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Hailing from Handsworth, Birmingham, the ‘International Reggae Am-BASS-Ador’ is an English-born Jamaican and internationally acclaimed musician, who embarked upon his path in music at the tender age of six when he picked up a recorder and mouth organ.
“I was born and raised in Handsworth, in an era of misunderstanding, prejudice, racism, riots, great expectations, disappointment and astounding triumphs! Throughout it all, music was the very core of my existence. My mission now is to educate, motivate and empower, through one of the greatest powers known to the human race… the power of music.”
A native of Birmingham in the U.K. [also home of Duran Duran, UB40, Black Sabbath, and Joan Armatrading] Amlak’s versatility and interests ranges from mentoring, facilitating workshops, songwriting, producing, composing for TV, performing and hosting major events. With a B.A. in Popular Music and a M.A. in Musicology, he is continuously expanding his extraordinary talents into other areas of his long and rich journey in life.
IRIE. Greetings Amlak!
The AmBASSador. Yes, Rasta! Wha Gwaan? This is Amlak Tafari. The International Reggae AmBassAdor. The Man behind Yellow Wall Productions and the bassist for the international grammy-winning band called Steel Pulse. How are you doing?
IRIE. We are feelin’ IRIE here in Bordeaux, France at the 20th edition of Reggae Sun Ska. Let’s jump right into it. Take us back to the beginning of your music career and share with us how you evolved into being one of the baddest bass players on the reggae planet! We’re talking top three!
The AmBASSador. (Chuckles) I tell you what. I’m in the top three of students that’s out there because I haven’t achieved that much yet.
I’m still learning man… I’ve just been so fortunate to be at a festival like this, you know, here in Bordeaux, France, where I can see so many of the other musicians doing their thing. You know, honing their skills and their craft and sharing it with all the people including sharing it with me.
I’ve been in the best position here and in the greatest position to be able to learn from all these guys. Not only their musical prowess but also to learn from their humility and their expertise. This has been like a big schooling for me.
That schooling started for me when I was quite young. I was playing music in the church. I used to be in a steel band when I was in the church. But actually, before that, I used to play a recorder. I picked up a recorder at about 4four or six years old.
When I was 14, I went into my first reggae band and I was a rhythm guitarist. I didn’t actually have a guitar at first. There was a broken guitar in the back my garden. Somehow, I did not know where it came from. It was an acoustic guitar. So I asked my mom if I could fix it and put it together. She thought I was crazy. But I got some nails and nailed it together. Turned it into one thing. I got a piece of wire from a speaker, the back of a speaker and made one string and eventually, my mom took pity. My mom took pity saying “this guy is really trying so you know maybe I should buy him some strings.” It just went from there.
I was a rhythm guitarist as first. I’ve played with lots of different people back in my earlier times. Johnny Osbourne, I Jahman Levi… Then I went on to the bass guitar with I Jahman. Big Youth was the first person I played the bass guitar for, in France! Yeah, in Paris, France. My first reggae bass gig was in France. And I was struggling. Oh my gosh, it was a struggle. Because the bass was bigger than the rhythm guitar it was heavy. You know and I got cussed, man. I tried my best but… it was rough! My initiation to the Bass guitar was Baptism with fire, as they say, you know what I mean. But I was able to overcome the challenges.
So from there, I worked with lots of different people from Luciano to Culture, Abyssinians, Don Carlos.. the roots artists. I was with Pato Banton in England for a good number of years. We had numbers ones and tour around the world. After working with Pato Banton I decided to settle in between Brazil and California, going up and down between the two.. And I started working with Don Carlos while I was there.
One day I decided I wanted to go back to school. So around 2001 I left America. I stopped touring and went to school in England and started doing mentoring work, working with young people and as a result of that, i got some teaching qualification. Then I got my Associates. I got a Bachelor in popular music in 2007 and then I went on to get a Master in Musicology in 2011. The Ph. D. is on its way, you know? I’m living it. It’s going to write itself. Music has been good to me. And Rastafari has been the best. Two things that influence my life is music and Rastafari!
IRIE. We feel it when we see you performing on state. Who were some of your musical influence that helped you established yourself as a bass player?
The AmBASSador. I’m still learning how to play the bass. That’s why I can say that all the guys that’s coming up now I’ve learned from; and past masters like Robbie Shakespeare. In fact, I saw Robbie Shakespeare on tv in England one time and I was so inspired that I jumped up and got a broom. My sister had an Celeron Mac long coat so I put that on and I got the broom stick and I was standing there looking at my reflection trying to dance like Robbie Shakespeare. The coolness of Robbie Shakespeare and the excitement of Derrick Barnett. Man, Derrick Barnett… that guy can move.. to this day.
You know, those guys really inspired me a lot. There were a number of others. Danny ‘Axeman’ Thompson, all the bass men… Errol ‘Flabba’ Holt … I can’t even start to think. But there’s so many… faldo glass. Oh my God, Faldo Glass. he is so amazing. Even more recent… Mikey Fletcher. Adrian, who plays with Chronixx now. Adrian is my nephew. He is full of vibes. I learn from a wide spectrum of bass players in terms of reggae and a wide age group. A lot of the young guys are phenomenal and they’ve got great attitudes.
I also like Nathan East and Marcus miller and those guys. I respect their talent. It’s not my style but I respect their skill and their commitment to their craft. So I learn from their attitude and their approach to what they do. Sometimes it’s not only the musical aspect of things, sometimes it’s how they go to work. That’s what always interests me. When I watch those guys. It’s their approach of how they go to work, how they present their art and how they mingle with the people.
For me, the work is not just playing the instrument. I do that anyway. The work is like right now, talking to you… informing you about what’s going on, what was going on and what is to go on… I also learned from you what was going on and Whagwaan!! It’s reciprocal. It’s not that I just don’t come and deliver.
IRIE. It’s also exploration. I think that when it comes to any craft that you do, you want to explore the possiblities and the possibilities are endless.
The AmBASSador. Absolutely! Things change… I come from Handsworth. My parents come from Jamaica. I was born in Handsworth. It’s funny… Jamaicans always say… well if you are English, how you talk Jamaican? Well it’s a very simple thing. My parents were not English. So when I was born, they didn’t speak English. They talked Jamaican. I never mixed until I went to school. When I went to school, then I meet English people. But my community, Handsworth, are Jamaican people. So we talk Jamaican!
My daddy talked Jamaican. My mommy talked Jamaica. My auntie, my uncle… my godfather talked Jamaica. Everybody talked Jamaican. English we learned later on. But Jamaican is my first language. Mannerism, Attitude, Culture, Everything! The only thing we never had is the sound. So then I had to frequent Jamaica all the time for all those things.
IRIE. Share with us how you came to join Steel Pulse?
The AmBASSador. Well, I’m from Handsworth. David Hinds and Selwyn come from Top Handsworth. I come from bottom Handsworth. It’s very close.
It’s the same place (kind of thing). I’ve always been a musician. Those guys have like nine years on me in age-wise. So when I was in my young band, we always look up to Steel Pulse. Major inspiration! We come from the same town.
There’s been a couple of times in the past where they needed someone to play bass for a moment or for rehearsal so the location was right. I would get a shout. So I knew the guys. When an opportunity arose later on, then they said they would give me shout. I was working with Pato Banton for a long time. I was in the US and Brazil and then I moved back to England. So I was around.
At first I wasn’t working with anybody because I really wanted to get my studies done and I was working as a mentor. A different side of my life was developing. Like you said, exploring. One day I got a phone call from Selwyn Brown. He said, “we got some rehearsals and a couple of gigs and stuff. Are you interested?” I said, “Well?” I wasn’t really because i really needed to finish my studies and my work with the young people because that was my passion. But I eventually did the rehearsals, I did a couple of shows and 12-13 years later I’m still doing the rehearsals and the shows.
It’s good because it’s Steel Pulse. I’m from Handsworth, so I get it! You see what I’m saying? I get it! I’m from Handsworth. I can’t turn my back on it… because it’s like turning my back on me. I’m from Handsworth… I get it! You know?
So David and Selwyn wrote Handsworth Revolution in 1978. In 1981 the Handsworth riots and in 1985 the Handsworth riots. So I’m in the next generation from them. They prophesied about it. And I went around in the streets doing it.
IRIE. It’s almost destiny, right?
The AmBASSador. I have to say so, you know, things work out for a reason… things work for a reason. It’s given me an opportunity to say thank you to a lot of people. The guys will tell you… I don’t leave the stage with them from the back. I leave the stage from the front. I’m always engrossed in a conversation with people I’ve never met before. Talking about their life, my life, where i’m from. Steel Pulse has like three generations of people that comes to the show. I’m always there and they always say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I met the band.”
And I say, “No you didn’t. You met Amlak Tafari! You can’t believe you met me? Where I come from, I really have no expectations of meeting you so I am like more than elated, every time. Right now, I’m elated. It’s wonderful. It’s an opportunity for me. Every night is an opportunity. Every single night… to learn something new.
IRIE. When we watch you perform on stage, playing your bass guitar, it looks like you are having fun… like you are really enjoying yourself up there. Tell me what’s really going through your mind while you’re up on stage performing?
The AmBASSador. I’m really, really, really glad you ask me that. I’m glad you told me what it looks like to you. And I’m glad you are going to give me an opportunity to tell you what’s going on. I’m going to tell you about tonight. I got a couple hours sleep, maybe. I got a lot of stress going on… thinking about what I want to get out life as well as the music.
While we are up there, think about it like going into automatic pilot. So you’re driving a car. When you’re learning to drive, you’re checking the gears, the brakes, the hand brake, the indicator, the this, the that, the window open, the wind coming in, is the radio to loud, are the kids kicking around in the back, watch out for that dog. So then you drive slow.
With the music, once you learn the music, and that inner thing takes over, the music is the music… we do what we do! However, with not much sleep and then coming somewhere like this… no sound check… we only go up there to plug the instruments in. There’s no time to get things perfected. So for the past three shows of this tour, I have no monitors, I have no reference of what’s going on around me. I’m as they say… winging it.
The AmBASSador. Yeaaaah! I’m glad you ask me. And you say I’m having a lot of fun. It’s no fun not having the music or various instruments that you depend on representing in your monitors. That’s not fun.
And then you have to start using another skill that you have to create from nowhere to be able to maintain the timing necessary not to throw everybody else off. And then you’re contend with the sound that’s coming from down there. So if i can’t hear the keyboards or the drums real loud for me, then i’m listening from the sound that is coming from the crowd which comes late. It’s a balancing act. And people don’t know that. So when you see me take off from my perch and I fly off and run to the front, there is no representation of what i’m doing or what the drummer is doing because he is way back there behind the screen. And the bass amplifier is way back there. There isn’t any bass monitors at the front. So then I have to be pulling the tempo, balancing it between the audience sound and what’s behind me. So it’s constant mathematics. This is what you don’t realize. People don’t get that.
IRIE. So it’s a science!
The AmBASSador. It’s A Science! So you’re wondering what’s going on through my mind as I’m up there loving it.
IRIE. You’re also hustling…
The AmBASSador. I Am Hustling… I’m just trying to get through.
IRIE. But it doesn’t look like it.
The AmBASSador. I know…
IRIE. You look so natural…
The AmBASSador. Because that’s my trying to get through face. Sometimes, it’s so rough that all I can do is put on a show. And that’s what you saw! Adverse conditions. So whats left. Put on a show! Go to work!
So you see work! I’m really glad you ask me that about tonight. I’m really glad! Did you see when I went to the front?
IRIE. Yes I!
The AmBASSador. That’s even worst. Because what I’m listening to then is the sound from the audience speaker that’s not even facing towards me; it’s facing out there. So i’m trying to catch sounds and keep timing. So now you know! And all this stuff, I teach at the Yellow Wall School of Performance Ethics. Sign up one of these days. I teach this stuff.
IRIE. Sign us up!!! So when someone misses a beat, can it throw the other members off?
The AmBASSador. It can! The other day, I started King James Version … wrong note. The very first note… wrong. And it’s me and David standing at the very front of the stage. But we just have to continue.
It was the wrong note. It was the right sound and right tempo. It felt good. Just the wrong note. We noticed. Things happen.
IRIE. Is there a favorite song that you like to perform live. Least favorite?
The AmBASSador. There are some songs that I love so much that they are really nice. And then, there are some songs that I love to PLAY! The ones I love to play are not necessarily the same as the songs that I love. There’s a difference. For example, Back to my Roots… I really like that song. But playing it, I like it when I’m getting it right to my kind of right. But it’s a song that I still haven’t settled with the feel and the groove.
So there are songs I like, songs I like to play, and songs I don’t really like anymore. It’s work. It’s a joy! And when it comes to vibes… I was working with some guys in Brasil and I told them I don’t deal with vibes. They go, “What? This is reggae! You must have the vibes.” I said, listen man, forget about the vibes. I’m not interested in vibes. If you need vibes to do this, what happens when you don’t have the vibes? I can’t work with you. Forget the vibes. I’m not interested. Don’t come to me with no vibes discussion. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to hear it. I got my producer hat on. I just need the results.
They looked at me all like, wow, I let them down. I said, listen here guys. If you get your part right, I get my right, and collectively we gel and we get through this and it’s a success, I’ll take the vibe that we all feel from that. I can work with that! That vibe is all good. But if you need vibes to start, forget that! That’s why I don’t jam. I tell everybody, you’re not going to find me in a jam session. Are you crazy? I don’t have riffs and creative stuff to throw away. So what I say is I don’t jam unless someone presses record. Document and present!
IRIE. Can you share with us a memorable moment while on tour that will always stay with you?
The AmBASSador. The first time I ever played bass will not leave me because I was trying my best. I had only been playing for two weeks and I went on stage and Big Youth, he told me some words on the stage in front of 3,000 people. My whole everything was shattered. And I was a young guy. And he did not spare his words. I was devastated. And I found myself walking at five o’clock in the morning along Moulin Rouge on my own. I was trying to get my head together, thinking to myself, “What have I done?” How come I’m taking up a bass guitar thinking that I’m going to be some great bass guitarist? What have I done? My first-ever gig and I was destroyed. So that won’t leave me. Alright? That won’t leave me. It was not nice.
But we are cool. Seven years later, when I was with Pato Banton, we were big in California, playing a big show. I came off the stage at Reggae on the River and Fully Fullwood came to me and hugged me and said, ‘Yo… Amlak! Respect, Mon! Come…” He brought me into this tent and said, “I want to introduce you to somebody. I said who? He said, “Big Youth, Big Youth, this is Amlak Tafari!” So seven years later i’ve come of age! I’ve been through my rights of passage.
IRIE. Yes I! Let’s talk photography. We’ve learned that you are very passionate about it.
The AmBASSador. Very! I got a grade A in photography thirty years ago in black & white hand-developing. I know some of you people reading this don’t know what hand-developing is but it was how we use to produce stuff back in the day.
I didn’t have a camera for many years. I just got one the other day. I learned one thing about photographing things… you might not have the best camera in the world but if you have the best light, you got a damn good picture. That’s what counts.
IRIE. Yes I! So when you are shooting, what do you like to shoot?
The AmBASSador. I want to do more portrait photography. I want to experiment with lighting. I want to manipulate light. I want to be an artist. That’s what I really want to do.
I like playing with concert photography. Because it’s a hit or a miss. But the better you get, the more you hit. A very good friend of mine, Alan Hess, is the number one photographer. He writes the manuals for nikon flashes. He’s the man. I’m very fortunate to know him. He gives me so many hints and tips. He’s a magnificent concert photographer. I like what he does and the tips he gives me.
The fact that the lights change on stage, you learned that one shot isn’t going to do it. You might get a lucky one, and you might get a planned one but then you’re going to get a lot of other shots that aren’t anything.
The other thing I’ve learned is when people say just take the pictures and give me the disk…. No Way! You cannot! If you took ten pictures and understand that there will be 3 or 4 that might not be good because of the light or whatever, you cannot give them that disk. Because your success rate went from 100 percent to 60 percent. So you don’t give that disk away. You do what you need to do and then you present.
IRIE. Yes I! So tell us… what do you see yourself doing after Steel Pulse? Or do you hope Steel Pulse continues forever?
The AmBASSador. I hope Steel Pulse keeps going and going. Most recently, I was working on a project about mixed heritage in Derbyshire.
IRIE. Can we stop you right there?
The AmBASSador. Sure!
IRIE. We were in Derbyshire too… in a place called Belper!
The AmBASSador. Get out of here!!
IRIE. We were there for four days and we loved it!
The AmBASSador. Aye, Belper is cool, Man! In fact, one of the gentlemen, Nick Gregory, we composed some stuff for the documentary that I did is from Belper. I was in Derby doing my job, and the result of that was a documentary and a resource part for the school, colleges and university to go alongside with the documentary. It was my first documentary that I’ve done. It’s a start. There was minimum money in funding expecting great results so I used my music background. It’s interesting. In fact, I want to do something else. I want to talk to a university that has some opportunities coming up where I can get my PH.D., part documentary, part literary, which is want I wanted before but no one would do it so I want to have a chat with them. I want to work on another documentary. There’s actually a couple that I want to do. So that’s what I’ve done alongside being with Steel Pulse.
I’m also on the board of directors of an environmental protection agency called EPIC which stands for Environmental Protections in the Caribbean. It’s based in St. Martin and Florida. We have a Skype meeting once a month. We’re working on a project with Professor Paul Sikkel. He is top three in the world when it comes to Reef Ecology. We have a reggae project that we’re putting together which will help to promote environmental awareness and to what is going on with the oceans and inspiring young people to get involved in marine ecology. This year I visited some schools in New York and did some talks, sharing with them who I am, where I’m from, the music and how i got involved in the Environmental Protection of the Caribbean and my passion.
IRIE. Is there anything you would like to say or share with the IRIE Magazine audience?
The AmBASSador. To the IRIE Magazine audience, what I want to say to you is the same for any business industry or anything that it is you do… ‘be seen doing what it is that you say you do’. What I mean by that is if you say I’m the best cake maker in the world and somebody sees you roll up from underneath a car engine with grease in your fingernails and a wrench in your hand, they are going to think you are a mechanic. So when you say, oh I make cakes, they’re going to go, really? They might not be too keen to buy one of your cakes. Likewise, if you say you are a mechanic and they see you in the bakery, they see you coming out of the oven with cakes, they’re going to say like, really? Oh, I fix cars. Do you really?
Be seen doing what it is that you say you do means sometimes you gotta go into the lab and work on your craft, hone your skill. Get yourself prepared for when you step out. So when you step out and you want to present yourself as who you say you are, you come out ready. People don’t have to see you everyday. You must have some kind of mystic, like Peter Tosh kind of mystic. So sometimes people don’t need to see you. And as my dad said to me, God bless my father, my dad said, “son, go out there and do what you’re doing and let them hear about you. They don’t have to see you out they will visualize. Let them hear about you son. He said, and then, and only then, when you achieve what you want to achieve, if you feel like going and talking to them, then you can go. Because, son… I won’t tell you the rest of what he says but ultimately, be seen doing what it is that you say you do. Not what i think you do or somebody else told me you do.
Be seen doing what it is that you say you do. Amlak Tafari… 2017… The 6th of August… right here inna Bordeaux… inna France.. inna Europe… inna Western Hemisphere… Planet Earth… Solar System Galaxy… ‘I’niverse!!
The AmBASSador. At all times!!