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Interview: Winston McAnuff in Gambia

Interview: Winston McAnuff in Gambia

Interview: Winston McAnuff in Gambia

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - 4 comments

"Every adversity carries with it a seed of equivalent benefit"


Winston McAnuff is many things to many people. He is the once underrated Jamaican reggae veteran who became a mainstream star in France. He is the master songsmith who has shown that his work can thrive in all forms of music while staying true to its roots. He is the Electric Dread – the cosmopolitan international Rasta who dresses like a rockstar and is at home in the Jamaican countryside or the streets of Paris. He is a winemaker and a patriarch of an immensely talented family that includes his songwriter brother John, his professional footballer nephew Jobi, and his sons: Kush, of Uprising Roots Band, and the late Matthew, a gifted singer cut down as he came to bloom.

In 2013 Winston is gearing up for the September release of "A New Day", the follow-up to his biggest selling album, 2006’s hip-hop, balle musette and reggae fusion "Paris Rockin". The original confounded French xenophile reggae purists, yet some wider-ranging listeners consider it to be one of the great adult pop albums of the 21st century. The sequel reunites Winston with accordionist Fixi from the group Java, but this time includes Maloya rhythms from Réunion Island and drums by Afrobeat legend Tony Allen.

Angus Taylor caught up with the multifaceted maverick musical magpie in Gambia at the second edition of the Mad Professor’s Back To Africa Festival. To the natural percussion of African birds and insects Winston spoke at length about the highs and lows of the last few years and played an exclusive acoustic performance of the track Magic Number that you can listen to above. 

Winston McAnuff

You are finishing up part two of the Paris Rockin’ album. How’s it taking shape?

We actually got signed to do three albums but I don’t like doing the same thing every time. I said I’d just sign for one, but we’re going to do three. It’s started, we’re doing them one at a time. I’m working with Fixi from Java. He’s a keyboard man for Tony Allen too. Tony’s going to play on the Afrobeat songs as well. Mathieu Chedid’s going to do some guitars because he did it on the first one, Paris Rockin’. They’re my friends, so we’re trying to do a serious, big project. This time we are touching some different genres like the Maloya music. This was a supressed music for years on Réunion Island. It’s different timing from the reggae: 6/8, whereas we work with 4/4. A lot of genres work with 4/4, Afrobeat and so forth as well. I’m doing some Afrobeat, but 6/8 is a really interesting timing to work with. Maloya is a beautiful music. When I entered it, the spirit inside this music is mad.

You showcased one song on stage here at the Back To Africa festival. Were you pleased with the reaction?

I wanted to do three songs but there was some pressure. The boss from the area wanted to do a speech, so I just did the one. It’s a test I’m running to see the reaction, because it’s the first time I’m doing this type of music, 6/8 Maloya. So I tested yesterday to see, and it was mad! Did you see the reaction yesterday from the guys, just the one song and it’s like it’s madness!

I also saw you testing the songs around the local area as well. Singing and playing the songs to the guys at the taxi rank.

Yes! Just to see the feel, and the guys they got crazy. They got crazy. I didn’t bring the music so Fixi sent it by internet. There’s one song where because it doesn’t have a drum roll at the front, I wanted to feel out the timing, so we were playing it outside in the car to really get the thing so that when I go on stage I would have it properly. And mad, mad. They love it.

You’re out here in Gambia for Mad Professor’s festival with your old friend Earl 16 (for whom you wrote his twice recorded hit Malcolm X back in 1976). So how did you meet Mad Professor?

I met Mad Professor from years ago, maybe from early 2000s, along with Earl 16. Earl 16 is closer. I used to be there going to Scotland with him, driving to do sound systems. Then suddenly some guys called from France, and I went there and I never came back. It’s destiny. We’re in Africa now, mystically.

How does it feel to be back in Gambia again?

Anywhere in Africa I think right now is good. We learn things and they learn things from us. You have to understand that most of us Jamaicans we were just like these guys here. We reached a certain age and there was nothing; no jobs, your parents don’t want to see you because you’re supposed to be working, so you’re caught in this situation. What we had to do is look to ourselves for the solution, through the music, to liberate ourselves. It’s the same way while dealing with these youths - you can inspire them to know that the solution is. Everything comes from a thought, that’s what people need to know. When you realise that you realise “I don’t really have to go asking somebody for something because if I go asking somebody for some little thing, that’s where I’m putting myself”.

We had to look to ourselves for the solution, through the music, to liberate ourselves

Self-reliance and self-belief.

Two guys go to university for example, they have the same degree; one guy says he wants to work with Bill Gates, the other guy says he wants to start a telephone internet thing like Bill Gates. After a couple of years both of them get what they want. So it goes to show that it’s what you want, you’ll get it. But if you don’t know that, then you’ll settle for some little thing. Who would imagine that Usain Bolt from some rural part in Jamaica would be the fastest man in the world? That’s an inspiration for everybody. You don’t have to be a runner but maybe you are the champion in something you are not searching yourself to find. That’s what all people need to do because we come from the same situation, no matter how you start things.

You’ve had some ups and downs in your life and career – and mainstream success came comparatively late in life.

I used to sleep in Halfway Tree Park because we had nowhere to live in Kingston, but I knew that there was nothing happening in the country. So we had to be in Kingston, even if we were just hanging out for a couple of days and then going back to the country, because that’s where the studios are. It’s the same thing with these youths here. They need to know. You can see when you speak your story to them, they get inspired. They realise it’s not so bad after all. For these guys, if Winston can come from that and reach this, it’s possible for me too. They have us as well that they can call on and rely on. My friend here, he just bought some footballs for the youths because I told him; my nephew’s the captain of Reading, so I know what is the power of a ball. He’s been signed for millions of pounds right now, just from a ball. It’s really a good thing. There’s many ways we can do a good thing for the youth.

I used to sleep in Halfway Tree Park because we had nowhere to live, but I knew that there was nothing happening in the country... so we had to be in Kingston

As somebody who spends a lot of time in France and Africa, have you been following the situation in Mali? The threats to the lucrative music industry in the North have caused a lot of international interest that perhaps wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Salif Keita went on BBC and he was talking out against the guys. When I saw that on BBC I said to myself “Ah-ah”. But we’re not afraid to speak out against the negative because the people who see the negative and say nothing, they are in accordance with the negative. You have to speak out and sometimes your life is in danger, but someone has to do it. All I know is that it was the black man’s seat of learning. Anybody goes there to fool around after it has already been broken down, the libraries are burnt and things, bad blessing. No matter who goes there to try and do some negative things, it’s not going to work because there’s spiritual ancestors watching the thing. They’re going to die around there, I’m telling you.

A big part of your story in France involves the label Makasound. Tell me the story of how you linked up with them?

I was staying with Earl 16 in London because I wanted to see what could happen for me musically. My brother John was there but I don’t stay with my brother when I come to London. So I’m at Earl 16’s sleeping on the carpet, because he loves to sleep on the carpet. He always tells me “Winston, go sleep on the bed” but when I sleep on the bed my back hurts me. So when he goes to do some shows sometimes, I babysit for him and I go to sleep where he sleeps all the time, on the carpet. Then the next morning I realise, “That’s why he’s always sleeping here” because when you sleep on the carpet you feel like the carpet; when you wake up you’re firm, you feel like what you’re sleeping on. So if you’re sleeping on some soft mattress in the morning you feel soft, if you sleep on something firm, you feel firm. So one day I was babysitting and the phone rang. They said “Hello, is 16 there?” and I said “No, 16 has gone to Germany to do some show. I’m just sitting here with his kids for him”. They said “Who is this?” and I said “I’m Winston McAnuff”. He said “I’m Patate! I’m keeping a show in France with Alton Ellis, Earl 16 and Rod Taylor. Would you like to come as well?” I said “Yeah”. So I went for the show. The next morning I heard a knocking on my door and this was Makasound; Romain and Nicolas. That’s where the thing started with these guys.

Mali was the black man's seat of learning. Anybody goes there to fool around... there's spiritual ancestors watching the thing

What happened next?

They came to Jamaica and they didn’t have enough money to finish their stay out there, so I took them to my place and got them to hear this album that I’d had for 20 years. I asked them if they could get some distribution and they said “No, we’re journalists, we don’t do music business”. I said “No man, just try. Don’t be saying ‘No, no, no’. Try and see what can happen”. So they took it and they kept trying and they said “No, nothing came through. We tried”. I said “But you’re saying ‘No’ too fast. How can you be trying for just a month and then you say ‘No’?” I said “No man, that’s how life goes. Keep on trying!” After a couple of weeks they called to say “OK, we found a solution! We want to start a label”. I said “Yeah, I just want the record to go out. Whatever you want to do, I’ll come and work with the team to build it”. So that’s how we started.

The Makasound label has crashed but they bounced back and tried again with Chapter Two.

Yes, but you can take away using guns and bayonet to capture some people but you can’t capture what they have in their brains or their connections. You can take material but you can’t take the links. So we resurfaced now in Wagram, Chapter Two. In fact they’re ten times more powerful than before, I should think, in terms of promotion, money for promotion, everything. It’s a Wagram company, but they manage the company, so they have much more power.

You once described the first Paris Rockin’ album as a fusion. Some people who really like reggae, especially in Europe, sometimes find it hard to enjoy fusions of other styles with reggae, but if you really check it, isn’t reggae a fusion?

Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. What I try to do, if you listen even to Paris Rockin’, the lyrical content is still like I’m doing some reggae songs. So the message, I think, is what’s most important. There are many people just dancing, and they’re just dancing; they’re learning nothing. I believe in if you’re using your time you should be gaining something from your time. It’s the most expensive product you’ve got. Vanessa Paradis, she said “Winston, we listened to this album and loved it! With Mathieu Chedid!” And for Mathieu Chedid to hear himself playing this type of music, it’s the greatest thing to him, you know? Awesome.

If you listen even to Paris Rockin', the lyrical content is still like I'm doing some reggae songs

Your father played the accordion so this is more than just a gimmick for you.

When I was about ten years old I saw my father come to the house with an accordion. I was really surprised because by the next week he was playing it in the church. I said to myself “How come my father could buy this thing and be playing it in one week?” I’m saying in my head “This man knows nothing about what he’s doing. He’s just trying something”. He died and then my brother, Jobi’s father, who’s living in London, I had to come to him to get the real history. Because my father died when I was 14, so I didn’t have a chance to ask him those sorts of questions. I came to London and I said “Brother John, I saw my father bought an accordion and one week after he started playing it…” and my brother John said to me “No, your father was playing accordion before I was born! Many years!” but at that time he couldn’t afford one, before us. So after he got to buy one, he just went to buy it. They needed that because there wasn’t an organ in the church, so that represented the organ, and big vibration.

Winston McAnuff

Tell me a bit about you how you and your brother John developed into writing partners.

I wanted to know my brother. So after 20 years I went to London to see him and talk to him about many things, about the family and all. I found he used to play with Freddie Notes and those guys; they had a band that used to play at the Bourbon Ballroom with another musician called Bogis, saxophone man, a great saxophone player, and George, another saxophone man who was a great friend of Coxsone and many guys in Jamaica. So he had some songs. We collaborated on Nostradamus and many songs. Even a song I have now Think And Things Happen. (sings) “Think and think and think and think and think and think and think and things happen” and I couldn’t finish this song for 20 odd years. But some songs it’s not a matter of you thinking of some lyrics to write, you have to wait until you hear the perfect lyrics to go next. I couldn’t move, so I brought this song to brother John and he wrote the song. He involved all the great thinkers: Edison, Einstein, Bell, Newton, Solomon, and just made a song about all the great thinkers. It’s on the new album as well.

John’s has been working on his own album with Kieran Murray, the husband of the singer Brina. What do you think people can expect from it?

We recorded some songs in Jamaica too as well for it. You know there’s a Jamaican alphabet? They made a Jamaican alphabet from the patois. John is the man who went to university to study it. So he has a song from that and he has some other songs that he recorded as well, some great songs he’s written. So I help him to push it. I’m telling you, the other day I was in Jamaica and I was listening. I said to him “John, you know? You sound like Max Romeo!” I told him “Listen to Max Romeo, John. Go on the internet and listen to Max Romeo”. The type of language he’s using, the type of patois from that era, it’s the same Max Romeo sound.

You don't need much positive vibes to cancel a lot of negative. That's why you only need a teaspoon of sugar for a cup of tea

Your son Rashaun 'Blackush' McAnuff is part of the new wave of roots reggae in Jamaica as drummer in the Uprising Roots band. This whole thing with bands in Jamaica, a lot of people in Europe got very excited about it. Do you think this is more of a roots and culture time now or is that hype?

He’s a singer too. It has always been, you know? I tell you, you don’t need much positive vibes to cancel a lot of negative. That’s why you only need a teaspoon of sugar for a cup of tea. Or just one sun is giving light to all this portion of the world. So darkness isn’t really powerful. In other words, darkness is really dim light. It’s an illusion. If you check what Bob Marley as one man could do, the world couldn’t take ten Bob Marley at once. It couldn’t manage ten Bob Marley at once or ten suns. So don’t watch the big amount of negative. It’s a good move for some youths to be playing the roots because there’s nowhere to go. It’s just like some guys trying to go to the sky; after a while they find themselves coming back to the earth.

Why do you think your family has been blessed with so much talent?

I think it’s coming from our forefathers. My mother and my father were pastors from the church. Natural mystic people. I think from their work we as the offspring, received this blessing. It’s said that the sins of the father travel to the third and the fourth generation, so the sins that your father’s father’s father did; you still have to come to pay for that shit. So it’s the same thing with blessings, if it’s good. All the people who know my father, wherever I go they’re always like “He’s not a normal person”. We lived with them but we didn’t know. Supernatural people.

Your son Matthew was in Jamaica murdered last year so it has been a hard time recently with your family. However there has been a mass outpouring from your fans on social media. How are you coping?

Listen, at some times at some point, you know, I love Matthew but I know the Creator loves him more. So there’s this point where you’re very unhappy about what’s happening but at the same time you have to realise that every adversity carries with it a seed of equivalent benefit. So I am living with that, you know? With that thought, that’s it’s for the better. Sometimes I can’t see immediately, but I know, I know. I have seen many signs, like on my woman’s birthday he came to her. He appeared to her, and I was there in the vision as well. She said he was in a little room but the room was dark, and he told her “Don’t say to anyone that I’m still alive”. I just had a son, Israel, he’s born on the 19th February and Matthew’s born on the 19th December. Since my woman got pregnant with this youth, Matthew started acting very… he always wanted to be the last one. He always said to me “Daddy, you having any more children?” and he wants to be the last one. So suddenly my woman tells me she’s pregnant, since Matthew died. She said “Oh, I’m pregnant”. So you don’t know. Maybe it’s Matthew coming again. It’s mystic, you know?

I love Matthew but I know the Creator loves him more

The McAnuff family name is also on a wine you are producing in France.

I have a long history with Bordeaux. My friend Christophe Roux, his family started concerts in the winehouse a long time before Reggae Sunska started. He did my DVD with Bazbaz. His wife, Agnès Roux, works with Canal+, she did the editing. He always wanted to do something to help because we have a big, long history. He’s the first man who got me on television in France. Suddenly he came one day and said “Winston, you know, I have an idea. We could make a McAnuff wine”. I said “Yeah, go ahead”. He said “What do you think some people are going to say? Because you’re a Rasta” and I said “No. Jesus turned the water into wine”. If Jesus turned water into wine, it’s just about doing everything in moderation, not to get drunk. A wise fox never gets his tail wet, so he knows where to walk. If you get drunk you lose it. You don’t get drunk. It’s ok to take a little taste of something but we know not to be out of your senses. Control.

I’ve seen you perform in Africa, I’ve seen you in the UK. The next thing is to see you in France.

You’ve never seen me in France? Yo man, the France thing we do is mad! This project that I’m coming with, people going to die! They’re not expecting anything like that. Even Réunion Island, many times I go there and the Rasta guys there, they always say “This fucking Maloya music, fucking shit”. That’s how they speak about the music. So it’s the biggest surprise for these people now, the Rasta community especially, to see a man like me doing Maloya. It’s going to bring back the thing. There’s a group there Lindigo, who play the drums, Fixi’s doing some work with them. We overdubbed them on the Maloya sound (sings) “If you look you will see. If you search you’ll find. Jah is not so very hard to find” and he said “Winston, it’s chicken skin [goose bumps] when I hear this sound”. Serious thing, the Afrobeat and so forth. The guys sent the songs to Réunion to Sakifo [Musik Festival] and they booked me immediately because they hear what I am doing with the music. Right now Fixi’s mad, musically. What we do together is magic, man.

This project that I'm coming with, people going to die!

A taster EP “Winston McAnuff and Fixi” is scheduled for release in late April or May 2013. “A New Day” is scheduled for release in September 2013”

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Read comments (4)

Posted by iyan marsan on 03.10.2013
I love reggae music
I am peaceful because reggae music.
Thank you who created reggae music.

Posted by donatien on 03.11.2013

The song is a featuring with the french Dub band Zenzile on their last album called Electric Soul.

Posted by Angus on 03.11.2013
Well spotted. We will add the track name ASAP.

Posted by donatien on 03.11.2013
No problems Angus and many thx for this nice interview.

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