In its ideal form, reggae is life-affirming, self-aware, and socially conscious. Yet all too often, the genre finds itself in a state of slack. Who better to tighten it up than the all-purpose Screwdriver? Dalton Lindo accepts growth and change but won't allow anything to overshadow the religious fervor at the center of his Rastafarianism. Meeting at the Lauderhill branch of the Kingston-based chain Island Grill, Screwdriver enters the brightly lit establishment and immediately deems it non-ital. "I never go into places like this," he grumbles, fiddling with the cap of the tiny brown bottle of Vigotron Magnum Tonic he calls "the roots," sipping a teeny swig of the dark liquid.
A swirl of birds keeps the air chirping with life as customers are lured inside by the scent of brown-stew chicken. Screwdriver won't eat meat: "'Cause I want to see the goat," he says. "I want to see the cow." During the next 90 minutes, Screwdriver's philosophy locks down an airtight conversation, making it nearly impossible to get a word in edgewise. A strengthened brew of Rasta orthodoxy and reggae virtuosity, disseminated over the course of five increasingly serious albums, leaves the Jamaican-born, Fort Lauderdale-based Screwdriver with a barbed coil of beliefs from which he spins off patois-inflected ideals for living.
"To be a real Rastaman, you have to be a real man of creation," he declares at one point. "A real Rastaman won't work for nobody because he's an ex-slave."
Young Dalton Lindo grew up in Somerton, St. James, where a schoolteacher's piano recitals and church services drew him to music even before he discovered the radio. At age twelve, he recalls as laugh lines crease the corners of his squinting eyes, he made a crude guitar out of plywood. By the time he acquired a real instrument, learned a pair of chords, and performed around the district, developing his own insistent, uplifting unity songs, he realized he couldn't waste any energy pursuing the less-noble side of reggae. As the mid-Eighties brought a more urban, Americanized flair to the genre, Lindo was put off right away: "Every DJ, every singer, started turning to a more freaky slackness. That's when the music started going downhill."
His response was to envision himself a rebel iconoclast. All Lindo needed was a name to differentiate himself from the vulgar dancehall pack, something out of left field. He chose Screwdriver. "Just because it's a very versatile tool," he explains, a grin revealing a missing front tooth. "A screwdriver would find itself every place."
Still his first hit, "Sharon Yu Pregnant," failed to distance him from his contemporaries. In fact to his dismay, the rap-oriented single spawned a legion of dancehall imitators amid several inferior knockoffs of the song.
Growing his dreads and setting his sights on "the restoration of real roots reggae," Lindo became a master of the acoustic guitar and focused on road-worthy compositions over recycled attitude or computerized backing tracks. "On that journey you gotta be persistent," comes his advice. "Sometimes people don't pay attention to the good music. But you trod on."
Further moves toward purity followed. "One of the things that upsets me about the business," he emphasizes as his eyes suddenly go stern, "is that when you go into a studio, you see a keyboard and a drum machine. I have nothing against new technology. But I need a bass man -- a keyboard man don't play bass!"
He left Jamaica and traveled around the States "to show the Americans that the music we build is equal to all the other music in the world."
More records followed: Teach Dem leaves his earlier commercial stylings behind with a deep foray into roots and culture and a switch to a soulful croon recalling the flavors of both Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff. Calling Calling furthers this trend toward enlightenment, interpolating conscious compositions with sampled speeches from Marcus Garvey, MLK, and Nelson Mandela. By the time of Let Me Remind You in the mid-Nineties, Screwdriver had recast himself as a Rasta fundamentalist and teacher.
He may not go that far: "I don't come to change dem, just to show dem. Just look to the Almighty. I have nothing against education or curriculum -- I'm against imperialism." Still, Screwdriver is skeptical of the learning taking place in schools, preferring to uncover truths "from Genesis to Deuteronomy" and remembering the proverbs his grandmother bestowed upon him as a teen -- which he touches on in "Granny Slang," from his newest album, Prophecy. The record is his most didactic yet, low on love songs, stocked with authoritative statements on politics, upheaval, African history, and spiritual nourishment. His biggest concern today? "The children! I'm really concerned about them! A baby is a living example of what life is supposed to be.
"Man get greedy and start to alter the real teaching," he observes, thin dreadlocks peeking from beneath his brown cap. "If it was all about money, I wouldn't do an album like Prophecy." Presenting a smorgasbord of styles, from gooey balladeering ("What We Gonna Do"), uptempo dancehall ("Tonight"), and stirring old-school ska ("The Heat Is On") to a succession of steady-rocking anthems, Screwdriver fills each groove of this 2001 release with real instrumentation, cooing backup singers, and a compositional sense cribbed from earlier messengers like Marley and even Sam Cooke. Yet as the biblical bent of "The Ancient Land" and "God and King" attest, Prophecy is all but a conversion manual.
Screwdriver isn't apologizing for the proselytizing. "The whole world today remains in danger!" he implores. "O.A.U." skillfully presents his advocacy of the Organization of African Unity, pointing out that all black people, whether Jamaican, Nigerian, or Trinidadian, are descended from Ethiopians. "That's one of the most important things that black people could ever have, but they don't know. The black race has no federation to represent them, and the African continent will not know peace until they have one leadership. Organize and centralize is the number one solution to the black people's problems of today."
On the other side of the fundamentalist coin is the track "Woman's World," which claims heroin addiction as one possible side effect of consorting with the distaff side.
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Admitting that his female backup singers raised eyebrows when asked to sing along with "Stand up strong/Don't let them conquer you," Screwdriver says the song is simply about one misunderstanding that cost a man his life because of "the bitter side of a lady."
"Today I see women doing a man's job," he says, a sour scowl indicating his displeasure. "I don't think women should wear pants. Or man a dress."
That image sets off the jitters, and he spins his bottle of Vigotron on the table and drops his car keys to the ground. Mysticism, ancestral traditions, and scripture are topics more likely to provide Screwdriver with a true tonic.
"A Rastaman is someone who fights for equal rights -- not in a physical form, but with wisdom and knowledge and understanding. That's why I choose to do right. I want to be Godlike. Not Devil-like."