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Rootsman Garth Dennis Reflects On Reggae’s Richness

Q: And I was surprised that, despite write-ups [about your solo album] in the [Jamaican] Gleaner and [Jamaica] Observer that mentioned that [master percussionist and producer] Sly Dunbar was heavily involved in this album of yours, that there wasn’t more of a buzz in the news media generally when the album first came out. There are many quality tracks on it. Probably my favorite is that song we discussed, “Save the Children,” which you sing with Don Carlos. There are actually two versions of that song on the album. It’s a moving, sad song about the state of the world. It focuses on both the mistreatment of women and a lack of safe places for children to play. What was the motivation behind this song, and what do you hope people take from it?

Garth Dennis: It’s like – look what’s happening now.

Q: With children being ripped from the arms of their parents at the [U.S.] border?

Garth Dennis: Yeah. And it’s not only at the border. It’s what’s going on [all over]. And the disrespect of women. People need to wake up to save the children.

Q: Two other gems on your solo album are remakes of older songs. There’s “Folk Song” and that song “Wondering Now” with your sister Joan Dennis, known as “Joey.” “Folk Song” is the first song you recorded as a professional. It’s a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Romancing the Folk Song.” This song was pressed on the Topcat label in 1972. And like “Slow Coach,” I understand that “Folk Song” was supposed to have been a Black Uhuru song. But because there was again trouble with Duckie laying down the harmonies, you ended up singing it with Don Carlos and Boris Gardiner – who just happened to be in the studio?

Garth Dennis: Right.

Q: Why did you decide to include “Folk Song” on your solo album? Why did you dig back into the past to bring that song [to life again]?

Garth Dennis: Because that’s an original Trenchtown vibration from the early days. Those are [the kind of] songs we use to sing at that time. Curtis Mayfield was very influential to us.

Q: Many of the songs you sang with Black Uhuru and Wailing Souls have emphasized your Rastafarian faith, and your solo album is no different. There are two very melodic tracks on it called “Jah House of Love” and “Eyes Open” (featuring Ras Michael); these songs have powerful, meaningful messages about faith. True?

Garth Dennis: Yeah. Definitely.

Q: Reggae historian Roger Steffens has written that Ras Michael is considered by many to be “the most important Rastafarian musician” in Jamaica. Do you agree?

Garth Dennis: Well you don’t want to point the finger at no one man. Because Jah is in every man. So you have to respect every man. ‘Nuff respect to Ras Michael, but you don’t want to pinpoint any one man, you know what I mean?

Q: Respect, Mr. Dennis, respect. Mr. Dennis, were you a Rasta from youth?

Garth Dennis: I start[ed] off being raised in the Christian church. But when you come to overstand what Rasta is, you realize you’re born a [Rasta]. The thing that they are telling you about [what] you have to seek and find? When you find out about Rasta, you realize, “oh, you are the thing that’s important.” Rasta let you know you don’t have to search for the thing. Because Rasta is here, there, and everywhere.

Q: I understand you lived in the same area as renowned Rastafarian elder Mortimer Planno, who counseled Bob Marley and many others. Did you know Mortimer Planno?

Garth Dennis: Yes, I [did] know Planno. But Bob Marley know about Rastafari before he went to Planno. From when he was around Joe Higgs he know about Rastafari and Selassie. Because on 3rd Street there were a lot of Rasta folks in and around Trenchtown. But Mortimer Planno was a very learned Rasta man.

Q: And Mr. Planno had books about Rastafari and black power in his house, true?

Garth Dennis: Yeah, that’s consciousness you know.

Q: And is that a place where you would go?

Garth Dennis: It was a place I would go frequently; I was accepted there as a young man.

Q: Were you in Jamaica when his Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I visited [Jamaica] in 1966?

Garth Dennis: Yeah. Give thanks. I sure was.

Q: Were you at the airport when Selassie’s plane landed in Jamaica?

Garth Dennis: No, I didn’t go to the airport, but I saw him twice.

Q: How did you see him?

Garth Dennis: I went to the city, to downtown. He passed through and I saw him [as he passed by].

Don Carlos with writer Stephen Cooper in San Diego | Courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper

Q: That makes me think of Don Carlos’s song, “Just a Passing Glance.” But Don told me that he didn’t actually see [Selassie] that day; he said the song was written because he caught the vibe of how the people felt. But you actually had that experience of seeing [Selassie] passing by!

Garth Dennis: Yeah.

Q: What street were you on when that happened? Do you remember?

Garth Dennis: I was on King Street.

Q: Nice.

Garth Dennis: And then I was on Spanish Town Road [when I saw H.I.M. pass by again].

Q: What do you remember most about the vibe in Jamaica when Selassie visited?

Garth Dennis: It was glorious. Glorious. Everything was alright.

Q: Now in past interviews you’ve discussed how Joe Higgs, widely regarded as “the godfather of reggae music,” [who, in addition to his own singing success, rehearsed and mentored Bob Marley and the Wailers and many other famous reggae artists such as Black Uhuru, Wailing Souls, etcetera]. I know Joe Higgs was your brother-in-law. And anytime you read into the history of reggae music, you learn what a great and influential man Joe Higgs was. What was it about your brother-in-law that made him such a good singing coach, and leader of young men?

Garth Dennis: He was just a natural person who loved what he did. And he loved to pass it on.

Q: Was it true that Mr. Higgs was a stern teacher?

Garth Dennis: Yeah. At times.

Q: He could be tough?

Garth Dennis: Yes.

Q: He would demand perfection?

Garth Dennis: Yeah.

Q: He wouldn’t hesitate to correct you? He would step in and tell you if you were off-key?

Garth Dennis: Yeah.

Q: What is the most important lesson he taught you?

Garth Dennis: Responsibility.

Q: In more than just music?

Garth Dennis: Yeah.

Q: You used to watch the early Wailers rehearse in your yard in Trenchtown, true?

Garth Dennis: Yeah. I used to rehearse with them too sometimes. See, I know Bob before all of those people. Before Bunny [really]. Before Peter.

Q: How did you meet Bob?

Garth Dennis: I use to live downtown in Kingston city on a street called “Princess Street.” And right across from me on the other side of the road, Bunny [had] a brother and a sister. And [Bob] used to come there. And you know the connection between Bunny’s daddy and Bob’s mom?

Q: Yes. Toddy Livingston and Cedella [Marley]; they had a daughter together.

Garth Dennis: Okay, yeah. That’s how I met Bob. Because Bob used to come around “Princess Street” to visit.

Q: There are not that many people who grew up with Bob Marley who are still alive; what do you remember most about when you were younger and friends with Bob Marley?

Garth Dennis: The oneness and the joy. And that unity he used to bring. Trenchtown was like a heavenly place. Don’t let them fool you, man. Trenchtown was a heavenly place! During rehearsal time. When football was going on. When cricket was going on.

Q: Was Bob Marley a light-hearted and fun guy?

Garth Dennis: Yes! Very much so.

Q: But when it came to the music, he’d be [dead] serious?

Garth Dennis: Yeah. Just like Peter too. If you spend time with Peter, you’re going to laugh a lot, man.

Q: Do you remember seeing Bob getting picked on because he was mixed race? For example, did you hear people call him names like “half-caste” and things like that? Did you see him being picked on because of his skin color?

Garth Dennis: I never hear them use the word “half-caste,” but every now and then he would be picked on in a certain way. But a lot of times it’s just jealousy that does it.

Q: People picked on Bob because he was talented?

Garth Dennis: Sometimes, yeah. But if Bunny is there, that can’t happen. If Bunny is there, they can’t pick on him.

Q: Because Bunny would step in?

Garth Dennis: Yeah.

Q: Would Peter come to Bob’s defense too?

Garth Dennis: At times. More Bunny.

Q: You were in Jamaica recently to witness Bunny receive a lifetime achievement award from [the radio station] Irie FM, and also, to give a tribute [to Bunny]. Can you tell me a little what you said?

Garth Dennis: I just let them know that Bunny was one of the main foundational artists. And Bunny was the one who a lot of times kept the Wailers together.

Q: How is Bunny Wailer doing these days?

Garth Dennis: Great. Marvelous.

Q: Is he still involved in music?

Garth Dennis: Oh, he’s still involved in music.

Q: In an interview with Roger Steffens, Joe Higgs said: “When Bunny and Bob were growing up together, Bob was not treated as one of the family. He was like an outcast in the house. His mother today comes with this legacy, as if she were there . . . . The mother, Cedella, wouldn’t allow anyone to know he was her son.” You were in Trenchtown at the time and knew Bob. Did you also witness Bob being neglected by his family growing up? What do you know about this?

Garth Dennis: He was a lonely person. I didn’t see any family around him.

Q: Thank you so much for this time, Mr. Dennis. I just want to ask you one more question: Do you think now that you’ve made a solo album, that you’ll continue to make new music and release [yet another] new album?

Garth Dennis: Definitely. But if it comes to a group thing again, I’m ready. Anytime. I’ll never stop making music.

About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq