Michael Kiwanuka is under the weather. In the days prior to our conversation he’s had to cut short a working visit [and several live dates] in the States, returning home to recuperate before the impending release of his new album.
“It’s definitely bad timing,” he complains over the phone [rather than face-to-face, as is more usual with Kiwanuka interviews]. “Basically, I got a bit run down and when that happens I often get tonsillitis. Well, I used to: actually, I haven’t had it for six or seven years. I had it a lot in my 20s, when I first started singing – maybe from stress? – but as soon as I got used to singing in pubs and so on, it went away. I don’t know, maybe it’s just a different time in my life, or a reaction to all these new responsibilities. I don’t think I’m getting old!”
What he seems to be getting is more assertive…
“Incognito,” says band-leader Bluey Maunick, “is like a fire on a beach: you light one and it attracts people. And if you don’t keep feeding the flame, it’s not going to keep people warm and safe.”
Coming up to a remarkable 40th anniversary next month, the UK’s most enduring unit of soul-jazz-funkers have plenty to be proud of. Four decades of consistent success in any trade is never be underestimated, let alone in this business of providing music – but as aworkingband too, for at least half of their existence in a time when keeping so many proverbial plates spinning went against prevailing industry expectation? Some achievement.
The first time I met Jah Cure was more than 20 years ago. I’d gone to see Beres Hammond, who rented an office on Dunbarton Avenue in Kingston. Beres was there with his manager Mervis Walsh and a teenager from Montego Bay who had his locks wrapped in a turban, Bobo Ashanti style. I was told this youth’s name was Jah Cure, “because he’s come to cure all ills.”
That sounded a bit far-fetched until Beres started playing DATs of the latest Harmony House productions and Kings In This Jungle, a song that Jah Cure had just voiced with Sizzla, roared out the speakers. As the track played, I remember looking across the room at my son Felix and then back to Beres, whose smile spoke volumes. The young singer sat next to me had the voice of an angel – not the saccharine variety, but a fallen angel whose cry expressed loss and yearning, rather than transcendence…
Star People Nation can but intrigue. As far as album titles go, the latest offering from trumpeter Theo Croker is worth spending time over. Rather than being shorthand for a tall tale of glamour and glitz, the formulation aims to present an earnest and urgent socio-cultural debate that feels as welcome as ever. Croker has a clear agenda.
“Well, Star People Nation, really… the larger meaning is it’s like a collective of creatives – mostly people of colour – to combat the stereotype of a black creative,” he explains. “The conversation is so much larger, especially in America. But it’s not seen, it’s not presented, it’s not a popular thing. Then you discover that people of colour are not this one thing. I mean, being a creative and being black isn’t new… ”