One of the most unique and hard to classify artists of the 1970s, Exuma was a singular talent. Mixing the infectious rhythms and folkloric qualities of Bahamian music with rock, country, and other U.S. influences and adding a sharply satiric element of social commentary, Exuma's music aimed for the heart and the feet at the same time.
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's debut album was a real odd piece of work, even by the standards of the late '60s and early '70s, when major labels went further out on a limb to throw weird stuff at the public to see what would stick than they ever had before or have since. Roughly speaking, it's kind of like a combination of the Bahamian folk of Joseph Spence with early Dr. John at his most voodooed-out, though even that nutshell doesn't really do justice to how unusual this record is. Often it seems more like eavesdropping on a tribal ritual than listening to songs. Some of the tracks, indeed, have little or less to do with conventional "songs" than with tunes and lyrics; they're more akin to Mardi Gras street percussion jams airlifted to the Caribbean islands. Exuma and his accompanists make quite a spooky clamor with their various bells, foot drums, chanting, gasps, sighs, shouts, and other percussive instruments, creating a mood both celebratory and scary. He's not totally averse to using more standard song forms, though, singing about "zombies walking in the broad daylight" in "Mama Loi, Papa Loi"; devising a simple, fairly singable soul melody for "You Don't Know What's Going On," his most famous song due to its inclusion in the movie "Joe"; and setting "The Vision" to an appealing, if again quite simple, folk melody. Exuma's rough, unschooled vocals cut off any prospect of mainstream accessibility, but they get the job done in getting both his uplifting and ominous spirituality over.