What a Bam Bam - Romae Gordon reflects on reggae great Toots Hibbert
On the day we learned of Toots Hibbert’s death, I got into an impassioned discussion with my mom about Bam Bam. Her opinion surprised me, especially since she was closer to Toots’ generation than I am. Because she grew up to the early beats of reggae, with musicians like Toots, I thought it would be natural for her to embrace everything about such a remarkable song from that time. Short on lyrics, and with no reference to the independence celebrations, she felt the song was not the right fit for ‘Festival’. For her, Bam Bam should not have won the Festival Song Contest in 1966.
Her words were jarring to my ears, and I took great affront to the fact that they were coming from my own mother. Anyone, anywhere in the world who heard that song should immediately feel a connection to it, whether it was meant for our Jamaican Festival Song Contest or any other music competition. As far as I was concerned, the song is so powerful that on first hearing it, the judges in 1966 must have instantly deemed it the best song of the lot. The strength of that opening, the sound of that voice, the music and composition must have been like nothing they had ever heard. Toots’ voice had a certain pulse. No song would have contested it. How could she not instantaneously be connected to the song, its depth and pull on the emotions, even its transcendent nature? It was perfect for Festival and beyond!
My mother could not have been more wrong in declaring her position. Thankfully, the discussion transformed into an enlightened and hilarious one as I drowned her out in song, trying to just let the happiness of the music overcome the moment. So infectious is the song, everyone in the house joined in the chorus, including her.
There was something extraordinary about Toots that set him apart in a very special way from his contemporaries and the many greats who were at the foundation of reggae. Toots just needed to hum a tune, and its cosmic power would invade the body. His distinctive voice had a sweet and happy mesmerising effect time and again. He understood how to elicit deep emotion from with voice. He knew how to connect to the senses with just enough words to have you sing along. Bam Bam was one such song. Not exactly ‘message’ music, although he advocates fighting for “the right and not the wrong and helping the weak against the strong,” the lean lyrics belie the power and the imprint the song leaves. It is part great groove, mood moving, and grand sin- along tune. He had a gift of efficiency, and with the right words, his songs became eternal, etched in the brain, never to be forgotten.
And in all of that, Bam Bam tops one side of the Toots songs that have been deeply entrenched in my consciousness. While Bam Bam is a feel-good song to sing and move to, Toots’ overt happy songs are another matter. There is a ease with which he implores people to relax and just enjoy themselves in Pomp and Pride. To be happy, an emotion that is elemental but also elusive to many, is the essence of the song. Troubles are temporarily delayed, and there is an automatic surrender to happiness on hearing Pomp and Pride.
Toots knew that human conflicts, especially of the heart, captured in a song, also required a good dose of fun and wit. Sweet and Dandy is colourful and lively with only just the necessary ingredients to demonstrate a bride and groom’s nervous energy on a life-altering day. On top of having cold feet, the groom, (albeit too late) frets about how he will pay for the wedding and feed all the guests. The build-up, tension, and drama catapult the song to a rare place when the folks make their best fashion statement in white simply “fi go eeet off Johnson weddn cake.” This was masterful song writing by a gifted artist.
And not much needs to be said about the epic three-verse Monkey Man, a song of unmatched brilliance.The highly popular Pressure Drop is a testament to Toots’ exceptionalism.
Toots’ catalogue is not as extensive as Tosh or Marley’s, but his pithy and witty lyrics, coupled with his unmistakable sound, made his work just as rich. As Jamaicans, we should continue to expand our appreciation for the genre creators of reggae beyond the usual names.
I was fortunate to see Toots perform live, at my alma mater, Trinity College in Hartford,Connecticut. I gazed in wonder and pride at the 2000-plus-strong college audience eager to see him. Toots had us all in a frenzy, dancing to his beats, calling out his number. We were all singing the words ahead of him while he unleashed his contagious energy over us. 54-46 was our number, too. Unfortunately, I never witnessed a performance from him here in Jamaica. He had just returned from touring when he was booked as part of the Studio 38 Live concert series, produced by Pulse, but he was not able to perform because of illness. The music angels smiled on me that summer in college, and I am glad I was able to see one of our legends, in full form, live in concert.
As you rest among the music gods, Toots, we will continue to sing with unhinged happiness, dance to your beats, and enjoy your lively spirit through your great songs.