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The Maytals may be just as central to Jamaica’s Independence celebrations as any other group.

The group’s recording of Bam Bam, done 46 years ago, was a landmark one. It was the winning entry in the first festival song competition which has become an integral part of Jamaica’s Independence celebrations over the years. The song literally set the standard by which all other festival songs were judged. According to Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert, lead vocalist of the Maytals, the song portrays the feeling of a man who is fighting for the right and not the wrong, and if you trouble such a man you’ll get a beating.

The actual words of the song tell the story quite clearly.

I fight for the right and not the wrong, and this man don’t trouble no man, but if you should trouble this man it will bring a bam bam.

Although not making any direct reference to the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s Festival Song Competition, the song had all the other necessary ingredients of festival, and was exactly what the organisers were looking for – a song with catchy lyrics and a peppy beat, enabling a first-time listener to latch on to the words and the beat on their first attempt.

It depicts the notion of a man or a nation standing up for himself or itself, and was echoed some seven years later in the Marley/Tosh anthem Get Up, Stand Up.

The song’s uniqueness and impact found further expression via versions that charted in the three decades that followed, manifesting itself through Kojak and Lisa in the 1970s, Yellowman in the 1980s and Pliers in the 1990s. Finding no place under the umbrella of either ska, rocksteady or reggaeBam Bam was a timeless, indefatigable and exquisite piece of music that incorporated unmistakable African flavour with its stop-and-start bongo drumming and slowed-down beat, perhaps the first glimpse of roots reggae in Jamaican music.

The Maytals

The Maytals returned three years later with another winner in Sweet And Dandy, which captured the gloom and uncertainty of a wedding ceremony which eventually ended in festivity:

One pound 10 for the wedding cake, 20 bottle of Kola wine,

all the people dress up inna white,

fi go eat up Johnson wedding cake.

The Maytals

Their 1972 entry, Pomp And Pride, again won them the title for the third time, and transformed them into the ‘hottest’ vocal group on the island at the time.

Their elevation to that level certainly cannot be attributed solely to their exploits and success in Festival Song competitions.

The Maytals, in fact, made an electrifying entry into the recording business in 1962 at Clement ‘Coxson’ Dodd’s Studio One, 13 Brentford Road in Kingston (now renamed Studio One Boulevard).

It was in Trench Town that the teenaged Clarendonian, Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert, the youngest of the trio, met Kingstonians Henry Gordon and Nathaniel McCarthy, both members of church choirs.

Toots himself hailed from a gospel background, having sung regularly with his siblings at Baptist services in his hometown of May Pen.

Showing an early penchant for music, Toots was wise enough to bring along with him from the country his little ukulele guitar, and the trio began writing and rehearsing.

Quite understandably, their earliest songs were deeply rooted in gospel and bore unmistakable influences from Jamaican folk and mento.

Songs such as He Will ProvideVictoryHe’s RealPrayer Is My Daily FoodLove Divine and Sixth And Seventh Books bear testimony to this fact.

Recording first for Dodd in 1962-1963, the trio came with a type of gospel-ska that was different from their contemporaries who concentrated mainly on love songs, revolutionary songs and rude boy songs.

The Jamaican public had never heard anything that touched them quite so deeply.

The group’s debut recording for Studio One, titled Hallelujah, was a blend of gospel-styled vocal, sung to the hard-driven Jamaican beat of the best ska band in the land, The Skatalites.

Perhaps the best known of these early pieces and the one that had the populace rocking was The Sixth And Seventh Books.

After spending about two to three years at Studio One where there were a couple of albums, the trio moved to Coxson’s arch-rival, Prince Buster, celebrating their arrival there with Broadway Jungle Or Dog War, a song which depicts the continuous howling and fighting of dogs at night in a typical Jamaican ghetto.

But allegorically, it refers to the plight of ghetto slum dwellers, clawing their way out of a jungle in search of a better life:

We were caught in the jungle by the hands of a man

We’re out of the jungle, we’re going to broadway,

When we reach out of the jungle we’re going to jump and shout.

The Maytals

Other songs recorded for Buster included Pain In My BellyYou Treating Me Bad and the gospel flavoured Light Of The World,Judgement Day and He’s Real.

By 1965 they began recording for Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label, hopping over at intervals to do for Byron Lee the album The Sensational Maytals, which included creditable cuts Never You ChangeIf You Act This Way, and My New Name.

They created musical history there when both sides of the same record,It’s You and Daddy, made the No.1 slot on both the country’s radio stations.

No other Jamaican record has ever achieved this feat.

The Maytals missed the rocksteady era owing to Toots incarceration on a marijuana possession charge: On their way to a show in Ocho Rios in late 1966, his two companions were ‘locked up’ for pillion riding. Toots claimed, in an interview I had with him, that he left his luggage at the police station and rode back to Kingston to seek Ronnie Nasralla’s assistance in bailing Raleigh and Jerry, and on his return he was advised that ganja was found in his luggage.

To this day, he maintains his innocence, claiming that it was a ‘set up’ to prevent him leaving the island on a contract to music mogul Chris Blackwell.

The episode, in a sense, proved a blessing in disguise, as while in prison Toots wrote the song 5446 Was My Number.

It has always been at the top of most musicologists reggae list, and up to recently, top-50 songs commemorating Jamaica’s 50th anniversary had it in the top five.

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