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Interview: Haile Maskel

Interview: Haile Maskel

Interview: Haile Maskel

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"My whole world died when Bob Marley died"

Talented multi-instrumentalist Haile Maskel, alias Mikey Ras Starr, is one of the key figures from the golden age of roots reggae. He mixed with the greats, yet he stayed in the shadows. And in California he found his own path.

After giving us 'Fire and Rain' in 2008, the French label Makasound repeats the experience by republishing his album 'Orthodox' recorded with The Rastafarians. It’s a neglected album but one which music lovers worldwide should seek. Mikey Ras Starr reminisces without nostalgia as he revisits a career rich with crucial encounters…

Haile Maskel, you are a gifted bassist, and you also play guitar, keyboard and percussions… What are the origins of this passion for music ?

I just love music. My mother. And her church. And my mother made me sing every day in church, from when I was a youth. From my grandmother. Everyone in my family sings. And plays guitar, banjo, drums, whistle, flutes. The whole family is musical, even my dad’s side. My whole family. They all play and can sing but they just don’t see it as a career. I’m the first one who do it. So it wasn’t hard. And plus my grandmother see that I need to sing.

Your parents seem to have had a big influence on the man you've become, and especially about your spirituality. Your father was a rasta. Can you tell us more on the values you inherited from him ?

That’s a lot. That’s all a book in itself. Everything, man, positive, my father tell me. And you know, how to deal with people. You know, teach me about my church, which church to go to, which is the Orthodox church, cuz that’s where we come from; let me know that I can’t have nothing against the white man cuz it’s in my blood too – my grandmother is Irish, so…. Love everybody in the world and respect everyone I meet and learn the discipline. Just have a good character, period. And help suffering people lesser than me all the while. Never beat a woman (laughs)… yeah, learn all kind of values from him, everything… don’t hit a woman, if you gotta hit her, time to leave. If she makes you mad and you feel you have to hit her, time to leave. I learned all my values from my father, my musical value, Rasta, culture, world travel. How to dress… the man tell me everything, totally. He was the universe. My father was a universal man. He was totally the universe for me. He teach me everything, man. Everything. Sports, music. There’s no story the man never tell me about. Him tell me the whole bible story all my life, every day he get up that’s what he told me, you know. And interpret it too, and tell me who represented this person in this time in the bible. That was hard; that was wicked. And he even tell me who Fidel Castro is and to know who Cuba is and who America is, which beast they were, you know. Long time before I even knew about the book they call “The Pale White Horse” and all those books. My dad knew all about those things. You know, all the great books they’re reading about now is what my dad been telling from when I was young. Cuz he’s been there, and he always spoke of those educational elite who tricked the people.

What was your first experience in a recording studio ?

It was the heaviest, man. It was like 50 Rasta man singing on Ras Michael’s song “Run Come Rally Rally Round”. Bob Marley, the Wailers, the Gaylords, Jacob Miller, Inner Circle, Kiddus I. I know they have to remember that session… you know, 50 dreads. And they were all singing “Run Come Rally Rally Round” all in Randy’s Studio and he was like, “how the hell we gonna hold all these people in the studio?!” and Ras Michael said “that’s how it’s gonna have to be; the whole Niyabhingi nation – this is an anthem!” And every man came in. I remember 50. Fifty rastaman. And that’s when everybody discovered “the voice”. When I started singing, the engineer kept saying that there’s one voice too loud, man. They kept saying that there’s one voice too loud and they kept thinking it was Jacob Miller so they moved him back so they thought it was Ras Michael and it wasn’t him and when they realized it was me, the kept putting me back in the back and my voice was still blazing and the engineer said, “it’s still too loud, put him back some more.” And everybody now – Bob, Jacob Miller and everyone started looking back at me and was like, “man, what a voice!” And that’s when Jacob Miller and all of them came up to me and said, “man, you’ve got the best voice”. Every one of them said I got the strongest and the best voice out of all of us. That was an exciting first experience.

You have worked with the most famous artists of Jamaican music. Which experience had the biggest impact on you ?

Israel Vibration. When I recorded “Same Song”. It was a new sound, new style of bass line, and no one ever heard the bass line been played like that. And they wanted to know how I came up with a bass line like that, you know, and they wanted to know how the hell I came up with an idea like that, you know, (hums bass line for Same Song). It’s like an African drum. And that’s when Sting came to look for me and everything, I think, was because of that song. Um, Same Song cuz they said he came to look for the “Conga Bass Player”; the bass player who plays like a conga drum (scats bass line again). And that was the song. And Sting came to look for me and I was up in the mountain getting melancholy, you know, just vibin’, just praying and getting spiritual and learning more music. And that’s when I missed Sting. And when I came back down, Tommy come and say, “You know who was looking for you? The Police!” and I said, “which police, what did I do?” and he said, “no, not the police, police, the band The Police – the guy Sting. He wanted the ‘congo player’ and we never knew where you were; we looked everywhere”. “Oh, I was up in the hill”, so that was a missed opportunity there, you know?

How well did you know Peter Tosh ?

Well enough to run with him for about three years. We used to work out. Drink ‘nuff ganja tea and eat steamed fish every morning for a minute. Yeah. Peter Tosh is one of my spiritual church brethren, you know? I know him well enough to can sing any song like Peter.

And Bob Marley ?

Bob Marley same. Ran with him too. Same with Bob but Bob is truly… he is different from Peter Tosh… and Bunny Wailer. Good experience with Peter and with Bob. They were like my big brothers. Cuz I never had a big brother. I’m the big brother to my brothers. Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer were my big brothers who gave me a lot of guidance in the music and encouraged me. Bob was really, especially Bob, he really encouraged me and told me a lot of things that is to come in my life still. Bob told me things that still haven’t happened yet. Like going to Africa.

Often times Bob used to check me and my father. 22 Alexander Road. And he and I used to walk down to Greenwich Farm down the road down to the fisherman down by the sea. To see a natty dread – the fish man. I forgot the fisherman’s name; my brethren, but we used to go down there all the while. Get some fish, you know. Eat some roast fish.

It was money why the Wailers never get back together and it’s NOT on Bob’s part

When Bob died, cuz he died before my dad and that was like my dad died. It was like my whole world died when Bob Marley died. It just fell apart. I was already in the states but my whole world still fell apart. I could never believe bob could every pass that much. cuz he was never ready. Until this day now I stil feel that way. I talk to bob every day, I think about Bob every day about if he were here now how different my life would be. My life would be totally something different. Totally. Totally different if Bob was alive. You know, he was like… though Ras Michael was my first band and everything… me and Ras Michael never had the connection that me and Bob had. Though Ras Michael and I have a connection, Bob and I just had a different type of connection. Ras Michael was kinda like a father figure relation though he never treated me like he was my father, but he and my father were closer, you know? But Bob was like a big brother and everything he was like a teacher, big brother to me, a prophet, you know? Cuz I looked up to Bob for everything really. Cuz he always told me that when he’s around me he was just relaxed and everything nice and he loved being around me. It was just cool. You know? He get something from me and I get something from him. And we were just cool with each other. And so when Bob sent me to go check Peter and check Bunny to go see what they say if they wanted to join back the group cuz he well wanted that. And that’s how me and Peter became cool cuz Bob sent me over to feel out Peter. Feel him out, ya know? Check him, ask him questions. But don’t tell him it was Bob really asking. And all this time Peter never knew that Bob had me around him, you know? So after Bob told me that, he never had to tell me anything again about the Wailers. Cuz as a little youth, that was on of my dreams – not to let that group mash up; to get them back together. So ooh, I tried everything, man. All the peace concerts, I tried EVERYTHING, and Bob knew and he used to laugh when Peter used to go check him. They were just the best 3 people that should be together. They would’ve done great things for everybody. Those three spirits were special together. You know? Wailers should never have broke up. Those Rastaman should be still living, guiding every nation but then you know… the Trinity, man. It was just a Trinity. Everything was Bless. And they should have come back together. But, not saying who never get it back together but money play a big role on the Wailers not being back together. You can put that shit down. Money. Play a BIG role on them not being back together. All that bullshit is over money. Not on Bob’s part. You can say that for me, I don’t give a shit. It was money why the Wailers never get back together and it’s NOT on Bob’s part. Not on Bob’s part. So them can put it between the lines and know who’s part it was. Bunny Wailer and bloodclot Peter. Them did want the money until this day.

During your musician’s career, you have had a lot of nicknames. Why did you abandon Mikey Ras Starr for Haile Maskel ?

I never really abandoned it – I was told by my Ethiopian priest when the Ethiopian Orthodox priest, (16:10)[ Bob tell him] that I should use my name now, Haile Maskel, now that he gave me the name with power. And you know, from His Majesty. So you know. So that’s why I use it. And then when I become baptized in the Orthodox church, I did have a different outlook on life too. As Michael Ras Starr, I was more as a rebel, like when the Wailers started, you know, soul rebel, like? You know I was more a soul rebel when I choose that name Michael Ras Starr.
The minister of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church told me to use Haile Maskel now. You know? More power. That’s my true power. Power of the crucifix. You must put what Haile Maskel means, you know. Amaric. Power of the crucifix (then he says something in Amaric …).

It seems that your very first nickname was Mikey Dread! Is it true ?

Yeah! That was my first name; everyone knew me as Mikey Dread. My dad never liked it too much and so you know, since he was giving me a hard time, and the day when I ran into Michael Campbell and at that time, Horsemouth was my sidekick. You know Leroy Horsemouth and Horsemouth wanted to literally beat him up at Lee Scratch Perry, at the Black Ark Studio, when Michael Campbell changed his name and came down and come out and told Lee Scratch Perry that he was changing his name to Mikey Dread, Horsemouth said, “eh bwoy yu a thief my bredren name.” and wanna fight him and I had to tell Horsemouth to come out and well I came out of thee studio and Leroy Horsemouth and Michael Campbell were in this heated argument and they were arguing over my name; whose name it is and I just came up and said, “it’s ok, man, him can keep it cuz mi fatha never like mi name Mikey Dread anyway” and I just told Michael Campbell, “ti’s alright, dread, just gwan. Your name Mikey Dread. You got the name Mikey Dread at the control.” You know, cuz I already had Michael Ras Starr, you know? He wanted to be named Mikey Dread and I wanted the name Michael Ras Starr which, to me, meant Head of all de Rasta. I am the head star. Out of all the stars and I am the biggest star. The biggest and baddest. Yeah! And that’s when I set out to prove… to play all the instruments and to prove that I’m really the biggest star; I’m Michael Ras Starr so I started playing all the instruments and can sing any part and anything. Only a few Jamaicans I know who can do that. And one of them is Noel Sewell. He can sing and play any instrument. Just a few men like me in Jamaica who can do that. His name is Noel Sewell.

In 1972, you travelled to Cuba with the Light of Saba, to play for Fidel Castro. Can you tell us in which context this happened ?

It was through the Cultural Center of Jamica. So it was a cultural exchange and when Cuba and Jamica, the (inaudible) started and they wanted to send people to Cuba to represent Jamaica and everyone was scared. Literally afraid to go to Cuba. Everybody was afraid. So we were the only ones who said, “oh, we go.” And we go. Just to represent Jamaica and the Jamaican culture. They wanted to see what our culture was like and what we do and what our music was like so we go and we showed them and told them about it and it was great. And when we left there, we were known as The Magical Light Of Saba. In Cuba, that’s where we got the name – The Magical Light of Saba. We were just The Light of Saba before we went to Cuba and after we go to Cuba, they gave us the name “The Magical Light of Saba”.

In the late 70’s, you left Jamaica for the United States, and more particularly California. Why did you left your island ?

Because I went to Cuba in the first place, and it became a political thing. Just like when they shot Bob for the political thing it was the same thing. Same reason why they shot Bob. That’s why I left; to protect my life. It was due to political reasons why I left Jamaica because I was so strong in the ghetto. See, I had a youth club that I did music and I sponsored by myself and I had like 300 members in my club, just youngsters like me, youth. And they wanted to focus their power on my youth and they came to me and offered me stuff and my dad said, “hell no”. And told me that I’m not going to take anything from them and locked me in the yard for a minute. He told me to stay in a minute. And then it was a political struggle everywhere I went. And they beat up my drummer from Light of Saba – they broke his arms, but he escaped them and when he came to me, he brought two papers with our heads on the list, the hit list. And that’s why I left. They said we came back from Cuba to spread Socialism but you know, we didn’t have to spread it. And you know, that’s why I left Jamaica. Simple as that, you know?

They said we came back from Cuba to spread Socialism but we didn’t have to spread it

With The Rastafarians, you recorded the album entitled "Orthodox" which is definitively in a spiritual mood while at the same time Jamaican music evolves in a different direction. It was not too hard to seduce the public in such a context ?

Well, yes and no. When dancehall was taking over and the younger kids were waiting for the dancehall, and the sound systems got on it, so that’s what made it more difficult for the cultural thing, you know. And the DJ thing took over too. Shabba Ranks was on top of his game. Yeah I don’t really have much to say about that because when you say it’s hard to seduce a public, it’s like, I know! But it’s like the younger generation loves the dancehall and the older generation loves the culture, you know?

Orthodox is an album with rich arrangements, we can hear guitar and keyboard solos (nearly Psychedelic Rock). Would you say that this is the influence of the Californian music at that time ?

No (laughs). It’s just me. From when I was in Jamaica I like rock but when I was in Jamaica they wouldn’t allow me to do rock but Santa and Chinna always said, “’oh you tryin’ to be like dat Jimi Hendrix and dat devil music’ and I was like, ‘man, ain’t no devil music – it’s just sound and energy’” and they used to fight me down and that used to hurt me so much. And that’s why I was glad to play bass. I really wanted to be a guitarist like Jimi Hendrix; that’s what I love. Screaming guitar, you know, energy. I love it. And then I love synthesizer cuz it give me the same energy, just something totally new and intense – I like intense feeling, you know? And the whole, just rrrrip, you know, heights, just heightened emotion I love that too, that what synthesizer and guitar give me. And I always wanna inflict those intention in my music. I always want those guitar and synthesizer strong in my music. Because I love it. Kinda funky to me, you know?

Is the Jamaican Reggae style the same as the Californian ?

I mean, MY reggae that I play in California is um, the Jamaican style... with more melodies, more melody. With the guitar I have more melodies than have most of the Jamaicans. Because you know they usually use six-piece instrument – the bang and the riff and the bubble, you know. I use melodies to accomplish orchestrated melody around reggae. Cuz that’s what I love. I like my reggae with a lotta melody flowing through the song. Instead of just the raw beat and the raw riddim, you know? Sophisticated. It’s sophisticated reggae. You know, so all my reggae is pretty and sophisticated. It’s not “California Reggae”, it’s just Haile Maskel. If I was in the Jamaica the same way it would be – Africa, Japan, you know.

All my reggae is pretty and sophisticated. It’s not “California Reggae”, it’s just Haile Maskel

Although the existence of an audience for Reggae Roots, Jamaica does not produce it anymore or nearly. The public is resigned to content itself with the reissues of albums recorded in its golden age. In your opinion, is it still possible today to produce an authentic Reggae Roots album ?

Yes it’s possible. If you have the authentic – if you wanna go back to 1-track and 2-track recording – why? Why you wanna go back to those dark ages when we are in enlightenment. I say “Hell Noh”. We can record it but you know, why you wanna go back to the dark age when we need to progress? Bob wanted the music to progress and I’m following Bob. Bob doesn’t want us to go back to that dark, damn age. Where you got a 16-piece band playing over 1 mic, playing over 1 track. Come on, please! No! The question we can record authentic reggae, roots music, but it will be a different style of recording. Because knowledge is increase and so should the music be increase. I don’t see why I’m gonna go defeat my purpose by going back. It’s not progressive for me to go back there. I need to go ahead and keep going forward, move forward. So, you know. Yeah Roots is 1-track, 2-track, all those old reggae. You can’t even hear the drummer. You can’t even hear the real kick bass. Listen to most a the Studio-1 style. You never hear the drummer part clean, nothing clean, the bass is coming out of a one box. You can’t manage. Everything is better now. And that’s what we strive for – betterment. Betterment of life and betterment of everything. We respect the old stuff and the way it used to be but we’re not going to stay the way it used to be, not me. I’ve evolved and I’m moving forward.

A lot of Jamaican artists have worked with Makasound label and this seems like a long term collaboration. Winston McAnuff has already released several albums, Kiddus I just released the album “Green For Life”, as well as Linval Thompson… Can we expect the same thing for you ?

Several albums through Makasound? I don’t know. I mean, me and Makasound have nothing right now going on and it seems they’re the only ones doing anything (for me) so, you know, I don’t know. It’s just… it’s an honest and good question but right now, I don’t know, man.

Do you have other projects with Makasound ?

No, not at the moment. Fire & Rain and Orthodox are the only ones that Makasound wanted. It all depends on if Makasound wants to work with me some more, I don’t know what Makasound wants to do. Cuz he wants to put out all those ancient reggae, and most of my reggae is mature – modern day and shit so right now, I don’t have any more old reggae to put for Makasound so I don’t know what they’re gonna do to me so I don’t know how long our relationship is gonna go ahead unless Makasound wants to put out all these modern roots reggae I have which I don’t know what’s wrong with them…. They’re just as good as the old ones that I recorded when I was 19. They were all written when I was 19. Most of my new stuff is stuff I wrote when I was a kid. I just started recording my music now, don’t you know that? A lot of my stuff I’m recording right now even on Garage Band is my own that I wrote from when I was 19 years old. What do you think all those tunes were written – “Give Love A Try”, “Candy Girl”… a bunch of tunes!! Yeah my music has been timeless from ever when I wrote songs. You think I write them nowadays but that’s what I was saying I’ve been doing modern progressions from the 90’s, from the ‘80’s, when I was 19 years old. All my songs have modern progressions because I was into jazz and all those things. It’s not since I came to California. That’s what I’m saying, if I was in Jamaica, my music the sound the same was as when I’m California. Cuz that was my intention. To be different. Smooth, cool, romantic. Sweet, sophisticated Reggae. That’s what I want.

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