Don’t be deceived by Beres Hammond’s cool profile. The playful smile, the unassuming demeanor, the beard, the cap and the spectacles might lull you into forgetting that you’re in the presence of an awesome musical talent, Jamaica’s greatest practicing singer/songwriter. Beres remains cool, though he knows that he’s one of a handful of people responsible for maintaining a mighty legacy of soulful reggae music – a select group of Artistes like Toots and Gregory, like Dennis and Bob. “Father bless me with a song,” he pleads on the last cut of his album, ‘Music Is Life,’ “to make the whole world sing along. Regardless of the race, regardless of the taste.” In the year 2001 the blessings just keep coming, the world keeps coming, and is just starting to catch on.
Over the course of a 30 year career, Beres has poured his smoky-sweet voice – an instrument of subtlety and power reminiscent of an Otis Redding or a Teddy Prendergast – over every kind of riddim track, from the funked up reggae jams of the ’70s fusion band Zap Pow to the lush instrumentation of his 1976 album ‘Soul Reggae’ to the spare digital beat of his 1985 dancehall breakthrough “What One Dance Can Do.” In 1990, his album ‘A Love Affair’ for Donovan Germaine’s Penthouse label raised his popularity to new heights. Cuts like “Tempted To Touch” and “Who Say” with Buju Banton are still effective in the dancehall today as they were as pre-releases. The ’90s proved to be Hammond’s decade, during which he blazed a trail of modern classics for a variety of Producers, from the strugglers’ anthem “Putting Up Resistance” (Tappa) to lovers’ laments like “Come Back Home” (Star Trail) and “Double Trouble” (Steely & Clevie).
The rub-a-dub groove of his current hit single “They’re Gonna Talk” (track number two on ‘Music Is Life’) was recorded right there in the home studio by Flabba Holt and Style Scott of the legendary Roots Radics, whose riddims are clearly as powerful today as when they were the backing band for giants like Gregory Isaacs. No computer can rock quite as steady as these veteran musicians. “I personally don’t believe in a whole heap of technology business,” says Beres. “It’s all about what you have to offer. As long as your vibes are there, that’s what the people feel.”
Beres sophisticated musical taste is well suited to translate easily across cultural divides, yet the international reggae massive has remained his most loyal fan base. He did collaborate on Maxi Priest’s first American hit, “How Can we Ease The Pain,” in 1990. A brief encounter with Elektra Records in 1994 yielded the excellent but under-appreciated album ‘In Control’ with its R&B-flavored single “No Disturb Sign.” But for the rest of the decade, Beres has focused his attention on his own label and production company, Harmony House, distributed by VP Records. (A sampling of some of the label’s finest recordings to date can be found on the VP Compilation Harmony House; verse one.) In the last few years, Harmony House and VP have released memorable albums like ‘Love From A Distance’ and ‘A Day In The Life’, which have in turn yielded chart-topping hits like “Can You Play Some More” and “Can’t Stop A Man.” Indeed, Beres appears to be unstoppable. And with the release of ‘Music Is Life’, he is poised to share his considerable gifts with an ever-larger audience.
The new album ranges widely over styles and themes: from the rock-solid reggae of “Ain’t It Good to Know” – a plea for peace and unity amongst his brethren – to the quiet-storm consciousness of “African People” and the tasty Spanish accents of “Honey, Wine and Love Songs” (produced by Philip “fatis” Burr and featuring a tasteful guitar solo by the great Earl “Chinna” Smith). Guest appearances on the new album range from late ’80s dancehall stalwart Flourgon (making a joyful noise on the sound system blast “I Love Jah”) to internationally acclaimed multiplatinum rap artist Wyclef Jean. “Clef is a good youth,” say Beres. The two legends joined forces at new York’s Hit Factory last summer to record the sizzling Latin-flavored jam “Dance 4 Me,” a song that combines Beres’ sultry vocals with Clef’s raps and flamenco guitar. Imagine Santana’s “Maria Maria” in a Jamaican style and you’ll get an idea of this song’s potential to blow up on an international level. “All you fake singers,” Clef’s raps as the tunes fades, “bow down to the legend.
Whatever the international audiences may do or say, at the end of the day, Beres’ heart and soul remains grounded in his beloved homeland Jamaica. “Rockaway,” a single that’s currently bubbling on the JA charts, is a sort of open letter to the reggae music fraternity, celebrating the days when good music – as opposed to easy gimmicks – was the order of the day. “Right now we need a brand new start,” Beres sings “People everywhere needs more music from the heart.” It is a heartfelt song, offered in a spirit of encouragement. But the underlying message is a serious one: Beres has heard the state of Jamaican music today, and he knows it can be better. “Over a period of time, the business did sorta get deaf,” he says with a pained expression. “I yearn for the days to come back when people truly appreciate this kind of thing that we’re doing. It’s gonna take some time to come right back when people truly appreciate this kind of thing that we’re doing. It’s gonna take some time to come right back around to what the real music is. But I have time. Me is Job’s godfather,” he adds with a laugh. “You hear about Job, the long suffering bredda in the bible? I am his godfather. So yes, I have time.”
Come to Beres Hammond’s show today and you will find thousands of delirious fans cheering and singing along with every word. He delivers each song with absolute confidence and freshness, his little wiry frame soaring with the melody and story lines, thrilling the ladies in the crowd and REVEALING a few of the men’s secrets along the way. Few artists can tell a story and bring it to life more vividly than he can.
For Beres, music truly is life. It’s not unusual for him to stroll downstairs fresh from his morning shower and lay down a rough vocal idea to be worked out later. “We no stop make tune,” he explains, relaxing on a breezy veranda in Kingston. “Every day, each vibe you get, just comes natural. You can sing about this and sing about that and sing about the next… Just make some songs man. Songs about everything: love affair and life itself; ups and downs; and your brothers and sisters trying to survive in the street. It’s for real. No fantasy business. We don’t rehearse them, just make the vibes flow. Like Bob did say, a natural mystic. Yunno? Natural.
It goes on and on.”
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