by Angus Taylor
This interview was recorded in Jamaica and was published in shorter form in the January/February 2014 issue of Riddim Magazine. Here is the full length version in English for the first time.
Luciano is relaxing on a chair under a tree in the front garden of his Westminster Road home. He’s dressed in his stage uniform of khaki vest, camouflage pants and paramilitary boots: his neat, evenly sized dreadlocks bunched up on his broad symmetrical head. Thick-set and sturdy, he radiates a humble sincere authority – in another life he could be a shopkeeper, a charity founder, or a country minister from his family’s Manchester Parish Seventh Day Adventist church roots. In reality he is “The Messenger”, one of Jamaica’s most celebrated singers with over 60 albums to his name. Anthony Senior of Al Ta Fa An Records, main producer for Luci’s new release the Qabalah Man sits on the grass listening and occasionally interjecting with correct song titles. The artists Mark Wonder, Derajah and Smokey Benz are standing around in the driveway. Kingston’s brutal mosquitos are circling and in the presence of this devout Rastafarian legend there is a brief moral quandary as to whether to swat them away – until Luciano claps one dead with his hands.
The house, like its occupant, has an imposing yet tranquil vibe. The surrounding walls are washed red, gold and green – with a Star of David and a tricolour flag bearing the singer’s name on each gate. This property is one of several Luciano has acquired since he left Fatis Burrell’s X-Terminator Records at the end of the last century. The plan was to build a studio in what has become one of Kingston’s musical districts to rival Orange Street in the 1960s. Shaggy and Capleton are nearby. Roy Francis’ Mixing Lab, Sly and Robbie and Richard Bobo Bell of Star Trail are all within easy reach. “I didn’t have any intention to have living quarters” Luciano says with a grainy chuckle “but it seems one of my empress liked it and moved in overnight – there’s nothing you can do but just work with it you know?”
The studio was scaled back further after an internationally reported incident that took place on the compound in March 2009. Three policemen were wounded during a 3 hour shootout while attempting to apprehend one Andrew Senior (no relation of Anthony) who was staying with Luciano at the time. Senior was killed and Luciano spent the weekend behind bars charged with harbouring a fugitive. The singer had already been attacked with a lead pipe by his former sound engineer that year. It’s hard to believe this warm open man with his rich, calming baritone and commitment to cultural peaceful lyrics could be involved in such violence.
“Yes, it’s an eye opener for me too” he says “But you still can’t escape people from all walks of life and different characters come and look for you. Some people – even a wanted man – think coming to sit with you they can find some form of inspiration. I honestly believe that he was really trying to work on his artistic abilities. He was doing some artwork and he wanted me to give him some CD covers.” He dabs his eye. “He was thinking of working on his skills and helping his family because he died leaving three kids which from time to time I still try and help out as much as possible.”
Incidents like this have led to him keeping a lower profile. The preceding Sunday he celebrated his birthday quietly with his mother and immediate relatives. “When you do too much celebrating on your birthday a lot of people lose their life on their birthnight. Big party and then something happen. It’s like the forces that be would not love to see you live to see another year you know? So if you approach life spiritually you try to be more incognito than to be in the public eye frolicking and dancing”.
He is similarly philosophical about his new album. The Qabalah title – which keen eyed readers will remember was also the name of the first independent label Luci started with his friend Mikey General – comes from his interest in Kabbalistic studies of ancient Egypt. He is clearly enthused by the subject: talking uninterrupted for fifteen minutes concerning its principles of balancing the physical and the spiritual. These, he says, can be applied to everything: from drinking tea to the Star of David (the balance of the upward and downward pointing triangle) to using our brains more economically so we can be as smart as Einstein. “There are two ways to approach life – the materialistic way and there is the spiritual way. But I find people who have achieved certain heights in the physical world are people who have applied certain principles of spirituality. Some of the best businessmen you come across respect tradition and certain fundamental principles that human beings need to survive.” But you won’t find Luci practising Kabbalah with the likes of Madonna in Hollywood. “You have a lot of people adhering to Kabbalah studies but not all people are going off divine principles trying to maintain a balance with mind and body and soul. Studying to gain power and control in the material world – it’s not necessarily about that”.
For the physical material aspect of putting together the record musically Luciano opted for a balance of colleagues both young and old. He’s working with Anthony Senior because he “is a natural mystic. You have some producers they approach the music from a business perspective. You have to be businesswise and business-like to get your work done yes, but he is different from man who just want to get the song done and get it out. It’s about making some real music and feeling happy while in the moment.” They’ve been getting up to jog and voice early in the morning when they feel fresh. Senior, he says, reminds him of the late great Fatis with his love of using live instruments (the Firehouse Crew, Senior’s musicians of choice, were Luci’s touring band in the mid-90s). Better still “he lets me be myself and sing like I can talk and feel it. He might have an idea but he doesn’t really interject too often and lets me flow”.
Mark Wonder (“a good brother and a friend of mine also”) is on the track-list joining Luci for drum-free So Long (because “we on this spiritual trod long, long time”). However, some of Qabalah Man’s vocal collaborators were plying their trade when Luciano was first strumming his guitar as a youth in Manchester. He is delighted that Senior brought eminent Studio 1 singer songwriter Bob Andy into the project to pen the opening duet Create Our History. “Mr Bob Andy is one of the greatest writers of all time,” adding with a smile “I could have done a good job too but I don’t think I could have done a better job.” Likewise he praises venerable deejay U Roy who appears on vintage rockers style call Organize “Mr U Roy is another great icon of the business – King U Roy – these are great kings who have really paved the way for us so it’s a great honour and a privilege for me. I think this album is going to do very great – not just from my perspective but from the generation of the foundation of the music itself”.
Certain critics who have followed Luciano since the 90s view his catalogue with Fatis Burrell as a benchmark he has not equalled. But Qabalah Man is another chapter in a series of renaissance albums in recent years. All have been for producers outside Jamaica – London, Florida, Austria – with rootsier rhythms and more powerful reality lyrics. The turning point was 2010’s United States of Africa for London’s Frenchie who made the legend push harder than usual. “Frenchie has been in the business long enough to be one of the living legends in this music fraternity. He is not a producer where you can just go in and sing any little thing. No, he is a man who will question you and come out and say blatantly “Boy, Luci I don’t feel that. I don’t like that”. Working with Frenchie also goes to show that “a man doesn’t have to be a black man or a Rastaman to know what vibration is. Other producers who want to put you down said “What happened to you? Why you go do an album with Frenchie? What happened to you Messenger?” I say “You don’t know nothing about this man. Listen to the album and come back and talk to me”.”
So is it a coincidence that he is back with a Jamaican producer when people are talking about the island’s Reggae Revival? “It just happened that it happened right in the right time. And coming out at a time when people really need this. Honestly; the music, the texture, the authenticity, the musicians, the harmonies; everything just fit in right now. We have some great youngsters coming up like Chronixx, Iba Mahr, Protoje, Jesse Royal and Jah9 doing their thing. But in the whole midst of it all you have to have some real battlefield warrior – just like you can’t send out pure young soldiers to fight a terrible battle – you have to have veterans…”
“The commander” says Senior.
“The commander in chief and field marshal general to guide them because they go kill off themselves!” He is laughing again.
“We become more like real field marshal general in the business”.
Despite the roots resurgence, the health of the music in Jamaica is still in question. The day of our interview the Observer carried an article detailing how the Full Black show in New Mas Camp Kingston had been shut off at 3am before headliners Bounty Killer, Elephant Man, Sizzla and I Octane were able to perform. This is the result of the government’s Noise Abatement regulations passed in September. Luciano supports their aims if not their methods. “The government is trying to clamp down on the lewdness, the expletives and some of the music that may not appear to be as spiritually conducive to the people. I don’t think closing off the place at 2 o’clock is the answer. But in the night it’s not easy for elders or big people to be in their bed and hear people playing some blasphemous music telling young people to do this and that. One time you could listen in your bed and you hear a sound playing some nice 80s or 90s music you can relax or drop asleep with it. But this is not music they are making now. This is “abusic”. Abusing the people in their bed leaving them with nothing but call police!” Everyone laughs at this wordplay.
The solution, as Luciano has been saying for many years, is a panel of experts to keep the music up to scratch. “Just like you have a bureau of standards for certain kinds of food they are selling in the store, they should also have a bureau of standards for the music. Locking off the dance at 2 o’clock is like preventing one whole night of devil worshipping – they cut the devil’s sermon but the music is still coming with a certain derogatory content that is demoralising the very fabric of humanity where our youths are threatened.”
But who should sit on this bureau? What if Babylonians on the panel decided Luciano’s messages were unsuitable for the youth? “You can draw together and board and handpick some people from the music fraternity. Some of the greats like Mr Bob Andy could definitely be one of them.” He pauses for thought “And I could be one of the members also of this panel because me like them thing there you know.”
In the meantime Luciano is dealing with a more familiar problem. Since he left Fatis his albums for different producers keep coming out at once. 2001’s New Day was followed by Jetstar’s Great Controversy which “mashed up the whole plan and VP got mad with me”. The same thing occurred in 2010 when Footprints Music’s Write My Name came out hot behind United States of Africa. Now England’s Mad Professor is about to drop his long awaited Luci project alongside Senior’s. “Every time I have an album coming out there is always another one creeping up. Even as we speak there is a man who we have to be talking to him and saying “Hold off”. But I think God has a hand in everything. As people know that I am the Messenger – there are so many messages coming out that Jah says “We need more than one in this time. Messages coming from one direction we need them from all directions” so it’s like a downpour of inspiration for the people.”
The Mad Professor sessions were signposted with the 2011 single Three Meals A Day, a cover of Luci’s idol Dennis Brown. Although Dennis sang with more of an audible smile than his serious descendant, in early days listeners found it hard to tell the two voices apart. On Three Meals A Day, recorded at the Professor’s Ariwa studio in South London, the likeness is uncanny. “I’ve always heard so much about Mad Professor from I enter the music business. I think what really played a very important integral part here is the authenticity of the rhythms. I don’t know how he managed to do it but you could almost believe it is the same rhythms that Dennis sang on. So once you have the rhythm to start with you know it’s easy to recapture that spirit. It’s not so easy to explain it but I might be there in the studio singing the song and I just feel like the man himself – like the king himself – is in the studio with me”.
Yet England is bittersweet for him right now. In September visa problems left his fans disappointed when he had to pull out of the Reggae Salute show at Brixton Academy with I Octane, Etana, Chuck Fenda and Christopher Martin. Luciano isn’t entirely sure what happened but thinks his run-ins with the law could be to blame. “I have a ten year multiple that I can enter into the UK right? They said they needed more time and I don’t know what it is all about. There was a legal matter that I had and that was already thrown out of the court and there was no charge put to my name, so there is no criminal record. It’s not fair when my songs are definitely spiritual songs, inspirational songs conducive to spiritual growth and unity amongst the people. I’m not like one of those little deejays who sing some abusic music. It’s like they don’t want me to go work then?” he jokes “They want me to go thief!”
However, there is plenty to look forward to. Luciano is three quarters of the way through recording his own tribute album to Dennis – Honour To The King which he wants to release in 2014. “I never met Bob Marley physically but I met the king Dennis and I really say for the moments and the time we shared I’ll never forget. I have it it’s like in my soul in my bone in my body – it’s in my DNA.”
He is also interested in putting down further roots in Africa. He has property in Gambia where he wants to start a reggae club. “I’m going to carry some chefs down there to cook some nice brown stew fish and rice and gungo and ital stew cooked down with rundown coconut milk. People can eat and listen to music same time.” He feels less welcome in Rastafarian epicentre Ethiopia, though. Partly this is due again to visa issues for Jamaicans trying to visit “There should be an embassy here. If they really realised how much we love Ethiopia. His Majesty came here in 1966 and told us that we Jamaicans and Ethiopians are brothers we are the same spirit”. Partly it’s because the Lion of Judah has been taken off the national flag. “I say these are the signs that they don’t want we in this place. So I always carry a flag with the Lion and the Star of David and every time I go there I take it out and fan in the middle of the street. Because they can take it from that flag but they can’t take it from out of my heart.”
Life is a balancing act for Luciano: the physical and the spiritual, his music and his other interests, the will of the authorities and his own. But through it all, he remains resilient. Like his red gold and green house he shall not remove.
Photos by Veronique Skelsey