The bands (should) play on

A band member playing the guitar
A band member playing the guitar (Photo credit: Clam Lo)

The public falling out within his family after the death of Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert on 11 September last year was jarring, ugly and sad. The current public falling out between the family and the band with which Hibbert performed as Toots and the Maytals, which has prevented them from headlining a planned tribute concert in London on 4 September, is not unexpected. Last year the Hibbert family was divided over burial arrangements. This year the Hibbert family and the band are at odds about how the legacy should be carried on (and, of course, who should benefit from it).

I saw a similar struggle between those who performed with a deceased front man and the singer’s family literally play out on stage at the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre in Kingston in 2006. And for those onlookers who were sufficiently perceptive, it was not very playful. Joseph ‘Culture’ Hill had died in Germany on 19 August 2006 while the on a European tour. The tribute concert in Jamaica about a month later featured not only a host of Hill’s contemporaries, but, naturally, also the band with which he toured. Also on stage was his son Kenyatta Hill (who is one of those classic vocal ‘dead stamp’ of Daddy cases). What ensued was a fight for the front between Kenyatta and the male harmony singers, who were intent on taking a couple steps forward from their accustomed places to the edge of the stage. Whether or not he was prepared for it, Kenyatta battled through and when I last saw him perform in the early morning sun at Rebel Salute 2019 his voice was in fine nick.

Of course, Bob Marley’s death in 1981 led to the Wailers Band as a lasting force. On the other hand, Jacob Miller’s 1980 death from a car crash did not result in competition for Inner Circle. That may have been because it had always been very clear that Inner Circle was well established before ‘Killer Miller’ and his bionic voice took front and centre stage. In addition, Miller died so young (27 years old). Also, who is going to have a ghost (literally) of a chance imitating Jacob Miller? Inner Circle has not even tried to present someone who can do that.

There is no doubt that when a lead singer dies, the band should play on. It is not simply a matter of carrying on a legacy, but those best suited to do so. Of course, a new set of musicians can be assembled to learn the material and the sequence the songs should be played in, with a new front man (or woman) who rehearses the songs and even the moves, but there is no replicating the feel which had connected with the public before. The band which has played those songs over and over has that element which cannot be scripted in notes or learnt by ear – it comes only through relationships developed over time, on and off the stage. In the case of Toots Hibbert, the family faces a dilemma – there is no obvious singing heir within their ranks and this public spat with the band is not doing them any good.

There is another factor that should be taken into consideration. Before there was Toots and the Maytals there was The Maytals, which won Jamaica’s first Festival Song competition in 1968 with ‘Bam Bam’. Similarly, before Bob Marley and the Wailers there was The Wailers, which long predated the Island Records years and did the Catch a Fire and Burnin sets for Chris Blackwell’s label. Many persons may not remember that Culture was once a trio – heck, Burning Spear was a group at one point, as was Vybz Kartel. When the front man of an outfit with those origins passes on, these antecedents may just be in the minds of those who are now determined to get a pinch of the musical pie.

However, whatever the guise, ‘dead lef’ fight is nasty, and I do hope that this is not the beginning of a protracted, public impasse between the Hibbert family and the musicians who have played with him for many, many years. When the front man dies the band should play on, with the understanding and approval of the family. Always remember that all the longstanding musical goodwill in the world can dissipate very quickly, especially in an era where content is created constantly and distributed by the click of a mouse. The longer the stalling the less there is to fight over. Let us hope that good business sense will prevail.

Mel Cooke covered Jamaican entertainment as a print journalist for almost two decades, overlapping with his MPhil research on dancehall and experiential marketing with the Institute of Caribbean Studies, UWI, Mona, where he is now working on a PhD while lecturing in the Bachelor of Arts, Communication Arts and Technology (BACAT) programme at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech, Ja.).

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