Q&A with music writer and research consultant John Masouri, specialising in reggae music and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall

"Reggae's like blues in that if you don't believe in what you're doing, it doesn't work. Authenticity is key and many reggae artists are sincere in their rage and frustration, as well the desire to help create a better world with their music."

John Masouri: Caribbean Soul, Irie Blues

John Masouri is an author, music journalist, reviewer, broadcaster and research consultant, specialising in reggae music and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. He was co-curator of the Sound-System Culture: London exhibition held at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill during January 2016. His latest books on the Reggae Chronicles series, published by Jook Joint Press are The Marley Files: One Foundation and Rebel Frequency: Jamaica's Reggae Revival (2020). His previous titles are: Simmer Down (2018, Jook Joint Press), written about the original Wailers trio of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston; and Steppin' Razor: The Life Of Peter Tosh (2013, Omnibus Press), and was the first major biography of the controversial reggae star. He completed an authorised biography of Bob Marley and the Wailers called Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers (2010, Omnibus Press) which Roger Steffens has described as the best book ever written on Bob Marley, and "a fan's dream come true." In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Britain's No.1 black music monthly Echoes (formerly Black Echoes), whom he joined in 1989 - a journey that has resulted in an extraordinary body of work comprising more than 2,000 interviews with artists, producers, musicians and industry figures from all corners of the reggae music spectrum.                                               (Photo: John Masouri)

Other publications to feature his writings include Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and NME, as well as magazines in the US, Holland, Italy, Japan (RM) and the Caribbean. He remains a regular contributor to magazines in France (Reggae Vibes) and Germany (Riddim.) En route, he's contributed to several radio and television documentaries commissioned by the BBC ("UK Reggae," "Arise Blackman, The Life Of Peter Tosh," The Story Of Jamaican Music", and "Blood And Fire"), Channel 4, and the BBC World Service. Also Menelik Shabazz's film, "The Story Of Lover's Rock." Away from the media, he's written a vast amount of label and promotional material for record companies such as Sony, Universal, Virgin, BMG, VP Records, Jet Star, and Greensleeves, among many others. He's also compiled and written liner notes for nearly two hundred reggae albums over the years, including titles by Sizzla, Elephant Man, Luciano, Dennis Brown, Black Uhuru, Freddie McGregor, Lloyd Brown and Israel Vibration.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Reggae (and Counterculture of) influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I'm proud of my white, working class roots, but I've felt an affinity with Rastafari since the mid-seventies. It's subsequently influenced how I live, my behaviour towards others, what I eat and what I think when I look around me. That's because Rasta taught me that Babylon is a construct, designed so that the rich can continue living off the backs of the poor and who could claim otherwise?  

I was drawn to the music's spirit of rebellion, as well as wise teachings but Rasta culture has now influenced the whole world. We only have to look at the profusion of juice bars, vegan foodstuffs and restaurants, medical marijuana, natural medicines, sound-systems, reggae music. Also, Rasta people have been talking about the need to tackle racism, and re-educate people about slavery and Europe's colonial past for many, many years. It's the philosophy that keeps on giving, and it's time has surely come.

Where does your creative drive come from? Do you have a dream project you'd most like to accomplish?

As a youngster, I was always being told that I'd never amount to anything. That's been a spur but it's the desire to keep growing and keep learning that fills my waking hours. I also read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction, and am always looking to see how I can improve as a writer.

Re: dream projects, I have two half-finished novels on my hard drive and just completing one of them would be a dream come true!

"I've learnt there's a difference between writers on a mission, and those who Doris Lessing described as "entrepreneurs of other people's talent." I've spent far too much time being the latter but discovered that you can sweeten the pill by having pride in your craft, setting yourself high standards, treating every assignment with equal respect and not cutting corners when it comes to the laborious bits. Also detail matters and words have consequences, which is why we must use them carefully." (Photo: "Rebel Frequency: Jamaica's Reggae Revival" & "Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers")

Why do you think that Reggae music continues to generate such a devoted following?

It's great dance music and always has been, but a lot of people can also relate to what the lyrics are saying whether it's about relationships or speaking truth to power. Reggae's popularity is also bound up with identity and lifestyle. The culture has its own language, fashion and a deep and varied history that newcomers often lose themselves in to the point that they won't listen to anything else. They catch what Peter Tosh called Reggaemylitis and yes, it's highly infectious!

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? Are there any memories you’d like to share with us?

The Wailers' Aston "Family Man" Barrett changed my direction of travel completely after we met up in Amsterdam during early 1998 and started work on Wailing Blues. I learnt so much during the years we spent travelling, talking and listening to music together, and I still believe in the Wailers' cause. I have a lasting memory of him stood before the judge at London's Old Bailey, having been asked what role Chris Blackwell played with Bob Marley and the Wailers. "Well your honour," said Family Man, "he was the plantation owner, and we were the musical slaves."

Other influential people in my reggae life include the music master Sly Dunbar and Fatis Burrell, who initiated me into Kingston's vibrant nineties' reggae scene. The recordings that he made with Luciano, Sizzla, Beres Hammond and others had such spiritual power, I get goose bumps just thinking about it. Those Wednesday night sessions at Music Works and then Anchor will forever stay in the memory, as will Fatis himself.

"I'm proud of my white, working class roots, but I've felt an affinity with Rastafari since the mid-seventies. It's subsequently influenced how I live, my behaviour towards others, what I eat and what I think when I look around me. That's because Rasta taught me that Babylon is a construct, designed so that the rich can continue living off the backs of the poor and who could claim otherwise? " (John Masouri & Aston "Family Man" Barrett, Rototum Sunsplash 2017, Spain / Photo © by Catherine Gillo)

What do you miss most nowadays from the Reggae of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss people like Junior Delgado, Augustus Pablo, Fatis Burrell, Garnet Silk, Steely, Prince Lincoln, Justin Hinds, Jimmy Riley, Nambo Robinson, Dennis Brown and Bunny Rugs, and I mourn the closure of reggae hubs such as Jetstar, Arrows, Record Factory, Fashion and Sonic Sounds. There are fewer hangout places nowadays and also far less spontaneity, rivalry, humour, invention and excitement in the music.

Those two things may be related and yet I'm optimistic for the future given that reggae's global popularity is still growing and a younger, outward looking generation has succeeded in taking the music forward, whilst honouring past glories at the same time. We elders are truly in their debt.  

What were the reasons that made the UK to be the center of Reggae / Rocksteady / Ska researches and experiments?

Jamaica was a British colony until 1962 and the two countries shared a language, monarchy and judicial and education system... Caribbean people also played a significant role in rebuilding post-war Britain and three generations later the influence of Jamaican music can be heard everywhere, having quickly spread from house parties whilst laying the foundations for today's UK sound system culture. What made many black British musicians feel as though they didn't belong here, and drove them to create something of their own that they could identify with was racism. That sense of alienation - in the country of their birth - is what has fuelled the evolution of UK reggae. It's the bedrock upon which the whole troubled, exciting and diverse edifice stands from lovers' rock, roots reggae, 2 Tone, jungle and drum and bass, to garage and grime.

What is the impact of Reggae on the racial, political, spiritual and socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Reggae's like blues in that if you don't believe in what you're doing, it doesn't work. Authenticity is key and many reggae artists are sincere in their rage and frustration, as well the desire to help create a better world with their music. It felt like a victory of sorts when the BBC chose Bob Marley's One Love as its Song Of The Millennium but we need that same spirit to expand into the realms of politics and big business now, so we can transform our societies along different lines that benefit the many, not the few. 

"It's great dance music and always has been, but a lot of people can also relate to what the lyrics are saying whether it's about relationships or speaking truth to power. Reggae's popularity is also bound up with identity and lifestyle. The culture has its own language, fashion and a deep and varied history that newcomers often lose themselves in to the point that they won't listen to anything else. They catch what Peter Tosh called Reggaemylitis and yes, it's highly infectious!" (Photo: John Masouri's books)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience as a music writer?

I've learnt there's a difference between writers on a mission, and those who Doris Lessing described as "entrepreneurs of other people's talent." I've spent far too much time being the latter but discovered that you can sweeten the pill by having pride in your craft, setting yourself high standards, treating every assignment with equal respect and not cutting corners when it comes to the laborious bits. Also detail matters and words have consequences, which is why we must use them carefully.

Where would you really want to go with a time machine and what memorabilia (albums, books) would you put in?

Give me a time machine and I'd be addicted for life! It would make YouTube look like a great-granny's photo album, and the thought of sitting in on all those classic gigs, recording sessions and other points of music history is overwhelming. 

I'd head straight for Kingston where you'd find me in the front row of the Ward Theatre one Christmas in the early sixties as the Wailers, backed by the Skatalites, brought the house down with their latest hit, Simmer Down.

It would be fascinating to visit those famous New York jazz clubs when Trane, Miles and other legends were in their prime. Next stop might be Chicago's South Side in the fifties, Jimi Hendrix's shows with the Band of Gypsies at the Fillmore East, or a trip to the Shrine in Lagos to see Fela Kuti fronting Egypt 70, and with Tony Allen on drums. We're spoilt for choice but regarding the last part of your question, if we're talking about changing the course of music history then I'd definitely whisper in Otis Redding's ear so he didn't get on that damned plane...

John Masouri - Home

(Photo: John Masouri)

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