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Interview: Stranger Cole

Interview: Stranger Cole

Interview: Stranger Cole

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"I was the one who took Ken Boothe to the studio to do his first recording"


He had his first number one hit in Jamaica as early as 1962. In 1968, he released what many consider the first reggae tune ever, "Bangarang". 45 years later, Stranger Cole is still going strong. Close to the end of his European tour through four countries in 2013, Cole met our author Valentin Zill for a brief interview just half an hour before his show in Munich, Germany.

Stranger Cole

You‘ve been around in the music business since the early 1960s. You've worked with pretty much anyone in the Jamaican music industry, from legendary producers and artists like Clement Dodd, Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, Duke Reid to Ken Boothe and many more. What was the music business like when you started your career back in the days? How would you compare that to nowadays?

Well, really I became active in the field - it all started out when I was in school with my friends. We had this end of the year party, like a breaking up, so my school years I had spent just singing around with my friends. They put my name up for singing that day, unknown to me. So when I was in my class, I hear they say - my name is Wilburn Cole - so they said, Wilburn Cole is gonna sing a song for you today. So I looked around if any more Wilburn Cole was there. It was only me. So I went up and I sung a Jackie Edwards song, called "Tell Me Darling", and I got an encore from my friends. And then they say I should sing another song, and I sung another Jackie Edwards song. And I got two ice creams. That is how it really started (laughs).

I got an encore from my friends. And two ice creams

You've been sticking around until 2013 so far. What does it take for an artist in Jamaica to stay around that long?

Well it take on the love for the business. If you believe in yourself and think that something could happen for you one day and you keep on trying, then it could work. So that is what keep me around for that long time. I have faith and confidence in what I do.

Is there a favorite producer of yours out of those many you worked with?

I would say my favorite could be Duke Reid, because he is the one that I've started out working for. I made my first three number one hit recordings with Duke Reid. So I would say he is the favorite. I worked with like all the people in the early days, you named it and I worked with them. But I would say Duke Reid is my favorite. And in Jamaica they would say "Him buss me out", you know (laughs).

I would say Duke Reid is my favorite producer. Him buss me out

What was it like to record on Bond Street?

Well, it's my old world, you know. It was very great for me to record with Mister Reid. The story about it is that when I sung those song in the school with my friends, they encouraged me that they think that I was good enough to make a record. So they said I should go to Duke Reid or Coxsone and try to sing a song. Well, at this time, my brother was the number one disc jockey for Duke Reid. His name is Leroy Cole, "Cuttings". When I went to Duke Reid, they said "send in Cuttings likkle brother". And I sung a few songs for him, and he picked one of them, called "In and Out the Window", which was done by Eric "Monty" Morris. And it went number one. So he told me that I should sing another two songs for him, and then I go along for the next recording and to "Rough and Tough" and "When You Call My Name" with Patsy [Todd].

You've played an important role in the turning of rocksteady into reggae music at the end of the 1960s.

Well, sometime you don't know what you do until it really happens. I wasn't trying to turn around anything, I was just writing and singing my songs. And it so happened that in this period they say that I do this and I do that. I really never say I do anything, but I accept anything anyone say I do (laughs).

I really never say I do anything, but I accept anything anyone say I do

Legend has it that Stranger Cole is so shy that he mainly sung duets with other artists. And you have actually recorded quite an interesting number of combinations.

Well, it's not a matter of being shy. But I love harmonious songs. I love to hear harmony. That was one of the things that led me to sing with so many people. People like Ken Boothe, Patsy, Gladstone Anderson, and I did some stuff with people like Alton Ellis, Errol Dunkley, The Techniques, and a lot of my friends. Cause in the early days, it was like you don't really go to make record with somebody. But you could be around this studio - like Mista Wicked [a German artist happening to be present during the interview], and I would be doing a song, right, and I would say "Wicked! Come in! Help me do some backing and thing like that". So I end up singing with a lot of people in various different ways.

Any favorite duet partners of yours?

Stranger ColeOh my... There's too much. I hate to call a name that is my favorite. But I could say Ken Boothe. Cause I was the one who take Ken Boothe to the studio to do his first recording, which we did call "Uno Dos Tres". And he turned out to be a very international artist. So I would say Ken Boothe.

At some point in your life, you converted to Rastafari and grew dreadlocks and turned your name into StrangeJah Cole. Do you still consider yourself a Rasta today, without the locks?

I wasn't converted, I was born a Rasta. Rasta is Jamaica, it's a Black Man thing. I used to have a dreadlocks one time, but it's a long story which I don't wanna tell you about it. So I am still a dreadlocks, and if you look in my eyes and my heart, you can see that.

You spent a considerable part of your life in Canada and England.

Mostly in Canada. I was invited to Canada by a relative of mine. My uncle really came to Jamaica, he was living in Canada for a while. So he came there and he ask me if I would love to come to Canada. And I said yes. I had a family, so I think if I go to Canada, that could upgrade the education of my children and all that. So I took the opportunity.

What are your feelings looking at the current state of the Jamaican music industry?

Well, I comment there needs to be a very great thing, you know. Because in the early days, you have the ska, and a lot of people did ska. They used to say that this is some kind of a music and not rebellious and little girls used to wear short mini dresses and all of that. And then it go from ska to rocksteady, and then it go to reggae, which I lighted up. The whole thing with Bob Marley. And now we're in the dancehall. So you know, I think over the years and over time, people do change. But for me, right now it's coming back to where it's beginning. So I'm gonna give thanks. And I think everything's good, cause it's all about Jamaica and Jamaican music.

There's this band movement which has evolved in recent years around the Edna Manley College of Performing Arts with bands like Raging Fyah, Dubtonic Kru, and Pentateuch. Do you take notice of them?

Well, I'm kind of busy, you know (laughs). I don't really have so many time to take note of many bands, you know. But I hear about quite a few of these bands, you know. Yes.

Many foundation artists have said that they feel they get much more recognition in Europe than in Jamaica.

Well, Jamaica is a small country, you know. Jamaica is just consisting of about three million people. We are still comparing with the world with people like Usain Bolt, Bob Marley and all of these things. It's got to be bigger elsewhere in the world.

Jamaica is a small country. It's got to be bigger elsewhere in the world

Currently you're on tour in Europe with a young German band, called The SteadyTones. How did you enjoy the tour so far, and how do you like performing together with them?

Well, I enjoy playing with The SteadyTones. I think they're a very great band. I'll be back in the summer to play some more gigs with them. I'm having a good time with them. My tour is very successful, and I'm looking forward to come back in the summer.

The SteadyTones started to play together after they watched Stascha Bader's movie "Rocksteady", in which you starred in an important role. What was it like for you to be approached by this Swiss director?

Well, I feel very blessed. These people, they know a lot about the Jamaican history and the Jamaican music scene. And they choose me to do whatever they wanted to do. I'm so thankful that I could take that place and do it. Yes.

What was your reaction when you learned that a bunch of youngsters from Germany set out to revive rocksteady and ska?

Well, I feel good to know that the thing that I helped to be a cornerstone of is very big and younger people is stepping up with it. For me, I think that is something wonderful. I really feel good about what is happening.

You are 67 now...

Well, I don't know how much years I have. Because I feel like about 18 years old. But I think age is just a number. And if you see me perform, then you can't tell me how old I am.

If you see me perform, then you can't tell me how old I am

Despite your age, you still look like you could have future plans...

I do. I have a lot of future plans. Just hoping for more life.

So what can we expect from Stranger Cole in the next years?

Good music, good performance, and more life (laughs). Without life, there is nothing, so I think everyone should try to celebrate life. Cause life is all we have. So more life to you!

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