Messenjah are arguably Canada’s most popular and important reggae band. Formed in Kitchener in 1980, they became favourites on the T.O. reggae scene, then expanded their reach nationally (and internationally) after signing to Warner Music Canada (the first homegrown reggae act to sign to a major label). They scored such hit singles as “Rock You High, “Jam Session,” “Cool Operator,” and “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love?,” appeared on the soundtrack of Tom Cruise movie Cocktail, and won the 1989 Juno Award for Best Reggae Recording.
The group disbanded in the late ’90s, but reunited for a Bob Marley tribute concert in Toronto in Feb. 2014. Happily, the reunion has stuck, and a new album is coming soon. Always an entertaining live act, Messenjah will headline TD IRIE Fest on July 11 at Mississauga Celebration Square.
Singer/guitarist/principal songwriter Rupert Ojiji Harvey recently took time out from his busy recording and rehearsal schedule to chat with WORD`s Kerry Doole.
WORD: How are the life and times of Messenjah these days?
RUPERT: Things are going great. We came back last year and did some really nice shows in different parts of the country. We were so well-received, it was if we’d never left!
WORD: I sense there has been a void on the Canadian reggae scene since Messenjah left. Do you feel that?
RUPERT: Yes, I do feel that, since Messenjah left the scene. We had a high level of professionalism which gets respect from the industry people. Even if they don’t like you, they respect you. I think that took us from local band status, doing the small clubs, where promoters don’t give you any respect. Then Messenjah gets signed to Warner and we’re doing concerts all over the place, not just Canada. We play in the U.S., the South Pacific, the Caribbean, and so on.
WORD: Feel that level of respect has returned? Obviously the music business has changed considerably since that time. Major labels aren’t signing reggae bands now.
RUPERT: You’re right, but if anyone has the chance to make that change, it’d be us. We were written up in Rolling Stone magazine last summer, we’ve been on The National with Peter Mansbridge. I think what you could call the void in the 15 years since we’ve been gone, that is probably the first time for such attention. I guess you did have that band Magic! who did a reggae song [Rude] that was a huge hit. That kind of helped to launch things back, so I think our timing could not have been better.
WORD: As a band, are you writing new material? I came across ‘We’ve Had It,’ which is a strong new song. Are there more coming?
RUPERT: Yes. We are in the studio, and that is why I’ve been so busy. In between rehearsing the live show we are finishing off a new project. That is one song off a new album, called We Return. The project is the strongest thing Messenjah has ever done, by far. we are so pumped,. man. With ‘We’ve Had It,’ we wanted to come back with a song that shows what is going on in the world, how people are feeling, with economic frustration, etc, but the album is really multi-faceted. We’re not just talking about burning Babylon. It deals with everything from love to having a party. We didn’t want it to be singularly focused.
WORD: Are you producing it yourselves?
RUPERT: Yes, it is self-produced. I’m not sure if you remember this, but I believe we were the first band to be self-produced while on a major label. Warner Music trusted me to go to California and produce the Session album for them. That was a first for them. “Jam Session” came out of that, one of our biggest hits.
WORD: I believe Warner re-issued two of your albums in the past year?
RUPERT: That’s right. I think that record labels right now are more confused than musicians (laughs). they are trying to rediscover how to market stuff and make money. In a way that is good and bad. The prestige of having a label behind you always helps when it comes to promoters, but sales are way way down. The way bands make money now is by doing concerts and selling merchandise. In every genre. A huge hit used to be worth millions, right? Now a huge hit is having 50,000 downloads. That makes you a mega-star!
WORD: Back in the studio and writing together, are you finding a chemistry within the band still?
RUPERT: Oh migosh. It felt like we never left. It is so awesome. we have very strong friendships within the band. The newest addition is my brother Carl, who was with Toots and the Maytals for the last 30 years. Those guys are the most-toured reggae band in history.
WORD: It sounds like you’re looking ahead these days. Ever stop and get nostalgic about the past, like the early ’80s?
RUPERT: I do. I miss those days. It’d be great to create that scene again. Toronto became a part of the stop on the international reggae tours scene. Unfortunately certain things changed. After we stepped away, there was no other band coming in right away to take that position. That didn’t help. Now we aim to re-energize our fan base. Here’s a surprising thing. Last concerts we did, in Toronto and Vancouver, I couldn’t believe that I saw 20 year old out there singing all the lyrics of my songs. They were totally hip to it. We played the Messenjah classics like “Jam Session” and “Cool operator,” and kids were singing along. It was amazing.
WORD: Do you still have loyal fans in places like California too?
RUPERT: Definitely. We are just waiting to finish the CD and then we’ll do the big tour season next year. this year we are just focusing on the record. We have dates around the Toronto area and in the fall we’ll look at doing some stuff on the west coast. We have maintained our fan base by speaking to key people and sending out things for radio play in California, Colorado and our key markets. I can’t wait to drop the new CD on them so they’ll go ‘wow, these guys haven’t been slacking.’
WORD: Will the new album have a wide stylistic range musically?
RUPERT: Yes. I think Messenjah has its own distinct sound. To be honest I see Messenjah as a rock-reggae band, and on this album you’re definitely going to hear that. There is a song on there called “Let’s Rock,” which is like heavy metal and reggae combined. But there is also a strong roots element for the core supporters.
WORD: I wondered what you think of contemporary reggae. Especially out of Jamaica it seems to often have a negative message.
RUPERT: We are not going that way at all. We are going to uphold the truth and the roots of reggae. If Bob was here, I’d want him to be proud of us. It is about being positive, it’s about love and peace, not about taking about gangsters or putting down women. I’m not into that shit. I’m into uplifting.
WORD: Are you still active on the martial arts front?
RUPERT: Oh yes. I’m like the top guy in the country in my branch of martial arts. Tai Chi Praying Mantis. I represent the Association here.
WORD: Is that a good fit with music, keeping your mind and body focused?
RUPERT: Yes, definitely. I have been focusing not so much on the fighting aspect of martial arts. I’m older and trying to keep in good physical shape, but mentally and spiritually I keep it balanced. I do a lot of breathing work too. We have been blessed. I think we’ve all kept fairly young.
WORD: Are some of the more recent members of Messenjah much younger than you and Carl?
RUPERT: Haile Yates (percussionist), he has the grey beard in the picture. He’s actually younger than me, I just haven’t gone that way yet! I’m still holding it off. He has been with us since 1984, and Charles Sinclair, our bass player, has been with us since 1985. The drummer, Robert Stephenson, joined us in 1989, so it is all old school guys.
WORD: Getting a kick out of working with your brother?
RUPERT: Oh yes. He’s a busy guy also. A really in-demand guitarist, so I’m just lucky when he’s able to show up for rehearsal. I’m hoping Messenjah will be one of his main things. He brings a ton of experience to the band. It doesn’t hurt to mention Toots and the Maytals!
WORD: You put out some solo albums earlier. I gather you’re focusing on Messenjah these days?
RUPERT: Yes, definitely. I feel that strength is in togetherness. It is not about me, it’s about Messenjah. It is a force. Once we are re-established to where we want to be, I’m sure guys will go onto solo projects or whatever. For right now, we are all on the same page. We want to get our music out there and show people we’ve still got it. We can still skank up a storm onstage.
WORD: Do you tend to be the main lyricist?
RUPERT: Yes, I’m the main person there. Those guys put a lot of trust in me, so it’s not like I’m bullying my way in. They always help me with ideas in the studio for arrangements. A thing with Messenjah is it doesn’t matter if I write the songs. We have a fairness policy, so publishing is split down the middle.
WORD: What is the release date for the new CD?
RUPERT: That is up in the air. Thank god we have our own studio. The space our bassist Charles has maintined over the years is incredible. these days you get a young kid in his basement with a friggin’ laptop and a couple of programs punching out an album in a week, but we are playing everything off the floor. Analog drumkit, the works. We want to keep the sound as authentic as possible, and that takes time. We went into it thinking it might just take a couple of months, but no.
WORD: Quality takes time, right?
RUPERT: Yes. I went to see Stevie Wonder in the fall. I was literally in tears! He said he worked five years on Songs In the Key Of Life. These people take pride in their craft and I appreciate that.
WORD: So when we see you at IRIE fest will we get new songs as well as the classic hits?
RUPERT: You’ll get mostly the classics, but with some great arrangements. When you hear us live it is still exciting. We’re not lazy guys. I’m about to dash from the phone to rehearsal. We rehearse all day, every day. You’ll hear things old but fresh, and also you’ll hear a couple of new tracks.
I better let you get back to work then. Thanks for your time.