Michael “Ibo” Cooper by Kwame Dawes

BOMB 86 Winter 2004
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Michael “Ibo” Cooper. Photo by Lee Abel. Courtesy of Lee Abel and reggaeportraits.com.

I had probably heard them on the radio. They were a popular band, after all. I know I had heard them perform in the huge cement-floored auditorium of my high school. I was impressed. Still, I had somehow relegated Third World to a position of pseudo-soul artists, that brand of musicians who were taken with America. Years later, when a friend I was visiting in Kingston decided to introduce me to the music of Third World, which he thought was the hippest sound around, I was determined to dislike them. I was 16, it was 1978, Jamaica was being defined by ideology in the most profound way. Michael Manley was defying America, Cubans were dancing on our theater stages and rockers music, with its militant Sly and Robbie bully rhythm section, was dominating the soundwaves. I was not going to enjoy soul reggae. But when my friend put on 96 Degrees in the Shade , I could not dislike the sound. These guys were roots. That was my real introduction to Third World. I would even come to admit that the words to “1865” are among the top 10 greatest reggae lyrics.

Born in Clarendon, a rural parish in Jamaica, Michael “Ibo” Cooper, a veteran of the influential reggae band Inner Circle, cofounded Third World in 1973 and was its keyboardist and a songwriter and vocalist until he left the band in 1997. Contemporaries of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Third World followed the path set by the inimitable Marley and took reggae all over the world, producing some of the most dynamic and sophisticated reggae over several decades of recording and performing. After 25 years on the road, Cooper embarked on a new life as a teacher and an advocate for reggae and popular music in Kingston, where he now lives.

Kwame Dawes Let me start with the most obvious question: Ibo. Where did that name come from?

Ibo Cooper I got the nickname right as I started with Inner Circle, just after I left high school, because of the fighting in Nigeria. I was skinny, and the Biafran War had pictures of starving children, and you know how Jamaicans tease and rib about things. It became a name because of the Ibos in Nigeria.

KD You are currently in Runaway Bay teaching at a residential conference for Caribbean musicians. This teaching has become a part of your new life—training artists, traveling around talking about the music business, passing your knowledge on to others. Teaching is a passion for you, isn’t it?

IC I grew up in a family of teachers, and many of the people I admire were teachers. This business of passing things on to others is something I have developed a passion for. Most of the time I am asked to come in because I am one of the few musicians who bridged the gap between formal training—that is, western European music—and the oral tradition in Jamaica. I have never held any preference for one side or the other. I have always recognized the power of the informal music that became reggae.

KD Would you prefer to be remembered as Ibo Cooper, Third World, or Ibo Cooper, teacher?

IC The Third World thing is not going to go away anytime soon. And I wouldn’t want it to go away—that is a quarter century of my life in which I made a great impact on the world, as a vocalist and musician and, in a way, bandleader. But the youths whom I have come in contact with over the last four years have become family, like my children. And they have never seen me perform with the group, except on video. So the interaction is quite different, but we remember the efforts to get good grades in order to get school fees and to get a gig here and a gig there, and we become connected. These are especially the music students at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. I went there part-time at first and started a popular music ensemble, teaching how to play as a band. Then I came aboard full-time as head of the Caribbean, Latin American and jazz department, which is now called Popular Music Studies.

KD You came into reggae music at a time when the mandate was at once to entertain and to teach. The prophet was a standard persona in roots reggae music. Were you always comfortable with that role and with the pressures of being a teacher in that way?

IC Inner Circle was very much a pop band playing Top 40. The stress was more on entertainment than on message. With Third World our dissatisfaction with the Top 40 run was the catalyst. We wanted to be innovative, and this manifested itself first in the form of songwriting, but not necessarily message songwriting. We did not start out to be a reggae band in the purest sense. We played a lot of soul, R&B and funk. We thought it would be versatile of us to be able to do it all. Not out of a disregard for reggae, which was from our culture. The first time it ever hit me that bands specialized was when we went to England in 1975. A journalist, a white man, asked us when we were going to become a reggae band. That’s when it occurred to me that in those countries you were either this or that. I always thought that this was narrow thinking, and I always had a problem with people trying to narrow my intelligence. Actually, an African American who later managed Third World was surprised when he saw me playing in a jazz band. And last week at a concert, after I did an up-tempo blues bit one of the teachers said they did not know that I played jazz so well. I notice that the English and Americans do not have a problem with their people being versatile. Sting plays jazz, reggae, anything he wants to play. Yet when we came from the Caribbean they wanted us to be narrow. My education was quite broad. We were playing everything from Beethoven and Brahms to Bob, Sparrow, Latin. We were reading Shakespeare, we were reading the Jamaican poet and impresario Miss Lou. But even then the fact that we had received an education seemed to work against us, because there was always the stereotype of a Jamaican from the ghetto who was a bad man struggling to make it, and this music was just his or her way out of poverty. The unfortunate thing was that people started to think we were uneducated, and I am not even talking about formal education. I had a friend who was a jazz dj who was respectful in general, but one day I was making a quip and I misspelled a word as part of a wordplay, and she honestly thought I was illiterate, missing the witticism. Third World was a case of us trying to do a lot because we were exposed to a lot.

There was a consciousness about the movement taking place in Jamaica, and the message came closer as we grew. The international exposure brought it home to us.

KD Third World, as you know, was often labeled an uptown band, a band of middle-class renegades who jumped into a field normally dominated in ideology and in economic reality by the working class. The truth appears to be something else. You are a country yout’, and as far as I could work out only Steven “Cat” Coore and Willie Stewart from the original band could be said to have genuinely middle-class backgrounds. So how did the label stick? Surely tracks like “Uptown Rebel” did not help. Was that an issue for the band’s reception or even for the band members when the band got started?

IC Richie [Daley], even though his father was a captain in the JDF [Jamaica Defense Force], originally lived in Trenchtown, as did Carrot [Irvin Jarrett]. You see, when Bob Marley sings about Trenchtown, at that time it was not a ghetto in the way we understand the term now. Kingston 12 was not Dungle or Back O’Wall. Brentford Road was the home of some famous Jamaicans. It wasn’t exactly the rich area, but it was not the home of deprived people. Bunny Rugs [William Clarke] was from Foster Lane. Willie did not come from Jamaica at all. He was born in England and he had the roughest time racially of all of us. England was a place that victimized black boys, and he fought his way home from school for most of his childhood. He came to Jamaica with all of that. He did come and live in Liguanea and went to Providence Prep. The thing is, we all benefited from secondary school. The fact that we went to Wolmer’s and JC [Jamaica College] probably leads to an automatic assumption that we were from uptown. But even in those schools there was a difference between the scholarship boys and the rich boys. The problem was really aggravated by the fact that Cat was the son of David Coore, the deputy prime minister of Jamaica. It was hard for Cat to bear. In many of the early interviews, with Jamaica going through the changes in the whole Third World movement, Cat was often not appraised for his guitar playing but for being his father’s son. How did we deal with it? For us it was rags to riches, but as we can see in the Caribbean, the rags to riches story is not necessarily a success story, because one of the common stories is of people who have made it to riches and become some of the most oppressive people. Third World to me was a statement of what you should do if you have money. Until recently we did not talk about what artists do when they make money. In the Caribbean, when our entrepreneurs die they do not leave a Ford Foundation, a Rockefeller Foundation. They don’t even leave money in Swiss banks. They leave money for their girlfriends. The Third World statement is that material things should not get in the way of your consciousness. The typical rags to riches script is the poor boy who made it or the field slave who gets to live in the big house. Where has that left us today? The black elite has become more oppressive than the white oppressor. So people say that we are uptown Rasta. Why not? A journalist, Ian Boyne, said something rude once: he asked me in an interview, “Now that you have achieved education and live uptown and drive, why don’t you cut your locks?” My answer was that we live in a very hypocritical society where the image is not appreciated even after you have proved yourself in terms of their status symbols, part of which is to have the right color wife, the right friends, the right image. I personally think that even though many Jamaicans revere Bob’s success, many are grieved that it is a Rasta man who got the recognition. Think of Salieri and Mozart. Salieri could not get how he had taken a vow of poverty and chastity and this happy-go-lucky Mozart had what Salieri wanted. Jah moves in mysterious ways. (laughter) The Almighty gave it to Bob. That consciousness is who we are, and what we take in our heritage is not going in the garbage really soon.

KD For me, “1865” is one of the greatest songs in reggae music. It is up there in poetic and political force with “Redemption Song,” “Battering Down Sentence,” “54-46 Was My Number” and “Slavery Days.” Yet the song is credited, in true Third World fashion, to the whole band. All the elements are there—a stunning guitar solo by Cat Coore, a moving and pained vocal performance by Bunny Rugs, a sophisticated soundscape of an arrangement by the band and a lockstep rhythm sound. This is a song full of drama and force. Who wrote it?

IC Our writing was done individually or collectively depending on what was happening at the time. I would walk into the room with a fully formed song or someone else would bring a song. There were moments when we would start something as a group, or something would be completed by the group. “1865” was that kind of song. I was late for rehearsal one night, and when I went into the rehearsal room Cat was sitting under the keyboard singing the set of chords that make up the chorus over and over. “Ninety-six degrees in the shade / Real hot, in the shade.” Maybe he had another direction in mind, but I suggested we look at how hot it must have been on that fateful day of the insurrection in Morant Bay in 1865. The guys liked the idea, so we had a thing with three main singers giving a verse each, and each of us had to improvise a verse as we went along. So Cat wrote his verse, I wrote mine and Bunny Rugs wrote his. We named the song “1865” and called the album 96 Degrees in the Shade. And we were honored when Evan Jones wrote and got permission to put the song on the BBC. It seemed to have communicated internationally, because even though the song was left off the charts (a typical thing done to reggae artists), and even though we were told that it was not a hit yet, when we would do it on any tour in any place, in Italy, Africa or in New York, we got the same reaction every time. Somehow without it being a hit or charting, people of the world became familiar with it. It was probably bigger than “Now that We Found Love.” It may not have gotten the commercial push of the others, but I can’t question the power of it and the poetry of it, because it was coming from that source.

KD The scene that the song dramatizes is such a central one in Jamaican history. The band identifies with Paul Bogle, the main figure in the insurrection. Even though this is a song that looks at history, it achieves exactly what the best reggae songs do: it brings history home. There is a seamless connection between the persons spoken about in the history and present-day Jamaicans. I am reminded of Marley singing, “Ev’rytime I hear the crack of a whip / My blood runs cold”—history and the present coming together as one. What was it about 1970s Jamaica that made “1865” so right for the time? And what was it about Bogle, a lay preacher and political organizer, that resonated with the band?

IC Picking up on the connection—that was exactly it. Right now, for example, my students are sometimes amused when I talk about Jesus, because I will talk about Jesus in patois and quote from the Bible in present-day Jamaican talk. With “1865” we were painting this picture that was a movie flashback into the past; you the Jamaican listener stood up beside Paul Bogle on that fateful day and it was patois that was speaking, so that it drives home that this could be what’s going on right now. Bogle is still getting persecuted. We wanted the obesity, the gluttony, of the governor to come out. Bogle would have said it that way: “The big fat boy.” And to think that the colonial powers did not even value the characters of the Jamaican people. The British were sending the dregs of their society to Jamaica as government workers and military, and that is what we Africans of the highest caliber had to contend with as an authority structure. It is backed up by so much in history.

KD The song is based on a historical fact, but it is never overt: at no point do you mention Paul Bogle or Morant Bay. The year is the major clue to the poem’s meaning. The listener has to do some work. Was this absence of literalism intentional?

IC Yes, and we got criticized for that. People said we should have been confrontational. But literalism is something we avoided in certain instances. It just happened in a mystical way. There are two other instances of apparent triteness, “Sense of Purpose” and “Girl From Hiroshima.” I remember a Jamaican writer who was one of my intellectual sparring partners—he got it on “Sense of Purpose.” He got it.

People call you so much dirty names
They using you to play their kinky games
And when they’re done, they turn their
        backs on you
Sayin’ you’re washed up, sad and blue

The symbolism is of this person who was a whore, a skettel, moving into the affluent area and living beside the big man. And the skettel feels, “I can talk to them now.” But the skettel finds out it is not so. “They don’t rate me. Even though I have achieved a doctorate, they still think I am a skettel.”

KD As a poet, I have a great fear that people will declare that I wrote my best work during the first five years of my career. We say that about a lot of people. Some even like to say that of Bob Marley. I disagree, of course. But after albums like Third World96 Degrees and Journey to Addis, the band’s sound changed. A number of critics still offer the purist view that your best work was done in the ’70s. How do you respond to the suggestion? The band continues to be a viable force, you continue to make new music, but is there something to the claim?

IC Never a best work, always a work in progress. It’s just what is being communicated at a certain time. Sometimes we will only hear it later. People who did not like 96 Degrees when it came out said to me three years later, “You people need to go back to 96 Degrees.” It is unfortunate that the market-driven, commercial side of reggae music never had a chance to hear what was really done. There are writers who were not appreciated with each album. I collected Marley’s work to understand where he was at that time. Who could question the power of “Redemption Song”? And that came much later than “Soul Rebel.” No one can tie me to the 96 Degrees era. A song called “Open Your Eyes and See” came out of a dream in which I saw Bob Marley. He said to me that we should not forget the youths, and he told me to tell them where to look: inside of you is your future reality.

KD Did you feel any pressure to move toward a more commercial brand of music as the band became more popular?

IC There was major pressure to do that. One of the biggest challenges artistically was American radio. People must realize that what is established on the radio in Jamaica now—Jimmy Cliff, Israel Vibration, Steel Pulse—is responsible for standing the music on its own two feet. We got in there and we would hear that the American radio format did not allow for this and that. It’s like the World Cup: the United States’s narcissistic insularity had to give in to having a World Cup soccer team. There is only one Earth, and America exists on it; everyone was playing, and America had to wake up. In the same way, they had to realize that all this music was happening outside and inside the country and so they had to pay attention to it. But the pressure was hard on traditional artists, especially when the music was seen as an alien sound. How will it fit into the format? You refit the format. Broaden the education. The pressure was there to go commercial. We could have if we had wanted to, and “Now that We Found Love” did embrace this. It was a small ax, big tree situation. But do we bow to the pressure of the big financial and military might or do we stick to our mission, which was simply to inform the people of the ways of those with military might? It is not a terrorist thing. It is saying to someone who is ignorant, Hey, there is some other way to look at things. The person who is not basing his life on military and economic power can understand that this other person has gaps in his knowledge. Our statement was, “Let us dance for peace and justice; let us not leave peace and development from the program.” At no time did we advocate violence or the killing of anyone out of race, class, gender or anything. One of our signature tunes was a simple lyric that said that street fighting would become street dancing. The aim was always to establish the consciousness irrespective of where you are coming from. Ibo nah get rich and switch. I am not preaching poverty. I don’t mind getting rich. But I won’t sell out.

KD Reggae is a very interesting musical form. On one level it is conscious, full of political lyrics, and on the other it is sensual, party music. Third World has done both things and more. How do you respond to those who may dismiss music forms like dancehall and other “party” music as unprogressive?

IC Dancehall is the party side of Jamaica. What I want the world to know is that people in Jamaica, the Caribbean and Africa want to have the best life and have a good time. We don’t want to colonize people. People say we are a good-time people and that all we do is dance. What’s wrong with that? I respect Elephant Man. He has said he is not going to go on about killing anyone or to talk about things that are bad. He is great for partying for all ages and celebrating the highest form of expression: dance. African people dance because the spirit communicates to us through our drum. We have fought for our song and dance that was taken away from us. So I think it is vibrant and lively and exciting. I will continue to work to keep the youth nonviolent, no abuse of chemicals. And even if you look back at the African American era, the man was fighting for the right to funk. It was one nation under a groove, not a gun. Right now I am looking at the beach and the sun and coconuts and the water. Music is an excellent vehicle when there is injustice to express and the need to cry out against injustice. We feel it in the one drop because the one drop leaves the space between this drop and that drop. The one drop does not crowd the music. The world should know that we as a people will speak out against injustice. But we have no desire to be a part of the war machine. Eddy Grant says it: “You invite me to a war party / Me no wanna go.”

KD So what is occupying your time these days?

IC I am doing something that my generation does not do enough. I am listening to the youth. They must not make the mistakes that our generation made. We need to listen to the youth. They have something to say, and we need to hear it.

KD You were on the road for many years. It must be different now that you are off the road.

IC In a manner of speaking I am not off the road. Willie Stewart and myself have put together something called Reggae Ambassador and done gigs, though not as extended as Third World, in the region. And recently I have been on the road with a set of my graduates, a band that has come out of my program called C-Sharp. They were chosen by the Ministry of Education to go to Carifesta in Suriname. They already had been planning to go on the road with Tony Rebel. I am also part of a music education program called HUM—Healing, Unification and MURCY (Musicians United Regarding Crisis in Youth)—that was designed to go into schools and lead discussions about music as a career and talk about how music can help solve social issues. The program ran in Jamaica for a while and then we took it to England where it was at the University of Leeds, Oxford, Cambridge and select high schools and colleges. In 1999 I went to Africa, where I managed a radio station in Malawi that is owned by a Jamaican. I have also been in Uganda and Rwanda, where I am trying to organize a concert called Time for Peace. The concert is still in the planning stages. There are those of us who want to bring peace and unity to Africa.

KD Artists with a vision and purpose who carry a message like you have for years must stop to assess the impact of their work now and then. Can you reflect on the work you have done and the effectiveness of your role as a musical revolutionary?

IC Many of the times when we sons and daughters of Africa in the West with no military might and very little economic power speak up for our aspirations, we are labeled in various ways. But in 1975, when we went to the Lyceum in London to be the opening act of Bob Marley’s first tour as a headline band, we will never forget that when we walked backstage, the dressing rooms were plastered with posters that said KEEP ENGLAND WHITE. This is after these countries led our people to believe that success and a heavenly milk-and-honey existence was waiting for us in this so-called fatherland. Much has changed, but as a people we never alienated others because of race. And history does recall that when outsiders came into Africa they were received with love, as Bob Marley says. So who could wrong us for standing up and using our art to bring down that kind of wickedness? I hope that we have been successful in enlightening the misguided who have military might and economic power to understand that

Life can be so incomplete
For the prisoner in the street,
And that what we have been saying is that
Unity is the answer
Like the harmony
between the drummer and the dancer.

[“Prisoner in the Street”]

Sight? Seen. by Ryan Sheldon
Horsemouth Body

Ryan Sheldon discusses the eclectic range of reggae films presented in BAMcinématek’s Do the Reggae series.

Kate Simon’s Rebel Music: Bob Marley & Roots Reggae, Photographs by Betsy Sussler
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Rebel Music has the intimacy of a family album and the urgency of legend, for this rebel had a cause.

Judy Mowatt by Kwame Dawes
Mowatt 01 Body

It is hard to admit to the subject of an interview—someone you have long admired for her righteousness and nobility, someone whose art has left you feeling a sense of appreciation for the dignity of artists who are socially and politically engaged—that your most primal connection to her is physical. 

Originally published in

BOMB 86, Winter 2004

Featuring interviews with Brooke Alfarmo, Stanley Greaves, Santiago Sierra, Erna Brober, Jorge Volpi and Martin Solares, and Jesus Tenreiro-Degwitz and Carlos Brillembourg.

Read the issue
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