Reggae and willing
Ahead of their gig in Belfast tonight, Sly Dunbar tells Jamie McDowell how he and Robbie Shakespeare loved working with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan
Sly Dunbar is everything you'd expect from a Jamaican musician. His dreadlocks and thick accent seem to underline his status as one of the country’s biggest ever exports.
Together with his lifelong pal Robbie Shakespeare, they became the duo known as Sly and Robbie, and are among the most prolific recording artists of all time.
Sly (57), a drummer by trade, was originally named Lowell Fillmore Dunbar and only picked up the nickname Sly after his friends and family noted his early love for the band Sly and the Family Stone.
“I'm looking forward to our gig in Belfast,” said Sly earlier this week. “I think we've been to Belfast before but I'm not too sure. We might have visited when we played in Dublin with Sinead O'Connor. We did an album and toured with her, so maybe during that time. She's a wicked girl.”
Music was a fundamental part of Sly's life from his early days as a young boy in Kingston, Jamaica. He said: “I grew up listening to a lot of bands like the Beatles, James Brown and some Motown stuff. I always wanted to be drummer from the start. I decided that if I wanted to make a career out of it I'd have to look at it seriously. I listened to everything that had a beat or a drum in it and how it was used on the track. And obviously, once I started playing, I wanted to get as much exposure as possible.”
In his early years, Sly would take work wherever he could, and obviously the bigger the band, the better. Session musicians accept what work they can get, but Sly and Robbie accompanied some of reggae’s biggest names such as Gregory Isaacs and the Mighty Diamonds.
During the tough 1970s Jamaican music scene which has been described as equal parts Tin Pan Alley and the old Wild West, the men became the island’s rhythm section of choice.
It was recognition that Sly was looking for and he would only find it with the brightest and the best. Both Sly and his friend Robbie, who were soon to become household names in the music business, got their big break when they began working with an artist who was very popular in Jamaica at the time.
“I got the exposure that I was looking for when I got a job as a drummer for reggae artist Peter Tosh,” explained Sly. “We toured with him and worked on an album with him called Legalise It in 1976. From there, we grew and developed our skills. Working with Peter was great, but to us, he was still the boss.”
After working with Tosh in the seventies, Sly and Robbie joined up with Duckie Simpson, an old schoolfriend of Dunbar’s, and provided the musical backing for his vocal trio, Black Uhuru.
Black Uhuru enjoyed global success and Sly and Robbie were springboarded into a world where they were hot property. For some of the world’s leading bands, working on a song or an album with them was a must.
They then went on to work with artists such as Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon and British great like Joe Cocker and Ian Dury. Their skills were such that they even managed to lift Grace Jones’s act by providing the heavyweight funk in Pull Up To The Bumper.
Sly explained: “We enjoyed working with people like the Rolling Stones. I remember being really surprised when Bob Dylan said that he wanted to record with us. We went to New York to work with him. I remember that we would keep recording with him over and over on his album Infidels until we all got it right, then he would just say, ‘That's it’ and the song would be finished.”
Genres have come and gone over the years. Just switch on any commercial radio station to listen to the latest new sound garnering all the interest, only for it to fade into the background after a few years.
But reggae has stood the test of time, and only seems to get more popular as the years progress.
And Sly revealed why he thinks reggae has been so popular. He said: “It’s down to a few things. There's a heavy bass line you don't get with some other stuff that just puts you in a groove. Reggae has its own trademark in that respect.”
Sly also explained why he thought his partnership with Robbie Shakespeare has proved so successful in its own right: “Our reason for success? Probably that we have no egos. We always listen and go back when recording our music. We like to recreate music. We both love coming from a small place like Jamaica and making a difference. It's great for Jamaica and great for its music industry.
“I've loved working with people like Mick Hucknall, Joe Cocker and Herbie Hancock. I could keep on naming musicians – they're all great people. Everyone has an individual sound.”
Finally, Sly described what we can expect from his show tonight: “Mostly, the music won't stop so people don't stop. We want to keep people dancing all night.”
Sly and Robbie play the Festival Marquee tonight at Custom House Square, Belfast. Tickets are £12. For further info, tel 028 9023 2403