Zak Starkey does blues the reggae way
Of the multitude of musical influences that have an effect on Jamaica’s musical styles, American rhythm and blues music has, arguably, left the most lasting impact. Reggae music has been widely regarded as a variation of rhythm and blues, although with the latter, the production is usually centred on a particular key, made from flattening the notes for a melancholic feel, while with reggae, it is all about the rhythm.
For London-born musician Zak Starkey, the son of the Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, and his Australian bandmate, Sharna ‘Sshh’ Liguz, both genres share very similar messages, and it is this which has inspired the concept of their newest venture. The project, called Trojan Jamaica, is a reggae record label that has been working closely with local musicians at their St Ann-based recording studio to produce revolutionary music.
The first project released by Trojan Jamaica, licensed from the influential 50-year-old Trojan Records label – which played a major role in the introduction of a selection of reggae artistes, including Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, to mainstream audiences – is called Red, Gold, Green and Blue. It features Mykal Rose, Big Youth, Freddie McGregor and Toots and The Maytals, among others.
In a recent interview with The Gleaner, Starkey said the artistes on the record are reggae legends of the very highest calibre.
“The project, Red, Gold, Green and Blue, was recorded before the label was even developed. For the purpose of distribution, the label was eventually created, and while getting that together, we got busy making other tracks. We have five so far,” Starkey said.
Starkey describes Red, Gold, Green and Blue as a collection of inspiring and important songs by great blues legends such as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Peter Green.
“Each artiste took pleasure in interpreting the songs their own way and it came together in a kind of timeless, very unique blend of the two musical styles,” he said.
In his Rolling Stone feature, Starkey revealed that Toots agreeing to do Peter Green’s Man of the World was the best moment of the project for him.
The record was cut completely from live sessions, complemented by seasoned instrumentalists Robbie Shakespeare on bass guitar, Michael Rendall on the keys (piano and organ), and, on drums, Cyril Neville, former member of the dynamic New Orleans band The Meters. Sly Dunbar and Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace add a unique flavour next to Starkey on guitar.
Starkey noted, “The natural ability of everyone involved made the project possible and ready in quick time.
This was all completed in two weeks with very few and sometimes no overdubs (a record on an existing recording).”
The skilled drummer and guitarist described the process of creating pulse-racing reggae that springs haphazardly from his obvious love of reggae “one of the most beautiful and effortless”. This love was ignited by his father, who was a huge admirer of Burning Spear.
He recalled, “My father gave me a copy of Spear’s reggae album Man In The Hills in the late ‘70s when I was a punk but very open to reggae. It was often a soundtrack in our house while I was growing up, along with blues and 1950s rock and roll, which remain my favourite types of music.”
The first cover single completed, Screamin’ Jay’s I Put A Spell On You, was by Grammy Award-winning reggae singer Mykal Rose of Black Uhuru, whose performing style is usually characterised by a militant and hardcore way of belting out a song’s lyrics. In spite of the views of some music industry professionals that artistes and producers should stay away from doing covers, Starkey stands firm that it is a natural progression for most old and new talents.
“At the end of the day, a good song is a good song. I really like the way emerging artistes, in particular, can sometimes take elements of great songs and create something new from their inspiration,” he said. “We asked Mykal to sing this song as we knew his beautiful, haunting voice would make it right. It turned out better than I could have imagined in my wildest, craziest dreams.”
Starkey and his bandmate, Sshh, are working with internationally acclaimed music company BMG to release newly produced, Jamaican-made music. Therefore, the project does not end at Red, Gold, Green and Blue, which is scheduled for the big roll-out next month. Although they have not considered the record’s potential for a Grammy, he bashfully says: “We hadn’t thought about it because we are so into the music, and that is reward enough...although it would be cool,” as he hinted that that there are other entertainers who Trojan Jamaica anticipates drumming into.