forever be mango. Every season it bears. The mango that I ate five years ago is not the mango that I can eat next season but it is mango same way. There might come a season where we don’t get that much rainfall so the mango next season might be a little drier than when we used to get enough rainfall. But we have to accept it still because the mango still exists. It is a fruit that bears same way.
Are you still as fascinated with the guitar now as when you first picked it up?
Yeah man. That’s why I live this way because every time I take up the guitar it must feel like the first time you naturally touched it. It’s just that sometimes I touch it so much until my fingers get this way! Feel the way that feels. But every time I touch it is like the first time I felt it.
You received the Silver Musgrave Medal recently. Where you happy to be honoured in this way?
I didn’t actually even know what it was when people told me about it. When I first heard about Musgrave it was years ago I was playing with Jimmy Cliff and Jimmy used to live on Lady Musgrave Road. So the other day my brethren told me why there is a Lady Musgrave Road…
Kiddus: The first black millionaire had this huge beautiful place on Devon Road and the lady didn’t like to pass this stately mansion owned by a black man so she had her husband who was the governor make another road so she could drive on it and that was Lady Musgrave Road.
So I’m saying if that is Lady Musgrave Road and the governor is respecting Rasta then I say I can’t disrespect him! You understand what I deal with? (laughs) If it takes him that many years to start respecting Rasta I have to go and respect him too by showing my appreciation.
What new projects are you working on now?
The new project is Binghi-stra. If you notice Bob has a tune that goes…
And all and all a go on – the line goes – just to fight against the Rastaman. We can’t fight against Babylon because we are not in that with them so we have to come with our music because we know music is our weapon which we used to get rid of wickedness in high and low places. We decided to make a programme because the Inna De Yard thing kind of started to struggle and all the Inna De Yard people started to splinter. So my deceased brethren named Kojo came and said “Now we have to take the thing to the Binghi-stra” so we mix up the thing. We make a kind of vegetable juice and we put beetroot and we put carrot and we put a mixture so it can go out there. This is the kind of music we will play. It’s binghi within the orchestration of sounds so to put it in one word we called it the Binghi-stra and we started to rehearse and start a project.
When is the project coming out?
The project has kind of freeze up because you have a little man who came like he dissed the thing and we don’t know what goes on. Just like how I started this Inna De Yard thing and it just happened naturally and after a while people just got anxious and want to do something differently. So you have to just watch it because the race is not for the swift but it’s for those who can endure the thing. If you have a concept you must believe in it – but not everybody’s like that. You have a man who gets hungry and he just goes out there to eat and I say I’m going to hold the fast. Because he has an aim and an objective towards the thing and you can’t control people’s thoughts. You just have to wish that people could join you. I can guarantee the string is tuned but humans are people and they swing. But I have a concept with some music. I don’t know if you remember Paul Simon but he had a song he recorded down here some years ago.
I can come to England and get the British Symphonic Orchestra so go and play that tape for them and tell them. We’ll do the Binghi part of it here and come there for the overdubs. Just like 1000 Volts of Holt but this is not reggae now. This is Binghi the highest form of Jamaican music. We are giving England the first shot because the Japanese are going to be rushing at it and the Americans so you are privileged to get the first demo.
Read part 1 here!
PHOTOS BY VERONIQUE SKELSEY