Influences: Sunday mornings and reggae

An abiding childhood memory of mine is hearing ska and early reggae tunes playing in the front room on a Sunday morning. Time-wise, we’re talking about 1970 onwards, a few years before I started primary school. It’s a piece of nostalgia that many of the Windrush generation and their children will recognise and identify with, irrespective of which island that they or their parents and grandparents hailed from. This was also the period when the original skinhead movement was at its height in Britain, adopting the new songs coming out of Jamaica as its anthems.

The music also has a strong association with food, specifically the delicious smell of Jamaican rice, peas and chicken that my mum would have been preparing. Ska and reggae tunes pumping away, sometimes the occasional pre-ska JA pop by Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards, along with the waft of the expectant big dinner. In a way, the vibes from those tunes were a hidden ingredient that went into the food. Even at that tender age, I understood that this was my parents’ way of maintaining ties with ‘back home’. Strengthening the link further, we even had the Jamaican Weekly Gleaner newspaper delivered to our home on Sundays, where we could find out about current events on the island.

I’ve many a favourite song from that period, far too many to mention. Standouts are Monkey Man by The Maytals, Double Barrel by Dave and Ansel Collins, Them A Laugh And A Kiki by The Pioneers (aka Soulmates), the whole of the Tighten Up Volume Two album, Here I Am Baby by Skin, Flesh & Bones – the list goes on! For me and my brothers, having being born in England, we were getting a glimpse into our parents’ world, the island that had nurtured them. They’d tell us about how a song such as Long Shot Kick De Bucket (about a racehorse that died during a race) was based upon real events. There always was a little sad undercurrent to the way the Pioneers delivered the story with their sublime vocal harmonies.

One thing I noticed was, those records were only played in our home on Sundays, except at Christmas time. For the rest of the week, it was Radio One at breakfast and around teatime, with its selection of mainly British and American pop, and of course Top Of The Pops without fail every Thursday. There was also some ‘crossover’ because in the early 70s, reggae frequently featured in the UK charts. Things such as Let Your Yeah Be Yeah by The Pioneers, and Bob and Marcia’s Young, Gifted and Black were on constant rotation. Yet it was English artists that we heard predominantly on the radio, and, by a neat coincidence, our family meals on weekdays were mostly the same dishes that you’d find in any English home – give or take the odd serving of plantain, dumplings or yam now and again. This would have been pragmatic on the part of my parents; making an elaborate Caribbean meal would have taken up too much time after they’d come home from work. Hearing ska and reggae only one day a week took on a special significance; I’ve also no doubt that by hearing such a wide variety of music throughout the week is the reason why my tastes were eclectic from day one, and remain so to this day. Though I still like to play reggae tunes on Sundays – keeping a great tradition alive, you might say.

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. Reggae (and ska) were often seen by rock-oriented music historians as ‘upside down rock and roll/r&b’. American influences played a huge role in the music’s growth however, its most fundamental elements are indigenous to Jamaican musical styles. 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’.)

Keyboards in Jamaican music – pt 1: ska and rocksteady

This had originally intended to show the development of piano/keyboard playing in Jamaican music, but rather than just do a step-by-step timeline, I’ve picked out a few favourite tunes that have impacted upon me as a musician.

Ska
The first one is ‘Broadway Jungle’ by Toots and The Maytals. I love the piano riff that goes on throughout the tune, it’s the icing on the cake of a typically joyous Toots and The Maytals performance. The piano does an intro that is a little like Jackie Mittoo’s El Bang Bang, and it may well be Jackie playing on this track.

The next track I’ve chosen, Killer Diller by Jackie Mittoo is a departure, as it features the electric organ playing the main melody. It’s a Booker T & the MGs/Watermelon Man-type track but in ska, and, reflecting the influence of jazz on Jamaican musicians, the organ solo is in the soul-jazz mode.

Rocksteady
Napoleon Solo, is a classic piece of rocksteady. On piano again is Jackie Mittoo, heard with the Soul Vendors which was a splinter group from The Skatalites. (Could be Lynn Taitt and The Jets.) I could almost imagine this as something from a 40s big band but adapted to the one drop style. The piano has a nice, understated jazz touch.

Ali Shuffle AKA ‘Rock Steady’ (and Seven Wonders Of The World) is a tribute to Buster’s friend Muhammad Ali, and it’s another organ-led piece, played by Winston Wright. What’s notable is the middle eastern tinge, which may have been a musical nod to the fact that both Ali and Buster were muslims. Coincidentally, John Coltrane and Yusef Lateef were also exploring African and middle eastern elements, as was the genre called ‘exotica’ through people such as Martin Denny and Les Baxter. This sound crops up in some of Don Drummond’s work and was later mined by Augustus Pablo in his output. Anyone familiar with The Specials will recognise Ali Shuffle as a precursor to Ghost Town.

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