Perfect Sound Forever

Ben E. Hunter

by Eric Doumerc
(October 2014)

Ben E. Hunter has been active as a performing artist on the New Orleans reggae and folk/acoustic scene for many years now. He was born in Treme, New Orleans' African-American district. Although his musical tastes include classic rock as well as blues and jazz, his life changed when he attended a Peter Tosh concert in the early 1980ís.

He talked about his background in a recent interview:

"I started going to reggae shows. I think the first show I saw was Peter Tosh, Mama Africa Tour [1983], and it was such an experience, you know. I had quite a large record collection. My music ranged from Led Zeppelin to Fleetwood Mac to Stevie Wonder, all across the board. And when I heard Eric Clapton's "I Shot the Sheriff," we played that song at every lunch period. Later on ,we realized it was Bob Marley's song. Then I heard "Jamming" and when he started talking about "Jamming in the name of the Lord," I thought "This guy must be a prophet or something!" So I bought his Kaya album and I became more interested in reggae. I did not (know) that "kaya" meant "marijuana" at the time. But that Peter Tosh concert was so profound for me because I did not understand patois per se, and I had never been to a reggae concert. And he had Sly and Robbie backing him. And that totally blew me away."

A Burning Spear concert he attended also had a big impact on his musical tastes: "From then on, I would go to every show I could go but what really did it for me was Burning Spear. He came to this club called Jimmy's, uptown, and just his whole approach, you know, he was so tense. He had sweat pants on, and he had this raincoat which was almost like torn, like he just came off the street, and he gave such a powerful performance."

Hunter initially embraced football as a possible career and went to a pro football training camp. While training there, he became friends with another football player whose father was a Baptist minister and who introduced him to the Rastafarian faith. His adoption of Rastafarianism as a religion and as a life style did not go over too well with his family: "I was in my mid-twenties by that time and, you know, I had started a family, and it didn't go over too well with my parents. You know, all they knew was that I was smoking weed, marijuana. They didn't know anything about it."

Ben also got into Mutabaruka's dub poetry, and the album entitled Outcry confirmed his interest in reggae. The title-poem and "Dis Poem" are two of his favourite poems by Mutabaruka. In the 1980ís, there was a thriving reggae scene in New Orleans but sadly that seems to have gone now: "There's a band called Higher Heights. They do covers. And there's another group called Ambush, but they don't play so regular. But the scene kinda faded out, you know. We had several groups; even Cyril Neville had a band called Uptown All-Stars and he was doing reggae, he used to call it "Funk-Reggae." So it had really taken off... Higher Heights is a mixture of all those bands that used to play."

In 1991, Ben released his first album, entitled A Freedom Song, and the video for his acoustic number "I Remember" won the first place for music video at the Louisiana Film Festival in 1991.

In 1992, Ben's second album, Reality Check, was released and was recorded with the Crucial Roots Band, a local reggae band he had been collaborating with for some time. In the early 1990ís, they appeared regularly at Cafe Brasil in New Orleans, doing both covers versions and originals. The band decided to cover The Melodians' "Last Train to Expo '67." This album also features a cover version of Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe": "I always loved Jimi Hendrix and "Hey Joe," so I wanted to cover it because growing up, my aunt would play it over and over when she watched us; so it stuck...." The album also contained a track entitled "Inna Citi," which dealt with social barriers in New Orleans: "In New Orleans, there's some community that you have to go through a guard's gate to enter. That keeps us separated."

In the 1990ís, Ben took part in the Bob Marley Fest tour, which was a good platform for his art and allowed him to play in such places as Phoenix, Arizona, and to meet such reggae luminaries as Joe Higgs. Out of this experience came the Live Intergalactic album which was recorded on that tour.

In 2005, Ben was forced to leave his native New Orleans because of the havoc caused by Hurricane Katrina and moved to Los Angeles: "I had friends over there, actually the guy who shot my first video over here, and I wanted to do certain things for Katrina. And then this guy came to me saying he wanted to do a video. So I wrote a song but that never panned out. So we did a documentary and on that video I did a song." Ben ended up being the subject of a documentary entitled Baptized at Katrina: A Refugee Story." His exile led to the recording of an album entitled Traveler: A Healing Album for the City of New Orleans (2008), which is really a love song to his home town. The song entitled "We The People" dealt with the plight of New Orleans' inhabitants and "Josephine," a track which goes down well when Ben performs it live, is about Josephine Baker: "Josephine Baker was the first international female superstar and we have a street uptown named Josephine. So I put the two together and wrote the song. I felt a sort of connection after the storm."

Ben E Hunter's latest offering, The Nature of Things, was released a few months ago and is an acoustic set. The opening track, "The Truth Will Set You Free," is clearly autobiographical and takes us back to Ben's childhood in Treme and to the influence his grandmother had on his life: "I was born, in Treme but we would visit summers down in south Louisiana in the town of Raceland where my grandmother lived. She was uneducated yet was the smartest woman I know." Other songs like "Whipping Post" deal with human relationships: ""Whipping Post" is a song that talks about a good man or woman that's involved in a relationship with someone who has skeletons in their minds. All the good they do towards them is returned with hate, instead of giving it to those who abused them."

A review by Robert Fontenot in the August issue of Offbeat, New Orleans' main music magazine, identified love and "cosmic love" as important themes on this album, and wrote that "Hunter [got] his vibe across through pure, honest simplicity." Indeed honesty and simplicity are two words that come to mind when listening to these tracks, but the listener is also under the impression that Hunter is addressing him or her directly, in a very straightforward manner. In "Tin Man," Hunter sings: "A good man is never honoured in his homeland/But in a strange land, they give him praise, and in strange land, they give him his place." It seems that The Nature of Things will confirm Ben E. Hunter's place as a very important and gifted artist on the folk/acoustic/reggae scene.

See the latest news about Hunter on his Facebook page

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