Steel Pulse - A conversation with Phonso Martin

Ellen Oumano in New York Reggae Times

December 1985

The front cover of the New York Reggae Times December 1985 showing David Hinds (click to enlarge).

This summer I found myself on the West Coast for the first time, marooned on a Southern California beach exactly like the ones I had seen on TV and in the movies. There they were, endless groups of blond surfer girls and boys, tanned, golden-haired and smiling, living in a world where there were no Ethiopias, no South Africas, no urban ghettos. Suddenly, in the midst of this alien experience, a familiar and welcome sound brought me back to myself; 'On the corner with my roller skates/ feeling great....' I turned and saw to my right, three bikinied girls painting their nails while the fourth was singing along to her Steel Pulse tape, periodically exhorting her friends to 'Listen! Listen! This is really great!' They were indifferent, but I wasn't...'You like Steel Pulse, you like reggae?' I asked. 'For sure! See my boyfriend over there, the one with the red, green and gold on his surfboard?' She pointed to a pudgy young man. 'He's really into it!' True, their idea of reggae music was limited to Bob Marley, Steel Pulse and UB40, but a seed has been planted amidst alien corn, and a beginning is just that - a start of something.

Steel Pulse is the band right now that is deliberately continuing what Bob began: the move to internationalize reggae, to spread it beyond those already convinced to those who may be ready to be awakened to the knowledge of what's really going on in this world of ours, a world of isms and schisms which must be confronted. The pen is mightier than the sword it's true, but what could be more powerful a weapon than the words written by that pen as sung by the human voice and backed by the heartbeat rhythms of drum and bass? What is more irresistible to the human heart than the vibration of positive reggae music, a rhythm set to a poor man's cry?

In a period where reggae seems to be dividing into various camps; the 'Titty Move - Slim Ting' dancehall slackards; the inspirational traditionalists such as Burning Spear, Culture, Ras Michael; the sweet singers such as Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Sugar Minott, the conscious DJ's, such as Brigidier, Sister Carol, Papa Levi; the impassioned rhetoric of the dub poets, such as Mutabaruka, LKJ, Oku Onoura; only bands such as Steel Pulse, and the other leading British group, Aswad, seem to be making that crossover move, winning an audience beyond the usual reggae fans. Last October 25, Steel Pulse sold out Radio City Music Hall, a most prestigious gig. Only one time before had reggae played this huge venue - the Reggae Sunsplash tour - and it took the combined efforts of Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown and Third World to do it. Steel Pulse did more than lively up this venerated institution. Exasperated ushers could do nothing to stem the tide of fans dancing up and down the aisles. Pulse demonstrated once more that professionalism and skill do not conflict with raw talent and inspiration. Their music gets better and better all the time, intellectually, emotionally, amd musically. The roots are there with the rhythms pushed up a bit to British levels, just enough to win over the rock 'n' rollers.

I had the pleasure to meet with Steel Pulse's percussionist and harmony singer, Phonso Martin, the afternoon of their concert. Our conversation follows: Reggae Times: More than any other, your band seems to be helping to make reggae internationally known. Phonso Martin: Right now on the circuit we are probably the most acknowledged band but it's not just one band. There are other bands that are doing their just part, 'cause we as a band cannot do it ourselves. You need bands that play in the small clubs and bands that go and play in the out of the way places. They're the bands that really help to keep the roots of the following going and we just try to get the cross over audience.

RT: What does Steel Pulse have that enables them to do that? PM: I think it's a mixture of things. We came out at the right time, 1978. We hit a soft point in the white listening audience in England in 1978. We learned a lot from Bob Marley and Burning Spear and a lot of the artists that were around before we got any recognition, and I think the whole acceptance of us here has to do with our coming from England. There's a whole mystique here; instead of bands playing reggae from Jamaica, which is the accepted thing, to hear bands playing reggae from England, and not only that, but having lyrics that are really relevant to the times. That's another thing as well - the relevancy of the lyrics. People can hear what we say and they know what we're saying is true. They feel it so they know it. They accept us because it's a whole conglomeration of things.

RT: It seems Steel Pulse took a longer time to catch on in Jamaica. PM: The thing is with Jamaica it's difficult for records made in England to get played in Jamaica because of problems with distribution. Sunsplash exposed the band to the listening public there - that was needed for them to get hold of us. The only way they'd hear of us before we played the first Sunsplash was if a Jamaican DJ came to England and bought a few albums. But as soon as we signed with a major company and there was a deal to get the music into Jamaica, everything changed. When we first got to Jamaica, we were kind of scared because Jamaican audiences are very selective. They like their music and they know their music, you know, and us come from England, we was a bit apprehensive about how we would be received. First, when we got to the airport, when we were talking to Jamaican people, we talked in patois, just for communications sake. We spoke that way and had that certain kind of Jamaican attitude, so from when we went into that airport, everybody took to us. We didn't put on any airs and graces, we were humble because we were scared. From that first day we checked the vibe and the people checked us and that gave us confidence, because we knew if we could get over with the Jamaican audience, we could get over with any audience.

RT: How would you describe the progression of Steel Pulse? PM: It's difficult to paint a visual picture, but Steel Pulse is just trying to progress our music, trying to get it across to the majority of people. You see, I'm sick and tired of people taking the music, incorporating it into their sound and getting the rewards of reggae, and the actual reggae music itself, the roots, does not get acknowledgement. I'm fed up with that. So one of our goals would be to make it more mainstream, make it on a par with all the other musics because right now it's not getting the full backing and financial leverage that it needs to grow. That would be the direction that I hope to see Steel Pulse's music and reggae music in general going.

I don't know how I'm going to be taken when I say this, but for groups to really make it or get across to a wider variety of audience they have to be really versatile, and you have to really try to cater to a wider mass of people. We don't want to nationalize it, we want to internationalize it - so we have to do certain things. It has to do with a certain sweetness with the music you know, and stage appearance has got to be a certain way - throw yourself out there, you know? If you don't do that, you'll only be confined to a small amount of people who are really going to deal with what you deal with. It's unfortunate that it's that way, but if you really want to go out there and make everybody hear it - even the baldheads out there - as long as they're hearing it, there's a chance those people out there will find something within the music to say, 'Boy, what we're dealing with here kinda wrong; we should try and understand these people more. The music's good and this and that, so they must be kinda cool.' We feel, say, that music can break down barriers, y'know, and we also feel that one of the things that causes a lot of conflict between people is lack of understanding. Y'know what I'm saying? And you can really break down those barriers and show people what you're really dealing with...Like, to me, music is an extension of the man, so you can listen to my music and feel good and dance and everything, so you can be open to me, because you feel my music, so you feel me. So it's a conscious decision we've made to do it that way, because we feel that that way we know things can be changed. We was talking with some people from Zimbabwe and what they were doing on the front lines. The freedom fighters were listening to Bob's music on the front lines and that was the thing that was really motivating them to go on. So the power's in the music really.

An early photo of Steel Pulse from the article.

RT: More than anything, music can carry a message to the poeple. PM: It really does. It's not only the lyrics of it, but when a musician plays an instrument and he puts the emotion and feeling behind it, you feel that. We're just using it as a tool to see if we can do somthing really constructive. That's why we really have to try to internationalize it.

RM: People talk about reggae not going as far as they thought it would in the late seventies or say it lost it's momentum when Bob died, or blame it on Babylon not wanting the music to get out there. What do you think the artists themselves do to hold themsleves back? PM: Well, you see music business. Take away the music for a minute and you're left with business. That's a very, very important part of the whole setup y'know? And if you don't have that together, a lot of things will just fall down because the business is kind of there controlling the music. I mean, y'know, people will have conflict with me and say it's a different thing, but I'm talking about the business, I'm not talking about the inspirational part of the music and the vibes you get to produce the music. I'm talking about the thing that really puts the whole thing together. If you don't have a good business sense or organizing ability, things will fall through. And if you haven't got that, you're going to rely on other people to do that for you, and they haven't got the convictions you have. They only see the financial gains from it and so when things get bad they'll leave you. Now reggae music right now, it's very difficult for the music to really get to the masses because the record companies don't really see the value in the music as such, they see figures. Now the contradiction behind this whole thing is that in order for the music to go out there, you have to advertise it. These companies don't put the money into advertising it, so it doesn't sell. So after a time, they just throw it down, because they're not making any money from it. Right now, we as musicians, we have to try and get ourselves together right - not only for the music part because we can do the music - but it's the business part of it that's got to be right and that's one of the major problems right now. Because we haven't got our busines together, we allow other people to deal with it and they don't deal with it right because they don't really see it and they don't like it. A lot of the things we say in the music is directed at them so they feel a way.

RT: What about the drug problem in music? PM : I've never seen coke and nobody in Steel Pulse deals with it at all. If anybody is seen near it, around, or holding it, or whatever, they go straight away, no apologies. It doesn't matter who, they're adult people, right? They know what they're doing. So, if they want to deal with it, make them deal with it. That's where they get their kick from, that's them. BIUt as far as I can see, it's just the destruction of the nation. When I go to Jamaica and people come up and offer me coke, I really feel bad about it, y'know? But what can you do? You can't nursemaid anybody, because everybody is answerable for their deeds. If a person is conscious and they have something they know in the long run will be harmful to them and they still use it, that means they are killing themselves. They're committing suicide. Now that's an abomination then - if you want to get into Biblical and Scriptural terms. They're lost people. I just see them as people. If they have locks, that don't mean a thing to me outside appearance is just outside appearance. So right now, I don't deal with that: I don't deal with how a man look. I deal with how a man deals with me and if he's coming from his heart and that's it. So if a man wants to deal with that, it's up to him. I'm not saying they're totally bad people, but they're weak people and they need guidance.

As far as I'm concerned, I don't smoke herb. Herb is very good, I eat it, I make tea with it, but I don't smoke it. But anything else, I don't want to know and I don't want anybody beside me who deals with it. In the early part of our growth - you know when you're growing up, you're searching for things and you look and look and then you hold onto something. You have so much faith in this thing, but you don't know the whole mechanics, the whole running of the thing. So around this thing you'll have certain things you'll need to do to be a part of it, so you just do it to fit in. Now in the beginning, we used to do that - we used to smoke a lot. But it was in the way that I think it should be used properly; to me it's in prayer and meditation. It should be used properly, but everybody is using it to get high. I'm not into getting high like that, no high business, you know what I'm saying? So a lot of it is abused. So I said to myself, 'if I want to get my business together properly and deal with all these people you beed to deal with to promote the music, I can't go to them stoned.' You can't deal with that 'cause that doesn't get you anywhere. And that's a problem, y'know? Any problem or anything that's going to stunt my growth, I just cut it off. So that was one thing I just said, 'Well, no.' It's a good herb but I think it should be used in the right space and time, like everything else.

RT: Do you feel you have to live in Africa, or is the important thing just to free Africa? PM: You see, as a black people, we need our own country, our own governments, because we have no way of controlling our own destiny. You have the Japanese who've got their culture - they've gone miles ahead of everybody else as far as technology and mass production are concerned. Economically they're sound. America could be economically sound. It's got the resources to be. Everybody has got their own land and their own government. Now if we don't have that as a people, there's no way that we're going to progress. Because we're dealing with other people's things. Personally I can't speak in African language, and I've lived in England most of my life, but I feel a necessity for that country to grow and to be under the control of its own people. It's a necessity and, you see, until that happens, there's going to be so much strife and fighting all over the world. You know what I'm saying?

Text copyright New York Reggae Times 1985, used without permission.

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