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Out of ska and rocksteady, a new kind of Jamaican music sprung up during the late '60s. It was a hypnotic, midtempo mix of simple, slightly off-balance beats and repetitive riffs. And Frederick "Toots" Hibbert, along with others such as Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer, was one of the fathers of this newborn genre.
Eventually, the music would be given the name "reggae," and it would take over the record collection of every rude boy, amateur marijuana botanist, and college hippie in the world. For a while, though, the four-on-the-floor drum thumps and jerky guitars remained unnamed until Hibbert and his band, the Maytals, wrote and recorded a song called "Do the Reggay" in 1968.
It might have been the first recorded use of the term, and it might have been the Maytals' first true reggae track. But it certainly wasn't Hibbert or his band's first hit. Formed in 1961 with Henry "Raleigh" Gordon and Nathaniel "Jerry" Mathias, the group had won the inaugural 1966 Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Competition with the bouncy pop jam "Bam Bam." And the only reason Toots and his crew didn't immediately follow up that initial success: He got busted for possession of weed (a charge he has denied) and put away for 18 months.
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Today, Hibbert is the only founding member left in the Maytals' lineup. He still records, and his most recent release is 2010's Flip & Twist. ("On this album, I have a lot of different music," he says. "I have blues. I have country style. I did some Stevie Wonder, R&B, and gospel.") But mostly, Toots spends the year touring city-to-city for one-offs like this Saturday's Bayside Rocks Festival, where he'll play alongside Wailer and UK reggae legend Steel Pulse.
Last week, New Times spoke with Hibbert while he sat in a Connecticut hotel room, resting between gigs. He talked about his band, that infamous ganja incident, and the birth of reggae.
New Times: When the Maytals wrote and recorded "Do the Reggay," were you trying to name the new sound?
Frederick Hibbert: The music was playing for a long time. But no one knew what to call it. People used to call it boogie beat and blue beat. I just sit down one day to play my guitar and the word just come into my moral, you know. There was slang in Jamaica... streggae. When a girl not looking good, we call her "streggae." So maybe it's coming from that also. But I was the one who coined the word reggae and said, "Let's do the reggae."
When the term was first used widely, were people misapplying it?
People used to spell it r-e-g-g-a-y. [Laughs] But then I let them know that we spell it r-e-g-g-a-e.
How did the Maytals first come together?
In my youthful days, when I get a holiday, I go to spend time with my brother in Chinatown, which is in Kingston. Afterwards, I get to meet my two friends, Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias. I sang for them and they liked the way I sang, so we put the group together and we just make some music.
In the beginning, what was the main root of your music?
Well, I started in gospel. My parents took me to the church and I practiced my talent. And then I go to school and I learned gospel in the morning before class started. Gospel everywhere. Gospel. Until now, that's where it is. Just up-tempo and a lot of energy.
Why have you stuck to spirituality and generally avoided political messages?
Well, that's where I come from. I didn't choose it. I grew up in a very decent way. Do things in a positive way with respect. Say your prayers before you go to your bed. Say grace before you eat your food. That's the way I grew up, you know. So my song is not political. It's not negative, just positive.
In the late '60s, you were arrested for marijuana possession. You've said it was bogus. What happened?
When we were going to the country, riding our bikes, two policemen come toward us and say they're going to charge us to ride without license. It was just crap because we have our license and everything.
In those days, if you had a good song, you could enter the festival in Jamaica. So we entered it and we won with a song called "Bam Bam." Later, the album became number one and we had a whole lot of shows to do in Jamaica. And [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell came from London and gave us our first contract to travel the UK. There were a lot of artists before me, and I reached number one before them. I have 31 number one records in Jamaica.
So it was a grudge from certain people. They tried to hold me back. The policeman told me that they paid him 30 pounds to hold me. They never give me no bail. They never charge me. They just hold me at a place called Richmond in the country until the time pass when I should travel to the UK. But I didn't get charged for no weed. I didn't have any. I was innocent.
Did musical rivals orchestrate the whole thing?
No. It was just people who were with some other artists. In those days, it was just politics.
Even after the arrest, there have been several periods when the Maytals were on hiatus or broken up. Why have you and the band always drifted back together?
Well, we never really break up. We just stop tour for a while and do other things. Some of the guys I started with early [such as Raleigh Gordon, Winston Wright, and Winston Grennan], they died. And some of my family died. But my musicians could work with anybody or help out any other band. So they do what they had to do until I was ready to do it again.
Why didn't you decide to just retire at some point?
It's not time for that yet. I just born again. I feel like I born again, you know.