Misty in Roots
Jamaica, United Kingdom
MISTY IN ROOTS
REJOICE! The return of Misty In Roots to the recording studio with 'Roots Controller' marks twelve years since their last release - and the third phase in a career that's skanked over two decades. And be glad, those who treasure memories of Misty's sonorous steppers from way back in the 1970s, when their name was inseparable from the struggle of the conscious Dread against racism and fascism. Welcome, too, to those new initiates who seek a true roots reggae injection. For finally gathered here together is the best of Misty old and new, a survey of a lifelong commitment to music with meaning.
Fabled for their independence and integrity, the Misty collective can be compared to the mighty Musi-O-Tunya Falls they sing about on one of this CD's most poignant tracks; the sheer drop of pounding water that can be seen and heard from both Zambia and Zimbabwe, that the British colonisers called after their Queen Victoria. Known in the local language as The Smoke That Thunders, its flow never falters, even if it's obscured by mist.
Through each of its incarnations, the message of Misty in Roots remains consistent, laying down the Rasta ideology and spirit on a bedrock of solid, melodic bass, gospel-tinged keyboards and triumphant horns. Stern and unyielding in their beliefs, Misty hurl down their messages from the mountain tops, wailing for the oppressed, critiquing and warning Babylon's materialistic system, always anticipating the change that must come and asking "How long, Jah Jah, must we suffer?"
Misty In Roots is well grounded in its community, Southall in West London. Local musicians like singers Poko (Walford Tyson) and his brother Duxie (Delvin Tyson), both born in St Kitts, and Grenadan guitarist Chop Chop (Dennis Augustin) jammed together as teens, learning calypso and mento from the older West Indian musicians in the area's pan-Caribbean mix - back then,
Southall wasn't as specifically Asian as it is now. Poko's peers were the first kids from the old colonies to integrate the local schools, enduring all the schoolyard testing that implies. But as the complexion of the area began to change, the new arrivals from the former colonies created their own culture, in which school dances, youth clubs and Caribbean Carnival festivities brought musicians together. Starting with a soft-spoken keyboard player, a Guyanan named Vernon Hunt, Misty gradually formed.
All these young players of instruments began exploring radical ideas, both in their music and what it would deal with, and in their livity, the way they wanted to live their every day. "The music thing was so free in Southall," remembers Poko. "We young musicians got together as Misty, and then we wanted to help the younger ones."
Misty were honed by a stint backing the pioneering Jamaican vocalist, Nicky Thomas. "Out of that experience," recalls Poko, "we knew how to deliver music. Year after year, we developed into what we are now."
Misty took over a squat in Southall as a community Arts Centre, providing space for local youth to meet, record and rehearse. A free kitchen fed the homeless. The Peoples Unite roster expanded to include artists like The Enchanters, Kurt Leacock, Bongo Danny, Sister Jenny and African Woman, who later became known as Akabu. The first single released on their own Peoples Unite label was by a white neighbourhood punk group: 'In A Rut' by The Ruts. With their fiery singer, the late Malcolm Owen, they related to the Rasta worldview on tracks like 'Babylon's Burning'.
"We knew Malcolm from the streets in Southall. The Ruts came to us; our first single, 'Six One Penny', was put out later. Everything came together organically," recalls Poko.
The release which secured Misty's respect as the conscience of roots reggae was their 'Live at the Counter Eurovision' album, released in 1979. Poko laughs, remembering. "If you imagine it, the first record we put out was something that don't sound like anything - it was raw, live."
Yet that serious simplicity and the uncut passion of the MC, Smokes, aka dub poet William Simon, helped 'Live' stay at the top of the Alternative charts for weeks, ensuring Misty's position as the hard-core underground Rasta rulers. Influential DJ, John Peel, became and has remained an ardent champion, resulting in their 'Peel Sessions' album.
When Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1981, Misty played there; the day that Bob Marley performed in Harare, they were marking the moment at London's Commonwealth Institute.
Actual moves to Africa were under discussion by 1982, a year that proved tumultuous and momentous for Misty. Hopes aside, Southall was and would always be Misty's home. Poko recalls: "Our co-operative was a little squat, but that's how most things start, everywhere you have people trying to do things. Usually you approach the council and it works out; but in our case " he falls silent, shaking his head.
While the new flowering of a white, black and brown Britain was happening, the country was gearing up for the elections which would be won by Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives, working the Law and Order ticket. Multi-racial Southall became a front line on which the new multi-tribal Britain was being forged from the old. The passage was marked with blood - famously, that of the young New Zealander teacher, Blair Peach, whose death at the hands of the police during a protest against the National Front in April 1982, prompting elegies from Misty and Linton Kwesi Johnson and others.
Twenty years on, Misty are still contemporary griots, telling stories to touch our social conscience. Their new song, 'Cover Up', deals with the case of a black teenager, student Stephen Lawrence, murdered by a racist gang of white youths in London in 1993. The inadequate police investigation raised allegations of corruption and institutional racism in London's Metropolitan Police Force.
Back in the 1980s the confrontations faced by Misty's musical activism made headlines. During a demonstration against the National Front, their house was stormed by the police on St George's Day, 21 April 1982. In the course of the fighting, police fractured the skull of Misty's manager, Clarence Baker, who nearly died. The aftermath was rough, too: the council literally demolished the house.
"That's where the band changed again," remembers Poko. "It was particularly wicked what happened to Vernon - he got sent to jail for years. He was a fine keyboard player. Half the band got locked up and the other half was stuck in the legal system with show trials for two years. It does leave you mashed up, though you survive."
The support of the music and artistic community was swift. A Benefit was put on at the Rainbow, with (most of) The Who, including Pete Townsend, Aswad, The Clash and The Ruts. Having to re-invent themselves once again, Misty were repaid once more by the work they'd put into the community; a local musician named Tawanda took Vernon's place.
The new line-up released the 'Wise and Foolish' album, which once again sat atop the national Alternative charts for weeks.
Having endured a most challenging year, when Misty bought a farmhouse in Eastern Zimbabwe in 1982, they thought they were fulfilling the Rasta dream of repatriation. Africa, Misty's great love, has proved the band's greatest inspiration - and has taught them some of their harshest lessons. Their ideal of re-creating the Southall Peoples Unite community in the motherland proved too hasty. Farm workers had squatted the land when the old owner left the property and, tragically misunderstanding Misty's intention to encourage them to remain, one of their leaders killed himself. Turning the farm over to local people, Misty started a short-lived Peoples Unite Zimbabwe. Their experiences inspired the album 'Musi-O-Tunya'. Ultimately, the band decided to focus on extensive touring of the continent.
It was at the end of one such tour, of Ghana in 1992, that the band suffered another, more personal tragedy, when Poko's brother Duxie went swimming in the ocean and never returned.
Forced to re-group once more, the band again found support from their community. The new material on the album 'Forward' pointed to a fresh start for the re-configured Misty.
Over the next decade, Misty never stopped working, across Europe, in Africa, Japan and the Middle East. Content with spreading the message, recording seemed less vital. But this new union with Real World, their first recording venture outside of their own Peoples Unite label, is well-starred; Misty has a long association with Real World's WOMAD festival, having played their first show at London's ICA with Zairean superstar, Kanda Bongo Man, back in 1983.
On a level, this recording is also a tribute to Duxie, who fulfilled his dream of ending his days in Africa, too young. Many of these tracks, like 'New Day', 'Dreadful Dread' and 'Musi-O-Tunya', were his compositions. His dynamism and spirit live on in these songs and in Misty's future contributions to the struggle.