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The country man speaks

By Professor Barnabas (courtesy of Reggae Vibes)

I meet up with Eric Donaldson in an East London hotel on the afternoon before his first concert at The Hackney Empire. He has just signed in at his hotel and complains of mild jet lag due to a long flight from America. Eric is a trim figure, dressed in a pair of smart suit trousers and fine cotton shirt. He shakes my hand firmly - a strong grip and a sincere, peaceful manner. He leans back into his armchair in this slightly darkened room, the curtains partially drawn closed to keep out the heat of a summer's afternoon. He burns up a spliff, and herb seeds crackle in the silence. Our reasonings and reflections begin.

I asked him why he'd never really released a definitive roots album. In reply, he told me that again and again, producers had bought up the rights to his music, then cynically leased them off, tune by tune, to different companies of varying quality. He lost rights and control over entire bodies of his recorded work and got little financial compensation. He just seemed very weary of it all.

In his career spanning over thirty years, Eric Donaldson has cut tunes for many producers, including Lee Perry, Bunny Lee, Alvin Ranglin and Karl Pitterson. He also cut dub plates for Coxsone and Duke Reid in the 1960's and 70's, songs which still remain unreleased. He is best known for his hugely successful "Cherry Oh Baby", but roots and culture listeners know him better for his deeper, spiritual works recorded at The Black Ark like "Stand Up" and "Freedom Street."

How was it working with The Upsetter at the Black Ark, I ask. Eric focuses before replying.

"The man is a genius, like a kind of wizard. Lee 'Scratch' Perry is a wizard!"

"Most people call Scratch a mystic man, you know?" He leans forward, serious now. "The truth is this -- what Scratch was thinking was above what other people were thinking. What he had in mind was a shade outside what other people knew and even understood. It was outside of other people's capacity to know. He was way, way ahead. He did something that looked so weird to those who didn't understand, but that was just Scratch, you know? People say Scratch is a madman, but how could a madman make such music and create such art? But Scratch is certainly kind of different! The man is a genius, like a kind of wizard. Lee 'Scratch' Perry is a wizard!" Eric laughs fondly at the memory, but speaks with deep respect.

How about Bunny Lee and other producers of the day?

"I worked with Bunny Lee too. Bunny Lee introduced me to a lot of brethren, and I cut version with him. I never recorded with Tubby's though. I knew Tubby's and hung out at his place. I knew the man musically, and he was a cool, easy going man, but I was so surprised when he got killed. No one knew who did it. Keith Hudson was my brethren too, and we introduced each other to a lot of good artists on the scene at those times." He pauses for a moment, remembering: "Now we are talking a long time ago! (Laughs) Glen Brown was a friend of mine too, and Derek Harriot. I approached Derek with 'Cherry Oh Baby'... Derek said, 'no, I can't see what this song is saying, Eric!' and he chose Glen Brown's tune 'Love I' to release instead of my tune. Of course, 'Cherry Oh Baby' turned out to be a big hit for me later on. Horace Andy is my good friend too -- we've been friends for many years. I live in St. Catharine's and he lives in town, but we like to meet up."

I remember a tune of Eric's on a Ranglin/GG Beat compilation on Trojan, "Lonely Nights". It's a powerful tune with a rock steady groove and a sweet, melancholy vocal which Eric Donaldson does so well. I ask him for a comment on it.

"Yes man, I also cut a GG Ranglin tune, 'Lonely Nights' which he still owes me money for." Eric is annoyed at this, revealing that he only recently found out about the tune's release on the Trojan compilation. Drawing on his spliff deeply, Eric remembers "Ranglin held on to that tune for so long, and now I see it just released on Trojan in 1995. A lot of these guys owe me money -- even Lee Perry owes me for some 12" tunes I cut with him. But to be fair, Scratch was going through troubles himself in those days: Chris Blackwell was ripping off a lot of people in those times. But then Scratch himself went off on another track altogether too. The truth is, I got no money, long time, for a lot of tunes I did."

I ask about the lyrical inspiration behind Eric Donaldson's classic roots tunes "Freedom Street" and "Stand Up", both recorded with Lee Perry and most recently released on the Pressure Sounds compilation Divine Madness. Eric reflects. He is silent and briefly reserved before replying.

"Freedom Street came from deep within."

"'Freedom Street' came from deep within. Everything comes back to reading history for me, then I come with inspiration to my lyrical composition. I found out what had been going on. I was learning and reflecting, meditating on these concepts -- learning about what the slaves had to go through. I look back at what has been going on over the years, look back over all those countless years." Eric pauses again, remembering the lyrics, and then sings a line: "Every time I remember the old slavery day, my little heart cried out It seems to me that I was there, right from the beginning," he says, "and the melody, the emphasis, carries that tune, so people remember."

The room is silent for a few short moments. It feels like we are transported far away from the noise and chaos of inner London. Looking at this quiet, reflective man, I wonder about his youth and childhood, and what drew him to music. Eric laughs. "Man, you taking me back a long way."

So what guided you to music, I ask.

"As a youth, I thought, 'what am I going to do, what do I have to do to make some money to survive?' That was on my mind. I have a lot of different trades, you know. I can cook, I am an electrician, and I am a mechanic. But I kept thinking and thinking: all these trades I have, but I really wanted to do something more meaningful, something which implied a personal progression."

I ask if Eric was a serious music fan as a young man "Yes! I listened to a lot of music. I even kept a scrapbook of all the stars of the time. One tune really stood out for me: a tune called 'One Hundred Pounds of Clay' by Gene McDaniels. You know that song?" Eric breaks off from conversation for a moment, singing a few lines from the song, smiling at the memory. "Well, I learnt that song, and it occurred to me that I could make music myself. Music that was as powerful and meaningful. I just knew I could do it. I listened more and more, and knew I was capable. I formed a group called The West Indians, cutting a 45 called 'Right On Time' and another tune called 'Bring It On Home To Me'. Then I worked for man like Duke Reid, who was a true character! (Laughs) Some might even say he was weird."

Eric smiles as he remembers more about Reid. "I remember I did some tunes for the man, so I went down to Duke Reid's studio to get paid. He owed me something like $300. You know what? Duke Reid did indeed pay me that day -- but he paid me every cent, every penny for my work, in coins! Not notes, but bags and bags and bags of little coins. So yes, he was a strange man, sure! I cut some specials for his sound system. I also cut specials for Coxsone too, which he just used to play out on his sound system. He didn't release them, but keep them for specials for his sound. I did tunes like 'Watch What You are Doing To Me'. At that time Coxsone was working closely with Scratch as his engineer."

Do you listen to reggae music these days, I ask.

"We have to look at reality. We have to work with the world the way it is."

"Now I listen to all types of music. All kinds. Not only reggae music. Junglist I hear, and I have certain sympathy with -- it's all just music, and the youth know what they are doing. I don't particularly like slackness or lyrics which lack a certain consciousness. But really, music and life isn't so simple -- to divide music up into 'conscious' and 'unconscious' music or 'bad' music... We have to look at reality. We have to work with the world the way it is. This world is made up of good and bad elements, light and dark, the positive and the negative. Yet, we have to accept we will never get rid of badness from this world totally. So what are we going to do? How to respond and live our life? Well, in a sense we have to live amongst the badness for we can't totally kill out the bad, whatever we may do. But what we can do, however, is we can be aware -- aware of what company we keep, who we work with, what music we deal with, how we operate ourselves, on a daily level. Even the good book tells you this -- good and bad were created by the Almighty, so we have to work our way around them, weave our own way around the badness. This is what we have to do."

Does Eric have any other memories of classical roots singers and players I ask. Eric looks absorbed in his memories, and answers: "I worked with so many good engineers and singers and players... Joe Higgs was my good, good friend. I knew Joe Higgs for years. We smoked and drank together. We were connected. Prince Far I also -- though the man is gone now, passed away. And you know what? We still, to this day, do not know exactly what happened."

I move the subject on to current musicians Eric Donaldson works with. I knew Eric had chosen to play with Ruff Cutt Crew (ex-Creation Rebel and On U Sound stalwarts Singers And Players); Eric enthuses about Crucial Tony and the others. "Ruff Cutt I have known for some years, and we even played in Africa with Ijahman Levi and Culture too. Ruff Cutt are okay! They know what they are doing, musically".

Eric Donaldson's music inevitably seems to echo and reflect aspects of his personality. He appears introspective, calm, at peace with himself. I wonder if he prefers the speed of city life or the gentler pace of the countryside.

"I prefer to live with nature – near the elements and the freshness."

"I prefer to live with nature -- near the elements and the freshness, the trees. But I have to do my works, do business, so I do have to go to the city. When I am on stage the whole concept is to reach people, convey the message. I do it the best way I can, so that I can reach people, touch their minds. It is all a spiritual concept, and that's always been a part of me. Everyone when they are born has a two-way concept in their mind, existing in their head. There is light and dark, negative and positive. The positive aspect is a spiritual aspect, the negative aspect is Satan's devil work. So I say: focus the mind and deal with the spirit, deal with the positive. Yeah man. Very spiritual, you know?"

He pauses before adding: "Every song I do, every song I sing -- it doesn't matter if it's a love song, poetic song or a protest song -- it is all spiritual to me. It is that meaning that is essential to people. It is the undercurrent to everything I do. So that is how I have grown."

August 2006