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Sly Dunbar on his latest musical adventure, Havana Meets Kingston

“It made us independent and let us experiment…That’s what it was about – it was a free label, with free music and no rules.”

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Even if you’re not acquainted with reggae, dancehall and dub legends Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare (AKA Sly & Robbie, AKA the “Riddim Twins”) by name, you’ve surely heard their music.
 
Hailed as the world’s most famous rhythm section, the pair have played on a crazy 200,000 plus recordings (including those released on their own prolific record label Taxi), driving the sound for everyone from Jamaican legend Peter Tosh, Bob Dylan, The Stones, Serge Gainsbourg and Grace Jones, through to Britney and Madonna. With Dunbar on drums and Shakespeare on bass, the duo are also credited with changing the face of reggae several times over. Hell, Keith Richards pretty much reserved them a chapter in his autobiography LIFE, covering the time he lived in Jamaica and recorded with the pair.
 
Winding their way back to Oz as part of the 15-piece supergroup lineup for Havana Meets Kingston, celebrating the intersection of Cuban and Jamaican rhythms, Dunbar is as fond of Shakespeare as he was when they kicked off their career in the ‘70s. He puts it down, in part at least, to staying out of each others’ grill and remembering their roots. “We never get sick of each other – no never, never, never,” Dunbar says. “What we do is we always remember where we’re coming from. We started out together as kids, growing up together, and we always remember that two is better than one.”
 
In fact, it was their mutual-admiration society that united them in the first place. Legend has it that the two discovered shared ideas about music and used to watch each other play before officially joining forces. “I used to listen to these records and I’d ask him, ‘Did you play on this? I can tell because it sounds different,’” Dunbar recalls. “Then, he’d come out at night to the club where I was playing and then I’d go to the club where he was playing.”
 
Having loved music as a kid, Dunbar is upfront about his influences and has always cited The Skatalites drummer Lloyd Knibb as his mentor. However, while Dunbar absorbed the lot, he ran in an unparalleled direction. “I’ve always listened to all different kinds of music,” Dunbar reflects. “Particularly African music, because African music has the real beat, and I’ve listened to every drummer on every recording I’ve ever listened to, but I realised I needed to find my own style, my own sound, and worked to develop it. But that my style came to the front of reggae is really just because I was on so many recordings.
 
“I came up with my drum style because when you’ve been recording in the studio you listen to a lot of songs. Also, my friends and I used to dance a lot, so I always had a lot of rhythm. When it came to my drum style, I looked at what was happening in the industry – like Motown, Philadelphia, Studio One, all of these places – and I realised for me I was developing my own style. I remember when I was recording a song called ‘When the Right Time Comes’, the producer didn’t want to change it to a new sound. But, I started experimenting anyway.” 
 
That Sly & Robbie are credited with repeatedly revolutionising reggae, Dunbar puts down to their preparedness to take a risk and explore a new lineup. “Me and Robbie were always ready to take a chance,” he says. “Then we’d develop new combinations, like this combination for Havana Meets Kingston. We take our sound and attitude to a recording and sometimes it comes out to be a winner. We play what we play, they play what they play, and the combination works together. That’s what we do.”
 
Reflecting on Sly & Robbie’s cracking collective career, Dunbar isn’t pressed for choice when it comes to highlights. For a start, he cites the inception of their label Taxi, which was notoriously founded on lunch money courtesy of the Stones (the Stones were only paying them $100 per week at the time, so they squirrelled away their per diems). “It made us independent and let us experiment,” he says. “That’s what it was about – it was a free label, with free music and no rules, making music that would make people dance all the time.” As for the fact that they were being paid peanuts, Dunbar is circumspect. “It was actually from Peter Tosh, who was touring with the Stones, and that’s all that he could afford. We knew that greater things were to come, so we didn’t cry about it.”   
 
Realistically, Dunbar hasn’t only played with all of the Jamaican greats (Bob Marley, Toots & the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff et al) but all of the greats full stop, but there are a still a few peeps on his wish list.
 
“I like all of them, but I’ve never done any work with the great Stevie Wonder. I’d like to do something with him one time.”

Havana Meets Kingston will perform at The Forum on Thursday March 15. They’ll also perform at WOMADelaide on Sunday March 11. Their self-titled album is out now.