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Interview: Flabba Holt in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Flabba Holt in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Flabba Holt in Kingston (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"I never wanted to imitate. I liked having my own style" 

Sampler

This Errol Flabba Holt - the number one bassman. They say I was number three in the Observer” quips Errol Flabba Holt referring to the Jamaica Observer’s report on LargeUp.com’s list of Reggae’s Greatest Bassists. “But no problem! That’s life, that’s life.”

Errol “Flabba Holt” Carter is best known as the bass player in the band the Roots Radics. But at various times he has also been a dancer, a deejay, a singer, a producer and a dispenser of lessons to the next generation of youths coming up.

The Roots Radics were the Jamaican musicians who, from the late 70s until the mid-80s, propelled reggae into dancehall. As the decade turned, they slowed the complex military sounding beats of the island’s previous ruling session outfit, the Revolutionaries, into something simpler, more mechanical and inexorable. These rhythms were the perfect place to get lost in during a dance, the sparse canvas where deejays could paint their lyrics as they stood poised to take over in the new era.

Today Flabba is one of the last surviving members of the group. Guitarist Eric “Bingy Bunny” Lamont died in 1993, keyboardist Wycliffe “Steely” Johnson in 2009, lead guitarist Noel “Sowell” Bailey and regular percussionist Sticky Thompson in 2014, and drummer Style Scott was horrifically murdered later that year. Of the core crew, only Flabba and Sowell’s replacement Dwight Pinkney remain. Since this interview was recorded, their favoured pianist, Gladstone “Gladdy” Anderson has also left this plane.

Pinning down Flabba for a meeting proved to be something of a weeklong chase across Kingston. Eventually United Reggae located him very early on a Saturday morning, which may explain the slightly rambling nature of the discussion on both sides.

Flabba is quite a character. He calls every man “boss” whether they be the subjects of his reminiscences, or the interviewer. He drums his hand hard on the table, with a bassie’s timing, to add sound effects to his anecdotes or give emphasis to his points.

Occasionally, he starts talking about the loss of his colleagues, unprompted, midway through a different question, as if the need to make sense of it all is still the priority in his mind. And he is keen to play up his contributions to the music – understandably, if as he claims, he has not received fair recompense for his most famous works.

In this three-part conversation Flabba tells many stories, some familiar and some less so. Part one concerns his life and career before the Roots Radics formed.

Flabba Holt

Where exactly in West Kingston do you come from - Trench Town or Denham Town?

I wasn’t born in Trench Town, it was Denham Town, but Denham Town is close by Trench Town. It was just a stone’s throw away. I could walk there because I used to go to Boy’s Town School. Boys Town was between Denham Town and Trench Town.

You were born in 1950 and raised by your mother. What happened to your father?

I was raised by my mother. My mother and my bigger sister and my brother. To tell you the truth I didn’t even know my father. As a youth I didn’t question my mother and ask her about that. I just kept it like that as a secret.

I was raised by my mother. I didn’t even know my father

So, growing up in Denham Town, did you know people like Ken Boothe?

Yeah man, me and them man, we grew you know? Ken Boothe was a stone’s throw away and he was my friend. Because in Denham Town you didn’t get a lot of singers. Maybe Ken Boothe and a few people. In Trench Town you had Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson. But in Denham Town you had a lot of dancers. I was one of the best dancers in the early 60s.

How did you start dancing?

You’d walk up and down and listen to sound systems and you’d watch other people and you’d create your own thing. Because me and Johnny Osbourne, he was one of the best dancers, me and him would spar and walk up and down, when we’d see someone dancing and my friend Leggo would say “Jus tek him on Flabba, tek him on and flop him” and he would have to stop and watch me dance!

Did you dance on Opportunity Hour?

Yeah man, at Vere Johns Opportunity Hour. And you want to hear a joke? I’ve got a friend, he did other competitions, he used to swim across the harbour and he was an acrobat. He went there, did his thing and he got a big applause. I went there and danced and got a big, big applause! And guess what? He took my prize. I don’t forget certain things. He thought he won. And it came in the paper that it was me who won the first prize. On the Star front page. With my picture.

I was one of the best dancers of the early 60s

At the time when you were dancing, what kind of sound systems were you following?

At this time in my youth the sounds I was following up were Sir Coxsone’s, and Duke Reid, and then you had a lot of sounds in my area like Sir Admiral Bryan and Sir Percy and a lot of little sounds. But the sound that I really followed up? Duke Reid was a good sound but Sir Coxsone, he was the one that really played. Duke Reid had some good musicians but Coxsone, when I would go to the dance, I would dance to the tune Ball Of Fire. You know the tune Ball Of Fire? When I’d hear it go “Ooooooooooooooooo” that tune would turn me on and every time you’d see me in the dance I’d get mad! And I’d start throwing some legs out there and all man would have to watch me dance!

I know you had some bad dancers but I never really got to challenge them. You had this dancer they called Persian – they said he was bad! And you had one called Bop. They said he was bad for days. But while they were bad in my days I was wicked! If those man there were so bad how come they never went on Opportunity Hour and won? I always would try to find those man in the dancehall but I never did as a youth.

Sometimes when the music would play they used to have a steel horn on the tree. They’d put it in the tree to draw the crowd. Sometimes when I was a youth the wind would whisk it and I would hear the sound and stray away from my yard and go out far to some place I didn’t know. Sometimes the breeze would blow the sound and me and Johnny Osbourne would walk and sometimes we would hear the sound play and then sometimes we wouldn’t hear it. He would say “Yeah man where the sound a play?” and I’d say “Bwoy mi nuh stop yunno until we find the sound”. Sometimes we would find it and sometimes we wouldn’t find it and we’d be lost in some area! (laughs)

What was the furthest you’d walk to go to a dance?

Well boy I don’t really know because we’d just walk! But we’d live in Western Kingston and sometimes we didn’t know where the man would position the horn in the tree. Sometimes we’d hear it going “pam pam pam pam pam pam pam” and we’d walk and sometimes it would carry out [of earshot] and we’d have to turn back because we couldn’t find it! Because the man would play some sweet tunes, on Coxsone Sound, it was King Stitt. When I was a youth I witnessed them crowning that man. Wicked deejay man. They called him the Ugly One. But he was bad bad bad bad bad bad.

Were you inspired to be a deejay for a while like him?

Well… No… I liked the deejay thing but I didn’t too like it.

I was born in the heart of the ghetto. If I really wanted to do badness I could have been in it

But didn’t you try the deejaying while working for the producer Rupie Edwards?

Yeah man yeah man for Rupie Edwards. We’d sing upon tunes like Yamaha Skank and President Mash Up The Resident with Shorty the President. But in my school days I used to lead a group called the Itals. With Basil Spence. I and I was the first Itals. We used to sing songs for Rupie Edwards.

Which Itals tunes did you sing on for Rupie?

Well Kingstonians did a tune called Winey Winey and we did a tune called You Can’t Wine We voiced the song but Rupie Edwards came like he tricked we and gave it to Kingstonians because they’d already done a Winey Winey tune and it was like a follow up for them. So we just said “No problem” and I never really heard that song again because I tried to download it and couldn’t find it.

Was that were you got to know Gregory Isaacs – who you would later produce?

Yeah man, Gregory Isaacs, me and him didn’t really grow up [together] because he lived far down West and I lived in the heart of the ghetto. But, Gregory Isaacs, man. A long, long time me and Gregory Isaacs sparred before he really [bust]. Because when he sang his first tune for Rupie Edwards I was there. I was Rupie Edwards backbone down on Orange Street.

I lived in the heart of the ghetto. Because they talk about Rema and all those places. Rema was a brick yard where they used to make red bricks. Until this man Edward Seaga came and won some elections and they licked it down and called it Rema. I was born in the heart of the ghetto. If I really wanted to do badness I could have been in it. Because round there in Western Kingston there were enough badman there. A whole heap of badman. We grew up with them and I could have done the same thing too but I said “Cho! Mi ago tek music fi it”.

I was Rupie Edwards backbone down on Orange Street

Were you able to move around freely?

Yeah man because I knew the badman and they never really troubled me. Because they knew if they troubled me they would have more problem with that! Because you see in the ghetto where we grew up you didn’t really see a man come booshy in those days. A man could just get up and get wicked and then everybody could have got wicked but we didn’t think that way. Some man thieved. Some man broke into places. Some man turned welder. Some man turned carpenter. But me, I said “Bwoy, mi nah really go in deh yunno” and started to take up music.

How did you become a singer?

Flabba HoltWell I was in that from school days. Because my little group was bad. The Itals. We sang some nice songs. Because sometimes when it’s one, two, three o’clock in the bar when some people have gone to their bed, in those times the music is sweet you know? Then you’d start to sing. And you come to nowadays and singers are nowhere. We struggled in the thing, boss, to build the thing. Because in my days some man would go up to Coxsone and he’d tell him “Come back next week” and he’d come back the next week and he’d tell him “No, go back”. He’d come and he’d walk and he’d walk and his shoes would be lean. And there would be some who would go and go and not record any song boss! And they’d be frustrated at the thing. Because Coxsone was a man who knew music. If your tune would sing then he really wanted your song.

Because I sang two songs for Duke Reid and he never put them out. I’ll give you a joke. Music is funny boss. There was a little man they called Gladstone Anderson who did my audition when I did the songs. I went to audition with Gladdy on a Sunday and on the Monday we recorded the songs. Two songs I recorded and when Duke heard the songs – because he was a man who always had his guns outside with his bullets – the man fired “pow pow” two shots at the ceiling! When he heard my voice and the man sound wicked.

And the funniest thing? Gladstone Anderson, after he did that for me I got a piano man. I found him and he came and played all these songs with me. All those Junjo songs we played like Diseases and all those Barrington Levy songs. I said “Gladstone Anderson, siddung there so” (whacks the table) “and don’t move! You ago play the piano”. He sweet me and so I took him under my wing and said “You ago play the piano and make some money”. And people don’t even remember the man’s name now boss in the business. Me now, two piano men I remember in the business who really guided me in those days – Theophilus Beckford and that man.

Is it true that Theophilus Beckford show you how to play the bass?

No not really but in those days when I started to play the bass the man them found out I could play the bass sweet so he called out the chords (keys) to me. He said “G” I’d go G and “B” and “A” and all those things and he would nod his head or shake his head and play the piano so I would understand him. Because I knew how to play the bass but I didn’t know the chords – I knew the notes. I would start playing a bass line and he would say “G” and then say “A” so Snappin’ helped me in that way.

Two piano men really guided me – Theophilus Beckford and Gladstone Anderson

So how did you start playing the bass?

One time I was going into Trench Town and I was playing the guitar when a man said “Pull up the bass man. Tek the bass” and from that I started to learn. I could play but not really because I knew the guitar chords – the way you’d put your fingers on the chords – but bass is a one finger thing. So Snappin’ is one of those man who I knew for a long time as a pianist started to show me the chords and I learned and said “Whoa”.

Because I never had a book, like a guitar book to know A, B, C, D, E, F, G. I just started to learn by myself. In my days growing up I never really listened to any man. I heard the music play. I never knew about Familyman or Robbie Shakespeare or any of those men like Boris Gardiner. The man that I didn’t really listen to but I liked how he played his thing was Lloyd Brevett from Skatalites. Because those tunes they grew me up. I listened to those songs but I never listened to the bass then. I just liked the song and the bass line of Ball Of Fire but I never really sat down and played them.

So I never really listened to the man and said “We ago start play”. I just heard songs like Heptones songs on Studio 1 and the rhythms sounded wicked and I listened to Treasure Isle tunes and the rhythms sounded wicked so I got to understand that Jackie Jackson played some of those songs. I don’t know if Jackie Jackson was in the resident band at Treasure Isle but he played a lot. But Coxsone, I hear that all kinds of man would come and play bass for Coxsone.

Leroy Sibbles.

Yeah, Leroy Sibbles and all types of man.

Even Dennis Brown picked up the bass at one time.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, because sometimes a man might have a little line and say “This line sound wicked”. But I never really listened to any man playing any song. I just heard songs. I never wanted to sound like a man, like to imitate. I liked having my own style.

If you didn’t come to Idlers Rest, you were no singer

Going back to the singing – is it true that you got the name Holt from sounding like John Holt?

Yeah man. Because at the same when Gladdy took me up and I started to sing the songs down at Treasure Isle John Holt was there with his group. We came as a group so just as they are a group they listened to our group. So he came to me and said “My youth, why you sound like me so?” and I said “I listen to Heptones and Paragons and they are one of my favourite groups”. So he said “You sound so much like me that you see the name Holt? I’m going to give you that name”. I said “No, no, no, no. Mi a my name”. He said “No man. You sound too much like me man. I’m going to help you. I’m going to push you that name man”. I said “Alright then boss” and he said “Anytime you put your name on anything put Errol Flabba Holt and use the name man”.

And you know the funniest thing? When I formed the Radics band in 1978 – and we were known as the Roots Rocks band in the early - and we played a whole heap of hit songs like for David Isaacs Just Like A Sea and all those songs. We played a whole heap of songs with Snappin’ for a few promoters at Randy’s. Because we had a little place down by Chancery Lane and North Parade called Idlers Rest where Jacob Miller and all those youth man. Enough people talk about Jacob Miller. When the youth came to the park and he got the sound “Ra-ah-ah-ah-ah” (vibrato) that’s how I told him to sing.

Yeah?

Yeah man. I and I showed and sat him down on the park fence at Idlers Rest. Because there was a park fence where everyone would sit down on because a whole heap of men would come sing for a promoter. Jacob Miller would come and say “Flabba – you like that style?” “Ra-ah-ah-ah-ah” When Tenement Yard came out I said “My youth, that’s how you haffi sing yunno”. Jacob Miller would come check I and I and Sugar Minott and these youth in Khaki clothes would come and walk up and down and come check I and I downtown. Because it’s downtown and if you didn’t come to Idlers Rest, North Parade, you were no singer. You had to come down so I and I would pass you.

Bob Marley, he passed through because he had a little record shop on Charles Street. But that man was different, because Bob Marley never really hung out with I and I because he had his own little crew. But most man like Leroy Smart, all of the man them, had to come down to Idlers Rest and hang out and jook with I and I. Because Randy’s studios was there so when a man got a little session upstairs and down there [Idlers Rest] was like a work site. It was like when you go on a work site in Jamaica where a man will build a housing scheme and you’ll see a whole heap of man. Some man can mix cement, some man can lay blocks. It became like that down there. So every man was just down there and we’d deal with and struggle with music because one time at a certain time we did have a little record trade where I’d sell records. Randy’s didn’t like that thing and would fight against me.

Let’s talk more about your solo career – one of your first songs was My Heart Is In Danger in 1975?

Yeah man. That is the first song I sang. And it was recorded down by Randy’s. When people hear that song it makes them think of Dennis Brown although I don’t really sound like Dennis (sings) “MY EYES TOLD ME THAT MY HEART IS IN DANGER” I still have voice you know boss!

My Heart Is In Danger is the first song I played bass on

As well as John Holt that record sounds a little like Earl Zero.

Yeah man, yeah man, yeah man. Enough people say “It sounds like John Holt, it sounds like this, it sounds like that” and I say “No man a my style”. Because Earl Zero and all those man them still came down to Idlers Rest. Idlers Rest, boss, it was a work site. Man would come down there and they’d get their wife, the amount of women who were down there! It was a worksite so you’d see Snappin’, Horsemouth, Leroy, Gregory Isaacs down there. In those days we put up a big sign saying “Roots Radics band is the top leading band” and then one day I passed and they painted it out.

Tell me who produced that tune – was it Hartnel “Sky High” Henry?

It’s [credited as] Sky High. It’s ‘cause I know a youth and met him and he said he wanted to be a business partner and we just made him just put those songs there and go. But really that is the first song I played bass on. Because we did two tracks of it with two different bass lines. In those days when you’d go to studio a man would say “Give me a cut. Give me a next cut. Maybe you could play a different bassline” and you could have three or four cuts of one song. But it’s not Sky High’s production, I just gave it to him to put out, it’s my production there. But he tricked me and said it’s him who produced it and I don’t like that. I saw his label saying “produced by Sky High” – Sky High can’t produce my song. I saw him yesterday on Facebook and I hailed him up.

You did two solo albums – 1975’s Rastafari Time for Sky High and 1978’s Vision of Africa for Dread & Dread.

Rastafari Time was an LP where I just started singing some songs like the tune saying (sings) “A YOU LICK ME FIRST… THAT’S WHY IT CAUSED THE FUSS… A YOU LICK ME FIRST” and lots of songs. Vision of Africa came from some guy in London who we called Dread and Dread. He had some rhythms and they said I should just come and sing upon it. So I just went to the studio and started to sing upon the rhythm. That’s how that LP came out. I just heard the rhythms and sat down and wrote some songs.

This year I am going to sing some tunes

Why didn’t you just carry on being an artist?

Well you see, every time I said to myself “I’m going to start singing some songs” the bass would take my talent again. It’s like sometimes I try to concentrate and then [touring with] Israel Vibration draw me away and I can’t concentrate. So then every time I try to sit down again and write some songs to sing. But I tell you this year I am going to sing some tunes. I didn’t really stop. I still have my voice. I may have aged but it’s wicked same way.

Read part two of this exclusive interview here.

PLEASE NOTE: THE VIEWS EXPRESSED HERE ARE THOSE OF FLABBA HOLT AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THOSE OF ANGUS TAYLOR OR UNITED REGGAE.

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