The Wailing Souls: Living On

Who would have thought back in 1970 that a group of Firehouse youths entering the 13 Brentford Road studio of Coxon Dodd for another hit and run recording session would be standing strong over twenty-five years later -- worldwide champions and ambassadors of the entire Jamaican music scene?

The fact remains, Lloyd "Bread" McDonald and Winston "Pipe" Matthews are among an elite group of original culture fathers who made reggae what it is today. Still relevant and rocking in 1996, the Wailing Souls have the unique distinction of being the only old school Jamaican act currently signed to a major label in the U.S. That speaks worlds about the group's ability to stay contemporary despite the changes reggae has seen in the past twenty-five years.

I spoke to Bread recently about the past and present runnings with the Wailing Souls. After finishing the Japanese leg of the world tour supporting their Zoo Entertainment release Live On, Bread and Pipe are gearing up to release new tracks in Jamaica, filming a video, and continuing to push their album into 1996.

"We're just gettin ready to put the promotion into a higher gear," said Bread from his Pomona, California home. "That album is still doing well. We're getting a single ready and hopefully a video pretty soon. The record company is committed to keep working this album for at least a year or more. It's going to be released in England pretty soon."

"It's been a while since we have released any songs locally for the Jamaican community. We're gonna release two singles in Jamaica. We're thinkin "Na Na Hey Hey" and "Owe Me Lickle Money.

"We haffe set the groundwork for having a base down there (again), cause we don't really have a base and such down there. So we're gonna lay that foundation (by) releasin a whole lotta songs in Jamaica."

Bread says the successful balance the Wailing Souls have attained with their latest work is a result of staying true to original Jamaican style while keeping the rhythms tight and well produced. "If you listen it keenly, (Live On) is a more rootsy album from the one before. We definitely had the Jamaican crowd in mind.

"To me its an amazing thing, but the majority of the people I have met, they love the reggae music in the pure Jamaican style, no remix anything. You keep hearing from the radio announcers that they not playing that type of music, (that) you have to remix it. To me it's just amazing to see that they really trying to keep the music from the people.

"Eventually, I think whatever the people want, they gonna haffe get it."
The tracks on Live On were mostly penned by Souls co-founder Pipe Matthews and songwriter/producer Richard Feldman, a colleague of producer Lee Jaffe. "Richard is the producer for our production company with Lee Jaffe, we're a part of it. Lee knows him and he is the one who really introduced us to him (Feldman). He produced the last two albums (and the track on the Cool Runnings soundtrack)."

Live On notably features a reworked version of the classic "Jah Jah Give Us Life" from the Souls days at Channel One (1978). "That is one of our all time favorite songs. We go and do a concert and we don't play that song, people ask us, 'What about "Jah Jah Give Us Life"? Even in Africa people ask us about that. When that song first came out, it was on a twelve-inch single. At the time twelve-inch single wasn't that popular. And Channel One is no longer in business. Everyone keep ask for the song and can't get it. And there's a whole heap of lickle kids who have probably never even heard it. The time was right, so we just did it over."

Bread and Pipe also chose to cover Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion," a tune that first brought reggae to the U.S. in 1972. "We grew up on that song," Bread fondly remembers. "We always warm up on that song before we get into our songs. That song is saying a lot of things. It's a crucial song."

Bread's songwriting contribution to the new album is "Owe Me Lickle Money," which he wrote to comment on the sudden personality changes people undergo after being loaned money. "That song was written in Jamaica. From observing when somebody really owes you some money. If they borrow from you, even your best friend, all of a sudden, you stop seeing them as often. Sometimes they even frown at you."

The Wailing Souls career began at Studio One where they cut several albums for Coxson, the most famous of which included "Row Fisherman Row," "Back Out With It," and "Mr. Fire Coal Man." A period of reduced activity ended in the late 70s when Island signed the band and released the classic Wild Suspense to international acclaim. That album has just been reissued by Island Jamaica with eight previously unavailable dubs by the Revolutionaries. The band also released Inchpinchers for Island in 1982, and the incomparable Firehouse Rock on Greensleeves in 1981. On The Rocks (1983) and Stranded (1984) were also released by Greensleeves. This marked the end of the classic line-up of the group, as Buddy Haye and Garth Dennis left to pursue other ventures.

Before coming back to international prominence in 1992 with the release of All Around The World (which hit with "Shark Attack"), the Waling Souls released several albums through the Live and Learn label, distributed by RAS Records in the States. "Between 85 and 92, we released like five albums, but they were like little underground albums. We also did an album for King Jammy's (Stormy Night) that was released on the Rohit label. The catalog from that period also included Lay It On The Line, Kingston 14, Reggae Inna Firehouse, and Wailing on VP Records.

Bread says he isn't surprised when people aren't familiar with the work the group did from the mid-80s to the early 90s, because of the independent nature of the labels involved. "It's just that whenever you're not hooked up with the major labels, your music don't get played. It don't get that exposure. These are songs that basically nobody know that they are out there. It's just diehard Wailing Souls fans (that know).That is what happened to 99 percent of Jamaican recordings.

"We really give thanks to Jah for seeing that reggae music is getting a little bit of the play right now. More people are aware of reggae music right now than they did before. We still a long way from where we want to be, but it's better than it was."

Like many artists who cut their teeth in the seventies, Bread is thankful yet not surprised to see the old style of roots reggae being once again respected. "Right now the roots rhythm has resurged. (Until recently), people weren't really into it except for the people who were introduced to it through Bob Marley. The powers that be weren't really exposing this part of Jamaican music. It's like people in the world today (were going) more for the sinful stuff more than they (were going) for the righteousness. But we have a saying in Jamaica. 'It goes around, and it comes around,' and we knew that soon people are going to be turned off of this whole heap of crap. Right now in the dancehall in Jamaica, it's just culture."

While Bread says he doesn't ever see the music returning to the looser, slower grooves of the 70s, the key to the heartbeat of roots music is the use of live musicians in the studio. "The thing that will bring the heartbeat back to the rhythm is having live musicians playing. That is where you get the soul out of the music. That is where you get the feel.

"The music haffe grow. It's nice when the music is tight. When you say it's tight, it's like everything is right there in the pocket which is what you want. But the flare is still gonna be there where people improvise."

As one of the highest visibility bands in reggae today, the Wailing Souls are responsible for introducing many listeners, young and old, to the reggae sound for the first time -- a responsibility Bread takes very seriously. "Apart from the musical aspect of what we are doing, we see it as a very spiritual thing. We see it as a way of bringing people together. Through your music, you're going to bring a lot of people who have been hearing this thing for the first time, and you want them to go away with the right impression. Ever since we were little guys growing up, that was the thing. Whenever you start singing, everyone come together. The bad guys come together, the good guys come together, everybody come together. The rich people, poor people, like one. The message what we a try to preach is love and unity.

"Is very important to us when we go out there on the road. A lot of people tell us that is the first time they have heard reggae. So is a really serious thing to try an do your best at all times. Make sure your message is pure, mon."

Copyright 1996 Carter Van Pelt

First Published here
also appears Reggae Report Volume 14 Number 3 1996