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HomeEducation / CultureA historic conversation with legendary drummer Santa Davis - Part 1B

A historic conversation with legendary drummer Santa Davis – Part 1B

By Stephen Cooper

Los Angeles, California – On December 1, 2019, I interviewed drummer Carlton “Santa” Davis at his house in Los Angeles for over three hours about his legendary career.

Q:  People can locate these things if they want, and so I see no need to rehash this, unless perhaps maybe at a future meeting, when we have more time, and [if] you want to address further what I think are grotesque and shameful attacks on you concerning a very tragic situation in which you could have easily died, too. So maybe we’ll save it for another day?

Santa Davis: No, no, no. One thing I need for you to have on tape: Okay. So this incident happened [on the] 11th of September, 1987. Now this lady, Marlene Brown, I think she did this interview – she went on Mutabaruka’s show. Because the first time I saw anything was [in] 2012. I was actually looking for something on YouTube, having no idea about this thing. I was here in California, [and] I was looking for something on YouTube. Maybe some music. Maybe some instructions about music – or something. And I saw this interview. And I said, Oh, Marlene Brown interviewed [by] Mutabaruka, okay, I’m gonna check it out and see what she [had] to say.

And she was talking, talking, talking. And then she come to me now, and bro, I had to play back that spot. Over and over. Because I’m like, I’m not smoking no weed – I stopped smoking weed from 1990. I’m not drunk, nothing. So I said wait a minute, let me play this back. Did she really say that? And I played it back and I’m like, wow, wow. Okay. So now, what she said to Muta on the radio, to the world, big lie, okay, fine. Now all I would say to anybody, to all the people who took judgment on me from that time. Go back and watch her previous interview. There was an interview she did, you could see the interview, I think Dermot Hussey was the narrator. He was talking about what happened [during the robbery and killings], and then they were showing a picture of the house [while] Dermot Hussey was talking. And she was in the house. It could have been the next day. Because I was still in the hospital, bleeding, bleeding out. They were extracting all that blood. So I would say to everyone who is talking crap about me, go back and go to the archives. She did a couple of interviews before the Mutabaruka thing;

Q: Where she never made this claim?

Santa Davis: She never mentioned me. She was talking about everything!

Q: And Santa, just for the sake of the interview, and because we haven’t said it yet, and so it can be clear when people read the interview, she made a claim on Mutabaruka’s show, and I don’t know where else she’s made the claim, that allegedly after the shooting, that she saw you and made a statement that, “Peter’s still alive. We can help him.” And you [allegedly], according to her, said “I’m not gonna help anyone,” [you got] in your jeep, and [went] to the hospital. Now as I’ve said, I think it’s a shame and a terrible thing for someone to say these things. You had a collapsed lung, you had internal bleeding, you literally fell into the hands of the attending [medical personnel]. [And] my understanding is also that Peter Tosh had been brutally pistol-whipped. He’d been shot in the head twice. That to say that he would have survived is to be making all kinds of claims and speculation without medical training or anything. And, also, to cast judgment on a person in a volatile situation, a violent situation, I find it to be…disgusting.

Santa Davis: Yeah, and;

Q: And I feel badly for you. I would say, as a Peter Tosh fan, and [from] what I understand, that I cannot believe that Peter Tosh, if he were alive – I think he would find this to be a revolting situation, that you should have to deal with this accusation.

Santa Davis: Of course, of course. You see, here’s the thing, she [went] on this program. I don’t know why she did that. Because number one, me and this woman we never had a problem. Whenever I would go to that house, I showed respect to her. Neither she nor I, or me and Peter, had any problems. So there was no issue where, oh, they owed me money, or they prevented me from anything. We had no problem. We were just in a situation where a terrible, terrible thing happened. Now a lot of people got shot. Three people died. I was the most critical [out of the survivors]. Now she and I, we both got up at the same time. And the first thing she said to me, “Are you okay?” I said, “No, I’m shot, I don’t feel right.” Because by then my body started getting weak, and then my breathing became weird. Breathing was like a struggle.

Q: You were probably in shock, too?

Santa Davis: I was in shock! Look here, I’m a human being. I was shocked, and I was scared, you know this was like something I’d never dealt with before. This is not just me bumping my head on a door jamb or something. This is a bullet. And I realized that something was wrong because my left side was numb – I couldn’t feel that. And the only conversation me and this woman [had]: She said, “Are you alright?” I said, “No, Mi get shot, and mi nah feel right.” She said, “Okay, alright.” I said, “Look, mi a-go to the hospital.” She said, “Yeah, no worries, no worries, mi a-call the neighbor.” That was the last conversation me have with her.

And me go outside [to] my vehicle. Struggle with the last likkle breath, or last likkle energy or adrenaline, my brethren. Drove myself to the hospital. How I did that? I don’t know. Because even the people the next day, the nurses dem I heard them having a conversation. Them say, “Oh, I heard one of the patients drove himself to the hospital. I wonder who that was?” And I said, “That would be me.” She said, “No, Mr. Davis. There is no way you could have driven yourself here in the condition you were in.” I said, “It was me.” She said, “Come on. I was here when you came here last night; you couldn’t have driven yourself in the condition that you were [in].” I’m like, “What?!” Now, [Marlene Brown’s] going to [go and] tell people on the Mutabaruka show, for whatever reason, I don’t know – maybe she had something in her heart against me for a long time. Because me and Peter, me and Peter had a good relationship. So a lot of times I would just, unannounced, go check Peter. Because back in [those] days, you [didn’t] have cell phones and all dem things.

So you go check your brederin [to see] if he’s there, yeah; if he’s not there, you come back again the next day. That’s how we used to do it. So a lot of times I would go check Peter, and of course she’s there, and Peter would be like, “Mi just call you, you know.” Like a telepathic kinda thing. I said, “Mi feel your vibe, and [so] mi come check my brederin.” Because I worked in his band; I was his drummer. So I would just go check him periodically – no problem.

Q: And you never sensed a problem with Marlene Brown? And to this day you don’t know why she’s [making] these [accusations]?

Santa Davis: I have no idea why she would do that. And she’s gonna tell the world that she – now listen to where the whole thing go south now. She never remembered that I was in the house until she hears my jeep start up. And she ran outside, according to her, telling me that Peter is alive, and he can be saved. And my response to her was, “Mi get shot, and mi nah help nobody.” Now, even if I would have responded to her and [said] “[I’m] not helping anybody, that doesn’t mean like it seems like I can, or could. But I just don’t want to be involved – that’s the way it would sound by putting it out there like that. Because if that conversation had [actually] taken place, I wouldn’t have responded like that. My response would maybe be: “Sister Marlene, I’m not in no condition – I’m dying.”

Q: I feel badly that you have to deal with this situation and respond to it publicly. Over and over. And I knew that even coming here, because it’s become such a thing, it’s something that someone who interviews you feels that they have to ask you about – um, but I’m glad that you [are] at least able to say what you feel inside [about it]. And one thing that’s powerful, all the people who [were] Peter Tosh’s friends and colleagues throughout the world, they are all still very close with you – they see you, they tour [with you], they don’t have these malicious thoughts. And they haven’t been moved in any way by this – this – gossip.

Santa Davis: My brother, a gunshot victim, anyone who’s been shot, will tell you. People get shot in their leg and they die. They bleed out. People get shot in their arm and they bleed out. It just depends on if that artery gets severed, you know what I mean?

Q: You’re blessed. You don’t have to convince me because;

Santa Davis: Bro, I’m left with a bullet still in me right now.

Q: In your clavicle?

Santa Davis: Well, it went down in my shoulder. Let me tell you this: A lot of people don’t realize what happened, you know? It was just the angels guiding me. Because if that bullet had gone straight through flesh, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today. It would have hit all those major organs inside of me. It hit – it broke my clavicle.

Q: And I heard you didn’t [learn] this until [much] later on?

Santa Davis: Yeah. I was doing a show with Wailing Souls out in Monterey, [and] I went to do a crash on my cymbals, with my left hand. And I felt this sharp pain in my shoulder. And the pain was [so] excruciating, I wondered if I broke something. Didn’t even think it had any connection [to when I was shot]. Only to find out when I did the x-ray and the doctor was like, “Did you get in an accident or something?” And I was like, “No.” [And he said,] “Did you know that your clavicle was broken?” I said, “No.” And then he saw the bullet. And he said, “Is that a bullet?” And I said, “Yeah.”

Then we started talking and he looks again at the x-ray and he saw like a little dent on [my clavicle]. And that’s when I realized, Oh, the reason why I’m still here – that’s what happened, the bullet hit [my] clavicle and turned, that’s why it ended up in my back area. If it had gone straight down, it would have shattered my lungs and everything. And the [doctor] said, “Your clavicle [was] broken, and it healed back in place.” And what happened is it must have been a little out [of joint], and I irritated it. All these years later. So, what I’m trying to say to people, is before you start to judge, go and understand the whole thing. [And] I would say to all these people, if what [Marlene Brown’s] saying – because remember when an incident happens, there are certain details you don’t forget. It’s there! Like I can tell you everything [that happened] from the moment it started to the end.

Q: Like in slow motion?

Santa Davis: Yeah. I can tell you everything that happened in the order it happened [in]. Because I was there. If what she’s telling the public about me, [and] my involvement and what I did, if that had happened, [that] first set of interviews that she did, that would be something on the top of her brain. Like, oh, you know, “Out of all the things that happened, I can’t believe that Santa Davis would do such a thing, blah, blah, blah. So I would say to people, she – I’ve seen like about two interviews [she did]; one where she was in the house with “Mikey,” the other brother, with his head [in] a bandage. And they were talking about the incident. And neither she, nor him, they didn’t mention my name one time. They didn’t even mention my name. And if that had happened – come on! I saw two interviews [Marlene Brown] did [in the immediate aftermath of the shooting]. Not one time did she mention me by name.

Q: And I’m glad you at least have a chance to let folks know this. [And then that] guy went and made a whole thirty-minute [YouTube] video screed.

Santa Davis:  Yes! This one guy. Based on what he heard. And the interview with that lady on the Mutabaruka show. And I’m like, dude, wouldn’t it be man enough to try and find me and just have a talk instead of just – putting my name out there like that? Hey, look here, I’m a human being bro, first. I’m a human being. I get scared like everybody else. And if you have never been in a scary situation before, then you can’t talk to the guy who’s been there. You know, I couldn’t go and discuss Vietnam or Iraq with an Iraq veteran. I couldn’t say, “Oh, really, I know what happened”; I don’t. I can’t explain that to anybody. I can’t compete with the guy who was there. You see, what I’m saying?

Q: And you have been so candid. I’ve watched many of the interviews you’ve done. You’ve gone on so many different programs and shows – live on TV, in fact.

Santa Davis: Yeah.

Q: Winford Winslow [and] other places [like] “I Never Knew TV,” other stuff which people can find. And you’ve been so straightforward with everything that happened in that incident: how they came in; all the things that I don’t really want to get into. Because I find that it’s unfair even that you [should have] to do that. Because these are traumatic things. You know I was a criminal defense lawyer before I started to write and to invest time into reggae music like I have the last few years. What I did was I did criminal defense work. So I’ve been around and had to learn about a lot of heavy situations. With people being confronted with violence and being the victims of violence.

Santa Davis: Yes. Yes.

Q: And like you say, people who haven’t been there should never talk about the situation; and people who have been there, and people who have some worldly sense about things, know better than to make assumptions based on controversial things that I know began really with what Marlene Brown, Peter Tosh’s common-law wife said on the [Mutaburaka] program. And folks can judge for themselves if that has any merit after they go and listen to what you’ve said about the situation.

Santa Davis: Yeah. But then this guy that did the YouTube thing, I mean, you know what, it’s unfortunate for him. Because you know what bro, I don’t hate that dude. I don’t. Because I can’t give myself – I don’t want to waste energy. No, I don’t hate that dude. It’s very unfortunate. For him to hear something like that, [and] for this guy to say some stuff about me, I’m like, wow, really dude? You didn’t even try to get in touch with me. Face me! And this guy said some of the most vile;

Q: I know. And I felt bad [watching it]. It’s [so] wrong.

Santa Davis: I heard it and was like, should I get angry? Should I respond? A lot of my friends were like, you don’t have to explain – bro, I bought a go-pro camera.

Q: Yeah?

Santa Davis: And I sat in this room;

Q: Oh no, you were gonna film a whole response;

Santa Davis: Bro, I filled up a bunch of little [recording cassettes].

Q: You were so angry probably.

Santa Davis: No, no, not really angry. I was upset, but not really upset. I was just trying – because I was gonna do my piece and put it out there. But not cursing anybody. I wasn’t going to clap back and call him names. And then my wife was like, “You don’t have to do that.” And a lot of my friends were like, “You don’t have to explain anything to nobody.”

Q: I’m glad you made that decision.

Santa Davis: I’m glad, too. Because it would seem like, oh, you tried to explain your way out of something or whatever. I’m not trying to explain my way out of something. Any individual, any human being, you get shot – I’m still walking with that damn thing inside of my body. You think I volunteered for that? (Laughing)

Q: Santa, for weeks before coming here – for weeks before coming to your house – I mean I have been talking to my wife, hey, I’m going to interview Santa Davis; my wife knows when I do interviews; and I told her – I don’t think I’m going to even ask him at all; I don’t want to ask him at all about this because I just don’t want to give it any attention. And I feel terrible to even ask you about this. I can’t believe this exists – this [YouTube] video, and then everyone said to me: Yeah, don’t. But then at the same time, because it’s out there – I’m glad we’re at least able to at least let you say this, and later, when we meet again because I think we’ll need to;

Santa Davis: Yeah, of course.

Q: – if it occurs to you that you want to say more about it, feel free. Now with your connection to Tosh, and all these good years that you had with him – touring with him, being with the brother every day, for six years, and recording some of the world’s most famous, revolutionary music that there is – when you think of Peter Tosh, and you think about the time that you had with him and the memories, the records, the hit songs, when you think of Peter Tosh, what is the immediate memory, what’s the thing that comes immediately to your mind when you think of the brother? Whether it’s about his music, or a time that you spent with him, or just a vibe or feeling – what was it like to be with a guy like that, to be so involved with him? What is it that you think about when you think of him?

Santa Davis: (Laughing) Well, you know what I think about Peter? How much of a brother he was to me, the brother I never had. How much of a human being he was. How intelligent that man was. How concerned he was about the plight of people who couldn’t help themselves. Who didn’t have a voice. And he felt the responsibility of taking that mantle, you know? He was concerned enough to put his life on the line. He was a revolutionary. He was a man who – people don’t know, but Peter was a reader. He used to read a lot. He was very in-tune with what was happening. He wasn’t a man who just sat around smoking weed, and just getting high and whatever. He was a thinker.

Q: He had a lot of substance to him.

Santa Davis: He had a lot of substance.

Q: You can tell from the music.

Santa Davis: And he was a people person. Peter was a human being. Peter was a man who, you know, a lot of times – Peter Tosh would tell me personal things about his life. About things I wouldn’t tell [anybody] – I keep that (clutching chest).

Q: Respect.

Santa Davis: Peter Tosh told me things I don’t know if him tell his own children, but that he would tell me. Personal. Me and him would sit down because we kinda share the same kinda thing. The same kinda vibe. Of growing up a certain way. And he was my big brother. Peter Tosh – from the first time I met that brethren to the time he passed away, we never had a bad situation between us ever. There wasn’t any kinda grievous anger or whatever between he and I. So what I can remember about Peter, Peter was a good human being. Who was taken away.

Q: Too early?

Santa Davis: Too early. Yeah and the people who took him away, they are the ones he was looking out for. They are the ones he was fighting for.

Q: Now I’m unsure of the date but you were interviewed for Sabian.com, a maker of cymbals.

Santa Davis: Uh-huh, I’m endorsing them, too.

Q: And in that interview, you said that the favorite album that you’ve played on is “Mama Africa” by Peter Tosh.

Santa Davis: Yes.

Q: And it seems silly to ask you because that “Mama Africa” album is so good and unquestionably a classic, but why is that particular album – out of all the thousands you’ve played on – why is that one your favorite?

Santa Davis: Because I felt I was allowed to be involved in something good. Because Peter, Peter was just like Bob, you know? Peter was very musical. He was a good musician. He could play the guitar. He could do all these things. But Peter allowed us, each and every one of us musicians, to take charge.

Q: Of your own space? And your own talent?

Santa Davis: And of the music.

Q: Wow. Yeah.

Santa Davis: We were in the studio and it’s his song – it’s his song. But he would sing the song, whatever. We get the structure of the song. And then we’d be like, “Ok Peter, cool out a little bit, bro. We’re gonna work with the song.” And he didn’t say anything. He’d just go sit down in a corner. Smoking his spliff. And we were there, just working out the song. And he trusted us. Because he knew that we were doing it in his best interests.

Q: Awesome.Santa Davis: So he allowed us to be involved. You see what I’m saying?

Q: Before you started touring and playing full-time with Tosh, you of course knew him, you had already recorded with him from [your] early work with the Wailers that we mentioned as part of Soul Syndicate. But after that, I understand it was [legendary] bassist Robbie Shakespeare and [legend] Bunny Wailer who encouraged Peter to make you his drummer, and Robbie Shakespeare brought you in to record the song “Ketchy Shuby.” That’s the tune that’s on Tosh’s 1976 debut LP “Legalize It.” And I believe you’ve said before, that you likely would have joined with Tosh sooner [when Tosh went solo] had it not been for your commitments to Jimmy Cliff, who you were touring with based on the success of the movie and the soundtrack to “The Harder They Come?”

Santa Davis: Yeah, yeah. I was touring with Jimmy Cliff at the time, and it was kinda hard because I was in the middle with the Jimmy Cliff situation, so when they called me I was like, I said “Dang, I would really love to do it, but I can’t.” But they still said, “Come record the song anyway,” you know what I mean? Because they still wanted me to be on the album.

Q: It’s a great song by the way, “Ketchy Shuby.”

Santa Davis: (Laughing) Yeah. Yeah.

Q: Now before you and Fully [Fullwood] started touring with Peter Tosh, [the legendary] Sly Dunbar was Tosh’s drummer and Robbie Shakespeare played bass.

Santa Davis: Yeah.

Q: Which I thought made it all the more interesting when you were interviewed on the Jake Feinberg show and you said, “Sly has a totally different style than me.” Can you describe how your style of drumming differs from Sly Dunbar’s?

Santa Davis: Let me tell you something about Sly, you see, Sly Dunbar figured out how to make those drums work.

Q: Period?

Santa Davis: Yeah. He figured out how to make music out of the drums. (Laughing) And when Sly plays, it’s like Sly alone can just play. And I’m not bull-crapping, bro. Sly has a unique thing about him. And every time I would hear him, I would be like, man, I never thought of that. (laughing) How come I never thought of that!? Because there’s something about Sly Dunbar where he’s always thinking: How can I make this work with this? How can I make this pattern work with that?

Fully Fullwood, Tony Chin, and Santa Davis at the Peter Tosh 75th earthstrong tribute in Long Beach, California (Photo courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper)

Q: Wow.

Santa Davis: I do the same thing, too. But I’m kind of different in the sense that, I wouldn’t think of doing all those things that Sly would do. I would just play a song, and play the song nice you know. Sly – Sly would do some things that you’d be like, wow, he’s making the song happen. I don’t know how much better I can’t explain that. But Sly just has this way of saying, “Okay, I’m gonna use these tom fills. And this gonna be the feature of the song.” And the way we put it, it fits. (Laughing)

Q: He knows how to make the choices that make the music pop?

Santa Davis: Choices. Choices. That is the thing with Sly that I don’t – that I don’t….And it’s not a compet[ition]—it’s hard to compare. Because I played a bunch of hit songs. Sly’s played a bunch of hit songs. You know what I mean? I respect that mother-of-a-son. (Laughing) But, the thing is this, people would always ask me, out of you and Sly Dunbar, who is the better drummer? I’m like, get out of here with that man. There’s no me better than him, him better than me.

Q: It’s a mission not a competition?

Santa Davis: Exactly. Sly does his thing. And he does it well. I do my thing, [and] I do it well. There’s no competition there. Because Sly would say to me, “Man, I hear you do that thing, and I take some of that.” And I say, “Yes, I hear you do some things, too, I take some of that too.” (Laughing)

Q: Maybe when you’re talking about musicians of your and Sly’s stature after all of these years, it’s not really a good question to [ask] how are your styles different, because naturally, after all of these years of music both of you have developed different things that you do and approaches to music that probably can’t be explained through words?

Santa Davis: Exactly. It’s a collaborative thing. Where we all are doing the same thing; we come back to that big gumbo. It’s a musical gumbo.

Q: And choosing different things?

Santa Davis: Right. So Sly does his thing. I do my thing. And we do it together. And we are achieving the same goal. (Laughing)

Q: In February I was blessed to interview Sly Dunbar while he was working in the studio with [legendary sound engineer] Scientist, Robbie Shakespeare, and others. During the interview, Sly said: “A lot of people don’t know the history of the work musicians have done in Jamaica.” He also said, “The Jamaican government doesn’t keep track of what recording artists do.” What do you think about that? And, why is that in your opinion?

Santa Davis: From ever since, the Jamaican government [has] never cared about Jamaican music. Because dem always try to connect reggae music with ganja smoking, herb people, people from downtown. Ghetto music. A lot of times they would see the music as trash music. So nowadays you see a lot of them jumping up and down [celebrating reggae music but] if it were [left] up to them, no one would know about reggae music. We are the ones. We are the foot soldiers who go out there and make Jamaica be on the map, so you know, they would never do anything to help us to establish that.

Q: Have you received any honors or otherwise been recognized by the Jamaican government for your wealth of contributions to reggae music, and to Jamaican music [generally], for over forty years?

Santa Davis: No. because they don’t recognize the contribution that we make. We are like ambassadors, you know? But honestly, I don’t want no honors from the Jamaican government. I would prefer, if I’m going to be honored, I want it from the music industry. And I’m not begging nobody [for] nothing. The people out there in the world already give me the appreciation. So even if I don’t get no award, from the government and from nobody, it won’t bother me. Because that’s not what I’m here for.

Q: When I spoke with Sly back in February, he focused on the example of drummer Joe Isaacs, who played on Johnny Nash’s first song, “Hold Me Tonight,” and many Studio One productions. And Sly said he and several other musicians were banding together to lobby the Jamaican government to grant Joe Isaacs an O.D. (Order of Distinction) or other recognition. Focusing strictly on Jamaican musicians, are there any other players whose [musical works and legacies you think don’t get the public recognition and attention that they should] — whether alive or dead?

Santa Davis: Yeah, okay, you have a drummer named “Drumbago.” You have Hugh Malcolm. You have people like Winston Wright. Jackie Mittoo. Have they done anything for Jackie Mittoo? No, mi no hear them do nothing for Jackie Mittoo. Gladstone Anderson. What happened to Tommy McCook?

Q: Skatalites?

Santa Davis: Skatalites! Lloyd Brevett. There’s a list of people. And those were the people who set the thing. Those are the people who set the thing that I could come and inherit. I inherit[ed] what they laid down. I inherited from the trees that they planted.

Q: It’s just a shame that they are not.

Santa Davis: This is what I’m telling you. Like in America they have documentaries. Because a lot of times I watch some people who I have vaguely heard of, but they still recognize them. They talk about these people. And a lot of times I watch these programs, but in Jamaica it comes down to that whole thing again, ghetto people. Ghetto people and uptown people because that’s how Jamaica’s been, you know? You have the uptown, the upper echelons, and anything below a certain part of Kingston is not recognized. They don’t realize that we are the reason why Jamaica is on the map.

Q: After we scheduled this interview, I asked Sly Dunbar what he thought would be a good question for me to ask you today. And Sly said: “Ask Santa if he misses doing a recording session every day, like he used to do when he was living in Jamaica?”

Santa Davis: Yes.

Q: Why?

Santa Davis: Because that’s where all the magic happened. I miss that.

Q: What was it about that time, this earlier time when you guys were the foundation of the music, you guys were in the studio every day, you were recording and rehearsing every day — how was that time different than making music now?

Santa Davis: You know what, I’m not hearing much creativity. Because everything sounds kinda too scripted. Here’s the thing: Because of technology, and because of this “click-track” thing — everything kinda get mechanical with a lot of musicians. I use click-track.

Q: This is a way to fix the music, to go back and;

Santa Davis: Right. And I understand that, but I think that’s the problem. We’re thinking about the “easy button” all the time, instead of just feel. Because reggae music is all about a certain feel. And each individual artist [has] a certain mannerism to him or her. And when you go into the studio, you get that feeling. That’s why I talk about Bob Marley — I consider myself a power drummer who plays hard; I do big fills — but going into the studio with Bob Marley, I couldn’t do that. There was not even any idea of me trying to do that. I had to assimilate to the vibration. And this is about spiritually paying attention. Because each individual artist has something to him [or her]. The problem with the music today, is that too much rhythm is being made — and dropping people on rhythm — instead of going into the studio. It’s like Sly asked you [to ask me] if I missed the recording. Every day. I miss that! Because what I’m hearing now is one rhythm with 10,000 artists on the same rhythm. And even if that singer has a great song, it gets lost in the crowd. It’s not exclusive.

Q: You keep hearing the same rhythms.

Santa Davis: You see what I’m saying.

Q: There were so many creative minds back in that time when you — [and Sly, and all the foundational musicians] — were creating different rhythms all of the time.

Santa Davis: Yeah. And it’s not just one tempo. Nowadays you hear people talking about, “give me a 96, give me a 102.” And, no! Give me a feel. Like Bob Marley said, “Give me a session, and not another version.” Which means, you go in the studio — him say, “Hit me with music. Hit me with music. When the music hit, you feel no pain.” Which means that when you go in [the studio, don’t go] with a scripted idea. Because sometimes a song might have some swinging, because reggae has different attitudes and moods. You might have swing, you might have maybe a push.

Q: Might be up-tempo?

Santa Davis: Might be up-tempo. Might be a sixteenth, might be an eighth, might just be quarter notes. It might be whatever. It might just be this laid back thing — it just depends on the feel of the artist. So the whole thing is paying attention to the artist. And then because what happened is a lot of artists them now getting trapped into “why don’t I sound like that” — instead of sound like you. Bob Marley — this is why today there is nothing out there today that can match what Bob did. 100 years from now a lot of the songs that you hear today, nobody’s going to care about it. But 100 years from now, we’re not going to be around, but people are going to be researching Bob Marley. They’re going to be schools, symposiums, universities, studying [Bob Marley’s] songs. Because they were so unique and timeless.

Q: And people are just not aspiring for that today?

Santa Davis: No, no, no. You know what’s happening now? [Artists are saying to themselves:] “I want to get a Grammy [award]. I want to get a Billboard hit. I want a Mercedes-Benz (which is cool). I want a big house up on the hill” (which is cool). But if that’s the only thing you are gunning for and not the integrity of the art — I would say to every one of these artists, ask yourself: Why are you doing this? Because, look, when I go around the world, when I play music, I see the joy, I see the changes, I see the energy and the encouragement, and you know, the motivation that music gives people. A lot of lives have been changed. A lot of ideas [and] mentalities have been re-adjusted because of the music. For me my greatest reward – I don’t care if they give me any award – because I get it every day when some musician comes to me and says, “I bought my first drum kit because of you.” [Or] “You know what, I started playing music because of you. Man, I watched you. I saw a video with you. And immediately I want to go play an instrument.”

Q: Awesome.

Santa Davis: To me, that’s good because I’m helping to make the human race better.

Q: To return for a moment to the Jamaican government and its failure to properly honor musical legacies and Jamaican music history, there have been many calls but not a lot of action to build a Jamaican Music (or Reggae) Hall of Fame in Kingston. Do you have any thoughts about that and the current status of having just the Bob Marley museum, and a much smaller Peter Tosh museum, and no other museum that’s in Jamaica to honor the musical greats?

Santa Davis: Okay, you know what? It’s not gonna happen. You know why it’s not gonna happen? Because musicians now are making more money than any of those people from back then. It’s gonna have to be a collaboration by them.

Q: The musicians?

Santa Davis: The musicians. What people must understand, the Grammys in America is not a government thing. It’s licensed. But it’s not [run by] the government. It’s musicians. It’s musicians who came together. The Emmys, the Oscars, it’s people in the industry; they come together; they’re the ones who put the thing together. It’s a collaborative effect by all the people who are involved in that industry.

Q: It’s interesting because [legendary sound engineer] Scientist has often said to me that he wishes musicians would get together and start — like for example in California — [their] own concert or festival series. So [that they] don’t have to depend on the b.s. promoters and producers in California [who are right now in control of reggae festivals and concerts]. So Scientist has said, if we could just have fans and musicians, and take away some of these middle-people who are controlling the scene.

Santa Davis: Yeah, okay, it’s gonna take some doing. Because we’re not talking about getting some big pot and start dumping money into it, and saying this is what we are gonna do. It’s gonna have to be a collaborative togetherness where you form a board. Like any kind of business. You’re going to need investors. But it’s gonna have to be a collaborative effort between the people in the industry. So then, you will appreciate it more. If you’re gonna build a museum or a music venue or combine all that together, then, you know what? It will be more appreciated. It will be maintained properly. Because [musicians] will know they are involved. If the government [does] it, it’s gonna go to sh—I don’t want to use [bad language].

Q: You seem pessimistic that this could ever happen?

Santa Davis: I’m just saying that’s the way it should be. Because I know you’re gonna have [artists who’ll say]: “Mi nah put no money in that.” If the Grammys today, which [has] been going on for a long time, if the people involved with the Oscars, the Emmys, if they thought like that you wouldn’t have those [award shows] today. Sometimes you gotta put your foot in the water. And because of that, the Grammy foundation is running, they got a bunch of stuff going on. They have “Grammy Cares.” You know I am involved with that with Ziggy. We do all these little things for Grammy Cares; we go around, we do these likkle concerts. We do all these things, get involved, whatever.

Q: I hope that in addition to fans, that artists who care about the music will listen to what you’ve said. Now that Peter Tosh museum is fairly new. And some have remarked that they feel it’s inadequate. I haven’t personally visited the relatively new Peter Tosh Museum [in Jamaica] but I’ve heard some people bitterly liken it to a shack. Perhaps [also] they are comparing the scale of the [Jamaican] government’s promotion of Bob Marley’s legacy, and museum, and so forth. And sort of the after-thought of the creation of the [Peter Tosh] Museum.

Santa Davis: Uh-huh.

Q: Do you have any sense, or do you think, that Peter Tosh is not as revered and respected — as much as he should be — in official, upper-class, powerful quarters and factions in Jamaica? And that, as a result, the promotion and preservation of Tosh’s legacy is given short-shrift, or, made to take a backseat? And finally, do you think that Peter’s fierce outspokenness, and his unflinching and tireless militancy on equal rights and justice, on marijuana legalization — and even Peter Tosh’s dark black skin perhaps, continue to cause this pocket of politicians and [other] power-brokers in Jamaica, to want to prevent and hold back this honoring of Peter’s legacy? Is there any truth to this — that Peter’s legacy is being held back in this way?

Santa Davis: Yes. Yes. Because you know why? Peter was knocking out against the system. And he would say, “the shitstem”.

Q: He coined that term I think.

Santa Davis: — that oppress the people. ‘Cause good leaders love the people. If you don’t love the people then you’re not doing no justice. It’s nice that they make an attempt to create a museum for Peter Tosh. But remember what Peter [said], “I-man don’t drink up your champagne. I-man don’t drink your pink, yellow, green soda.” You need to have a place to honor that. And at these events that they keep for Peter, [there’s] a whole lot of rum, and beer, and all them things. For that moment, for that show, them things shouldn’t exist! Because you don’t know the man never did them things there. Because you couldn’t come inna Peter’s house with your beer, or your alcohol, or your rum and all them things there! Peter wasn’t about that. So that is the one thing me look upon and say, me no like that. Because Peter wouldn’t have allowed that. So you come with a bunch of rum drinking, and you sell rum and beer, and all them things —that shouldn’t be the event for that type of thing. I know some people beg to differ, but I don’t care. Peter never stand for that. You couldn’t come around Peter with your cigarette; if you have some weed to smoke, smoke your weed. But you can’t come around him with your cigarette and puff-puff around him. Just like you couldn’t come around him with your shot glass and your whiskey. That museum that they have? Okay, it is good that them make an attempt. But that is not representing what Peter really represented; what he was about. The thing needs to be on a higher level than that. That is like a little con, a little corner.

Q: Why is it different for Bob Marley as compared to Peter when it comes to this? I mean Bob was also outspoken and tough on equal rights and justice, [and] on marijuana [legalization] too, you know, not to the same extent as to what Peter endured — being beaten to the edge of his life by the police over marijuana and things like that and still [speaking] out about it. They share certain elements, and yet there always seems to be a greater acceptance, a greater promotion, in Jamaica generally speaking, amongst Jamaicans – not people who really love and enjoy the music, and respect Bob and Peter for what they both brought [to the music] – but commercially and otherwise speaking in proper society – why is it that there’s this difference between Bob and Peter when it comes to this?

Santa Davis: Alright, so until you do something, you have to think big. So the difference between the Marleys and the Tosh family.

Q: The estate?

Santa Davis: – and the Tosh estate is that the Marleys don’t think of the Marleys’ thing as a hustle. Dem think of it as an industry. As a very important entity. So them a-honor dem father’s name. Or their grandfather’s name. And come together, and get the right people dem. Dem organize dem thing, write up their proposal on paper or whatever they do, they put it together, and dem get other people to come in fi do certain things. Dem organize it! They don’t just say, “Yeah, mi could just do a show, and call it ‘Bob Marley Day’ or whatever.” No! With the Marleys dem, it’s a constant wheel turning. And I am not saying this because mi work amongst the Marleys, you know? That is what mi see. And the thing for real to keep their father’s name in certain things – and reach out to certain people and get other people involved with dem thing – people who make sense.

Q: So you think part of it has to with the mismanagement – maybe mismanagement is a strong word.

Santa Davis: Yes.

Q: – of the Peter Tosh estate?

Santa Davis: Yes, man! Because look here: Okay, so, when somebody wins the lotto – they don’t know how to deal [with that much money] – you have to get people now who know how to make that money work. [The Marleys] put dem thing in perspective. Dem come together and say, okay, this is the road we want to [follow]. You can say what you want about the Marleys, but dem organize. Dem organize it.

Q: Now Santa we’ve been talking for a very long time, and again I can’t thank you enough, but as I pressed you before today even, I really hope you’ll agree to continue this interview with me.

Santa: Yes man.

Q: – sometime next year, in 2020 – because there is still so much to discuss about your historic career. And I want to close today’s interview by giving you a chance to discuss any projects you’re currently working on. But before I do that I just want to list a few of the important subjects – concerning reggae music and your career – which we’ve run out of time to discuss today, but that hopefully we can discuss next time. These include: The “flying cymbals” style – marked by the hypnotically hissing high-hats – and all the brouhaha that followed the publication of your interview in Modern Drummer magazine about that.

Santa Davis: Oh man.

Q: And the only thing I want to say about that now, briefly: I was so impressed by the fact that you were so bothered by the fact that people like Sly Dunbar and other musicians in your tight community of reggae fellows, that this made you so angry when this Modern Drummer thing happened. And that you had to go and write your “open letter” on reggaeville.com that people can go read.

Santa Davis: Yeah.

Q: – and ponder before you and I talk about it again, but it just showed me that there [is] so much respect you have for the history [of the music] that you wanted to go and correct the record and make sure there was no misunderstanding.

Santa Davis: Yeah, you know this is why it’s hard to do interviews with certain people. Because some people feel like they have to embellish – but like I told the guy: I didn’t create that style of cymbals; so coming back to me and Sly Dunbar, me and Sly Dunbar we used to have discussions about this drummer, Earl Young. Earl Young from Philadelphia, I don’t know if he’s “from” Philadelphia but he used to play with that group from Philadelphia, MFSB, and back in the disco days – they used to play “shh-shh, shh-shh” in a lot of disco songs. And me and Sly used to talk about it. And it was just this one day we were going to do a song called “None Shall Escape the Judgment”.

Q: With Johnny Clarke.

Santa Davis: It wasn’t even his song. That’s not his song! But anyways –

Q: He’s the one who made it famous though. I forget who made it first.

Santa Davis: Earl Zero. It was Earl Zero’s song.

Q: And then it was Bunny Lee who said we’re gonna call it this.

Santa Davis: He called it that name, [the “flying cymbals.”]

Q: To popularize it.

Santa Davis: I just decided I hear the cymbal playing and I hear it all the time. So I said, you know what, I want to play it in this song here today. It’s not like I was starting a trend or anything. I just said, look, I want to play it in this song. And I played it in the song. Bunny Lee and them gave it a name. And then all of the sudden, King Tubby. King Tubby is responsible for that cymbal presence in the song, anyway. Because normally, your high-hat is not so dominant in the song. But King Tubby.

Q: Was that through that high-pass filter.

Santa Davis: Yes.

Q: And that accentuates it.

Santa Davis: Right! So it’s not like I played this great thing that nobody ever played before. It’s just the emphasis that the engineer placed on what I was doing. And brought that present. And put more brilliance in it. And it just took off, and that was that. And then [this guy from Modern Drummer who interviewed me wrote] something like “Santa Davis said he was the first guy to play this thing.” And then I saw Sly down at the pier one day – at Santa Monica pier – and he came to me and was like, “Santa, I see that interview where you say – ” And I said, “No Sly!” And it really hurt because I don’t have to take credit for stuff I didn’t do. My track record is out there. I don’t want to take credit for things I didn’t do. I don’t need to do that. But, it hurt man. It hurt.

Q: I could tell. Now we also haven’t talked about many things that happened when you emigrated to the United States; you working with Tony Chin and the California-based band Big Mountain, [for example.] And I also want to find out more about your experiences playing with artists in other genres altogether – because I understand that you’ve jammed or recorded at various times with Isaac Hayes –

Santa Davis: It was a jam, it was a little jam at a place called the Congo Room. I didn’t get to play “Shaft” though. (Laughing) I wanted to play “Shaft!” But I didn’t get to play that. (Laughing).

Q: And then [you’ve also played with] Chaka Khan?

Santa Davis: “Reading Rainbow.” You know that song with Levar Burton? He used to do a little children’s program called “Reading Rainbow.” I think it was on PBS. And Chaka Khan sang the song, “Reading Rainbow” is the one that she did. And it’s kinda weird because you know I used to work with Eddie Griffin – he was doing a lot of p-funk things. So I was working with him at the time, just doing gigs, and Chaka was there, too. She plays drums but she was in the studio because we were doing some sessions, you know. The drum was set up and when I came to the studio to start recording, they had the song sequenced out. And she was trying to play the drums, and she said, “Oh Santa, can you please help me?” And I went over. Listened to the song. One take! And she did the song. She loved it. So, I can say I’ve recorded with Chaka Khan.

Q: Awesome.

Santa Davis: And then I did another jam with her, this Dawn Penn song, (singing) “No, no, no—”

Q: Oh, I love that song.

Santa Davis: Yeah we did it at a club up in Hollywood, so I can [also] say I did a gig with Chaka Khan.

Q: And then [you’ve also played with] Carlos Santana?

Santa Davis: Yeah. We were on tour with Wailing Souls, and then I actually jammed with him onstage one time. Wow! (Laughing)

Q:  And [you’ve] even [played with], I understand, Willie Nelson?

Santa Davis: Oh yeah. I did a whole album with Willie Nelson.

Q: The “Countryman” album?

Santa Davis: Yeah – we did this album with Willie, and it’s kinda weird because he was supposed to do new songs, and he [decided instead] to take some of his old songs, some of his old classics, and I think he and the record company had a problem because he wanted to do his classic stuff. Turn them into reggae. But that experience man, Willie is the coolest cat. It was nice to work with him. It was a pleasure working with Willie.

Q: And also [when we next get together] I’ll want to ask you many more questions about the iconic reggae stars, historic musicians whose names I barely mentioned in passing, like Dennis Brown, and Burning Spear. Because we focused so much today – the bulk of my questions [were about] Peter Tosh and Bob Marley. And that barely begins to outline the subjects, Santa, that hopefully we can cover when we meet next time, next year I hope. Including digging into more the two solo albums you’ve released so far, “Watch You Livity” – produced on your own Carlton Santa Davis label in 2015 – and “Da Zone,” an album you released in 2008. In your Techra Drumsticks interview in March, you said you were working on a new CD. Could you say some more about this new album? I’d love it if we could just end the interview with you talking about this current album that you’re working on, and also, any current new projects that you’re working on that you’d like the people to know about.

Santa Davis: Well I just did a project with one of my friends, Steve Verhault who plays guitar with Detour Posse; we call him “Tiger Tone.” It’s like an EP. A four-song EP. We’ve mastered it already. It’s like a collaboration because I have two songs on the album. [It’ll] be released soon. And then I’m working on another CD of mine – it’s [also] mastered already – it’s called “Africa Is My Home.” It will be on CD baby, iTunes, Spotify, on all the places where music is released globally. I have some vocal stuff on it; I have Ras Michael [on it]. He’s talking about the Bible and stuff like that. And [Ras Michael] does a cameo on another track [too]. I’m just getting ready to do the graphics [for the album].

Q: Give thanks and ‘nuff blessings, Santa, until the next time that we meet. Is there anything more that you’d like to say right now to all your very many fans out there?

Santa Davis: I just say to all the people out there who love reggae music: I appreciate them all. And just keep listening. Just keep vibing. Everything is great, you know? Just keep a good vibe. Let’s love some more. (laughing) Spread the love. That’s all I can ask for.

Drum sticks gifted to writer Stephen Cooper by Santa Davis (Photo courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper)

Related: 

A historic conversation with legendary drummer Santa Davis – Part 1A

 

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