Written by: Parry Gettelman – The Orlando Sentinel
You ask me how I see the world??? My answer is sadly.”
That statement prefaces the liner notes for rising reggae star Pato Banton’s new Wize Up!, an album that dwells on the sorrow caused by poverty, war, injustice, “political foolishness,” bigotry, drug addiction and the destruction of the environment. Still, his lovely, often humorous songs are a sure tonic against despair.
“I’m not so hopeful for the world; I’m more hopeful for the individual soul,” Banton said in a phone interview from New England. Banton and his band, the Studio 2 Crew, will play Orlando’s Beacham Theatre Saturday.
In the liner-notes prologue to the album, Banton reveals his sadness over the state of the world but rejoices in the belief that the solution is not in human hands. And in the first track, “From Now On,” he foresees the coming of Judgment Day – with joy.
“There’s only one thing guaranteed in life, and that’s death,” Banton, 28, said. “You can’t guarantee you’ll get to work tomorrow; you can’t guarantee you’ll get home at night. The only thing guaranteed in your entire life is that one day you’re going to die. To me, that day could be a judgment day. In life, you’ve got to look forward to that day. You can look forward to it with gloom, or you can look forward to it with joy, and I like to look forward to it with joy in hope that living good enough is a way for that to give me salvation.
“That is my main message right now. No matter what’s happening around me, I’m very peaceful, I’m very calm, I’m very happy. There are a lot of saddening things around me. The world is in a very sick and saddening state. If I can touch a few people who are downhearted by the bad news they watch every day, let them realize that this planet is only like a bridge for us to cross into something better – that’s my contribution to the betterment of humanity.”
The London-born Banton, whose warm voice bears strong traces of his Birmingham upbringing, spoke solemnly, yet punctuated his words with deep, infectious chuckles.
On all three of his albums for I.R.S., Banton has delivered his serious messages with a light, comedic touch. Never Give In, his 1988 American debut, included the seriocomic “Don’t Sniff Coke,” and last year’s fine Visions of the World was shot through with Banton’s thoughtful wit.
On the new Wize Up!, the direst situations are expressed in rapier-sharp rhymes. “All Drugs Out,” for instance, includes the verse “Next thing you know is everything goes/ In the veins down the throat or up the nose/ Some do it for kicks, some do it for pose/ But they all end up in the back row.”
Humor is essential, Banton said: “Some people get into religion and become idealists. . . . I’m a realist. I know God is the creator of this planet, and I also know God has a fantastic sense of humor – because he gave me one, so he must have one.
“The picture Christianity draws of Jesus is a very solemn and sad one. It has been revealed to me that Jesus had the greatest sense of humor ever. . . . I always keep my sense of humor. There’s a time for laughing; there’s a time for crying; a time for smiling and a time for frowning; a time for sadness and a time for joy.”
It’s a question of finding the proper balance, Banton said.
“That’s one reason I’m good at what I’m doing,” he explained. “My star sign is Libra – that represents the scales, and I’m a very good judge. I keep myself balanced, and even though I’m very deeply religious, I can have a good conversation with somebody who is an atheist.”
Banton said he learned a lot about God through reggae music.
“The minute I heard ‘Jah’ (God) on a record, it educated me as far as the world, as far as my roots and being of African descent. I never knew anything about that till I listened to Burning Spear and people like that.”
Banton’s Jamaican-born mother moved the family from London to Birmingham when he was young, and he grew up in the ghettos there, listening to his stepfather’s sound system (a mobile disco for parties). Although his parents loved reggae, there was some conflict over his choice of artists, and the autobiographical “Don’t Stop the Music” on Wize Up! recalls Banton’s pleading with his father not to turn off his music.
“It’s just that I was into the new revolution reggae, and they were into something more like ‘We’re having a good time tonight.’ I was more into Babylon burning, freedom fighters,” Banton said with a laugh and sang a snatch of Bob Marley’s call to arms, “Get Up, Stand Up.”
Banton’s stepfather died of cancer when Banton was in his teens, and that sad event helped form the performer’s philosophy.
“He (the stepfather) was never into God. He always used to use the Bible as a comedy book and make fun of everything with the Bible. Sometimes he was totally right in doing so – there are some things in the Bible that are not that real. But I remember on his deathbed, when he knew he never had a chance of coming out of the hospital, the last thing that he asked for was God.
“It made me wake up to the fact that a lot of people never really want God till they know they have nothing else. I decided before I get to that stage, I would rather have a lifelong experience, so when I’m on my deathbed, I don’t have to ask everybody to bring God to me – I already have a relationship with Him.”
Banton said it’s his relationship with God that allows him to deal with the vicissitudes of the music business. He has many friends in the reggae world – Aswad’s Drummie Zeb and Steel Pulse’s David Hinds helped out on his album – but he also has found many reggae stars are more interested in money than spirituality. He’s wary of bringing his two sisters, who sang harmony on the album, into the business because it is difficult for youngsters (they’re 18 and 12) to deal with the pressures.
Banton toured briefly with Ziggy Marley and enjoyed it, but he discovered that Marley’s pop success has had an effect on him.
“I tried my best to communicate with him, but he wasn’t into it at all,” Banton said sadly. “I was expecting more. Being that we’re both making music, we could have had a lot to talk about – each one teach one. . . . But I just hope eventually he’ll come out of it.”
Banton himself is very committed to “each one teach one.” For the past five or six years, he has worked with Birmingham youths in his home studio, providing free instruction in singing, rapping and recording. He likes to provide opportunities – he invited new artist Peter Spence to sing on two tracks of Wize Up! and co-produced Spence’s I.R.S. debut. Spence is opening for Banton on this tour.
Banton also feels he is still a relatively young reggae artist himself and wants to learn from his “elders,” such as Drummie Zeb and David Hinds. He also learns from the members of his band, the Studio 2 Crew, whose influences include blues, jazz and African music as well as many styles of reggae.
“My horizons are widening,” Banton said.
And while his musical horizons are widening, he’s content to deal with whatever degree of fame his music happens to bring him. He’s content whether his popularity continues to grow or he ends up back in the dance halls.
“I am very happy right now, and I feel very cool with my conscience.”