Bongo Herman - The percussion maestro
You know you are in for a special treat when venerable percussionist Bongo Herman takes his Nyabinghi repeater drum and starts singing Bob Marley’s Rastaman Chant. At 75 years old, the esteemed musician has not lost a beat as his hands skilfully caress the instrument, paying keen attention to timing, which he notes is a critical component of being an excellent percussionist.
When he is not touring or on stage, Herman is based at the Bob Marley Museum on Hope Road in Kingston, where he entertains visitors on a daily basis. The Sunday Gleaner caught up with the drummer, who shared stories about his life and even gave tutorials on playing some of his many percussion instruments.
“You have to know when to play and when not to play,” Herman said as he picked up a tambourine and demonstrated his craft. “You have to keep going and going. It’s just you and the drummer, and you have to know when to mix it up,” he said as he shook the instrument with fervour.
Herman’s relationship with the Marleys traces back to young Bob as the two were friends prior to the reggae star’s international fame. Also from Trench Town, Herman (born Herman Davis) said that music was inborn and thus decided to pursue his dream in the 1960s, working with producer Derrick Harriott.
“Trench Town is where reggae music start – from the drums ’cause that’s the first sounding instrument next to man,” he said. “Back in those days, we had to sit in a Nyabinghi house and play. Nyabinghi is the heartbeat of the people, which, if you listen Bob Marley songs, him will tell you that, too. My first set of recordings were done by Derrick Harriott on a label called The Crystalites. It was the three of us. Bingy Bunny, Bongo Les, and myself. We started a group and started going by Carib Theatre, Regal Theatre, and State Theatre to perform during Christmas.”
He soon found himself playing on tracks for artistes like Jimmy Cliff, Mikey Dread, The Congos and, of course, Bob Marley.
In fact, it is the drumming of Herman that you hear on singles like Jackie Mitto’s Drum Song, Richie Spice’s Earth a Run Red, Gyptian’s Serious Times, and Fantan Mojah’s Hail the King.
“I’m the man that did all the drums on that Hail the King rhythm, that timing, that feel ... that feel is a very special feel. You have to really go in yourself and feel it,” he said.
Musicians still needed in digital age
He plays other percussion instruments (what he calls seasoning) like the cabasa, a shaker heard on Gregory Isaacs’ Night Nurse; the vibraslap, a chattering sound instrument that can be heard on Barrington Levy’s Shine Eye Girl; and others like the percussion frog, the chime, and the wah wah, which mimics soothing, soft bells.
Herman carries a duffel bag filled with these instruments, most of which exist today in digital form. But Herman is not perturbed by this reality, as he said musicians will always be in demand.
“Those days we used to create, it’s not like now where you have drum machine and that’s why Bob Marley songs last so long cause him never leave percussions out,” he said. “That’s why Stephen, Julian, Jr Gong and Ziggy get Grammys. People will seh it’s true is Bob Marley children but is not that, they well-arrange their songs. Before dem enter the studio dem rehearse like dem doing a stage show so dem have background vocalists and percussions. There is still a need for percussionists and live musicians. You can’t cook without seasoning cause that nah go taste good. I still get work in the studio and all over the world. The only place I don’t go yet is on the moon.”
Reflecting on some of his career milestones, Herman highlighted playing for Emperor Haile Selassie on his visit to Jamaica in 1966 and giving Prince Charles a one-on-one Nyabinghi drum tutorial when he was in the island in 2008. He has also appeared in the 1978 movie Rockers and The Harder They Come (1972). He earned an Honour Award at the Reggae Gold Ceremony in February for his contribution to reggae music.
As for his legacy, Herman wants to be remembered as a true entertainer like his inspiration, Louise Bennett-Coverley (‘Miss Lou’).
“When I go on stage, I go there to entertain people, not to curse people, I learnt that from Miss Lou,” he said. “Drums is something that connects you to the spirit. These drums are so powerful, and that is why when you have drums in reggae music, they last so long. You’ll see me playing a chimmey, too. Some people will laugh, but I’m an entertainer. From I born, that is all I know myself as.”