Muta's Check It! still relevant today
IN just over a decade as an in-demand session guitarist, Earl 'Chinna' Smith had worked with some of reggae's top acts including Dennis Brown, Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff.
It was at a concert in Cliff's hometown of Somerton, St James in 1982 that he first met an artiste that was destined for greatness.
"Dis bredrin come out wid no shoes an' the first time him open him mouth was the poem, Every Time A Ear De Soun'," Smith recalled.
That poet was Mutabaruka.
Rastafarian Elder Mortimo Planno was standing next to Smith and was moved by the young poet's opening lines.
"Him sey, 'Chinna, yuh haffi record dat," Smith said. Smith agreed and recorded Every Time A Ear The Sound as part of Check It!, Mutabaruka's first album, at the new Tuff Gong studio at Hope Road.
In January, it was 30 years since American independent label Alligator Records released Check It!, arguably the most potent spoken word collection comparable to England-based firebrand Linton Kwesi Johnson's Dread Beat And Blood.
Broadcaster/musicologist Dermot Hussey says he was 'blown away' when he first heard Check It!
"Everytime a Ear The Soun, Butta Pan Kulcha, Sit Dung Pon The Wall; they all gave such an accurate portrait of the life 'people down below' lived. Muta's authenticity, it was as if he too had lived that life," Hussey told the Jamaica Observer.
Butta Pon Kulcha and Sit Dung Pon The Wall were on Check It!, as well as the provocative Dis Poem and Angola Invasion.
Bruce Iglauer, owner of Chicago's Alligator Records, was eager to distribute the album.
Even though his label specialised in blues music, Alligator did have some reggae ties, having distributed albums by Edi Fitzroy, the Mighty Diamonds and The Abyssinians. Check It!, Iglauer, remembers, was an entirely different project.
"I was immediately impressed by the vision, the lyrics, the instrumental tracks and of course Mutabaruka's charismatic voice. It was clearly an important, groundbreaking record," he said.
Produced by Smith for his High Times Records Ltd, Check It! featured an impressive line-up of musicians including Smith, percussionist Sydney Wolfe, bass players Christopher Meredith and Leebert 'Gibby' Morrison and drummers Carlton Barrett and Carlton 'Santa' Davis.
It was released in the United States by Alligator as 'The Essential Reggae Recording of 1983'.
According to Iglauer, it got "great reviews and every reggae programmer in the country was playing it."
He says Check It! remains Alligator Records' best-selling reggae album.
Born Alan Hope in Kingston, Mutabaruka had worked at the Jamaica Telephone Company before deciding to move to rural Jamaica in the early 1970s to concentrate on writing poems which touched on everything from poverty in Jamaica to African liberation.
He was among a growing group of Afro-centric youth (including Michael Smith) who expressed their militance in poetry. Check It! was the perfect launching pad for what, in 1982, seemed a promising career.
Iglauer recalls the first time Mutabaruka visited the United States to promote the album.
"He was just as charismatic in person as he was on recording. He was a serious man but not lacking in humour, and very self-aware."
Check It! would be the only album Mutabaruka did with High Times and Alligator. He went on to record several well-received albums for Shanachie, another American independent company including Blakk Wi Blak and Gathering of The Spirits.
Those albums also earned him a strong following on the US college circuit and in Europe.
Check It! was reissued by Washington DC-based 'indie' RAS Records in 2003 to mark its 20th anniversary.
The Dis Poem Word Festival in Hope Bay, Portland today is inspired by the poem of the same name. Mutabaruka, who hosts the longrunning Cutting Edge programme on Irie FM, is down to perform.
Smith says there is no doubt Check It! is one of the great reggae albums.
"Is a mad, mad thing. There is something 'bout song like Butta Pan Kulcha...The album carry some deep message."