Misty In Roots

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 their 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.

"The music thing was so free in Southall. We young musicians got together as Misty, and then we wanted to help the younger ones." Poko

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 everyday lives.

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.”

The release which secured Misty’s respect as the conscience of roots reggae was their Live at the Counter Eurovision album, released in 1979.

"If you imagine it, the first record we put out was something that don't sound like anything - it was raw, live." Poko

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. The late, influential DJ John Peel became and 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.

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, prompted elegies from Misty, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and others.

All these years on, Misty are still contemporary griots, telling stories to touch our social conscience. Their 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. 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." Poko

The support of the music and artistic community was swift. A benefit event was organised 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.

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 their union with Real World for Roots Controller, their first recording venture outside of their own Peoples Unite label, was well-starred. Misty has had 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.

 

 

Misty In Roots

Jamaica, United Kingdom

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