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Interview: Kiddus I in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Kiddus I in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Kiddus I in Kingston (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"We ran the gauntlet of persecution"


It’s a scene you’ve probably watched a hundred times. Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, drummer, salesman and irrepressible star of Ted Bafaloukos’ 1978 film Rockers, interrupts Jack Ruby’s recording session and is asked to leave. In the voicing booth is a light-complexioned Rastaman with a face of almost indecipherable calm. Guitarist Earl Chinna Smith and bassist Robbie Shakespeare strike up the rhythm, and out of the man’s mouth comes a voice as cool as any jazz crooner’s yet as ancient as the sea breaking on the sand.

It’s the moment in Rockers where we first witness performed, rather than incidental, roots rock reggae and the man singing is Frank Dowding, better known as Kiddus I. The track, Graduation in Zion, is the one for which he is remembered, thanks to the movie, and also because most of his others have not made it to the public ear.

Dowding, in terms of the 1970s reggae landscape, was something of a Renaissance figure. A singer, drummer, painter, political organiser, environmental activist and purveyor of fine herbs, for him music was always one of many activities in the mix during an eventful decade. He claims that it was he who was first approached to star in Rockers and record its theme song (the producers ultimately settled on Horsemouth for the former and Inner Circle’s We A Rockers for the latter).

This was not the only situation where projects didn’t go to plan. Across the 1970s and 80s he mislaid master tapes containing multiple albums of material. In fact, he never released a full length disc until the 21st century. In 2007, Japan’s Dub Store reissued a collection of his 70s works and French label Makasound put out a rough edged contemporary acoustic set for Chinna Smith’s Inna De Yard series. There followed a sprawling electric album, 2009’s Green Fa Life on the same, now defunct imprint; and then, the vintage-sounding Topsy Turvy World, featuring long-time friends Aston Familyman Barrett, Chinna and Germany’s Jin Jin band.

At the time of the following two part interview, Iroko Records had just unveiled Take A Trip, a five year old collaboration with France’s Homegrown band. Kiddus was also in the process of assembling a follow-up to Topsy Turvy World, sans Jamaican musicians, but again produced by Martin Pauen (although it is not altogether surprising that 12 months after this conversation it has still not seen release).

The road Kiddus I lives on, in the Kingston suburb of Mona, is as quiet and peaceful in the afternoon heat as he is. His front room contains few possessions: some drums, a picture of Selassie, a device for making oil from moringa, the herb he cultivates for manifold uses. In an adjoining room the TV is on, burbling football and basketball commentary. Kiddus keeps pausing the discussion and running off into kitchen to attend to a cooking pot. He skips through songs from his unreleased new longplayer with titles Oopsy Daisy, Belly A Go Bust and Starting from ABC. The singer Derajah, a colleague since Inna De Yard, who features on a combo on this unnamed project, is here too.

Kiddus I’s career has been documented more thoroughly elsewhere. For this interview he was content to free associate through the milestones of his life and philosophy, his achievements, contradictions, transgressions and meditations. There is talk of missed appointments, stolen vinyl, lost paintings and recordings. Yet it is clear, listening to him, that his speech, his very words and the ways he puts them together are as much works of art as any piece of music he has committed to disc. It is also apparent, that like many Rasta in the period before its acceptance, he has suffered greatly for the freedoms many today take for granted (our meeting takes place a day or two after marijuana decriminalisation). Even when recounting his harshest experiences his sense of serenity remains throughout: until we broach his lack of compensation for Rockers, which elicits an angry and animated closing soliloquy worthy of Horsemouth himself.

Kiddus I

On his mother and his father’s talent for singing.

It wasn’t professional. My dad would sing at parties and receptions. He had a big voice. My father was like any of the top singers at the time that were on the radio. My dad had that type of voice.

My mum now, had this beautiful sweet voice where she couldn’t squeeze a note without it… she just opened her mouth and… I should have recorded her. I’d wanted to and then she got sick in the latter part. But she was a wonderful singer.

They sang everything … blues, jazz… she was more Spanish because she had come out here from Cuba when she was about eight. She was a great dancer of the rhumba, the cha cha, the bossa nova, merengue, various types of Spanish, Cuban, Latin American music. We grew up with all these various genres, so that whenever a style of music became popular, it would become the root of my foundation.

My father loved a guy named Mario Lanza, who came up after Henri Caruso. I grew hearing Mario Lanza and the operatic singers also, but at the same time the great blues and jazz singers coming up, the Louis Satchmos and those singers. The various big bands coming up, the blues, the jazz, the whole genre coming up into funk, the rock ‘n’ roll coming in there in stages, the funk psychedelic. You had Chubby Checker coming up with a big style of dance music at one time, The Twist, but we really grew up with the soul singers. I grew up with the Lloyd Prices, the Sam Cookes, even the Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, that type of wide breadth, Stan Getz, the Girl from Ipanema, those types of things, Herb Alpert, the Blood Sweat and Tears, the Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix.

Most of the music that was Americanised music, we got all of that, but at the same time the Cuban and the Spanish influence, then the British and the European style of hits. So we were in a sense fortunate because on either side of us we had this breadth of music. You had your Bach, your Chopin and your Schubert, your Franz Liszt and Beethoven… these weren’t my favourites totally but I could appreci-love some of the various classical. So I grew up listening to this variety of music and my roots absorbed the variants and then my body became a trunk, and from this living trunk growing up, the branches came from the various roots and epitomised the fruits I give to my music.

Going to Quaker school – and its fostering of introspection

Church at times was quite boring because of the preacher, I’d say. But spiritual enlightenment was accepted in everything because subliminally you’re programmed, so anything where a truth would ring, it would sort of touch a resonance and a vibration you can identify with.

Church at times was quite boring

The Quakers to me was a nice experience because I would go into church and sing a song and when we finished singing the man would maybe read a Bible scripture, and he wouldn’t give too much about it. He’d read and then after a while he’d say “We shall have a moment of silent meditation, during which, whoever would like to give a testimony of some sort may do”. So I was able to go into the silent heavens and be at ease in church!

I wasn’t dogmatically programmed like how when I’d go to some other church and the man was like beating a stick over your head! Because he’d take out a little particular part of the Bible and when he was done drilling you with that you’d feel like saying “Rasclaat, a who me father?” You’d beg because you felt like you were the greatest sinner in the world. But if you got the whole length and breadth of it you’d realise it was contextual instead of this arsehole just taking out the single passage and wanting to beat you because of his house problems coming from his wife and his pickney and society and come to brainwash you. So, the Quakers, I liked a bit of their church spirituality. I could deal with them. I could chat to them on a certain level.

Gravitating to the drums

The drum is the first thing. The drum is the first instrument. Even the ape, if you notice when he beats his chest, the drum he beats! Maybe I was a little lazy. Tried the trumpet, never liked the hardness on my lip. I didn’t like to kiss the girl after!

The drum is the first instrument

In school I used to make my own instruments. I still can bang a piano and I still can bang a guitar but I’ve been saying to myself, with so much time passing I really should take up an instrument. Even now I don’t know what is keeping me? Too many things upon my mind, too many things being involved and being pulled here and there – but that’s no excuse. I just haven’t done it!

Why he didn’t stick with his talent for drawing and painting

I used to be a collector of music and when I was about 15 I had a party and one man thieved all my collection and I stopped collecting music. Art, I painted, made a whole collection of paintings so I wanted to do an exhibition, it was about 1975-76 or thereabouts and then I just came back to my house and I didn’t see one painting! It’s where Mas Camp used to be, 1c Oxford Road.

I remember my mother had met with a serious accident where a stone came through out the car and bust her in her forehead and she nearly passed. I had done this drawing and when she saw it she said that it was like what she’d seen when she was going. She said she saw a line and voice telling her “This is your line” and she’d seen certain spiritual lines going and then the dot and they’d pass. And she saw hers going and then a voice said “It’s not your time yet” and the light which was her that had diminished was sort of reactivated and started again. Something in this painting – which was a drawing of the universe. Anyhow, I lost everything so I stopped painting from then.

Why, despite having lost so many master tapes, he still makes music

I still make music! If music be the food of love play on, let it be. Life is a symphony and in the harmony of expression word and sound is first. So the artistic and written word come after. My paintings could depict and show certain stories, yes, for the artist and for the person who can interpret if it is there, but the music is a means, resonance, vibration and sound which traverses through boundaries and borders. A painting can’t go through a wall invisible, it has to stop at a door. So either you have it or another has it. But the music now can lick through the wall, lick through the door, lick through the steel and traverse anywhere at all.

Music traverses through boundaries and borders

The vinyl that music plays upon… I still have it in my head. But I was so hurt by losing it because I used to buy music every week. It was a serious thing. I just said “Nah” and just locked it. It’s like when my dog died and the anguish and anger I felt when he died – I never wanted to go through that again. I never wanted to put so much love into anything inanimate or animate that in losing it, it would draw out of me – whoosh – so I don’t go there and I have a reserve and keep my care. So I didn’t bother to collect the music now.

Getting expelled from school

I started a gang in school when I was going on 13 called the Rough and the Easy. I never knew it then, but the Rough and the Easy is cosmic and chaos. So if you were a certain way we would be rough and if you were otherwise we would be easy! So we sort of became mediators for the youths in the school against the teachers. The teachers would come and deal with I and I when they wanted to deal with the youth them.

Then they asked me to leave. My mother never believed me! She sent me back the next day! I didn’t want to have to go back to high school because it bored me bored. So they suspended me. Every youth who got suspended went home for two weeks or whatever period. They never made me go home. They kept me upon campus. Any youth who talked to me got punishment. They gave me a wheelbarrow in the day time. After breakfast I’d push this wheelbarrow about three quarter miles and go to a big field and would spend the whole day cleaning up the field. Ox shit, jackass shit, you name it, I had to clean this fucking place.

I remember one Friday the music teachers had this thing with the assistant headmaster. I was dirty and when I came in I just walked straight over to the headmaster’s wife and asked her for a dance! I just put down my wheelbarrow and my broom and things and walked straight over and said “Mrs Perkins, may I have this dance please?” I saw her husband and he had a big thick moustache and he started going “Rey rey rey” but she had to be diplomatic still and said “No Frankie, I’m afraid I won’t have this one”. My name is Frank so they used to call me Frankie or “Kid”. I got the name Kid from in school. I was called Kid from about 11 and through various Kid Wreckitek and Kid Bangarang and all them.

How Rasta came to him in 1962

Kiddus II was learning a trade at Jamtrack as a 15 year old. I had got expelled from some schools and my father said the best thing to do is go and learn a trade. Jamaica Tractor and Equipment Company – learning diesel engineering, fixing caterpillar tractors, you name it. I specialised in fuel injection, power transmission and turbo chargers.

There was a brethren named Gibbons who was a Ras and who would smoke his chalice at lunch times. A couple of lunch times I was there and I noticed whenever he would light his chalice he’d say “Give thanks and praises to The Most High Jah Rastafari – who live and reign in the heart of man, not for folly but for up-full meditation seen? Kill cramp and paralyse Liza Bitch, the Pope of Rome and all Babylon systems!”

Now, that sounded so uplifting “Kill cramp and paralyse” “Not for folly but for up-full meditation” so I started burning herbs there. I mean, I was smoking from long before but now I started to smoke the chalice and started the introduction to this biblio of Rastafari – “Give thanks and praises to The Most High – who lives and reigns in the heart of man who let Him live – not for folly but for up-full meditation.” This is like a prayer in itself. So I accepted it and went on. Jah, one aim, one heart, one destiny. Reconstructions through self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency comes through commerce and industry so that food, clothes and shelter, the sick nourished and the aged protected can become a reality if this is met.

Missing Selassie’s visit in 1966 and the Walter Rodney protests in 1968.

I didn’t see the man at that time. I was otherwise in chaos! The Rodney protests, yeah, again. I had the most terrible flu in the world. My first serious girlfriend was going to England. Can you believe for three weeks I had this serious flu and I couldn’t even make love to this girl before she left! I just wasn’t able to get to the side of Walter but I knew many of the youths that were involved who were associates of mine.

There seems to be a little pattern to my life. I’m always either late and come after or I just move and things happen. It’s a serious thing with my life. As I leave then everything happens! Scooped up and I don’t see anybody until 12 years after when I’m driving and see a man walking and he says he just came out of Fort Augustus! I left the yard where we live and spirit just moved me out. I’m in the back of a car and the spirit says “No bother go” and I don’t go and maybe two of the brethren go inside there and go through a roadblock and the guy spins the car and a soldier shoots and who gets the shot? Where am I supposed to be?

There seems to be a little pattern to my life. As I leave then everything happens!

A whole heap of little things. Five men got dead in my brethren’s yard right there in that Rodney period you know? I was driving there and as I reached Dunrobin and Molynes Road I’m going to turn down Marverly and a man says “Nah, no go dung deh”. Five man dead down at Woody King’s yard. Some little things just happen to me mysteriously where I don’t know why and have to say “Father, how?”

Getting briefly involved with the JLP

I went to work with an excavating company that didn’t have the contract then to excavate and prepare the bauxite land. So ones and ones would go down there and through roughness get rid of the other companies. This was the JLP’s first sojourn into the bauxite industry. Because the PNP through the NW had the bauxite industry sown up, so this was where the JLP was coming in… Anyhow! Confrontation. I had seen confrontation and politics wasn’t in agreement. Seeing how politics had turned this guy down the road against that one up the road, coming into a community and doing certain things, and get a set of guys and start fighting and a whole set of sickness and madness occurred.

Meeting Ras Michael and joining the Sons of Negus

My brethren Jeepman carried me round to Ras Michael’s yard in about ‘71ish and from there we started linking because of his Groundation. We used to ground a little chalice and play the drums and chant together because it was like a Binghi. Nyabinghi House. Ras Michael was the man who started the first Rastafarian radio show, the Lion of Judah show. So when certain things came about and there was the opportunity to go and play down in Negril at a place called Tinson Pen, which was owned by the seventh cousin of the Queen of England, I think it was.

We went down there and started playing. We played shows here and there – we went to the army place and played for two prisons and then a number of other places. Ras Michael and I and I we played together until about ’78 although still today we are Sons of Negus because when he comes back I will go and play with him at times.

The healing of the nations

Then I, in between that now, had this place called 1c Oxford Road which was where Mas Camp came out of. They said it was like a cultural centre for Kingston, where I was considered the main or the prime mover, that’s how they write, for this artisan community. So stationed there I’d be supplying the best herbs, supplying the ital food and at the same time we had the music that we were doing.

We created this place where downtown would fraternise with uptown

So this yard, Michael was there constantly, with Sidney Wolfe, Geoffrey Chung, Robbie Shakespeare, Santa Davis, Haile Maskel for a time. Tommy Cowan came in afterwards, you know Talent Corporation? – and he set up an office nearby. As I said, this became like the centre of activities in Jamaica. This was like Midtown, just above Crossroads – so we created this place where downtown would come and fraternise with uptown. In 1971 herbs were very difficult to get and certain people never knew how to get it and so, through I and I seeing herbs as the healing of the nation, we defended it.

Police persecution

We ran the gauntlet of persecution and whatnot through that period to supply the best herbs. Because good herbs carry you from the foothills to the heights of Everest, good herbs climb straight up to be at one and in tunement, and we also found out that because of its meditative and questioning qualities the system didn’t like that. Because you are only supposed to be a yes man and not supposed to question. Herb gave you the ability in a sense to look back and say “This ain’t so” and question.

Seeing herbs as the healing of the nation, we defended it

I wanted to tell you that the Queen’s cousin, that guy, was going to give us seven and a half acres or so and set up an artisan commune in Negril back in about ’72. Which was a threat because in those times herb was a three year mandatory and Rasta was still this outcast unwelcome aspect too, because of his voice and words which were certainly awakening and quickening ones to also be asking questions and pointing fingers.

So after they recognised this – Lord! – I remember this helicopter came down to Negril and a gunship also and we were trailed by security forces. A whole heap of things. I had MI5 and the Feds and the CIA come to 1c Oxford Road and the pope of Rome sent his people. I was told that I was a threat to this society and they could have me locked up and the keys thrown away and no one would know where I was in this country.

I’ve been beaten up by police too. I got triple blow-cut boxing of my eardrums by a huge policeman - and I’m not going to bother to call the name. I saw every star in creation with the second lick. The first one was a shock but the second one was every blinking star in colour. The last one I felt my eye go pop. The third lick I felt my eyes go so my irie told me if he lifted his hand again push the cartilage of his nose into his brain and kill him or take out his two eyes and drop to the ground. I don’t know what he saw in me but he flew out of the place.

I’ve been to jail in Jamaica about 11 times

I’ve been to jail in Jamaica about 11 times I think. I’ve been in jail for about nine days at the longest at one time – in Glasshouse, downtown and in Spanish Town – transferred from one to the other. But I’d generally come out within two weeks – not much longer! (laughs) 90% of it was herbs. You get a whole heap of history out of me you know!

Read part 2 of our interview with Kiddus I here.

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