Words by Jacqueline Howell & Photography by Dave MacIntyre
Toots and the Maytals are back on stage in Toronto for the first time since 2011. The city’s been lucky to be a regular tour stop for the legendary musician over the years, but the mood in the crowd at The Danforth Music Hall is electric, buoyant, charged with an energy that many people reserve for vacations and special trips, or maybe, the energy that can only come (without the price of a plane ticket) from an enlightening and rare musical experience. From Reggae. From Reggay.
Toots Hibbert holds a rare place in music currency, music currently, and musical history. You should know that his roots are solid and his cred is beyond cred. For this is the man who invented the term “Reggay.” The reggae most people know so well, the Marley reggae, was actually born about a generation ahead of Marley in Toots’ Jamaica, in Toots’ heart and mind and rhythms. In Toots’ band.
And not only that, but Toots is musical ground zero for Rock Steady. For SKA. For music that was carried to England and transformed listeners in the 60s and 70s, that transformed kids picking up basses and keys and drums, that added a twist and birthed British SKA. The Specials. Later, The English Beat. And many, many more.
All of this would be noteworthy enough for an article, for a nostalgia trip, for a looky-loo to see how one of modern music itself’s elder statesman and pioneers is faring in the live setting these days. Sometimes, the looky-loo, the stub, the say-you-were-there is enough. Sometimes it has to be enough. At over 70 years young, Toots would be an interesting draw even if it were not exciting, alive, and fresh but just okay. He was sidelined for the past few years due to some idiotic crowd behaviour causing him a serious injury, and those who know about that feel an extra charge of celebration at what we almost lost, for we are spoiled and need Toots around for a long long time.
But beyond that, Toots is something otherworldly, planetary, and always has been. His voice is the same rough hewn, original, drawl, set to cruise control but with a powerful thrust always close at hand, as it was on those perfect records made in the 1960s. He never ages, he was a wise old owl since he was a kid, when he first hit the mike. He’s the same, he’s lovely. He’s impossible.
So getting the chance to be in the room with Toots and the Maytals, right now a full assembly of wire tight musicians and multi-generational family members singing and supporting, is to have lucked into some kind of house party of your wildest dreams. The entire Toronto crowd is at a constant shuffle, a bop, some are free-form dancing, some women, a lot of women, are in delightful full on vacation mode and the dresses they take down to the Caribbean once a year. Summer in Toronto this year has been tropical. All that’s been missing is this kind of music to make it complete.
No one can stay still, for once, and those that can’t dance roam; the room is in a constant churn of bodies, but it feels more like a community than a crowd tonight. You might have seen a lot of shows and love live music but how many times has a legend said to you from the stage, let alone at two or three different times, conversationally, casually, sweetly “I love you”?
The early sounds of Rocksteady and Ska mixed with what would become Reggae make a Toots and the Maytals show, along with totally original lyrics and song styling make this performer permanently unique and singularly perfect. There’s a secret formula going on up on stage that even played so many times over the years in front of crowds has never been duplicated and is utterly Toots Hibbert, The formula is Toots’ and his alone. It’s in his intonation, his grunts, his trills, his vocal punctuations. How many songs start off with “Hmmmmm. Ummmmm ummmm? Hey. Listen.” (Music starts). Such is the (rare) cover that Toots successfully made his own, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. John Denver’s West Virginia seamlessly folds into West Jamaica like a bookmark in a story that rarely makes it back once its been in the popular charts. Toots’ songs and influence have been covered everywhere for so long that it’s very interesting to note what happens when he takes the same approach, it turns into something all new and better. It’s deep, it’s moving, and it’s pretty. It’s Jamaican now. Toots pulled a similar trick with the Radiohead modern classic “Let Down” with Easy Star All-Stars.
It’s so powerful, it’s truth and it’s even the best kind of tourism. It’s better, this one song sung by this man, than any big splashy campaign could ever be, it’s had a lot to do with putting the country of Jamaica on the map since travel and tourism to the region took off in the 1970s. It’s doublespeak, it’s a hot potato. When Toots sings anything, the meanings are multiple, the smiles, the chills and the sparkle spotted in strangers eyes is intoxicating, and the complexity of a true artist from a beautiful, small place with a hard history, where life is difficult, is never forgotten. It’s a party that understands how to live in adversity, how to take the bitter with the sweet, how to laugh and how to love, because that’s magic, that fights darkness. It’s educational, and it’s learned through all the senses.
Toots has so many great songs over a lifetime. No flat notes. He says tonight “We’re going to play all the Number Ones.” How many artists can say that, casually, at ease? Number ones from a time when music was carried on vinyl on boats and planes. Number ones that were as true and as uncorrupted as today’s are rigged and sketchy. The Maytals “Monkey Man” a song made uber-famous by The Specials in the 70s, has the cool bartender jumping and jiving from behind her post at the in-venue bar for a full three minutes. Music like this makes our muscles remember being three years old and dancing like no one was watching, the years of self-consciousness of city living whisked away with those first harmonious, firm notes. The main words of that song are “I-yi-yi, I yi-yi” and they speak volumes. We get to step with a bit of “Pomp and Pride”. We Canadians, thousands of miles from Jamaica get to think we understand yard language, private slang, patois. We’ve snuck into this great party. With Toots. Toots loves us!
“Funky Kingston” is a song that begs to have tomes written about it, but don’t let this writer’s personal view that within those few lines lie the makings of an entire school of philosophy bore you out of the simple truth that this song is an epic for these times, a new Shakespeare, a more fun Woodsworth. “I want you to believe every word I say. I want you to believe everything I do.” “Music is what I’ve got. And I’v got to find some way to make it.” Hibbert says as firmly as when the words were dreamed into being way back when. MUSIC, his music, as sung about here, must come and must carry on around the world even if the place it was born in, Kingston, is no longer what it was. Places and life can be taken from us, places are not firm and safe as we thought as kids, ground is not solid, is it? Music is more solid than the idea of home. Than the shifting powers of a place and ever-changing times, than sadness and loss. And it rings out with a power that is deep and free. Lets everyone in, mitigates righteous anger with the gift of love.
One of the last moments in a night of rhythms that crest and break like waves, like nothing boring or programmed, that were born free and operate with real instruments and a minimum of tech to get in the way and is bigger than machines can make, is the anthem “54-46 Was My Number”. Toots introduces this song by looking around the room for faces that look like his, touching on the ever-present, front page 2016 issue of police unfairly targeting black people in his Toots-like, light and plain-speaking way. “If a police officer were to stop you, how many of you would be guilty?” He asks the crowd. He counts. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.” One such man slips by toward the back of the venue, smiling to himself, fleeing the gaze of the man on stage, able to laugh for a moment about terrible truths of this world. That is the magic of music, of leaders, of those with love to give the world.
He launches into “54-46 Was My Number” (prisoner number) which begins “Stick it up, mister!” the crowd is told to put their hands in the air, as usual. Stick it up mister, and put your hands in the air, sir, have a new meaning when someone is in rightful power upon a stage versus a policeman abusing theirs. It’s transformed and its even transformative. It’s resistance, it’s community. The command is an invitation to share instead of a threat. It’s exactly how you snuff out abuse and wrongness in the world in those spaces you can push into, if you are an artist. It becomes, it is, Soul. It becomes Motown. We get to pretend we were around for real Motown, which in all its richness, also borrowed and took from this original man.
In this electric song lies a whole spectrum of Toots and the Maytals colours. These colours only exist right here and impossibly, are as true and bright as they were before most of us were born. It’s a perfect wonder. Hey. Listen.
Photos Copyright 2016 – Dave MacIntyre. Do not use without prior permission.