Dread Inna Babylon: Watty Burnett In Suburbia

Words by Jesse Serwer, Photo by Karsten Moran—

Watty Burnett Congos

Rastafarians as a rule take great effort to avoid Babylon. The Congos’ Watty Burnett, however, does most of his shopping in Babylon… Babylon, Long Island that is. This, we learn, in a surprising and entertaining profile on Burnett in Sunday’s New York Times, which, among other things, seizes on the incongruousness of a famed Rastafarian musician living in close proximity to a town whose name symbolizes all that is wicked in Rasta lore. Here’s one particularly amusing anecdote:

Mr. Burnett remembers a trip to Freeport from Manhattan on the Long Island Rail Road, accompanied by the bass player for the Congos, Tony Allen.

“When we got to Queens, the conductor said, ‘This is Jamaica, last stop Babylon!’ ” he said. “We got really angry. We thought, ‘This guy’s messing with us!’ ”

Burnett, the article tell us, has been living near the gates of Babylon (L.I.) in uber-suburban Dix Hills, Long Island, for 30 years now, working as a part-time electrician while raising two children and occasionally making music. With the Congos reformed, touring again and garnering positive reviews for Icon Give Thank, a 2012 collaboration with experimental musicians Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras, the bass vocalist’s career is entering something of a renaissance. This year, Burnett says, he plans to release three albums—one produced by an independent label in Switzerland; a 14-track ska LP with cameos from Ernest Ranglin and Stranger Cole; and a compilation of his solo recordings at Black Ark Studio.

Reggae nerds may also crack a smile upon learning that it was “Police and Thieves” singer Junior Murvin, a boyhood neighbor of Watty’s in Port Antonio, gave him his nickname, on account of a boyhood stuttering problem that caused listeners to ask: What?

Check out the full article, and accompanying video here.

And listen to some vintage Watty (from his days working with Lee Perry at Black Ark) here:

Karsten Moran for The New York Times