Mikey Chung remained in the background
Herbie Miller
Let's Talk Reggae

A noted multi-instrumentalist, colourful arranger, and more pointedly, a guitarist of exquisite taste, Mikey “Mao” Chung was as unsung as he was brilliant. Nevertheless, among his peers, this Vineyard Town resident is acknowledged for his quality works in studios and on bandstands at home and overseas. Sadly, Mikey succumbed on December 28, 2021 after a prolonged battle with multiple myeloma.

The second of four boys, Chung followed Peter, a United States-based medical doctor. With their younger siblings Charlie, an agricultural scientist and occasional bassist, and the late Geoffrey, musician, songwriter, engineer, and producer, they made their mother Miss Brenda, a warm conversationist and detailed seamstress, and father, a shopkeeper, very proud parents.

Chung and his brother Geoffrey were drawn to music as teenagers and as students of St George's College. Despite his attempts as a singer, they established themselves as competent instrumentalists among the youth generation between the late 1960s and and 70s. They both were charter members of the Now Generation band in which Chung on guitar and Geoffrey on keyboard joined drummer Largie Martin and fellow “Georgian” Val Douglas on bass.

Studio work beckoned, and they began working as freelance musicians at the middle-of-the-road Federal Studio, backing Ernie Smith, Pluto Shervington, Bob Andy, and others. Along with Geoffrey, Earl “Waya” Lindo, Robbie Lyn on keyboards, Val Douglas on bass, and Mikey “Boo” Richards on drums, Chung recorded for Derrick Harriot, Lloyd the Matador, and Harry J. In addition to other recordings he was on Lorna Bennett's Breakfast in Bed, Ken Boothe's Is It Because I'm Black, Chosen Few's cover of Shaft, and on Ernie Smith's Pitta Patta and Life Is Just For Living, on which he played bass and overdubbed guitar.

As a guitarist Chung developed an individual tone that was contemplative and imaginative in an understated way. Stylistically, he had a penchant for clean, sparsely placed notes, which appeared to make his solos breathe. Consequently, he enriched the tune's colour and auditory vividness by crafting notes and chords that served a dual function as a countermelody while providing noteworthy rhythmic accompaniment.

Chung did sessions independently at Dynamic Sounds before being associated with the revolutionary sound at Channel One and Lee Perry's Black Ark Studio on becoming a freelancer. Ultimately, an extended stint with Peter Tosh's Word, Sound and Power culminated with him being in the house band, with drummer Sly Dunbar and the late bassist Robbie Shakespeare, at Chris Blackwell's internationally focused Compass Point studio in Nassau, The Bahamas by the late 1980s.

As a result, this first-call musician backed various artistes from across the scope of music, allowing more than a few international players to benefit from his talents. A checklist includes Black Uhuru, Maxi Priest, Grace Jones, Serge Gainsbourg, Bette Midler, Big Mountain, Art Ensemble of Chicago, James Brown, Joe Cocker, Sinéad O'Connor, and Ivorian Tikenjah Fakoly.

However, Chung's reticent nature of being comfortable in the hue of the spotlight and leaving its lustre to others belies his stature as an eclectic and visionary musician, distinctions acknowledged and respected by his peers. While not skittish about being a featured act, like so many other ace musicians locally and internationally, Mikey settled on a role in the background, embellishing the creative efforts of others in ways that enlivened their production. His contribution to the canon is remarkable for his ubiquitous role in reggae's evolution, selflessly employing his proficient capabilities to the genre's popularity.

Having done a stint at the former Jamaica School of Music (now the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts), Chung learned from the American jazz and pop arranger Melba Liston. In his activity with Liston, Chung relished the opportunity to be involved in various musical activities, including the prestige of accompanying the legendary tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon on bass. This mentorship enabled Chung to develop his stature as a musician experimenting with sound, textures, and colour. So when Peter Tosh envisioned that quality for his music, it was Chung who got the call.

Mikey had recorded with Peter before playing guitar on Maga Dog and Haffi Get A Beating, and was delighted to join Word, Sound and Power. He was immediately dubbed “Mao” because of his likeness to Chairman Mao Tse Tung of China. While arranging for the band he explored a sonic soundscape not typical of the aesthetic aura of the reggae idiom. His arrangements for Bush Doctor, Mystic Man, and Wanted Dread and Alive are notable for their robust brass energy and sheer dynamics, most prominent on tracks such as Moses the Prophet, Bush Doctor, The Toughest, and Buk-In-Hamm Palace.

Buk-In Hamm Palace exemplifies Chung's mastery and savvy imagination. It is scored with a sense of dramatic satire, upbeat dynamics, mockery for the royal residence, and celebration of the bush doctor's pro-herb advocacy. At the same time, it challenged Tosh's anti-disco stance because of the vibrancy of the arrangement's explicit dance floor beat. He scored the song specifically to have appeal in discotheques internationally; it did, became a hit, and was certified gold.

Chung was adaptable, easy-going, and engaging; a good storyteller with a twinkly personality. He shared views and experiences readily, and his reasoning was interestingly candid. This son of a Chinese immigrant father shared his experience of being taken to the homeland and living there as a child for two years. He chuckled and succinctly related stories of consuming particular time-honored Chinese foods; he spoke about his family in China with a sense of longing, how he would someday like to return and see them again.

In 2014 that day arrived. I was part of a party travelling to China for a three-week cultural and educational tour. I informed Chung about the trip and suggested he join the group. Funding was secured when Lascelles Chin at Lasco, a fellow Georgian, consented to sponsor him. On the first morning, after visiting Tiananmen Square, we then went to the Great Wall. Chung realised his legs weren't up to the challenge of climbing the steps so he sat and waited while some of us went a tad further up. Then, joining him on the rebound, he laughed, slapping his legs; he lamented that his return to China should have been years earlier. After connecting with his family he left the group the following morning, returning a day before we departed. Recalling past stories, I asked if he had feasted on any unique meals. He laughed and answered in Chinese. I never asked for a translation but I made up my mind based on the look on his face. He was beyond that custom.

In 2020 I invited him to partake in a Grounation session, paying tribute to the Chinese for their contribution to the development of popular Jamaican music. Not only did it allow him to reunite with past studio and band members, but it also enabled him to thrill the audience with his extraordinary talent. And, for sure, he provided stalwart musicianship to the different groups he backed. He demonstrated his ability to convey aesthetic substance devoid of cliches, banality, and prosaic routines throughout the sessions. Moreover, he performed with such clarity that notes seemed to ripple through the hall like temperate raindrops. Ultimately, his performance gripped audience members with an inkling of the profound value of music's potency to intensify an experience, reassuring them that music and the arts communicate much more than pleasurable emotions.

At the early stages of his illness Chung recorded songs with some of the musicians with whom he shared memorable moments in studios and on the road. Hopefully, those undertakings are at the point where a finished product will eventually be released under his name.

As a musician he was ubiquitous but unpretentious, a priceless contributor to many of the island's prominent vocalists and musicians, and a valuable collaborator with some of pop music's most notable artistes. Like Robbie Shakespeare, Sly Dunbar and others, Chung reached the stage where he recognised he was an essential contributor to the history and development of popular Jamaican music. He realised that ephemeral and tangible cultural objects should depict his legacy, in addition to audio and visual recordings. To that end, one of Chung's prized guitars, a Gibson electric symbolising his achievements, was donated to the Jamaica Music Museum, at the Institute of Jamaica, and is part of the national collection. Therefore, Chung and his creative legacy will remain an inspiration for universal goodwill to those who experience his contribution. Along with others who will discover the gifted and good-natured musician, all will be encouraged by his warmth for others, regard for human dignity, and dedication to artistic excellence. And for those who saw his courage while ill throughout his final two to three years, his strength of character will prevail.

More than many, Chung symbolised the essence of reggae and the finest of Jamaican attributes because he insisted on the highest qualitative standards musically, humanly, and personally. He understood that it could be “roots”, intelligent and refined simultaneously. As a musician this brethren occupied the top shelf and uplifted as many others as he could, and whenever practicable. That is what he represented because he valued equality over partiality. Those characteristics reflect his excellence.

Consequently, Michael Anthony “Mao/Mikey” Chung exemplified the consummate national model of what must be honoured and celebrated about us as a people.

Herbie Miller is a cultural historian and director of the Jamaica Music Museum at the Institute of Jamaica.

Guitarist Mikey Chung (left) and Herbie Miller in China
with Herbie Miller

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