Reggae Source – An Interview with Toots
Ahead of his appearance at Sheftival, Sheffield’s new festival of sport, music and culture next month, Exposed caught up with Reggae legend Toots – who’ll be taking to the stage with his Maytals for what promises to be an unforgettable show. Alex Deadmen met the man himself…
The word ‘legendary’ gets bandied about a lot nowadays, to the point where it’s likely been reduced to the adjective of choice for describing a particularly tasty burger you’ve just tucked into. But Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert, a man who’s been making music for 50 years and is widely lauded as coining the term ‘Reggae’ (“well, I’m an inventor, you know?”), is deserving of being described as legendary in the most elevated sense. He has blessed our ears with songs as truly great as ‘Pressure Drop’, later covered by the Clash, and he and the Maytals’ soundtrack for 1972 film ‘The Harder they Come’ was named one of Vanity Fair’s Top 10 best film soundtracks of all time.
Lucky for us then, then, that ‘Toots’ will be fetching his considerable amount of talent to Sheftival this August – a new festival by the lovely folks behind Tramlines to celebrate the Olympics and the oodles of sporting talent that the Steel City has produced. Coincidentally, his festival visit takes place on the 50th anniversary weekend of Jamaican Independence Day, and also signals almost 50 years of Toots and the Maytals…
“Yeah man, it’s really, really amazing. It’s a good day to be playing some reggae to the world,” says Toots, clearly affected by the sentiment of the date and its significance to the country where he first sang in church as a child.
It quickly becomes evident that Toots isn’t a man to waste his words, but coming from such an icon, anything he says weighs heavy in terms of significance. Hence, when he describes his feelings on the influence of Jamaican culture in England as “very good,” you don’t get the impression that he’s testing your patience, but rather accept that his opinion requires no elaboration. Speaking to him, however, and as anyone who has been lucky enough to witness him on stage will attest, he exudes an extraordinary amount of energy for someone who would comfortably qualify for free bus travel should he live in this country. What’s more, having moved from recording on two-tracks live and straight onto vinyl, you’ll often find him putting in the hours recording separate parts to his songs himself and putting them together on the computer; “well, except when I’m tired,” he laughs, “then I get other people to do it.” His energy, he explains, is all a result of his positive attitude to music and life: “for sure it comes from the church, and just from my love of the music,” he enthuses, “reggae is positive, you don’t make reggae with negative words. The message has to be positive.”
His positive attitude is infectious when translated into a bounding stage presence, as the Sheftival crowd will soon discover, and the experience will no doubt be aided by Toots admitting to being “very excited” to be visiting England again. This attitude however, appears to consume Toots’ whole life philosophy, including his approach to the music he makes and listens to: “I like seeing young people making music, as we need young people making good music, but also with the aim of doing good with music.” So it’s more about the message than the style? “Yes. But only if it is positive.” There’s that word again, but it’s no surprise.
However, Toots doesn’t shy away from more specific endorsements of his fellow musicians, acknowledging the late Amy Winehouse as “a great singer. She had a lot of soul, you know? She even covered one of my songs (‘Monkey Man’).” Toots is no stranger to being name-checked himself though, with an eclectic array of musical talents beyond the reggae and ska genres, from Bob Dylan to Shaggy, citing him as an influence on their career. How does he feel about being such an inspiration to others? “It’s good when people say they love my songs or that they like my songs; these are great people, great singers, and if they think that that’s great! Me though, I just want the music to encourage love and happiness.”
It’s comments like this that display another word that deserves to be spoken about Toots alongside all the comments about his positivity: humble. It’s astonishing that someone who has been so successful and is loved by so many remains so down to earth. He retains a fierce loyalty to the country of his birth, where he still lives (“I’m not moving. It’s the place that gave me my music,”) and when he tours poorer parts of Africa, his shows are free: “sometimes I need money, but it’s not my motivation. I love music, that’s all.” Does the reggae legend have any tips on how to stay grounded despite the heights he’s hit? “You just have to be humble to stay humble, and I guess I just am.” Again, economical with his words but the explanation is representative of a man who is so naturally grounded and to the point.
Aside from the music, will Toots be indulging in any of the more physical activities as part of Sheftival’s celebration of sport? “Maybe. I used to play football, cricket, tennis, basketball, so I do like sport.” And with the energy, positivity and just pure fullness of life you sense in the man, you wouldn’t bet against him giving some of the younger stars a run for their money.
Sheftival takes place August 4-5 across Don Valley. Head to www.sheftival.com for more.
Words by Alex Deadman.