Interview Date: October 23, 2011 @9am EDT
Special Guest: Sly Dunbar (a.k.a. one half of "Sly and Robbie" or also know by some as one half of “the Riddim Twins”) is quite possibly the most important drummer in Jamaican Music History. Lowell Charles Dunbar’s impact on music (not just Reggae but music in general) is immeasurable. It is said that he has over 200 000 recordings behind his belt (not including remixes or Dubs); has had over 100 No.1 hits in Jamaica. He is easily one of the most influential drummers of the second half of the Century. In this podcast we talk about what it means for him to be a drummer, where Jamaican music is and where he see's it going, the album "Present Taxi" and going into the studio to record with Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler.
Getting in line with Sly Dunbar
To dig into the history of Jamaican music is not an easy task. Music of course is an integral part of Jamaica also being of religious, political and cultural significance. Take for example Kumina. Just to mention Kumina (or Cumina), as a part of Jamaica's musical history will not convey the importance of what it means to the people. Wikipedia says--It is a religion, music and dance practiced by, in large part, Jamaicans who reside in the eastern parish on St. Thomas on the island. These people have retained the drumming and dancing of the Akan people (African ethnic group predominately located in Ghana and The Ivory Coast.)1. Another source has this to say: “Kumina is a traditional Jamaican folk form involving dance, music and religious practices and beliefs. As is the case with many African retentive folk forms that emerged throughout the Diaspora where Africans were relocated during and after slavery, Kumina represents an adaptation of African religious and secular beliefs, behaviors and practices during the indigenization process.” 2.There is not enough time or space to treat the subject of Jamaican music in depth here, but I'd like to touch upon the timeline, review a few sources on the subject and scope some of the major players and their part in the history of Jamaican music, both those internationally known, and those whose names haven't travelled far outside of Jamaica while their influence has. If you've been touched by Jamaican music in any way, and want to peek behind the curtain, this article should give you a deeper understanding and lead you to more mind blowing artists and resources.
"At an early age I was listening to people like Lightning and Jackie Mittoo who played piano for the Skatalites.. and I realized the drums was the real foundation" -Sly Dunbar 2011
To begin a look into the history of music in Jamaica, one can not gloss over the impact of Nyahbingi music. “In popular conception, the Rastafari faith is more closely associated with reggae than with any other music. Undoubtedly, much of roots reggae does have a solid foundation in the reasonings, or philosophy, of Rasta. It is a religion that is mystical, spiritual and staunchly Pan-Africanist; for the most part, roots reggae touts this line: Seminal reggae artists such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru and countless others actively cite the teachings of the Faith on their recordings. However the emphasis of reggae as the sole representation of Rasta is quite misleading. In fact, a certain number of “orthodox” locksmen will contend that Nyahbingi, rather than reggae, is the true Rasta music.”3.
To get into the history, one quickly uncovers debate, often heated, about the origins and originators in all areas. Researching mento produced some pretty disparaging remarks about what exactly it was, and was not; Regardless of this, or rather, disregarding what doesn't deserve to be repeated, mento has a significant place in the history of music in Jamaica. It's heyday in the 1950's, “Mento is often confused with calypso, a musical form from Trinidad and Tobago. Although the two share many similarities, they are separate and distinct musical forms. In part, the differences stem from the differing colonial histories of the two West Indian Islands, as Jamaican music lacks the Spanish influences found in other Caribbean musical styles.”4. “Major 1950s mento recording artists include Louise Bennett, Count Lasher, Harold Richardson, Lord Flea, Lord Fly, Alerth Bedasse with Chin's Calypso Sextet, Laurel Aitken, Denzil Laing, Lord Composer, Lord Lebby, Lord Power, Hubert Porter, and New Yorker of Jamaican origin Harry Belafonte, whose massive hit records in 1956-1958, including "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)" and "Jamaica Farewell" were really mento songs sold as calypso.”5.
"We wanted Reggae music, especially the drum patterns, to have a say within the music... this is where our head space was into.. " Sly Dunbar 2011
More people may be more familiar with Ska when they think of Jamaican music, maybe less; fans of the third wave, or ska punk may be unaware of its roots. But the birth of ska came in Jamaica at the end of the 1950's; with independence around the bend and stronger American radio stations spreading the sound of R&B, blues, and jump jazz, Jamaicans picked up on the sound and the exuberance of the times, shifted the sound to something of their own and put the emphasis on the upbeat. Klive Walker in his elucidating book “Dubwise” ties it all up succinctly to this point; “During the early '60's, the innovative ska beat represented the rhythm of the first indigenous Jamaican popular music and interpreted elements of American blues and American rhythm and blues in a very Jamaican way by accenting the second and fourth beats. This interpretation of an American rhythm combined the Jamaican sensibility of Rastafarian nyabinghi hand drum syncopation with hints of mento . . .”6. And one can't mention ska without mentioning the Skatalites. “More than a band, the Skatalites were and are an institution, an aggregation of top-notch musicians who didn't merely define the sound of Jamaica, they were the sound of Jamaica across the '50s and '60s. Although the group existed in its original incarnation for less than 18 months, members brought their signature styles to hundreds upon hundreds of the island's releases.”7. Don Drummond, founding member of the Skatalites, deserves mention here not for his publicized demise but for his musical impact. “One of the greatest musicians Jamaica has ever produced was trombonist Don Drummond. A deeply introverted and apparently complex character, his work was almost exclusively domestic—he never went abroad to pursue his jazz dream like Earnest Ranglin, Joe Harriot or Monty Alexander—although he was universally acknowledged as being one of the all time greats.”8. A book from the BBC with insider perspectives on the history of Jamaican music states “Don's soloing could literally bring the dance floor to a standstill, especially if he was involved in a cutting contest with a colleague or a young challenger from outside.”9.
The frantic ska beat was slowed down and laid back for the emerging form rocksteady. “A successor to ska and a precursor to reggae, rocksteady was performed by Jamaican vocal harmony groups such as The Gaylads, The Maytals and The Paragons. 10. There are variations on where the moniker came from, but one indicates “The term rocksteady comes from a dance style that was mentioned in the Alton Ellis song 'Rock Steady'.”11. And although the heyday lasted only a few years, the influence has been everlasting, and especially in the genres of music to come.
Now the rich and complex history of the sound system in Jamaica. The explosion of varieties of Jamaican music can be traced back to the sound system culture of Jamaica. Stripping the sound and vocals back allowed for so much more variation and experimentation and allowed these to take root into well established forms nowdays with toasting, deejaying, singjaying, version, dub, dancehall, ragga, etc. The soundsystem culture led to experimentation of the sound, as well as the system itself; owners took to making and modifying the components for the competitive edge.
"if the drummer is grooving it then you can find that template, then I think you can have a great sound... that's how I do it" Sly Dunbar 2011
The sound system truly became the heart of the culture; passions and bragging rights ran so strong that it led to bitter rivalries, destruction of property, and violence to the public. Sound systems each would try to one up the others for the best sound. Of the first it is said “Competition between these sound systems was fierce, and eventually two DJs emerged as the stars of the scene: Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd, and Duke Reid.”12. The harvest which sprang from the seed of the sound system were the famous production studios, Coxsone Dodd's production studio led to Studio One, Duke Reid founded Treasure Isle.13.
The destruction of equipment from these early times and open canvas of the medium led one repairman to enter the field with his own equipment, and armed with his creativity, electrical and technical knowledge, Tubby's Hometown Hi-Fi became one of the best known sounds around. Osbourne Ruddock, known as King Tubby, was on the edge of innovation in handfuls and reworked the system and the sound and brought effects like echo and reverb out of the studio and into the live mix. Armed with “The Originator,” the pioneer of toasting, dj U-Roy bantering and rhyming over the rhythms, or “toasting,” King Tubby established his reign in dub.
What is difficult to convey in this short article is what fertile times these were and the lasting impact they have had. For example, toasting is elemental to rap, and in the early days a young amateur boxer working as security guard by the name of Cecil Bustamente Campbell would rescue Lee Perry from thugs allied to the rival sound system; 14. that's Prince Buster and Lee “Scratch” Perry. Their influence in music in Jamaica and abroad is immeasurable. The number of people mentioned in this article so far could fit comfortably in your neighbourhood pub, yet you'd be hard pressed to put on any recording on the juke box that at least one of them didn't have influence. To be in that pub would be to walk amongst the gods, and we haven't even gotten to reggae yet.
Jamaica and be unable to go any further than that. I don't want to minimize his impact, you can consider him the ambassador to reggae but, as can be seen, there's so much history and other people that fall behind the shadow he casts that should be able to take their proper place in the ranks. It took all these people and more, the precursors and innovation of musical forms to get to reggae, and it doesn't do them justice to end at one person, even if it is Bob Marley. Take Dennis Brown, one of the most beloved singers in Jamaica. Marley himself named Brown as his favourite singer. On the scene as a pre-teen, his velvet voice matured with the times and scored multiple hits, but internationally, he isn't recognized accordingly. Or to mention Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the Riddim twins, you could call them prolific and inventive and still not begin to cover their impact and input into the music scene. Hopefully, the podcast interview with Sly Dunbar will enlighten you.
Really, these are only a few names, so many more could be mentioned due to the individuals involved in the music, both traditional and innovative, and the impact they have had, but if you follow the path that's been set, you should find it rewarding, no doubt.
-Guthrie Alan Corwin
In this Podcast Sly brings up his recent trip to Japan; he tells me to look up Ernest Ranglin (guitarist), Monty Alexander (Piano), Robbie Shakespeare (Bass) and himself at the in Cotton Club Tokyo. I thought I might post a few video’s so you can see the level of musicianship. Prepare to be entertained!
Them at the Blue Note Tokyo same visit:
Lastly, I recently came across Brian Jahn (a photographer) who has a deep understanding and sensitivity to Jamaican Culture; which comes across in his art. Please check out his websites:
1."Kumina" Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumina (28 Nov. 2011).
2.Mount Alvernia High School Music Department: Jamaican Music Folk Forms – KUMINA http://mountalvernia.tripod.com/id7.html (28 Nov. 2011).
3.Nnamdi, Bektemba. “Nyahbingi Music.” Rhythmweb. http://rhythmweb.com/jamaica/nyabinghi.htm (28 Nov. 2011).
4."Mento” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mento (28 Nov. 2011).
6.Walker, Klive. “Blue Beat, Nyabinghi, Bebop: The Jamaican Roots of Ska.” Dubwise: Reasoning from the Reggae Underground. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Insomniac Press, 2005. pp105-106.
8.Greene, Jo-Ann “Skatelites” Allmusic http://www.allmusic.com/artist/skatalites-p2938 (28 Nov. 2011).
9.Bradly, Lloyd “Don Drummond.” Reggae: The Story of Jamaican Music. London, UK: BBC Worldwide Ltd. 2002. p22.
11."Rocksteady” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocksteady (28 Nov. 2011).
13."Sound_system_(Jamaican)” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_system_(Jamaican) (28 Nov. 2011).
15.Pryor, Tom “Prince Buster” National Geographic. Courtesy Global Rhythm Magazine: http://www.globalrhythm.net http://worldmusic.nationalgeographic.com/view/page.basic/artist/content.artist/prince_buster (29 Nov. 2011).
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