Macfarlane Gregory Anthony Mackey (18 February 1942 – 15 January 1997), known professionally as Tony McKay and Exuma, was a Bahamian musician, artist, playwright and author best known for his almost unclassifiable music, a strong mixture of carnival, junkanoo, calypso, reggae, African music and folk music. His lyrics were deeply immersed in the West African and Bahamian tradition of Obeah, a system of spiritual and healing practices developed among enslaved West Africans in the West Indies, practiced by many on the islands of The Bahamas.
In a 1970 interview, McKay, as Exuma said the “‘electrical part’ of his being ‘came from beyond Mars; down to Earth on a lightning bolt'”. He described his music as “all music that has ever been written and all music not yet written. It’s feeling, emotion, the sound of man, the sound of day creatures, night creatures and electrical forces”
Born in Tea Bay on Cat Island, Bahamas, McKay and his mother Daisy Mackey moved to Nassau. He grew up there in a small house on Canaan Lane, shared by Ma’ Gurdie, an older woman who McKay said “danced so well”. “When I sing, I can still see Ma’ Gurdie’s beautiful moves”.
As a boy, McKay and his friends caught and sold fish to buy movie tickets. Watching the films exposed them to Sam Cooke and Fats Domino and other American blues singers, who they would imitate.
McKay moved to New York City at the age of 17 to study architecture. He “promptly ran out of money”. Friends give him an old guitar and knowing three or four chords, he started practicing old Bahamian calypsos. Homesick for Nassau, McKay began writing poetry about Ma’ Gurdie and Junkanoo. These poems became the basis for McKay’s “Brown Girl in the Ring” (later a hit for Boney M), “Rushing Through the Crowd” and other Exuma songs.
Due to McKay’s greater interest in music, he did not complete his architectural studies.
Nassau friends living in Brooklyn took McKay to Greenwich Village, introducing him to hootenannies in neighborhood cafes. McKay founded the group Tony McKay and the Islanders. During this time, McKay also performed at Cafe Wha? and The Bitter End.
McKay often performed with well known musicians and comedians in small Greenwich Village clubs and bars. “I started playing around when Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, Peter, Paul and Mary, Richard Pryor, (Jimi) Hendrix and (Barbra) Streisand were all down there, too, hanging out and performing at the Cafe Bizarre”
In 1969 Palisades Amusement Park advertised McKay as a featured artist during that year’s season opening weekend. He appeared on a bill that included Peaches & Herb.
In 1969 McKay launched the group “Exuma” with his then-partner and lifelong friend Sally O’Brien. He enlisted several musician friends, forming his backup band, the Junk Band. The band included O’Brien (as Princess Sally), Bogie, Lord Wellington, Villy, Spy Boy Thielheim, Mildred Vaney, Frankie Gearing, Diana Claudia Bunea (as Princess Diana), and his good friend Peppy Castro (Emil Thielhelm, lead singer of the Blues Magoos).
He soon gained the attention of Blues Magoos manager Bob Wyld. “I’d been singing down there (Greenwich Village), and we’d all been exchanging ideas and stuff. Then one time a producer (Wyld) came up to me and said he was very interested in recording some of my original songs, but he said that I needed a vehicle.” Wyld recommended McKay to Mercury Records and convinced the record label to sign him.
Creating an image and a persona that fit his music, McKay drew upon his Bahamian memories of the “Obeah Man”. Bahamian life was rooted in West African tradition.
McKay was a knowledgeable practitioner of bush medicine. He specialized in herbal remedies, especially the “mystical cerasee vine” (Bitter leaves or Momordica charantia), which he collected in Nassau. “I grew up as a roots person, someone knowing about the bush and the herbs and the spiritual realm. It was inbred into all of us. Just like for people growing up in the lowlands of the Delta Country or places in Africa.”
“I remembered the Obeah Man from my childhood – he’s the one with the colorful robes who would deal with the elements and the moonrise, the clouds and the vibrations of the earth. So I decided to call myself ‘Exuma, the Obeah Man'”.
McKay further explained his interpretation of Obeah. “Obeah was with my grandfather, with my grandmother, with my father, with my mother, with my uncles who taught me. It has been my religion in the vein that everyone has grown up with some sort of religion, a cult that was taught. Christianity is like good and evil. God is both. He unlocked the secrets to Moses, good and evil, so Moses could help the children of Israel. It’s the same thing, the whole completeness – the Obeah Man, the spirits of air.”
In 1970 McKay, recording as “Exuma” accompanied by a band with same name released two albums. Both featured full cover artwork painted by McKay.
Mercury Records released McKay’s first album Exuma, produced by “Daddy Ya Ya”, a pseudonym adopted by Bob Wyld. Wyld produced the first six of Exuma’s albums. Singles released from that lp were “Exuma, The Obeah Man” and “Junkanoo”.
Describing his process of musical creativity, McKay said “I try to be a story-teller, a musical doctor, one who brings musical vibrations from the universal spiritual plane through my guitar strings and my voice. I want to bring some good energy to the people. My whole first album came to me in a dream”.
Mercury Records launched “a full-scale promotion and advertising campaign”. Lou Simon, then Mercury Records’ Senior VP for Sales, Marketing and Promotion said “the reaction is that of a heavy, big numbers contemporary album… as a result, we’re going to give it all the merchandising support we can muster”. McKay’s second album Exuma II had two singles released, “Damn Fool” and “Zandoo”.
McKay also garnered recognition for his song “You Don’t Know What’s Going On”, which was featured on the soundtrack of John G. Avildsen’s 1970 film Joe.
The Barclay record label distributed Exuma’s Mercury Records releases in France, Holland, Switzerland and Belgium.
McKay’s estranged wife Marilyn “Sammy” Mackey (née Guse) and their first son Shaw were murdered by Fritz Montalalou on May 10, 1972 at 217 Avenue A in Manhattan. Married in 1962 and separated from McKay for a year, 32 year old Mackey suffered a slashed throat and a chest wound. Their nine year old son was stabbed once and later died in Bellevue Hospital. Their eight year old son Gavin, who had been sleeping in another room, called the police after the murders. Montalalou was convicted on two counts of murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. During the trial, Montalalou was said to have “kicked in the apartment door” and killed the two in revenge for Mackey having called the police after Montalalou had assaulted his ex-girlfriend who lived across the hall from Mackey.
In 1974 McKay married Inita Watkins in Manhattan.
McKay fathered many children, including Shaw, Gavin, Kenyatta Alisha and Acklins. Acklins and Kenyatta Alisha are vocal artists, carrying on their father’s tradition of entertainment.
In the late 1980s, McKay suffered a heart attack in New Orleans. Bahamas Tourism Officer Athama Bowe recalls visiting McKay in hospital. “His skin was coated with olive oil and candles were burning all over the room for “the sperrits”. He was mixing modern medicine with Obeah.
McKay spent most of his time writing songs, painting, and fishing, living in both Miami, Florida and in the childhood home his mother had left him in Nassau. McKay died in his sleep in 1997.
Aspects of McKay’s “Obeah Man” persona influenced other artists, notably singer Nina Simone. Converting McKay’s “Obeah Man” into “Obeah Woman”, Simone assumed the role of “priestess”, a role she for which she was eminently suited. Her live performance was recorded on her album “It Is Finished”. The song begins with drumming by Babatunde Olatunji and Simone asking “do you know what an “Obeah Woman” is?” She continues, altering McKay’s lyrics: “I’m the Obeah woman, from beneath the sea / To get to Satan, you gotta pass through me”… “they call me Nina, and Pisces too / There ain’t nothin’ that I can’t do”. Simone also performed two additional McKay songs during the live recording, “Dambala” and “22nd Century”. (wikipedia)
Exuma’s second album is perhaps a little less strange and a little more sedate than his debut (also released in 1970) — but only a little. It’s another combination of folk music from the Bahamas with voodoo-esque ritual not far removed from some of the more extreme New Orleans music influenced by that practice. In places (like “Fire in the Hole,” probably the most accessible cut), there’s a spiritual lilt to the vocals that might remind some listeners, if only faintly, of some of the Rasta-fired reggae recorded by Bob Marley and others in the ’70s. It’s hardly just another day at the office for Mercury Records, though, when one of the first lyrics of an album blithely states, “you thought you married a woman, you married a big black bird.” Too, “Paul Simon Nontooth” might even be further out (and creepier) than anything on the first album, being more a zombie revival ritual than a conventional song. There are more tuneful items, too, though, like “Baal,” where Exuma’s raw, scratchy vocals approximate an exotic soul-gospel feel.
And even on the more laid-back tracks, there are all sorts of weird, spontaneous-sounding interjections of percussion, yells, and chanting voices, “We Got to Go” even sounding something like a 19th-century group trying to play like War, only lacking the modern technology to make the transition complete. Plenty of albums based in folk traditions, and plenty of albums that are very odd, have little variety from cut to cut. That, refreshingly, is something that most definitely cannot be said of Exuma, Vol. 2, where you’re never quite sure what’s around the corner. Overall, however, it’s similar enough to the first album that it sounds almost as if it could have been overspill from the same sessions. While it might not be quite as striking as his previous album, certainly anyone who likes that debut will like this as well (and vice versa), and its reissue on CD in 2003 made it more available than it had been for decades. (by Richie Unterberger)
Lord Cherry (percussion, whistle)
Princess Diana (background vocals, whistle)
Tony ‘Exuma’ McKay (vocals, guitar, percusion)
Sally O’Brien (background vocals, whistle)
Spy Boy Thielheim (high harmony congas, cabassa, sacred sand)
Lord Wellington (percussion)
Daddy Ya Ya (bass, background vocals, bells, drums)
Yogi (background vocals, bells)
01. Damn Fool 4.15
02. Baal 6.35
03. Paul Simon Nontooth 5.26
04. Fire In The Hole 7.18
05. A Place Called Earth 6.31
06. We Got To Go 2.56
07. African Rhythm 4.45
08. Zandoo 4.49
Music & lyrics: Tony ‘Exuma’ McKay