One string attached: Jamaican singer-guitarist Brushy One String makes do with what he has
Brushy One String is Jamaica’s off-the-beaten-path national treasure. He’s so lo-fi, he plays his guitar with one string. He’s far from a rock star, but he turns heads when he plays. He knows the blues, but he’s quick to throw a smile and stays true to his roots.
The street-to-studio one-man band performs—along with Brazilian samba band Casuarina and Haitian singer-songwriter Emeline Michel—as part of globalFEST on the Road’s Creole Carnival concert Thursday, February 25, at Eisenhower Auditorium.
What could have been the life of celebrity so far has eluded the man born Andrew Chin. His parents were popular reggae recording artist Freddie McKay and Beverly Foster, a backup singer for Tina Turner. He was orphaned early on and raised by his grandmother in Linstead, a struggling town made famous in a Jamaican folk song in which a mother’s unsuccessful day at the market means her children will go hungry.
He had little else but soul, reggae, and rhythm and blues, so he dabbled in musical experiments and contests. He started performing songs of his own on a single string and elevated himself to a recording artist of cult status (on reggae label Roof International in the early 1990s, then on a label in the United Kingdom) before returning to street performing.
His illiteracy, he says, wasn’t a big deal until he started performing for Roof International.
“They told me to jump on,” he says. “They take all the money … and I could not understand it because I couldn’t read and write.”
Even now, he says, “the only reason I read … is to write my lyrics and write my name on the song.”
It was on the street that Luciano Blotta, who was documenting the Jamaican music scene for his film Rise Up, rediscovered the musician. Plucky Brushy introduced Blotta to the song “Chicken in the Corn.”
“You should YouTube me, man,’” Brushy recalls telling the filmmaker. “He did what he did then, and here we are.”
The song’s official YouTube video has been viewed more than eight million times. And where we are now is his spot on the bill for Creole Carnival, the follow-up gig to his No Man Stop Me tour, which took Brushy to Europe plus a handful of U.S. dates. Thanks to Creole Carnival, patrons at performing arts centers in more than thirty cities will get to experience the simply soulful musician.
With his lauded debut studio album, 2013’s Destiny, and the release of Live at New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2015, he has surpassed novelty status granted to a musician schlepping around a guitar missing five strings. It turns out, the magic is in his vocals.
“Brushy is an astonishingly soulful performer whose warm-molasses voice carries a hefty emotional punch and whose single-string guitar riffs are surprisingly hypnotic,” writes a Popmatters reviewer. “As with all true artists, Brushy is impossible to pigeonhole.”
An Offbeat magazine critic writes, “Though the thought of a mere mortal with a single string hints at monotony, (he) makes it work by altering his infectious, bouncy riffs and tempos while delivering messages of humanity, equality, and corruption in his thick Jamaican accent.”
Brushy brings that humanistic simplicity to his music and his lifestyle—on the road and in the streets of his island home. He says his songs are meant to inspire positive conversations about the challenges of Jamaica, family, culture, and the future. He knows of life’s struggles but taps his creative spirit to spread his message.
“I want to be a teacher, and the best way to be a teacher is to be a singer,” he says. “No one wants to speak the truth in a good way. We all can talk about these things in a good way.”
“He’s enhancing the community by providing that,” says Blotta, who’s on a mission to introduce Brushy to the world. “He’s creating a little bit of something for people to do, really.”
“Most of the people here (in Jamaica) are very poor people, like myself,” Brushy says. “I’m trying to do my part, you know? And that’s my way of giving back.”
At the end of the day, though, he’s still Brushy One String, a man who’s gone viral with his easily sophisticated soul, blues, and reggae. When he returns to home base, he’s ready to put away his globetrotting musical persona.
“When you’re on the road, you do what you’re supposed to do. When you get back home, you just wanna be yourself. … You do what normal people do. That’s a life, you know? You get a lot of inspiration from that because any time you change that, the inspiration becomes more vanity than real. So you have to find the roots, man, you always have to speak to the roots.”
Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.