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Exuma was born McFarlane Anthony McKay on Cat Island in the Bahamas sometime in the early '40s (no one seems to know exactly when). Raised on traditional Bahamian folk songs and the popular music known as junkanoo, a West African-based Bahamian version of calypso or samba named after a Boxing Day festival that's the local equivalent of Mardi Gras or Carnival, McKay nevertheless planned a career as an architect and fell into life as a performer almost by accident. Moving to New York in the early '60s to attend architecture school, McKay soon found himself living in the state of near-penury that's the urban college student's life. Noting the popularity of Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence's records in the Greenwich Village folk scene, McKay began playing venues like the Bitter End and Cafe Wha?, bringing traditional Bahamian folk music to the city, first as a solo artist but quickly forming a group called Tony McKay and the Islanders.
Tony McKay and the Islanders were a popular club band, opening for artists like Richie Havens or Peter, Paul and Mary through the mid-'60s. McKay began undergoing a personal transformation by the end of the decade, absorbing political influences from the black power movement and musical influences from acts like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Sly and the Family Stone. McKay translated this political and artistic excitement through the traditions of his homeland and re-emerged by decade's end as Exuma, the Obeah Man. (Exuma, besides being the name of one of the Bahamas' largest islands, was a spirit balanced between the worlds of the living and the dead; Obeah is an Afro-Caribbean tradition of sorcery, like Santeria in Cuba or Vodun in Haiti.)
Signed to Mercury Records in 1969, Exuma quickly released two albums, Exuma the Obeah Man and Exuma II (both 1970). Mixing powerful Afro-Caribbean rhythms with Exuma's shamanistic exhortations and vividly Obeah-inspired lyrics, these albums were conceptually similar to what Nigeria's Fela Kuti was beginning to do around the same time. Like Fela, however, Exuma was largely ignored by American press, radio, and consumers, and Mercury quickly dropped him.
Exuma quickly bounced back and signed to, of all labels, the bubblegum imprint Kama Sutra. The subsidiary of Buddah Records was in the process of transforming itself into a home for soul and early disco artists, but Exuma was an odd choice, and it's possible that they might have seen him primarily as a novelty act along the lines of the Jimmy Castor Bunch, who covered Exuma's "Bam Bam." Certainly his first Kama Sutra album, 1971's Do Wah Nanny, steps back slightly from the Obeah imagery and adding a well-placed horn section to Exuma's primal acoustic guitar playing, resulting in hypnotic, funky grooves like the title track. 1972's Snake is equally musically compelling, with Exuma's social commentary becoming even sharper. Together, they're probably Exuma's two finest albums, and certainly the best starting point for the Exuma novice.
Unfortunately, Kama Sutra seemed to be frustrated by Exuma's sales figures, and his next album, Reincarnation (also 1972), has the unfortunate feel of front office "suggestions." The Bahamian feel of the arrangements and production is significantly reduced, and while Exuma had always shown an affinity for pop music, the cover of Paul McCartney's "Monkberry Moon Delight" does neither the singer nor the song any favors. Exuma moved to Kama Sutra's parent label, Buddah, for 1973's Life, but a continued commercialization effort, this time trying to move his ratchety Afro-Caribbean rhythms into the smoother and glossier world of American R&B, saps the improved set of songs of their energy.
Exuma did not record for the rest of the '70s, and indeed, music remained a sideline for the rest of his life. Exuma had long been a painter--most of his album covers feature his paintings--and an increased interest in "primitive" artists by the art establishment allowed him to devote more time to his artwork. However, he never stopped performing music, especially in his native Bahamas, where he was a major star. Exuma self-released a trio of albums, Penny Sausage, Going to Cat Island and Street Life (later reissued by ROIR as Rude Boy), in the 1980s. These albums do a much better job of adapting rock and country songs into Exuma's idiosyncratic style, though they largely lack the crazed grandeur of his first six albums, all of which were reissued on CD in the early '90s. Exuma died in Nassau, Bahamas, on January 25, 1997. [Special thanks to Brian Phillips, whose article -- available at http://www.furious.com/perfect/exuma.html -- provided valuable source material for this piece.] ~ Stewart Mason
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