The lead guitar is not considered to be one of the core instruments of reggae. It rests gently like a garnish on top of the foundation of the drum and the bass. Yet guitarist Earl Chinna Smith is among the core musicians of Jamaican music’s canon – one of those pivotal historic figures connected in some way to almost everyone and everything.
Born in Kingston 13 and raised within earshot of not one but two family sound systems, Smith rose to prominence as chief fret-runner with Greenwich Town’s heavily in demand session groupSoul Syndicate. Throughout the 1970s they were the often uncredited rhythm makers for an elite roll call of studios and producers. The records they played on were given a distinctive serrated sound that was fiery, loose and dangerous.
Outside of the band Smith’s skills were sought by Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and in later years even Lauryn Hill andAmy Winehouse. Such was Smith’s gravitational pull that he was able to create an acoustic roots reggae movement around him – Inna De Yard – just by staying at home and playing the guitar.
On October 16th 2013 Chinna received the historic Silver Musgrave Medal for success in the Jamaican arts. Angus Taylor interviewed him on location at his abode and musical hub in St Andrew Park while he was rehearsing and reasoning with an assembly of singers and players of instruments that included Sangie Davis, Kiddus I, Beres Hammond’s keyboardist and Jah9’s mentor Sheldon Bernard, and many more. Chinna’s guitar is often described by his colleagues as a physical extension of his body – so much so that he and the musicians preferred to answer several of the questions in song. You can listen to the audio from this two part sonic history lesson interspersed with the text below.
Bunny Lee celebrated 49 years as a producer this year – but you’ve known him a lot longer…
Bunny Lee held me as a baby. Bunny Lee was also a DJ for one of my father’s sounds. Because I had two fathers and two mothers. Bunny Lee and me is like family naturally.
Your father had a sound and your godfather had a sound. How come you grew up with your godparents?
I can give you my mother’s address and she can tell you that! (laughs) You want to be accurate with that! But it’s a good thing. She is alive and she’d love to talk to you!
How did you first pick up the guitar?
Nice one. How I first picked up the guitar has a kind of history because you couldn’t pick up the guitar just like that. We’d have to go back to the first time I actually saw a physical guitar and the attraction. My old man owned a sound system back in the late 50s, early 60s. Each sound system used to have a DJ but back then a DJ was a disc jockey that span the discs. He came to the house one time with a guitar – and that was it. I remember seeing this guitar out lying down there like that and I said “Wooooaaaaah”. Have you ever been in love? Well it was like that. I can’t have been more than about seven or eight. It was love at first sight. Tempted to touch but we were brought up a certain way where you don’t touch thing you are not given the authorisation to. And you trip on that look, that beauty, so even it was gone it would still remain in your mind. So the only thing I could do was try to emulate something like that by getting a sardine pan and for a while just be miming – you might not be getting the sound but at least you’re getting the profile of the thing. So I did that for a while. Actually in the area where I came from as a youth I was more into the singing. We had a little singing group.