On August 6, Jamaica will have more to celebrate than Usain Bolt’s presumed victory in the Olympic 100m final the night before. It’s the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence from the British, and partying alongside the rest of the nation will be one man whose music career has lasted almost as long: Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, who released his first album in 1964 and whose band The Maytals outshone even Bob Marley’s Wailers on the international stage for a time in the Sixties.
He has supported both The Who and The Rolling Stones on tour, while indelible hits such as Funky Kingston, 54-46 That’s my Number, Pressure Drop and Monkey Man still sparkle decades on from their creation. If I had to choose just one desert island reggae album I’d go for one of his, principally for that voice, a husky holler that has acquired an even deeper layer of gravel when he speaks today.
I ask him if he thinks Marley, celebrated in a new exhibition at the British Music Experience at the O2, was the greatest man in reggae. “No, I wouldn’t say that. I’m the one who invented the word reggae,” he replies, referring to his 1968 release Do the Reggay, widely considered to be the first to get the word, if not the correct spelling, into song. “No one is greater than the other. Everyone is great in their own way. He was a real close good friend of mine too. It [the exhibition] is a good thing happening – pity he’s not here to enjoy it.”
There’s plenty more to enjoy from the world of reggae in London than just Marley’s guitars in glass cases. The Jamaica 50 festival takes place in the O2 complex from next week, a fortnight of gigs in the IndigO2 venue that reads like a reggae legends hall of fame. There will be appearances from Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sly and Robbie, John Holt, Horace Andy and Morgan Heritage, as well as Bob’s most successful son, Damian Marley. At the same time BBC Radio 1Xtra and 6 Music are programming an extensive array of reggae shows.
Maybe it’s the weather over there, or the drugs (Toots and the Maytals’ 2010 album Flip and Twist was available as a joint-shaped USB drive) but if death doesn’t stop them, the original reggae stars seem to keep going indefinitely. While some might, if pushed, admit that their best songwriting days are behind them, most are still recording as well as playing the old hits on regular tours. Jimmy Cliff, at 64, released a new album, Rebirth, this week, as well as appearing for a good chunk of Paul Simon’s headlining set in Hyde Park last weekend.
Prior to two London gigs next month, Hibbert, now 66, has also just put out a new album. Unplugged on Strawberry Hill gives the old favourites a pretty, mellow acoustic makeover, allowing more focus on vocals that only seem to acquire more soul and gravitas as he gets older. He promises an acoustic tour after this trip is done, and says: “I have more than one album waiting now.” In 2004 he put out True Love, a collection of songs recorded with big name admirers including Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, which won the Grammy for Best Reggae Album. Now he wants to do another one. “I listen to all kinds of music – gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country – I’d like to do an album with Stevie Wonder, Hot Chili Pepper [sic], more up and coming people.”
He has younger admirers too. True Love also featured Ryan Adams, Ben Harper and No Doubt, while a recent BBC Four documentary about his life, Reggae Got Soul, interviewed Paolo Nutini as well as his Jamaican peers. Amy Winehouse regularly covered his song Monkey Man in concert. “She did a great job,” he says. “Her music is so good – pity she’s not here now.”
He doesn’t seem quite so up on current trends, however. Asked which younger reggae acts he admires, he names Luciano, who became a star in the mid-Nineties. When I push him to talk about Pledgemusic.com, the new way of gaining fan funding on the web in advance of an album’s release, which is promoted on the front page of his website as a way of acquiring his Strawberry Hill album, he replies: “Who? Oh no, I never do that. I have a foundation to help people, not to help myself. Not for me, I don’t know how that come.”
Nevertheless, he’s aware of the darker side of some of the younger Jamaican acts, and the accusations of violent homophobia that have dogged the scene, although things are changing. In 2007 Sizzla, Beenie Man and Capleton signed the “Reggae Compassionate Act”, stating: “We agree to not make statements or perform songs that incite hatred or violence against anyone from any community”. In May this year Beenie Man appeared in a video, saying: “I love each and every one and am just begging each and everyone to do the same… Do not fight against me for a song that I sang 20 years ago…I was a kid… Now I know that people live in the world that live their life differently than the way I live my life.”
Hibbert has a simple solution: “Negativity and negative words will not reach any places. Reggae is positive music. It’s the foundation of the good spirit, of the soul, and it’s climbing high at all times. Once you got good words and good riddim it will be climbing high.” Just listen to 54-46 That’s my Number, a song about his two years in prison for drug possession in 1966, which gives a dark subject a sound that is pure joy.
He still performs them live with as much sweaty energy as ever and will be a must-see when he comes once more to London, where he’s not sure if he’ll get to catch any of the Olympics. “But I do think Usain Bolt can win, yes. If he want to lose he can lose but if he want to win he will win.”
The musician, in contrast, knows that his career isn’t a sprint but an endurance race. “I want to make sure my music lives on. People come to see a great show and they always get it. Something to remember for months and months, years and years – they’ll always remember my show.” The sunshine may have been notable by its absence so far this summer, but help is on the way in the form of its musical equivalent.
Toots and the Maytals play Aug 3 at the Jamaica 50 Festival, July 25-Aug 6, IndigO2, SE10 (0844 844 0002, respectjamaica50.co.uk) and Aug 8 at 100 Club, W1 (020 7636 0933, the100club.co.uk.. Messenger: The Bob Marley Exhibition runs July 24-Oct 22 at the British Music Experience, SE10 (020 8463 2000, britishmusicexperience.com)