The Reggae Maestro

Published in The Brag, 2004

Talking to Dennis Bovell reveals a few funny stories relating not only to his musical genius but also, quite strangely, to his once bouffant head of hair – like how he came to be known as ‘Blackbeard’.

“I did have a rather shaggy growth of hair on my face. It was how people saw me, as a Blackbeard. My beard got so long that I thought about one time shaving it into a hairy necktie,” Dennis laughs.

And like all good stereotypes, the reggae = dreadlocks image once held true for the young Blackbeard too. Until the god-awful day he cut them off and Peter Tosh (of Wailers fame) was so shocked and disappointed that he phoned his record company and said, ‘You tell Bovell there’s some things a man shouldn’t do – cutting his dreadlocks is one of them. And I don’t want him to mix my record now, thanks very much’.

Dennis, laughing hard at the memory, tells me in his rollicking English accent that he was “sitting in Tosh’s apartment and I had my hat on so he didn’t know that I’d trimmed them off, and suddenly I lifted my hat off and he looked as though he had seen a ghost”. I imagine Dennis shaking his head before continuing, “it was the cardinal sin, you know? He was totally bitter about me doing that, like I’d sinned beyond reprieve.”

But all hairy head issues aside Dennis Bovell’s musical reputation is grounded in his pioneering efforts for the reggae sound. He is an accomplished producer, composer, musician, sound engineer and DJ. And he is coming to Australia to “blast us from the highest tower” with his main man, Linton Kwesi Johnson, dub poet extraordinair.

The two met when Bovell was playing with his band Matumbi. Linton, who was working as a journalist for the BBC World Service, asked him for an interview.

“We met and I knew who he was because he was like this great poet I liked, and he said to me ‘Well, I’m one day going to put music to my poetry, are you willing to help me?’ And I said, ‘yeah, of course’. And I don’t know, two, three years passed and I suddenly got this phone call and there’s this guy going ‘Hi my name’s Linton, do you remember me?’ And I’m like ‘Of course I remember you, you’re that militant guy’” (laughs).

And the rest, as they say, is history. They went into record the weekend after that phone call and ended up with the Linton’s 1st album, the groundbreaking Dread Beat and Blood.

LKJ’s poetry has a famously distinct social and political flavour, which can also be detected in Bovell’s approach. In the early days of his lifelong musical sojourn Bovell struggled with the idea of reggae musicians simply doing cover versions of songs.

“What, wait for someone else to write a song and you do a version?!” he exasperates. “That was so secondhand, you know, so second rate. I wanted to be signing about luuurve,” he purrs. “I wanted to be singing about oppression. I wanted to be a regular newspaper – the What’s Going On. You know, the same way painters were painting stuff that remained historically great and depicted the times, I wanted to operate in a parallel sphere musically”.

And if Bovell was ever stuck for a bit of material for this ‘What’s Going On’ rag, he wouldn’t have to look too far beyond his own personal experiences. Like the time he invented the Fourth Street Orchestra as an authentic Jamaican reggae band in order to try and break down the prejudice against reggae music that was being produced in the UK.

Bovell recalls the idea that people who were playing reggae originating from a London base got ridiculed and often laughed at because there was the perception that it was ‘not quite reggae’ and ‘not the real thing’. So Bovell and Co. invented  “this group that didn’t exist and put out records that pretended to be imports but were made in London. We made them the same way that some front room artist in Jamaica had perfected himself. And what that did was to de-prejudice it because the labels that were made in London had ‘made in England’ on it and the minute a DJ picked it up and saw ‘made in England’ it would go to the D-list”.

So this little ‘bit of mischief’ by Bovell meant that the Fourth Street Orchestra albums were completely anonymous, just white labels with no information on them, if you like the music, buy it. Bovell believes this helped turn the prejudice around, and it was fun. In the end they were found out, Bovell forced to cheekily raise his hand and say “yes, made in England, done by me”.

And if that story’s not enough for the Bovell What’s Going On ‘newspaper’ he most definitely could include the story of his wrongful and outrageous arrest.

In Bovell’s early days he was playing a weekly gig in London when the police turned up at the door saying that someone had been ‘suspiciously driving a vehicle outside’ and that this person had run into the club.

Bovell is still is disbelief while retelling the tale. “They (the police) then said that once they’d arrested the person I intervened by inveigling the crowd to relieve them of their prisoner. I was sentenced to three years!”

“I appealed immediately but it took six months before the appeal was heard in a higher court. During that time I wasn’t given bail, so I was incarcerated”.

And now some 30 years later Bovell is foot loose and fancy free with a truckload of music making under his belt. And the reggae maestro is about to grace our shores for the first time, laying down some fat reggae bass lines while his mate Linton tells us how it is.


Box Out:

What Dennis Bovell loves about:

Linton Kwesi Johnson

“I love the adventurous way that he’s creating, almost single handedly, a new way of seeing the English language. His wisdom and his new fusion of spelling, a completely new vernacular.

Bob Marley

“Practically everything! Practically it all. You know, his moves, his boldness, his way of stringing words together, his poetic stance. He’s definitely a champion guy”.

What Dennis Bovell thinks about:

Trojon Reocrds

“You can’t print that. It starts in S and ends in T!”

Dancehall in the UK

The Dancehall image is quite rough. You know, a few idiots do shit and unfortunately that is more widely publicised than the euphoria of it all. You know, one bad apple.”


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