Reggae Spotlight: Jimi Watusi interview
360°Sound spoke with Jimi Watusi, vocalist, keyboardist, percussionist, producer and songwriter of the long-running Texas-based reggae and world beat group Watusi. Jimi recently returned to his home in Rockwall, near Dallas, from his annual stay in Costa Rica. Every winter for the past six years he’s gone to the west coast of Costa Rica to play with local musicians for tourists.
The 10-piece Watusi has toured all over the world, including Asia, Africa, and Europe. They have released six full-length albums and have a new recording, Roots of Kulcha, coming soon on Jimi’s label World Beatnik Records. Watusi has won numerous reggae and world music awards, including the 2016, 2014, 2012, 2010 and 2009 Texas Music Awards for Reggae.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: You met Peter Tosh in Dallas in 1976 when you were 18 years old. How did your encounter with the reggae legend inspire you?
Jimi Watusi: I went to [the University of] North Texas and studied music. The first day at school they had a get-acquainted party at the dorm I was staying in. I saw this short Black guy [named Bali], he had these little dreads. At that point, I had one reggae album, Bob Marley’s Natty Dread. And if you have one reggae album, I would suggest that would be it. When I heard that, it changed everything. I went up and said ‘hey.’ He said, ‘Hey mon, I’m from Jamaica.’ He took me to this room, and he pulled out the chalice, which is a pipe, and a Bible, and all these reggae albums. He’s just teaching me and showing me everybody, Peter [Tosh], Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, and on and on. We’re hanging out all the time, and I start writing some reggae tunes.
One day, he said, ‘We’re going to Dallas, it’s my surprise. Just come on.’ It was to go see and meet Peter Tosh. It was Peter’s first solo tour apart from the Wailers. It was at the Agora Ballroom in Dallas, just a great venue. [Bali] got tickets and told his buddies who were in the band. He knew both the keyboardists. We had second row at the show. I actually passed the pipe to Peter on stage. It passed to me, I hit it, and then I passed it to him and he hit it. Just a great show, inspiring, this guy was deep and mystic.
We went backstage. Peter was famous for riding his unicycle, so he’s sitting on his unicycle and rolling a spliff. He was looking around for a light and he waved the joint at me. He came over and said, ‘What’s your name, brother?’ He sat down by me and we started to talk and smoke. I know I was asking stupid 18-year-old questions. He pulled out a Bible and showed me some Scripture. I remember asking him about his lyrics and where he got his inspiration. I may have been a young and stupid white kid from Oklahoma, but he saw something because he spent maybe 30 minutes with me, getting deep into the Bible and teaching me Rasta.
There was a knock at the door. It was Jon Dillon with KZEW radio asking Peter to take some promo shots. I looked up and I’m like ‘Damn, for real?’ Jon Dillon was the top DJ at the top rock station in Dallas all my life that I’d been in Texas, from 8th grade through high school. I knew him way more than I knew Peter Tosh. And then Peter just looked up at him and said, ‘Mon, would you think I got more important business to do. Go on. Me soon come.’ He looks back at me, shakes his head, and continued where he was. I’m an 18-year-old kid, I’m nobody important. But he considered our conversation more important than his fame. I get a chill when I think of that.
He was the most sincere man, real, humble, and not about fame. He put me on a pedestal. We ate with him and went to the hotel. They didn’t want us to smoke in the room, so we went out to this park outside of the hotel. We smoked a bowl and looked out at the stars. My friend said we had to go. Peter gave me a tam, a Jamaican hat. He put it on me, called it a crown, and said, ‘If it’s up to me and Bob [Marley], this music will never do nothing. It’s up to you and the other warriors out there. There’s a guy in Cali, a guy in Florida, a guy in New York, singers all over the world. It’s up to you and them to take this music to the people. You go forward and do this.’ I’m looking at him like, ‘What do you say?’ ‘Yes sir, I will.’ I never looked back from that moment.
Tell us a little about your group Watusi, which you formed back in 1983.
As far as anybody knows, I had the first reggae band in Texas, and it was called Bali. When I left from meeting Peter Tosh that night, we went back to Denton, Texas and we put together a band and Bali was to be the singer. And then The Lotions started in Austin, and they were the only reggae band in Texas that I could go hear. They were great. I got through school and I went to Jamaica for about nine months soaking it all up. I came back to New Orleans, I didn’t want to go back to Dallas, and I played in the first reggae group in New Orleans called Kush. I was the white boy in that band. I came back to Dallas a year later and started Watusi.
Back then The Police were on top. David Byrne, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, that kind of African pop. We called it ‘urban jungle rock.’ We’d do a mix of that stuff, reggae, ska, soca, African stuff, we really mixed it up. We were still rockin’ a lot of the time. As we went through personnel changes, we got much more roots reggae as it went. We always had a sax player, but we started adding in horns and got to be a 10-piece band. The way we got the name [Watusi], we had a 7-foot tall percussionist from Rwanda and that was his tribe. If you Google [Watusi], there’s two things that come up before us, and that’s the cow and the dance.
We didn’t want to just be a simple, typical same old reggae band. We liked a lot of different stuff. I always wanted to do the African thing, mix it in, because that’s the real roots of reggae anyway. I wanted to take it as deep as you could. When Steel Pulse came out, it was hands-down my favorite reggae band in the world on first listen. Here was somebody taking the music a step beyond Bob [Marley]. Everything always went back to Bob. ‘Is it as good as Bob?’ Musically, harmonically, rhythmically, and studio quality, [Steel Pulse] took the music forward a leap. They are my favorite reggae band to this day. We got to play with them about five times.
A guy from Austin coined the phrase ‘world beat.’ His name was Dan Del Santo. He was the first reggae DJ on KUT. This was late 70s, early 80s. He had a world beat group, probably 12 players, they would do a mix of reggae and Afrobeat and Latin and jazz. His band was called Dan Del Santo and His Professors of Pleasure. They really inspired me. We started using the term ‘world beat.’ Peter Gabriel really blew it up worldwide with Real World Records. When they ask me for a genre to put our music in, I’ll put ‘world beat/reggae.’
I would call myself a ‘Christafarian with a Zen attitude and a Baháʼí outlook with Dallas tendencies.’ Live a life of love and peace and health, loving people, compassion for people. Love your brother, it’s that simple.