One less voice in 'Tribal War'
Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
John Holt's recent death has triggered the expected outpouring of (in many cases) belated regard. Many of his songs have been given greater-than-accustomed airplay, among the more popular cuts being Ali Baba, Carpenter and Stealing.
However, there is one song by Holt which has had a special connection with Jamaican audiences, in a country with an all-too-gory history of internecine conflict, which concert goers will still be able to hear. It is Tribal War, originally done by Little Roy and also recorded by Holt and George Nooks. And let us not forget the multi-artiste remake with Buju Banton, Terry Ganzie, Tony Rebel and Brian and Tony Gold on the 2004 Buju and Friends double CD.
With Little Roy (whose original is noticeably slower than the cover versions) long residing outside Jamaica in the United Kingdom, and Buju currently incarcerated (although I don't remember him performing it on the occasions I have seen him perform), it is the voice of Nooks which will carry the track forward. In a previous interview with The Sunday Gleaner (published Sunday, January 15), Little Roy explained the song's origin, in the process making it clear that it is his song - although, as he migrated to England in the early 1990s, he is not the singer with whom most persons in Jamaica would associate it.
Little Roy said, "I wrote the lyrics and the melody. A lot of people come and sing it over and some of them try to act as if it is theirs."
He explained, "That is a song I recorded for my Tafari label in 1973, and I think it was released in 1974. I used to walk and sell it myself. It sold many thousands."
The Gleaner, or its sister paper The STAR, had a lot to do with the writing of Tribal War, as Little Roy said he had the opening line ("Tribal war, we no want no more a that") in his head for about a year before reading a newspaper article about a peace agreement between gangs in eastern Kingston. "These gangs came together and signed a peace treaty," Little Roy said.
A PEACEFUL SMOKE
At the signing, there was also the puffing of the peace pipe, Jamaican style, the newspaper reporting that the gangsters came together and smoked herb. Little Roy said, "I turn it into gangsters "seated up and licking cup/one by one they take a suck/saying that the war is over."
On the original recording, at Lee 'Scratch' Perry's Black Ark Studio, Little Roy listed the musician roster as late singer Dennis Brown on bass guitar, Leroy 'Horsemouth' Wallace (drums), Pablo Black (keyboards) and Roy Hamilton (guitar).
Nooks, also in a previous interview with The Sunday Gleaner, explained the roots of his take on Tribal War, done for Joe Gibbs in 1978 at the time of yet another peace treaty between battling Jamaican factions. Nooks said he knew the Little Roy original before being approached by Gibbs to do Tribal War. "I did not know all of it. We used to hear it in the dance," Nooks said. "It was recorded about the time of the peace treaty between the parties. Joe Gibbs called me and say through the treaty and everything, it was all about peace."
Nooks recorded Tribal War at Gibbs' studio, Lloyd Parkes (bass), Bo Pee (guitar) and Sly Dunbar (drums) among the musicians.
There is another John Holt song that will, in a way, be carried on in the voice of an enduring artiste. Cocoa Tea easily spans the dancehall space and roots reggae, dropping a soul track on a roots reggae rhythm or exchanging a lyric with any deejay at will. His Ryker's Island shares parts of its melody with Holt's Up Park Camp, as well as Cornell Campbell's No Man's Land.