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Interview: I Kong in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: I Kong in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: I Kong in Kingston (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"I am a bird. I sing"


One of the most uplifting reggae stories in the last two years concerns the re-emergence of Jamaican veteran I Kong. The nephew of producer Leslie Kong, this gifted singer-songwriter struggled for acceptance in the Chinese community due to his mixed parentage (whilst being discouraged from singing for the same reason).

His 1978 LP The Way It Is has been rightly hailed as an example of roots reggae at its peak. Sadly, he and co-producer Mikey Lee never saw any recompense for the lavishly assembled record. He recorded only occasionally afterwards, eventually relocating from Kingston to St Elizabeth to start a family.

But I Kong didn’t give up on his musical dream. A chance encounter with the Swiss band Najavibes led to 2015’s critically acclaimed mini showcase album A Little Walk, and a European tour. This month sees the release of a full length sequel, Pass It On, including collaborations with Raging Fyah, Ken Boothe and Judy Mowatt.

Angus Taylor sat down with I Kong in February for this two-part overview of his career. An irrepressible character and compulsive raconteur, he needed no encouragement to share the highlights of a long, sometimes difficult but ultimately rewarding life…

I Kong

You only put out one album in the 70s. You’ve put out two records in the last two years. Are you making up for lost time?

Well I man don't see it as lost time. Because if you have life, no time is lost. It is just Jah work. I am a bird. I sing. I don't read, I don't write, I don't play music. I just sing. I don't write songs on paper at least. When I was a youth, maybe 3-4000 songs I wrote. I don't think maybe I recorded two. So all my songs are just like The Way It Is. What you hear on the record is what I hear in my head. It is Father God just - boom! So when I go to the studio I say "Familyman, I want you to play this bass line" I give him that. I go to Robbie Lynn and say "Robert, you know the piano makes a skank - I want that". My mouth is my instrument. So it's not really making up for lost time. It’s just doing what the father wants. Whatever he says to do, I man does.

You were born on April 18th 1947. Your father owned a store.

The same year as Bunny Wailer. Bunny Wailer and myself are the same age. Bunny is 10th April and I am the 18th. Both of us are 69 this year. My father had a shop in Jonestown. Right in front of Pioneer Lawn, the dance hall. That's where I heard all the earlies. Count Machuki was the deejay for Coxsone at that time. Because Coxsone was there on Love Lane. I knew music from when I was a little boy. It was always involved with me in some way or the other.

Which sound systems did you follow the most?

To be truthful, it’s the same thing as with my musical taste. I don't really follow one particular. I don't like the word follow, you know? I am not a follower. I don't know where I'm going to go. I know where I want to go. So I don't follow you and the next thing you fuck me up? I just go where I want to go. I love to lead. But I liked Bells the President, Lord Koos Universe, Tom the Great Sebastian, and of course Coxsone Downbeat, Duke Reid the Trojan. Then you had King Edwards, you had Mudies from Spanish Town and you had people like Billy's Hometown Hi-Fi in the Jungle area which I grew up around. Musically, I loved every sound system because it's the music. That's what I was interested in. It's just the music.

Why do you think your uncle Leslie Kong went into the recording business but not the sound business?

Well, Les told me "I never see a Chinaman dance yet! I don't like dancing because I have two left feet." (Laughs) Look at it. Sound people are people that grow up with this thing. Sound system is not just an overnight phenomenon. Sound ever come in Jamaica. The people who carry it on, the Duke Reids and the great sounds I mentioned before, these people lived it. It was their life. Now, back then, the music to Uncle Les was not his life. So there is a difference between a man who lives it as his life as the one who is using it as a job, a means of bringing in some bread. It is two different things.

Like me. Money was never an issue with me in singing. As I said, I am a bird. I just sing. If I get the money, I get some money. If I don't, I put it down and I say "Maybe my youth will get that." Maybe I'm wrong but that's how I stay. I feel whenever you start to think about the money too much the music, the message gets lost. Especially in the roots rock reggae… Because when a lot of people talk about reggae music they forget the roots rock reggae is the spiritual side of the music. That is where Jah uses his influence most. With Bob, Yabby You, Culture, Burning Spear, myself and countless others before. Joe Higgs, the great Joe Higgs. Lascelles Perkins, the mighty organ.

Whenever you start to think about the money too much, the message gets lost

You didn't live very far from your uncle’s shop.

No. The business place was 135 ABC Orange Street. And I was residing at 145 A. It was just up the road.

So you used to come and visit the shop.

Every day after school! Uncle Les would say "You do your homework?" Boy, I never did my homework! (Laughs) I'd run round the back and see Derrick Morgan, Hedley Bennett, Deadley Hedley, my brethren who just died was there, Gladstone Anderson. The Great Stone. I grew up with those people. You see, I never really got the love which I should've gotten from the Chinese back in those days. I mean, I don't have any ill feeling. I don't hate them or anything like that. I am just saying it as it is. So I grew up with, as they say, the black people them. But I never saw them as "the black people". I saw them as people of colour. Because Jah is a man of colour. Because when you look at the trees you may see green leaves but they are different shades of green. They were like my family.

And you wanted to be a singer from a young age? But, likewise, there were some barriers because you are perceived as being Chinese.

Well, put it this way: the only thing I know how to do well is sing! But gradually the people them, accepted me and it didn't matter that I was half Chinese to them. All they would say is "Man, the Ras boy can sing you know?" Singing was my escape, my everything.

How did you form your first group, the Jamaicans?

Norris Weir, who is my childhood friend, he was going to Kingston College at the time. KC has a very famous schoolboy choir so they had good training there. I was never formally trained. Norris and myself used to sing together, just as two young boys. We loved the American songs. Soul was just coming in, rhythm and blues, so we gravitated towards that type of music. Most Jamaicans did, Bob included.

So we said we were going to form a group. I said "What do I know about forming a group? I only know how to sing". He brought in Martin Williams after the first week. Martin was and is the eldest member of the group. He taught us harmony. He is very good at harmonies. Brilliant. Then Martin brought in Keith Brown who made some records in Canada. The first Jamaican to go to Canada and make something. Keith or Jerry or Sausage, as we called him, that made four.

Then one day Sausage said "I have a youth here, who wants to come and sing with you Ricky". I said "Carry him come because we want to have a voice to for the harmony". I had a high voice to do the harmonies but because I was lead singing I couldn't do the two parts at the same time. I could sing the highs and the lows, everything. So they carried Midsie Curry over for the first rehearsal, that was five of us.

Why did people call you Ricky?

(Laughs) Back in the early days, I was a man who loved the women them! I love the girls bad, bad! I had enough girlfriends! One of them said "You're my Ricky you know?" And then the next man said "No sir, Ricky alone can't work. When I see you come out on the stage, Ricky you come out like a storm!" Then everyone said "That's what will name him, Ricky Storm". That's how I got the name.

Where did your professional singing career start?

I would say Kittymat club on Maxfield Avenue. We would go perform on the weekends, singing in his stage shows. But at the end of the day we never got any money from the owner. "You can take something on the bill you now?" By the time we took something on the bill that would wipe out two or three more weeks of pay! You'd go with a friend and say "You want a beer? You want a rum?" You see a girl and say "Hey, you drink something?" You see how it would go? Money done man! That is why the money wasn't important to me, and to a lot of people, including Bob. We just love to sing. We wanted to sing.

You mentioned American music. Who were your vocal influences out of Jamaica?

Carlton Manning was one of my big influences as a vocalist. If you listen to Love Me Forever it has one of the most perfect diction in vocals by any Jamaican by any standards. I can testify to that. Carlton was always like that. He is a man who has his thing structured. And his brothers Donald and Linford and also Bernard Collins. Bernard and I used to go to school together.

Carlton Manning was one of my big influences as a vocalist

I should also mention Count Prince Miller with the Downbeats and Derrick Harriot and his group the Jiving Juniors. I used to pass by Derrick’s place when they were rehearsing. I hung around with them so much and studied all of the songs until one time when Derrick didn't come to lead the band I used to lead. That is why the falsetto was nothing new to me but I never did it on record before Children Of The Night. I have always sung all the parts. Well, not bass but baritone. Baritone, tenor, alto. Norris was the bass man. Really, really deep.

You went to Coxsone Dodd’s Brentford Road studio with the Jamaicans.

Yes. We met a gentleman by the name of Aston McCochran. He was a Jamaican who migrated to Canada but initially he wanted to be our manager. He was the one who actually suggested the name the Jamaicans. We started rehearsing at his place. He was a very strict man but also a man with ideas. He had a vision. But then he met the Gaylettes. The group that Judy Mowatt used to sing with. That is why Judy and I have a collaboration on this new album because we go so far back. To barefoot pickney! So we just evolved from there.

But you recorded some songs at Brentford Road that were not released.

For the same man Aston McCochran. Because he carried us there and we did 15 or 16 tracks. But I don't know what happened. Him and Mr Dodd went to one side and they had a chat and we were on the other side so we don't know what was going on. And that was it. That was our first experience in a studio.

Then after that you went away to sea. And the Jamaicans went to Duke Reid and did Ba Ba Boom.

I never really saw it is leaving the group. Because even today I am still a Jamaican. A member of the group. It is my group. I really wanted to see the world. And I thought to myself that the best way to see the world was to go on a ship. You know, I can't swim still but when you're young you just do fuck up things! (Laughter) So I went to Nassau with two friends of mine from back in the days. They were the ones who had initially said "Let's go to Nassau we can join a boat, man". Back in those days you could fly out much easier than now.

Did you have any dangerous experiences while on the boat?

I KongYes, there was a time when I dreamt that the ship that we were on sank. And it did. I applied for a switch of ships. They were sister liners the Yarmouth and the Yarmouth Castle. So I left one for the other. My two friends came with me and about three other guys. So we were on the sister ship and then we got the news that the ship caught fire and was sinking. A couple of Jamaicans lost their lives there. I still can't swim!

Why did you come back to land?

I had met Bobby Blue Bland. I sang with him on stage in Florida. Because back in ’68 or ’69 the prejudice thing was very strong in the States especially down south. We were in what is now known as Biscayne Boulevard in Florida. They had a section they called the “coloured town”. They had the train line running and we couldn't go over the train line because the police would break up your ass because we were coloured. No matter the tone of your skin, if you weren’t white you weren’t white.

Now Bobby Bland came and he had a big band back in those days. Bobby has always had a big band. I loved his gravelly voice and the way he performed from the soul. To me reggae music is all about heart. If you don't have the heart, no matter what you talk about, it is not going to hold the people out there because the people will know. Bobby had this.

Reggae music is all about heart

I went to hear him that night and while he was performing some of my friends went and told his manager "My brethren can sing all of those songs that he sings". I suppose the man must've taken it as a joke thing and he went to Bobby because the next thing I know Bobby was calling me up on stage! He said "Which song do you know?" So I did that tune named Call On Me that Delroy Wilson did over. A lot of people didn't even know it was a foreign tune. It was Bobby Bland's first big crossover song. (Sings) "Love and affection... Heart so true... Yours for the asking… And here's all you got to do… You needn't be lonely…"

(Imitates horns) Then in come the horns! That's why I love the horns from then till now. That was my introduction to big-band sound. Horns! That's why when I did The Way It Is album everybody said I wasted Mikey Lee's money.

Because you hired ten horn players.

Right! But it was the layers of sound. It was just something I heard from that time and it's stuck with me. I thought "Wow, this is great". I was like a sponge. I suck in everything.

So did you speak to Bobby Bland? What kind of person was he?

He was very, very warm. He had a great heart. Instantly we had a connection. That bond between us. He was saying "Ricky - why don't you come and live in the States?" I said "No, I can't take the States, man. I am a man who, in my yard, I go where I want. Black or white I move up and down." He was fascinated by Jamaica but he never came during those times. Which to me were the great years of Bobby Bland.

His influence was very strong in Jamaica.

Just like Bob. These were pacesetters.

You can hear it in Al Brown’s cover of Aint No Love In The Heart Of The City.

Oh! Great track! I Wouldn't Treat A Dog The Way You Treated Me. Soul!

Dreamer is one of the greatest albums of all time. But what you're saying is meeting Bobby Bland made you start thinking about the idea of going back to Jamaica.

Yes, I wanted to go back and do what he was doing in our thing. Because back then we were fledglings. Is that what you call it? Birds are just learning to fly? We were like that with the music. We loved it so much that we wanted to do our thing but we weren't against taking a little piece of piece of this or that. But when we were done with it, it was ours! You know how Jamaicans stay already.

So it was when you came back that you started to record for Tommy Cowan and he put out the first cut of The Way It Is?

The first thing I did in the studio was done for Tommy, who was a member of the Jamaicans who myself, Norris, and Martin formed. He was working at Dynamic Sounds at the time. Tommy is a very brilliant salesperson. So he said to me "Boy, Ricky. I am going to put out a label and I want you as the first artist with that tune!" Because he always did love The Way It Is. Tommy was fascinated by that song. So he just came and said "Roger and Monty say they will play!" That was Inner Circle. The Lewis Brothers.

In those times Jacob wasn't in the picture. Jacob hadn't sung with them yet. Jacob sang with a group named the Schoolboys with Delroy Melody. The other day Delroy did an interview for Reggae Britannia in my house and he said that. I laughed. He said "What do you laugh for?" And I said "Because I never remember that". But it was true. Jacob was a little youth and he'd say "Ricky I a go come rehearse with the band" and I'd say "Come, jump the fence!"

So Tommy put out the Way It Is in 1972 on his Top Cat label, under the name Ricky Storm.

You're right. I did four or five songs as Ricky Storm.

You recorded for your uncle’s colleague Warwick Lyn during the Ricky Storm years and produced some yourself.

I did Dunny Dun the following year, ’73. Also Cuban Cutlas was done in ’73 for Warwick Lyn. Then in ’74 I did Follower. And then in ’76 I did Zion’s Pathway. That was part recorded at Lee Perry's Black Ark. Because Scratch and myself had a relationship going back to the Coxsone days when Scratch used to sell records for Coxsone.

The Chinese side of the family never envisioned me as a singer

Had your uncle Leslie passed away while you were at sea or after you came back?

After I came back. But you see, Leslie and my side of the family, the Chinese side of the family never envisioned me as a singer. Because even when Hedley and Tommy and all those men said "Leslie! Your nephew can sing you know?" It was "Why? Why should a Chinaman sing? You have to be a doctor or something!" I never pay them any mind. That's how it goes. My father, it never mattered to him really because he never talked much English but he would always laugh and he loved to hear me sing because I could see it in his eyes. The eyes are the windows to your soul incidentally. That's why any time a man chats to you, try looking in his eye. If he doesn't look or starts getting all fidgety you should leave him or her.

It's election time in Jamaica and you told me in our last interview that you knew people on both sides of the political divide.

Of course. They are Jamaicans and I am a Jamaican. I grew up in the socialist side. Arnett and all those places there. But I've always had friends in TG as we called Tivoli. I had friends all about. Spanish Town, up Wareika, Poker Flats. Anywhere they had badness I would go because the badness thing fascinated me. American cowboy business. When you’re a youth you go because you're not afraid if the thing fascinates you. Plus badman love music! They used to love me singing so I had a ready-made audience. I didn't mind how bad they were. If I sang, I sang.

The badness thing fascinated me

Have you read Marlon James’ a Brief History Of Seven Killings? You actually knew some of the people who he based the characters on, like Feathermop.

I have read the reviews but I have not read the book. Yeah man. Shorty. I grew up with those people. Those people loved me. They looked upon me and said "Yo, Ricky, you are we singer you know? We don't want you to do anything bad here. We do that.” I never called anyone to do anything for me. I saw myself as a bad man too. If I wanted to do anything I do it myself. Anything I did me and Jah must talk about later.

So I never feared. I was just so in love with people my brethren. And they love me. Who would I fear for? I could go everywhere. My auntie used to be so strict sometimes. She'd say "You're not going to eat until you take up the knife and fork". I never liked the knife and fork. The devil’s tool and his friend! That's why up until now a spoon I eat with. So I would just jump over the fence and say "I am having my food over there". They’d say "Yes Ricky!" So my belly was full. I wasn't afraid of anything.

At around this time you also used to do background vocals for Vivian Jackson?

At the time I was living in the same area. Yabby was living at the corner right by Molynes Road where Kenty’s block factory was. Fil Callender and Robbie Lynn, the whole of us are from there. So Yabby used to see me with his friend who used to sing in the group with him, Dada Smith, who sang Warn The Nation. Three weeks after they did it the police killed Dada. Dada was my brethren. Dada introduced me to Yabby.

Yabby liked my vibes and soon me and him started bringing Wayne Wade. Because Wayne was a little boy in those times there. Wayne had a relative who was in the police. I think it was his father or his uncle. Because I came down there one day and when I looked the whole yard was full of police when me and Yabby licked the chalice! We talked our way out of it and they respected us and that's how come we and Wayne Wade linked up.

You also did horn arranging for Yabby as well?

Yeah for Yabby. As I said, what Bobby Bland started in me. These were just opportunities for me because I didn't make any money off of them. And, the truth be known, if I was to have paid them to teach I what I learned I couldn't pay them. It is just like Scratch. I never made any money with Scratch. Bunny Rugs never made any money with Scratch. But what we learned from Scratch you couldn't pay the man! We were students and he was a teacher.

Bunny Rugs ended up living with me for seven years. He is my brother

I was just getting to that. Tell me about how you met up with Bunny Rugs. It was his birthday recently.

Bunny used to live on Little North Street in Kingston. And I man was round Orange Street. So Bunny and I met one Sunday. He sang on one side of the road and I sang on one side of the road. "I hear you and you don't sound too bad boy. I like how you sound." And we just started from there. That was it. Bunny migrated to the States and then came back in 1973. I met him again at a show where Burning Spear was meant to appear and Bob Marley filled in for him. I was with Bob and Familyman that day.

I saw Bunny and I said "Rugs! What happened to rahtid?" "Mi jus come een Ricky. Bwoy, I haffi go find somewhere fi sleep tonight." I said "Yuh madman? Yuh coming ‘ome with mi. Mi haffi tell Beatrice yuh de yah" because my mother loved Bunny. Bunny ended up living with me for seven years. He is my brother. Exactly the same thing with Max Romeo. My brethren. I love them and they love me.

Read part 2 of our interview with I Kong here

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