A Kingston reasoning with legendary guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith: Part 2

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Earl “Chinna” Smith with writer Stephen Cooper (photo courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper)

By Stephen Cooper

In part one of my March interview with legendary guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith – conducted at Chinna’s house in Kingston, Jamaica – many topics were covered including: Chinna’s disappointment and dissatisfaction with the Jamaican government and Marley family over what he perceives as their disrespect, even financial mistreatment, of treasured Wailers’s musicians like Aston “Family Man” Barrett, Carlton (“Carly”) Barrett, Alvin “Secco” Patterson, and Tyrone Downie (and their families).

Part two picks up and ends in this same vein, but, also, throughout this second half of the interview, Chinna and I talk about plenty of other diverse subjects of interest to reggae fans. What follows is a transcript, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.

Q: One of the things I heard you say [in a] televised interview for “I Never Knew TV” [is], “Everything is centered around sports in Jamaica, but not music.”

Chinna: Oh gosh, big time.

Q: Even now –

Chinna: Even now.

Q: Even with all the attention given recently to young stars like Original Koffee, is there still more of a focus on sports in Jamaica to the detriment of [rising] music [talents]?

Chinna: Okay, like for example, everybody boosts up this blood clot [Usain] Bolt guy – until him just bolt out of the sh*t. You understand what me a-deal with? And I’m saying to them: [Does] Bolt have a song like “One Love?” “No Woman, No Cry?” [Those songs will live on] [a]s long as lifeblood clot lasts. [We] have a stupid government. How can you focus pon a thing that don’t have no lasting [impact].

Q: Timeless things?

Chinna: And you know music is that. Because you have[, for example,] ska. Ska is the greatest music Jamaica’s ever produced.

Q: In that same interview [for “I Never Knew TV”] you said if Bob Marley were alive today, he would be investing money in reggae music – into production. Now I think you started to answer this [in Part 1 of our interview] but I’m gonna ask it anyway: Are you satisfied with the level of investment in reggae music by the Marley family and Marley estate? Or do you think they could or should be doing more to support the growth of reggae music in Jamaica?

Chinna: All I’m saying [is] the Marleys [are] supposed to take care of the Wailers. ‘Cause it was Bob Marley and the Wailers, and the I-Threes. Are they doing that?

Q: Sounds like no. (See the end of Part 1 of my interview with Chinna for more details.)

Chinna: Alright, good.

Q: Well, wait, hold on –

Chinna: Sorry.

Q: Don’t they have a greater responsibility also, because of their father –

Chinna: No. That money there – [that’s to] take care of [their] pickney, you know? You give the spoils to your blood clot offspring.

Q: True.

Chinna: So [the Marleys] have the money, [but where is] [Aston] Family Man [Barrett]’s money, and Carly [Barrett’s] money, and Tyrone [Downie]’s money, and my blood clot money, too! Because mi play and give it away.

Earl “Chinna” Smith playing his guitar (photo courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper)

Q: But I guess what I mean to say is – I’ve heard you talk before in [prior] interviews about how there’s not a proper place to press music [in Jamaica]. So should the Marely estate – is it on them? Because I guess I just wonder: Would their father – would Bob – would he be involved in that? Making a pressing plant?

Chinna: You see before Bob leave here, the place him a-buy [was like] a JBC [the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation], you know? You understand? Because him leave an industry. Pressing plant, mastering, printing, a studio [and] every fuc*ing thing.

Q: Why is it not in operation though?

Chinna: Ask Cedella Marley, Ziggy Marley, Stephen Marley – interview them and ask them what happened to the thing dem father leave. Before you leave [Jamaica], go down to Tuff Gong [Studios].

Q: If they’ll talk to me to, I’d love to –

Chinna: Yeah man, just go down there and ask for Chow [Tuff Gong Studio’s main engineer]. Alright, you know who’s that you’re looking at? (Pointing at man who moments before arrived in Chinna’s yard and nonchalantly sat down.)

Q: No –

Chinna: The great Tappa Zukie.

Q: Oh wow! Nice to meet you. I was just talking to the Mighty Diamonds about you in Los Angeles.

Tappa Zukie: Yeah?

Q: I was asking them about the song “Leaders of Black Country” [(a Tappa Zukie production)].

Chinna: (To Tappa) See you’re current, you know? (Laughing)  

Q: Now you started to answer this [like when you mentioned] a pressing plant – things that Bob [Marley] had in motion when he [died] that for some reason [didn’t come to pass] –

Chinna: Him leave an industry here.

Q:  – [but] what are some things that now should be done generally to promote and strengthen the reggae music industry in Jamaica? What are the things that are missing?

Chinna: Alright I can tell you. Like when you go to the [United] States? The [United] States preserves the real history of the [music]. So if we can have an industry like that – [where] every Skatalite died poor. [And] [a]ll the rocksteady people – people like Hux Brown.  After dem thing, in the 70s, when most man start a-play music but him a-sell drug, and mixed up the two things. You understand what me a-deal with? And [it] reached a stage where [you have] the dancehall thing. Which is a failure.

Q: Dancehall?

Chinna: Yeah. It’s a failure in a sense, because it’s not carrying the message the way it’s supposed to.

Q: The cultural message?

Chinna: Yeah – you understand. So it’s like good and evil.

Q: Do you think there’s any conscious dancehall [music] at all – or no?

(Brief pensive silence.)

Chinna: It’s just a whole attitude and a movement. A whole rudeboy thing. But it come from a Rastaman vibration. A positive vibration. How do you counteract a positive vibration?  It’s responsibility. You build up pon what your forefathers dem left. You build up on that! [But] [e]very Skatalite died poor. The greatest music that Jamaica produced, ska. We don’t have no foundation [the music industry in Jamaica], you understand? People don’t play that music anymore – here [in Jamaica]! [Saxophonist] Tommy McCook, [trumpet player] Johnny Moore –

Q: So what is the Jamaican government ministry that’s responsible for taking care of the culture and the arts doing –

Chinna: You know what they’re doing? They’re just gathering the benefits. Because the world looks upon [Jamaica] as a cultural place. So UNESCO [(the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization)] and everybody’s been big-upping Jamaica. But they’re not building up the people that really create the culture here. You know most of the things dem promote? Gospel.

Q:  So in addition to respecting and honoring the history of the music more, what other steps could be taken by the government to make things better for reggae musicians?

Chinna: Simple! You have to honor the people dem who do great work. If you don’t honor Family Man [Barrett], who you gonna honor!? These people [that they honor] don’t do no great work. Just think of who Family Man is. You understand? Family Man is the Wailers! Because after Bunny and Peter decide to leave, Family Man say, “Mi a-go stay with you [Bob].” Carly [Barrett] say, “I will stay.” Family Man bring in everybody else, Al Anderson and all the other people dem. [And] the first time [the] I-Threes sing pon a record [with Bob] is when I come in with [the album] “Rastaman Vibration.” Family Man [did] all the background things. Family Man is the man who organized things. Always there with the mix, and did the sound check. How can you not honor these people [like Family Man]?

Q: I know you joined Bob on [his] 1976 “Rastaman Vibration” tour –

Chinna: Yeah.

Q: Did you also play on that album, too?

Chinna: Yeah man, [on] most of the songs [on the album].

Q: What other Bob Marley albums have you played on?

Chinna: “Uprising,” “Survival,” and “Confrontation.”

Q: Wow. Cool.

Chinna: So I tell you, with like “Rastaman Vibration,” usually when artists like Bob or any serious artist records an album, dem a-record not just twelve songs. [They record] [l]ike twenty songs. To choose twelve from. Alright, can you believe [the mega-hit song] “One Love” was a song recorded for the “Rastaman Vibration” album, but never made [the final cut]? “Three Likkle Birds!” Never made it. The “Heathen!” So dem three songs dem rollover pon [Bob’s next album] “Exodus.”

Q: And you [played] rhythm guitar on “One Love?”

Chinna: Yeah mon.

Q: What do you remember about recording that?

Chinna: All I [remember] is we just recorded a bunch of songs. We recorded 20-21 songs over two days.

Q:  What do you remember about how you were asked to be part of that 1976 “Rastaman Vibration” tour with Bob? Did Bob ask you himself, or how did that happen?

Chinna: Alright. Because we [were] session musicians. So every morning we’d dress up and do a session. So Carly [Barrett] a-come and say, “Hey Chinna, you have to come play with the Wailers!” Me and [Carly] used to spar. Me and him used to share a room. People can go back and find pictures with me and him like that. So a project gwan [with] [Lee] Scratch [Perry] and Bob a-produce the album. And we a record some music with Scratch.  [We] a-deal with Scratch every day, because we are Scratch’s [session] musicians. And Bob produced the thing.

Q: What is one of your fondest memories of being around and making music with Bob Marley?

(Brief pensive silence.)

Chinna: It’s like all of the time. (Laughter by all in attendance). I couldn’t say because this man was so great. I couldn’t pick out one thing. Every time. You just want to be around him – you just want to be around him [when] him take up [his] guitar.

Q: You’ve said before – and you said [earlier] today (see the end of Part 1 of this interview) – that Bob Marley showed “the art of leadership.”

A Kingston reasoning with legendary guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith: Part 1

Chinna:  Yeah, the art of leadership.

Q: Why was Bob Marley such a great leader? What qualities did he have that made him a leader worth following?

Chinna: Alright, which kind of leader now would go up on tour and spend half [his] money [on the band]? And when him spend his half, him still give [the musicians] money to go home with. Jimmy Cliff wouldn’t do that. Burning Spear wouldn’t do that. Mi a-tell you. It’s only Bob Marley who would do that. So who else is the leader? Which other leader could I put up there? It’s only Bob Marley who would do that.

Q: Treating everybody with respect?

Chinna: Yeah, totally with respect.

Q: This year marked Bob Marley’s 75th earthstrong. But also, on March 1st, just 8 days ago, Winston Rodney, the great Burning Spear, celebrated his 75th earthstrong, too. You played on Burning Spear’s famous “Marcus Garvey” album.

Chinna: Right.

Q: How did you first link up with Burning Spear? And do you still see him and sing with him –

Chinna: Burning Spear done gone wild man; it’s just a spear, it’s not burning anymore. You understand? Because Burning Spear was three guys. Three guys [that] [producer] Jack Ruby fall in love with and say, “Dem men a-go fu*k up the world.” And they did.  And everybody [with] their selfishness just [ruined it]. And most people can’t talk [like that], but mi can talk like that.

Q: Is there a song of Burning Spear’s that is your favorite that you played on?

Chinna: Alright, I love “Marcus Garvey.” Because there’s something about that [song]. Santa [Davis] played on it, [too]. Everybody thinks it’s [Leroy] Horsemouth [Wallace] who played on that song], but it’s not Horsemouth. Yeah, it’s just a groove. It reminds me of that Temptations song “Get Ready”; it [has] that swing. Dramatic, you know?

Q: How would you describe what the Rasta way of life is?

Chinna: [The] Rasta way of life is simple, pure, and original.

Q: Can any person of any sex, color, creed, and so forth be a Rasta – by practicing a Rasta lifestyle, and by embracing Rasta beliefs – and will they be accepted as such by Rastas in Jamaica?

Chinna: The King [Haile Selassie I] exalted [that] there’s no color code in the gathering of the people. So if you want to put a color code pon it then, it’s we [who’re] doing that. The King’s speech [before the United Nations General Assembly on October 4, 1963] that Bob record[ed] [in the 1976 song “War”], him say “Until the color – ”

Q: “ – of a man’s skin – ”

Chinna: You understand what mi a-deal with? So the King put everything in. If you want to take it out [by misinterpreting Rasta beliefs] and criticize it, it’s you [who are] doing that. United we stand, divided we fall. Jah work with unity, and that’s why we live like how we live. Because we [are] open. We [are] open to the world.

Q: Respect. Rastas claim lineage to King Solomon – believing that Haile Selassie I is an ancestor to Solomon and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba from Ethiopia; they call themselves “The Last Tribe of the Conquering Lion of Judah,” and often, they wear a Star of David like the tattoo that I have [on my forearm]. Would you agree, therefore, that even though there’s a strong link between the Christian Church, particularly the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – with many Rastas reading a chapter of the Bible a day – that there is also an undeniably equal, and perhaps even stronger link or connection between Rastas and the Jewish faith tradition?

Chinna: It’s a whole struggle thing a-gwan. Christ is a Christian. And his Majesty establish – because if you understand Christianity, it’s [an] Africa thing, you know, and a-Europe thing. So them ship the thing. The resistance was the Muslims. Because it’s like Jacob and Esau, [and] Ishmael; so one [went one] way and [the other] one [went another] way; that’s been the struggle over the years. [And] all these other movements come in between a-try [to] struggle the thing. So when we start [to] do our research, you have a couple of writers – you know Marcus Garvey highlight that, in time, we’d see our King crowned. Because for years we worshipped a queen inna Europe.

A queendom. So the writers say, in time we’ll see a king crowned in Africa. And not an ordinary king. A King of Kings. And [not an] ordinary lord. [But] [a] Lord of Lords. And not an ordinary lion. [But] [t]he Conquering Lion of Judah. So all of these signs start penetrating. So we start to look toward the East. People dem can’t understand say we’re crazy. Dem start labeling us some “blackheart man.” You know [the] government say, “Every Rasta fi blood clot dead.” And start kill them off one by one. And the next government come do the same thing, too. But can you believe all these governments? That’s why dem nah go do nothing. Because dem know what atrocities that dem put Rasta through. And see Rasta come out on top. Out of Rasta come the greatest blood clot musicians.

Q: But let me make sure that I understand though. Do you think that there’s a connection between Rastas and [the] Jewish people?

Chinna: We’re the original Jew! We are the original Jew! Jesus struggled. Jesus struggled from dem times dere, you understand? All of these people. And that’s what they’re doing with the music – the people that play the music, they suffer and dem die.

Q: You wrote the classic song “Fade Away” [that was made] a giant hit by Junior Byles; that song is also featured on the Soul Syndicate Album “Harvest Uptown.” This has to be one of my favorite songs in all of reggae.

Chinna: Well I’m glad to hear that.

Q: The lyrics are so conscious, so righteous.

Chinna: [The late former Jamaican prime minister Edward] Seaga say almost the same thing to me.

Q: Do you remember anything about where you were – and the moment in time – when you came up with the lyrics to that song? What was going on at that time, and what was your inspiration when you wrote the lyrics to that song?

Chinna: I [was] a young musician and we [had] played a whole heap of hit tunes. We used to play a whole heap of tunes. We didn’t even worry about money, you understand? So me a-read my Bible. Psalm 18. And see the words “fade away.” And mi say, “He who seeks of only vanity, and no love for humanity, shall fade away.” But then [it was] deeper than that, too. See at the time Scratch had recorded a song with Junior Byles [called] “Curly Locks.” It was a unique sound ‘cause them no use no guitar pon it. Just [an] Elka [(a polyphonic analog synthesizer)]. Like [on] [“Who The Cap Fit”] and “Three Likkle Birds”; it can work like a single instrument or like a keyboard, [too]. And mi say mi want the tune to record like that, too; mi no want no guitar pon it.

But me never have no Elka. So Santa [Davis] and Fully [Fullwood] [and I] do a session for Jo-Jo. So when the session [was] done – alright, I’ll tell you the song we recorded, a [Mighty] Diamonds album [it was on]. (Singing) “Going back to country living….” So when the session done, mi say alright, give me some time. [And] I give Fully the idea of the line. Santa [knew] the tempo already – and one lick from Santa! One cut [from] Junior Byles! And mi just give him the lyrics. And him just voice it and put some things in there. Alright so the words – Family Man used to have this line, him say “the rich is getting richer [every day], and [the] likkle that the poor man [got] [it shall be] taken way.” So I [decided] I’m gonna use that as the bridge. So [that song] really [has] a meaning – it [developed through a lot of different sources].

Q: Is there any other song that you’ve written – during your fifty years as a professional musician – that you like or are just as proud of as “Fade Away?”

Chinna: Um, a song Freddie makeover a couple of times too, “We Got Love.”

Q: A Freddie McGregor song?

Chinna: No, no, it’s my song but Freddie sing it over a couple of times well, too. I think a version of that is on the [Soul Syndicate’s] “Harvest Uptown” album.

Q: Right before I came to Jamaica, I asked legendary drummer Sly Dunbar what I should ask you today. And Sly responded; his question is really a two-part question. First, he said ask [Chinna], “How do you get better and better every year playing your guitar, creating new attitude, and playing with a lot of soul?”

Chinna: That’s the question?

Q: That’s the first part of his question.

Chinna: Alright, it’s just that I love music so much that, even if mi nah play – but the key thing is, see every time I talk about guitar, it’s like the first time I see this thing here (stroking guitar gently). Falling in love with it all over again.

Q: It’s a joy?

Chinna: Yeah. Like a lot of the old musician dem, dem feel bad because dem work and never get paid – and them do great things. I can’t afford in my life to do great things and feel bad about it. So mi have to restore the joy there, you understand? It’s the guitar I love and squeeze, and feel the vibration.

Earl “Chinna” Smith with writer Stephen Cooper (photo courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper)

Q: Does it love you back?

Chinna: It does. Yeah, it does. Because I show it that love. (Showing his fingers with calluses upon calluses from playing guitar.)

Q: Wow. Oh my gosh! Holy – Chinna, look at your fingers, man. That is [serious] proof of love for an instrument.

Chinna: See there, this ain’t no joke thing. Alright.

Q: Now the second part of Sly’s question [is], “What helps you to stay so focused on your music?”

Chinna: I stay in Jamaica.

Q:  Wow. That’s a great answer. But what would you say about artists who have moved [away from Jamaica] –

Chinna: Well I rate dem, because they must be able to do that and sustain; I don’t know if I could do that; so I don’t jump into the water if I can’t swim. So I stay in Jamaica. Where I know I can get my chalice like this, and brethren can come look for me – more of my kind of brethren – [like] Tappa [Zukie] come check me, all of dem great ones. Dem keep the thing light – see they keep it burning.

Q: Chinna, thank you so much for this [interview]. Is there any final message or words that you have for all the many, many reggae fans around the world who love your guitar playing and appreciate you [so much]?

Chinna: Reggae fans around the world – they’re supporting the fu*kery to a level. Because when these people come up and they know the root of the thing. Because these people that are listening to reggae, and dem grandparents – they must go into the history of the music and find out how come the Wailers [like Alvin “Secco” Patterson, Family Man, and Tyrone Downie] don’t get any honors?

How come the Wailers [like Secco, Family Man, Tyrone Downie, and their families] so poor and everybody else rich? Talk to these people that [are] benefitting. The legacy people dem. ‘Cause them never play the music. They never play[ed] the fu*king music. Ask some questions [like], “Hey over there, you Marley, you, what happened to Secco Patterson? What happened to Carlton Barrett? Wire Lindo?” Ask Cedella [Marley]. Ask Ziggy [Marley], Julian [Marley], Stephen [Marley], and Damian [Marley] to play “One Love.” Or “Three Likkle Birds.” Ask [them] which Bob Marley tune on the “Legend” album did they play on?

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq

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