Hummingbird Dub

Njelle Hamilton

1. Radio Version

We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a special news bulletin.

Reggae superstar, Grey Wolf, has died. According to his manager, Girvan Wilkes, the singer— who over the past six years rose from raw rural talent to international star, from singing black love to chanting “Black Fire”— was pronounced dead at 4:18 am on Wednesday February 16, 19__, four months after he collapsed from an undisclosed illness on the Philadelphia stop of the Jah Chariot tour with his band, Chariot of Flames.

Wolf is survived by his wife, Marielle Maragh of the Soul Sisters, their four children, his mother, and other relatives. Speaking to RJR News a few minutes ago, his brother-in-law, bass guitarist Danesh “Danny” Maragh, promised that both a posthumous album and a live album chronicling Chariot of Flames’ final tour, will be released by year’s end. His sister-in-law Rissa, former Soul Sister and now Grammy-nominated solo artist, declined to comment on the reggae icon’s passing. As we reported in February, her now-infamous comment to Rolling Stone magazine when news of Wolf’s illness broke, was: “Damn wretch!”

After this break, we’ll return with interviews with his other band members, and a retrospective on his life and music.

2. Insider Version

And this one is the one unu spin when unu talking ‘bout the early days, back when teenage Grey use to come ‘round Dung-a-Yaad, thief ‘way from yard work and walk foot from Portland dickey-top a-weekend time and find himself a studio. That time the studio, Chariot, did out by the road, behind the likkle shop where the neighborhood people-dem sell fresh fish and sewing thread and quarter of stale grotto bread with some old cheese, so tough could stone dog. Before that, Pa-D use to string up two big speaker put out the shopfront and play him collection of mento and calypso and ska and rocksteady records, and when the boy-boy-dem draw ‘round the speakers like peeny-wally to kerosene lamp, him will all throw on the one-two singles and dub release that him band, The Downbeats, did cut in Kingston back in the day. 

But is not that draw Grey: apparently him loved the records-dem, yes, but is when shop lock and record-player turn off and Pa-D go ‘round the back out by seaside and si-down in one of the fisherman boat and start to play sitar, play it make it weep and wail like a woman with blues in her soul, is that make Grey skin ketch fire. Legend have it that the first time Grey hear Pa-D play, him ketch in spirit right there and start to sing in Yoruba. And Mama run come from over the yard—clothespin still pin-on to her blouse, her hand still soap-up, not even brassiere she have on—to hear this little barefoot youth singing in her native tongue. 

Is so make Pa-D and Grey and Danny decide to build Chariot, broke down old boat and draw away block and steel and board and zinc from abandon yard all along the train line, and build one haphazard shed turn make studio. Pa-D didn’t have much to do to convince Mama to lend him money from her Principal salary to buy recording equipment put in there so them can hone this sound: Indian mix up with African and filtered through maroon memory and seaside precarity (Them say an ill wind don’t blow no good/ Trade wind carry we come to Babylon to box food/Outta dog mouth). That time recording studio was a thing you only could find in Kingston. So, when the man-dem hear say Downbeats guitarist set up studio in Bay, every young boy with Rhygin dreams find them way to Chariot to stretch them vocal chords. 

That time, try as she might, Mama with her teacher English and Principal strictness and her whatnot full of encyclopedia and history book couldn’t keep Danny and Rissa and Mari from music. So, when she bright ‘bout, “OK, if you each get at least ten O’ levels at grades A and B, maybe…,” Mari and Rissa ketch them length! Take every subject that name subject, don’t eat, don’t sleep, study day and night and ace every striking one.

And although Mama know she couldn’t send her two sixteen-year-old on four-month world tour with one bag of Rasta man who all them know is that Jah put them on earth to multiply and replenish, what she could do? Man with name like Rusty Nail, and Blunt Knife, and Grey Wolf—is like them name themself to be serious threat to people girl-pickney. You mad? Grey Wolf with him body like it chisel outta mahogany tree? With him gray y’eye and him voice like silk that when him talk, down to the bird inna ackee tree stop sing and listen? Grey Wolf who when him hear some of Danny sweet piece of bass-line just flash him locks and hook him body inna groove like the music coming from him groin?

She couldn’t do it. What kind of mother she would be?

Your grandfather-him: “Cho, man. They get them education like them promise. Make them go-on. Them will all right. Danny not going make anything happen to him two little sister, man.”

Oh yes? Before they reach halfway ‘round the world Mari-she quite pregnant. After she done see how Grey don’t left no groupie unturned as him tour Babylon by bus. When Mari come home with two bun in the oven, Mama just collar big-big international Reggae superstar Grey Wolf, and say:

“Listen, Mr. Wolf, or Mr. Grey, or whatever your mother named you. Thank you to tell me date of the wedding and write down the address of the house where you going put my daughter and your unborn wolves so I can pack her trousseau and meet you and her down there.”

Legend have it Grey Wolf nearly wet him pants. Not even Concorde plane could beat him go lawyer office in Kingston to buy house and land, for him take one look at Mama and know him couldn’t so bold put Mari and him two unborn wolves to live with no mother-in-law in bush, nor inna no government yard in Trench Town. That’s why when Grey take sick and dead and they couldn’t figure out is what until them settle on cancer (since is that was killing off all the reggae singer-dem), people had it to say that is obeah Mama obeah Grey because him cheat on her pickney.

But when you see how Anti Mari mash-down you can’t tell is who really get obeah. Mash down: long curly half-Indian hair drop out, just start grow back. Mash down: mawga down like suck-out cane. Mash down: you wouldn’t believe she and Anti Rissa are twins — Anti Rissa luscious and full-bodied and fresh-looking like young plantain sucker, coffee-color skin a-glow like sunlight underneath it. While Anti Mari look like somebody obeah her. Like the obeah come look right in her face and frighten and left before it could do full damage. Yeah, mash down since Grey dead and with all the woman crawling out of the crack demanding recognition, dead-left money and part of the Grey Wolf name and legacy — black woman, white woman, pretty woman, ugly woman, Jamaican woman, Mercan woman, single woman, married woman. All today more woman still emerging, and every striking one coming with a baby Wolf on their hip. 

Well, half the woman and pickney who was claiming Wolf legacy just rotten and dead, and of course, them have it to say is obeah, because Mama did pass remarks inna Poor Antonio square one day before Grey even sick and have to left the big world tour. Yeah. One cornmeal-skin woman from God-He-Knows-Where drive down on Mama inna one bright red BMW, nearly lick her out the road right in front police station. Come ask her for Mari because she have pickney for Grey and want child-support. And the whole of Poor Antonio and all police hear Mama saying she wish Grey and all him woman-dem and bastard pickney would rotten and dead and left Mari in peace. 

Next thing you know, Grey-him collapse on stage in the very middle of one song that Anti Mari write (although she get neither credit nor pay for it)—same song him used to take and lyrics next woman. 

Yeah. Ask Danny. Him was there. 

(You could ask Anti Mari, still, but is like from Grey dead she n’have a thing to say, only hum underneath her breath—even that awful day, a year after Grey finneral, when stone-faced she lowered her lastborn into a baby grave beside him father.)

3. Mama Version

First to begin with, the heroic display was sickening. It’s not as if Grey was that famous, and certainly not after Rissa started making waves. I mean, all of Grey’s black radical rhetoric was a put-on anyway—learned most of that African history and Garveyism from me, if you must know. Would spend whole weekends and summer holidays cotching at our house, either in the so-called studio or perched in some tree, reading one of my books. Admittedly, I did like that about him; he knew how to turn mouth and flatter both me and D. If he was just another one of the wanna-be star-bwoy that hung out at D’s makeshift studio, I probably wouldn’t have given him the time of day. But he always got himself invited home for dinner, looking so pitiful in his hand-me-down clothes half a size too big. Always asking me all kinds of questions about where I’m from—Wha’ Nigeria like? So is how comes you end up in Jamaica married to Indian man who play Rasta music? Wha’ these books with black people on the cover? Play that blues record again, no, Mama? I can sing it just like that, eno? If he’d only stayed out by the studio he wouldn’t have got under my daughter’s skin, because no matter how Mari and Rissa—well, Mari, really—would itch to go wherever music was playing, I raised them to study their book. Let Dani go on, following his father into music and turning worthless. But book for you, so as girls you can have options in this damn bush that D carry me to live in. 

Oh God, how I reach there so? What you ask me? Why I didn’t go to the funeral? Go where, child? I wasn’t going play the hypocrite. All this state funeral and government motorcade foolishness for that wretch that spoil up my good-good daughter future and have the nerve! The audacity! To bring other woman on tour with his wife, flaunting his slackness in my daughter’s face while he there singing about righteousness. Every time I hear his music my stomach just sick. Twisting lines from my books to hide his depravity under the guise of black love and black joy and black fire. Lyrical genius my backside!

The only reason I contemplated going to the funeral was to see how they would react when Rissa, mydaughter, who played a sold-out show on the next night and the same stage where the wretch collapsed from penis cancer—ok, fine, AIDS—when Rissa walked in with her entourage and reminded them who is really Jamaica’s biggest star. Bigger entourage than the Prime Minister and the foreign singers too. Who? Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons, Mick Jagger? You should see them stumbling over each other to hug Rissa, who of course was putting on a show for the JBC cameras, making sure all our bad-mind relatives from D’s side saw her smug expression as she sat in front enjoying the thought of Grey, dead like nit in that fancy casket. Of course, the cameras kept lingering on poor Mari, who was beside herself with sorrow, not for the wretch of course, but sick with worry about baby Ryan who’d already taken ill. I considered going to comfort Mari and the children, to be honest, but my students and staff would have called scandal on me if they saw me on TV for I surely would’ve shouted Amen when Mama-Ya stood up, interrupted the Archbishop of Wheresoever in his white powdered wig, and let him know that her son’s name is Aggrey Wollof, not no Grey Wolf, you hear me, Missa Man? and sat herself back down on the front row in her frock hand-sewn from Indian hemp, up front—ahead of all the dignitaries—with the rest of her maroon people. Although when the camera panned over to the rows behind them where the howmuchteen bastard Wolves and their mothers sat, still in shock that only Mari’s children have Grey’s real name, I kissed my teeth and switched off the blasted TV. 

4. Listening Exercise #1

(Funny story about this next track I’m about to play from the Ark of the Beast album. As you all probably know, Ark was recorded in London in ‘78, and this song, although it sounds like a spiritual song is actually written for Megan Milhado who Grey was having an affair with at the time. Apparently, she was even in the studio when it was being recorded, so you will notice that the background harmonies sound a bit different on this than the other songs on the album. That’s because Mari apparently stormed out of the recording booth. So it’s Rissa—a younger, pre-stardom Rissa—you hear singing both soprano and alto. Yes, indeed, Grey was skilled at hiding his philandering in the lyrics of his songs. When I play it, listen to how in the second verse he’s pledging fidelity and forsaking all others, and you think he’s swearing devotion to Jah when Mr. Mention was bare-faced lyricsing the girlfriend in front of the wife. Notice, too, the particularly heartbreaking bass guitar here. That’s veteran Danny Maragh—Grey’s best friend, remember—but also Mari’s big brother. As you listen, just imagine what Danny knows and is telling us—or his little sister—in this moment.)

5. Danny Version

Well, dawta, I-man don’t speculate, I and I deal with specul-love, seen. Ask any o’ the man-dem in the band, still. Grey mash down every stage him foot trod. Like the I get energize the more show we play, the more black people in the crowd, Jah know star! When we reach all place like New York and Boston and Baltimore in them August bells, Grey like him blazing from inna him soul. See all the Baltimore show: man get three, four encore and couldn’t left the stage. All when the headline act step out with them punky music, the crowd say, “Move with that, man! Forward with the Rastaman-dem.”

So, we roll inna Philadelphia, seen, and Rissa people link the I and say she want come see her sister and brother, because from she run ‘way go Italy before Mama could find out she pregnant too, I and I don’t lay y’eye ‘pon the sistren. So, Rissa forward at the venue before the first show. Yeah: Grey book to play the Thursday and Saturday, Rissa the Friday and Sunday. And already Rolling Stone and them did have Rissa ‘pon front page and everybody raving ‘bout this exciting soul singer. And when anybody call to interview Grey all them want know is what him think about him former back-up singer who now the hottest thing in the world. I even follow Mari go Beechy’s Records to try find Rissa debut album and almost did have to fight some scrawny white teenage bwoy fi the last one ‘pon the shelf. 

So now, Rissa forward right before sound check, seen, bodyguard and whatnot flank her left and right. I-man almost never know is my own sister that. Although she and Mari identical, by that time Rissa look like Empress Menen own self: skin and hair shine, gold dripping from crown to sole. 

So, Rissa and Mari hug-up, and I don’t know what Grey say to her. Next thing, likkle sis who voice I only hear raise when she on stage with mic at her mouth, your Anti Rissa trace him off! From the crown of him head to the very edge of him big toenail. Take him owna lyrics turn back on him, ‘bout: fire bun right to your balls! —Trace him off so ‘til Grey bodyguard and fi-her bodyguard both try drag her away and end up fighting instead. I-man did have to pull her ‘way and hug her up, try calm her down. But she just drag her husband and this likkle boy by the hand and wheel away. 

Never even meet the husband. Is when them land in Jamaica for the finneral couple months later that I pene say is the husband that, and is must-be something Grey say ‘bout her son make she see red.

Mari don’t say a word all now.

Shortly after that, Grey go on stage for sound check and start sing “Love is Fire” and just choke. The rest o’ the band jam through, still, drop in one instrumental break right there-so, like da-dum da-woo/ spap spanna spannow. But when the second verse come ‘round and him try sing again, man choke again and drop down, boof, right there ‘pon stage! Rusty who never even anywhere near the hospital start spread it that is penis cancer, becau’ Grey did have a way to always be scratching him balls, but how a man to know a thing like that ‘bout another man, still?

6. Listening Exercise #2

And this one, this one is the one you hear only when you listen good, underneath what people say, in between the spaces in the song, and only if you enter the song on the wrong beat and your brain fail to compute where the beat really falls and so the vocals and the arrangement sound out of sync, make your body confuse and can’t find the bass riddim, can’t find the downbeat and the one drop. 

Sometime it happen when you hear Danny play. Plenty time him si-down on the seawall behind the house and strum guitar, strengeh, strengeh and sing out Grey last song, last words, love fire!… before him lef’ the chord hanging. Then him would stare out a-sea fi-hours like him forget where him is.

Sometime it happen when Anti Mari just materialize outta nowhere with her stringy locs and nyam-out cheekbone-dem, and is like you seeing a ghost of her twin-sister—pretty, boasty, Anti Rissa who come in like life itself. For although the story in the lane is that is Mari did have the real nice, husky, bluesy voice and even use to write song and thing, from you born and come the only way you can hear her voice is to listen good-good to the background vocals when old Chariot of Flames song play on radio.

Love is fire 
Shut up in your bones (Love fire!)

(Love is … love is …The sound of Mama heartbeat; the vibration of her hum when she used to hold me to her chest; yearning for that hum when she did have to put me down to take up Rissa, sister of my own face. The sound of Pa-D sitar, like the voice of a woman telling stories that can’t be told in words, and I would crawl out to the backyard looking for the woman but was just Pa-D, cradling this beautiful object in him arms and coaxing out sound, him face and neck contorting and dancing with the melodies and emotions. From that, I would always find myself crawling, sneaking, walking, running to where music is. No matter how Mama would slap me with her slippers to stay away from the man-dem with their music playing, no matter how the man-dem would chase me away, ‘bout: “Girl-pickney go back to your mother, go learn to cook, studio is not for girl-pickney!”

When we did little, Mama would tie me and Rissa to her frock-tail and walk all over Portland to maroon community and hill village like where Grey people come from to document old time story and old time song. Up in them communities, woman sing and dance; woman could be warrior and leader. Walking down the hill one day to meet the big truck on the level to go back down to Bay, hearing the rhythm our feet making on the asphalt, one sound just bubble up out my mouth. La la la la love fire! Next thing I know, Rissa harmonizing with me on my made-up version of the maroon-women song and I’m making up words about the road and the birds and the bush and the color of Mama frock and all kind of things. I don’t know what did sweeter in that moment: realizing I could make sound bubble up from my heart, or Rissa matching me like she know what I going to say and the sounds I going make even before I make them. 

Sister of my own face. Hearing her voice used to make me know where to put my own, where to locate myself in the world. She the highs, me the lows.

Highs: In my bed—my twin bed beside Rissa own, sleeping like good, decent girls—Grey voice would find me, wake me up, make me draw on clothes and sneak outadoor to bathe in him voice, my body thrumming with lyrics I’m writing in my head just for him voice to sing back to me. Love is fire shut up in your bones/ Burning and you can’t control…  

Lows: In my bed—my double bed on tour, Rissa beside me—Grey hands and lips and body would find me. Is it there I learned to be quiet, to shut up fire in my bones and keep it low in my belly bottom make it vibrate there and not reach no further than a burning groan in my throat? Love is … love is … Shut up in your bones… Sister of my own face: is it there you learned to sing out loud and cheerily to drown out anything you don’t want to hear? Is it from there we stop whisper and sing secrets to each other? 

You never ask me if I did want it, if I ok. I never ask him how him know which of us was me.

The day Grey choke—the day I thought my sister come to look for me and Danny (to hug me up and tell me she sorry for running away from me and Grey yard without no warning; to tell me she really alright, not just pretending to be alright in her upbeat pop song-dem and in her glossy photos with her rich Italian husband), the day I see my sister again after five years—that’s the day the music died. 

Looking at Rissa was like looking in a funhouse mirror—even from before she reach the venue, even earlier that day when me and Danny go record store and I take up the LP with her face full up the entire cover. I could feel myself looking but what I see back is both me and not me. I see me as my dream self, self-possessed and glorious, making music for love, not for a living. I see me with a husband hanging on to my hand, hanging on to my every word, ready to fight strange men for me, strange men making strange claims to my son. I see me screaming curses at Grey, cursing him down to him balls. Love is fire shut up in your bones/ Burning and you can’t control

But I don’t hear anything. 

The day Grey choke the world went silent. In fact, when Grey choke I didn’t even realize at first because I did think is deaf me deaf. Went deaf, not when she that isn’t me—sister of her own face—screamed, but before that, when Grey say the thing, when I look at the boy and see my son, when I look at my sister and see all she not saying underneath the pretty clothes and shiny jewelry and perfect makeup, all she not saying in her upbeat love songs, all she left unsaid even in that voicemail five years ago. Mari, am at the airport. Am going to Italy. Please don’t tell Mama. Sorry I had to leave without telling you but Saj surprised me with a ticket and an engagement ring—Remember Saj, the guy I told you ‘bout? The one I met at World Music Festival a couple months ago?—Yeah, him going link me up with some producers and record companies and thing. Mari… Grey… Sis, don’t let that bastard keep hurting you. Don’t go back on tour. When I make it, I’ll send for you and we can make music together like one time and become stars in our own right. You can write and I will sing. Soul Sisters like you dreamed. Sis, I… Just… Ugh, I have to go. They announcing my flight.

There’s a version of me, my voice, singing loud and strong, startling me from somebody car radio as them zoom past. But these days I open my mouth and all that comes out is a guttural groan, so harsh it burns my throat. 

Love burns. Burning and you can’t control

So now, I just hum. 

Anchor Image: Annie Paul, Beat Street, Kingston, February 2019

Njelle Hamilton is a Jamaican singer, songwriter, storyteller and scholar. She is the author of Phonographic Memories: Popular Music and the Contemporary Caribbean Novel, and her essays on Caribbean musical fictions and Caribbean temporality have appeared in Anthurium, Journal of West Indian Literature, and SX Salon, among others.

3 thoughts on “Hummingbird Dub

  1. Rich in language, rich in history and geography, rich in lore and legend, but especially rich in psyche-butterflies and alter-egos.
    I have enjoyed this quick trip, but look forward to the the longer journey of eavesdropping on “Everything Irie”

    Like

  2. Dear Annie Paul, here is the complete comment that I tried to post, unfortunately, mysteriously, truncated before posting.

    “Music and trauma,
    inspired by love and
    nourished by thwarted dreams.
    All so familiar to ME in particular, in view of my in-law connection to the Marley clan.
    Rich in language, rich in history and geography, rich in lore and legend, but especially rich in psyche-butterflies and alter-egos..
    I have enjoyed this quick trip, but look forward to the longer journey of eavesdropping on “Everything Irie”.

    Like

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