Global Beat: Trojan Jamaica
In between world tours with The Who, Zak Starkey revisits the reggae sounds he learned to love as a child with a new label and series of releases.
Most people know two things about Zak Starkey—he’s the son of Ringo Starr and he’s the drummer for The Who. Now, they can add a third thing to that list: He, along with his SSHH bandmate Sharna “Sshh” Liguz, founded a new reggae record label, Trojan Jamaica, borrowing half of its name, and much of its inspiration, from Trojan Records. (The label was founded in 1968, and its early roster included such titans of the genre as Desmond Dekker, Toots and The Maytals, Jimmy Cliff and Lee “Scratch” Perry.)
The company’s maiden effort, the 13-track compilation Red, Gold, Green & Blue, was released on July 12 and boasts newly recorded roots-reggae covers of classic blues and R&B tunes. The album features such reggae legends as Freddie McGregor (covering Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen”), Black Uhuru’s Mykal Rose (doing “I Put a Spell on You,” recorded by everyone from Nina Simone to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Creedence Clearwater Revival) and, Starkey’s personal favorite, Toots and the Maytals’ take on “Man of the World,” the Peter Green-written tune that Starkey originally heard on a live Fleetwood Mac LP from 1968. Red, Gold, Green & Blue also features Jamaican bass giant Robbie Shakespeare in a duet on “Wang Dang Doodle/ Oh Well” with Liguz.
Starkey, 53, who has been drumming for The Who since 1996 (that’s longer than Keith Moon did) and has also beat the skins for Oasis, Johnny Marr and others, stayed away from his drum stool during the making of the album. As he does in SSHH, he played guitar only, returning to the instrument he calls his first love. “I started on the guitar because of Marc Bolan,” he says. “I saw T. Rex live and said to my dad, ‘I want to do that,’ and I got a guitar that week. That’s when I was about seven. And then I heard The Who when I was 10, and I switched to drums.”
But it was his mother, the late Maureen Starkey, who introduced the drummer to reggae music. The first reggae tune he remembers hearing was Toots and the Maytals’ “Funky Kingston,” and, from there, he jumped into Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Live album. Soon his turntable was spinning the likes of Dillinger, Burning Spear and the British reggae band Aswad, as well as The Clash’s reggae-influenced tracks. At the time, Starkey never imagined that he would someday spearhead a recording featuring many of his favorites. The idea for Trojan Jamaica came about after Liguz and Starkey recorded a rocking cover of “Get Up, Stand Up,” the reggae staple co-written by Marley and Peter Tosh. When SSHH were invited to perform it at the 2016 opening of the Peter Tosh Museum in Kingston, Jamaica, they were more than surprised to find out that some of their own reggae heroes adored their interpretation.
“They did our version and it was really cool,” Starkey says. “Then we got invited back the next year to do it again.”
The concept for the album grew from there. Starkey, Liguz and their partners in the enterprise secured the usage of the name Trojan and set about contacting their wish list of collaborators. Youth (U2, Paul McCartney) produced the tracks at Trojan Jamaica Studios in Ocho Rios. Andrew Tosh (Peter’s son) signed on for a tune, and Big Youth, one of the artists who’d recorded for the original Trojan Records, cut two. Another person who got the call was Rose. “I didn’t know Zak. All I had heard about Zak was that his dad is Ringo Starr,” he says with a laugh. “I was on tour and they said they wanted me down there in Jamaica.”
Once he arrived, Rose fell right into the groove. “It was like back in the day when we recorded ‘Shine Eye Gal,’” he says, referring to the 1979 Black Uhuru classic. “Everyone was in the studio playing live, including Sly and Robbie. I knew the song from Nina Simone but we did it with more of today’s energy. It was irie energy.” Rose’s “I Put a Spell on You” also benefits from a solo by Jamaican guitar great Ernest Ranglin.
Starkey says he chose a total of 140 songs for potential inclusion, based largely on their lyrical content, then pared it down. The final song list compiles tunes originally recorded by Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, and Johnny and Shuggie Otis. In addition to the Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare rhythm section, the participating musicians include Tony Chin (guitar), Cyril Neville (percussion), Michael Rendall (keyboards, organ), Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace (drums, organ) and, of course, Liguz and Starkey.
“Everybody totally got on the idea that these lyrics are fabulous,” Starkey says. “Then we just started from the ground up with making the music new.” The finished album’s title represents the colors of the Ethiopian flag—Ethiopia being the birthplace of the late Haile Selassie, worshipped by Rastafarians as a deity—and the blues.
Future plans for Trojan Jamaica include a new album devoted to the Jamaica- born singer and toaster U-Roy—for which Starkey and Liguz called on several high-profile guests, including Ziggy Marley, Santigold and the British singer/musician David Hinds of the band Steel Pulse—and a follow-up to Red, Gold, Green & Blue, culled from the same sessions that birthed the debut. That was a no-brainer, Starkey admits. Some of the assembled artists cut two or three songs in the Jamaica studio and they ended up laying down more than 25 tracks.
When asked what common line connects the blues and reggae, Starkey pauses for a few seconds, then utters a single word: “suffering.”
But, he adds, there was none of that going on during the making of Trojan Jamaica’s first release. “It was cool,” he says. “It was probably the easiest recording session I’ve ever been involved in.”
This article originally appears in the July/August 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.