Mutabaruka: I will look to the hills from whence cometh my helpThe Desmond Allen Interview
Sunday, March 06, 2005 Much of this world is dark and desperate and man's cruelty to man knows no bounds. It is what feeds the anger and rebellion of Allan 'Mutabaruka' Hope. From the early teens, he somehow knew that his origins in the depressed slums of Rae Town, Kingston, would mark him out for a life of poverty and deprivation, a citizen of the underclass or a denizen of the night. But that would not be the destiny of Mutabaruka.
MUTABARUKA. refuses to interview politicians on The Cutting Edge
At Kingston Technical High School, he joined the struggle to win self-identity and dignity through the Black Power movement driven by the son of a national hero, Marcus Garvey Jnr, who operated his African Nationalist Union from the Success Club on Wildman Street. That, for Muta, was only a step away from becoming a Rastafarian, scorned by upper Jamaica but carrying an irresistible message to the working masses.On wings of poem
Muta's message rode on the wings of a poem - poetry that articulated the conditions of the people who gave him his inspiration. If the words of the poet jarred the collective nerves, they also made society listen.
It might have been inevitable that Muta became a member of the Rastafarian group, the Twelve Tribes of Israel. But after a terrible falling out, in which he said he suffered physical and verbal abuse, he settled into the purist Nyah Binghi, which saw Ethiopia's late Emperor Haile Selassie, not as Jesus the Christ - as in the case of the Twelve Tribes - but as the Almighty God Himself.
It transpired that while he read his poems and worked assiduously with his Rasta queen, Yvonne Peters-Hope, to build a house on swamp lands in the far hills of John's Hall, St James, creative thinkers in the tourist mecca of Negril, Westmoreland, were mouthing the name of Mutabaruka.
The Issa-owned Negril Beach Village, now Hedonism II, wanted to experiment with their entertainment package, to give the tourists something different. "They wanted a new vibe and wanted me and some other Rasta brethren to come to the hotel and explain to the guests what is Rasta," Muta recounts. Claudia Robinson, an actress with connections to the hotel, was commissioned to contact Muta. This was 1974.
"They put us up at the hotel and allowed us to sell our trinkets there," Muta recalls. He started stringing beads and knitting tams, and after that, almost anything that people could wear, including bikinis, in the red, gold and green colours of Rastafari.
He wonders now how it is that some young men say they turn to crime because of poverty, recalling how he tried everything to ensure he could earn a living and never once thought of committing a crime.
Muta would spend the weekend at the hotel, expounding Rastafari and knitting his tams which he sold for 80 cents.
With the money, he bought lumber in Lucea, the Hanover capital, for the wooden house he was building at Potosi, John Halls. And he ploughed the land. His mother by now was living at Central Village, near Spanish Town and he brought food in crocus bags for her by train, remembering that the journey from Montego Bay took 10 to 12 hours then.Helicopter in Cherry Gardens
For his trips back to Kingston, he sublet the small side of a house at Melmac Avenue, Cherry Gardens from Pauline, the woman who would become Mrs Lee 'Scratch' Perry, paying $140 a month.
The neighbours turned up their noses at him and his family, Yvonne and their two daughters, Ishiwawa and Ishama. Muta had a habit of knitting as he walked and one day as he neared home, a military helicopter hovered and buzzed him. Several Cherry Gardens windows slammed shut as if to say 'you don't belong here'.
The soldiers in the helicopter wanted to know what he had in his hands. A frightened Muta raised his hands in the air to show them that all he had were knitting needles. "I realised I was not supposed to live there," he recounts.
It was the 1970s and Jamaica was in the grip of the ideological struggle between the ruling democratic socialist People's National Party (PNP) of Michael Manley and the conservative, pro-United States Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) of Edward Seaga. Middle-class people, fearing communism was only an election away, were leaving the island in droves and selling off posh homes at bargain basement prices.
Muta says he was offered the Melmac Avenue house for $40,000! He could not afford it and someone lapped it up. He took his family to the house in the bushes of Potosi where they would live for the next 15 years. He left the poems with a friend named Stafford Harrison, later Ashani, who published them in a book titled Sun and Moon by Mutabaruka and Fabian Mirada, a Panamanian poet. Mirada worked at Holiday Inn Hotel and used to hang out with Muta in the hills.Ishiwawa wears locks to Mt Alvernia
In St James, the girls, wearing locks, were sent to St James Preparatory in MoBay. When time came, Ishiwawa, the elder, went to Mount Alvernia High School, becoming the first to be accepted with dreadlocks by the Roman Catholic-run all-girls school, the proud father says. Ishiwawa, a consistent 'A' student, would repeat the feat some years later when she attended sixth form at the Anglican-run St Andrew High in Kingston.
Muta delved more deeply into his religion, frequently going up into the hills of Hanover and Westmoreland to commune with the brethren there. Those Rastamen and women lived close to nature and rejected all the trappings of modern living, including metals such as nails.
They ate herbs and refused to come down from the hills. Some of them could not read, but Muta was struck by their wisdom. One couple, Bombo and his wife from Cascade, Hanover, stood out for him.Paul Issa comes at night
The weekend treks to Negril Beach Village continued, as they must. Muta now came into contact with Paul Issa, an actor and son of the owner of the hotel. He had sampled and liked Muta's poems.
Appearing like an apparition in the night, with only peenie wallies as his guide, Issa braved his way through the fierce terrain, up the dark, eerie hills and down to the bottom of the valley where Muta's house stood, a monument to desolation. "We heard 'Muta! Muta!' and we could not believe our ears," says the poet.
The voice of Paul Issa rang out loud and clear through the stillness of the night. He had come with a plan to publish the poems.
Negotiations led to agreement and the poems were published in a book called Mutabaruka's First Poems - 1970-79. The introduction was written by Mervyn Morris who, Muta says, was the first to give authenticity in the academic community to dub poets - like himself, Oku Onoura, Mikey Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson who performed in England. This was 1980.
Call it coincidence, if you will, but the second book titled The First Poems and The Next Poems, published again by Paul Issa, with Morris doing the introduction, was being launched at the very hour yesterday that the Sunday Observer was getting ready to publish this interview.
The current book sells for $1,200, reasonable at the price but light years away from the $1 that Swing magazine's Johnny Golding sold his first Mutabaruka publication, Outcry for in 1973. Things were happening for Muta and there was more to come.A dub poet is born
Just above Potosi was Somerton, the district which nurtured people the likes of Prime Minister P J Patterson, Bishop Herro Blair and Jimmy Cliff, the reggae superstar. Mortimer Planno, who was part of Cliff's entourage, had heard of Muta's poems and invited him to come and rehearse them for a big concert that Cliff was planning for Somerton.
As Muta rehearsed at Cliff's house, band member Earl "Chinna" Smith listened and got inspiration. He decided to put the poem, Every time I hear the sound to reggae music.
It was an instant hit with the crowd. Chinna, who operated the High Times store, suggested that Muta come to Kingston to record the poem now set to music, with Cliff's band backing him. They recorded two poems - Every time I hear the sound and It nuh good fi stay inna white man country too long. The people in the studio that day became witnesses to the birth of the Jamaican dub poet.
Reggae Sunsplash, the island's largest reggae festival held in the scenic northcoast resort of Montego Bay, was coming up and Cliff's people invited Muta to perform as part of the star's act. Shirtless, barefooted and in short pants, Muta looked defiant as he climbed the Sunsplash stage.
He had a streak of grey hair which glowed when hit by the spotlight and the audience knew they too had seen the birth of a star. He performed the two recorded poems and wrecked Sunsplash. Muta was now firmly set on the road to stardom.
In the audience was Ras Mo, a Jamaican living in California. He recommended Muta to some promoters in Los Angeles. On his first US tour, Muta retained the Sunsplash look but added chains to his hand to symbolise the state of slavery. After that, promoters came to the bushes of Potosi to book him.
But not every promoter came with clean hands and a pure heart. In LA, he was booked to do a show in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, with British-based reggae band Steel Pulse, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths. Sensing that something was not adding up with the deal, when they were given one-way tickets to Lagos, Judy and Marcia opted out at New York.
Muta contemplated opting out as well, but the promoter gave him a title to a bit of land at Cooper's Hill in Jamaica to hold as guarantee, in the event the deal went sour.Judy and Marcia's intuition
He and Steel Pulse made the trip, along with Muta's good friend, Dera Tomkins, an African-American who loved reggae and was the first person, he says, to sport locks in Washington where she lived.
He met Dera at Negril Beach Village and she used to visit them at Potosi. But Judy and Marcia's female intuition had proven right. Jamaican newspapers carried the news that a group of reggae artistes was stranded in Nigeria. They were not paid and with no return ticket, Steel Pulse and Muta were stuck.
"Mind you, it was amusing to hear that people back home were fearing the worst. We spent three weeks there having a good time, before we were able to come home," Muta recollects. But he had learnt the hard way that a musician on tour had better have his wits about him.
The 1980s came round and Muta was on the upswing.
His name and reputation spreading, he went to Paris, France to address a group of students. While he taught them about Rastafari and Jamaica, they taught him something he had always wanted to know, the meaning of the name Mutabaruka.
Long before that, Muta had read an anthology of black consciousness poems by a man named Jean Baptiste Mutabaruka. He loved the poems and decided to adopt the surname. Now the African students in his audience told him that Mutabaruka was a popular Rwandan poet and the name Mutabaruka meant "always victorious". He loved the name even more now.Pele, the road manager
John Blackwood, a Jamaican promoter living in San Francisco, booked him on a massive four-week tour throughout the US, from San Diego to Seattle and up to Vancouver, Canada. That gave him the exposure he needed to America.
Dub poetry was new to the reggae-hungry audiences, and everywhere he went, the show was sold out.
Muta recalls that he came home from his first two US tours bawling because he had not received any money, despite the crowds which attended the concerts.
"My booking agent was also a novice too." But he grew in experience and things changed for the better when he got a road manager in the person of Pele Lanier, who also managed Yellowman, Culture and Burning Spear.
She managed Muta for 20 years and was responsible for Jamaica's participation at MIDEM, France, the world biggest music festival, he says. When she died three years ago, he was devastated. In tribute to her, Muta wrote a poem called Pele, which is on his latest album.
He also got ABS to be his booking agent in Europe, saying that he was the top selling artiste in terms of crowd capacity during the four to six years he spent with ABS. Germany provided him his biggest audience to date.
The 80s also saw another side to Muta - the actor. While still living in the St James bushes, he was sought out by a man named Haile Girema, an Ethiopian filmmaker who was teaching at Howard University in Washington.
Girema was making a film called Nu-Nu about slavery and one of the characters was called Shango. Someone told him that there was a man in Jamaica who fitted the part. His name was Mutaburaka. The film featured footage from the 1981 funeral of Bob Marley and an interview with Muta.
He recalls going around the island, with Girema and Ini Kamoze, his brethren, seeking locations for shooting the film, which went on to become one of the most successful independent black movies. It also exposed him to black America in the same way the poems exposed him to white America.
Muta recalls that the first musician he toured with was Santa Davis, who was also shot at the time Peter Tosh was killed in Kingston. Over time, he toured with other musicians like Leebert 'Gibby' Morrison, who became the chief arranger of the poems to music after Chinna;
Anthony Brissett, keyboardist, and the 14-year-old Calabar student Christopher Meredith, who was a child prodigy on the bass guitar. At some venues on tour, the promoters were reluctant to have him take the stage, saying he was just a minor but relented when they found out there was no other bass player in the band.
Those musicians have since been replaced by the members of Desi Jones' band, School: Maurice Gordon, guitarist; Jones on drums; Christopher McDonald on keyboard, Harry T, percussionist and Dale Haslam, bass.Yvonne goes, Jackie comes
With the money he was earning, Muta and Yvonne decided to open a health food store at 80 Half-Way-Tree Road. They were visiting Kingston more frequently, and with Ishiwawa finishing fifth form, they wanted her to continue her education.
The decision was taken to move back to Kingston where she enrolled at St Andrew High. But not long after, the relationship with Yvonne began to lose fervour. Muta met a delightful woman named Jackie Cohen and was immediately smitten.
She loved things ethnic, especially African artifacts, and sold craft items in her shop in Negril. Nothing happened at first. When he met her, she was friends with the late Puma Jones who was part of Black Uhuru and they lived in the same yard at the foot of Stony Hill Road.
On his road trips, Muta would gather stuff and take to her. Then, without warning, Cupid's arrow struck. Muta says he resisted, not wanting to be a man with more than one woman. But his resistance was in vain, he could tell.
Inevitably, Yvonne heard about it and confronted him. He admitted he loved this woman who had excited him so much. He and Yvonne lived together for some time after, but things were never the same. "We had irreconcilable differences.
The relationship had lost the connection and reached a boiling point in 1986." On his first trip to Ethiopia, he says it could have been on his way back, he finally moved out of the house and in with Cohen with whom he this year celebrates their 20th anniversary. "There is a vibration about Jackie that I could not lock off. Even today, it remains just as strong," says the lyricist.
While all this was going on, Muta discovered that a record company named Mercury had used his work titled Dis Poem on an album without giving him credit. Pele hired an American lawyer to sue the company. Mercury settled out of court, and with the money, Muta paid down on a house at Swain Spring, Red Hills.
In that moment, he recalled with some irony the time his mother had angrily asked him if he thought his little poems could pay the light bill, after he had walked out on a foul-mouthed electrician to whom she had apprenticed him.Miss Lou rides a wicked rhythm
Over the years, Muta produced several albums. One, of which he is most proud, was that with an all-female group of poets titled Woman Talk. Featured on the album was no less than the Hon Louise Bennett doing Dutty Tuff.
He will always cherish the memory of Miss Lou in studio with the reggae musicians. "And she ride the rhythm wicked, yu nuh," Muta would have you know. His 1993 The People's Court also stands out.
In the record, he purported to put the two main political leaders, Manley and Seaga, on trial for all the things they had promised but not delivered to the people, using the talented Gary Sadler as the impersonator. "It was banned from the airwaves but became our biggest selling tune in Jamaica," he says.
Irrepressible now, Muta and Jackie moved on to open a bookstore, selling exclusively black titles, at the corner of Eastwood Park Road and Hillview Avenue. They named it "Books About US". He operated a sound system called "Black Music", using CDs instead of records, from next door to Third World's Zinc Fence on Dumfries Road, New Kingston.The Cutting Edge
One day, Muta was chilling when he received a call from one Michael Connolley, now living in England. Connelley hosted a music programme on the hot new reggae radio station, IRIE-FM and wanted him to come and spin some of his music.
On the show, Muta played a selection by Jimmy Cliff that was recorded in Zaire. It was not reggae. Dennis Howard, the programmes manager, came into the studio to remind him that IRIE was a reggae station and they argued over it.
Some time after, the very savvy Clyde McKenzie, who was also with IRIE-FM, invited him to host a music programme featuring reggae music from all over the world. Karl Young, the manager, named it The Cutting Edge.
But Muta soon found it was tough playing reggae music for three hours and introduced some African music. Then he began to do a bit of talk in between records. It was not just any talk.
It was hard, controversial talk. In time, and as the listening public reacted, the programme became more talk and less music. Then he started airing lectures from black authors and speakers like Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam.
It also gave a voice to Rasta on radio. Muta, as a matter of policy, does not encourage the daily fare of issues treated by the earlier talk shows. And he refuses to interview politicians, saying "dem get too much airplay and I don't want dem to come tell the same lies dem tell in the day". The Cutting Edge is 11 years old this month.Folk philosopher
In yet another dimension, Muta was approached by the Social Sciences Faculty of the University of the West Indies (UWI) to be its third folk philosopher, after Mortimer Planno and Jerry Small. The idea is to connect the students with street philosophers who are relevant, so that, for example, if Rastafarianism is being discussed, a Rastafarian is brought in to discuss it. He stayed there for 18 months, three times longer than originally planned.
These days, Muta tours without a band, saying he wants the people to listen to the words and not necessarily to dance, even though that is important. He wants society to hear that it has wronged the Rastaman. He complains that Jamaican society termed the dreadlocks "dutty head" and would not accept it until the white man put it in a magazine.
The Rastaman preached self-reliance, peace and love but as a reward he was reviled and the prophet has no honour in his own country.
"Society did not have anything to lean on after colonialism and Rasta offered it self-identity. They could not define looks, beauty, God outside of the colonial experience, but this is what we get in return," Muta accuses.
And Muta urges the Rasta brethren to fight "twenty-four-seven" for their dignity, saying that he rejected society's criteria for ambition and would not allow its politics or religion to define him.
He points to his own life as a poor youth from the ghetto who has refused to work for anyone from nine to five "and I'm doing awright".
"They (society) don't love Rasta. They even wish if Bob Marley was not Rasta."http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/html/20050305T230000-0500_76291_OBS_MUTABARUKA__I_WILL_LOOK_TO_THE_HILLS_FROM_WHENCE_COMETH_MY_HELP.asp