Music Is His Ting
Tuff Gong’s first-ever white artist, Alborosie embodies reggae’s past and future
by Anu Yagi
“Mi music curse me. Mi music curse me a lot,” says reggae artist Alborosie. “Not in terms of money,” he continues, and indeed, he has been successful, “but [when] it comes to every day life.”
“Every year is a hurricane,” he says, implying both literal and figurative meaning. “Up ‘til ten days ago, I was in between a crossfire, gunshots and war—a state of emergency.“ His patois tonality is thick, but faintly tinged with an accent recalling his Italian nativity (he kindly makes an effort to “sound proper English,” when speaking with the press). “Every day I am keeping mi eyes open, because [you] have to be careful when you move… Living in Jamaica is not easy, as you know. Maybe I won’t say Jamaica. Maybe, Town—Kingston.”
For the better part of a decade, Alborosie has called Kingston home. Reared in a small seaport city on the island of Sicily, he made the move to the famous West Indies isle to immerse himself in reggae’s birthplace.
But on this island nation within the Greater Antilles—concentrated in “Town,” its largest and capitol parish—is escalating violence that by May of this year numbered an average of five murders a day, according to reports in The Jamaica Gleaner.
“I want people to understand what I am doing is not an easy ting,” says Alborosie. “It’s not just music [where] mamma’s boy go in a room with some friends and play some music nice an’ den go back home, you know.”
For Alborosie, Jamaica is nothing but home. “[It’s] one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Beautiful people. You know I love it… The only ting, now, you need to be careful,” he says. “I love to swim. Sometimes you swim in a pool full of sharks. So we have to know how to swim and where to swim.” But at the end of the day, every challenge is both by and for his music.
“Music is mi life. Music is definitely mi ting,” Alborosie says, before pausing. “Actually, I would say to you, a long time ago, music was mi life. I change little bit of miself. Because music is a good ting, but after a time, it’s a bad ting. I’m a troublemaker. So, I always gotta say tings about tings ‘appening around mi—and I like to talk da truth.” He says he doesn’t have a set songwriting process, but “I love to watch news. I love to watch politics. The world is moving and I’m inspired by that movement, you know? That’s basically the way I work.”
“So you love [music] and hate it. It’s like a beautiful woman, you love her, but sometimes…” he laughs, and when he says “beautiful woman,” his Italian roots are genially evident.
Beyond the ways his adopted, war-torn world have changed his once purer affections of music, he’s changed himself entirely, too.
“Imagine me as an Italian, as a youth, going to a country where dey talk different, eat different, do in a different way,” Alborosie explains. Born Alberto, he considers his new moniker representative of his “second life.”
“I had to change miself 100 percent,” he says.
When asked if he’s infused anything of his Italian culture, he says, “Jamaican people love the mafia ting,” and chuckles slightly. “Dat is my culture, dat is where I come from. I grew up in dat environment. Is like you come from de ghetto and you know de badman them, because you grow up in that situation and you know exactly what is what. For you it’s normal… So in Jamaica, maybe I’m a shark too,” he says, his laugh broadening. “In a pool full of sharks, I’m just a different kind of shark. Tiger shark.”
To be sure, Alborosie is unique. He’s the first white artist to receive distribution from Tuff Gong, and beyond the Bob Marley-brand stamp of approval, this multi-instrumentalist has been embraced by reggae legends and industry insiders alike.
His appearance at Saturday’s Maui Roots Festival is part of a 23-show tour of the United States’ western end. But he’s quick to say, “I have to tell you, my teachers, dem did the job for me. [They] open a door for me to just go through. It’s not me building the road, I just traveling the road that somebody do for me. And I feel blessed and I feel honored to do what I am doing.”
As for what he thinks he’ll contribute to that road, he’s even quicker to say, “I don’t think an artist should ever tell you how dem gonna contribute. I just doing my ting. And my and my ting is not a job, it is a mission. I don’t know what I am doing for the cause, but I know I am doing something. It’s not up to me to judge my work.”
“Reggae is just like that. Natural. Straight. Just straight on your face, like that. That’s why people sometimes try to fight reggae, because reggae just come to you and tell you the truth.”
With the changing face of the music industry in the digital age, every genre is under siege. Alborosie says he doesn’t believe in globalization, and thinks that’s what is happening to music right now. “I try to keep myself as vintage as possible,” he says, likening himself to a mechanic in his studio, fixing things and relishing what’s tangible.
“Of course, sometimes we have to do what we have to do to use what dey have an’ what is available. But in the meantime I try to keep myself electric and not digital. It’s like you eat organic food. That is me. I’m doing my best to keep myself electric. And that’s why people maybe feel my music.”