Sunday, September 4, 2011

September 4: Toots And The Maytals, "Funky Kingston"

Artist: Toots And The MaytalsSong: "Funky Kingston"
Album: Funky Kingston
Year: 1972

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Regardless of the time period, there are moments within every era where a certain sound or artist will stand up and shout in some way, reminding the world that music is still developing, and that there are always new sounds to be found and explored.  In most of these cases, the performers in question are in the process of developing an entirely new approach to music, and these moments represent some of the most important and exciting points in all of music history.  Though it may be slightly overlooked due to the assumed mood of the music, this was certainly what occurred in the early 1970's when the "island sounds" of rock-steady and reggae began to take on a new form that would become ska.  While a few groups had already made small forays into such a sound, it would be the legendary Fredrick "Toots" Hibbert that would present the style in its current form, setting the stage for a rediscovery of the music of "the islands."  Boasting one of the finest backing bands in history, The Maytals, the group released a handful of singles that remain the building blocks of the entire ska style, and a majority of these songs remain just as potent and important today as they were more than three decades ago.  Though it is difficult to cite a single song from the group as their finest or most influential, it can easily be argued that one can experience one of the most high energy and definitive moments in all of music history within Toots And The Maytals phenomenal 1972 song, "Funky Kingston."

From the moment that "Funky Kingston" begins, it is clear that the song is both unlike anything else ever recorded, as well as a stunning combination of many different sounds from the current era of music.  Every instrument on the track bounces in a completely captivating manner, and one cannot deny the somewhat aggressive, funky tone of the song that is rather reminiscent of the sounds of Sly And The Family Stone.  It is the way that the piano from Neville Hinds dances across the track that provides the bulk of the groove to the song, and in this manner, "Funky Kingston" quickly becomes unlike any other recording.  The way that this sound plays with the purposefully scattered guitar pieces is nothing short of perfect, and the overall rhythm of the song is further punctuated by the perfectly placed horn blasts.  Drummer Winston Grennan keeps the bounce in line, working a number of percussive instruments and truly displaying the soul of "Funky Kingston."  Yet it is the way that all of these musicians come together a single unit that makes the song such an amazing musical experience, as the energy and sheer sound found all across the track give a glimpse into just how wildly fun live performances from Toots And The Maytals must have been at the time.  "Funky Kingston" absolutely jumps through the speakers, and one cannot help but be completely caught up in the party-like atmosphere that the song provides at every turn.

Further reinforcing the amazing level of enthusiasm and providing a clear example of how the interplay of energy between band can push a song to even greater heights, the vocals all across "Funky Kingston" are in a category all their own.  While they are shared at many parts throughout the song, a majority of the lead portions are handled by Hibbert, and there is no question that "Funky Kingston" represents the finest vocal moment of his entire career.  The way in which he delivers the lyrics has an almost gospel feel to them, as there is a clear and complete commitment to every line, and the sheer joy with which he performs remains one of the most endearing displays in all of music history.  There has rarely been as ideal an example of a musician "letting the music take him" as one can experience on "Funky Kingston," as one can feel the music pushing the vocals to greater heights, and vice versa.  This reality is the key to the overall impact of the song, and again, when the group vocals come into play, the similarities to the sound of Sly And The Family Stone cannot be ignored.  Yet there is no question that "Funky Kingston" is a completely original effort, and one can sense Toots And The Maytals encouraging the listener to sing along, whether live in concert or decades later alone at home.  This ability to engage the listener to such an extent is the true spirit behind the group, and they were never better at this task than on "Funky Kingston."

Truth be told, the album Funky Kingston, actually has two rather different releases in terms of content and sound, but the track "Funky Kingston" is found in the same, brilliant form on both of these versions.  This fact has enabled both releases to gain a large following in their own right, and it can be seen as the "anchor" of the two variations.  As the decades have passed, "Funky Kingston" has become one of the most heavily covered ska songs, and a wide range of artists from other genres have also made their own recordings of this tune.  The fact that "Funky Kingston" has found such wide acclaim and appreciation is a testament to just how important Toots And The Maytals remain to the continued development of all forms of music, as their combination of funk, soul, and reggae remains almost completely unmatched to this day.  Moreso than nearly any other band in music history, it is the spirit and energy found on "Funky Kingston" that makes the track so unforgettable, as there are few recordings from any other genre that exude as much pure joy and happiness as one can experience on this song.  Even as the group approaches their "half-century" mark of existence, they remain one of the most powerful and important bands in all of music history, and there is no finer example of the influence and unparalleled talent and energy of Toots And The Maytals than their extraordinary 1972 song, "Funky Kingston."


Anonymous said...

Nice analysis but another way to consider Toots is that he has always been the Ray Charles of reggae - it's less Sly-style funk that he is singing than Ray-style R&B to a reggae shuffle.

Wylie Bradford said...

I enjoy your posts but you're *way* off here regarding your understanding of Jamaican musical history. Ska a s a musical form is the forerunner to rocksteady which is itself the forerunner top reggae. Ska emerged around 1960 as a kind of merging of mento, the Jamaican equivalent to calypso, and New Orleans and jump blues styles of R&B that were very popular in Jamaica (labour migration leading to a return flow of records from the US). Ska was the dominant form of in the Jamaican sound systems from 1960 to 1965 when the tempo was basically slowed by half and the singing style more adapted to Soul forms to yield rocksteady. Rocksteady ruled until 1968 when the rhythms became more syncopated and the bass more prominent and reggae was born.

There was a great deal of stylistic development of reggae in the 70's but Toots wasn't part of it. The Maytals had a notable ska resume, missed most of the rocksteady period due to Toots being in jail for ganja possession (as described in the '54-46' songs which most people would probably identify as Toots's signature) and were big in early reggae. There are some who claim that Chris Blackwell initially wanted to sign Toots and the Maytals rather than the Wailers for Island's big push of reggae internationally.

Musically though Toots was not influential in Jamaica in the 70's, not working with the big producers who defined the sounds of the decade. Like Bob Marley he had kudos at home but relied on overseas markets for his livelihood.

"Funky Kingston' is a great song though, and the original 1972 Jamaican release is a wonderful reggae album coming at the end of the first wave ('Sit Right Down', 'Pomp and Pride' and 'It Was Written Down' are other classic cuts on the album, not to mention the legendary 'Louie, Louie' cover).