Picture a dreaded out Bunny Wailer sipping mushroom tea and toking on a gigantic sno-cone backstage at Reggae Sunsplash in the mid-eighties. A very white and uptight VH1 interviewer is trying to persuade the monk-like figure to stand under a palm tree while they interview him to make the shot more picturesquely “Jamaican”. Bunny smiles down upon the impatient, sweaty interviewer and gesturing with both hands at the verdant tropical landscape of which he is, momentarily, the high-flowing, visionary center, he tells him: “Me stand where me stand mon”. At this moment, the cracked mahogany voice of Toots Hibbert erupts from the backstage speakers and Bunny turns his face toward the sound, a huge smile illuminating his face. A kid hands Bunny a mango and the reggae maestro steps towards the source of the music, dread locks swinging, robes floating. The VH1 guy is left holding his microphone out to empty air.
Toots and the Maytals have the power to turn your head around. They transcend genres and speak to rock, funk, gospel and even folk and country audiences as much as to lovers of Jamaican reggae. The Maytals’ version of “Take Me Home Country Roads” is an example of how artificial genre boundaries can melt like ice in the sunshine of Jamaican soul. Toots transforms John Denver’s country song into an all encompassing gospel homecoming, and when he twists “West Virginia” into “West Jamaica” it sounds so right you have to wonder if this wasn’t always meant to be reggae.
This Best of Toots & the Maytals CD kicks off with “Funky Kingston”, a well-deep hit of roots funk-reggae. The rim-shot and horn interplay whips up some of the hardest, on the beat, up-tempo funk rhythms ever burned on tape. After a mighty, testifying intro, “I want you to believe every word I say, I want you to believe every thing I do”, Toots stands back and lets the Maytals cook, tossing in a few sparse interjections, “ah be, ah be, ah be,” and a phrase here and there, “Lick it to me”, then suddenly powering into the breakdown: “Going from east to west nah nah, north to south, ovah in Amer-ka, people even asking me ‘bout, Funky Kingston, but I ain’t got none, Funky Kingston, somebody take it away from me, Funky Kingston, you bettah go and get yourself one, Funky Kingston”.
“Funky Kingston” is a long way from smooth lover’s rock and stoner dreadlocks reggae. Just one hit and you’ll know why Bunny was smiling. Musically “Funky Kingston” is as deep in Memphis and Lagos as it is steeped in Trench town. Toots is one of those transported African artists who never left the wellspring of his musical origins. His voice sometimes evokes a cracked, hoarser, more ecstatic Otis Redding if Otis had been a tad less bluesy, a tad more tribal and able to abandon the linear song forms of the west for the chants and off the cuff vocal improvisations of African music.
Like Big Youth, another deep-soul 1970s reggae artist who was lost in the towering shadow of Bob Marley, Toots doesn’t even try to connect with Western youth, he is deep in his own rhythms and his own patois and that’s the glory of his music. This is not crossover reggae-pop, it is hard core Jamaican funk that grabs and swallows American influences alive without ever losing an ounce of its raw authenticity (check also Big Youth’s incredibly stoned version of “Touch Me In The Morning”). In the raw edges, around the weird corners and through the cracks of this music, you fall into a different world of hard knocks, dope beats and alien beauty.
“Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop” are familiar to anyone who has heard Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come—the former a light hearted tale of marital infidelity, the latter an eerie, dread-filled, karmic warning. From the same period comes the righteous “54-46 Was My Number”, the story of Toots’s eighteen-month incarceration on a bogus weed possession charge. “I’m not a fool to hurt myself / And the thing they did to me / It was wrong / It was wrong”. Beyond his indignation at this personal injustice, Toots rages against the ongoing, mechanical dehumanization of everyone caught in the system: “54-46 was my number, right now someone have that number”.
This collection closes out with two songs from Toots’s 1988 comeback album, Toots in Memphis. Produced by Jim Dickinson, the idea was to let Toots loose on the Stax soul that he so obviously loves. Toots’s version of Otis’s “(I’ve Got) Dreams To Remember” is a nice tribute to both artists, but in the mighty ‘70s work—“Monkey Man”, “In The Dark”, “Time Tough”, and “Reggae Got Soul”—Toots produced music that equals anything on the ‘60s Stax label. At his best, Toots smokes everything in sight.