A Conversation With ... Shane ‘Shakey J’ Forrest

The 2nd Ocho Rios Jazz Festival, 1992 in Jamaica, was the setting for eight days of travel, music and socializing down side roads through the heart of Jamaican culture. The view from Toronto, for many travelers, centers on the music of Bob Marley, a tightly rolled “spliff” and get-away beaches.

Jamaica is one foaming herb garden - not only of the mind-altering plant kind, but an island teaming with bananas, allspice, sugar, coconuts, coffee, limes, corn, ginger, sweet potatoes, sensimilla yams, annatto etc. The island's population can be traced back 2,500 years and the earliest Taino/Arawak settlements - then called the island of Xaymaca; “land of wood and water.” Somewhere around 1494, everybody’s favourite explorer and serial killer, Christopher Columbus lands on the shores of St. Ann’s Parish at Discovery Bay, and all hell busts loose.

As the airplane circles for landing, I consider what lies ahead. Early roots music - the little big bands – those jazz bands of six or seven musicians that played as if they were fourteen pieces, that set-in motion a coming music revolution. It was our host, trumpeter Sonny Bradshaw - “Dean of Jamaican Music” – broadcaster, promoter, band-leader and long-term president of the Jamaican Federation of Musicians, and wife, Mayra, who sent the invite. Bradshaw had once led the hottest jazz band on the island with musicians Joe Harriott, Dizzy Reece, Ernest Ranglin, Monty Alexander, up front. These players would eventually branch off and give rise to new genres of rhythm-based music; from reggae to ska.

With few dollars and even fewer headline performers, we were facing at least five days’ void of performances. Then it occurred to me to contact tourism and ask them to refurbish down-time gaps with cultural travel and experiences.

Islands for the most part feel like small suffocating plots of sand, dunes, palm trees, brush and relentless heat. We pay varying rates to cook skin, sip Pina coladas, swim and read. A week of leisure, void of cultural investigation, rattles my brain and causes me to look homeward.

My first trip island-ward was to the Aruba Jazz Festival in 1989. Author James A. Michener’s newly minted Caribbean - my flight read. Right book at the right time. Michener’s Carribean aroused my curiosity. Island travel would never be the same. It’s the history, the landscape, the people, the struggles, the victories, that far outweigh the lure of incinerating under a blistering tropical sun.

It’s way too hot near the beach, so I bargain for a trip up Dry Harbour Mountains where I’m told the temperature drops to a friendly 23 degrees centigrade. Much like Cuba; Jamaica is a vast country smothered in lush vegetation, towering palm trees, abundant valleys, numerous varieties of flowering plants, and absorbed by folklore. And not about to openly whisper its innermost secrets.

There’s bamboo rafting down the Martha Brae river, a cooling down beneath the rapids of Dunn Rivers Falls – mythical stories of the White Witch of Rose Hall – the carousing spirit of Annie Palmer – the ghost who inhabits the grounds of Rose Hall Plantation – there to entertain tourists. Even Johnny Cash recorded, “The Ballad of Annie Palmer.”  

There’s voodoo, murder, and intrigue. Classic reads like Wild Sargaso Sea – the story of Antoinette Cosway, a creole heiress who succumbs to madness. This, a back-drop to Shane ‘Shaky J’ Forrest’s youth, heritage, and early music education.

Every Wednesday evening spent up the street just off St. Clair Avenue with supremely gifted studio engineer/guitarist/bass player, Shane Forrest at Side Door Records, comes with Shane’s reflections of youth – growing up in Kingston, Jamaica – family, friends, expectations, tradition, neighborhoods, the sumptuous landscape, and roots music.

Shane has two solo albums under his own belt, an album with guitar icon, Ernest Ranglin at Side Door Records, 25 singles and two albums with the Rhythm Express band as guitarist and sound engineer, a B.A. in Psychology from Western University and eight-year stint so far, with popular ska band, the Arsenals. There’s far too many other recording sessions to recall.

Here’s that conversation.

Bill King: Born in Kingston, Jamaica?

Shane Forrest: Yes, born and educated in Kingston as well. I arrived in Toronto when I was about twenty-one. You know what they say. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence? I was looking for other opportunities. After I got settled here I decided to stay. I love Canada, the Canadian way of life – not so much the winter, but you’ve got to adjust.

I came here with two suitcases, a guitar and about five hundred dollars and no clue what I would do. I first went to Western University. I had a music career in Jamaica before I left and things got rough economically. I took the money I saved and decided to try the school route. It had its challenges, especially coming from already working and already having an idea of who I wanted to be. I paid my way through Western playing in blues bars and a lot of biker bars on the outskirts of London, Ontario. When I finished, I moved back to Toronto. I first got back into the rock scene then back to my roots in the reggae scene.

B.K: Where did the interest in electronics and technology and studio engineering come from?

S.F: That came from being frustrated going to university. I didn’t really find anything that suited me. I majored in psychology. I realized when studying that I was no one’s psychologist and I’d better find something else to do. Friends would come up to me and say, “Shane, you are always the guy wiring up the P.A. at the gigs. You are always the guy fixing the amps. Why don’t you try your hand at engineering?” It never occurred to me. At first it was, “I don’t know about that?” Then I thought about it and decided to try it.

After I finished Western I went to Ohio in the states to a recording workshop in Chillicothe, a very intense workshop. I found the program through research, just pounding sites through the Internet looking for those recording schools with a good rep. This was one of three I centered on. There was one in Florida, the one at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and the one in Ohio. I chose it because it was a shorter course and more intense – about 65 hours a week for two months. You basically live in a trailer outside of about a half a dozen studios. Your day started at about 6 a.m. and ended at about 11p.m.

The mornings were scholastics – the techniques and theories behind engineering and recording, then afternoons and evenings were doing sessions. It was hands on and very practical education.

B.K: Ska music plays an important role in your music background?

S.K: One of the features in old ska music is – typically jazz and popular music, when you have your improv section, you solo over the chord changes. In Jamaica, anytime it came to an improve section it’s “everybody hold the one chord – don’t change!” You played over that one chord. At first, it can be daunting. It’s like where do you go with this? But you realize, when you get used to the feel and the groove, it’s about the phrasing and pace. It gives you an open palette for improv. You just have that root chord and you dictate where that phrasing and tonality goes.

B.K: You point to Jamaican icon – keyboardist Jackie Mittoo as your prime influence.

S.F: As far as I’m concerned Jackie Mittoo is the greatest Jamaican instrumentalist. Not just what he contributed to the organ styles and rhythm playing that literally shaped reggae music and the sound and the place of organ in the genre, but his instrumentals have so much weight and content.

As a guitar player, when I play with my regular band The Arsenals, and play guitar instrumentals, I’m really playing Jackie Mittoo and taking all of the melodies I remember him playing on the organ and recycling on guitar. People come up to me and ask how I did something and I tell them it’s all Jackie Mittoo stuff. It sounds a bit different because I’m doing it on guitar.

B.K: His profile rose when the Clash recorded a song he co-wrote “Armagideon Time.”

S.F: Unfortunately, there are a lot of Jamaican musicians who never got credit or their due, never got that recognition for what they contributed to shaping our sound. It’s good that came to him but he was due so much more.

B.K: It’s so sad he passed away from cancer in 1990, but they held a funeral in his honor at the National Arena in Kingston – a great tribute.

One of the big moments for you was playing bass and engineering and instrumental album with one of your heroes – guitarist Ernest Ranglin.

S.F: It’s something I’ll be talking about for a long time.

B.K: It was wonderful coming by Everton Paul’s house mornings and afternoons before the recording sessions would begin. Ranglin had a pencil in hand and manuscript paper all over the table top and scribbling horn lines.

S.F: He never stops writing music. I would come early for the sessions before everyone else came in and he’s penning stuff for a chart. There’s no headphones, no mp3 player, no guitar or other instrument – just him at peace with pen and paper. He would look about and say, “this is what we are recording today.” He hadn’t heard it yet – it was all in his head.

We’d go downstairs with these charts and hear these melodies and it all just jells. He’s not just hearing melody lines in his head; he’s hearing all of the parts – the harmonies and where everything is moving.

B.K: And he’s now 84 years old.

S.F: You wouldn’t know that at all. He’s such a legend. He arranged the hit for Millie Small’s, “My Boy Lollipop” in 1961. He basically brought ska to where it is today and is the “Godfather of Ska.”

When I was growing up in Jamaica, I used to call him. I was about thirteen or fourteen and he lived on the other side of the island and I knew he gave guitar lessons. This is a classic story. I have my uncle’s Stratocaster and don’t know what to do. My mom says, “you know Ernest Ranglin, that famous guitar player teaches. You should see if he’d take you on.” I tried calling him to see if I could get lessons but it never worked out. He lived to far away and toured a lot. I’m a young teenager and certainly not driving around the island. Fast forward about twenty years later and he’s in my studio. I’m co-producing his record, coming up with bass lines on his stuff and I have the same guitar in my hands that I asked him to teach me as a fourteen-year old and laying down rhythm guitar tracks on his record. It came full circle for me.

B.K: I recently watched Jimmy Cliff’s the Harder They Come and was thinking – there’s Shane running through the neighborhoods on his bike delivering singles. In reality, that was before your time.

S.F: My time was cassette tapes on the side of the road. That’s where I got my music. You’d buy some mixed tapes. If you wanted someone to hear your stuff, you put it on a tape and start hanging out and begging people to copy it. I don’t have to do that now!



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