Toots and the Maytals
By Joshua Green
When elders of the Central Eskimos of northern Canada grow too frail to contribute to the community, younger folk put them on an ice floe, give it a shove, and wave good-bye as grandma or grandpa drifts off to a cold, isolated death. Though he hails from warmer climes, reggae legend Frederick "Toots" Hibbert can probably relate.
Along with collaborators Jerry Matthias and Raleigh Gordon--the Maytals--Hibbert has long been one of reggae's most influential acts. Since the early 60s he's been a constant in Jamaican music, from the early days of ska through the rock steady period of the mid-60s to the development and refinement of reggae and beyond. He's sort of the Forrest Gump of modern Jamaican music, always in the picture somewhere. His recordings range from early ska singles like 1963's "Six and Seven Books of Moses" to Toots in Memphis, a set of Stax/Volt covers that was nominated for a Grammy in 1988. But by then Bob Marley had been dead for seven years, and interest in roots music was on the wane. And so, shortly after Memphis, Island Records cut Hibbert adrift. He's been without a record contract ever since.
Like many roots reggae practitioners, Hibbert got his start singing in church. He grew up in the hills of May Pen, Clarendon, a hotbed of religious groups, including his own Seventh-Day Adventists. For many of May Pen's rural churches and religions--Pocomania, Pentecostalism, the Coptic church, and Kumina (a Yoruba ancestor worship related to Santeria), as well as Rastafarianism--music was central. Much of it eventually found its way into reggae; May Pen's bucolic religious music later spawned the roots trio Culture. But the influence is most apparent in Toots and the Maytals' signature call-and-response harmonies and in Hibbert's own revivalist moaning, inherited from his preacher mother. Despite a split with Matthias and Gordon in 1982, Hibbert continued to perform music that was in many ways the sum of reggae's strongest and purest influences: American rhythm and blues, Rastafarian nyabinghi drumming, and the evangelical music of the Jamaican countryside where he was raised.
Nine years after he got the cold shoulder from Island, Toots and the Maytals have finally put a new record on the shelves, but not without some doing. Hibbert had to create his own company, the Canadian-based Alla Son, to release the aptly titled disc. Because Toots and the Maytals had toured continually in the nine years since their last album, and because this past summer's North American shows confirmed that Hibbert still has the fire that's made his live shows such a draw for years, there was every reason to believe that Recoup would do just that for Hibbert's career.
But if Hibbert's trying to launch a vendetta against a record industry that has ignored him, Recoup is hardly going to do the trick. It's an unlikely patchwork of remakes, false starts, one past hit, and what sound like leftover cuts from songs recorded and released years ago. Hibbert seems to be trying to please all of his critics at once--without alienating longtime fans. He clearly wants to win new listeners with an updated sound, but he also seems to want to make sure that they're familiar with his previous accomplishments.
Recoup opens with a dancehall-style remake of one of the Maytals' quirkiest tunes, 1970's "One Eyed Enos." Punchy synthesizers give the old ska number some extra bounce, but it just isn't a tune that needed revision. "Judge and the Corporal" borrows a very common mid-80s dancehall beat, and is thus indistinguishable from previous songs that have used it.
Recoup takes a turn for the worse on the third track, "Irie," when Hibbert tries to incorporate into the computerized music some of the soul that's earned him the moniker "the Otis Redding of Jamaica." The call-and-response harmonies with his female backup singers consist--like the song itself--almost entirely of a single word, "irie." The result has about as much soul as the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle.
Hibbert does include a few new songs, the most notable of which is "Women Liberation," on which he uses a soca beat for the first time. But he's also tossed in his 1968 hit, "54-46, That's My Number," a great song that details his jail time on a ganja rap and underscores the tie between reggae and R & B that Hibbert has spent a career exploring. Problem is, it's the same version of the song that appeared in 1968 and then again last year on his Island greatest-hits package, Time Tough. None of the remaining nine tracks are less than 15 years old.
The whole project seems a halfhearted effort to jump-start a career on the decline, all the way down to the sparse liner notes. Fans of Toots and the Maytals--even those slightly intrigued by the older tracks on Recoup--would be better served by the Island anthology. Live shows, which are still excellent, would be an even wiser choice. But even those performances, like the better parts of Recoup, bank on early material--an indication that, while he's loathe to admit it, Hibbert's best years in the studio are far behind him.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.