Carolyn Cooper | Finding out who Toots was supposed to be
Toots Hibbert, lead singer of the Maytals, made a prophetic statement in his 1966 festival song, Bam Bam. It was about his character: “Soon you will find out the man I’m supposed to be.” The songwriter’s choice of “supposed” conveyed a sense of mission and destiny. As a relatively young man in his twenties, Toots seemed to have conceived his purpose to be much more significant than his immediate circumstances might have dictated. And his vision was fundamentally moral: “I am the man who fights for the right, not for the wrong.”
Toots’ morality did not make him a pushover. It strengthened him to defend his rights, if necessary: “This man don’t trouble no man/But if you should trouble this man/ Going bring a bam bam.” The Dictionary of Jamaican English notes that the compound word ‘bam-bam’ sounds like what it means: “beating on the buttocks”. Since Bam Bam was a G-rated festival song, the punishment for troubling this man was relatively mild. It could have been far worse.
More than half a century after it was first performed, Bam Bam continues to resonate. Two Saturdays ago, street dances erupted across the US when the election was called in favour of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. In Philadelphia, one of the songs on the jubilant sound track was Bam Bam. This classic was invoked as a warning to not ‘trouble’ the president-elect and his VP, especially since Harris has Jamaican roots. Toots’ big tune assumed new relevance in the Jamaican diaspora, confirming the longevity and mass appeal of our music.
Like most Jamaicans, Toots was raised in church. In all its various manifestations, spirituality is a fundamental element of Jamaican culture. Toots’ early upbringing in a Seventh-day Adventist home was a major influence on his development. He used to sing gospel music in the church choir. In Bam Bam, we can hear echoes of a Fundamentalist Christian acceptance of one’s lot in life: “Come together let’s sit and talk/Meekly wait and murmur not.”
After his parents died, Toots left Treadlight in Clarendon and went to live in Trench Town where he found his destiny as a recording artiste. His repertoire was no longer only the pious hymns of his Adventist youth. Wait, And Murmur Not was actually the name of song 551 in the Adventist Christ in Song hymnal. Revival riddims, soul music and the beat of ska and rocksteady became the reverberating sounds that penetrated Toots’ consciousness.
Toots started his recording career at Coxsone’s Studio One. But the outcome was not what he’d anticipated. Music journalist and film-maker Reshma B reports in her passionate tribute, Remembering Jamaica’s Original Soul Man, that “Toots said he received a beef patty in return for recording his first song.” This is such a familiar story. So many artistes in the early years of the Jamaican music industry were ‘troubled’ by producers. And they simply did not have the power to retaliate with a proper bam-bam. The producer owned the studio and it seemed that all the artiste had to bargain with was talent. This power imbalance is one of the themes of the iconic Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, in which Toots and the Maytals were featured.
Undaunted by his first encounter with the exploitative music business, Toots did not meekly wait and not murmur. He boldly persevered. His distinctive voice and his engaging style of scatting up and down the scale compelled attention. It was winning the inaugural Independence Festival Popular Song Competition in 1966 that propelled Toots and the Maytals to stardom. Soon after, they went on tour to England. Then, in 1968, the group did a recording that would prove to be truly historic. It was Do the Reggay, the first song in which the name of the new musical genre was documented.
Stephen Davis, author of Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica, asked Toots what the word ‘reggay’ meant to him. This is how he answered: “Reggae means comin’ from the people, y’know? Like a everyday thing. Like from the ghetto. From majority. Everyday thing that people use like food, we just put music to it and make a dance out of it. Reggae means regular people who are suffering, and don’t have what they want.”
Toots turned the suffering of regular people into hits like Pressure Drop and 54-46. Other songs, such as Sweet and Dandy, inspired joy. His music covered so many moods and genres. The last time I saw Toots perform was in February this year at the opening of the Jamaica, Jamaica! exhibition at the National Gallery. It was a riotous jam with Big Youth. These vintage artistes did mash up di place.
The theme of the exhibition was How Our Music Conquered the World. Toots is certainly one of Jamaica’s leading cultural champions in that conquest. And he understood the value of documenting our history through artefacts. He donated his Yamaha guitar to the Jamaica Music Museum at that event. The nation has certainly found out who the man Toots was supposed to be: a legend of Jamaican music! Toots Hibbert spent his early years in Treadlight. But he did not tread lightly in this world. He has left a giant footprint.