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Reheater: Keith Richards and The Wingless Angels of Jamaica

November 01, 2010

Our ongoing Reheater column from the print edition, in which we revisit and revere old records being reissued, makes its way online with the reissue of Keith Richards' Wingless Angels project, recorded with Jamaican folk musicians over the course of many visits. Read the story after the jump, and check the full interview with Richards over on Large Up. If haven't yet, also pick up a copy of Keef's autobiography, simply and gangsterly titled, Life.

“A bird fell out of its nest so we took it to the bird sanctuary and made sure it’s alright. And then I watched some soccer.” That, one balmy afternoon early this summer, was Keith Richards’ answer to the question, What did you do today? The soccer match he was watching was actually England’s expulsion from the World Cup, but Keef seemed pretty Zen about it. The earthbound bird made for an oddly fitting omen since the Rolling Stones guitarist happened to be on the phone to talk about the second release from his sporadic Jamaican passion project, Wingless Angels.

To get the scope of it, you’d have to go back to 1972, when the Stones convened at Dynamic Sound studios in Kingston to record the sessions that would eventually become the 1973 classic Goats Head Soup. Jamaica, Richards has famously said, “was one of the few places that would let us all in,” referring to the drug charges and confiscated passports that had dogged the Stones since 1967. He decided to stay, bought a house on the beach below a village named Steer Town near Ocho Rios and took up with the Rastas, who worked the island’s North Coast as divers and fishermen. “They invited me up to the village,” he says. “And I started to hear what they were doing—very different, very ancient.”

Those ancient sounds were churchical Rasta chants—a combination of Methodist spirituals and trance-inducing Nyabinghi drumming, songs of praise that inspired reggae but have rarely been recorded themselves. Over time, the dreadlocked liturgy drifted down from the village and settled at Richards’ residence for informal evening jam sessions. “At first I wasn’t allowed to play,” he says. “The old guys were like, No, no, no—no guitars. And then one night I was just tinkling away behind them and then, Okay you’re in.”

In addition to one of the world’s greatest rock stars, the pick-up sessions also often included the voice of local Justin Hinds, a veteran singer from the ska/rocksteady era, whose 45s—like the immortal “Carry Go Bring Come”—helped make Jamaican rhythm the rage in the UK back when it was still called “blue beat.” With two such luminaries weighing in, it’s shocking that some 20 years passed before someone—in this case, Richards’ cohort Rob Fraboni—“turned up at the door with the recording trucks” and began putting down the tracks that became the 1997 Wingless Angels LP on Mindless records.

Those sessions were recorded right after the passing of Angels’ lynchpin Bongo Jackie, his death perhaps underscoring that, in Richards’ words, “probably that’s the last of it,” when it came to Nyabinghi music. “It’s getting rarer and rarer, so that’s one of the reasons I wanted to capture it, while it’s still there,” he says. Likewise, Wingless Angels II, which comes as a special deluxe edition including extensive liner notes, lithographs and doodles from Richards—are the last known recordings of Hinds, who died of lung cancer in 2005.

In the face of another departed Angel and considering the frankly religious power of Hinds’ vocal on “Oh What a Joy, What a Comfort,” the moment seems to demand an attempt at articulating the sacred. But ultimately, if the decision to release the recordings is a kind of cenotaph, the music itself is a humbler sort of communion for Richards. “It’s just, everyone’s feeling the same thing at the same time, you know, a bunch of guys sitting around making music. You’re intending to aim for something, no matter what it is. And it was that sort of feeling of a quest or a search about their music, a haunting thing it’s got to it. There wont be much more like this.”

Reheater: Keith Richards and The Wingless Angels of Jamaica