by Steve Heilig, April 29, 2015
Michael Turner, aka “Dr. Sapatoo,” is a renowned reggae music journalist and mobile disc jockey, as well as a practicing physician. He has lived in Mendocino County for 15 years, but travels the world in search of both vintage reggae records and crowds who want to hear him spin them. He is the author of “Roots Knotty Roots: The Discography of Jamaican Music,” a labor of love and countless hours which compiles “details for 78,000 titles released in Jamaica, the UK, the USA and Canada on singles (7″, 10″ & 12″ records) from 1950 — 1985”. http://www.reggaefever.ch/rkr/
I’ve known the good doctor for many years and figured he could shed some informed light on this music which has spread around the planet and will be the main feature of this June’s Sierra Nevada World Music Festival at the Boonville Fairgrounds.
Greetings Dr. Sapatoo. You’re a confirmed reggae addict, or more broadly, a fanatic fan of vintage Jamaican music. What was your first exposure to this music – at what age – and why did it hit you so hard?
I have been a record collector since I was a teenager. I grew up in Southern California listening to low rider music, in fact my first car was a 1955 Chevrolet that had a Vibrasonic record player mounted underneath the dashboard. While other kids were going on surfing safaris, I was making pilgrimages to record stores like Wallach’s Music City and Dolphin’s of Hollywood. Later, when I was going to UCLA, I was lucky enough to become friends with some older musicians who collected blues music. I was particularly close to the late Alan Wilson ( member of Canned Heat, singer of “Going Up The Country” and “On The Road Again”). These guys had acquired walls of records by travelling to the deep South and going door to door in search of rare old 78s. They were instrumental to the blues revival of the 60s, finding a number of “lost” artists like Skip James, Son House and Bukka White and getting them back to the stage and recording studio. These were the guys I emulated when I began researching and collecting Jamaican music. Like a lot of Californians I came late to Jamaican music. I clearly remember Bob Marley’s jaw-dropping performance on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in 1977. A bit later, an English friend of mine, noticing my obsession with soul music, handed me a cassette of rocksteady music saying: “If you like that, you’ll like this”. And so it began. At that time in Los Angeles there was a radio show called The Reggae Beat co-hosted by a guy named Hank Holmes who played music Jamaican style: long sets of 45s, vocals mixed in with their instrumental b-sides. Through him I discovered an alternative universe of songs and performers. Soon after that I had the good fortune to live for a few years in the Eastern Caribbean and then London’s East End, where I grew to know and and love West Indian culture.
How do you explain to normal people what is so special about the Jamaican music you love?
It’s hard to explain in a sentence or two. I love everything about it. The sticky beats. The melodic dialect that lends itself so naturally to music. The funny slang and folk sayings. The beautiful singing. The fascinating range of subjects and themes, which goes from the exalted to the zany, sometimes in the same song. And of course the many innovations like dub and deejaying, which are now part of the world’s musical vocabulary. But mostly I love it because it doesn’t get old. It’s the same reason I love any first generation music, be it Chicago blues from the 50s or hip hop from the late 80s. These musics always have a kick because you can hear the freshness and immediacy of something brand new. Like Motown, Jamaican music was created by a handful of extraordinary studio musicians who, in the space of a less than a decade, invented three distinct genres: ska, rocksteady, and reggae.
Whence does your nom de dj ‘Dr Sapatoo” come from? Why choose that?
“Dr Sapatoo” is a funny song by an artist named Count Matchuki that I used as my intro on a radio show I did in New Orleans in the 90s. The guy finishing up the show before me started calling me Dr. Sapatoo. It fit because I really am a doctor, although I’m sure he didn’t know that. Later, when I started deejaying in Brazil I learned that “sapatao” is Portuguese slang for lesbian, so that created a bit of confusion!
What do you think of the state of reggae now, as compared to your favorite era?
I’m critical, but also mindful of the fact that it’s probably because I’m of an older generation. To me, the newer music sounds limited and stale. But that’s just a matter of taste. What can’t be disputed is that it has been over thirty years since Jamaica has captured world wide attention with a new artist or musical style.
Why has Jamaica been called ‘the loudest island in the world?”
Haiti was much louder, but I know what you mean. The concept of noise pollution doesn’t exist in Jamaica. The sound systems are famously loud, but so are the church services. It can be annoying when the man next door plays his radio full blast when he gets up in the morning; on the other hand I love sitting outside on a warm night hearing echoes of music bouncing off the hills from a dancehall many miles away.
Good answer, but what I really meant was, Jamaica has been called that because so very much music has come out of a relatively small place, and reggae has spread and influenced music all over the world. Why do you think Jamaicans have been so musically prolific?
One can only speculate, but some of the answer lies in another one of Jamaica’s musical innovations: the sound system. In the 60s Kingston was one of the world’s music hotspots like Detroit, Liverpool, San Francisco, Memphis. Why Jamaica and not some other Caribbean nation? I’d say because it was because it was primed and ready. Sound systems were large heavily amplified outdoor dances featuring DJs playing American r&b. They started in the late 40s and by the end of the 1950s had become hugely popular, creating a large pool of talent, not just artists, but producers, promoters, sound engineers, craftsmen etc. These resourceful people soon found their niche when the first studios were built and people started making their own styles of music. The Jamaican recording industry started with a bang, fueled in part by the island’s rejoicing in its new independence from England. Locally made records quickly found markets overseas and music became Jamaica’s fastest growing industry, attracting the best and the brightest young people from poor communities that otherwise lacked opportunity. Within a few years this island of two million people was producing over 2000 records annually. The industry maintained this momentum well into the 90s, creating lots of economic breaks for artists and also producers, retailers, technicians etc. So music was, and to some degree still is, to Jamaica what baseball is to the Dominican Republic. That’s my interpretation. But I just asked a Jamaican friend this same question he answered with a Bob Marley lyric: “There’s a natural mystic in the air”.
You’ve visited Jamaica, searching for recordings. A couple favorite stories from those journeys?
Twenty or thirty years ago there was an incredible amount of used vinyl that nobody wanted. In its heyday the 45 rpm record was the common people’s form of entertainment, many homes had a “gramophone” and every corner bar had a jukebox. Then along came the cassette tape and the video poker machine and nobody wanted records anymore. So you could drive slowly through a residential area asking if anyone had any “old hits” and be able to visit a lot of homes the next day. It was hard work though. One time near Port Antonio I met a guy who formerly had a bar and an old jukebox on the ground floor of his house. He brought out a huge box of records and set it down outside. It was ninety degrees and I immediately began dripping sweat. The records were covered in dust and grime, silverfish and roaches spilled out as soon as I disturbed the contents. Meanwhile there was the typical skinny barking dog tied to a stake , and also a large pig running around which would periodically charge at the dog. They made horrible noises when they fought. The small drainage ditch nearby smelled strongly of sewage. As I was going through the box I thought to myself “Man, this is one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.”
You’ve met many of your musical heroes – who were your favorites in person?
Leonard Dillon, who told told me “Jamaican music was sweet because the people were sweet.” I’ve found that to be generally true of Jamaican artists. Roy Shirley , who made his last public appearance at the Sierra Nevada Festival two weeks before he died. Derrick Morgan and Ken Parker, two dignified elderly gentlemen with great stories. Touring Brazil with Ranking Joe, a nice man and tireless performer who for some reason has never appeared at SNWMF. And Cornel Campbell, my favorite singer and a magnificent human being as well.
How many reggae records to you have at this point? Why are 7″ singles special? What’s the most you’ve ever paid for one? What’s the most costly one ever sold?
I have about nine thousand 7″ singles. They are pretty much all I play. I guess I’m a concrete thinker, but I don’t like pre-programmed set lists made from music floating in a cloud . I like selecting tunes in real time and putting a needle on vinyl. As a DJ I prefer the little Jamaican singles because they were recorded and mastered to be heard in dancehalls. My fifty year old records still sound very dynamic when I play them out. A Jamaican studio engineer once told me that in order to fit enough bass in the record grooves, a record could not contain more than two minutes and fifty seconds of music. I don’t know if that is really true, but it sounds right. As you know, certain Jamaican singles are now highly collectible, selling on eBay for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. I am lucky in that I bought most of my records in bulk long ago, but I still put in the occasional bid. If you must know, my most expensive purchase was Jackie Opel’s “Mill Man”, backed by the Wailers and the Skatalites, which I bought for $220 dollars and is probably worth three or four times that today.
Is there a viable reggae “scene” where you live? Where are your favorite places to DJ?
I live in Mendocino County and there is definitely a music scene here, but I’m not a part of it. It’s largely a generational thing, my music probably sounds too low-fi for modern ears. And of course reggae in Northern California is what might euphemistically be called a “lifestyle” music, and I’m not really part of that world. My favorite place to DJ by far is Brazil. I just returned from a four city tour with a Japanese friend named Tommy Far East. It was a wonderful experience. Brazilians are crazy about music anyway and Jamaican music really strikes a chord. They are the happiest and most enthusiastic audiences imaginable, one hundred percent non-stop dancing, singing, drinking, and shouting until five or six in the morning.
You practice medicine here. Do your patients know of your reggae habit, and your reggae cohorts know of your other profession?
I’m a board-certified doctor practicing in a rural health clinic here in Mendocino County. My medical career and my musical pursuits have run in parallel for over forty years. I could not have one without the other, but there is very little overlap. My colleagues and patients know I travel a lot, and my music friends know I have a day job, but that’s about it.
What’s the big deal about cannabis and reggae?
It’s a historical relationship. Through a modern lens, cannabis and music are seen as frivolities. But in Jamaica they are serious things. Both are essential to the Rastafarian faith, whose roots go back centuries to Africa, but which really took its form in the mid-nineteenth century, when African slaves were freed and replaced by 30,000 indentured servants imported from India. These later immigrants brought ganja to Jamaica as well as the spiritual ideal personified by the dreadlock sadhu. Rastafari is not a theology or church based religion, it’s a belief that informs daily life, and a community held together by the drum, the Old Testament and herb. In the twentieth century Rastafarians became more political, espousing Black Nationalism and overt anticolonialism, and its followers were viciously persecuted and victimized. To be a rastaman was therefore a very heavy thing and a far cry from what we often view here as a comic figure. But it is still true in Jamaica today that the relationship between cannabis and music is something deep and spiritual.
What to you think of the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in Boonville?
It’s a lot of fun. It’s held at the Fairgrounds and I wish more local people would attend, they might find it just as enjoyable as the County Fair. I have experienced many bright musical moments at SNWMF. It’s pretty unbelievable that my musical heroes perform here in my own backyard. This year’s lineup is rich in vintage artists: Max Romeo, BB Seaton, Ken Boothe, Jimmy Cliff, Monty Morris, Keith and Tex, The Melodians, The Itals, and Big Youth.
You are also a reggae historian. What drew you to spend so much time and effort documenting the history of this music?
I wrote about the music for fifteen years for The Beat magazine. Along the way I started compiling information about the music, which has since evolved into a fairly comprehensive musical discography containing over 70,000 records and 8000 artists. The history of Jamaican recording industry was very poorly documented, in its early years there were no studio logs, publicists or music writers. Studios were churning out records at an incredible rate, they’d hit the streets for a few weeks and then disappear, even the master tapes would be scrubbed over and used again. So those sturdy little 45s are all that remains, sort of like tree rings through which we can reconstruct Jamaica’s music history. I think it’s something that has helped keep it alive. I collaborate with collectors and DJs around the world and it is very gratifying to see them bringing these old sounds to new generations of listeners.
And finally, the toughest question of all – your top ten favorite records of all time?
A mathematically impossible question! But for those interested, here are some great examples that shouldn’t be too hard to find:
Bob Andy: Let Them Say (1968)
Justin Hinds: Carry Go Bring Come (1964)
The Bleechers: Come Into My Parlour (1969)
Bim Sherman: 100 Years (1975)
Prince Buster: Too Hot (1967)
Paragons: Only A Smile (1967)
Junior Byles: Long Way (1974)
Don Drummond: Cool Smoke (1964)
Kingstonians: Sufferer (1969)
Baba Brooks: 10:30 With Tony V (1964)
Sir Lord Comic: Jack Of My Trade (1971)
Burning Spear: Rocking Time (1970)