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International Background Sound

by Andy Davis / 17.03.2010

The noise from the bar is getting louder, as more people turn their back on the show and trickle away from the stage. Finley Quaye and his band have been belting out their slow groove dub reggae standards for over an hour now, and what started out as entirely mesmerising has now settled into a marathon of reggae same-sameness. Finley has a lot of songs, not all of them as excellent as the classics like “Sun is Shining”, “Your Love gets Sweeter”, “Maverick A Strike”, “Chad Valley”, “Even After All” and “Feeling Blue” among many others. And if you don’t know all the songs, and are not swaying in front of the speaker stack mouthing the lyrics, after an hour, you’d be at the bar, drinking tequila and talking story over the international background sound.

My friend Natalia is livid. “He needs to go to rehab!” She shouts. “The guy’s so fucked he can hardly sing.” I overhear many versions of the same line later. But I think they had it twisted. Even though, earlier in the night Mr Quaye was sitting behind the DJ booth, chain rolling and smoking joints, I don’t think he was too wasted to perform. And no, I don’t think that’s particularly unprofessional. I just think he’s self-conscious and has some issues with his celebrity. This evidenced by the fact that he plays the whole set in sunglasses. His stage presence is totally introverted. He never addresses the crowd directly. All his body language is turned inwards. He’s got this weird, almost autistic way of performing that involves swirling the mic around like he’s stirring a huge pot of sadza, in between singing into it. But I’m a big fan. So I’ll forgive him his eccentricities. I’m intrigued, where others may well have been put out. His voice is peerless though. And, trashed or not, it cuts through the sound, clear and right. If you close your eyes, you’re in Finley-land. Just like most of his albums, which are masterfully produced studio joints. And maybe that doesn’t translate into a stage show. Because in the flesh, he’s not the world’s most exciting performer. And many, like my friend, are disconnecting. They want to jump up and down and shake their bell-ends to an international act on a Friday night. And have paid R200 to do so. They have high expectations. Unrealistic, really, if you know that most of Finley Quaye’s music registers at around 80 BPM. But they want Finley to take them on that ride. They want him to work a bit harder. And he’s lost in his own world. Stirring the pot. Singing his songs, his way.

Stirring the pot

To enjoy this set you really need to be a fan, versed in Finley’s music. Then you should be stoned immaculate… so much so that you’re almost freaking out. Wheel yourself out in front of the speaker stack where the bass washes over you but you can still hear the mid and the treble. Close your eyes. Bathe in it. Open them every now and then to remind yourself where you are. Really there’s not much to look at on the stage apart from Finley and a couple of fat black dudes on bass and brass, a really tight, bald drummer, and a white guy who looks like Richard from Top Gear on guitar. But it’s not about what they look like. It’s all about that sound. And theirs’ is dipped in the UK’s Bass Culture. Something we don’t often get to experience in South Africa. That eclectic coming together of the Jamaican sound system pumped up on big speakers in the tenements of the UK, and getting mashed up with the other diverse influences on the old grey island. Then there’s Finley’s lyrics, again the majority of them internal, unexplained, as if he’s conversing with himself and his friends, and you’re just overhearing it. Like this line from “Ride On Turn the People On”:

My bassman is a ghost / And my ghost is a news carrier / News carrier back me up man

My Bassman is a Ghost

I mean who knows what he’s talking about. But it’s infectious as fuck. Maybe we’re destined to enjoy his stuff only as voyeurs. To get Finley Quaye’s music, you need to know dub. It’s that mix of bass and percussion spread out over space and then pulled tight and rained on with lyrics. Dub is the free jazz of reggae. And Finley Quaye is a master.

I’ve been digging on Finley Quaye since the summer of 98 when I was introduced to the album Maverick A Strike on a goofed out road trip. It was perfect. That album went Gold after three weeks of being released in the UK. That album blew my mind. Wildly original, easy and fresh. With Maverick A Strike he caught the world by the balls. He should have followed it up with a prolific streak, but instead he rocked out, descended into a funk and ended up in rehab. He let go of the world’s balls, and we had to wait until the year 2000 for another grab. It came out of the blue and ice cold with Vanguard. A shock. A surprise. A gem. Less accessible. Not an easily digestible slice of reggae pop riding on the moment like Maverick. It challenged his fans, pushed us in new directions. Brilliant. Like The Empire Strikes Back, of dub albums. I still listen to it and chin stroke over some of the lyrics and musical arrangements, like the Nyabingi inspired “Hey Now”. Quaye can certainly write a song. Like some kind a modern hybrid, to quote Hunter Thompson: “too weird to live and too rare to die”. Half Ghanaian, half Scottish. According to Wiki his mom died of an overdose when he was 10, His dad was a Jazz musician called Cab Kaye who he never really knew, his brother is a jazz musician too, he’s related to Tricky, either as a cousin or an uncle, details are fuzzy, the page needs citations. Mix up some fame and a bit of substance abuse and you’ve got all the required ingredients for a “troubled personal history”.

Twirls or cable

No surprise then, we had to wait until 2004 for the release of his third full length album, Much More Than Much Love. Again, I forgot about him. But this time there was no immediate redemption. The album, while carrying great songs like “Falling”, “This is how I feel” and “Overriding Volunteer” dipped into some awful pop rock cheese on tracks like “Dice” and “Beautiful Nature”. In it’s entirety, it’s my least favourite Quaye album. Then in 2008 he released a new reggae EP called Pound for Pound, and the bits I’ve heard have been excellent. And there’s talk of a whole bunch more creative output on the horizon, if you believe what is said on his website. But in Finley-land, talk is cheap, and the wait is long.

Initially I thought the man was talented but lazy. Self-involved and indulgent. Is he an antisocial musical genius, or a hard living musical rambler? It’s hard to say since my initial request for a phone interview was denied. The questions I sent for the promised email interview remain unanswered, unreplied, relegated to junk in someone’s inbox. On the night of the gig I arrived early with vague hopes. Having just missed the smoke up session behind the DJ booth, I asked one of the organisers if I could get an interview either before or after the show. Just a quick ten minutes. She came back with the line. “Nah, Fin’s just not into it.”

But when he got up on stage and meticulously shook each of his band member’s hands before the start, something shifted for me. He takes it serious, as if he’s summoning his talent, channeling the spirit, like a griot, a musical shaman, he stands with his legs apart, rooted, leans over the mic and starts stirring that pot. It’s something else. He doesn’t seem to want anything to do with the limelight, but there he is on stage summoning the sound, and smiling sideways from under his glasses. Alas it wasn’t enough for many of the 800 people assembled. The set in Cape Town was two hours long, and the one in Jozi was apparently three. The energy strong at the start, dissipated towards the end. People looking for the upbeat, focussed stage show of a Killers set, were disappointed. As Fletcher said later: “It was mellow and delicious. But I don’t think Cape Town got what they were expecting.”


If Cape Town was disappointed. Joburg was denied. The next day in the big mining town, there was a scramble for Finley Quaye tickets. The venue Jump Media had booked for the event was hopelessly undersized. And Jump weren’t answering their phones, so we couldn’t get a ticket for our journalist. Grant the Tanz Cafe owner answered his phone and said it was impossible. “Place is full-up, bru. There’s a queue outside already.”
It was 6pm.

You have to question the thinking behind playing Finley Quaye at a venue that can only take 300 people in the financial capital of the African continent. That was a classic bit of Cape Town organisation right there.
Was the venue too small? I ask Hagar Graiser from Jump Media.
“I guess so, but we have a relationship with Tanz Cafe. Grant is a believer in local music, and so we work together.”
I ask my friend Dan, another Finley Quaye fan who bought his ticket early, how it was.
“One of the best concert I’ve been to.” He said. “Intimate, tight, fun.”


Lindiwe Suttle about to do the Time Warp

Crowd Mash

Farryl Purkiss

Red Rolled and Seen

Stage Presence


All images © Andy Davis

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