Words by Jesse Serwer
You may have caught Puma’s commercials for their new Faas running shoes starring “the world’s fastest band” harmonizing their way through Jamaica on TV recently. The members of this high-speed performance troupe aren’t just actors—although they are that, too—but an actual, factual band. Jamaicans may already recognize Sheldon Sheppard, Everaldo Creary, Chris Gordon and Oneil Peart as dub poetry group No-Maddz, who last year released the first live album recorded on the island in a quarter-century, called The Trod. Sheppard and Creary are also the stars of Storm Saulter’s Better Mus’ Come, Jamaica’s first-ever period piece and its most talked about feature film in a generation. LargeUp recently linked all four members of the group while they traveled together by car in Jamaica, for a conversation about dub poetry, getting hired by Puma and the meaning of that “Poo-pooka-poo” thing they do in those Faas commercials.
LargeUp: How did you get started as a band?
Sheldon Sheppard: We started No-Maddz because the Jamaican Cultural Development Commission opened a category called dub poetry ensemble. We entered the category and we were victorious at JCDC’s performance art festival and we set history in that category with a perfect score back-to-back in the regional and national finals of dub poetry ensemble.
When I think of dub poetry, I think of something real serious, like Mutabaruka. You seem much more lighthearted. How would you categorize yourselves? Would you say you’re a band?
SS: For the first time, I would describe us as a dub poetry group. Original dub poetry, that’s where we started from. That is the parent material. But over time, we noticed that dub poetry was kind of harsh and it only commented on social activities and political stuff. Dub poetry can be used as an artform to get out any form of information. So it was pretty much in the box, with our forefathers of dub poetry. They really lamented a lot. We still lament as well, seen, but we give thanks right a now. [Laughs]
Where does that group harmony thing you do in the Puma ads come from? I noticed it was actually in a song on your album called “Rise Above Profanity” before the commercials…
SS: Evey wake up with it one day, just dial up the rhythm gwan, Poo-pooka-poo-pooka-poo-pooka-pooka-poo, Poo-pooka-poo-pooka-poo-pooka-pooka-poo, Poo-pooka-poo-pooka-poo-pooka-pooka-poo and him knock on the side of the chair and create that rhythm, and the energy just start. And I-man did remember some poetry from our Kingston College days. And some of it is current activities, and current influence. That is a great social commentary, if you listen. When you get the time to listen to the track, if you haven’t, that gives social commentary as well. Wrapped up in Poo-pooka-poo and that kind of energy.
What is the sound commenting on?
SS: Take, for instance, it’s life and life’s energy. It’s a song that outlines the censorship of things, seen? You don’t really haffi censor nobody. What is profanity? It is the harshness of society. What is profanity? It’s poverty. What is profanity? It is murder and injustice. What we are saying is…. simple words.
Everaldo Creary: It’s just poo-pooka-poo-pooka-poo-pooka-pooka-poo. Simple words is just poo-pooka-poo.
Did anything in particular inspire that song?
SS: No, we just went with it.
Did it have anything to do with the profanity controversy in Jamaica? It seems like when people criticize dancehall there, it’s always about profanity. Which is funny because in America, we think of dancehall as party music. We don’t even realize it’s profane…
Chris Gordon: That’s a good point. Because basically when you leave Jamaica, what we consider profane here in terms of words, is considered something fun and something jovial in the US and the world, and a cultural reference. So it is really just explaining to Jamaicans, words aren’t really profane because there’s things much more profane in the world than words. There are much more profane actions. Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Twin Towers. And ask them what are these.
SS: But when you ask the poets to define—remember it’s dub poetry we’re doing now— a poet don’t really like to define him words. Because we want the little, now…to decode the message and take from it the little pieces because when you listen to it inna higher, you will get something totally different from it than anything we are even saying right now. Seen? Causing you to look within yourself. That’s really No-Maddz’s aim, yuh know. And the joy of music—mixing all genres in our parent dub poetry form. So you will hear some dub poetry with some jazz vibe, you will hear some dub poetry with some country vibe, you will hear some dub poetry with some jungle music theme. It’s really out of the box, No-Maddz doing dub poetry, and we are all actors. We recently did a film in Jamaica, myself and Everaldo, called Betta Mus Come...
LU: Oh, we definitely know about Better Mus’ Come. How does being actors as well influence your music? You remind me more of a musical improv group than a band…
SS: Theater influence di thing cause it gives us an edge as well. Because we not only recite our pieces, we present our pieces. And we communicate our pieces. It’s not just a regular song you will hear from an artist coming out of a studio. Our thing is not straight one thing. It keeps you guessing. You can’t really tell no one you’ve seen me, that is the poetry this year. You can’t tell no one you’ve seen me. You know, it’s mystic. [Everyone laughs].
LU: How did you come to the attention of Puma?
SS: There was an audition locally in Jamaica, yuh know.
EC: All the bands in Jamaica.
SS: Even some of the old time bands came out. Once they took a look at the film and they saw No-Maddz, they said No-Maddz was di boss! [Laughs] We went to the audition and we did the same thing we do in the commercial. That’s what we auditioned with. That’s our song, that’s our moves, ya know? And Puma just liked it, and said, “Yeah, this is the campaign.” So give thanks to Puma.
LU: What’s been the response to that campaign? Is it playing in Jamaica?
SS: Yeah, it’s on the cable stations here. That campaign gave us 100,000 views on Youtube. It introduced us to the Americas, to Europe. Somebody even in Iceland said him watch it. Somebody in Alaska said him watch it. It showed No-Maddz, and it’s a long time we really want everybody in the world to see No-Maddz.
EC: It’s a nice icebreaker.
SS: It’s funny. We tend to not take we-selves too seriously.