Keith Porter & the Itals In This Time: previewing the Aug. 21 show at BB’s
by Michael Kuelker
It’s 2013 and so much has changed in roots reggae music, but some things remain the same: The Itals mashing it up in St. Louis.
Keith Porter, lead singer and prime mover of The Itals, returns for a performance at BB’s Jazz Blues & Soups on Wednesday, August 21. Porter will be backed by Yard Squad of St. Louis, and his hand-picked backing vocalists will be St. Louis’ own Irie Trinity – Sherita Edwards, Desirae Dobbins and Franny Taylor.
Sav-la-Mar, Jamaica native Porter headlines, but the St. Louis-based artists behind him and on the undercard are well worth the trod on their own terms: Aaron Kamm & the One Drops, Mario Pascal, Konchus and in a separate opening set, Irie Trinity, who are also producing the BB’s concert.
Longtime reggae fans know that The Itals’ relationship with St. Louis stretches back more than 30 years, when the St. Louis-based Nighthawk label began working with three singers from Sav-la-Mar on Jamaica’s southwest coast. Since forming in 1976, Nighthawk had released 10 blues reissues but in the late seventies it delved into reggae-Jamaica. Wiser Dread, the first Nighthawk reggae release (1981), was a potent various artists anthology which contained The Itals’ “In a Disya Time” and “Don’t Wake the Lion.” The Itals would soon be Nighthawk’s flagship artist. New original reggae would quickly eclipse pre-WWII blues as the label’s focus.
It bears noting that Yard Squad and Irie Trinity are singers and players of instruments whose talents have been tapped recently by a host of artists including Zion, Everton Blender, Frankie Paul, Kenyatta ‘Culture’ Hill and Warrior King. Yard Squad backed Porter for a series of dates in spring 2013 and he called again for shows this month in Missouri, Texas and Louisiana. In September Dobbins will fly to Phoenix, Arizona to do a solo set on a bill with roots legend Don Carlos. An Irie Trinity album is in the works.
And how about the other talents on this bill and the fine music they are making for any ear which will hear. Aaron Kamm & the One Drops are among the region’s hardest working and most popular jam bands, playing the reggae in a very satisfying post-Sublime; AK1D’s music is also very blues-infused and ultimately quite original. Mario Pascal plays original compositions, too, a reggae/world fusion. His 2012 song “Stand Ya Ground” gets a lot of airplay on my radio show because it’s topical and timeless – it definitely pertains to the Trayvon Martin case but it’s ultimately about more than perpetrator/victim; it’s about consciousness itself and how we educate ourselves. Mario Pascal is building a catalog of noteworthy songs. The only one in the mix I haven’t yet seen perform is Konchus.
The original Itals trio – Porter, Ronnie Davis and Lloyd Ricketts – broke out internationally with the 1981 album Brutal Out Deh on the St. Louis-based Nighthawk label. A New York Times review about a year later by Robert Palmer stimulated even greater sales and interest. The group recorded and performed widely. Excellent recordings came in succession – Give Me Power, Rasta Philosophy, Cool and Dread, Early Recordings. All of them are roots reggae of a high quality, and whether the trio sang about material corruption or the temptations of Babylon they were lyrically on point and musically compelling. Tours with Jah Children Band and Roots Radics in the eighties are legendary in reggae circles. Their 1984 performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival is truly a remarkable piece of reggae history.
Another part of the Itals/St. Louis story, and almost entirely unwritten, has to do with St. Louisans and this section of Jamaica and reggae culture. Some of St. Louis’ old time reggae-Jamaica people go back a long way with The Itals and the musicians who have worked with The Itals. And their families and neighbors. And some of the local hangers-on, cab drivers, jerk chicken cooks and shop proprietors. And are familiar with that irie road out of Sav – toward Negril and its white sand beatnik Jamaican hustle or in the other direction, toward the more placid and equally beauteous southwest-central coastline. Past Bluefields and Belmont, where the Peter Tosh mausoleum rests and where Tosh’s mother historically has received sojourners with grace and humane warmth. And then toward Black River, then maybe inland to Mandeville, a most hospitable place to dwell, or to the road that hugs the Caribbean Sea.
‘In a Disya Time’: There Is No Other Time Than This Time
Even amidst changes in the music industry, particularly the shift to hard edged and often slack dancehall music, year in and year The Itals worked hard on the road. For many years Porter toured with David Isaacs and his daughter Kada Porter singing background vocals.
Not only did The Itals keep the roots reggae torch aloft, they were occasionally rewarded in unexpected ways. In the late 1990s, Starbucks released a series called Artists’ Choice. Very popular artists created mix CDs in other words. It was a well-produced and reliable series coming out of the corporate coffeehouse world.
The Rolling Stones’ Artists Choice collection in 2003 had a total of one reggae song – The Itals’ “In a Disya Time.”
man have to know himself don’t you know
birds tangled by dem feet
man a go tangled by dem toungue
so it was written
so it must be done
In a dis ya time
I got a chance to talk to Keith Porter last Friday, August 16, and I wanted to ask him about this moment in time. Knowing that Starbucks anthology brought the group some added and somewhat improbable recognition if not a little extra coin, and seeing that Porter in concert is justifiably proud when he he introduces the song as being picked by Keith Richards, I asked the veteran singer when he got the news of the anthology. He said:
“I give thanks for everything. For everything, I mean everything, I give thanks for much for living. And if it’s a big praise, I take it; if it’s a small praise, I take it; if it’s nothing, I say give thanks.
“When I really hear that selection … it’s a blessing. I never asked anyone, you know what I mean, of all the reggae song if that was the song. Everyone have a right to make their own distinction, definitely. I think so too. I think it’s a positive song until this time. Everywhere that song sing, you have to play it again. To me is like the song lives on, you know, the song lives on. Every time you play the song, it’s a different time. There’s no other time than this time. It’s there, we can talk about the other time but we’re living in this time. So this time, you know, we talk about disya time.
“I love the blessing, you know. I love the positive things in life.”
I then pushed a little further, wanting Porter to take the moment into the quotidian detail. Where was he – did he do a happy dance – did he go out that night and celebrate?
“Well like I say now, I always celebrate, seen,” Porter responded with a laugh. “Celebrate nah different you know. I always celebrate ‘cause … is life. This life is a blessing. Anything, you know, that’s good that comes with it, anything positive that comes, I have to give thanks. No celebrations. To me everyday I wake up is a celebration, you know, a jump for joy because the life is there.”
This is a significant pronouncement for anyone and all the more for fans of the group because the years have been hard for The Itals. Longtime Itals singer David Isaacs died in December 2009. Lloyd Ricketts has also passed. After years of poor health and visa restrictions, he performed with Davis and Porter in what would be a last, historic reunion show in Norfolk, Virginia on July 9, 2011. Days later the affable and talented Ricketts died.
The most recent Itals album is 2009’s Let Dem Talk, which features vocals by Ronnie Davis, Lloyd Ricketts, David Isaacs and Kada Porter.
Barring unreleased work or new collaborations with Ronnie Davis, Let Dem Talk is the last to bear the Itals imprint we have known for 30 years. I didn’t have to nudge Keith Porter in our phone call in the direction of what this means or of mortality.
“Naturally, I am just trying to keep the vibes, you know,” he told me. ”I try to keep the faith alive. Ca you know the works have to go on. I have to keep the music moving and the positive vibes active.
“I always touch songs from almost every album when I tour. A lot of people listening for a certain kind of music. Another set of people are listening to hear another kind. And there’s an open audience out there who are so appreciative of anything they hear coming from The Itals. Because, you know, an Itals show, there will always be something for everyone. The young, the old, the sick, the lame, whoever. I try to bring a positive vibe to uplift people in all different directions and all different era. I sing about cultural music most of my life. That’s my trend.”