Backstage at the Reggae Geel festival in Belgium Frederick “Toots’’ Hibbert removed his rock-star shades. He leaned forward intensely and said, in a husky Jamaican accent “I was the one who coined the word Reggae, I was the one who invented the word reggae”.
He took ‘Streggae’, a Jamaican slang word for someone “who dosn’t dress nicely” and repurposed it for the song titled ‘Do the Reggay’ in 1968. It is not often that you come across a musician so genuine and humble that has also named a genre of music and has accomplished so much in their career. He is a Grammy award winner, was voted by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, has had 31 number 1 hit songs in Jamaica, reputedly more than any recording artist and is still working as hard as ever.
Toots talked about his early days of a teenage country boy moving to Kingston, Jamaica in 1960’s “them were all there Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, all hanging out”. He also met Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” McCarthy and formed The Maytals. They worked with Clement “Coxsone” Dodd at Studio One in 1962-63 with backing from the Skatalites which proved to be a dynamite combination blasting any other bands in sight.
With a career spanning several decades Mr. Hibberts also had his share of hard times. His song ‘54-46 That’s My Number’ which he had just performed was written by him while he was in prison for possession of ganja. He wrote it to let people know of his innocence as he was not smoking back then “Do you believe I would take something with me and give it to the police man? I wouldn’t do that, now listen to me one more time I wouldn’t do that” the tune smacks of funk.
His new album also includes some funk tunes as well as R&B, soul, gospel, blues and country smothered in Toots own Jamaican flavour. It is very much a mix bag, some tunes have ridiculous corny effects others have enough cheesy synth sounds to give you indigestion. However, the genuine Toots infused soulful numbers are still to be found. Just have to listen out for that voice which has been liked to that of Otis Redding and you’re there.
“I is tired, very tired” his almond shaped eyes lined and sunken. By the time I caught up with him he had been on tour for 13 weeks travelling throughout the US and Europe to promote his new album ‘Flip and Twist’. The schedule of his tour resembles that of a pinball machine flitting from one country to the next. At the age of 65 there is no sign of this man ever slowing down.
He is still a country boy at heart and has no fear of hard work. Which is clear when he proudly described the time he spent performing in Africa “I have been to Africa and worked night and day. Don’t come off stage…It was the hardest work”. I was curious to find out more about his motivation to keep going decade after decade. When I asked him of all the things that you can do in your life what gives you the most joy he replied without hesitation “to give thanks, give praise, then second thing is to sing”.
This is not just all talk, as he has donated $2 million Jamaican Dollars in recent years to the Toots Foundation which mainly helps to benefit the underprivileged children in Jamaica and throughout the world. He also donates $1USD from each ticket sold at his US concerts towards the foundation. When he shouted out to the crowd “we are all family” it was coming from his heart. There is a strong sense of his spiritual and gospel roots and this shines through his evangelical like presence on a stage.
To capture these powerful live performances over the years he has recorded several live albums. He mentioned one of these he recorded in 1998 Live in London. He recorded it that night and the next day it was released “the quickest live album, we sell over 50,000.” Compared to when Toots started out in the 60’s the industry has changed so much, things that could never have been considered back then are common place now.
When discussing artists who are starting out today he said “Starting off is always hard…but they can get away with the nursery rhyme. You need positive words and positive rhythm…to be reggae you need respect, love your mum, be wise, be just…”
Backstage the rain continued to slide down the side of the portacabins which contained arguably some of the worlds most influential reggae artists. Signs indicated the precious contents of each cabin. Israel Vibration, Inna De Yard All Stars, Bunny Wailer and Toots and the Maytals. The air was tense and edgy with anticipation. Empty bottles of Jamaican Red Stripe beer and Irish Guinness Extra stout littered the plastic tables outside.
Before the interview our media contact Youri van Driessche a DJ from FMBrussel informed us that ‘Toot’s band had arrived however Toots himself had “gone missing with the manager and it’s starting to get a little messy”. This was about an hour before he was due on stage. You could sense the underlying tension between the Toots and his manager caused undoubtedly by the strain of the extended tour schedule. The rain however didn’t dampen the festival spirit and Toots brought the sunshine to the crowds during his performance even if the gods were unwilling to do so.
Youri was one of the 300 or so volunteers that organise, manage and run the festival. Without their continued support Reggae Geel would cease to be. He has attended the festival for the past 20 years and was asked back to help out as a press officer. At only 25 euro for a weekend ticket this festivals goals are social, musical and community driven rather that purely economic. Local sports and scouts associations are rewarded for their work and as such can in turn benefit from the festival. Which is in keeping with the real message of reggae.
Towards the end of the interview I asked Toots what he thought about the future of Reggae and where it is headed he replied sincerely “real reggae never change man”.
Toots will be playing at the Tripod in Dublin on Saturday 14th August. Doors open from 7.30pm. His new album Flip and Twist has also been launched recently and is available to purchase in the usual spots.