Filed under: Grand Bahama Goombay, Syl Johnson | Tags: Smokey 007, Syl Johnson
Last year when we issued Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology, we pressed up a 45 of two obscure Syl covers and tossed them in free if you mail ordered the record (we still have some). We had made a short list of covers, and desperately wanted to included a smoking version of “Same Kind of Thing” by Smokey 007 & the Exciters. More studios followers of the Numero Group may recall that Smokey was both the cousin and chief rival of Jay Mitchell, battling fiercely for the crown of top performer in the Bahamas in the 1970s. Alas, Smokey is dead and the 45 was impossible to source. Today, our very own Rob Sevier brought home a copy of said 45, and we’ve added it to the Numero vault of curiosities. Give a listen below:
Memorial Day weekend is supposed to put Americans in mind of fallen US military men and women, not induce us to recall newly immortal heroes of Bahamian music. But what else can you do when a Glenview, Illinois, garage sale offers up a $1 copy of Cyril “Dry Bread” Ferguson’s She Jump on CD? (That’d be G.B.I. 225 for the four other people out there keeping score.) Me and the guy who sold it to me both got to meet the not-forgettable Mr. Ferguson, though my guess is that, at the time, one of us was way drunker on fruity rum libations than the other.
Recorded, no doubt, by the late, great Frank Penn (though this liner note-free product neither confirms or denies that), the late, and sometimes great Dry Bread’s island souvenir disc is no less than a synth-horn, canned-beat infested tourist cabana dance party you stuffed into your carry-on, as totally goofy and steeped in goombay junkanoo rhythms as you’re sitting there imagining it probably sadly is…but it’s kind of a captivatingly rough ride. Though it was probably pressed in the 90s, listening to this makes it be whatever day it was that you were last on Grand Bahama Island. Despite myself, I’m sitting here thinking about eating conch and johnny cakes and creamed corn at a beach campfire or waiting at a Freeport bus stop for a jitney to bring me driver-only-knows-where. As did “Don’t Touch That Thing” from Cult Cargo: Grand Bahama Goombay—our survey of G.B.I. funk and soul in the 70s, some of it by Dry Bread himself—this album delves, for a chorus, into Bahamian kid myth about touching certain things and those things making you swell up: “Fool of Me” concerns practical jokers putting “graveyard dirt in a bottle hanging in the tree.” You weren’t supposed to touch said tree, lest your foot get badly inflamed. I’m pretty sure it’s all voodoo-love-potion-related in some way, but it’s darn creepy as the lyric to a tropical dance song. Two songs later, Uncle Lou falls in a well…and then keeps descending straight to Hell. Not sure what he did to deserve it.
Should we even discuss the title track, about showing a little girl roaches, frogs, spiders, and snakes and making her jump? Probably best to just tiptoe away from that one, and admit that G.B.I. product, out in the suburban Midwest wild, far from its home, borderline-listenable though it is, still fills in a corner of the G.B.I. picture we never even expected to see.
Filed under: Grand Bahama Goombay, Obituaries | Tags: Frank Penn, Grand Bahama Goombay
Freeport, on Grand Bahama Island, has lost another towering figure of its 1970s music scene. Frank Penn, founder of GBI Studios, the only recording outfit in the game for Grand Bahamians in the 70s, died on November 2, 2009, at the age of 68. Penn’s stature among his Freeport musical peers can’t be overstated. He was respected and admired as a songwriter and vocalist, as a producer, as a label owner, and, later in life, as a leader among the island’s religious community. As a controversial radio DJ, Penn led the fight in song for the achievement of Bahamian independence from Great Britain. And his studio was home to the island’s top talent, the birthplace of classic Bahamian soul and funk by Jay Mitchell and the Mitchellites, The Mustangs, Sylvia Hall, Willpower, and the late, great Cyril “Dry Bread” Ferguson.
Three of us here at The Numero Group were lucky enough to spend three days at GBI in 2006 while working on Cult Cargo: Grand Bahama Goombay, thanks to Frank Penn’s uncommon hospitality. In addition to opening the studio’s archive to our unruly enthusiasm, Frank gave us a place to crash, a temperamental internet connection, and admirable patience with our barrage of questions. Frank Penn—a kind and generous human being and a pillar of a musical culture gone but not forgotten—will be deeply missed.
Filed under: Grand Bahama Goombay
In January of 2007, The Numero Group took a trip to Freeport, Bahamas to begin work on Cult Cargo: Grand Bahama Goombay. It had been a hellacious trip already with stops in Jacksonville to secure the Tap archive, Miami to grab a clutch of tapes that would make up the groundwork for The Outskirts Of Deep City, and a seven-hour “cruise” between Ft. Lauderdale and Freeport on what amounted to an ocean-borne municipal bus. Seasick, cold, and up 50 dollars on the roulette wheel, we disembarked.
Meeting us jovially at the port parking lot was Frank Penn, owner and operator of the GBI studio and label, himself a legend in Bahamian music annals. Wobbly with sea legs, we piled into his beat-up blue GMC-made 80s sedan of boat-like size and headed to GBI. A two story white stucco building on the outskirts of Freeport, the studio clung to its original sign, still hanging despite batterings by three Category 5 hurricanes. Inside, it was a completely different story. Gone were any traces of what it might have looked like in 1975, replaced by modern decor more reminiscent of a doctor’s waiting room than a custom studio. The A room had been converted into a church/TV studio as Penn adapted to the needs of his religious community. The tape archive was gone, long since flooded. It looked bleak until Frank pulled out a grip of 45s from the GBI and Penn’s labels.
We spent our first five hours on Grand Bahama just listening. The task was thick with dross, but buried under all that junkanoo and rake n’ scrape were enough great sides for a compilation. The first record that stuck out to us immediately was Cyril “Dry Bread” Ferguson’s “Gonna Build A Nation,” a sort of call to arms for Bahamians on the cusp of independence from the UK. We knew we had to find Dry Bread. Though most of the Bahamian musicians had migrated to Nassau, Ferguson stayed “in the bush” on the big island.
Cyril “Dry Bread” Ferguson, guitarist and native of Crooked Island, owes his nickname to his voracious appetite and his own humble beginnings. His work for GBI stemmed from an award he received from Frank Penn: Most Potential Artist at the inaugural Music Maker of the Year Awards in1972, a tradition Penn began in hopes of further invigorating public interest in Grand Bahama artists. Stunned by Ferguson’s performance of his original composition “Yamar,” Penn invited him to GBI to cut a record.
For some reason, we chose to leave this track off of Grand Bahama Goombay. The disc was pushing 74 minutes at 15 tracks, something had to go. Later we would find out that Phish had covered the song, but as our worlds don’t intersect that often, I’m not sure this would’ve been a strong selling point. Right now it seems like we should have tacked it on just so this guy would have had a few more hooks out in the world. It’s got a classic Caribbean sound, maybe too traditional for Cult Cargo, but Ferguson’s fret board massage is hard to resist.
Back at GBI, our home base, Penn kept humble and restrained in recounting his 70s exploits on the island’s music scene…at least until “Dry Bread” showed up later that day. Probably their competitive fire, still kindling after all those years, is what made their dual interview the most revealing we heard that weekend. Dry Bread, still in the game, called up memories of events Frank hadn’t mentioned, and vice versa. Frank’s old swagger crept back in; little disagreements flared up; histories were revised, though having these two guys in the room, you’d think no time had passed.
Our tour of Grand Bahama Island—made possible by a rented wreck British-market Japanese auto we could barely keep gassed and in the correct left lane—brought us eventually to the gutted remains of a “national park.” Tidal caves were promised and delivered, but we were the only souls about…luckily. Rickety rotted-wood scaffolds into the rocky pools would not have supported more live human weight. Twenty minutes later, we’d seen it all and taken our car past sea-worn graveyards and the stray dogs patrolling them.
Penn had set us up in a kitchenette room above the studio’s office, two slept on fold-out cots, one took cushions and the tile floor. Or would have, had a still incredibly enthusiastic Dry Bread Ferguson not talked us deep into the night, regaling us with tales of his 70s heyday as entertainer to both locals and the sandles-and-cocktails tourist set alike. Cyril had dressed smartly in suit and tie for the earlier interview, but this one found him in full Musician get-up. His “Words To My Song,” a side we’d heard for the first time only earlier that day, complained of writer’s block, but Cyril had no shortage of stories for us.
On April 9th, 2009, Cyril Ferguson died of diabetes-related complications at his home in Freeport. Though we only spent a few hours with him, his passion for music—especially Bahamian—was as loud as his wardrobe. He’ll be missed.