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Peter Tosh: His musical vision and influence
published: Tuesday | October 21, 2008


Winston Hubert McIntosh, known throughout the world as Peter Tosh, would have turned 64 years old on Sunday. His former manager, Herbie Miller, remembers the man known as the Stepping Razor.

ON THIS the occasion of his birthday, I am less concerned with remembering Peter Tosh the humanitarian/activist, singer/songwriter or Peter the dynamic performer.

His influence as bandleader, arranger and musician far outstrips others and has profound implications not addressed as forthrightly as they should. Because of his libe-ral approach to musical expression, his understanding of production, creative aesthetic and form, members of his band, Word, Sound, and Power, were able to develop skills that served them well in careers beyond that band.

And while no performer since the codifying of popular Jamaican music has dominated the reggae world with quite the arresting impact as Bob Marley, it remains true as well that no single artiste aside from Marley is more important to the development of dynamism in reggae than Peter Tosh.

Tosh epitomises those illustrious luminaries who include not only Marley, but also Count Ossie, the Skatalites, Jimmy Cliff, Toots Hibbert, Burning Spear, Third World, and Black Uhuru with Sly and Robbie. Conceptually, though, Tosh occupies another sphere.


Tosh must be understood as one of those accomplished artistes whose social muse and musical creativity outdistanced his identity as an entertainer. Tosh also has to be considered along with those indisputable visionaries and their counterparts in jazz, whose thinking, interest in form and substance prearranged the shape and texture of reggae.

Yet, all too often Jamaicans have viewed Peter Tosh in the shadow of fellow Wailer Bob Marley. Among local critics he has been overlooked, denigrated to secondary participant and treated as a footnote. But Tosh was never anyone's subordinate. He always had a strong personality, which also informed his music. His sharpness for seizing opportunities and producing as he wished were also at the highest level and to deny him his position at the top of reggae's royalty is to do him a grave disservice.

Tall, athletic and handsome, Tosh was the smartest, most intuitively educated reggae musician I have had the good fortune to know. He could hold court at any metropolitan cocktail gathering, demonstrating, as I have witnessed, a knowledge and understanding of past and current national and international issues. It was better still when laced with his novel verbal twists and clever wordplay, which were grounded in the idiomatic vernacular of the Jamaican country or common urban folk.

Urbane and natural, this backwoods Negro was sophisticated yet firmly grounded in a folksy innocence that made him as arrogant as he was charming. Peter Tosh could electrify or bring to total stillness the vibe in any room he entered.


On the other hand, as proven by his music, Peter was a magnificent social commentator. The result, no doubt, of coming of age under Britain's colonial rule over Jamaica. So, like his compatriots, he was affected by decades of colonialism's hegemonic control, its influence over the natural inclination to reflect alternative social, political and cultural expressions, particularly by the black majority.

In spite of all the accolades bestowed on him abroad, for too many Jamaicans Tosh remains the enigma among reggae artistes, and has never been seriously considered worthy of being held aloft. These claims for his importance and influence, however, are not even vaguely elaborate. That his effect has been profound is only now becoming evident. The function of music and performance, even from the 1960s, reveal elements in his musicianship that are as profound today as they were then.

What should now become evident to all is that what he was giving then was not seen as clearly as it may have been. The ideas of Tosh, like those of Don Drum-mond, were not specifically bound to his way of application, which meant that a grasp of concept freed other artistes from aping his way of execution. For example, before anyone else employed two lead guitarists, in Tosh's imagination it made sense, so he showed how to make it work.


Leading Word, Sound, and Power on his very first tour to America, both Al Anderson - an energetic and musically sound guitarist - and blues guitar prodigy Donald Kinsey were featured. Peter guided them through his arrangements, encouraging both to display their distinct musical personalities without getting into each other's way.

He achieved this because his music provided a scope of possibilities that no other reggae band except Third World offered. But more so than Third World - whose rhythms tended to be middle of the road - Tosh's rhythms were firmly rooted in the earthy expressions associated with roots-reggae with a top-end that never arched to meaningless thrills.

Robbie Lyn ... member of Peter Tosh's Word, Sound and Power band.

It is increasingly noticeable that many contemporary artistes (among them Capleton, Bushman, Sizzla, Buju Banton and Luciano) have also found inspiration not merely in his music and persona. The appropriation of Tosh's stylistics has provided heft to other genres of music as well; his style foreshadowed the direct declamations heard in dancehall and American rap music, and has shaped the identity of many performers. The late South African singer Lucky Dube most overtly, embodied Tosh's aura and musical organisation.


As an innovator, Peter Tosh - like all true masters - understood tradition.

In 1976, Tosh recorded the album Equal Rights for Columbia Records. To my mind, it is one of the very best reggae recordings - or popular protest music for that matter - that to this day exemplifies the most excellent the music has to offer. For that reason, his brand of reggae had nothing to do with those artistes whose inability to make meaningful music was greater than they knew about the clichéd Jah Rastafari bandwagonist approach that pandered to gullible critics and hippy audiences.

Tosh seldom let an opportunity pass to highlight the individual talent of his players, resulting in collective tonalities that were as remarkable as those achieved by the supreme ska aggregation of the 1960s - the fabulous Skatalites. With Word, Sound and Power, these elements became form or essence of form. Through a sense of rhythmic fluidity, order, tempo, textural overlay, and generous solo space, Tosh encouraged an ensemble freedom that encouraged musicians like Robbie Lyn to express his keyboard prowess beyond chunking reggae vamps.

And for Mikey Chung, being a member of Tosh's band allowed him to further develop what he had learned about arranging from the celebrated music educator Melba Liston. There is much I could say about the musical development of seminal producers Sly (Dunbar) and Robbie (Shakespeare) and their individual talents as drummer and bassist, respectively. However, here the focus is on Tosh, so all I will say is that their tenure with his band prepared them on the path that has led to such a successful and rewarding career. All these musicians grew and matured into the excellent masters they are today because Peter Tosh was confident and democratic enough to allow freedom.

Peter Tosh's music (and deeds) also proved that he was absolutely fearless. All that he did, he knew his opinions were not popular with the political intelligentsia and the high-up elites. But he also knew his commitment was to be the salt of the Earth, those people like himself who were targets for those who wanted to hold on to and protect social and class interest.

What Tosh did with music was advocate on behalf of people with fearless passion. That Peter Tosh produced all these ideas during the formative moments of reggae confirm that as bandleader, arranger, and musician, he was one of the most democratic, innovative and gifted visionaries in music.

Herbie Miller is a cultural historian with specialized interest in slave culture, Caribbean identity and ethnomusicology. Copyright 2008.

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