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Wednesday, January 12,2011

Carrying a giant on his shoulder

MSU professor helps reggae legend Isaacs get a last Grammy nod

by Lawrence Cosentino

Right to the end, Isaac Kalumbu called Gregory Isaacs “Mr. Isaacs.”


Growing up in Zimbabwe,
Kalumbu never imagined he would meet his musical idol, dubbed “ruler of
reggae” by The New York Times — let alone hang with him in Jamaica,
record with him, and help him get a fourth Grammy nomination.


Kalumbu, an exuberant
Michigan State University ethnomusicology professor, is known in the
reggae world as King Isaac. “Isaacs Meets Isaac,” a sun-splashed CD full
of infectious grooves and life-affirming philosophy, was nominated for
Best Reggae Album earlier this month. The awards will be announced Feb.
13; the CD is available at both Schuler Books & Music locations and
at Everybody Reads in Lansing.


The moment is bittersweet for Kalumbu. Isaacs died in October and never learned of the nomination.


The first album Kalumbu
bought was Isaacs’ “The Lonely Lover,” the hit that gave the Jamaican
reggae icon one of his two nicknames. (The other was “Cool Ruler.”)
Kalumbu was 14, and newly independent Zimbabwe was only discovering
reggae.


“When Bob Marley came to Zimbabwe in 1980, he opened the floodgates for reggae music,” Kalumbu said.


Zimbabwe was ripe for
Marley’s message of liberation, pride and self-respect. Dozens of
albums, including classics by Isaacs, suddenly became available.


Kalumbu had already grown up imitating Zimbabwean singers like Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi.


“I’d memorize the words and see myself on stage singing,” he said.


When reggae hit Zimbabwe, KAlumbu heard every visiting star, including Marley and Isaacs. He studied
drumming with Munya Radzi Brown, a Jamaican reggae artist who settled in
Zimbabwe.


Kalumbu chafed under his day job as a factory manager and
played in reggae bands by night. When he came to Indiana State
University for a master’s degree in ethnomusicology, he started a band
called “Zimbaggae” (“Zimbabwe”
plus “reggae.”)


“Coming to America brought me closer to Jamaica, which
was my dream,” Kalumbu said. “Some people might call me a purist, but
the only way to get that authentic reggae sound was to record in
Jamaica.”


He got closer to his dream when reggae star Sugar Minott invited Kalumbu to play a festival in 2004, in St. Catherine, Jamaica.


They even did a duet, with “King Isaac” singing in his native language, Shona, Minott in English. It was the first time Kalumbu performed there.


“I was overwhelmed by the response — cheers, lighters in the air and everything,” he said.


When Kalumbu told people he wanted to find Gregory Isaacs and work with him, people scoffed.


“Gregory had problems
with substance abuse,” Kalumbu said. “People said to me, ‘You’re wasting
your time. He’ll never show up.’ All this negative stuff.”


When Kalumbu went to Isaacs’ office, a staffer took him straight to Isaacs’ house.


Kalumbu remembers that
day in every detail. He and the staffer played an Abbott-and-Costello
name game when Kalumbu said his name was Isaac.


“No, his name is Isaacs,” the staffer said.


While they were arguing,
Isaacs appeared in the doorway.


“It struck me how tall he was,” Kalumbu
said. “In the pictures you see, he’s always dancing, in a crouching
style.”


The star piled Kalumbu into his car and drove him back to the
office, dismissing the taxi Kalumbu had taken.


Impressed with the young man’s initia- tive, Isaacs agreed to cut a track together without hearing a demo or talking about Meets Isaac." money. Kalumbu insisted on playing a demo.


“He puts the headphones,
listens for a minute, looks at me, big smile on his face, and says,
‘You bad, you bad, you bad!’” Kalumbu said. “That was priceless, to see
that. Gregory had a special kind of smile.”


They agreed to record at the studio the following Tuesday, but Isaacs didn’t show up. Kalumbu remembered the warnings.


But Kalumbu persisted.
He called Isaacs that winter and told him he’d be back in Jamaica in
July. Isaacs agreed to another recording date.


This time Isaacs made the date and they laid down “One Cocoa,” which became the second track on the new CD.


“I couldn’t believe it,” Kalumbu said. “These are lyrics I wrote, and Gregory Isaacs is standing there studying them.”


During playback, Isaacs suggested they put together a CD, track by track, during Kalumbu’s summer visits to Jamaica.


“You don’t have to tell
me that you grew up idolizing me,” Isaacs told Kalumbu. “I can hear it.
You write Gregory Isaacs kind of lyrics.”


Isaacs didn’t change a
word of Kalumbu’s songs, except for one occasion, when he tossed the
paper aside and improvised in the studio.


When Kalumbu defended his composition, Isaacs pulled rank, for the first and only time.


“I’m one of the world’s greatest composers, you know,” Issacs told Kalumbu.


“And he is,” Kalumbu
said. “So I knew to leave it alone.” The result was one of the best
tracks on the disc, “Harsh Words.” They freestyle a conversation between
a confused lover and a more experienced man, using their own names.
“Mr. Isaacs, what should I do?” Kalumbu sings. “Once harsh words are
spoken, it’s hard to take them back,” Isaacs answers.


Wracked by years of hard living, Isaacs
sounds feeble on the disc, but his spirit is strong and the rapport
between the two men is golden. As composer and lead singer, Kalumbu is
the stronger presence on the disc by far, but he shies from the
suggestion that he is carrying the older man.


“The fact that he’s
Gregory Isaacs looms large,” Kalumbu said. “I don’t want to be caught
suggesting that I helped Gregory Isaacs.”


Despite lung cancer,
Isaacs performed until September 2010, touring the West Coast. Kalumbu
caught up with him after the tour and sang him “Secret Admirer,” a song
he wrote to thank Isaacs for working with him.


He wanted Isaacs to sing
the song. “I could see he was tired, but Gregory always bounced back,”
Kalumbu said. “I didn’t take it seriously.”


By October, Isaacs was dead.


“I guess I’m going to have to sing it myself,” Kalumbu said.

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