- Junior Dowie/Staff Photographer
Avia Ustanny, Gleaner Writer
MUSICAL SCALES ascend relentlessly as the soft October rain falls on the salmon pink slate roof of the School of Music at the Edna Manley School of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston. Inside the office of 'Ibo' Cooper, head of the department of Popular Music, the dim afternoon light fails to hide the highly polished, though worn, wooden floors and the gleaming piano.
Cooper, relaxed on the bench in front of the instrument, appears to be in a mellow mood, as soft as the shadows, during this interview. The image is soon shattered, however, when the trajectory of his thoughts send the musician surging to his feet and his voice booms in the small office, which certainly must be uncomfortable for so large a man, literally, and figuratively speaking.
Michael 'Ibo' Cooper, nearly a decade after departing from the bright lights of international stage, performing with the band, Third World, expresses an equal passion about his work at this, the Caribbean's premier school of the arts, as charged up about his students from all walks of life, as when he appeared with the internationally acclaimed reggae band.
Formal musical training
It was in 1973 that Cooper co-founded the band with Stephen 'Cat' Coore. As the records state, he, a policeman's son with a love for music, teamed up with Coore, whose father was a deputy prime minister who also taught music. Both Coore and Cooper received formal musical training at the Foster Davis School of Music and Kingston's Royal School of Music respectively. Each also had solo and group experience on the Kingston reggae circuit. Cooper and Coore had met while playing for Inner Circle. Third World debuted at the 1973 Jamaican Independence celebration. It received critical accolades and later that year Third World opened for Bob Marley on his United Kingdom summer tour.
The song 96 Degrees In The Shade created instant popularity, and was followed by the huge international hit, a cover version of the O'Jays/Gamble And Huff song, Now That We've Found Love Next came the Journey To Addis album - a mix of roots and soul. Further hits were Cool Meditation (1979), Dancing On The Floor (1981) and Try Jah Love (1982), and the group moved on to a new label, CBS Records.
The 80s saw the band with growing popularity in the United States, contracting album contributions from Stevie Wonder, the Brecker Brothers, and Jamal-Ski. In 1999, the band released, Reggae Party, featuring the DJ skills of Bounty Killer.
Displaying ever increasing versatility, and the potential to live for ever, Cooper's departure from Third World was a shocker.
Today, the man who says "music chose me, I did not choose it" will only say one thing on the matter. "I curse the sin but not the sinner. Our differences are not irreconcilable."
He will say nothing more.
To be truthful, Cooper was always a bit different from his colleagues in the business. He is the only member of the band whose home is in Jamaica - his only home. He is one of the rare ones, devoting his time to giving hope to black youths. His forays into Fletcher's Land is part of a mission intended to accomplish this.
Committed to the Reggae Studies Unit
Work at Edna Manley has the same intensity. So also his commitment to the Reggae Studies Unit, the creation of which he encouraged.
At Edna Manley, three years of work have resulted in an increase in membership, and graduates in the department of popular music, with student numbers having increased to 15 from six.
With praise for his fellow lecturers, he points to the creation of two bands - C-Sharp and Centa Stage from among the students in his department. C-Sharp represented Jamaica at CARIFESTA. Other graduates of the department of music are teachers and performers, instrumentalists, and vocalists of growing reputation.
Columnist Dawn Ritch, who recently said that the music school should be blamed for leading Jamaican youth astray because classical music has been de-emphasised, does not know what she is talking about, he said. "I respect Ms Ritch and I blame who has mislead her."
Edna Manley teaches music of all genres, he points out, with a faculty that is of an international calibre. The only problem, he said, is that the programmes of the school are underfunded. But, "that is not the fault of Edna Manley," he states. The lack of resources in the school is typical of the shortfall that makes itself so evident when it comes to the needs of the masses.
"There is a crisis among males. My own studies, supported by work recently done by Barry Chevannes, shows that young Jamaican males have a strong tendency toward music and entertainment. They should be encouraged," Cooper states. So far, this is not being done and entertainment as an industry is yet to be mobilised for the national good. "There is a narrow view of what the industry is about.
Few realise how the media, lawyers, accountants, engineers, technical staff are all reliant on the industry." Ibo has a mission to change the perception of the creation of music and its practitioners. "For too long we have been looked upon as the people who can't do anything else. At the national level, requests for more industry support has been blocked by a request for statistics."
The musician notes that sports has no such problem with funding. The situation, he says, seems to reflect a lack of will. "Hopefully, I will be proved wrong."
He says that those who say that music as an industry is not viable are overlooking the numerous reggae bands at the airport. The tourist industry, itself, he says, ignores the massive free advertisement which occurs every time a reggae band hits the stage. "I have filled out eight passports travelling," he points out.
Cooper is doing his bit to make a difference. In Fletcher's land, Cooper is working with impresario Maurice Gordon to create a popular band, the aim of which is to harness talent, as well as to enhance community peace, reduce violence, and provide a source of employment.
Does he have to teach?
You would be better off asking him whether he breathes.
Trod a different path
Cooper admits that he has trod a different path, one radically different from the preferred path of Escalades, life in New York and woman-chasing. Cooper, who prefers to speak about his spirituality, rather than Rastafarianism, discusses a world view that yearns for the creation and the manifestation of the great black society.
"I am driven by the vision of the great society, where the majority of people are of African origin." Ibo was always interested in Africa. Even as a child, he wondered why people said such things like "black is ugly".
His vision is far from being realised. He warns sadly, "we must be aware that there are people who have a vested interest in filling the society with criminals. They have a vested interest in underfunding programmes." His personal mission, he says, is to do what he can to stand against them. "I will not leave Jesus to carry the cross for me, or Mandela alone to jail." He is against cowardice. Cooper despises fear.
Jamaica in a problem
He comments; "His imperial Majesty said, 'It is because those who should have spoken did not speak and those who should have acted did not act why evil exists." Jamaica is in a problem because we are neither speaking out nor acting."
But, he holds on to hope. "Faith is my only religion," he said.
"I look forward to the day when Jamaicans will start to live the good life. He explains, the good life is when lovers will walk in the moonlight without fear of assault, when they can play dominoes on the road into the wee hours of the night.
"The good life will be realised when the young can leave school with hope and when old people can retire without the fear that they will suffer. It is when children will not be preyed upon by perverts. This is the great society."
In an era when black consciousness is no longer stylish or politically correct, Cooper's voice is a tide running against the mainstream. Maybe, through his music, and the actions of those he actively mentors, his voice will eventually be heard.