It may have taken him a while, but Keith Richards has finally released an album with a group of musicians he fell in love with twenty-six years ago. During a break from recording Goats Head Soup with the Rolling Stones in Jamaica in 1972, Richards first heard the mesmerizing chant-and-drum music made by Rastafarian mystics who live in Steertown, a small village in the hills above Ocho Rios. In 1995 he recorded a group of them in the living room of his home overlooking Ocho Rios Bay. The result is Wingless Angels, an album with a hypnotic calm that's as far removed from the Stones' bruising rhythms as can be imagined.
"They're not musicians per se — they're not an 'act,'" Richards says of the Angels, whom he named simply to have something to put on the CD sleeve. "Apart from Justin Hinds, who helped pioneer ska and rock steady, they're fishermen, divers and hustlers — they do anything they can turn their hands to. Their music is older than reggae; there's something ancient about it. It's not even to the bone — it's to the marrow, this music."
Richards tried to record the group in 1972. "We went to a studio in Kingston [Jamaica]," he recalls, laughing. "The drive was hilarious — we had a great time. But the session was awful. You can't record these guys in a conventional way — they're not at home."
They were definitely at home in Richards' pad, where they would routinely turn up for all-night sessions of singing, playing and smoking spliffs. Birdsongs, insect trills, laughter and conversation amiably mingle with the otherworldly vocal harmonies and throbbing drums of Wingless Angels. The music defies easy description. English hymns, brought to Jamaica by evangelical Christians, float over rhythms imported on African slave ships centuries ago. Once the basic tracks were recorded, Richards and other musicians added subtle touches of acoustic guitar, keyboards, fiddle, accordion and penny whistle. Richards was nervous about playing the spiced-up versions for the Angels, but after an intense listening session, drummer Locksley Whitlock delivered their verdict: "You are a magician!"
Relaxing in a Toronto hotel, cigarettes and a vodka-and-orange-soda at hand, Richards delightedly tracks how the Wingless Angels are making their way in the world. "College stations are playing it, and its also in inner cities where there's a West Indian population," he reports. "The Hopi Indians play it every night on their reservation radio station — they've gone nuts for it. First I thought, 'Wow, I was expecting some surprises, but . . .' Then I realized, 'How obvious. These guys chant, play drums and get very high — just like these guys.' Duh.
"This is healing music, and it's a joy to hear," Richards adds. "The beat is just slightly under normal heart rate, and it's so insistent. Without your knowing it, it slows down your metabolism. If anyone feels overly stressed, they should give it a listen — give the brothers a chance."
This is a story from the April 2, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.