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- Posted on Sep 14th 2010 4:30PM by Steve Hochman
Courtesy of Mindless Records
Right. The Scottish hymns.
Hearing those old tunes must have gone right to his British heart when he started hanging out around the beaches of Ochos Rios.
"The old Wesleyan hymns recast as Rastafarian tunes, with 'Jah' substituted for 'God,'" notes reggae historian Roger Steffens. "These are country people, hill folk with pure roots who have never given up their traditions. And the slave masters who brought them over were mainly Scottish. They brought the Presbyterian church with them, and Wesley wrote those hymns."
So that's what Richards heard in that setting, and it's the core of the music by Wingless Angels, the group of Nyabinghi mystics the Rolling Stones guitarist has presented on the new 'Wingless Angels II,' a follow-up to the revelatory 1998 debut of the project. At the core of the group is the sweet singing of Justin Hinds, who had been one of the key figures in the rise of ska music going back to the '50s and remained prominent in the transition to reggae before returning to coastal village life.
The new album, warmly produced by Brian Jobson and released Sept. 23 on Richards' Mindless Records label, also serves as a loving tribute from Richards to Hinds, who died of lung cancer in 2005 at age 62. The music is being presented in several formats, including elaborate deluxe packages combing both the old and new releases with a bonus "making of" DVD and various souvenirs – and a super-deluxe limited edition signed by Richards.
"This would be the second-generation Rastas," Steffens says, tracing the emergence of the first generation to the 1930s. "But they're still elders. They're from the times that Rasta was not only being persecuted terribly but also was doing its best to break into the mainstream of Jamaican culture. They represent the country Rasta, the 'rootical' Rasta. They're not the urbanites and Kingstonians. They'd sit around the fire for days reasoning with each other and drumming. This is the elemental version of Rastafari that these people practice. So you're not hearing polished studio music but what you'd hear if you came upon a clearing in the mountains and forests of northern Jamaica and discovered an encampment of Rastas. With the addition of tasteful guitar licks from Brother Keith."
Indeed, the echoes of those old hymns are prominent in such selections as "Oh What a Joy."
Wingless Angels, 'Oh What a Joy'
The genesis of Wingless Angels was Richards' growing love for Jamaica. The Stones had recorded there various times starting in the mid-'70s and had dabbled in reggae here and there, including a version of Jamaican singer Eric Donaldson's 'Cherry Oh Baby' on 1976's 'Black and Blue' album and a skankin' reworking of Bo Diddley's 'Crackin' Up' released on the 1977 'Love You Live' concert document. For the guitarist, the beaches up north proved a perfect retreat from the madness of international rock 'n' roll stardom. And that's where he met these particular Rastas, though he didn't know the depth of it.
"I found out from Keith that he met all these people on the beach at Ochos Rios," Steffens says. "He was familiar with Justin Hinds' music from England, especially the ska stuff. But he met Justin with fishermen on the beach and had no idea that it was Justin Hinds for more than a year."
Insert Keith Richards brain cells joke here.
"They brought all their drums down and put them in Keith's house for safekeeping, a measure of their trust and respect for him. And eventually he put two and two together. Justin went, 'Oh, yeah.'"
It was this life and these traditions that Hinds had brought to his ska and reggae, the heartbeat rhythm of the drumming and mystic fervor of the chants from which he drew ultimately being a powerful influence on all major reggae figures up to and including Bob Marley.
"He was always the antidote to the urban element in reggae," Steffens says. "He was the one utilizing the folk sayings and proverbs of the country, like 'Carry Go Bring Come' and 'The Higher the Monkey Climb.' He was the voice of rural Jamaica and a huge star in the ska era. But he made great reggae music, too. Had two albums on Island in the '70s and then Heartbeat Records picked up on him in the '80s. 'Travel With Love' on Heartbeat may be his masterpiece."
And his stature today?
"He's recognized as one of the great founding fathers of Jamaica's own music, one of the greatest exponents over the longest period. Had an almost 50-year run, didn't he? That's incredible in any form of music."
But that's also fading.
"Kids don't even know Peter Tosh in Jamaica. It's a shame. People who know reggae know Justin worldwide. Bu the younger generation eschews the music of the forebears."
That, Steffens says, gives 'Wingless Angels II' the bittersweet status of being both an invaluable document of a crucial folk music – and perhaps its epitaph. Despite Richards' advocacy, despite Hinds' legacy, there is no rootsical revival on tap.
"There's no money attached to it," he says. "These guys were flabbergasted when Keith offered to pay them for making a record! The first Wingless album came out in '98 and was rereleased in 2003, and I think it was viewed as a curiosity but also as a surprisingly authentic tribute to Rastafari."
As such, that album and now the new 'II' release anchor a very small catalog of recordings preserving the deep rural roots of Jamaican music. Steffens knows of only a "tiny handful," including 'Folk Music of Jamaica' ethnographer (and later, Jamaican Prime Minister) Edward P.G. Seaga made for Folkways Records in 1956 documenting the similar, though distinct, Pocomania phenomenon.
"It becomes very precious and that's a major reason Keith wanted to get this down, because he felt it was dying out and wanted to capture it before that true rootical flavor was gone."