‘How my drumming dream came true’: Reggae legend Jah Bunny on keeping the Skatalite’s legacy alive
- Credit: Jah Bunny
Drumming legend Jah Bunny tells Emma Bartholomew how meeting his idol as a teenager in Jamaica has stuck with him for the whole of his life. Now aged 69 his story is included in an upcoming Hackney Museum exhibition about how Black musicians have influenced the borough’s cultural scene
The first drum kit Jah Bunny ever played on belonged to Lloyd Knibbs from the Skatalites, at Coxsone Dodd’s infamous Studio One in Jamaica.
Aged 12, Bunny had been invited along to meet his ska hero before he moved to England, thanks to his teenage friend Keith Sterling whose brother Lester was in the band.
Incredibly as they arrived at the studio in Brentford Road, Bunny remembers seeing the original Wailers with Bob Marley singing Simmer Down in the yard.
At the time the Skatalites were Jamaica’s top session band.
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Bunny credits Knibbs with creating ska’s “one drop” up-tempo beat, with a simultaneous rim shot on the snare drum and foot drum on both the second and fourth beats.
“I went beside Lloyd and told him I like his drum style and I want to play the ska and be a drummer,” said Bunny, now 69 who lives in Lower Clapton, and whose story is featured in an upcoming exhibition at Hackney Museum for Black History Month in October.
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“He said: “Watch me young boy. Watch me very carefully”. I really watched him and learned how to play the ska. How to control the beat. He’s so steady I tell you. He’s so steady he never falls down.”
When Knibbs popped outside for a break with the rest of the band, Bunny couldn’t keep his hands off his drums, while Keith decided to have a go on Jackie Mittoo’s keyboard.
“Wow I was tempted to play,” laughed Bunny, whose real name is Lloyd Donaldson.
“When I had a break – bang. I couldn’t resist. “Let me get a whack of this snare drum”. The band were shocked, and they all came running back into the studio. They loved it. They laughed. “It’s the young boys”, they said, and they went back outside to have their dinner.”
Despite having never played the drums in his life before, Bunny was actually really good, having been listening intently to ska on the radio since he heard the Skatalite’s debut track, and practising with knives and forks on his kitchen table.
In 1965 aged 15 Bunny moved to England with a vision to become the best drummer in the country and play in his own bands.
He worked as a mechanic and sprayed cars, but two years later his dad bought him a drum kit from a music shop in Mare Street for £99 and he began to make friends in the music business. He soon helped found The Undivided with the late Gene Rondo as the original singer – fulfilling the first part of his wish.
They played backing tracks for reggae stars like Delroy Wilson and the Heptones in the 70s, and toured England with the likes of reggae legends U Roy and Toots and the Maytals.
In 1977 he “achieved his dream” when he was voted best reggae drummer in the UK in a newspaper called the Black Echoes.
“No one can feel the reggae drop like me,” Bunny told the Gazette. “All the bands usually want to play with me because I play the steady reggae and I’m the heaviest one drop drummer in England.
“That beat keeps the drum and the bass rocking, and people can groove from it. It’s very technical. Whether it’s a rock steady beat or a reggae beat, it’s keeps the tempo steady.”
With all the sessions he took part in Bunny became well known and worked for various local labels and producers like Count Shelley, Karen Wheeler from Soul II Soul, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Forces of Victory and Trojan records producer Lloyd Charmers. He also played on the number one hit song Here I Come with Barrington Levy, recorded at Bethnal Green’s Easy Street Studio in 1987.
When The Undivided band broke up Matumbi heard about it, and he joined them.
Now a grandfather of two, he still plays with his band the Jah Bunny All Stars now has a lot of gigs - including one at the Hackney Empire on October 2.
He will also perform at the Windrush celebrations at the Town Hall on October 3.
“It gives me energy and keeps me on my toes,” he said.
“When you get a special gift you try and enjoy life.”
He met up with Lloyd Knibbs when the Skatalites were touring in the UK in the 90s, but Knibbs died in 2011.
“There is a legacy with me,” said Bunny. “Every day he’s in my mind, spirit, energy and attitude approaching the drum.”
The exhibition at the museum in Reading Lane - Roots, Rhythms & Records: The Sounds and Stories of African & Caribbean Music in Hackney – launches on October 4.