Monday, January 16, 2012

Steel Pulse - Chapter 12

The author (front) with Steel Pulse at the Reggae Sundance Festival in 2003
Better late than never, here's Chapter 12 of the incredible Steel Pulse story. For a long while I had planned to author a biography of the world's best reggae band, Steel Pulse. It never happened but rather than let my notes gather dust, I am publishing each chapter on my blog, on a weekly(ish) basis, to give everyone an insight into this incredible music group. Here's the 12th of thirteen chapters.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 12: Brand New Dawn (Equality, Liberty & Justice)

Pulse appeared on two tribute albums released in 2002. Here Comes The Sun: A Reggae Tribute to The Beatles featured their version of We Can Work It Out, with Jukie Ranks guesting, whilst Paint It Black: A Reggae Tribute to The Rolling Stones contained You Can't Always Get What You Want. A return trip to the Ivory Coast in West Africa took place in June 2002, initially without Donna. "I was having problems at home and I didn't turn up for the first gig in Abidjan. I had to miss a couple of days. I seriously considered stopping touring as it was affecting my family. It was very serious at the time. But I had a career and was doing what I always wanted to do. It was the first time I'd missed a Steel Pulse gig." She made it for the second concert and the follow-on tours of North America, some festival appearances in Europe including Sunsplash in Austria and the Chiemsee festival in Germany and rounded off the year with first-time visits to Costa Rica and Mexico. "Mexico was good, the land of small people - I really fitted in!" recalled Donna with a smile.

2003 kicked off with a short US tour where they collected a Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Bob Marley Festival in Long Beach. After their 30-date coast to coast Summer tour of the States, a visit to Peru and the Reggae Sundance Festival in Holland, the promise of a long-awaited new album from the band is in the pipeline for a mid-2004 release. There have been promises of a new studio album from the band for the last couple of years. Donna explains. "One of the problems felt by everyone in the band was doing the same songs and the lack of fresh material. David listened and started putting his new material into rehearsing during the last year. It's livened everyone up, and made a refreshing change. He got us learning more to see how we felt about them before choosing what he'd actually put in the show. Songs like Build A Nation and Global Warning were added to the set. There's other songs which will be on the new album, like one song based on the largest slave center we saw in Africa at Goree Island." The new album is scheduled to be out in the middle of 2004 and Donna likes what she's heard so far. "I enjoy all of the songs really. I like the new ones as they're fresher. I also like most of the older ones like Wild Goose Chase, Nyahbinghi Voyage, Macka Splaff, Taxi Driver. I find Tightrope awkward, its one that I find difficult. There are certain vocals and pitching of certain notes that I find hard. This is what makes David's songs so unique. When you're singing them and you do the high and low vocals it sounds weird to my ears, it sounds wrong but he says its perfectly fine. In putting the sounds together, he's so unique."

Selwyn comments, "For the last couple of years we've been working on a new studio album, on and off. The reason why it takes so long is that we normally take a long time to do our albums. The music has to be of a certain standard as far as the playing, as far as the production and the lyrics, it all has to sound right." And what direction are Steel Pulse headed? "Basically the same direction that we took when we started the band off, doing material that we believe in, material that deals with issues and certain injustices that we see happening throughout the world in all kinds of different ways." Grizzly sums it up with, "our theme and aim are still the same. It's to make people aware of what's happening all around them and to open their eyes to the inhumanity around the world." David's view concurs, "What keeps us going is that this kind of music still has a focal point with all kinds of groups in society, and everybody shares the same interest in the subject matter of equality, liberty and justice. We took seven years to make this record, because we wanted every song to tell a story and stand the test of time." The album, African Holocaust, was released in June 2004 and featured guest artists Capleton, Damian Marley, Jukie Ranks and Tiken Jah Fakoly. The band began a 15-date European tour in mid-June before crossing the Atlantic for a 33-date US tour immediately after. Hinds declares, "African Holocaust is a summary of the state of the world today from our perspective - which is a perspective of the black diaspora. Subject matters range from exposing the negative impact, politically and environmentally of super powers, to the nostalgia for our African heritage."

In recent years, the core trio of Hinds, Brown and Nisbett toured as part of a nine-piece ensemble that included long-time collaborators Alvin Ewen on bass and Sidney Mills on keyboards, Cliff 'Moonie' Pusey on lead guitar and Conrad Kelly on drums [with Grizzly Nisbett switching to percussion], and the addition, in early 1998 of two British female singers, Sylvia Tella and Donna Sterling. David states, "after going on tour for five years with the horn players, our audience was getting too accustomed to hearing Steel Pulse blowing down the walls of Babylon every time, so when the horn players moved on, we decided to concentrate more on improving our vocal presence. By including Sylvia and Donna, the sound has become a lot tighter and more tuneful, helping the band to stay in the pocket more rhythmically." For the last four years, Grizzly hasn't been able to tour because of health concerns and Sylvia Tella has concentrated on her solo career. "It is Selwyn and myself who put the music together and who produce the music in our own studio, which is called the dub factory," says Hinds, noting that the rest of the group are touring and performing members, who are not involved in the initial creative process. "I'm bringing them the music, they then add their parts. That's how it is generally, and there's lots of reasons for that. One of the main reasons is half of the band resides in the United States, they got family there. We construct the music back in England, between myself and Selwyn." Important contributions are also provided by the band's management and road crew. Richard Hermitage became their manager in 1996 though has been involved for much longer. When the band are on tour in the States, Rich Nesin is their tour manager, who's worked with the group for the last six years. Other key members during their live performances are Louis Yesufu, their long-time front of house sound engineer, stage monitor engineer Bob Carsten, guitar technician Travis Doering and two family members, drum technician Baruch Hinds and keyboard tech Derrick Brown.

For much of 2004, Donna will be missing from the touring line-up. Replacing her on backing vocals will be Melanie Lynch and Traciana Graves (replaced by Marea Wilson in August), who both hail from New York. The reason for her absence is that Donna's second child is due in September and to ensure her pregnancy is trouble-free, she's under doctor's orders to take a break from the stress and strains of flying and performing. At the same time, Donna and Selwyn are putting together an album of music in a variety of styles to showcase Donna's vocal talents. She described some of the behind the scenes ingredients that are vital to keep the band fresh and together as a unit. "We always rehearse before we tour, we rehearse over here with the British lot and then over in the States with the others. We'll rehearse songs that David thinks we've got problems on or the new ones. Then for the last hour before we go on, David will run through the whole show, especially the beginning of the show. When I'm with they band, they mother me, I'm the little sister. I cannot move without them telling me, don't do this, don't do that, where are you going, what are you doing. They are like big brothers to me, I need their support, I can't do it without them. In particular, Moonie and I get on very well, we're so alike, just like big kids. His heart is so good and so is his temperament. We both love movies, so does David, but if I have a problem, I go and see Selwyn. Touring is so exhausting. It takes a toll on your body, your family, the lot. I take a complete break from the band. They don't see me until we next need to meet up. I come back home and do my mother bit, that's most important to me, as well as being a musician."

An important element of who Steel Pulse are is their faith. For David Hinds it's fundamental. "Without Rastafari there wouldn't be me, there wouldn't be the real me, that's the difference. Rastafari is the development of the real me, or the real I and I, the one within myself. It's played a big part because its taught me to be strong, it's taught me to come to terms with a lot of things that I cannot physically change and also it's taught me how to relay what I know to others." Donna explains, "It's what the whole band is based on. I believe a Rasta is what you are inside. A Rasta to me is not only about the teachings of Rastafari but its also about whether your heart is good. I live my life in a good way and if your heart is clean and you believe in that specific faith, that's what you are. 'What does it mean to me?' - it means for me to be humble, my heart is clean, my heart is good, whether you have locks or not or black or white, if your heart is clean and good and you are kind towards people and don't have that harshness and nastiness towards others, and believe in a higher being, then you can be true to your faith, whatever that may be. As a band we chant a psalm before we go on stage. We stand in a circle and Selwyn has a bible and we chant a psalm and then we beat our fists down, which represents chanting down Babylon, and the amount of times represents the people in the band. The majority of the band only eat fish or chicken, David only eats fish and no dairy products." Grizzly also commented on the influence of their faith. "We are what we are and we became stronger through it and because of it. It made our music a lot stronger because of our belief. Me personally, I can't speak for the others, but for me I don't look on it as a religion. Because of the way people view religion throughout the world and because of what people do in the name of religion, I do not look on Rastafari as a religion. I prefer to call it a way of life. Something you do every day not just once every so often. It's helped us a lot, our inner strength, it's kept the band together, and strong. First and foremost, Steel Pulse is a band, we're musicians, that is our career, that's our job. Anybody is welcome, religion and colour is not a blockage. Our views, our strength, our inner feelings come out in the music. Personally, I stopped eating meat even before I joined Steel Pulse. Some of the guys don't eat pork or chicken, though I eat cheese and milk products. Its a way of life."

The band are a major force in world reggae music today, basing themselves primarily in the United States for much of the year. Remarkably, their popularity remains low-key in their UK homeland. As David explains, "As far as being popular in England, we're not. Those who do remember us often ask what became of us. As a matter of fact, from right since Steel Pulse has ever been together as a band, I think the States was the best reception we've ever had. We were playing to people who like the music, were curious to see the band and genuinely believe in what the band has got to say." Grizzly chips in, "it's a shame. The main reason is that the powers that be don't know anything about reggae, they don't understand reggae music, what its about and what reggae musicians are about. And with reggae music they don't make enough money as they do with other music. The music industry is all about making money. A fault in England is that they jump on and off a bandwagon too quick and too easy. They build you up and then the next fad comes along, you're left hanging and they forget about you. Whereas in other countries around the world, they don't do that - they don't drop you, they don't let you go. England is so far behind the rest of the world, they think they're up with it but they're not." It's a state of affairs that has puzzled Donna too. "I've always wondered to myself why Steel Pulse aren't known in England, other than in the black community. I was too young at the time but I've heard what they went through at the beginning. David has said he'd like the band to play in England but it hasn't happened yet. In the US, they're up there, if not top. To see the crowd reaction, above all the other reggae artists, is amazing. At Reggae On The River for example, its like mayhem when we come on. I think part of it's down to their collaboration with Bob Marley and winning the Grammy."

Their distinctive sound and success owes a major debt to Hinds, the band's creative core, their singer-songwriter and famed for his 'stovepipe dread' - a two-foot high vertical tower of dreadlocks. Born in Birmingham into a working class Jamaican family, Hinds first developed his musical interest through his roadie brother Gifford and his friendship with his schoolfriend Basil Gabbidon. Hinds explains the evolution of the music. "Obviously I was born in England, and the whole world knows that reggae music really evolved out of Jamaica. But, having said that, my parents were immigrants that left Jamaica and came to England in the mid-50's. During that period of time, they came over with the form of music that was happening on the island at that time, which was Calypso and blue beat. Blue beat was more like a be-bop type of thing, a form of jazz. At that time, Jamaicans tuned into the New Orleans radio stations and it had the little grooves where the bass line is very much jazz orientated - that was blue beat. Then that music sort of transformed into ska. I sort of got affiliated with the different forms of music that was happening in Jamaica, at that time, because of my brothers and sisters that were coming over each year, as my parents could afford for them to come. So, they came over with the latest forms of music and blue beat slowly came into ska, which was more of an accented form. Then ska became more of an accented type thing where the bass line had more of a variation as opposed to the be-bop.Then when you get into the ska era, Bob Marley came on to play with his type of songs. And then that transformed into rock steady, which was more - instead of going on the upbeat, you go on the downbeat. So, blue beat went into ska, and then ska into reggae, as we all know it today."

Hinds continues. "This is where Bob Marley, once again, along with Burning Spear, The Abyssinians and Third World, just to name a few - those guys sort of evolved out of that kind of a period. Along with the music format, there was also a spiritual connection with it, where people were talking about the whole philosophy of Rastafari and also the ideology of Marcus Garvey, the 'Back-to-Africa' movement. So, like I said, we had the rock steady and then it became reggae, as we know it. Now along with the reggae there was a lot of spirituality, as far as the lyrical content, and it was also the political attribute as well. At that time, in Jamaica, what was happening politically with the governments was a big issue, where one like Marley, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh, and all these others, were airing their views and literally using reggae music as a vehicle to air their views. So, as a result, the music slowed down in tempo somewhat from ska. I think it was an essence where the bass line became more hypnotic. It became slow in tempo so that one could get a chance to digest what's said lyrically, because of the political attributes. Reggae, as we know it, was very popular for a good 15 years, I'd say from the turn of the 70's right into the mid-80's. Then after Marley passed on, it became dancehall, where things became a lot more up-tempo, the rhythmic side of things, especially the rhythm guitar. It started to lose its popularity when it came to the dancehall strain of the music, where strictly drum and bass was concentrated on with samples. And also the lyricist, the ones who said things vocally, melodically - the singers - were also phased out and the deejay started to come in, and they started bouncing around a lot of rhythms that were faster in pace, so to speak. So, from my standpoint, that's the evolution of reggae." These formative years were to shape the future for Hinds and his fledgling band and to steer them towards becoming one of the leading exponents of reggae music over the next quarter of a century.

Where did it start for the author? It was Friday 2nd June 1978 and the predominently white audience at the Cheltenham Town Hall had assembled to see an all-black British reggae band, Steel Pulse, who'd burst onto the music scene earlier that year with their anthemic single Ku Klux Klan and their soon to be released album Handsworth Revolution. What they saw and heard took their breath away. Rebelling against inequality and prejudice and extolling the virtues of truth, rights and justice, Steel Pulse gave a masterclass in winning over the impressionable youngsters with their raw power, their mastery of melody and harmonies, their boundless energy and their hypnotic stage performance, complete with costume changes and white Klan hoods. Standing just a few rows from the stage, I was hooked and the band have remained at the top of my diverse musical tastes ever since. In a roller coaster career spanning the next two decades and more, Steel Pulse have consistently surprised and delighted me with their innovative and infectious style of conscious reggae music, led from the front by the melodious tones of David Hinds. No-one else does it better.

[This chapter was penned in 2004]

Chapter 13: Keeping on Track - will follow soon.

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