Toots Hibbert helped give reggae its name, its sound and its enduring grace

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Jamaican singer-songwriter Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals performs at London’s New Victoria Theatre in 1976.

During “Funky Kingston” — that golden-hot sunbeam of a song that Toots and the Maytals first dropped in 1973 — the word “reggae” becomes a sort of hyper-noun: a person, a place and a thing.

The person is Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, singing in a handsome growl that originates in the heart more than the throat. The place is Kingston, Jamaica, reggae’s capital and spiritual power spot. And the thing is the sound of reggae itself, a durable, dynamic music that both tightens and loosens — and a word that Hibbert claimed to have coined in an earlier song, “Do the Reggay” from 1968.

“The music was in Jamaica playing, but no one knew really what to call it,” Hibbert told a reporter from Vogue just last month. “I took the word from a slang word we have in Jamaica called ‘streggae’— that was just a nickname for people who don’t dress properly.” Back in 1968, Hibbert was already singing from a place deep within himself, and in the decade that followed, the heft of his voice would help elevate a style of music named after the neighborhood outsiders to international eminence.

Hibbert — who died in Kingston on Friday at 77 — grew up in the Jamaican countryside, raised by Seventh-day Adventist preachers, but moved to Kingston as a teenager, where he would eventually channel the supple elegance of the hymns he learned in church into a new Black music that spoke for Jamaica’s underclass. His voice could be a rough and graceful thing, and it helped the Maytals’s songs about struggle and uplift resonate across the country and beyond.

Suhaimi Abdullah

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Hibbert performs in Singapore in 2019.

“Bam Bam,” from 1966, earned the top prize in a major national song contest, Hibbert’s opening lines establishing his moral footing over the band’s spiraling groove: “I want you to know that I am the man who fights for the right, not for the wrong.” On “54-46 (That’s My Number),” from 1968, Hibbert sang in the voice of a crooked police officer: “Get your hands in the air, sir, and you will get no hurt, mister.” On the lyric sheet, that anonymous “sir/mister” is casually being denied his humanity, and the steely dignity in the singer’s voice refuses to let us ignore it.

Hibbert’s voice spread across the planet in 1975 when two Toots and the Maytals albums — 1973’s “Funky Kingston” and 1974’s “In the Dark” — were cut-and-pasted into a new disc, also titled “Funky Kingston,” that featured some of the group’s most potent moments: the uncompromising optimism of “Time Tough,” the hard-earned catharsis of “Pressure Drop,” and, of course, “Funky Kingston,” a song that still feels as hot, bright and alive as sunrise in July. From verse to chorus, Hibbert aptly positions himself as reggae’s planetary emissary: “Music is what I’ve got to give, and I’ve got to find some way to make it . . . Funky Kingston is what I’ve got for you.”

Even if you have never laid eyes on the Jamaican capital, squint your ears and you should be able to see the entire city come alive inside this song. More than a mere ode or anthem, it stands an astonishing example of how music — an intangible fluctuation of air — can stand in for people, places, things: existence in its material forms.

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