An interview with Sly Dunbar (Sly & Robbie)

We caught up with Sly Dunbar to talk about his prolific career so far and his plans for the future.
Sly Dunbar from Jamaica plays in Red Bull Studios on the 25 january 2013
Sly Dunbar concentrates © Ishaka Abu Shango
By Simon Schreyer

Drummer Sly Dunbar (*1952) and his bass playing partner in crime, Robbie Shakespeare (*1953), are Sly and Robbie, one of the greatest rhythm sections in the world.

Grounded in Reggae music from the misty beginnings of the genre, the duo has infused almost all important Jamaican artists and bands since 1972 with their irresistible grooves and masterly scenic production.

They also put their rhythmic stamp on approximately 200,000 (!) recordings by and remixes for international artists such as Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Grace Jones, Gilberto Gil, Talking Heads, Michael Franti, Sting, Tricky, Ben Harper, Sinéad O'Connor, and many, many others.

We had a chat with the always busy Sly on what’s new in his present life, in Jamaica and about his prolific musical past.

Sly Dunbar from Jamaica plays in Red Bull Studios on the 25 january 2013
Music moment © Ishaka Abu Shango

Sly, can you tell us about your impression of today’s Jamaican musical scene?
There are a lot of new artists and young Reggae bands coming up in Jamaica right now, there’s a lot of energy among them. I love Dancehall music too but I don’t go to the clubs much – I have friends though who keep me updated on what’s new and good.

Why do you think, the Jamaicans are so curious and quick to pick up on what’s hip in the world and give it their own organic unique twist?
Jamaica is an island, so the people have to tune in on the TV to see what’s happening in the world, they pick up things from MTV and make it their own. When I was a kid, we only had two radio stations in Jamaica, so I listened to a lot of Motown Soul, European music and Rock’n Roll.

In the late Seventies you were friends with Keith Richards of the Stones. In his recent autobiography LIFE he writes about a recording session with you and Robbie. Can you recall these sessions?
Yes, Keith was living in Jamaica at the time, I remember the session because it spawned Shine Eye Gal, which became a hit with the band Black Uhuru and another instrumental track called Dirty Harry which was released on one of our records (Sly Wicked and Slick, 1979). This session took place at Channel One in Kingston.

Sly Dunbar from Jamaica plays in Red Bull Studios on the 25 january 2013
Into the flow © Ishaka Abu Shango

What are your memories of Serge Gainsbourg, who came to the Caribbean in 1978 to record two albums (Aux armes etc and Mauvaises Nouvelles des Etoiles)?
I personally think that the first album, recorded at Dynamic Sounds Studios in Jamaica, was a great record. The other one was recorded in Nassau, Bahamas, also with Robbie and me and the I-Threes, Bob Marley’s background singers. One song (Aux Armes Etcetera) was a reggae version of the French national anthem.

What was it like to work with Bob Dylan?
We were recording in Nassau in 1983 when we got a phone call: Bob Dylan wants to work with us. At first we couldn’t believe it! Especially Robbie is a massive fan of Bob’s, so we flew up to New York to lay down tracks for songs that would end up on the record Infidels.

Sly Dunbar from Jamaica plays in Red Bull Studios on the 25 january 2013
Class © Ishaka Abu Shango

Were you satisfied with Grace Jones’ album Hurricane (2008)? It is a good album! We have known Grace since 1980 when we played on one of her albums (Warm Leatherette). She is fun and very cool.

What’s happening in the life of Sly Dunbar at the moment?
We are working on an album of young reggae singer Danielle entitled D.I. the album is almost finished and the E.P. is already out.

Bob Marley once said, Reggae music takes its groove from the body movements of the working farmer – plowing the earth and chopping the bushes. Would you agree?
Reggae is a physical music that can drive you crazy with enjoyment – it is definitely a music to dance to and it is full of energy.

If you have one piece of advice for Robbie Shakespeare, what would it be?
Keep on pumping that bass, man! 


Sly Dunbar from Jamaica plays in Red Bull Studios on the 25 january 2013
Robbie and Sly © Ishaka Abu Shango
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