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Interview: Sylford Walker

Interview: Sylford Walker

Interview: Sylford Walker

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"I went to Europe to do a show and read in a magazine that Sylford Walker is dead!"


The langorous chanter Sylford Walker has often been compared to Burning Spear - with whom he shares some stylistic traits. Yet Sylford always had his own approach - sounding off the cuff and unplanned while somehow just right for the rhythms he rode. He got his start voicing for Joe Gibbs in 1975 cutting the hypnotic Burn Babylon and the mystical Jah Golden Pen. A one away tune with Clive Hunt then gave way to what is now his most famous collaboration - a series of tunes cut in 1978 with the singer turned producer Glen Brown. At the time, however, these did not get a Jamaican album release and it was only in 1988 - long after Glen had gone to America and Sylford's career had stalled - that Greensleeves issued the remarkable 'Lamb's Bread', followed by the 2000 Blood & Fire reissue 'Lambs Bread International' with Welton Irie. Sadly Sylford was injured in a car crash in 2002 and is currently unable to leave Jamaica due to VISA issues. Even so, he has a new album in the works with young US producer Carson McPullish. Angus Taylor spoke to him at his rural St Thomas residence about his plans for the future and the ups and downs of his tough life...

Sylford Walker

Where were you born?

Penlyne Castle in St Thomas but I didn't really grow up there. I grew up in the ghetto part of the city. When I was a babe I left my mum to live with my grandmother and in my boy days I was with my mother but I ran to be in the city at around 13.

How did you get into music?

My brother, trust me, I loved music from schoolboy days. I did school concerts and sang in church but then when I ran away from country to town and being around these rebels smoking my herbs the cops came to hold me with a spliff. I went to Central and spent one year for that spliff in jail. That's how I built my song "It's a long long long long time I man burn up the Collie Weed" [Burn Babylon].

How did you get into Rasta?

Well it is a part of the vibes where the love of music and the roots and culture that is in me going towards life, that is the only way of I seeing it. It was the 12 Tribes Of Israel with Dennis Brown because we were close brethren and Dennis a lot of little man joined the 12 Tribes so I ended up getting baptized and joining. But I don't really go to the assemblies because I am now living in the country. Since I left Switzerland [where he stayed with Asher Selector] I got a change of living.

How did you record for Joe Gibbs?

With Mr Gibbs I had come from jail and been walking looking for a producer and none of the producers would look at me. I went to Mr Gibbs and he sent me to his engineer Errol Thompson and that's where I broke away. I built that song [Burn Babylon] and I sang [Jah] Golden Pen because he told me Burn Babylon wasn't selling and there was nothing going on with it.

Jah Golden Pen was more like a church song from my boy days

How did you come up with those lyrics?

Jah Golden Pen was more like a church song from my boy days. It used to say (sings) "WRITE MY NAME UP THERE... YOU GOT TO PUT YOUR FINGER ON THE GOLDEN PEN..." and because I was living in "South" at Gold Street I saw that song as gold. That was one of my biggest songs in England. Sylford WalkerThat and Burn Babylon. All around the world! When I was in Jerusalem and all over if I don't sing those songs there is no show! (laughs)

How did they do in Jamaica?

Well it was going on but it seems they never wanted I to know the whole secretness and switch of the business. In London and in Jamaica it was playing on the radio station for maybe two or three months but there was nothing coming from it.

Why did you leave Joe Gibbs?

Well the system wasn't right and I was suffering. I was going to a little music school where I couldn't even change my clothes. I thought there was nothing in music. It was only after I went to Europe and saw people from all over saying "Sylford, you are great and legendary and thing" so I take up the work now in hand.

What did you do for a living when you weren't making music?

I was just boiling some roots. I went to my bredda and buy 22 different roots so then it becomes powerful. It was just juggling for everybody who needed a bottle of roots but it was cheap. But I still sent my kids to school and had restaurant where I'd cook up a little Ital food.

I thought there was nothing in music. After I went to Europe I saw people from all over saying "Sylford, you are great and legendary and thing"

Why did you only do one tune, Bad Bad Bad, with Clive Hunt?

He carried me down to the maximum. Told me nothing was going on but when I go to Europe I see all those songs selling and I got nothing from them. Now I hear they gave him 17 shots and he's still alive - because his name's Clive! (laughs)

How you meet Glen Brown?

That's another poison man! (laughs) I and him were living on the same street. Lobban Street in the eastern part of town. Then while I was going to Joe Gibbs he told me he had some rhythms he would like me to voice - some King Tubbys rhythms. I went with him and voiced them and then went away!

You also knew the late great Freddie McKay who sang many great tunes but sadly passed away before the roots veteran revival. What was he like?

Freddie was a man who was a humble soldier and a very great singer. Him, Horace Andy and Dennis Brown - we all used to move together. Until maybe the love of people, laughing people and don't like guilty people suffer Freddie dead. One of his biggest songs that a lot of people here know - the elders like we - was Dance This Ya Festival. Great festival song. This is the thing in Jamaica - there is no one to see you until you either get on top or die.

This is the thing in Jamaica - there is no one to see you until you either get on top or die

Why was your Lambs Bread album not released in Jamaica? Most people didn't hear it until it was released by Greensleeves in 1988. 

It didn't release in Jamaica but it released in New York. Then he made me a lot of promises where he would link me with Greensleeves until I heard he sold me out to Greensleeves. I wasn't able to live in the country where I am now until Blood and Fire gave me £1000 [for the 2000 reissue Lambs Bread International].

Sylford Walker

Tell me how you came up with songs like Lambs Bread, Chant Down Babylon and Africa Homeland?

After I did Burn Babylon everyone was saying they needed a different high grade song so I sang Lambs Bread. That and all those songs were voiced in King Tubbys studio. Tubby was a good man. A very great engineer and a man who tried to see you did your work well.

Your work sounds improvised. Do you write your songs down or just respond to the rhythm?

Yes I. It was just vibes. I'm good at that way. Very much creative that way. As soon as Glen came up with the rhythm and I listened I had something to put to them. That was how it went for me and him. He never wrote any song for me and I never wrote one on paper.

And when you sing the songs live do you remember what you sang? Do you keep them in your head?

Yes I've got it all because once it comes out it is always in my mind.

People have compared you to Burning Spear. Which singers did you admire?

(laughs) The right man you call! Spear! It was Spear, Horace Andy, Dennis Brown, Bob Andy - great guys. The all powerful. Also Alton Ellis and Ken Boothe. But my favourite was Spear. I was more like him which is why they beat me down saying it [Burn Babylon] was Spear when it was me.

Why did Glen leave for New York in 1979?

He went because his wife was up there. He gave me a lot of promises that he would do this for me and let me reach and things but after a while I realized he sold me out to Greensleeves.

Have you had any contact at all since he left?

He tried to but I didn't want anything from him at all. Not even to hear his voice. I thank him for what he has done but he can go to hell. I never heard anything about these songs after I recorded them until I heard them again. Or maybe when I did I thought people wouldn't even listen. It's not like now when I know the music turns hearts more. I was just trying to be what I wanted to be.

You also recorded for the Art and Craft label and producer Stafford Douglas with Jah Stitch doing a recut of one of your Glen Brown tunes Deuteronomy as Books Of The Old Testament as well as I Love You in 1979-1980?

Sylford WalkerThat is the next great song that I have. I had that song even before Burn Babylon and Golden Pen. It was another one from my bible days. But listen - Books Of The Old Testament was first done for Paul Clough but he died in New York. I did three songs for Paul Clough. Books Of The Old Testament, God Love and one I have never heard released by the name of Rally Around Jah Red Green And Gold. I did Tra La La La La [I Love You] for the brethren you're talking about now in London.

So why does it say "produced by Stafford Douglas" on the Art & Craft 12?

That's the trick. Because I'm in Jamaica and don't know what's going on they just did what they wanted to do. I don't even know who named that. Maybe if I saw him again I'd have some food, brother! (laughs)

By this time we're getting to the 1980s. What did you do for a living then?

I was just boiling some roots and it moved to the people just like the songs. I had three girl children and all of them are big now so now I leave it alone and took the music more seriously. All over the world I see that it is Sylford they are talking about.

Did part of that come from the Blood & Fire release in 2000? Tell me about that...

They linked me and released and that was when everyone else realized about Sylford. He was here in Jamaica for a little time and he told me what was wrong. They gave me £1000 and I took it and started a home here. It is in Yallahs St Thomas but I never heard anything more from him again.

Tell me about your car accident in 2002.

I was living in South and then at the same time not really knowing what is next. Then my friend called me to go to Old Harbour to help him deliver some ice on a truck. When I got there they left me to come out of the truck and when I came round the corner there was a car that hit me and mashed me up. But give thanks that my life was spared and I can walk. That was the time they wrote in a magazine that I had died because when I went to Europe I saw I was meant to be dead. That was when Joe Gibbs asked for me and said "You been dead a long time" so that might be what made my shows so powerful there.

So tell me about your second period of recording for Joe Gibbs after the crash...

Mr Gibbs said I must do an album for him and he will give me $250000 and I ended up doing 200 more songs for him. We put out an album by the name of Nuti Nah Gwan. At the same time I went to Europe to do a show and read in a magazine that Sylford Walker is dead! But I did my best there and have been there five times. 

So when Asher Selector brought you for some shows in 2004 that was when you realized there was an audience for you?

The thing that made me realize was these songs I did from the beginning like Golden Pen, Burn Babylon and even Lambs Bread. Those were the songs that Asher Selector was playing and then he sent for me from Jamaica in about 2004. I went there five times then Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, all over the world, man.

Did you consider linking with Welton Irie for a tour?

I can find him but he was not that much. When I was going to Switzerland he was going to Germany. So maybe they wanted I and him to go but by that time I was on Asher's programme so I could never reject it.

How did you feel when Joe Gibbs passed away in 2008?

I went to his funeral and the engineer's. Errol's was bigger than Mr Gibbs! (laughs)

That little spliff is still a problem. I have seen men murder people who can fly every day!

How come you can't leave Jamaica now?

I don't know. Maybe I need some help from a good agent who can help me send down the documents and things because when I went to the embassy that little spliff is still a problem. I'm trying now to get some money to go the police high place and then clean off that record. Because I have seen men murder people who can fly every day! I don't know what's wrong. I went to the embassy and they turned me down. There was a brethren in Mount Vernon named Hira who was trying to get me for some record business but when he sent for me he didn't send a work permit so I could never go. Brethren right now I'm looking to find a godfather.

You released an EP United in April 2011 with Carson McPullish and I believe there's an album coming right?

He's supposed to get back to me about doing an album. You know that song reached number one? Rocky [Joe Gibbs son] sold me out. Mac sent some money to Rocky to get Sylford. Rocky gave me $1000 Jamaican and told me he wanted me to do one song for him. When I did the song I found out it is not his own! So my nephew who is my manager saw what was happening on the internet and got in contact with Mac. So we are working on an album but I also almost have finished an album for myself named My Time Has Come. Eight songs are finished but I don't have the collateral to do the other four songs. I'm trying to put out 12. But we have kind of run out of collateral so we are stuck until I can get some work and help myself. 

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Read comments (4)

Posted by Anita Dunnigan on 07.12.2011
I just learned about Mr. Walker in the last six months. I heard Every Goodie on Youtube. I have also discovered other songs of his. I'm very happy to be hearing his great tunes. Thanks for this informative interview.

Posted by Jah ni yen on 07.14.2011
Sylford alive big & broad...him time a komm!

Posted by Johnny Babylon on 07.21.2011
Nice. If you're into Sylford Walker, check out the new track he did with 10 Ft. Ganja Plant, extra classic:

Posted by johnny on 03.07.2013
Need a petition for this man to come to California!! I've been jammin his tunes since my early days with reggae and would pay anything to see him live up close and personal.

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