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HomeEducation / CultureA Kingston reasoning with legendary guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith: Part 1

A Kingston reasoning with legendary guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith: Part 1

By Stephen Cooper

Back in early March, before “social distancing” and travel restrictions became the norm, before in many ways literally and figuratively (except online, at home, and in our hearts), the music died – killed by the coronavirus – one of my wildest dreams as a reggae fan came true.

Because of my friendship with legendary musicians Santa Davis and Tony Chin, whom I’ve interviewed and try and hang out with every chance I get, and, because of the kindness and professionalism of my friend Clifton Bygrave, I was blessed to interview legendary guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith. Clifton helped me navigate Jamaica, including driving me from Negril to Kingston on March 9 to Chinna’s house, braving torrential rain through Fern Gully and other obstacles en route without worry; it was largely because of Clifton that everything, as is commonly said in Jamaica, was “no problem.”

The interview took place at Chinna’s house, on the front porch overlooking his yard – a reggae mecca where countless legendary musicians have jammed – not far from Halfway Tree Square. What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.

Earl “Chinna” Smith with writer Stephen Cooper (photo courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper)

Chinna: I’m glad that you are here. I’m glad that you are here. Yeah man, come through my house. And walkthrough. Interview my house. Look around. Yeah. Go around [the] junkyard. Give him a tour. Give him a tour. Yeah man, take any kinda picture you want.

Q: You sure? Ok, cool. Appreciate.

Chinna: Yeah man. Go do your thing. I’m happy that you’re here.

(I took a 10-minute guided tour of Chinna’s house, including his yard and back office, and took pictures.)

Chinna: Alright there’s a story you need fi write pon the whole Jamaican music scene, but hear what it is: we can do it like a vinyl, A-side and B-side. So you have reggae, [and] reggae flip-side. So here’s how you can get the reggae flip-side now: by going around and interviewing all the wives of the [reggae artists] –

Q: Yeah. That’s a good idea.

Chinna: – but not the wives only, but the babies’ mothers. (Laughing)

Q: (Laughing) Then you get the real story.

Chinna: Alright, so that’s what you want.

Q: That’s where the controversy would come in.

Chinna: Aright. ‘Cause you want a real story. There’s many a story, both old and new, but what’s true? (Singing) “There’s many a story both old and new, but what’s true?” The truth is – the truth is – someone has to write about it. Somebody has to talk about it.

Q: Someone recently told me that “everything is stories.”

Chinna: Everything is stories, but the truth lies in the real story. You understand? Because the way mi come up as a likkle youth – you know what my greatest story was? Christ story. As a likkle youth, I hear about this man that is oh so perfect. The Bible says to mark the perfect and hold the upright. So I hear about this man that would die for our sins –

Q: One of my questions for you [concerns] one of the names you [have] adopted, and that people have called you, “Melchizedek.”

Chinna: I never choose that name!

Q: Oh, how did that name come to be [associated with you]?

Chinna: Alright. You know who gave me that name? Prince Far I. You ever hear about that DJ?

Q: I’ve heard of him.

Chinna: Alright. Let me [give you some] history pon him. Prince Far, I was a-Greenwich Town him a-come from, yeah. So him used to fool around with the sound, him and Bunny Lee. ‘Cause I think him first recording was for Bunny Lee. And you know, him just call me “Melchizedek.” Yeah!

Q: He just called you that? Then did you look to find out what that was – and what that was about?

Chinna: Yeah, then me realize who Melchizedek is. And mi say, wow, that bwoy, that man give me the name there, well then, you know, mi have to go live; then put my footprints there as close as I can; you know, I couldn’t be the Melchizedek [that the Bible references] that was born and just appeared. So it must be a mission then within. A mission within my whole life, or something that someone could identify me with that name there, you understand?

Q: When I looked into it, I saw that Melchizedek – my understanding is that he is a biblical figure and his name means “king of righteousness” –

Chinna: Alright.

Q: I also learned that some have said that he is, that he could be, like a Christ-like figure. Or maybe even the same as Christ.

Chinna: Yeah mon. Higher than him, too. It’s sort of like Abraham – I mean Sarah, which was Abraham’s wife, she cyan’t have no more youth again, you understand? And Melchizedek a-passed and a-tell Abraham, “you know, say the thing – ”

Q: How does Melchizedek fit in with Rastafari?

Chinna: Very much.

Q: How so? How [w]ould you describe the connection?

Chinna: Alright, because it’s a Christ connection. Rasta through a Christ connection. And Melchizedek was before Christ, so [his] history have a deeper root. There was something before Christ; Melchizedek was before Christ. So the history a-come from the line originally, come right down, you understand? So inna the research, we try to find all of the patriarchs dem from them time there, who did [good] works.

Q: Cool.

Chinna: We go deeper. Because there [were] crazy things happening before other men [were] here. There’s things that you can’t figure out – the fact that [there’s this] historian, what’s his name, this Ethiopian guy, him say pyramids and things, they a-build already. So it all depends on where you take [your history] from.

Q: I saw an interview where you said – I asked you about Rastafari, because I saw an interview where you said that your family had warned you against being around Rastas when you were young. And you said that you saw a purer way of life in living the Rasta way, [and adopting] the Rasta lifestyle [and livity]. How old were you when you decided [this]?

Chinna:  Alright, [I] can tell you, because that’s where my history start[s]. Because as youth, we grow up with a family being Christian. Alright so, [you have] Baptist, Anglican, Methodist; my Christian [denomination] was Methodist. Alright so the whole time, inna dem days, if you understand Rasta, when you see a man look like me, you see him like as a peasant. Like [my] family [would say], “Don’t be like that man!,” you know? “Don’t be like that man there,” you know? Rasta, you know, resist the system. So [my] family a-say, “Don’t,” you know what I mean? In the ghetto [they] see dem lock[ed] up every Sunday because dem catch dem with di herb. So dem mean [they] no have no money when mi gone a-jail fi come bail me [out]. In other words, mi have two mothers.

Alright, my real mother live[s] in Florida, and the lady that grow me up – [let me] show you her picture here. (Displaying framed picture.) She died [in] ’85. And she said she never beat me yet. You understand the fact that mi grow – mi born a-Moore Street. Mi study dem street there, and then grow up in Greenwich Town, this [was] crazy, Gringo town, you understand? [And] mi never go a-jail yet. And never beaten by [my] parents yet. That means mi must have done something –

Q:  Blessed.

Chinna: Alright.

Q: (Laughing) Yeah.

Chinna: Good, you understand. So my mother go lie down proud because she never have to come bail me [out even] one day. I’m proud [of that].

Q: But at some point, you started to go the Rasta way; you started –

Chinna: Well, mi start to draw chalice, you understand? So when she come and say, “Don’t go over the weed yard there,” you know? You understand? But when she nah look, mi gone over there. Because the amount of wisdom mi a-get from the elders dem, you know what I mean? Talking and drawing mi chalice. Mi love the elders now, you see?

Q: So then she came to accept it more because she saw you were getting wisdom from the elders –

Chinna: Yes. Over there – she don’t see me a-go to jail.

Q: They were teaching you the right stuff.

Chinna: Yeah! Because in our days, pon the road we draw chalice, you know? So all of dem families there, in Greenwich Town, dem go to the same church. So [all the families] dem look out [for you.] So [it] wasn’t like how kids are wild today. Every parent a-look over pon the next kid, because [it was as if it was their] kid, too. And the unity there. You understand the love? You can’t hide it.

Q:  So they[, your family,] feared the Rasta way because they were worried about you going to jail?

Chinna: Good, good – yeah; we’re progressing.

Q: But when they saw you weren’t going to jail, they could accept it better?

Chinna: Yeah, they could accept it. Alright my real mother, when she see me [grow my dreads,] she say it fit me. She said, yeah man, you look cool.

Q: Cool.

Chinna: She’s gonna be 94 now. And she’s the one you [should] go interview after [this]. Yeah, she lives in Florida, mi give you the link and everything.

Q: I want to ask her about you.

Q: Yeah! She’ll tell you the whole story. From when I was born.

Q: Who were the musicians or other people who were in your life when you were growing up who first taught you about what it means to be a Rasta – and [about] the Rasta lifestyle?

Chinna: [One was] a great artist named Bobby Aitken.

Q: Yeah I heard about him from Santa [Davis] – he taught Santa [in the beginning] to play drums –

Chinna: Alright! Because the whole of us [moved together in the same circles] as likkle youth. Santa used to [know him] from the St. Peter Claver [Catholic youth organization]. So him live [on] Gallery Road. So I remember the first riff was like “fatty-fatty” (humming rhythm), yeah mon. It was about a week ago he came here and we talked about that. Yeah mon, he’s a preacher now in Florida.

Q: He taught you about Rastafari?

Chinna: No, no – different! [I learned about Rastafari] just by going and sitting with the brethren and smoking dem chalice. And hear them, [and] listening to programs[s] like “World Tomorrow.” And read the Bible and –

Q:  So it wasn’t through reggae musicians that you began to learn about Rastafari?

Chinna: No, reggae musicians [are] wild! (Laughing) Reggae, streggae! Dem drink beer, dem do all kinds of crazy things. So alright, me a-go amongst the elders. Day to day, as a young musician, I would go around a congregation with the pure elders. And one of the greatest teachings, alright, like you’d have an elder. Him don’t own anything, but him just chop a piece of land, and build up him likkle house. And when you go inside his house, you see it’s the cleanest thing. When you go inside his yard, everything is so clean. Then you see him get up and him cook. And when him cook, him a-share it with everybody. Everybody a-get one dumpling, [and] a piece of a likkle thing. And mi say, blood clot, no [one] else live so! But di Rastaman him live so.  Share every-ting! And then him a-share him chalice. And then mi say, that’s the real community –

Q: That’s the way to live.

Chinna: – that’s the way to live. And dem nah criticize nothing; when mi go a-church, with my parents dem, [you’d hear], “Sister, couldn’t [you] wear a better dress [to] church?” And as a likkle youth, you hear all these things. And you say, hmm, but you know dem people [acting] so righteous now and have so much criticism and all dem things in di church, so you a-see the difference [between them and the Rastas].

Q: You could see the difference? You could see the hypocrisy?

Chinna: Yeah! Yeah! Big time.

Q: You could see the Rastas were living a purer way of life –

Chinna: You understand. So [I] moved over to that side there. And I’m happy. And I’m glad that I did.

Q: I want to return to that [a bit later] because the Rasta way of life is a very appealing way of life to me, and I’ve been trying to learn more about it. But I got ahead of myself because I started to ask you about Melchizedek. So I want to back up a bit, because I want to ask you [about your history]; I understand some of your history, but I want to understand it better. I know that you started at a very young age [being] interested in music because your father and godfather had their own sound systems.

Inna de yard of Earl “Chinna” Smith (photo courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper)

Chinna: Yeah mon.

Q: And one of them, I think it was your father’s sound system, was operated by Bunny Lee?

Chinna: Yeah Bunny Lee, not really operated by Bunny Lee, but Bunny Lee, in [that] time, in that same neighborhood, was like a disc jockey too.

Q: What was the name of your dad’s sound system?

Chinna: “Western.” But Bunny Lee would know more about it. So you haffi talk to Bunny Lee. And the two of them was ahead of my time –

Q: Bunny Lee – is Bunny Lee still alive?

Chinna: He’s still alive and kicking.

Q: He’s still alive!?

Chinna: Aye, keep him alive. He’s my father, man, and he’s still alive. He’s in London. I heard that him supposed to be coming here soon, too. Yeah mon.

Q: I have to find him.

Chinna: Yeah mon, you’ll find him.

Q: When you began to play guitar, and eventually, when you began playing shows with the Soul Syndicate, did your family encourage you to play music? Or did they want you to do a different career?

Chinna: No, my mom never said [that there was] nothing else [I should] do. In other words, I never punched a clock yet. I just play music. So from when I was a likkle youth, mi start play music. So mi a-collect money as a likkle youth. And it was nice, mi a-come home with money.

Q: And your family saw that? They respected that?

Chinna: Yeah mon! Yeah.

Q: They saw that you could make money from playing music –

Chinna: Yeah.

Q: This has not always been the case. Because when I’ve talked with other [reggae artists]

Chinna: Right.

Q: – other [artists’] families, like [for example], Santa [Davis’s] mom, [she] was [initially] like “no, that’s crazy, you need to get a real job.” That didn’t happen to you?

Chinna: No man, no. Because we were successful from when we realize we a gwan start play music.

Q: You were already bringing money home [from playing music] at a young age?

Chinna: Yeah! Yeah! Nice. You know what I mean.

Q: So your family, overall, they encouraged you to play music –

Chinna: Yeah, in that sense, because you know, I’m not going to jail. I’m smoking a lot of weed still, now today, but you know what I mean, it’s okay, because I don’t put them in a position where them have to come bail me [out], and this whole police thing. Nice.

Q: I mentioned Soul Syndicate. Recently I have been learning quite a bit about the Soul Syndicate and its glorious history in interviews I’ve done with your brethren Tony Chin and Santa Davis. Now I believe you’ve said that although you had already started singing on street corners with Earl Johnson (who most people know as Earl “Zero”), that your real start as a professional musician came when you joined the Soul Syndicate –

Chinna: Definitely.

Q: – you took over [as lead guitar] from Cleon Douglas who migrated to the U.S.?

Chinna: Yeah because of the fact that him have to go the [United] States. But the whole thing, alright, we grew up singing. ‘Cause we’d have a likkle singing group, you know? Me, Earl, and some other guys – remember back then, you’d have trio[s], three guys singing as a group – the Melodians, the Wailers –

Q: The Mighty Diamonds?

Chinna: Yeah, you understand, the trio there. So we used to sing. So we sing and we don’t have no guitar –

Q: You made your own guitar, I understand?

Chinna: Yeah, but that was just a profile. Alright the first time me get a real guitar, mi have this guitar, banging, banging – no one knows what chords is. But we have the profile and the look. Alright so one guy inna the group was a cabinet maker, and him a-get big money so he could buy a guitar. Him can’t play, so when he buy the guitar him just [have it]; him sing too. So we’re there banging every day [on the guitar]. So we hear about a band on the street. At that time [I] lived on East Avenue, in front of Bunny Lee’s yard. So we a-go up to this rehearsal. But below the train line is downtown youth, and above the train line is uptown youth. So we’d go with the chalice, and we’d have to stay behind the thing, you know, because Fully [Fulwood]’s father was a strict old man –

Q: Mr “B?”

Chinna: Mr. B. But nice-strict. [He’d say,] “No, you cannot stay there, you have to stay around the side.” (Laughing) So we’d follow the rules, you understand? So every day – every night, I go to [watch the Soul Syndicate] rehearsals.

Q: Now the rehearsals would be in Fully’s yard?

Chinna: Yeah, Fully’s yard [on] 9th Street.

Q: And that’s where [the 1980 documentary about the Soul Syndicate] “Word, Sound & Power” was filmed?

Chinna: No, no, that was a different yard. Alright, 9th Street, Greenwich Town, this was in that time [where Soul Syndicate rehearsed initially].  After that them move from 9th Street to Delamere Avenue. Delamere Avenue [is] where the Word, Sound [& Power] rehearsal scenes were filmed. 9th Street is the [yard where I’d go watch them rehearse]. So I used to pay attention to the guitarist –

Q: You watched them – I heard you talk about this [before in a prior interview] – and I was so amazed by this –

Chinna: Yeah man, I figure[d] out the shape.

Q: – just by watching them, you saw the “shapes” they were making with their hands –

Chinna: Alright, yeah.

Q:  – and you were able to learn –

Chinna: I know all of the songs dem by the shape. So I’m doing that now, and one day Cleon [Douglas], just [out of] curiosity [said], “Come youth, let me check out your guitar.” And him a-say, “Hmm, the guitar don’t tune.” [And he showed me how to tune all the strings of my guitar]. And so the first time I tuned my guitar and played “G,” I hear the real fuc*ing sound! It went right to my heart.

Q: It went right to your heart?

Chinna: It have to. Because the thing tuned now. [It] sounded perfect.

Q: You looked at the guitar different [then]?

Chinna: Have to. Because you hear the thing. The connection – you feel the connection – right into the vortex. And you say, “Hey man, that’s it.” You understand? And so I [learned] all of the songs [Soul Syndicate was rehearsing]. I was there every night.

Q: One thing I was curious about was, did you know or were you friends with Tony and Santa from school – before you went up there to go watch them with Earl Zero? Did you already know them? Were you friends with them?

Chinna: No – [well,] more like with Santa.

Q: You knew Santa [Davis]?

Chinna: Yeah, yeah.

Q: The reason why I ask is because, you know, if they’re a band and they are rehearsing, I would think that maybe they wouldn’t want you to come and sit there and watch. Maybe they would give you a stink-eye?

Chinna: No. Fully’s father [Mr. B.] was the man. Once we get there and we don’t make any trouble, don’t smoke weed in the yard, then we are accepted. And so, you know what I mean, [we just had to] follow the rules.

Q: Because their rehearsals [were] pretty strict?

Chinna: Very, very strict, you understand? And they become like stars to us. So we’d see like Tony Chin ride to work, he’d ride past in the morning time, yeah, [and we’d say], “you see the guitarist there – ”

Q: That’s so awesome.  

Chinna: Yeah, you understand! And Fully’s brother, Lucky, he used to have a sound, a disco, and him play music too.

Q: That’s right, I heard that Fully’s brother played [music].

Chinna: Yeah with Lucky, so [they] would introduce great music to the band in [that] way there, you understand? So it was a whole heap of joy, yeah, Fully and dem was a superstar back [then]. And Tony Chin.

Q: And for a while [they were stars] before you joined them?

Chinna: Yeah! Yeah man, dem was the real stars. Fully would play jazz with different big bands –

Q: How old were you roughly when you and Earl [Zero] would go check Soul Syndicate rehearsals?

Chinna: Alright – teens. Teens.

Q: Sixteen – seventeen?

Chinna: Maybe a likkle younger than that. Teens, yeah.

Q: And so you say you may have known Santa before that; did you know him from the neighborhood or [from] school?

Chinna: Well different because he was a different level, because Santa used to ride – we used to link. Santa used to came up on the movements now with dem, what dem name, the church movements – Oh, it’ll come to me. St Peter Claver! That was a Catholic youth organization. But anyhow, so me and him, a-boom-boom, and you have a couple of the brethren now in Ethiopia, one of them just dropped [by] the other day. Darker Shade. Yeah. So we’d used to go and have [our] likkle band too, you understand? You know, boom-boom, play bass, Santa played drums. I forget who played the keyboard.

Q: Now you guys – in researching Tony and Santa, and looking into the history [of Soul Syndicate], I mean you guys backed so many [famous artists] – I mean you can’t even name all the different reggae artists [there are so many]. The better thing to do would be to name the ones [you] didn’t [play with at some time, and] we probably wouldn’t be able to find any.   

Chinna: Yeah mon.

Q: Because of that, I wanted to ask you, are there any particular shows or recording sessions that you did with Soul Syndicate that will always stick out in your memory? Where you remember [and think to yourself,] I’m never gonna forget this? Because it was just so wicked.

Chinna: Alright, a session like with the Twinkle Brothers. When dem sing the song that is actually Delroy [Wilson] come sing pon the riddim and get a hit. Yeah. “I Can’t Explain.” It was a Twinkle Brothers song. Dynamic [Studios]. Then next one was Phil Pratt, when them makeover “My Heart Is Gone,” [sung by] Ken Boothe, and it became a number one song. I mean, Niney [the Observer], “Blood and Fire.” Yeah because Niney have some problem with the Wailers and come downtown, and start put up posters. ‘Cause him put up a poster [advertising the song] even before it record. And it become a hit. You understand what mi a deal with? Alright, a session I missed because I was at school, [the Wailers’s] “Sun Is Shining” –

Q:  I was gonna ask you if you were there for that one!

Chinna: No. Cleon Douglas [and Tony Chin] played guitar on that one, yeah.

Q: Now I guess you wouldn’t have been there that early [when the Soul] Syndicate played [with the Wailers] on “High Tide or Low Tide?”

Chinna: No, I played on that. Me and Santa [Davis] talked about that [recently], too. Because the man do the research and find the thing, yeah.

Q: Wow! I didn’t know that.

Chinna: Dynamic [Studios,] yeah mon.

Q: When you recorded “High Tide or Low Tide” was that the first time that you met Bob [Marley]?

Chinna: No mon. No mon, Bob used to come because we used to back up Bob as a band, as a show band you know, and [Soul Syndicate] was a top show band.

Q: Oh, so you would see him at shows –

Chinna: Yeah. [And] Bob used to come down to 9th Street, not even Delamere Avenue, 9th Street. This is like late 60s.

Q: But “High Tide or Low Tide” was the first time you recorded with him?

Chinna: I would think so. I would think so. Yeah because the next one come after, yeah.

Q: You’ve said before that Cleon Douglas was the first person to show you how to tune the guitar. And I saw an interview before with you where you said that legendary Hux Brown taught you [how to play] –

Chinna: Scale. First major scale. [How to put your] fingers in position. Because you know the scale but you work [within the space] there and use this finger and, you know what I mean, a two-octave scale? Start from the sixth string to the first string (humming and mimicking guitar scales). So you learn something like that and you just shift it up, and it’s G-sharp. So you have a finger in, you know what I mean?

Q: I’m not a musician, but I can appreciate what you’re saying –

Chinna: Yeah mon. If you play the guitar, you just want one finger in. And you move it up a semi-tone. And you move it up a semi-tone. And you move it up, and the same thing. Yeah. You understand? So you can work like that.

Q: You’ve said [before], you mentioned how Bobby Aitkens taught you that Fatty-Fatty riddim –

Chinna: Yeah man, yeah, nice.

Q: Other than those important milestones in your guitar education and training, are there any other musicians or musical teachers, or places where you received training on how to play the guitar?

Chinna: Yeah mon, you have mi brethren, the greatest singer, he died. Cried when him died, mon. Died in a crazy way, too. Maurice Gregory.

Q: Maurice Gregory – that was Tony Chin’s friend! In Greenwich Farm.

Chinna: Alright! Lloyd and the Groovers. Yeah him was in that group. Maurice was like one of the greatest guitar players.

Q: And Maurice Gregory also showed Tony [Chin] a couple of things [on the guitar]; so he showed both of you.

Chinna: Him was the chief musician, mon. No man can play guitar like him. No man can sing like him. And him was the kindest man that I know. But you know what is good? Right now him son, him have him same name, is the keyboard player for Third World.

Q: Yeah? The same name? I didn’t know that.

Chinna: Yeah him a-play with Third World for a good while, too.

Q: Now would you say, even despite the great people [you] just mentioned, and all the things they did to show you how to play guitar, would you say that overall you’re mostly self-taught as a guitarist?

Chinna: Yeah because I approach it a different way, you understand? After all of [that] information [I received], then mi start [to] listen. You know what I mean? And then you hear things –

Q: Once you have a foundation to work with, then you can learn?

Chinna: Yeah and then I start listening. It was like a road band, so [I] listened to different arrangements. Like music in the 20s, they would play a certain way; the “roaring twenties.” Music in the 30s, until it come up to – I’m a-coming from late 60s and the 70s. So we listened to music like that. Motown and stacks records. You understand? And then we move into Thom Bell. And Delfonics. And it was just great harmonies, you know what I mean? All these different arrangers start making music with a certain way – start using certain chords – like music from Nat King Cole days. And when you listen to rocksteady, and you listen to songs like “I’m Just a Guy,” the bass man him a-play – its one-two, but him play a five-note over the two. (humming and singing riddim) Strictly R&B Harmony that. [And] Ken Boothe (singing) “Moving Away.” You understand? You see if you listen to R&B music from that time and listen to rocksteady, it’s the same. Same flavor. So [I] start hearing all of these things.

Q: And figuring out how to incorporate it?

Chinna: Yeah.

Q: And [to] use it in your own music?

Chinna: Yeah into like recordings.

Q: Cool. Before this year’s Grammy awards, I interviewed Julian Marley in Los Angeles. And during the interview, Julian decried the lack of investment by the Jamaican government in music education.

Chinna: Right.

Q: He said, for example, that they don’t have enough proper music equipment and instruments – like organs for youth in Jamaica to start to [learn to] play music. Frankly in most of the interviews I’ve done of reggae stars – both of veterans and the younger generation – [this] failure [on the part] of the Jamaican government to properly invest and fund reggae music has come up. It’s come up when I interviewed [the] King of Ska, Derrick Morgan, and saw how the [Jamaican] government doesn’t contribute to help a man like that [to continue to] tour [in non-shabby conditions befitting a legend of his stature]. He was in a very seedy, shoddy hotel – the man can’t [even] see.

Chinna: Right.

Q: And [yet] he’s still coming to the Dub Club in Los Angeles to give reggae fans like me an [unforgettable] experience [watching him perform live] – an education in music. And ‘nuff times it’s come up in interviews when discussing the fact that there is not a proper reggae hall of fame [in Jamaica,] something that’s comparable to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame like we have in the U.S., in Cleveland[, Ohio]. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to that –

Chinna: I’ve never, but I hear about it.

Q: It’s a giant museum. It’s sparkling. And they have hallways for all the different [famous] musicians and different musical legacies –

Earl “Chinna” Smith (photo courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper)

Chinna: True.

Q: There’s been a lot of talk, there was even a Jamaican writer by the name of Emma Lewis, she writes about music and different things, [and] she’s written some articles about how there ought to be – there should be – a Reggae Hall of Fame in Kingston. Maybe on the waterfront. Somewhere prominent. And it should be very well-funded. Because what you have now, you have the Bob Marley Museum, you have the fairly recent, smaller, Peter Tosh museum. There’s an [insufficient] Jamaican Music Museum – [they were recently] trying to [acquire] one of Tony Chin’s [old] guitars, I know. But again, these things are not on the same kind of scale [like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the U.S.] Shouldn’t there be [a giant and grand reggae hall of fame in Jamaica] to better honor the musical legacies of all these musicians. Why doesn’t this exist?

Chinna: Let me tell you how this industry runs. Can you believe, Family Man, Wire [Lindo], Tyrone [Downie], none of these people get an O.D. [Order of Distinction from the Jamaican Government] or [other] honor!

Q: Wow.

Chinna: Alright. Do I have to say anything else to you? The world listened to them music. And every day as long as life lasts – Family Man, you understand, don’t get [an] O.D. Who get an O.D.? Tony Rebel. Dean Frazier. You understand what mi a-deal with? And I’m not saying [them] men shouldn’t get them things. But how can you don’t remember [that] Family Man played all these fuc*ing bass lines!? I mean Miles Davis said Family Man was the wickedest bass man him a-ever a-go hear. The great Miles Davis.

Q: Usually what I hear about this subject – about the failure of the [Jamaican] government to embrace, support, and honor reggae music and musicians [properly] is that there is still an uptown-downtown divide in Jamaica when it comes to reggae music. And because of this divide, and maybe because of a lingering discrimination against Rastas –

Chinna: No, leave that alone, leave that alone. Because that’s crazy. It’s there – these uptown people. One Love? Three Likkle Birds? The people that you describe, [these] uptown people, dem play One Love, dem play [the] Exodus album – but how can you not give Family Man, Tyrone Downie [proper recognition]!? You see this (showing picture). The world’s greatest blood clot drummer – they kill him. Carlton Barrett! Them kill this drummer here. And everybody walk free. [On] the reggae flip-side, the story [you should get is from] all the Marleys [and say:]“What happened with taking care of [Alvin] “Secco” Patterson!? Come home from the blood clot states! Hey Ziggy a-take care of Family Man!? You understand? Dem just support the whole bag of blood clot fuc*ery! And dem likkle kids and Cedella and everybody a-gwan so. You understand what mi a-deal [with]?

The journalists just write about them. No journalist says, “what happened to the Wailers?” [Did] Bob Marley build this fuc*ing empire alone? [Did] Bob Marley play the bass and play the guitar? And play the percussion? Bob Marley just blood clot sing! And Family Man do the next scene, and [Chris] Blackwell there – so you go around these people. And every journalist just go around that, too. Yeah because, I don’t know, maybe dem a-get a job if dem write what dem blood clot want. And some likkle Damian, and some likkle blood clot Julian. You understand what mi a-deal with? What happened to Family Man!?

I mean Carly’s drums – and Damian sing blood clot [about that] too pon him album. How Carly did teach him the drum. Stephen and all of dem. Them blood clot know! [How] can Ziggy not take care of Family Man!? And mi played “One Love,” mi played riddim guitar pon that blood clot. “Three Likkle Birds.” Yeah. How mi and dem a-go work it out. You understand? Them likkle blood clots not have the art of leadership. Bob Marley [was] a leader.

Please check back in a few weeks for part two of this interview. In part two, Chinna and I talk more about the Marley family; the music industry in Jamaica; Chinna’s thoughts and experiences about playing with legends Sly Dunbar and Burning Spear; the Rasta way of life; the classic song “Fade Away” that Chinna wrote and that Junior Byles made a hit song; and several other subjects of interest to all reggae fans, too. Tappa Zukie even dropped by Chinna’s yard during the second half of the interview and an impromptu jam session took place. You don’t want to miss it.

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq



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