Junkanoo Jump-up: Exclusive Jay Mitchell Interview

Words by Jonathan Cunningham, cover images from Soundological Investimigations

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Searching for Caribbean funk legend Jay Mitchell in his native land of the Bahamas isn’t as easy as one would assume. The enigmatic 64-year-old singer is arguably one of the biggest musical exports the Bahamas has ever had, a sort of Mighty Sparrow type figure at the opposite end of the Caribbean island chain. But rather than focus on calypso like Sparrow or Lord Kitchner before him, Mitchell was a key figure in the Funky Nassau movement of the late ’60s and ’70s with a sound that was equal parts James Brown, tropical funk, and Bahamian Goombay. Considering that Florida is so close to Bahamian shores, some of the first records that Jay Mitchell and the Mitchellites cut were far closer to American soul (think Wilson Pickett or the Funk Brothers) than more traditional Bahamian styles of music like Junkanoo, Goombay, and rake ‘n’ scrape. Jams such as “Funky Fever,” “I’m the Man For You Baby” and his searing, eight minute version of “Mustang Sally” were all Stax-worthy releases that could have been large international hits had they not come out on the little known GBI Records based out of Freeport, Bahamas.

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Hell, if it wasn’t for the well-researched, Cult Cargo: Grand Bahama Goombay compilation from the Numero Group released in 2007, many of those aforementioned songs would have probably gone unheard by non-Bahamian vinyl fiends entirely. And most people would never know that it was Freeport, not Nassau, that was the funkiest Bahamian city of all. When you listen to the music that Mitchell (who hails from Grand Bahama) and his compatriots were making during that time period, you’re not just hearing musicians that were swayed away from their roots by foreign sounds but rather a group of defiant young cats that created a successful version of deep-in-the-pocket Caribbean funk better than anyone else in the West Indies. Since I was in Nassau recently, making a trip to visit family, it only seemed proper to track down Mitchell and check in with the Bahamian star who, among his long list of accomplishments, once toured the U.S. with Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin and even signed a record contract with Joe Jackson (as in Michael’s father) during the ’90s. The only problem was, Mitchell isn’t that easy to locate.

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A quick email sent to the good folks at the Numero Group revealed that many of the key artists on that Grand Bahama Goombay comp have passed away. Frank Penn, the architect of Freeport’s music scene and Cyril “Dry Bread” Ferguson both passed in the last year and a half. But according to the email, Mitchell was most likely “performing several days a week at the British Colonial Hilton in Nassau.” A call to that hotel revealed that Mitchell hadn’t performed there regularly since 2003, but the woman on the phone thought he played at a restaurant across the street. The restaurant, predictably, was a no-go and after picking up a white pages, dialing a few wrong numbers and even stopping by a local radio station, I eventually found Mitchell who said, “Mon, I’m easy to find.”

We subsequently had a solid reasoning session and chatted about his new music, astrology, the state of Bahamian music and lot’s more.

What type of projects are you working on?

I’m working on a whole project about the new time…the time of Aquarius. I’ve got a new song right now called “Things are Going to Change.” The Aquiarian age, the golden age that used to exist – we’re very close to that right now once again. The song says: It’s not the end of a world, it’s the end of an age. It’s the end of Pisces basically. So my main thing these days is that my eyes are open to another time. I’m what you call a town crier. The things that we see, we have to write. Even when those who don’t have eyes to see get mad, we still write about it.

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Does that mean your music is in the process of changing?

My music isn’t going to change. It’s still Bahamian music, Junkanoo, rank ‘n’ scrape…stuff like that. But the awareness around it is changing. I wasn’t conscious to what I was doing before. When you grow older, you begin to meditate on your own thinking. I’m learning my purpose. It’s hard for me to follow what other people do. Why would I do what other people have done. My contributions should be from me.

During that time period right after Bahamian independence, from say, ’73-’78 which city was honestly funkier, Nassau or Freeport?

Nassau was always the number one city. But I don’t know, Freeport was strong too. We were pushing out music that was different than Nassau. Myself and guys like Smokey 007, Frank Penn, and all those guys. I was trying to synthesize Junkanoo music back then and was calling it Junka. I had a bunch of ideas back then. You know what really happened, we had a string of American entertainers come to Freeport, and some kind of how, we learned to amalgamate a bit of the music. I don’t know, but we just burst out and made all this music that was real funky and full of soul, even though they were doing more calypsos in Nassau still. Freeport was a little more funky than Nassau. We had our own thing.

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What did the Numero Group’s Grand Bahama Goombay compilation do for you and how did you feel about it?

Grand Bahama Goombay? Yeah yeah… they wanted to produce a couple of old songs and they put out stuff as vintage tracks if I remember. I didn’t do anything for popularity here in the Bahamas. There are plenty of Bahamians who never heard it. But I reckon it’s done more abroad than it has here. They only had a few of my songs if I recall. “I am The Man For You Baby” and a few others.

Wait, let’s back up. Are they paying you? You know some of these labels like to swoop in like culture vultures, license music and the artists don’t get paid properly…

Yes, they send a few hundred bucks here and there with a statement. You never know what they’re really getting but they send stuff. They seem like good folks. You know, my old songs are still the most popular with tourists. One time I had a guy come in and ‘say can you please play your version of “Yellow Bird” for me.’ Now my version is super funky, it don’t sound nothing like the “Yellow Bird” folks are used to, so I started playing it and the man dropped dead right there.

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Did you play the whole song straight through after he fell out?

Yeah I played the whole song! I didn’t know what he was doing. You know tourists are (laughs). It might have been his time cause he never came back. He just died right here while dancing to the song. Have you heard my version of Yellow Bird?

If it makes you drop dead on the spot, I don’t think I want to hear it.

Oh Lord. It ain’t that bad (laughs deeply).

What’s do you think are the biggest misconceptions regarding Bahamian music?

I don’t know about misconceptions. We fuse so many things together…even our calypso and soca came from Trinidad. We’re in a hole searching for what’s going to come next. I’m trying to start a new thing called Fuju…funky Junkanoo. I’m creating stuff within that. I’m always creating, always experimenting. I must leave something that the younger people can have… even if I could create a beat that the young people can rap on that’s distinctly Bahamian, that would be good. They all rap over beats from the US. There’s a guy out now, Papa Smurf and he’s trying to fuse the hip-hop and Bahamian sound. He’s got a voice of his own.

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Who are your favorite Bahamian artists?

I like ’em all. There are guys who seem to be better that others. KB, the Brilanders, Gino D, Ronnie Butler, some new guys, Sammy Star… he’s doing really good. Avvy is pretty good too. You had the Baha Men…I think what we’re doing is creating a one identity. Someone is going to come up with something that’s so popular. A lot of Bahamian music is all double talk. KB has a song called “Biggest Box” an it’s just funny, Bahamian storytelling. I got a new song called “I Ain’t Eating Nothing That Can’t Fill My Belly.” You can figure that out. I don’t know, we’re all doing a mixture of Junkanoo and rake ‘n’ scrape.

How do you describe the difference between rake ‘n’ scrape and junkanoo?

I don’t know how to describe it. The rake ‘n’ scrape… one has the old time sound and one is more close to calypso. The saw is prevalent in rake ‘n’ scrape. The saw, the concertina and the goat-skin (Goombay) drum are important.  Sometimes they leave out the bass and they sing short phrases. Junkanoo is more cowbells, more festive, and Junkanoo hits on the three.

How Important was Frank Penn to the Funk Scene on Grand Bahama Island?

Frank Penn–he had a business head. How I got in the casino was through Frank. He was really smart and helped all of us. If I came up with something good, and Frank said he could make some money off of it, he’d jump on it. Frank had the studio and put stuff together. But I was always an individual. You see the “Mustang Sally,” we just did that on the spot. I played the organ, and me and two other guys turned it out. We went to Miami, went in the studio and just jammed. I gave the drummer a piece, and the bass man, and went for it. I played all the keyboards. We didn’t rehearse or nothing.

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Where in Miami did you record it?

Criteria Studios.

Why do you think you’ve been able to stay relevant for so long?

One is because of my voice and the other is the awareness of what I write. I think it’s my deliverance. A lot of things that I write, they wind up happening. Its almost like a prophecy. Sometimes I write about stuff that’s straight to the core. Some of it’s just funny. To me it’s all normal. I was 13 when I first started singing outside of church. By the time I went to Nassau at 19, I was already popular.

What do you think Bahamian music never fully caught on in the States despite being so close.

You know…I was with Joe Jackson..Michael’s father. And he tried to change that whole style that I had. With these record companies, they have stocks and stocks of music. A lot of folks think they can just go to the U.S. and make it. A market has got to be created first. Another thing is, Jamaican musicians became radical about the government and that kind of helped them. Bahamians could learn from that.  If you do it as an individual they gon mash you quickly. But if musicians work together to create a new sound, something real special can happen.
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