Keyboards in Jamaican music – pt 2: the birth of reggae

 

Ska had given birth to rocksteady and by the late 1960s, another innovation was under way. The entire approach to musical instruments changed, especially the drums and bass but the keyboards – in particular the electric organ – also played a crucial role in the creation of this new sound, far more than it had previously done. The guitar had an equally essential role, which I’ll touch upon.

Reggae grew out of musicians drawing even deeper upon indigenous musical styles and traditions unique to Jamaica; they looked back in order to move forward. One of these styles was mento, a pre-ska style similar to calypso played on acoustic instruments.

In mento, the acoustic guitar or banjo does an offbeat strum that was directly brought into reggae. This is a 1952 mento recording by Lord Messam, where you can already hear the offbeat that would later characterise reggae and rocksteady, a good decade before both of those musics ‘officially’ began.

Organists began to mimic this guitar pattern, and it added a new, choppy rhythmic feel to the music. Based upon the older mento style, it was a completely original approach to the keyboard. The musician that many cite as the originator is keyboardist Glen Adams, who featured on the Wailers’ landmark recordings with Lee Perry. The keyboard style was nicknamed as the ‘John Crow Skank’. The story goes that the alternating left and right hand action of the keyboard player apparently looked like the flapping of the John Crow bird’s wings, hence its name!

Here’s Adams playing on Slim Smith’s Everybody Needs Love.

Instrumentals

There’s an incredibly large amount of organ-led instrumentals in early reggae. With the exception of the early digital/computerised dancehall tracks of the mid 80s, keyboard-based tracks had never been so prevalent. They caught on in late 60s/early 70s Britain; the Trojan ‘Tighten Up’ series of albums had sold well in the black community, and then with the first wave of skinheads.

A few of these tunes did well in the UK charts; Double Barrel, featuring Ansel Collins on the keys, topped the British charts. Others such as Liquidator and Elizabethan Reggae also crossed over into the pop charts. The organist on those two tunes is Winston Wright.

There’s something about the keyboard-led tunes that reminds me of fairgrounds; indeed these tunes and other vintage reggae records were played at fairgrounds even up until the 1980s – and perhaps it’s because the organ has a traditional link to fairs that strengthens the connection.

‘Live Injection’, a Lee Perry production featuring the Wailers rhythm section and Glen Adams on organ is an exciting tune. The sound of the Hammond organ jumps out of the speakers. This sound informed 2 tone, in particular Desmond Brown’s playing on early Selecter records. (Listen to his solo on ‘On My Radio’.)

 

 

 

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Britain’s almost-forgotten subculture: jazz funk, electro, fusion from the 70s/80s

Out of all the musical tribes that emerged in post-ww2 Britain – mod, skinhead, Northern soul, punk, ska etc – there is one particular movement that’s been largely overlooked by historians.

Spanning roughly from the mid 70s to the late 80s, there was a thriving and musically diverse underground club scene around jazz funk, electro (or electro funk) and dance-oriented jazz fusion.

It’s a direct predecessor of today’s dance music club culture that first swept the country in the late 80s. Yet it’s a scene that rarely crops up in documentaries on Britain’s musical tribes.

I interviewed a couple of friends of mine, Chris Thomas & Ossie Labad, who were avid fans of the music as well as DJs, and have gigged extensively. They’re both featured in one of the few books written about the jazz funk movement. (The 2009 work ‘From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz The History Of The UK Jazz Dance Scene’ by Snowboy.) We spoke about this and much more. West Yorkshire, where the music had a strong following, was the point of departure though in fact the movement was one that was spread across the country.

They talked specifically about their experience as part of the movement in the 80s but also shared many valuable thoughts on music subcultures in general. It was a real education for me. I myself didn’t participate in their scene though as a musician & music lover, I also got heavily into jazz, and was aware of many of the artists they mentioned.

One of the best quotes came from Chris Thomas, who pointed out that those old-school music subcultures prided themselves on exclusivity whereas in more recent times, music is valued on its accessibility – i.e. the more well-known it is, the more hits it gets on Youtube, the better it’s perceived to be.

There are two aspects of the scene that struck me. Firstly, the music was contemporary rather than a retro reviving of older, rare styles. Secondly, the jazz scene in particular had a young black audience ranging from adolescents, no different from their descendants today that listen to grime and other similar styles. It belies the image of jazz as being quite separate from youth culture.

For anyone wishing to delve deeper into the topic, I recommend you check out Snowboy’s book, as well as the online writings of Greg Wilson and Seymour Nurse. Many thanks to BCB Radio in Bradford for their support in the production of the show.