This is another early article that I have mixed feelings about putting on the website. However, there may be something of interest here for anyone doing research on Big Mountain.

--CVP, 8/98

Big Mountain
Waking Up To Unity

If the idea of an Irish Chicano Reggae singer from Southern California having an international triple platinum single and a major label platinum album seems a bit strange to you, then you're probably not alone.

Since hitting the U.S. Reggae scene full force in 1992 with the release of Wake Up, Big Mountain has evolved into a group which is being eyed with curiosity (and suspicion) by the Reggae and mainstream music communities.

However, of all the roots revivalist albums released in 1994, Big Mountain's Unity arguably contains some of the most hard-core sounds, notably legitimized by the guitar work of former Soul Syndicate guitarist Tony Chin. At the same time, the band hit an international crescendo and achieved its primary recognition from a cover of a 1970's pop rock hit by Peter Frampton. The recording of "Baby, I Love Your Way," with sales topping three million copies, has put the band in the position of headlining shows of ten to fifteen-thousand people in some countries -- an accomplishment that any top act in the Reggae business would envy.

So how did this unlikely scenario of success develop?

Big Mountain's frontman and founder Quino (born Jimmy McWhinney) traces his interest in Reggae directly to a "60 minutes" feature on Bob Marley and the Rastafarian movement which he saw at age 13. He recalls, "That whole scene of hard-core dreadlock Rastas all gathered around a kutchie pipe, and the music, and Bob dancing, and the way he was singing; it sounded like he was crying to me. He had a tremendous impact on me. Soon after that I really started to kind of loose interest in other types of music and Reggae became my primary focus."

That experience, coupled with early concert exposure to Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru and Peter Tosh, further solidified Quino's love for Jah music. "I knew there was something different about the music. The rhythmic qualities caught my attention right off the bat."

However, the crucial connection for Quino was his social identification with the Rastafarian movement, which he sought to bring to the Chicano movement with which he was becoming increasingly involved as a youth in San Diego. "(I saw Rasta as) a movement of people trying to regain their culture. It was a movement of people trying to battle against racial injustice -- a movement that was trying to regain the integrity of its community. When I heard Bob singing those songs, it had a lot of parallels to things that I had experienced and things that I had thought about. I had always been frustrated with the lack of fire in the Chicano movement. So many of the things I saw in the Rasta movement, I wish it were in the movement of my people -- the pride, the excitement, the conviction. When I found (the Rastafarian movement), it gave me hope that I could somehow help my people express themselves."

After his high school years, Quino honed his singing talents in a group called the Rainbow Warriors, which eventually landed him in a group called Shiloh. Shiloh released California Reggae in 1989 on the San Diego-based independent, Hippodrome Records. Quino remembers this as the time that he really learned to play reggae, thanks to the tutelage of guitarist Jerome Cruz. "Jerome Cruz was a big step, he had played with Alton Ellis, Ras Michael, Mikey Dread, Joe Higgs. He really taught me how to play strict reggae. If you don't have that guidance, you really never know. You have to know how to play strict Jamaican skank guitar, you have to know how to bubble correctly."

It was around this time that Quino's talents were recognized by an enterprising character named Bruce Caplan, who had been promoting California Reggae for Hippodrome. Eventually Shiloh changed its name (and most of its line-up) to Big Mountain in order to draw attention to the Native peoples issues of the Southwest. *** Caplan began investing time in promoting the group on college radio. Big Mountain's debut, Wake Up and the single "Touch My Light," released in 1992, found their way into the College Music Journal (CMJ) charts and earned the band essential name recognition nationwide.

The band spent two years supporting Wake Up, including an appearance at the 1993 Reggae On The River festival. According to Quino, Caplan's persistence in overcoming negative 'white reggae' stereotypes about the band has proved crucial. "Management is a major reason why Big Mountain is making inroads. There's just a difference between aggressive people and super aggressive people. (Caplan) will burn the person at the stake until they listen (to our music). He'll call them out."
The move that broke the band internationally was the recording of "Baby, I Love Your Way" for the Reality Bites film soundtrack. Propelled by the motion picture's popularity and mainstream radio's acceptance of the single, Big Mountain went from relative obscurity to international notoriety in a few short months -- an accomplishment almost unheard of for a Roots Reggae act. Reflecting on the experience, Quino's feelings vary. "We knew it was an opportunity we couldn't pass up. It was amazing man, we still trip out on it to this day, but our work is cut out for us because we're concerned about the Reggae public, maintaining our communication with the Reggae community, (but) it makes it so much easier for us to open doors, because the name is worldwide now.
"I kind of wake up one day and I have one interpretation of it all, and I wake up another day and I'm in some sort of really dread screw face mood, and I'm thinkin, damn, we should have just struggled on.

"We anticipated that (trouble). We knew it was something that was going to permanently damage our relationship with some sector of the (Reggae) community. But being people who take after examples, we saw many times in the history of Reggae music where people had to take similar chances and we felt this was the time (for us)." (Notably, Bob Marley and the Wailers were severely scrutinized for their mainstream success in the late 70's).

Despite his apprehensions, Quino feels the experience is still to the benefit of other Reggae bands looking for commercial success. "We gotta continue to open the doors. We gotta continue to make sure that this music is gonna go on and that there's gonna be a market for the Reggae bands that are coming after us.

"As far as us needing Hollywood to transmit our message, I'm starting to believe in that less and less. More and more I'm starting to believe we need to work within the Reggae community. We need to organize more, trying to just get a hold of more resources, but we have to give thanks for the progress we have made.

"It's important for bands to have success like Big Mountain has had success, but we have to get in and I think we have to step out. I don't think we're ever going to be able to affect the commercial scene the way some people think we should. We have to understand that our movement (the Rastafarian movement) is pure. The more we involve ourselves with trying to get established within a Hollywood type of thing, the more watered down we're gonna get. The more we concentrate on our own labels, our own newspapers, our magazines, this is where the real progress goes, cause this is happening in the community. You can have some sort of international splash, but the real concrete change that's happening in the community, that's what we're really all fighting for."
Since this past summer's success, Big Mountain has been touring the world and gaining experiences. Quino says he has been overwhelmed by the positive response the band has received in countries such as Jamaica, Spain, Argentina, and Japan -- where the band headlined Reggae Sunsplash. "We closed after Steel Pulse, Inner Circle, Maxi Priest, and U Roy. We were embarrassed, but the Rasta family being what it is, always comes through to really up our vibe and give us confidence."

The band's fall U.S. Tour has been a bit of a contrast to headlining in front of 15,000. "We know we have our work cut out for us. I really don't know what to make of it. This country is so fickle, it's weird. Reggae crowds are unpredictable. We gotta continue on, we've got something the people need. We've gotta forward on."

Quino's new role as a Reggae star has given him plenty of time to evaluate and cultivate his Rastafarian beliefs. The essence of Rasta for Quino is "the idea that people need to investigate their history and elevate their pride. I can be proud of who I am and where I came from. The beauty of Rasta is based on studying and investigating and finding out for ourselves. I urge people who are interested to study (and) get to the books.

"Rasta is present every single day. Rasta is a force. Haile Selassie is a symbol of unity for the people. You can try to discount his records and poke holes in his life, but the fact remains, he was a Black leader in a white man's world. And when the white man writes the history, of course they're gonna talk bad about the Black man. His presence created a fire, and the fire is still growing."
As Quino repeatedly says, "our work is cut out for us." After hitting an apex of success, Quino is still confident in Big Mountain's potential for longevity. "We're here for the long haul," he flatly states.

His current and long term plans involve continuing to spread the roots consciousness message. "I see cultural music as being the only possibility. Roots music is what it's all about. We need to concentrate on the music that's gonna last throughout the ages."

Copyright 1994 Carter Van Pelt

originally published by Reggae Report, 1994