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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fundamental Roots: The Story of Humble Tafari and Wild Fiyah Sound System

“In West Indian cultural resistance, the drum has always held pride of place. Drums were used in Africa for long distance communication, and slaves on the plantations continued this practice.  Fearful of slave revolts, the planters outlawed the drum.  After emancipation, the planters and missionaries banned drumming as subversive and an obstacle to the assimilation of the blacks.  But they could never totally suppress it.”   C.A. Sunshine (1985).

It is this sound of the drum, a centuries old African drum imbued with the weighted history of the transatlantic slave trade, that echoes right in the heart of the works of one Humble Tafari, the man behind the Wildfiyah Rootikal Sound System.  As Humble sees it, “Reggae music is a derivative of African music where the focus is on the drum beat and the melody is in the bass line.  No other form of music can proclaim that.  It is the bass and drum that drive the soul and spirit.”  Drums of emancipation. Drums of communication. Drums of subversion and resistance.  Drums of remembrance. Drums to free the soul and elevate the spirit.  It is the sound of this timeless drum vibration that drives Humble Tafari’s mission in the Sound System business.

Like a trade wind blowing East off the Gold Coast across to Bermuda, through to the UK and on to the USA this man’s story is rooted right down to the dry bone in the fundamental roots of Reggae Sound System culture and in his faith as a son of Rastafari.  And, every story must have a page one.  Humble tells it so: “I was introduced to Reggae by my mom when I was three years old living in the UK.  My mom whom is from Jamaica, used to hold parties at our home and she would play lots of reggae music.  During the days, I would then play with her dozens of 7-inch 45s and just play them.”  From mother to son the seed was planted bringing forth the next generation to carry on the ancient tradition of drumming.  Only this time it would beat a little way different.  Sound System style.

In 1970 Humble purchased his first reggae tune in the form of Bob Marley’s “Natty Dread” and by 1976 at the age of thirteen, Humble began playing sound in his own way on the island of Bermuda.  “My first Roots session was one I held in my high school in Bermuda.  It was held during the lunch break.  From that moment, I was asked by fellow students to record 8-track tapes for them full of Dub Reggae.  Since then I was known as the ‘Rasta Dub Man’ of Berkeley Institute High School.  We then started to play music on weekends at various events and homes.  All of the other sounds I attended in those days were pretty much the same age and interest as myself.” 

Two years on and Humble landed in London, England.  It was 1978.  The words of Harriet Tubman, a deep influence on Humble, echo in this movement across the Atlantic to cold Babylon, “I had crossed the line.  I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom.  I was a stranger in a strange land.”  Like so many other youth of African descent in England of the 1970s, Humble found solace in the late night blues; the sound parties; the dances on the darker side of town.  “When I moved to the UK in 1978 it was my cousin who told me about this sound called Jah Shaka.  When he took me to the session I was blown out of my mind.  Needless to say, the rest was history.”  The youth weaned on the milk of his mother’s seven-inch collection was now a full blown Shaka-ite.

Dance and dance followed, but Humble recalls one of his most memorable being a Shaka dance which he trodded to on his own one night.  “I think it was my first Shaka dance by myself.  I knew the name of the place but I was not sure how to get there after I got off the train.  But as soon as I got off the train, I started to hear a small rumble.  Then I saw a few Rastas walking in a certain direction.  I overheard them saying, ‘Keep following the street lights’ only to find that the closer we got to the venue, the more the street lights shook.  This could only be a Shaka dance.”  Like the roll of a thundering bass line Humble continues, “The dance was eye opening.  I counted at least twenty bass scoops divided into five stacks.  All you could see was Rasta mon and women and lovers of Jah music all in one inity.  It was beyond anything I ever imagined.  This was the mighty Zulu Warrior, Jah Shaka in session!”

From these early experiences at sound system dances rooted in the political firmament of the 1970s and 1980s, Humble began to form his identity as a Rastaman on a mission to do Jah Works.  “I see sound system as a message bringer for the plight of the black race.  The Roots sound was used as a news and storyteller for the black youths during the 70s and 80s.  The sound was used during a time when black youths were unemployed and had nowhere to go.  They were not allowed into the big popular dancehalls.  Reggae Sound Systems appealed to their day-to-day life.  The sound forwarded a story of black awareness and black pride. It was like a church and a political gathering all in one.  One would leave the dance feeling blessed and also inspired and motivated to better themselves.  This was the duty of the sounds which I grew up with.”

Humble, motivated and inspired, decided to take up the works as well.   When Humble Returned to Bermuda, He started his first full-fledged sound in 1985 calling it Humble Hi-Powa, but so as to not have name focus on himself, by mid 1986 the sound was renamed King Judah.  This sound was run by his close friend , Gunman, who was into music just like Humble.  Shortly afterwards, Gunman decided to branch out on his own and form a sound called Inity.  Not long after this, Humble was sitting in his front lawn reasoning with Gunman about a new name for his sound.  His Mom overheard both of them, and told her son to call it Wildfire.  Wildfiyah Rootikal was thus born. 

By 1991 he had fully shifted to an exclusively roots vibe and away from the prevailing dancehall trends of the day.  “I found my sound was not just entertaining the people of Bermuda, but by the way I was selecting, I was telling a story to the listeners.  I was giving them a glimpse of our past through music and steering them into a more positive direction.  This newly positive direction influenced me to change the spelling Wildfire to Wildfiyah Rootikal.”  Never to be suppressed Humble carried forth the sound of the Ancient African drum of his ancestors through the means of his Roots Dubwise Sound System one session at a time.

Over the years, Humble’s involvement in the global Roots and Dub community has also included helping others set up their own sounds.  As a solid foundational member of the USA Roots Reggae Dub Expo community, Humble’s counsel has touched many just starting in the realm of sound system.  His touch has also been felt in the world of production and the release of a number of records, mostly in the 10” format.  “Some tunes I make myself, while others I have hired out studios to build roots tunes specifically for me, then I would get a singer to sing for me.”  Humble has worked with, amongst others, the great UK producer, Russ D of Boom Shaka Lacka and Disciples fame, Christine Miller, Keety Roots, Ma-Kaya, and others.  He also has plans to release a works by another member of the USA Dub Expo community and rare stateside producer, Kris Naphtali who himself will soon be highlighted on the pages of this blog.

If Humble has his way, the culture of Sound System in the USA will grow as big as those in the UK and Europe.  “My hope and my vision is to see the US sounds reach to a level equal to or beyond that in the UK and Europe.  I feel we have the talent and the technical abilities to build, create, produce, and push out Roots Reggae music to the highest standards for the entire World to witness and wonder after.”  With the force of his inspirations – Haile Selassie I, Marcus Garvey, Leonard Howell, Malcom X – Like a wind at his back, the Mighty Humble Tafari trods on aiding the next generation in carrying forth the drum beat of those who came before him.  From that time to this time we forward on.

Make sure to check Humble and Wildfiyah Rootical this summer as he plays both the East and West coast installments of the 2011 USA Roots Reggae Dub Expo.

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