If there’s a topic near to the heart of Jamaican popular music it is perhaps ‘home’. Of course, ‘home’ may have different meanings. It could just be the room you’re trying to convince that special someone to return to after the dance – as suggested by young Delroy Wilson’s gorgeous, pleading rocksteady, ‘Won’t You Come Home’ (1967).  Or it might be an expression of desire to re-connect with an old flame, given voice by Pat Kelly’s aching falsetto in the boss reggae tune, ‘I Am Coming Home’ (1969). Maybe it’s the overwhelming pleasure of finally reuniting with your cherished place, family, and set of friends, a sentiment never better voiced than by Toots Hibbert when he takes local ownership of John Denver’s 1971 country-pop hit, ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ (“Almost heaven, West Jamaica”).

But the idea of home can conjure up other feelings which cut to the core of your being. Listen to Count Ossie and The Wareika’s spirited Rasta jazz from around 1962, ‘Going Home to Zion Land’. The hand drums, group singers, and interweaving horns celebrate with all the fervour of a New Orleans second line. The Rastafari brethren are filled with the soaring hope of imminent escape from the violence and displacement meted out to them by forces of the state.

This meaning of ‘home’ bursts out at the dawn of political Independence for Jamaica. For the Rastafari a brutal history of slavery and the continuing repression of poor African-Jamaicans means the so-called Independent black nation is still a place of exile. Home is elsewhere because, as Sang Hugh, another Rasta artist, sings, “Rasta on yah but Rasta no born yah” (we’re here but we’re not from here).

Bob Andy’s ‘I’ve Got to Go Back Home’ (1966) puts the same idea more forcefully as the singer testifies to the nightmare he finds himself in: “this couldn’t be my home/ It must be somewhere else/ or I would kill myself”. Things were tough enough for Jamaicans throughout the 20th century that ‘somewhere else’ beckoned to many thousands of them as they migrated to work in places like Cuba, Panama, U.S.A., Canada and Britain.

Keith Williams aka Honey Boy Williams reached London with his family in the early ’60s. As a youth he worked as a record salesman, and later a TV actor and playwright. As a singer he helped prefigure the explosion of home-grown U.K. lovers rock with his sweet soulful falsetto set to the pop-reggae arrangements of the time.

Like so many migrants facing the bleak reality of Britain he never stopped thinking about his birthplace. Honey Boy’s first single in 1971, ‘Jamaica’, replete with trilling flute and strings, piles up the nostalgic clichés about a romantic Caribbean haven (“Jamaica the place I’d like to be/ Jamaica, a little paradise across the sea”).

His third single release, ‘Homeward Bound’ (1972) is a continuation of that theme but at an altogether different register. As a migrant myself, away from Aotearoa for more than half a lifetime, ‘Homeward Bound’ touches a source of deep yearning that’s more than mere nostalgia.

Over a gently shuffling rhythm guitar and scraper-led Studio One rhythm, tiny xylophone notes evoke childhood memories. Honey Boy begins by singing, “Do you remember places we used to go?”. He answers his own question, “I can remember/ it weren’t so long ago”. He presents images of friends, palm trees, and water flowing, all innocuous enough until he adds the heartfelt aside, “oh, I miss it so”.

Then the chorus hits, with Honey Boy leading himself, multi-tracked in sublime chiming three-part harmony, “homeward bound, that’s my destination/ homeward bound, let’s go that direction”. All the sadness of longing for a better life is wrapped up in that chorus. Even with the second verse picturing church choirs and moonlight parties there’s no assumption that permanent return is now possible: “today’s life is here to stay/ but tomorrow’s life might go astray/ so let’s go and have fun while we can”. ‘Home’ can never be reclaimed even if the journey towards it is the only thing that makes existence tolerable.

The emotion summoned in ‘Homeward Bound’ is akin to what Portuguese-speakers call saudade, the melancholy that comes with missing absent loved ones, places, or even a part of yourself. It’s tied to the realisation that you can never go back home.

Remarkably and perhaps appropriately, after a long career in Britain, Honey Boy chose not to return to Jamaica nor to ‘forward home’ to the Motherland of Africa. Instead, he moved to the city of São Luís in the dirt-poor northern Brazilian state of Maranhão. São Luís is famous as a semi-mythical place where a certain kind of ’70s Jamaican reggae is forever worshipped.

The city, according to the reggae writer and selector Michael Turner, is a living museum of massive sound systems (radiolas) that pump out obscure original reggae tracks with a “carefree, ‘country’ type of sound” attracting hordes of dancers. Favourite songs are by the likes of Larry Marshall, Ken Parker, Eric Donaldson, Keith Poppin and yes, Honey Boy Williams. There are loads of live reggae shows in São Luís too, where aging stars can resurrect their careers, performing again to adoring crowds who may have no English but can sing along with every lyric.

Perhaps in his journeying, Honey Boy, like many exiles and migrants, abandoned the idea of home as a particular place. Perhaps, he realised a long time ago that a song is the only home you can ever fully inhabit.

Brent Clough AKA Señor Bambu
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Bambu Hut on Eastside FM