Watty Burnett: “Off Reggae’s Grid, Back on the Map”

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Jed Lipinski (The New York Times) tells the comeback story of Watty Burnett, a gifted singer who once recorded with Bob Marley. He is best known as the baritone vocalist for the Congos, with whom he recorded “Heart of the Congos,” considered one of the greatest roots reggae albums. Mr. Burnett grew up in Port Antonio, Jamaica, and now lives in Dix Hills, NY, where many are not familiar with the singer’s renown in Europe. Here are excerpts with a link to the full story below:

Mr. Burnett — a wiry, bespectacled man with thin dreadlocks and a white cloud of a beard — is the baritone vocalist for the Congos, a group whose 1977 record “Heart of the Congos” is considered one of the greatest roots reggae albums of all time. But while his bandmates Cedric Myton and Roydel Johnson continue to live in Jamaica, Mr. Burnett, 63, has quietly resided in the affluent suburb of Dix Hills, N.Y., since 1980. [. . .] And he is now in the midst of a comeback of sorts. Last year, a collaboration between the Congos and two young Los Angeles-based psych-rock musicians, titled “Icon Give Thank,” was hailed as one of the best albums of the year by the popular music Webzines Pitchfork and Tiny Mix Tapes.

This year, Mr. Burnett intends to release three new albums: a solo record produced by an independent label in Switzerland; a 14-track ska record called “The Lost Book of Ska,” featuring cameos by ska progenitors like Ernest Ranglin and Stranger Cole; and a compilation of singles he recorded 40 years ago at the legendary Black Ark Studio in Jamaica. [. . .]

[. . .] For a dreadlocked Rastafarian, Long Island took some getting used to. 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!’ ” Through the ’80s and early ’90s, Mr. Burnett recorded sporadically at local studios while working primarily as an electrician, installing surveillance cameras and wiring for local businesses. He attended all of his daughter’s dance competitions and coached his son’s traveling soccer team.

[. . .] Then in 1996, the British reggae revival label Blood and Fire reissued “Heart of the Congos.” The album became one of the biggest sellers in the label’s history and introduced the Congos to a new generation of fans. In the wake of the reissue, Mr. Burnett reconnected with Mr. Myton, and they released several new albums under the Congos name. Finally, in 2006, Mr. Johnson joined them onstage at the Rebel Salute Festival in Jamaica, marking the band’s official return.

The Congos now tour extensively through Europe each summer, playing to thousands of people at massive reggae festivals like Rototom Sunsplash in Benicàssim, Spain. But they remain relatively obscure in the United States. “Generally speaking, European audiences have always been hungrier for and more knowledgeable about roots reggae than their counterparts in the U.S.,” said Mike Alleyne, author of “The Encyclopedia of Reggae.” Mr. Burnett puts it more bluntly: “Around here, I’m nobody,” he said, gesturing at the walls of his living room. “But in Paris, it’s like I’m Mick Jagger.”

Even so, during a performance with Noah’s Arc at the 89 North Music Venue in Patchogue, N.Y., last month, Mr. Burnett’s appearance on stage drew cheers from the sold-out crowd of around 500. [. . .] Mr. Burnett, dressed in baggy jeans, a khaki army jacket and Timberland work boots, sang some of his greatest hits and covered “Buckingham Palace,” a song by his late friend Peter Tosh, as Noah’s Arc supplied a lively ska rhythm.

The crowd smiled at the disparity between Mr. Burnett’s small stature and his booming baritone. Before stepping offstage, he leaned into the microphone and declared: “On the air, everywhere, Watty B on your radio.” It was no Jamaican dance hall, but the walls of the club shook with the sound of his voice.

For full article, see http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/nyregion/watty-burnett-long-off-reggaes-grid-is-back-on-the-map.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&

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