by Eric Doumerc
Prince Far I (Michael Williams) was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, in 1944 and first worked as a security guard and then as a bouncer at Joe Gibbs' and Coxsone Dodd's studios before he got to record his fist single for Coxsone in 1970 ("Queen of the Minstrel"). He then recorded various singles for Bunny Lee, Enos McLeod, Coxsone Dodd ("Natty Farmyard") and Alvin Ranglin.
Prince Far I first came to the public's attention when he recorded an LP for Lloydie Slim in 1975. It was entitled Psalms for I and consisted of readings from the Psalms set to heavy reggae rhythms. One year later, in 1977, Joe Gibbs released Far I's breakthrough LP, Under Heavy Manners, which established his reputation in England. The title of the album referred to the new drastic measures adopted by Michael Manley's second government to cut crime.
The success of that album led Far I to sign a recording contract with Virgin, which led to the release of two albums, Message from the King and Long Life, both in 1978. By then, the popularity of that deejay was firmly established and he signed a contract with Trojan Records. Four albums followed: Free from Sin (1979), Jamaican Heroes (1980), Voice of Thunder (1981) and Musical History (1983). From 1979 on, Far I began to work with the British producer Adrian Sherwood, who had been carrying out various sound experiments with musicians' collectives like Singers and Players or The Dub Syndicate (in fact the Roots Radics or The Arabs) for a few years. The album Prince Far I and Singers and Players was released in 1981 on Sherwood's On U label. In the early 1980's, Prince Far I began to work with the British avant-garde band The Suns of Arqa, a collaboration which led to the release of a single entitled "Wadada Magic" in 1982. A live album recorded with that band in December 1982 was released in 1983 on the ROIR label (Musical Revue, ROIR, 1983).
On September 15th, 1983 Prince Far I was killed during a burglary at his house.
In 1998 Health and Strength, a "lost" album by Prince Far-I, was released on the Pressure Sounds label. The album consists of recordings originally made in the late 1970's for a Virgin album, but the cassette got lost then, and resurfaced in 1997.
Prince Far I was known as "the Voice of Thunder" on account of his gruff and gravelly voice which perfectly matched the heavy roots reggae recordings on which that deejay chanted. Some critics have referred to him as a "chanter," arguing that the word "toaster" was inappropriate for such a "dread" approach to deejaying. His style was very "conscious" indeed and the deejay excelled at cultural and historical themes, but there was another side to his talent, a quieter side which could be said to be closer to storytelling than to deejaying. Lastly, Far I's art was steeped in the Jamaican oral tradition and this came out in his use of proverbs and traditional songs.
Cultural themes abounded in Prince Far I's songs or chants and social commentary was an important aspect of his art. His ground-breaking song "Heavy Manners" took to task Michael Manley's government for introducing repressive measures which led many Jamaicans to feel that they were "under heavy manners." "Some with Roof," "Ghetto Living" and "Put it Out," all on the 1981 Livity album, documented social inequality and the harsh living conditions of the poor in Jamaica while "Throw AwayYour Guns" lamented the political violence that was such a feature of life in Jamaica in the 1970's. The deejay's sad voice expressed his dismay at such systematic loss of life: "Look at what me live fe come see !"
Far-I's art was steeped in Rastafarian and Christian imagery, and many of his songs sound like prayers or incantations. In 1975, he released an entire album of readings from the Psalms (Psalms for I ). Other potent chants with Rastafarian themes included "I and I are the Chosen One," "Moses, Moses" and "Armageddon." On "Black Man Land," his thundering voice exhorted his followers to give their life to Rastafari:"Man, oh man,History loomed large in Far-I's artistry and his song entitled "Jamaican Heroes" (on the 1980 Jamaican Heroes album) paid tribute to the founding fathers of the Jamaican nation:
I want you to give your basic potential
Mount Zion rules,
Well, watch out man!"This is a tribute to the National Heroes of Jamaica.Prince Far-I stood up for a certain conception of what reggae music should be about and sound like. On "Musical History," he thundered against some new deejays who, at the time (in 1979), were singing "pure gimmicks" and he told them to "mind their mouths." On the live recording of "Throw Away Your Guns" (available on Musical Review), he fiercely reprimanded Yellowman, who was in the early 1980s Jamaica's most popular deejay. Far-I took him to task for not knowing his "personality" and for singing about trivial subjects.
They say Christopher Columbus discovered Jamaica,
But I discovered music.
Sometimes I wonder, sometimes I ponder,
Why you man got to be, got to be a slave.
Calling Paul Bogle and William Gordon,
Calling Norman Manley and Bustamante,
Calling Marcus Garvey, the prophet of them all,the prophet of them all.
Give I the reason why man can't free (x2),
Calling the prophet, ca' me say one more time, ca' me say one more time.
This is a tribute to the National Heroes of Jamaica.
They say Christopher Columbus discovered Jamaica,
But I discovered music.
But there was another side to Prince Far-I's art, a side which was far removed from the "Voice of Thunder" label or tag. Indeed Far-I was also a master storyteller, not only a dread chanter. He knew how to tell a story and how to use his expressive voice to telling effect. On "Bedward the Flying Preacher," a recording produced by Adrian Sherwood (available on Pay It All Back Vol.1, On-U Sound, 1984), Far-I tells the story of Alexander Bedward, a Jamaican Revival preacher and healer who attracted quite a following in the late 19th century and in the 1920's with his message of salvation and hope. Bedward acquired quite a reputation for his alleged ability to heal people by dipping them in the Hope River and he soon organized mass healings which attracted thousands of followers. In 1920, he announced that the was going to fly to Heaven on December 31st and asked his followers to come to his compound to be saved. On the appointed day, of course, Bedward did not fly to Heaven. Later, in 1921, Bedward had a run-in with the Jamaican police and was arrested for staging an illegal demonstration in Kingston. He was arrested by the authorities, placed on trial but acquitted by reason of insanity, and sent to Bellevue Hospital, a lunatic asylum, where he died in 1930. Prince Far-I tells a slightly different story, steeped in myth, with Bedward actually trying to fly to Heaven and "breaking his neck". But what is interesting is Far-I's skill as a storyteller, his use of punning and wordplay ("Bedward ! Him never say a bad word but him throw nuff word!") and his engagement with his listeners ("Guess what happened!").
On recordings like "Ghetto Living," "The Dream," "Foggy Road," and "Moses, Moses," Far-I tells stories, weaves tales and manages to capture his audience's attention by using his voice to express emotions like sadness, rightful anger, or pity. His art seems to be very similar to that of the dub poets, who became popular in the 1970's by reciting their poems over reggae tracks. The dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson once wrote that he had coined the phrase "dub poet" to refer to what Jamaican deejays like Big Youth or I-Roy were doing at the time. In Far-I's case, the phrase "dub poet" was particularly appropriate. On "Ghetto Living," he tells the story of a family whose main breadwinner runs afoul of the law, commits some misdemeanour, is then arrested and sentenced to many years in jail. The story is told in a quiet voice and the emotions are controlled. Far-I concludes: "This is the kind of treatment you get when you live in the ghetto". The backing track, with its pulsating bass line and electric guitar, nicely complements this piece of reggae journalism.
Prince Far-I also excelled at recycling and re-using proverbs and songs from the Jamaican oral tradition. The opening track on the Under Heavy Manners album, "Rain A Fall", is based on a well-known Jamaican saying which was used by the poet Louise Bennett and by Bob Marley in his song "Dem Belly Full": "Rain a-fall, but de dutty tough; pot a-boil, but food no nuff."
The song "Put it Out" is a cautionary tale about being careful in one's life and about not starting fires that one wouldn't be able to put out. In that song the proverb "If you can't be good, you've got to be very careful" is used several times to punctuate the deejay's remarks. On "Wish I Have a Wing," Far-I recycles the old Jamaican song "Wings of a Dove" and "Some Have Roof" features a few lines from the traditional song "Oil for my Lamp." The tune "Reggae Music Moving" is a reggae reworking of a Pentecostal hymn:" Reggae music moving them like a magnet/Cause it's moving here, and it's moving there, it's moving almost everywhere/ reggae music moving them like a magnet." The original hymn goes: "The Holy Ghost power is moving just like a magnet/It's moving you and it's moving me/Just like the day of Pentecost/The Holy Ghost power is moving just like a magnet."
Thus Prince Far-I was more than a gruff-voiced deejay who thundered against Babylon. His art was steeped in the Jamaican storytelling tradition and at times came close to performance poetry or what we would call "spoken word" today. His style of reggae journalism was totally unique and probably influenced the early dub poets as well as dancehall deejays like Nitty Gritty, Joseph Cotton and more recently Buju Banton.
Greene, Jo-Ann. "Prince Far-I". www.allmusic.com
Moore, Brian L. and Michele A. Johnson. Neither Led Nor Driven: Contesting British Cultural Imperialism in Jamaica, 1865-1920. Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2004.
ALSO SEE: the Tribute to Prince Far I website
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